Jan Van Dyke
“In 1993, I became the first of five Fulbright professors to be brought into the dance program at the Universidade Tecnica de Lisboa. I was there for three months from February to May, living on a cobblestone street in an old section of Lisbon. This was a great adventure and one I still remember clearly.
I took the train along the enormous river Tagus to the school, and ferried across it to rehearse with the Companhia de Danca de Almada, a small company working to learn one of my dances. I walked for hours through the entire city, and became familiar with Lisbon traffic, getting to know 1,000 year old neighborhoods and 300 year old shopping areas, watching trucks squeeze through the narrow streets. As a walker, I had my own frustration with cars parked on the sidewalks – though I could see that if they didn’t park there traffic could never get through the streets!
I certainly learned as much as I was teaching, and much of what I learned centered on myself and my own culture. Time after time I encountered myself as American as I struggled to adjust my automatic expectation of order and efficiency to the realities of Portuguese life. It took me awhile to grasp Portuguese “flexibility”, a concept apparent in all aspects of existence, from traffic to scheduling. What I initially interpreted as disregard for preparedness, structure and the pressures of time, my Portuguese colleagues explained as adaptability and responsiveness to life. When problems arose, they gracefully adjusted their expectations and accepted what could not be changed, while the Type-A American go-getter in me had difficulty letting go of my carefully constructed agenda.
Perhaps I saw this most clearly one day when I sat down with my students, exasperated at their resistance to working with the counts of a musical phrase. We had struggled with counts from the beginning focusing on issues like coming in on the right beat and accenting certain counts, and I was frustrated at their disinterest. On this particular day I asked what the problem was. “Oh,” they told me, “Counts. They are so measured and unorganic. Here,” they said, “we believe dance should be passionate and expressive and come from the inside. Dancers shouldn’t be restricted by having to count or having something imposed from the outside.”
This hit me like a revelation. Separated out like that, precision is more than just another skill or discipline. It becomes a coercive force, perhaps even a moral issue. Over time, I began to view these remarks about counts and structure as a metaphor, an explanation for many aspects of Portuguese culture that had puzzled me, starting with traffic and scheduling.
My concept of culture started to evolve with this understanding, taking on a world view while maintaining a distinctly personal perspective. I began to see the American way of life more clearly too, how we drive within the lines, keep to strict schedules in everything we do, and agree to laws about cars parking on the sidewalks. Our sidewalks are not full of cars and traffic is orderly, but it is a paradox. We see ourselves as free yet accept many limitations in the form of schedules and laws “imposed from the outside.” It was an excellent lesson, showing how culture bound we all really are, and how plainly it can be seen in our teaching, our art and in the way we view the world.”
Fulbright Scholar at Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, 1992/1993