December 5, 2020

Beckah Reed, dance majors reflect on Thailand trip

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY KELSEY KEIL, Kelsey Keil, senior dance major, dances the classical Thai style in a traditional Thai costume.

For Dance Department Chair Beckah Reed and four dance majors, the summer was a chance for cultural bartering, and to make an East-West connection in Hua Hin, Thailand.

In Hua Hin is Patravadi High School, where Amanda Gouveia, Shannon Frank, Audrey Simes and Kelsey Keil faced the challenge of learning Thai classical dance from Thai instructors. They also had the opportunity to teach Thai students western dance. Keil taught hip-hop dance to about 30 students. Her students, Keil said, were excited to dance the style they love to watch on TV. Simes taught modern dance and voice.

“It was incredible to see how malleable and so respectful and so hungry for new information they were,” Simes said. “What they see on TV is so mind blowing to them based on what they’re learning, which is more traditional.”

Although the Thai government has set a strict guideline on which classes students must take, such as reading, writing and arithmetic, their teachers encourage them to pursue the performing arts. Both Simes and Keil noticed the students’ love for creative expression. Keil described the high school as a creative playground.

“It was very artistically dense,” she said. “It’s artistic in all aspects,

whether it be singing, music, dancing, theatre. That was exciting to see.”

The students’ appreciation for the arts starts with the school’s founder Patravadi Mejudhon, who started the school in May 2010. Patravadi is a famous Thai actress, director and playwright. Patravadi’s mother’s wish before her death was for Patravadi to not only educate the people of Thailand, but also to allow them to think for themselves. Patravadi is trying to help her students establish their own free-thinking through art forms, which is rare in many eastern cultures.

“Patravadi’s doing something so revolutionary in Thailand,” Simes said. “She’s really worked hard to get to where she is now. She continues to fight for what she wants and what she knows is best for these students. She gives them opportunities they wouldn’t have if she wasn’t there.”

Thai classical dance is offered as a class, but Reed, Simes and Keil noticed very not as Thai students interested in it as compared to the interest in previous generations. Simes said she believes there is a cultural shift in Thailand, and many young people don’t respect their culture and follow traditions like their ancestors once did. She believes this could be a direct result from access to information on the Internet.

However, the four dance majors decided to learn Thai classical dance. This proved to be both physically and emotionally straining on the dancers. In Thai classical dance, dancers are required to hyperextend their upper extremities like the fingers, wrists, elbows and, even the lower back.

Reed said she acted as a mediator between the dance majors and their Thai instructors. She helped the dance majors to understand the culture and why they were being pushed so hard.

“It’s very strict, it’s very severe,” Reed said. “The more you challenge your student, the better teacher you are, the more your students will respect you. The discipline is intense, but I think it was very successful.”

Keil, like the other three dance majors, felt the pain in the first class. As she cried during the first class, she wondered if she would be able to handle the dance form.

“I just thought that I was abusing my body,” Keil said. “I wasn’t necessarily crying in pain, but rather in fear of ‘am I going to be abusing myself for eight weeks?’ ‘What did I get myself into?’”

However, Keil and her fellow students continued to train. Thai classical dance became easier for them all as the class continued. Keil and Simes said they realized the hyperextension in Thai classical dance is similar to the strain on the lower half of the body in classical ballet. In ballet, the knees, ankles are toes are hyperextended.

“Because Thai classical dance is so extreme, it’s considered beautiful and yet it’s so painful,” Simes said. “The only difference is in what East and West considers to be beautiful. You know, what our aesthetics are.”

The group’s final performance of the trip started with each dance major being tightly sown into their costume on stage, something that is traditionally done back stage. Keil said the upper half of the costume felt like a corset and the bottom half like a pencil skirt, which made movement difficult, especially for Simes.

“My arms, I couldn’t lift. I couldn’t breathe and yet I had to do the most acrobatic stuff like cartwheels, somersaults and all this intense movement,” Simes said.

Traditionally, a Thai dancer must train for eight years before wearing the costume. The dancers and Reed considered wearing the costumes a gift.

“It was the biggest honor,” Simes said.

Gouviea and Frank performed a Thai classical choreographed piece. Simes and Keil choreographed a West meets East piece that began with western dance, transitioned into Thai classical dance, then blended the two forms.

The final performance and the merger of two cultures was emotionally overwhelming for many in the audience. It brought Patravadi, Reed and others to tears.

“For them to see that we could utilize what they taught us and respect their culture and really dedicate ourselves to respecting their culture brought them to crying,” Simes said.

At the end of their stay, Patravadi offered teaching jobs to the dancers. All decided to return home for now, except Gouveia, who stayed at the high school to teach. Keil and Simes said they would like to travel to Thailand again, to visit Patravadi and her high school. Simes added she would eventually like to teach at Patravadi High School.

“I love teaching and I love performing, so to be in a place where I can do both and get paid and have a place to live in Thailand…I don’t know if I could ask for more, especially right after college,” Simes said.

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