On my first day in San Francisco, I asked a recently-made American friend, Kelsey, what she liked most about living there. She thought for all of about 1.4 seconds, then replied;
“The sky. I love the sunsets here.”
Best. Answer. Ever.
An Australian perspective.
Living on our lovely yet lonesome island out in the middle of the ocean can often feel a tad isolating to us Australians. Aside from beautiful New Zealand, we’re not terribly close to…well…anywhere. While I have spent time in the United States before, I have only ever seen one place: Galveston, Texas. For 7 months, I performed as a dancer on a cruise ship that would leave from Galveston each Sunday morning, sail around the Gulf of Mexico, stopping at a few tourism-oriented ports along the way, then return to Galveston seven days later. As enjoyable as this time was (especially as a young dancer who had never before left Australia), I am hesitant to count this experience as any sort of portrayal of the US, and its people.
In July of 2016, it was dance that once again brought me back. I had been invited to the US by an American dance school owner, Vicki Suemnicht*, who I had met and quickly befriended last year at the Australian Tap Dance Festival in Melbourne, where I was teaching. After taking part in my masterclass, Vicki kindly offered to buy me a coffee (I was happy to introduce her to the humble, yet effective Australian classic, ‘flat white’), and we sat down in a cafe next to the dance studio. She asked if I would ever consider coming to guest-teach at her studio in Santa Rosa, California (roughly an hour North of San Francisco, nestled in picturesque wine country). My response: ‘are you kidding?’. She wasn’t, I’m thrilled to say.
It felt like the idea was a bit too grand to work, but we stayed in touch. At the beginning of the year, I purchased my ticket to the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon (an event I had been keeping a close eye on for some time. At the time of writing, it’s 2 weeks away), and I made contact with Vicki to find out if her offer to teach still stood. I would have understood if the initial offer had been made in a flurry of tap-festival-excitement and in reality was never likely to eventuate, but to my delight the offer stood strong.
A happy shattering.
While the tap dancing went wonderfully, the week spent in Santa Rosa was memorable for another reason…
In Australia, our perception of American people is based largely upon what we see and hear in movies and through the media. The opposite is also true, and as a result, the perception of both countries often become based upon stereotypes. While I had immediately befriended Vicki in Melbourne, we had little more than a few hours to get to know each other. 10 months later, when imagining what it would be like to stay with Vicki and her husband Gene while I was working with her dancers, I must confess I fell victim to some unfortunate stereotypes. I wondered if we’d be thanking Jesus before each meal, or perhaps been given an introduction to different types of home-firearms.
Yes, I realise that California and Texas are extremely different places.
Of course, after a few hours in Vicki & Gene’s company, it became clear why Vicki and I had connected to begin with (aside from the tap dance, of course); these were super-cool, down-to-Earth, hugely welcoming and generous people. The stereotypes in my mind were completely unfounded. Not only did we quickly discover a huge amount of common ground between us, but these were our people; our tribe. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t bond greatly at the expense of Donald Trump (he is good for something), as we sat drinking wine on their back deck, well into the evening.
Vicki and I are both music-crazy, and quickly discovered a mutual tendency to excuse ourselves mid-conversation to ‘Shazam’ background songs using our iPhones. Vicki introduced me to one of her favorite bands, ‘The Outback’, and I introduced her to one of mine, ‘Jinja Safari’.
It was such a wonderful thing to have my nonsensical stereotypes shattered and to have solidified two more people onto the list of favorite humans, of which you can never really have too many. I am endlessly grateful for the last 7 days.
I’ll be back in the USA in less than 2 weeks, but for now, off to Canada.
Mermaids by Jinja Safari
* Vicki owns and runs ‘The Dance Center’ in Santa Rosa, California. For over 30 years, she has worked to provide a happy, welcoming and high-quality dance experience to students of all ages, and I feel she has succeeded overwhelmingly in doing just that. It is incredibly rare and refreshing to come across a place like ‘The Dance Center’ in the all-too-often-fucked-up world of dance.