Two hours have passed and I still hadn’t gotten anywhere. I let out a sigh and sunk into the couch, exhausted and a bit frustrated.

I’ve been volunteering as an Activity Leader for refugees in Serbia, and yesterday I was assigned to teach a dance class. Might I remind you that the class will be taught to grown men, Middle Eastern men.

I did a bit of research to learn more about dance styles from Afghanistan because frankly, I had no clue. A quick Google search all but eased my confidence, “Traditionally, it was a disgrace for a woman to dance in public. The concept of a woman as a professional dancer or entertainer was completely unacceptable in traditional Afghan society,” the website stated. Back in old times, I shrugged off. Yep, everything is totally fine. This helped, I told myself.

Seeing as the only dancing experience I’ve had in the past few years was late night (early morning) Ibiza night club scene with strobe lights illuminating a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors onto a sea of faded faces. Even earlier, I can recall a time in middle school when I tried out for the cheerleading squad. After weeks of practicing the dance routine, I got on stage in front of the judges and completely froze. Their pity-filled “bless your heart” smiles clearly implied that I did not make the cut.

Flash forward to now, a decade later, and there I was in the “pit”, the name affectionately given to the Volunteer House living room, the fluorescent lights glaring down at my defeat.

As a writer, I could laugh and the irony of it all, but it didn’t change the fact that I would be teaching dance class tomorrow regardless.

I had my laptop open to YouTube video entitled “Basic Bollywood dance moves”. A flamboyant, overly enthusiastic Indian man spoke in broken English, flashing a grin while guaranteeing the simplicity of the steps.

Lies! I thought as I closed my laptop.

I wanted to lead a class that my students would truly enjoy. Surprisingly dance class was one of the most popular classes of the week. All of my regular students questioned me daily leading up to the class.

“Teacher, dance today?” they asked.

“No, in three days,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm to match theirs.

Each week, the volunteers held cinema night in the refugee camp. The 800 men, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, were entranced by the Bollywood movies we showed. Many of them requested these movies weeks in advance and already knew all the words to each song in the movie, a welcome distraction to the turmoil of their current situation.

It was surprising to me because Bollywood movies were so cheesy. The men cheered during the over-the-top romantic scenes and clapped and sang to the songs. I wanted my dance class to match this level of enthusiasm, and in my head,  I pictured all of us doing an epic dance routine to a track from the same movie they watched earlier that week.

Eventually my fellow volunteers and housemates walked into the living room, and I told them about my predicament. After a good laugh, we brainstormed ideas on how I could make the class work.

The next day I walked to the front of the room at 4pm sharp to begin dance class. Twenty guys stood in front of me smiling with expectant faces. There were about ten or fifteen other men sitting along the walls and crowding the doorway drinking mint tea, eagerly observing. I spent as much time as possible doing warm up stretches until finally, it was time.

I pressed play to the soundtrack that I never thought I would hear in this setting, and my fellow volunteers and I proceeded to do the Macarena in front of everyone. The silence beyond the music said it all. Once the song ended, no one said a word. Everyone’s faces were stunned as if they’d seen something they cannot unsee. Then, one student laughed out loud. I laughed with him, and slowly everyone was laughing.

“Teacher, what is this? This is not good. We do not like,” he said through his bellowing laughter.

“IT’S THE MACARENA, GUYS. IT’S A CLASSIC!” I pleaded, trying my best to defend this altogether simple and unexciting dance number.

“Okay, teacher, show us,” a guy in the back said with sympathy.

I proceeded to teach them the Macarena, step by step, which was actually more difficult than one would think since the rhythm of the music in their culture is so different. It’s like someone explaining to you the flavor of a spice you’ve never tried.

After 20 minutes of organized chaos and dancing in front of the class far more than I felt comfortable with, we played the song once again and went all out, all five of us that were still participating. The rest of the men opted out, shrugging their shoulders in what I assumed was either disinterest or disappointment. After that last glorious attempt, I gave the guys the floor, and they performed traditional Afghan dances. I sat back and appreciated their skill, poise, and the ease at which they flowed with the music. After all that they’ve been through, something as simple as their traditional music and dancing together can be uplifting and even healing.

Bollywood dancing, the Macarena, and a dance class gone terribly wrong. What’s the lesson in all of this?! Well, friends, you can’t be good at everything, but you can flow through life (awkwardly at times) with curiosity and a sense of humor.


Thanks for reading! Interested in learning how you can help with the refugee crisis? Check out the organization I volunteered with here. Contact me if you’d like to learn more about my time volunteering with them.