Friday, December 7, 2012

The Gift of Grace: A Cultural Experience

When we live in a foreign country, our family tries to get involved in local activities.  We feel we have so much to learn from other cultures.  So, doing her part, my 6-year-old daughter has been taking ballet lessons in a Serbian ballet school for a year and a half now.  Up until March, my daughter was the first and only American in the school which has, I'm guessing, close to 100 students.  I'm learning Serbian and can get by with the Serbian-speaking director, fishing for words I know and then surveying the Serbian parents for clarifications.  My daughter who has some Slavic language experience from Macedonian preschool and is learning Serbian is the ultimate courageous soul.  I told her the first day of ballet class, that she would have to do more listening with her eyes than her ears.  "Do whatever the teacher does," I advised, something I have finessed over my years in non-English speaking countries.  Then I watched my brave little ballerina shadowing her teacher, almost always underfoot.

Vesna, her ballet instructor and director of the school, is an incredible teacher.  She teaches by performing imaginative stories, with her class of about 20 rapt six and seven year olds.  Every class is a journey into a world of fantasy.  She has the students act out characters, integrating ballet moves along the way.  During stretching exercises their fingertips are bugs crawling down to reach their toes; their arms are butterflies breaking out of a cocoon.  Sometimes they are walking in the rain holding "umbrellas" over their heads and leaping over puddles.  The children enact the stories with their bodies, pantomiming the moves.  Isn't that what ballet is in essence?  Telling a story with the body, symbolizing all the strength, grace, and effort of life?

Last year's winter performance on our Christmas Eve (the Serbs celebrate Orthodox Christmas in January!) was a test of my Serbian skills.  Of course, all the bulletins regarding the performance were in Serbian.  It's Serbia.  I wouldn't expect anything different.  The litany of instructions, buying the right costumes, finding out the details of the place and time of the rehearsals, and directions for the day of the performance stretched my Serbian capabilities to the max.  With a few trips and stumbles (on my part), and then some marvelously executed flutterings and leaps (on my daughter's part), her night as a snowflake and reindeer could not have been better.

Then in March, my brave friend (who doesn't speak a lick of Serbian) enrolled her fearless 4-year-old daughter in ballet.  When she started the class, my daughter took her by the hand and lead her through the hour, showing her the overseas survival skills that took me years to acquire: watch ever so closely,  do what they do, smile a lot, give hugs at the end.

And then something beautiful happened.

In May, in preparation for the end-of-the-year performance, a bulletin informing the students of the details was posted on the front door of the school.  Now here's the kicker:  the bulletin was in both Serbian and English.  Tears filled my eyes when I saw the sign.  Oh!  Since my daughter's friend had already left for summer vacation, that notice in English was for me.  For me.  Ahhhhh.  What an incredible gesture of sensitivity and caring.  I was so touched.

This fall, my daughter advanced to the "big girls" class and had to leave her friend behind.  Her mother and I weren't certain what would happen.  Well, we shouldn't have worried.  On their own volition, neither will miss a class and have been dancing their little hearts out the last few months.  No one needs words to dance!

This year's winter performance is coming up, on December 23 (whew! No Christmas Eve scramble this year!).  A few weeks ago, the information bulletin was posted on the door.  Once again, they gave a Christmas gift to the two crazy English-speaking moms:  it's in English.

And once again we learned something incredibly marvelous from this Serbian cultural experience:
the gift of grace.

Thank you, Vesna.
Hvala puno, draga Vesna.


  1. Ooh, thanks for this post! C loves all things ballet, and would sit through even mediocre televised versions of the Nutracker when she was barely 2 years old. We wanted to enroll her in ballet here, but heard that it was very Russian and strictly disciplined -- she coulld use the discpiline but I want it to be fun and non-competitive, because prima ballerina is not in her genes. I'll be coming your way for advice soon.

  2. I was pleasantly surprised too! Ballet in Macedonia was similar to what you describe. Vesna has total control over the class and mixes in discipline with the play. Needless to say, I am very impressed. They will probably start up again after the Serbian holiday, mid-late January. The classes are held at Crnjanski High School in Banovo Brdo. There isn't really a phone number that I know of to reach her, but you can come at the beginning of one of the classes to talk/watch. Let me know and I can hook you up! Thanks for visiting SpouseAbroad!


Postcard Poem: My Serbian Mayfield