Well, the promised “one-week update” has become a “three-week update…” Considering I’ve only committed to one blog post per country, I’m doing pretty well, though! Also, it looks as though I'll have to write this upcoming epic blog post in segments (so much to update on!), so I may as well post it in segments as well. Here is an update on training! Check back for a reflection on the city and the country (and get excited about sheep guts!)
Is absolutely lovely. It is physically and mentally challenging, a cultural and emotional experience, and fun and light-hearted to boot! I am by far the odd one out among my classmates, not least because I'm from the US - the oldest student is fourteen and the youngest if four! The oldest is Dulguun, she has a very nice hula hoop/contortion act and has a bounce juggling/tap dance routine that I haven't seen yet. She wants to be in Cirque du Soleil and was going to go to the States for a summer with Circus Smirkus (www.smirkus.org) but she didn’t get her visa in time. The youngest student in class is her younger sister, all of four years old. She is very bendy and has a surprising amount of focus for a kid that young. She has been training for about 8 months and won an award at her school district's talent show for a traditional Mongolian contortion act. Oh! I have to correct that – today in class, Bilgee started a new student – three years old, now the youngest in class. It was very sweet to see her have her very first day of contortion training – our coach, Bilgee, had her do some stretches (constantly reminding her to straighten her knees), some strengthening exercises (she could finish a few pull-ups all by herself!) and then she played with the hula hoops. The entire time Bilgee was very encouraging, gave lots of positive feedback and the whole class clapped when she did something well.
In fact, that’s something that surprised and delighted me: there is such a positive and playful environment in the studio! Students will clap for each other when they get something that’s new for that student or if they do something particularly well. I’m sure that environment is largely a product of Bilgee’s coaching – she does scold when children are doing something incorrectly or unsafely but she is very encouraging overall. In fact, the first phrase I learned by repetition is “sain bain:” well done! (Well, that may be competing for first place with “oovtogee:” straighten your knees!)
Similarly, I’ve been impressed with how self-motivated the kids are. We all do general warm-ups together, and then follow more or less the same structure (legs, back, handstands), but everyone is working at their own level and at their own pace within the structure. On the whole, these kids know what they should be doing and do it. They will spot each other on drills and help each other stretch and do their intense drills without being prodded.
As for me: I’m learning a lot! I let her know that I want work hard on handstands and drill one-arms so, my goodness, we are working hard on handstands and, boy, are we drilling one-arms. Also, my back is continuing to heal so I am able to get back in to pushing contortion. I have already accomplished a handful of new tricks – some that I should have had a long time ago and some that I never even thought about. The coaching style is certainly different than working with coaches in the States – her training philosophy seems to be “drill it until you can do it.” Whereas training with Elena (my handbalancing coach in Seattle) had a lot of focus on technique and precision of form, with Bilgee I get bits of technique mixed in with loads and loads of just doing. And I can certainly feel myself getting stronger. I’m feeling more steady on my hands (or hand) every day and for the first two weeks I swear I felt like the Hulk: my upper back was so sore I could practically feel my muscles growing.
The first day we met Bilgee did self-reflectively say that she is not a “typical” Mongolian coach – she has taught and performed in Switzerland, Mexico and the States – and by her own description she said that Mongolian coaches tend to “yell a lot.” I am very curious to be able to observe other contortion studios and find out what are cultural commonalities or individual differences. I’m trying to suspend too much analysis until I’ve been able to observe more. Next week I’m hoping to connect with Bud, the most famous Mongolian contortion coach in the world (excuse the hyperbole: I mean it in all seriousness). He just got back in Mongolia after touring with his contortionists in Big Apple Circus on the East Coast. Bilgee also tells me that Norovsamboo will be back in town in September – she is half of the pair that re-introduced contortion into the national psyche after the communist era. Her partner, Tsend-Ayush, passed away a few years ago. I can’t wait to speak with Norovsamboo (now in her eighties) and hear her version of the confoundingly hazy history of Mongolian contortion.
I’ve been trying to find out as much as I can about the history and development of Mongolian contortion, and it seems to be quite the rubix cube. I feel like a detective trying to muddle through a problem – sometimes the pieces fit so well it feels like the entire picture will fall in place, but sometimes a new piece of information directly contradicts another one. (The process makes me very excited about doing research, to be honest, and I find myself entertaining visions of coming back to Mongolia for PhD research…) There’s certainly a very present conversation happening in all of Mongolia about traditionalism/modernization, local culture vs. globalization, and these are all evident in the practice of contortion as well. I’m still figuring it all out, hoping the puzzle pieces will continue to fit together.
And in the meantime, I’m training like I’ve never trained before! I keep thinking about how the Watson fellowship is supposed to be an “experiential” experience (as opposed to a purely academic one) and I always chuckle at how thoroughly I am experiencing. Every muscle in my body is experiencing this moment, as I’m sore and stiff! My elbows and knees are experiencing Mongolia as I spread Tiger Balm all over them – my shoulder and back are experiencing Mongolia as I self-massage by rolling on a tennis ball (I did this for an hour yesterday and was still stiff) – my calf was experiencing Mongolia in training today when it cramped up from a particularly intense stretch. My back is experiencing Mongolia when I spread sheep fat on it to loosen up the tightness (yup, I mean it: my coach brought a jar to training the other day and told me to rub it on the part of my body that are sore every night. Well…training five hours a day means that just about every part of my body is sore, so that’s a lot of sheep fat.)
So that’s that. It’s lovely.