let me tell you about my classes here. words cannot do them justice; their smiles, their squabbling, their colours… but i’ll give it a go:

on the days that i teach here in forbesganj, i walk to the rampol center where kishori mandal takes place. it takes about half an hour, down one of the two main drags and then off onto the side road that leads to the red light area. i pass market stalls and sugar cane juicers, water buffalo pulling carts laden with children and rice, women walking with 5-foot long bundles of reeds balanced on their heads… dogs and goats eating from the trash on the roadside, women selling apples and men selling medications. the filth of the street seeps up through my non-water-proof sandals and stains my toes. people stare, but not as much as they once did. there is a chai wallah who always says good morning to me… even when it is evening. the rickshaw drivers who congregate at the intersection recognize me and no longer try to offer me a ride. the beggar who sits on the bridge has a beautiful smile. i give him coins when i have them, and even when i don’t he always says namaste and waves, with true kindness in his withered face. the house at the fork where i bear right has a man in uniform with a machine gun, and two black and white pet (?) rabbits. all three of them area always outside, and the fear and joy (at ‘guns and buns’) balance each other out. by the time i get to the narrow lane that goes down to the center i am damp with sweat and smell like the city, no matter how clean i was before i started out.

but here is where my cheeks begin to ache. the girls see me coming and run, barefoot and skinny, to meet me. they clamour to hold my hand and look up at me, beaming. didi, didi! they cry. ke se ho? i say, asking them how they are. ti khai, ti khai, they answer. ‘okay.’ they pull me down the lane and into the center, gathering around me as i put away my sunglasses and, if there’s power, set up the ipod. ‘dance, dance!’ they cry, and more girls join us every minute, until there is a group of us, usually about 12, sitting on the concrete with our dirty feet extended into the middle of the circle. their dupattas [the scarfs that go with salwar kameezes] are wrapped and tied intricately around their torsos so that they are free to dance without tangles. most of them are too poor to afford jewelry, so they wear tiny splinters of wood in the holes in their ears and left nostrils, to keep their piercings in place for when they can afford something shiny.

we start by taking deep, slow breaths. in and out, with our arms rising and falling in time with our breathing. then we start to make noise; a relatively foreign concept for most children here, who are ridiculously ‘well-behaved’ and silent. we put our hands on our chests and hum…. feeling the vibrations and hearing our voices blend. eventually we yell at the top of our lungs… something that thrills them no end. then we begin to move – wiggling our toes, feet, legs… all the way through our bodies. we affirm with each motion: ‘these are MY toes… this is MY head…’ and ultimately, ‘this is MY body.’ even though they are just mimicking me, they know what they are saying. occasionally we say it in hindi, and the laugh at my pronunciation.

eventually we stand up and begin to move our bodies through the dark room. we leap and twirl, and we memorize movement patterns that are emotionally neutral canvases: exercises which invite emotion but do not dictate it. in this way, when we pass the movements around the circle, each in our turn, some girls express joy, some sorrow, some anger, and some emotions that i do not recognize or know the name for. the dancing allows them to express the inexpressible. when we take turns making up our own dances in the middle of the circle (using the Wandering Beach Ball as our prop) each girl now dances for several phrases… whereas two months ago they were loath to even step into the center of the circle alone. they used to look to me for approval as they danced; now they dance for themselves. i cannot stop grinning.

the class will soon devolve, as they fight and tussle to claim one of my hands as we stand in circle stretching our upper bodies or balancing on one foot or swaying like pare, a tree. at the end i put on some happy music, vivaldi or mozart or something irish or zimbabwean, and toss the beach ball into their midst, and they dance carefree and crazily while i pack up my things. they help me press the air from the beach ball. they sit next to me and chatter. they walk with me all the way down the lane, but when i turn onto the road they stay behind. i taught them to blow kisses and now when i walk away i turn every few steps because they have called out, didi! and are standing there blowing me kisses and shouting, namaste, didi! this goes on until i am out of sight around the curve – a hundred yards or so. step step, turn, blow a kiss, shout namaste, mai kalaungi!, turn, step step, etc.

i walk home elated, high, floating. the muck i walked through earlier becomes invisible and when people stare at me i just smile.

and that is why i am still here. it’s true that you get more than you give. and, as i wrote to a brave friend of mine who is teaching inner-city kids in chicago, the act of showing up is half the process. the girls here don’t care that i come to dance with them; they care that i come at all. i validate them, though that sounds horribly condescending. but i don’t mean it to; in their eyes i am Important and Special, and thus my showing up day after day for them proves that they, too, are important and special and worthy. sometimes we sit and play clapping games for hours, or catch, and this too is therapy, this is time for THEM and only them, with no ulterior motives. and they blossom with it, these lotus children, slowly and beautifully, petal by petal in the mucky, muddy water in which they were born.

dance when you’re broken open, dance when you’ve torn the bandage off. dance in the middle of the fighting. dance in your blood. dance when you’re perfectly free. ~rumi