The bodies whirled across the stage with big, bold gestures. Entwined in each other’s arms, the dancers twisted in the air, gracefully setting their feet back on the outdoor stage set up at Perpignan’s Campo Santo for the opening night of the annual Estivales arts festival. In a few passing seconds their bodies collapsed onto the floor as their knees curled tight into their chests. Their animated shadows played across the stone wall, mimicking each performer’s nimbleness.
Rage. Joy. Passion. Envy. Their movements said it all.
For one dancer in the Nederlands Dans Theater expressing himself through body language has been a primary means of communication—onstage and off. Raised by two deaf parents, he learned sign language to convey his thoughts. Dancing grew to become an extension, filling the language void when words couldn’t.
In Perpignan, armed with inadequate French language skills, I am like the dancer—sans grace and agility. I learned to pinch my fingers together and sway my arms to ask a waiter for a cappuccino before I learned the French word capucinette. Every day I am pointing, drawing in the air, forming shapes and taking full advantage of universal gestures to help me converse.
On a journey to find an ATM, I found myself standing dubiously in front of a shopkeeper in desperate need of his help, but uncertain of how to express it. Unable to conjure up the French words for “Where is the bank?” I settled for hand gestures. Repetitively, I rubbed my thumb across my four fingers to signal money. I shrugged my shoulders at a map as a shopkeeper listed off some street names and pointed me in the right direction, happy to have helped. Despite our difference in dialects, we found a way that works.
Like the dancers, I have learned the language of movement when words do not suffice.