As a child I played with National Geographic magazines. I cut the photos carefully from their binding and positioned them on my bedroom floor. I stood in the center of each photo and communed with the imagined essence of another world. For as long as I can remember, the power and mystery of place captivated my spirit and shook my bones with a voracious sense of wonder.
In 2005, when I was 22-years-old, I landed in Rio de Janeiro with a large university grant. I carried addresses and phone numbers for various nonprofits where I’d been contracted to teach hip-hop and English to Brazilian youth. In my mind, I had plans to study dance all around the country. As a taxi drove me at a furious pace through Rio’s tangled maze of steep hillside cobblestone, one clear thought rang out.
“I’m too sensitive for a city like this.“
I was right, but I’d soon learn I didn’t care. I cared about discovering how my sensitivity interacted with this new world. I wanted to see where the path of contradiction would lead me.
It first led me to a brown-eyed man who stalled my heart when his smile carved two dimples beside the corner of his mouth. The enchantment I felt on the nights I walked arm and arm beside him wasn’t simply the magic of being young and falling in love in a foreign country. It was the sensation of being in the presence of a gatekeeper. The one who stands on the threshold of where you’ve been and where you are going. The one who beckons you in such an alluring way you have no choice but to cross over, regardless of whether or not they follow behind you.
At 22-years-old, travel shattered my compass and my direction became suddenly, terrifyingly fluid. That transformative year, finding love and discovering my calling happened in tandem.
On one typically sweltering Rio afternoon, my Brazilian boyfriend invited me to meet him at a beach side park where his dance company rehearsed every day. The company consisted of a dedicated crew of teenagers with a shocking well of talent and a profound enthusiasm for hip-hop dance.
For the first month I sat mesmerized and watched them rehearse. They trained and created movement, yelled out to keep going when they were exhausted, and celebrated each other’s growth. For the second month I stood in the back row of their concrete stage, dancing alongside them. The third month my Brazilian boyfriend broke my heart. I debated ever returning to that park where I had spent the last 60 days humming with a familiar sense of wonder shaking in my bones.
“I’m too sensitive to handle this,” I thought.
Yet I found myself back at their concrete stage, terrified and uncertain. The community of dancers I’d been spending everyday with didn’t care where I’d been or who I’d dated. They only cared that when we danced we sought entry into the same unspeakable passion. Echoing every day around the park was the soundtrack of their excitement and it created a new compass within me. My brown-eyed ex ignored me, but one day it finally stopped mattering.
On the other side of the threshold the view was different. The narrative had changed. It was no longer about falling in love with a man. It was about falling in love with the story of a group of people. I began coming to practice with a camcorder in my hand. The first time I pressed record my breath stalled and my heartbeat quickened. The earth pressed into my feet. I felt certain I was exactly where I needed to be.
Since that initial discovery I’ve been growing into the craft of filmmaking, following this community of dancers around Brazil and other parts of the world as their story widens. I’ve made a hundred amateur mistakes and another hundred skillful, intuitive choices. I’ve kept myself in the center of my sensitivity even when the pressure mounted because that sensitivity is ultimately what makes me an alert storyteller. I have cherished every moment with the community I’ve filmed. I’ve fallen in love over and over and over again.
My editor and I recently put the finishing touches on Believe The Beat, the feature length documentary that began eight years ago, when a sweet boy asked me my name after a dance class on a clear night in a loud city. There is sometimes a voice inside me that yearns to omit this piece of the story.
“I went to Brazil to make a film,” I hear myself think. “I researched and I planned my strategy. I was intentional and grounded and focused from the start.”
Then the rest of me rushes in. I am reminded of the little girl who stood on photos of foreign lands with the unknown looming. Who closed her eyes and said yes to a million possible truths.
This is what the world asks us to do. Follow the winding, complicated path toward voracious wonder. Say yes to the moments that enchant and challenge and surprise us. Walk across the threshold when the gate swings open and keep moving forward as it shuts.
Jocelyn Edelstein is a Portland filmmaker, writer, choreographer, and founder of the Urban Body Project, a multimedia collective that explores the relationship between dance, culture, and community. Her writing has been previously published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Volume 8, and will be upcoming in Volume 9. When she is not making films or writing stories she is performing and teaching dance at Polaris Contemporary Dance Center.