Dance instructor Bopho Padma watches his dancers in rehearsal as they make their way offstage. “Good use of your upper body,” he tells one dancer whose shoulders and torso were particularly engaging. “The audience can still see you!” he chides another dancer who’s stopped dancing and started pulling at her costume prematurely. When all thirty dancers have made it into the invisibility of the wings (actually a room through a door, in this case), Bopho calls everyone back to review his observations and corrections. The dancers listen solemnly and, at an encouraging clap from Bopho, jump up to go through the last piece one more time—this time focusing more on their footwork. The rehearsal follows basically the same pattern of every rehearsal I’ve ever seen, but these dancers are 13-16 year-old school students learning the traditional folk dances of their Ladakhi culture.
“For us, these dances are a very important part of our identity and history. But it’s becoming less and less common for people to learn them. We want to be able to do them well so we can share them and pass them on,” says one of the students.
“A lot of our traditions are no longer alive. Maybe a lot of young people don’t think it’s important and want to live in an easier way. Even I have a cell phone, but that doesn’t mean our culture shouldn’t be important to us!” says another student, his voice firm with conviction.
Bopho Padma is trying to stoke these interests in tradition amidst challenges from a quickly modernizing society. He comes from generations of professional folk dancers and teachers. “I learned from my father, and he learned from his father. It used to be the custom here to pass on this cultural knowledge between generations in the villages,” he explains. “Now, because many families send their children to the city to receive their education, this tradition has become very disrupted. This is why I am teaching these students at school.”
The dances are hundreds of years old, many descendants of Ladakh’s Tibetan heritage. Buddhism exerts a strong influence. Each dance begins with gestures of respect to the Buddha then progresses through three quickening stages to its climax.
The dances are traditionally performed to mark different occasions. For instance, the mentok stanmo is performed at the beginning of summer. The return of migrating birds is celebrated with the chartses dance, during which women wear beautiful scarves that flow and flutter with the vibrant and joyous choreography. The spao dance, which tells the epic story of Himalayan Buddhist hero Gyalam Kesar, helps pass the winter while transmitting oral and embodied history. (Seasons are a big deal in a place with such a harsh climate.) Other dances celebrate weddings or demarcate the beginnings or ends of festivities. It is the role of professional dancers to perform these dances at the appropriate times, though amateurs sometimes join in. In the case of the rehearsal described above, the students were practicing for a school showcase to honor a visiting religious guru and the lama who founded their school.
“We saw these dances every year in our villages when we were younger!” exclaims a 5th grade student in the audience the night of the show, between lines she’s quietly singing along from her seat. “It’s making me so happy to see this.” Around me, kids’ whispered critiques, few in agreement with one another, indicating local variations in detail or technique from one valley to another. The girls each demonstrate a totally different “correct” way of holding their fingers and timing wrist movements, but the debate is more an expression of mounting interest in what’s happening onstage than a criticism. “I will ask my mother when I go home,” states one student.
“I’m so pleased that the students enjoyed it,” says Bopho after the show. “And even more pleased that they have questions! Everything is changing, but if the children still care enough about these dances to ask questions, talk to their parents and grandparents about them, and learn them, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.”