By Douglas J. Penick
Like almost everywhere in Southeast Asia, the village where I was born was first overrun by insurgents then by loyalists and finally destroyed in the early 50s. My parents took my younger brother and me to the capital where we lived with my mother’s brother who worked there as a waiter in a restaurant. My father managed to find work as a porter, and my mother took in washing. So we survived.
I was considered quite a pretty and agile little four year old. One day my mother was delivering the things she had washed to an old lady who lived some blocks away. This lady, though she was quite poor, had a manner that was far more refined and aloof than her circumstances would have seemed to justify. My mother was both intimidated and intrigued by her. I suspect that my mother took me along to distract the old lady. Anyhow, if that was her motive, things worked out far better than she could have wished. It changed my life forever.
While the old lady checked the quality of my mother’s work, I played in the courtyard. At some point, the lady began to observe me closely. I liked to mimic the dances I had seen during the village festivals. I’m sure my performances became more extravagant as I became aware of the old lady’s attention. After a while she told my mother that she had some reservations about my character, but could see that I was a natural dancer. If my mother wished, she would get an audition for me at the dance school the King sponsored to train the dancers for the royal dance company. My mother knew, of course, that this company was one of the most prestigious cultural and religious expressions of our nation. Its history stretched back to the very first king of our land.
That King had united the nation, taught the methods of agriculture that are still used, fostered many traditions of art and craft that are still current, and had been the first patron of the Buddhist way in Southeast Asia. He was the author of the laws, which governed the land until recently. He had many wives and consorts and among them was a goddess who came down from Heaven to visit him. It was she who showed him all the many cycles of dances. She told him that as long as these dances were performed faithfully and beautifully, the country would remain harmonious and prosperous.
So the royal dance company was very important. My mother was overwhelmed. It was unthinkable. It was as if someone proposed that I become a goddess and live in Heaven. I still remember that moment. I knew something very serious was about to happen. Nothing moved in the hot yellow morning sun: the red dust in the air that had risen from the clay floor of the courtyard; two small green birds that had been flittering in the branches of a tree; a shout from the street. Everything stopped, and only continued when my mother stammered out a long list of my flaws and defects: vanity, prissiness, superior airs, laziness, mean-spiritedness; more bad attributes than I had ever known existed, much less had. My mother summed it up, saying we were just poor people who could never afford such luxury and were content with our lot. The old lady ignored her protests. She explained that the school paid for the room and board as well as the tuition of the students. Then my mother began to think seriously about the possibility. I looked on as my fate was decided.
The old lady was not just a connoisseur of dancing. She had relatives who were very well placed in the school. She might even have once been a dancer herself. I never knew.
The dance troupe and the school were housed in the palace grounds next to a large Buddhist temple.
The company consisted entirely of girls. We were well fed and pampered as a compensation for the rigors of our training. We were like sisters, the young ones looking up to the older ones and the older ones guiding the younger. There were many attendants, all women ranging in age from about 20 to 60. They sang lullabies so we could sleep; hugged us, scolded gently, indulged us in little ways and listened to the endless outpourings of hopes, fears, petty jealousies, minor triumphs and daily chatter. Collectively, all these women made the best mother in the world. By contrast, my own mother came to seem clumsy and awkward. Over the next 15 years when I visited home, the smells, the constant noise and the cramped dark rooms, were painful. I became estranged from my natural family. Dance became my life.
The senior teachers, who were all former dancers, supervised our training. They were responsible to the dance master. He, the musicians and two singing teachers, were the only males allowed in the school.
The dance master was, as tradition dictated, a member of the royal family. In this way, we were constantly reminded of the origins of the dance and of the King’s continuing patronage. During my time, the master was a royal prince. He was a heavy-set bachelor in his mid-forties with a vague melancholy air, but his love and deep understanding of dancing made a great impression on all of us.
On the first day, he, dressed simply in white pants and shirt, stood in front of the assembled teachers and musicians, welcoming me and seven other little girls who made up the newest class. He gave a simple talk and told the history of the dance. He explained how we would be trained. The first eight years were devoted to exercises that strengthened and limbered the face, neck, torso, arms, hands, hips, legs and feet. During that time, we would also learn the 108 horizontal and 108 vertical movements that formed the basic grammar of the dances. He explained that the horizontal movements represented the qualities of the earth and the vertical ones those of the Heavens. When done properly, one could act like a goddess, even if one was just a human. This would make all who saw us happy, and give them confidence to endure the hardships of life. So began my training.