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Bopping in the Balkans, part 2

Lawrence Bush
October 7, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

To read part 1, click here.

WE'RE NOW IN VELENJE, an old Slovenian mining town rebuilt as "a socialist miracle, a town in a park" by Marshal Tito's government between 1959 and 1964. I listened here yesterday morning to my wife's keynote talk at the International Dance Pedagogy Conference. Susan spoke slowly and passionately to these English-as-second-language Slovenians about the fantastic and commonsensical possibilities of using creative movement to teach the elementary school curriculum. About 100+ mostly young educators, many of them dancers, artists, and pedagogical researchers — nearly all of them women — took her in and gave her sustained applause. Susan has been developing her methods of approaching the curriculum (literature, science, math, history) through kinesthetic teaching for some four decades, and Slovenian educators have "discovered" her and brought her here twice; they use her book, MINDS IN MOTION, as a text in the teacher-training programs in two of the country's three universities.

Our hosts are Nina Meško, who runs a government program that cultivates community arts and arts-education programs, and Vesna Geršak, a professor of education who recently obtained her Ph.D researching the impact of kinesthetic teaching upon students and teachers. Both of them were young children at the end of the communist era, and are appreciative of the Slovenia's socialistic remnants — universal health care (compromised but still intact, Vesna says), and government support for the arts (with little ideological interference any more, Nina says).

After sitting through two lectures in Slovenian (a young woman was translating for Susan, who then gave key points to me), I retreated to a nearby library to finish reading and writing about Kurt Andersen's FANTASYLAND, which I then donated to the library. On my way to explore the place, I discovered that one of their public-use computers had a swastika as its screen saver! "Do you know there's a swastika on the computer over there?" I kind of gasped at the librarian, who hurried over and struggled for a good ten minutes to remove it. Apparently some creep had managed to download it or otherwise get Into their system.

Oy, the swastika. It's always there to temper the love I feel for social democratic Europe by reminding me that these crazy bastards went to war with each other twice in the past century, the most devastating wars in human history, prompted by their own fantasies of racism, colonialism, antisemitism, nationalism, world conquest, and so on. Notwithstanding Kurt Andersen's thesis, the United States is by no means the world's only fantasyland . . .

Towards evening, we watched a dance performance by children from several different dance centers. Out of some 40 or more dancers who took the stage, only one was a boy (and his dance was all about solitude and loneliness). Over a late dinner, I commented to Susan, Nina, and Vesna about how thoroughly gendered the non-professional dance world is, which I believe costs dance a great deal of respect as an art form simply because female-dominated fields just don't rank high in most cultures. We all agreed that homophobia is at work here, in a vicious cycle — dance is not for boys, boys who want to dance are seen as queer, so they don't go into dance, so dance is not for boys — and I urged them to explore ways to break that cycle in the work they do. Hip-hop dance has done that a bit by making dance "cool" for boys, but ballet, modern, and even folk dance remain off-limits. I confirmed this with a memory from my days in shule (Jewish secular Sunday school) more than half a century ago: A dance teacher named Martin noted that I was a good 9-year-old folk dancer and invited me to come see his modern dance company in rehearsal. My mother took me, and I was tempted by what I saw, but I knew that my friends would never let me live it down if I were to put on a leotard and bounce around on stage. I was already a "sensitive" boy, younger than most of my crowd, saved from being called a faggot because I was a great ball player, and I just wasn't going to tip that balance . . .

I WALKED through Velenje this sunny Sukkot morning and took in the boxy, decorative buildings from the 1960s, the little sparkling river that runs all the way through, the signs that point proudly to the public health buildings, the public arts buildings, the children's recreational area. I saw the memorial wall engraved with names of Slovenian partisans against Nazism, 1941-45 (the Velenje mining area was rigorously exploited by the Nazi war machine); the 1977 Valerio Miroglio statue, "Partisans" (pictured above); and Ciril Cesar's statue of Anton Askerc, a late 19th-century liberal priest and epic poet who apparently had a great deal of conflict with the Catholic Church (pictured at right).

In Tito Square I watched some fifty or more kids doing calisthenics and engaging in water-hose competitions under the supervision of retired firefighters, all of them under the sixteen-foot-high gaze of Marshall Tito (pictured at the top of this article), the only communist leader who broke away successfully from the Stalinist USSR and built a somewhat more liberalized communism within his country. ("Stop sending people to kill me," Tito warned Stalin after several assassination attempts. "We've already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. If you don't stop sending killers, I'll send one to Moscow, and I won't have to send a second.")

"You only need to take a glance at what Velenje looks like today," said Tito in1964. "Where there used to be shanties and run-down houses, where the workers lived in the worst conditions, a beautiful town has grown, not to speak of how the people's state of mind has changed and how they seem different in every way."

I noted small garbage cans mounted on posts every hundred meters or so along the river. Whether I should take them as symbols of Tito's truth or his propagandistic bullshit, I don't know, but it's a very clean town . . .

Midway in my walk, I stopped in a supermarket for hot croissants and drinkable yogurt and felt happy to see miles and miles of a cookie aisle. Slovenia so far seems to be a contented little land awash in coffee and chocolate and dancers. And not, I hope, swastikas.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.