If you love languages, you’ll love Brussels. The city is woven together by Belgium’s three official languages (French, Flemish, and German), the twenty-four official languages of the European Union, as well as many more brought by tourists from around the world. With this linguistic diversity, locals easily switch from one language to another. For me, this created many amusing experiences, of which the most memorable was participating in a local ballroom dance class.
On my first day in Brussels, I could not have been more excited by the dance studio’s summer workshop announcement. Finding a waltz studio in South America is a hopeless mission, so I had not danced it in weeks. I was having ballroom withdrawal. Moreover, I was restless from the train ride and could not wait to exercise.
When I arrived at the workshop, I looked completely out of place. They had advised against wearing sweats, which I, as an American, interpreted as suggesting jeans and a T-shirt. Yet the other women wore flowing dresses with fine heels and elegant make-up. Meanwhile, I was traveling without my dance shoes and simply sporting my cat socks.
The teacher furrowed her brow as she sized me up and asked me perplexed if I was here to dance. “I hope so,” I answered, suddenly worried that I might not be welcome. She frowned and asked me where my partner was. “I can dance by myself.” I tried to sound assertive. I had not thought about bringing a partner, as we usually rotate partners at my lessons in the United States. Yet as I walked over to the group, it became clear that this was not the case here. I suppressed my discomfort and focused on the humor in the situation. What had I gotten myself into this time?
The teacher began the class in English, reviewing the previous weeks’ steps in the waltz. The waltz is my favorite dance for the beautiful rise and fall that accompanies the sway of each step. As I danced, I felt free. For the first time in weeks, I glided across the floor in sweeping steps. Without a partner, I did not have to match someone else; it was up to me to make my movements as far-reaching as my legs could carry me.
The teacher continued the class with the tango. This time she began in English, but she noticed that a few French speakers struggled to keep up and began using French. I delighted in the words I understood, especially her counting, “long, long, vite, vite long.”
As we practiced, the teacher walked over to a group of students and began criticizing them in Flemish. Then she came over to me. As she watched me move through the tango routine, she suddenly began criticizing me in German. I gave her a surprised look. I had never told anyone there that I was German and had only spoken English. Had I given myself away somehow? I would ask her later.
As the class continued, the teacher would repeat instructions in different languages. Likewise, the students would help by translating for each other. In my case, I used my broken French to explain the proper Tango frame to a French-speaking woman, as that time the instruction was only given in English. Yet with my limited vocabulary, we found communicating with wild gesticulation far more effective. In the end, I learned a lot of Tango and considered myself lucky that much of the instruction had been in English.
Yet at the next week’s workshop I was not so lucky. The French students had disappeared and we were severely outnumbered by the Flemish. The teacher began the quickstep in English, but soon spoke almost exclusively Flemish. And it became apparent that I was the only one in the room who didn’t understand. When one of the students told a joke, everyone around me laughed. I just smiled, pretending I knew what was going on.
The previous week I had helped the French woman follow along, now the other students were helping me. I felt grateful for their attempts to speak either English or German, though once again wild gesticulation proved to be the most effective.
By the end of the class I was pleased with how much I had learned, even without speaking Flemish. As I said goodbye to the teacher, I told her about the vibrant ballroom community in Washington D.C. and invited her to stop by. She in turn encouraged me to tell my friends about her studio here. Then I finally asked her how she knew I was German. She shrugged and said it was a feeling.
As I left the studio and walked back to the metro, I felt content and at peace. For me, Ballroom is a form of meditation. I forget the world as I enter my body and become one with the music. I was also still amused at the numerous chaotic moments in the class.
As the sun set, I finished off my trip to Brussels in the Grand Place. There I observed a reenactment of the court of Charles V. I figured the reenactment was authentic, given how long the official speeches were. But, as Brussels lives up to its name in diversity, the ceremony took even longer as the repeated each speech first in French, then Flemish, and finally English.
I found Brussels to be an incredibly diverse and vibrant city. Yet an Italian scholar I met at a United Nations research center disagreed. He complained to me about the lack of diversity. When I asked him about all the different nationalities, he frowned and exclaimed, “They are all European!”