On the other side of the world
11 April - 9 May 2012

Friday 20 April

An interesting start to my last day in New Zealand - pool dancing (not to be confused with pole dancing). With Catherine leading and myself & a local dancer making up the line we elegantly twirled through a selection of dances while waist-deep in water, courtesy of Catherine's garden pool. I've performed aquatic folk dance once before but this was the first time outdoors and my first experience of teaching while immersed in water - with the ridiculously appropriate 'Waterfall', one of my own choreographies. Partly an exercise in fluid dynamics, partly just an excuse for a lot of splashing around, but lots of fun.

After a light lunch in the garden it was time to start the next leg of my journey, which began with a 2 1/2 hour drive to the airport. A chance to take in the landscapes & flora of New Zealand for one last time and to have another nice long chat. Hugs, farewells & promises to return and then into Aukland airport for the last time on this trip.

Seems like third time is the charm - everything went smoothly and in no time at all (in airport terms this is around half an hour) I was through into the departures lounge and tucking into a pizza. The space was large, spacious and airy with big windows out onto the nearby gates & runways and lots of comfortable seating areas, lightly populated with people tapping away on laptops or scrutinising smartphones. It had the futuristic look that I'd imagined an International Airport would be like when I was young, before I'd been disillusioned by the factory-farm awfulness of London's termini. I'd had problems passing through Aukland airport on my last two visits but this made up for it, a very nice place to fly from.

There was one small fly in the ointment, alas. In trying to find a memento of my first trip to New Zealand I'd finally decided on an All Blacks shirt, to complement the Brazil football shirt I'd brought back with me from São Paulo. There were shirts aplenty but they were all polyester or a polyester/cotton blend, not something I like to wear next to my delicate skin. Sigh! I realise that the modern sportsman requires high-tech, high-performance sportswear but as someone who hasn't handled an oddly-shaped ball in forty years (and who has no plans to do so, probably to the great relief of my friends, relatives & doctor) it would have been nice to have something symbolic & comfy too.

The flight to Sydney passed uneventfully, probably the highest praise I have for air travel nowadays. Entry to Australia was quick & straightforward, apart from a long wait for the luggage to appear which was more a cause of irritation than trepidation. Strange how quickly we take for granted the logistical nightmare of matching up luggage & planes and disentangling them at the correct destination. Then I was off to the train station where a helpful but slightly grumpy clerk sold me a ticket and gave very detailed connection information. Within ten minutes I was on a train carrying me into central Sydney and ten minutes after arriving there I was sitting on the Newcastle & Central Coast Line train that would take me to meet Annie, my host and organiser in Newcastle NSW.

In all of my planning I hadn't worked out just how long the train journey would be. When I sent Annie a text saying I was on the 9:15 train she replied that it would arrive at Broadmeadow (her local station) at midnight, which is how it turned out. It was pitch black outside so I didn't even have the opportunity to appreciate the New South Wales countryside, I just ploughed through my book and did a little people watching along the way. Things got a little nerve-wracking towards the end of the journey as there were no maps or lists of stations inside the carriage, the announcements were intermittent and often inaudible, and many of the stations didn't have any visible signs from the carriage. Luckily I just about made out the "Nextstopbroadmeadow' squark from the speakers and manhandled my case to the door as the train drew to a close. Annie was there on the platform and within minutes of arriving I was settling into bed and off into sleep.

Saturday 21 April

The view from the breakwater, Newcastle

With my first workshop not starting until the afternoon Annie took me into town to see a bit of Newcastle. I'd never been here before and apart from a vague association with heavy industry & mining, which could have been my own unconscious link with Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I had no idea of what to expect.

Turns out my subconscious was on to something - the first things I see as we head into the city are enormous piles of coal. It seems that carrying coals to Newcastle would be as foolish in New South Wales as on Tyneside.

Moving on into the city centre there are some beautiful brick buildings, bursting with Victorian (the queen, not the state) confidence & optimism. As we move towards the coast we enter residential districts with the elaborately ornate wrought iron work on the upstairs verandas that are so typical of Australian city homes. Eventually we park and continue on foot past Fort Scratchly (I'm not making this up!) and on towards the fabulously named Nobby's Beach. The surf seems a little rough for a paddle so we stay safely above the tide line and walk along the artificial spit that shelters the mouth of the Hunter river and the port of Newcastle.

It's a classic Australian scene - surfers in the water, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers sharing the pathway, sun beaming down and a gentle sea breeze to keep the heat at bay. I hear no recorded or broadcast music, no raised voices, no screaming children, no relentless drone of traffic, just conversation, rollerskate rumble and the muted crash of the waves on the rocks. At one point the noise of straining engines cuts through but even this has a poetic source as a large seaplane rises from the harbour and banks away northwards. Maybe my visitor's perspective is missing the grimy underside of this idyllic scene but for now I just lap it up and enjoy it.

