An American Dancer in Pakistan; Volume 1

Stories of an American dancer/choreographer spending 4–5 months in Lahore, Pakistan working to expand the nascent contemporary dance scene.

Lahore is dusty.

It sprawls and snakes through twisting underpasses and overpasses. Getting anywhere requires at least one U-turn, the main boulevards separated by medians. In the nicer areas, they are covered in grass or trees; in the poorer areas, they are covered in mats and people sleeping.

Everything seems to be under construction, and the large houses hiding behind their gates in Gulberg, Defense, or Kent sit strangely alongside empty lots. Nature pushes and fights its way through it all, muted greens against the hazy sky, obscuring the houses.

Scattered through it all are the commercial areas, abrupt beacons of a more standard urban center. They are filled with restaurants and terraces, coffee shops that are places to talk and eat, not to work. They are full of fashion and high end brands, Cinnabon and McDonald’s and everything in between.

It doesn’t seem to be terribly well-planned or organized, and the traffic weaves in and out and around. Lanes are marked but ignored, each car bravely fending for itself in an onslaught of motorcycles and rickshaws. Lights flicker and horns oscillate between a two-burst to kindly move, and a five-second blare of what the hell are you doing.

At the start, it’s overwhelming. And dusty. But slowly, I’m starting to notice patterns. Recognize shops. Realize how the streets turn, where the U-turns are. After almost two weeks of being driven or picked up by friends, I took my first Careem, the Pakistani version of Uber. For all the courage it took to venture out alone, the experience was thoroughly untraumatic, and the Careem app has moved to my home screen.

Lahore is a study in conflicts and contradictions.

There is the upper middle class, which has big houses with a staff — drivers, guards, cooks, cleaners, etc. And there are the poor, who don’t.

There are the liberal progressives, who also happen to be most of the artists (though not all — there is a lot of Sufism here, the mystic brand of Islam, where music and dance is a way to communicate with God). And there are the religious fundamentalists, often poor, who believe the performing arts are sinful and cause trouble in the universities. People are incredibly welcoming and kind, and yet they tell me not to go wandering alone. There are no problems, but I should be careful.

Still, there is very little of the Pakistan most people envision here, at least in the city. Alcohol bootleggers bring craft beer to houses, tucked away in cupboards. In my first week, I was invited to a party with many top people in fashion.

Between the clothing, the house, the open bars, the DJ, the dancing, the smoking, and the close air and longing to see and be seen, it could have been literally anywhere in the world. I hated it just as much as I hate those kind of parties in any other country, and was skeptical when the next week another invitation came. Happily, this one was a wedding party on a rooftop, and didn’t carry the same hungry energy of the previous one.

I’m told that if one is in the right circles, there are parties every day from Thursday to Sunday.

Lahore and Karachi are the cultural capitals of Pakistan. Karachi is apparently more international. It must be more than Lahore — everywhere I go I’m a spectacle, the object of curious and confused stares. They are not unfriendly, but some are more welcoming than others.

Never mind — after six years in Asia, you get used to the staring.

In Lahore, the performing arts scene is small but vibrant. I’ve been taken and shown around the sprawling serenity of Harsukh just outside the city to the small center of Olomopolo that hides behind a gate but bursts with activity. I’ve quietly visited the bustling house of a premier kathak (a traditional dance) master, where costumes burst from the walls and dancers work constantly in the living room/studio. I’ve heard of a few other studios, in schools or centers, but there are no dedicated western dance schools.

If you didn’t know where to look, it’d be easy to think there’s nothing for me to do. I don’t know where to look, but the people who invited me do.

I can’t write everything, or even begin. It’s overwhelming and new. I’m on constant information overload. I am learning about culture and history, about language and personalities. I read Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” and Mohammed Hanif’s “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” to learn about both, and think I have glimpses, but certainly not a full picture. I eat whatever is put on my plate and know what biryani is.

I’ve learned that I cannot leave without visiting the north. I’m getting better about navigating complicated questions like “Where do you live?” or “Where are you visiting from?”, questions that have no answers this year. I have to repeat why I’m here every time I meet someone new, and try to briefly sum up what I’m doing, which mostly is nothing, but there will be something. I know there are things, and my schedule is populated with things that are confirmed, and things that are possible. I am not making any money, but for the moment, that’s okay.

It’s all so much. Sometimes I feel like I’m utterly a fish out of water, but truthfully, most of the time I don’t. Last Sunday after an impromptu audition that won me a part in my first performance here, I hid in the house where I’m staying and ordered a Domino’s pizza.

Two days after that, I ordered my first Careem, a small act that seemed to require much more bravery than I expected. Today, when it was time to go meet someone at a new place, I didn’t stop to gather myself.

Step by step, I am learning to manage.

Stay tuned for more updates and reflections from Lahore!

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