Anyone who knows me knows I am not a dancer (although I have managed to fake dancing on film and video and even on stage) and I know next to nothing about the refinements of that art. But back in the 80s, I was an official judge of a competition in dance of the Subcontinent.
When I started a job as director of Marketing & Communications of the New Jersey Historical Society (a big name for a position at a small though venerable private organization and museum in Newark), I learned that I was also in charge of Education and Programs, with one person to assist in all of these functions.
I also learned that coming up on the calendar for the Christmas season was a Festival of Trees .
My predecessor—now at a job somewhere else—had thought it would be neat to have ethnic and other communities each decorate a tree that would be exhibited for a couple of months. We had no ties to any of those communities and no one to advise us on how those trees would be decorated. In any case, no one liked the idea of setting up a bunch of trees in one of our galleries.
What I came up with as an alternative was a festival and exhibit that would call on ethnic and national communities to either perform or display something that related to winter holidays. For example, a nearby Italian church lent us a display of their locally famous Christmas-crèche figures, and a Jewish community center from the suburbs filled a case with Hanukkah items.
For our one-day holiday festival, I used my contacts around the state, plus a list from the governor’s office in Trenton of organizations related to national origin and phone calls to Newark churches, to assemble such performances as a church’s Puerto Rican choir (men with guitars singing carols in Spanish), the children’s choir from the AME Zion church down the street, a Chinese dragon dance, and a Latvian children’s choir.
There was a statewide organization for Indian culture on the governor’s list, so I called its contact person, who agreed to bring some dancers to the event. That’s how I got to know Lakshmi, a business woman of great persuasive powers and a terrific network of people to call on. (Years later, when I directed a chapter of the American Red Cross, one of our clients was a man from India who wanted to go home since he had no job or other resources. I called Lakshmi, who knew someone at an Indian airline who came up with a free ticket for the man.)
To publicize the event, I arranged an interview on a cable station’s arts program for myself and Lakshmi, who demonstrated Indian dance, wearing, of course, the appropriate costume. The event itself went very well. Somehow we kept a large crowd entertained as we got all the performers on and off our performance space.
Several months later, Lakshmi called me with a favor to ask. I was prepared to say yes—I doubted that anyone ever said no to Lakshmi—until she said, “I want you to judge an Indian dance competition.”
“But, Lakshmi,” I said, “I don’t know anything about Indian dance. Only what I learned from your demonstration at the cable station.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “You know the arts.”
So on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks later, having read a book about Indian dance and retained nothing, I drove to a school auditorium to judge the annual competition of folk-dance groups from Indian communities in New Jersey and New York.
The other judges were Marcos, who was part of a Filipino dance company, and José, a flamenco dancer. I don’t think he was Spanish or really named José, but neither was the famous Flamenco dancer José Greco (he was born in Italy and his name was Costanzo Bucci). I learned from the others that they knew nothing about Indian dance either, but they had found Lakshmi’s persuasiveness irresistible. Needless to say, we weren’t being paid for our work, aside from the food that we ate after the competition. Good food is usually a feature of ethnic arts events.
So the competition began. There were six groups competing, each consisting of a few adults and many children and teenagers. Indian folk dance isn’t all that different from other cultures’ folk dance. It’s not as hard for an outsider to follow—or judge—as Indian classical dance.
As we watched, each of us judges filled out a score sheet with numbers for choreography, costumes, and enthusiasm. Luckily, it was obvious that the group from Staten Island was the best in all categories, and the second- and third-place groups were clear as well. We had an easy time, when we compared our score sheets, in agreeing on the winners.
The three groups who didn’t win anything were quiet about their disappointment, and the audience went along with our judgments without furor. So we chatted and ate for a while, and left with thanks from Lakshmi and the day’s other organizers.
And with curiosity about what Lakshmi might ask of us next.