People ask me how I first heard about Georgia. It’s usually simplest to continue the conversation by just mentioning “oh, some friends in uni were Georgian,” but that is a half-truth.
My best friend traveled to Georgia with these Georgian friends one summer in university; when he returned, his excitement for this newly-discovered land could not be contained in his words, but instead quivered through his voice and shook his limbs as he gesticulated excitedly, miming the motions of toasting and the typical greetings of this warm people. At last, he felt his words could do no more justice to what he had experienced, so he sat me down in front of a computer, and played a video.
A dingy leather book lay on a table in a dimly lit space. Dust fell from its cover as it opened to softly swelling music. As this folk music, unlike any I had ever heard, soared with a man’s deep bass voice, the tome’s cover opened onto a snow-capped mountain range that truly seemed the stuff of fairytales.
And then, what I saw next settled gently, permanently, next to my heart. Weather-worn men dressed in flapping gown-like overcoats began walking over the peaks. Then, in a particular crescendo of the song, began to dance. The spun and they leapt with the musical tones. The brandished swords and bucklers in moves indistinguishable from either battle or ballet. Beauteous women, dressed in bangles and flowing jewelry, twirled like dainty dervishes in the snow.
This image of Georgia stayed with me for years, and even now, whenever I am cresting a mountain or hear Georgian National music strummed from a panduri, the weight and beauty of this nationalistic pride circulates through my body as the warm eddies of a summer river. It is not surprising that at any supra, all I am really waiting for is the dance.
Georgian dance can seem intimidating at first, whether you first see a couple rise and put on a show at a birthday supra or are privileged enough to see a an Erisioni performance. But I encourage all of you dance lovers out there to just stand up and ask one of the dancers to teach you. Not only will you have a spectacular time, but the memories and stories made through movement transcend any language barrier.
The first time I got up to dance was at a TLG organized outing at a vineyard/professional college in Kakheti. After participating in the harvest and stomping of the season’s first vintage, food and drink were laid out for a supra; it was only a short while before the dancing began. At this point, I had no conception of what needed to be done for a Georgian dance, but after watching for a round or two, I noticed one student, who I had picked grapes with earlier, tearing up the floor. I approached him and asked if he would teach me something, anything (Step 1-approach. Step 2- say politely “mastsavlet,”or teach me). It wasn’t long before I knew enough to make a fool out of myself. But the best thing about the dance floor is its mutuality. Before long “Billie Jean” and “Blue Suede Shoes” came on, and I got to share a move or two of my own.
Flash forward a season and picture a restaurant in the magic town of Borjomi, snowfall leaping for a peak in the windows where a table of seven foreigners sits opposite the four-table spread of a Georgian combined birthday party. We sat and minded our own feast…until the music started. When the bag-pipe-esque music started, I recognized what was soon to become my favorite song, Acharuli, as the song the student at the vintage had taught me to dance to. From the table across the way, several young boys leapt up and immediately began the dance. After a few moves, I joined them (Step 1-approach. Step 2- say politely “mastsavlet”) and began dancing in a line with them. It was at this point that the other table fully took notice of us. In a few minutes, tables were pushed together, horns were shared, and toasts were made. By the end of the night, the entire restaurant was celebrating with each other and singing happy birthday as people jumped out of large wooden cakes. When some good old US pop music came on (you know, the classics, “Wakka Wakka,” “Party Rock Anthem,” and “Besame Suavamente”) our group got to show off some of the culture we have brought to this country. Let’s just say the night ended with flips and people on shoulders. I tried “the worm” for the first time in years, and ended up with a scar.
In fact, dancing often seems a bit hazardous for me in this country, but as far as I can tell, that’s no reason to stop. At a friend’s birthday party, Kartuli came on. What I love about this dance in particular is that it features a special party trick. A cup of wine (sometimes a napkin for practice or children) is put on the floor, and the dancer has to sink into a horizontal split, hands behind his back, and drink it by biting onto the glass. When I first saw it demonstrated I knew that I had to learn it. Well, this song came on, and of course, I grabbed the nearest napkin and did the trick. The partiers loved it, and brought me a glass of wine to do it again. Unlike traditional Georgian wine glasses (picture this, but with more flair), this one was stemmed, and I refused it, saying that it was probably too weak. One woman persisted, saying that they used such glasses for this trick all the time. I relented, and sank down into the split. While I was lifting the glass to drink, it broke in my mouth, shattering and splashing wine all over the floor. I stood up, spitting out a handful of glass shards, but kept the largest (picture a glass mouth-guard if you will) as a memento.
Dancing, especially in a culture that accepts dancing as a regular part of any celebration, is the best way I have found to share enjoyable moments with many of the people I meet at restaurants or celebrations. I encourage you, always, to get up and dance. I’ve started taking Georgian dance lessons at a local school. It was easy. One day I asked my host mother if there where any instructors in the area, and within a few phone calls, she told me to go to the school next door at 8:30 the following night. It’s a wonderful group of adults looking to have fun and learn some new moves. They are entirely accepting and excited that I want to learn a symbol they hold so strongly as part of their national identity. Many of my friends in places from Rustavi to the town of Gurjaani have also found dance instructors. Each region has its own professional dance troupe, and many of the members return to villages to teach in the off season. If you’re interested at all, just ask around, and you’ll most likely find someone who is willing to teach you.
Every time I hear Acharuli swell and I jump up next to a new five-minute friend, I look around at the smiles of my fellow dancers and our friends sitting, clapping at the tables around us; they are the same smiles of pride and love I first saw on the video my friend showed me upon his return from Georgia four years ago. There’s something about the Georgian love for land, history, and life wrapped up in these movements, and I am excited to finally have started learning about the Georgian heart in a way that only dance can provide: by letting your mind go and moving fearlessly through its movements.
Just dance. I promise, it’ll be ok.