To dance is to be out of yourself; larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking. – Agnes de Mille

Supreeda Wongsansee beckoned me off the cafe’s wooden porch just as rain began to fall. Plump and childlike, her fingers pawed the air. She kept the palm of her hand down as she waved — in Thailand, gesturing with an open hand is considered impolite, used only when calling dogs. I turned away from the cafe, its saccharine yellow paint clouded with fliers for a guitar show, a women’s shelter, a gallery opening. I looked up. The sun persisted despite the storm, a common phenomenon as the hot season struggled to retain its dryness against surefire rain. “Hurry and come inside,” she said. I closed my umbrella and ducked my head through the doorway. “This weather is so strange, Jeap,” I offered, addressing her by her nickname.

In Thailand, children are given nicknames at birth. Used for life, a nickname is a short alternative to a lengthy full name and a guard against evil spirits; the Thai people believe that an informal name disguises a newborn, like camouflage, keeping the child safe from lurking and ill-intentioned demons. Nearly a head and a half taller, I looked down at Jeap’s light-skinned face, the sharp cheekbones that made her expressions wide and striking. Because of her nickname — pronounced JEE-AP, like the trill of an insect — she had been protected from sinister forces.

Or had she?

I first met Jeap, a contemporary flamenco dancer, in September 2011, during rehearsals for her performance of Shadow Whisper in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Trained as a dancer, I had a brief role in the piece that afforded me a nearly unobstructed backstage view; I later watched the show in entirety, and from an audience member’s vantage point, on DVD. As a performer, Jeap is methodical and playful; onstage she focuses on her body just as much as the bodies of the other dancers and musicians, gathering sensory information before taking mindful risks. As a choreographer, Jeap is inventive; Shadow Whisper combines flamenco, expressive contemporary dance — much of what we see on television, in shows such as So You Think You Can Dance — and Butoh, a form of contemporary Japanese movement, characterized by the grotesque and the absurd. “[Shadow Whisper] is more like performance art,” she clarified. “[It is] very honest.”

When speaking, Jeap is still, saving any non-verbal expression for the miniscule, electric muscles on her face. They erupted in turn, as her earrings — strokes of black that ended in red circles — retained their stiff form. She exalted the city around us, “Chiang Mai is a place that’s famous for music culture and art.” Surrounded by the mountains of northern Thailand and with a population of just over one million, Chiang Mai is a serene — and indie — alternative to Bangkok. At Jeap’s request we met at Lur Cafe, a small coffee shop in the western section of the city. The cafe’s decor is folksy, and I counted a handful of small tables outfitted with kitschy tablecloths and lamps that to me implied countless afternoons spent scouring yard sales across America. The basement floor, to which she steered me for our interview, seemed better fit for a corporate conference; a lacquered wooden table took up most of the room, long enough to accommodate 20 employees and their myriad of appliances. Jeap set about trying to find the switch for the overhead light, though I insisted that despite the afternoon storm the natural light remained strong. “There it is,” she said, pushing a knob on the wall, one among several buttons with indeterminate functions. The light flickered on. She smiled. Her easy friendliness is something visitors often note first about Thai people; the countrywide beneficence led early guidebook writers to dub Thailand the “Land of Smiles.” “Sit down,” Jeap instructed. She is also direct — a characteristic markedly un-Thai. I sat down at the vast table.

Born in 1977, in the town of Phrae, 200 miles south of Chiang Mai, the Thailand of Jeap’s youth was starkly different from today. In 1973, a civilian government replaced military rule. With no clear parliamentary majority, the Thai government’s precarious leadership faced being further upset by the threat of communism; Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had already fallen to communist forces. In 1976, after paramilitary forces killed 46 demonstrators at Thammasat University in Bangkok, a coup d’état reintroduced conservative military rule.

Far from Bangkok and the stage of the country’s political instability, Jeap’s hometown was peaceful and her childhood quiet. Her grandfather was head of the village, and life was focused on family and religion. Jeap described the local Buddhist temple as the center of community gatherings, “Men and women, if they want to meet, they meet in the temple.” Life was structured; a product of rural life and her family’s political standing. “I was not allowed to do many things,” Jeap remembered, her eyes narrowing. “Travel to the city by myself, go out on date[s], and things that would disturb my studies.”

Lucky for Jeap, her parents allowed dance. In keeping with Thai customs, Jeap was introduced to traditional music and dance at a young age. A descendant of royal entertainers, the Thai classical dancer is the crown of delicate grace: fingers follow precise contortions, feet are flexed, and the steps are small and metered, ever loyal to the music. “[Learning traditional dance] helped me to improve myself with dance and music later on,” Jeap said, referencing her study of the khim, a stringed instrument played with a hammer introduced to Thailand by the Chinese, which she studied alongside dance. “Thai classical dance opened my world for the first time.” Jeap yearned to try other forms of dance — such as jazz or ballet — but divergence from traditional forms was not permitted. “My family doesn’t support much art. In the old generation, we thought people who do [art], don’t earn much money.”

After graduating from high school, Jeap enrolled in Chiang Mai University as a Mass Communications major. “I joined the Thai classical music club,” she said, putting dance on hold. In her senior year, she completed a media internship: “The last year of university everybody has to train in a big entertainment company. So, I chose a place called Grammy Entertainment.” A Thai media conglomerate, Grammy Entertainment has a division devoted to game shows, and this is where Jeap spent her time. Riding the elevator in the Grammy Entertainment building one day, she saw an advertisement for summer dance workshops. “So many kinds,” she said, “Tap, ballet, jazz.” She was drawn to a dance form she didn’t recognize: Spanish dance. Remembering the moment, she laughed, and her eyes fell out of focus with mine. “The first time I danced Spanish dance, I fell in love. I could not stop doing it.”

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