On Wednesday morning, our fourth in Istanbul, P. and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a ballet class with teenage boys and girls. The instructor, a short, wiry woman in her forties, demonstrated each step and spoke a few words in Turkish (of which we understood nothing), switched on the music — a piece of Chopin or Tchaikovsky or another modern classical composition — and said “Hazir”. The students, six boys and eight girls, stood on three sides of the rectangular studio holding with one hand the horizontal bar. While they performed, some with more precision and elan than others, the instructor gave verbal cues for the steps to follow. This pattern recurred several times, each with a different sequence, before a break was announced. But this was no real break: the students began stretching exercises, arching and bending their impossibly flexible young bodies.
How did we reach this unlikely spot in the city? The previous evening, over dinner in a small restaurant near the Galata tower, we began what turned out a pleasant conversation with an elderly Turkish couple on the adjacent table. They asked us about India. The woman, Sebnem, had visited the north on a few occasions, liked it a lot. We spoke of our recent experiences in Istanbul. (The city has shades of India, I said). When P. asked Sebnem about a book — titled Ideokinesis — she was carrying, she remarked, rather casually, that she taught modern dance at a school in Istanbul. This was a modest self-appraisal: her husband leaned over and revealed that his wife had founded the dance school and continued to head it. Can we visit one of your classes? P. asked. Her boldness surprised me, but Sebnem responded with enthusiasm. She did not have a class that week, but we could visit one of the other classes. She then placed a few calls right there, in the middle of her meal, and fixed up for us an appointment with her assistant next morning.
The university building, a tall office block next to a much taller Hilton tower, was set in a commercial district. At the lobby the security guard smiled at us and asked if we are from “Hindistan”. Yes, we said. He then stopped one of the girls walking in and asked her to lead us to the dance school. This girl, whose name I now miss, was a masters student at the school, and it was her class we visited half an hour later. The assistant, also named Sebnem, showed us around the place, the dance studios for practice and a small theatre for performances. The school had about 40 students, and they performed mostly in Turkey, although as individuals some did go on tours to other countries. I asked her about the school’s origins. In the beginning they had no permanent place to gather and learn, she said, until Sebnem (her boss) managed to get this floor allocated by the university for the dance school. And Sebnem had modelled and shaped everything, from the type of flooring to the class structure — it was to her that this school owed its existence. The assistant herself had graduated here and now also taught dance.
The class itself revealed an untypical side of Turkey. Here was a bunch of next generation muslim students (one of the boys even had a full beard) practicing modern dance with ease, as though this was part of their culture for generations. Inside that studio I felt this could be a great city in the West — London, Paris, or New York; outside there were domes and minarets scattered across the horizon.
As we wore our shoes near the exit I saw a sign, drawn with dancing figures, which revealed itself only from a distance: Dance first. Think later.