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Yangon-4: Dances with Puppets and Working Girls

Yangon-4: Dances with Puppets and Working Girls

on Nov 23, 2014

We had postponed our bus trip to Inle Lake (next blog coming soon!) by a day to visit the snake temple in the town of Twante, south of Yangon. As providence would have it, we met this nice amazing man at breakfast in the hostel. His name was Bradley, and he was from Cameroon. He told us about the community, the tribe as he called it, that he was from. Where the concept of paying it forward truly existed. He told me about the time when he needed an opportunity in football (he was a professional football player). A stranger from his tribe helped him out with the condition that when he was in a state to repay him, he take that money, and in turn help out someone else in need, with they same condition. It was simple, elegant, and inspiring. During our discourse, he made a statement in passing, that still keeps ringing. “Everything I have has been gifted to me, so why should I keep holding on to things instead of gifting them to others?”

Talking with him, it got really late in the afternoon and we realized the snake temple was 2 hours away. Wanting to definitely see the bollywood movie (see last post) we decided to skip the snake temple and delve into something else instead. It was this puppet show in the living room of a puppet master who told us about the history of Burmese puppets, and put on with his apprentices a puppet show with popular folk dances.

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The intricate movements of their hands had us entranced for the hour long performance.

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Flying puppets having a mid-air battle

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Performing a folk dance

After the show, it was Bollywood time! We had chosen a different theatre this time and were met with the same hour long delay and waiting rooms as last time! We made it through the wait and enjoyed the movie.

Jodee and I were left in high spirits at the end of the movie. Seriously, nothing lifts your spirits up like a solid masala-filled bollywood movie with a feel-good ending. So we looked into what options there were in Yangon at 10pm on a Thursday night, and came upon JJ club in downtown Yangon. We decided to make a night out of it!

Enter JJ Club

Syncing up with our new friend, the three of us took a taxi there. The entrance was very unpretentious, with hawkers selling cigarettes and taxi drivers milling around, till we got out of the elevator and faced a grand enrtance with chinese-style ornate carvings on it. Unfortunately I don’t have pics to show you as 3 guards came running at me when I took my camera out. I hurriedly put it back in, and walked into the club with Jodee and Bradley.

In a minute it became very clear to us that this was not your standard american dance club. For starters, the club was populated almost exclusively by middle aged and (very few) young men. Milling between them and easily outnumbering them were quite young girls wearing either very short skirts or very wide belts. A local, trying to explain who they were, told us in broken English that they were ‘Businesswomen’.

We had paid cover charges of 4$ each which entitled us to a drink, and we weren’t leaving without them! So we took a table, ordered our drinks, and scanned the club. There were 2 levels. Most people were either engaged in conversations with the businesswomen or looking toward a nearly empty dance floor. Too bad, as this was one of the few dance floors I have seen with flashing lights on the floor, Saturday night style.

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You remember Saturday Night, right?

Fueled by our drinks we decided to test it out. The funny thing was that the moment we stepped on it, almost all the locals left the floor. They would politely wait till we finished before coming back into the floor! If that wasn’t weird enough, there were actual uniformed officials patrolling the dance floors and the club. Have you ever had the experience of being on a dance floor while uniformed patrolmen walked in between you, hands on their back slowly looking you up and down?

Bradley said they weren’t police men but security guards. Now mind you, conducting the ‘business’ that we saw earlier, is illegal in Burma. So say if I were a potential client of said businesswomen, I would imagine that I’d be really nervous about purchasing potentially illegal services with uniformed officials patrolling around me all the time. Especially in a country with a pseudo-military government known to throw people in jail at the drop of a hat. Hats off to the local clientele.

Then came the second surprise. This totally made the evening worth it. They cleared the dance floor, and started the performances for the evening!

First we had a fashion show. If you have ever wondered how a group of headless chickens would behave if thrown together, watch a Burmese fashion show. Seriously. First, all the models form a nice organized line in the back of the stage. Then all hell breaks loose as 2 women from the left decide to walk haphazardly towards the right, while those in the right do the reverse, and the ones in the middle seemingly pick a random point on the floor and sashay toward it. The algorithm then sort of goes as follows:

  1. Walk until you see you are about to hit a fellow model, or walk off the floor, or both, upon which time turn, pick a new direction and amble on.
  2. At some undetermined time make your way back to the line and reform it. At which point giggle a little and exit.

To add to the confusion at some point during the melee another random woman holding multiple garlands; big, heavy, flowery garlands, will stride boldly onto the stage and adorn some hapless model with these garlands. Now these models are tiny, and I can’t reckon she’d be too happy having to walk with garlands probably half her weight.

I seem quite harsh about the show. I have to round out my narrative about this by saying that the models are, mostly, strikingly beautiful and the clothes they had on were beautiful as well.

Interspersed in between the various headless chicken fashion shows were dance performances. If you ever thought that Bollywood dancing happened only in the movies, then my friend you are sorely mistaken. It is alive and well in the underground-Burmese-businesswomen-fashion scene. Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie where the scene opens with the villain partaking of wine and women in a nightclub only to have the hero walk in and all of a sudden the DJ switches from playing his normal house music to a Bollywood dance number that mysteriously everybody in the club knows the exact same moves to, save the villain? Well this was one such scene.
Locals who were earlier dancing casually on the floor march boldly onto stage and take it over, replete with chest thumping, pelvis thrusting, bulb twirling moves that would have done Farah Khan proud. And all of it on a Saturday night style lighted dance floor. The dancers weren’t immune to the enthusiastic garland-putter either. But the weight of the garlands did little to deter the fist bumping energy of the dancers.
At great risk to personal safety I snuck a picture of a dance performance. The stuff you see hanging off the dancer are the garlands.

This is the only picture I stole during the show

This is the only picture I stole during the show

After the show the three of us uneventfully made our way back to the hostel for a good night’s rest. It was weirdly awesome. it was great. It was the perfect end to our short stay in Yangon.

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