After a light lunch at home we pack up the Essential Supplies, including balloons to bedeck the entrance and attract wandering dancers, and head off to the hall for the workshop. It's a nice, big space but currently filled with tables & chairs so five minutes is spent clearing them away to the sides and stacking up the surplus seats. People start to arrive so I tear myself away from rearranging my prospective dance list YET AGAIN and socialise.

View over Newcastle. Lots of trees!

The workshop goes well, despite my over-anxious worries. I start off intending to please everybody but quickly realise that with just three hours there'll only be time for a handful of dances if we're going to do them in any depth. As the first dance comes to an end (I always start with something totally familiar so I can think about what to follow it with) I relax and the choice of which dance to do next comes easily & obviously, and so it goes through the workshop. We do (and repeat) four dances in the first hour, three in the second, then repeat them in the final slot. Only seven dances but it feels like we've really danced into them and gotten them into our bodies. A good workshop.

On the way home we drive up onto a hill and enjoy the wide cityscape bathed in pinkish evening sunlight. Lots of trees - parts of the city look like a forest from up on high.

As we arrive back home both Annie & I are feeling tired so it's a takeaway curry and an early night. I catch up on my blog & some emails but not for long and soon I'm away in the Land of Nod.

Annie's garden

The international symbol for a Circle Dance workshop

View towards Nobby's Beach

Nobby's Beach

Sunday 22 April

Annie's house

Sunday morning brought an unexpected respite from my (relatively) busy schedule. Annie was hosting Quaker Meeting in her house and had invited me to come along, so we left through the garden side door, walked around the house to the 'front' door, and entered what was now the Quaker Meeting House. This curious little ritual provided a useful transitional process, moving from the 'mundane' & ordinary day-to-day space into the somehow sanctified place of Worship despite the fact that they were, in a purely physical sense, one and the same. An interesting metaphor for life in general? Maybe.

I'm a very intermittent Quaker and if pressed I'd probably describe myself as someone who follows a similar path without quite falling into the same faith. However I do get a lot from attending Meeting and when I find myself in a new place I'll often seek out the local Quaker group and come along when I can. Here at the Hunter Valley group I sat down, took off my glasses, closed my eyes and began to focus on my breathing, my usual technique for calming my active mind.

Whether you call it Worship, meditation or whatever I find the process of 'emptying' my mind and just observing what comes along into it to be both refreshing and inspiring. As someone with very analytical thought processes it's a constant challenge to just passively accept what comes into my head without 'grabbing on to it' and trying to determine what it means or where it might have originated. In fact it feels like a great achievement if I can't remember what I was thinking at the end of a session (unless I'm gently chided for snoring afterwards). The idea that the 'me' I identify with is just a smaller aspect of something greater seems obviously self-evident when I think about it but there's something about the deeper & more primal experience of letting go and feeling it that makes it more real & personal. How you choose to label this 'greater self' seems to be of great importance to some people but it seems to me that it must be 'bigger' than we can contain in our minds and any attempt to define it are doomed to failure. But let's not go down that path for now.

The Meeting entrance

I find that I get a similar experience when dancing, when my active mind is occupied with the steps & movements and the rest of me can surrender into the dance and be carried along by it. It's not just a chance to enjoy some personal bliss (although that can be nice), when I feel that inner openness it can also bring awareness of what the group needs, inspiration for what to dance next, some deeper understanding of myself or of the particular dance I'm doing, or something that seems totally unrelated but is in some strange way relevant. As if I'm connecting with something that has a wider perspective than my own, limited viewpoint. Or something like that.

The ironic thing is that (for me at least) to reach this point of divine inspiration it's necessary to do as much preparation & planning as my 'ordinary' mind can manage. One does not test the Gods! And so for the afternoon's workshop I went back & forth through my dance repertoire on the iPod making lists of possible dances divided up into fast & slow, complex & simple, and so on and so on. Eventually I had shortlist of about four times the number of danes than could actually be done in the time, enough to narrow down the options but still give me freedom to tailor the workshop to the group's reactions as we went along.

It was a smaller group than on Saturday with a couple of newcomers so I decided to teach a completely new set of dances. My meticulous planning was immediately thrown off kilter when one of the participants requested a dance that I'd not even considered for the day but my Higher Self (see above) rose to the challenge and found a place for it to slot in seamlessly.

From my perspective the workshop flowed better than the day before's and although I gave the dancers 'something to get their teeth into' (rather than something easy & superficial) we really got into the dances and reached points of synchrony and harmony. The feedback was very positive and I found myself looking forward to coming back again and continuing my connection with Australian dancers, hopefully without another ten year gap!

After the workshop Annie & I went out for a drive but the heavy cloud overhead robbed us of a sunset or lingering twilight, so we retreated back home for another takeaway carry (this time a Thai one) and an early night. My stay in Newcastle had been sadly brief but it was time to pack up and prepare for the journey to Tasmania tomorrow.

Teaching at Newcastle

Dancing at Newcastle

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