I step on stage and look out at 2000-plus Indonesians celebrating their Independence Day. A line of women and men, a halo of seashells and feathers on their head, wave me over and I search for an escape route or a translator. With neither in sight, the only option is to link fingers with callused hands and hope the burgundy sarongs and matching sashes are not emblematic of blood and human sacrifice.
Two men sit in the middle of the circle, one at the gong, and the other hunched over a Moko Drum. The gong chimes, the drum booms and feet step- forward, back, forward back. Dragged like a lilo in a wave pool, I study hairy feet. Side, crossover, repeat, the simple pattern seems doable, but just when success is in the next foot, the pace hastens and I relapse to a rag doll. Sweat streams down my back and I’m blindfolded by my hair. With elbows locked, I whip it off my face and accidentally slap my neighbor with knots. I eye her an apology and she laughs, her magenta headscarf more practical than my mind-of-its-own mop.
If I knew dancing was on the tour, I would have worn tights, a headband, sneakers, and my hair in a bun. But here I am, in a ring of Muslim woman, my shoulders and legs bare, looking like the poster child for idiot abroad. I avoid peeking at the crowd but when fingers point and bellies jiggle with laughter, it’s hard to ignore.
Kids, no taller than a yardstick, dance in dirt, their feet in harmony with the old ladies. I give up on the kicks and half-steps and let the women drag me along, laughing with the spectators.
When the music stops, I clap with the crowd, give a bow and head for the steps but a lady with a badge, microphone and official looking shirt grabs my hand, “no, no, no,” she says, leading me back to the middle of the stage. No, no, no, I think. This dance is done. I am done.
“This dance was about the harvest,” she whispers, covering the microphone. It’s about coming together to achieve one goal.”
“Lovely,” I say, wondering why she didn’t tell me this before humiliation.
She turns to address the crowd, speaks a long sentence in Indonesian, then looks back to me.
“What do you think this song is about,” she says into the microphone, her voice carrying to the mountains, “and why do you believe it’s important?”
She pushes the microphone to my lips.
I try and buy time by grabbing the microphone and smiling at the crowd. “First off, thank you for letting me be a part of this celebration.”
The crowd is silent. The lady translates my sentence then hands the microphone back to me.
“The song seems to be about partnership,” I say. “About the strength of working together and the joy that brings.”
I hand the Microphone back.
She doesn’t take it. “Is that it?” she whispers.
It was “it” before I started. My hands are sweaty, my hair is at Cousin It status, and my dance partners are already back to their seats. But no, this is her country, and I am getting far more out of it than any Indonesian is getting out of me. Over the last two weeks, I owe more than just a couple of words of thanks. I hold the microphone tight and look up over the silent crowd. Christians dance with Muslims. Headscarves ripple, and crucifixes chink around necks. Mosques and churches are on the same street and the bible and Koran share bookshelves.
“It is about accepting the differences in others,” I say, “It’s about working together on common goals. The song is joyful but has a rhythm of work, almost like planting seeds in a garden,” I say. Thank you for sharing your joy, terima kasih.”
The official grins and translates my sentence, which seems to turn into a paragraph when spoken in Indonesian. The crowd cheers and the row of military men and government officials join in.
Finally, I am allowed to go back to my seat. For the rest of the night, I take more selfies than steps and by bedtime, my jaw aches from smiling.