Laurel Victoria Gray likes the Native American adage that if you want to know people, you have to walk a mile in their moccasins. But the dancer, choreographer and teacher takes it a step further, adding that you should dance in a person's moccasins, too.
"A lot of what a culture has to say about itself is tied up in dance," she said. "How people move, how they express themselves gives you an idea of their culture."
To teach Americans about the culture of Central Asia, which she has grown to love, Gray founded a dance camp in 1995. The Central Asian Dance Camp was started in New Mexico and moved to the Washington area in 1999.
This year, the camp will be in Mount Rainier, where Gray recently moved. It opened Monday and will continue through Sunday at Joe's Movement Emporium, with daytime and evening sessions open to dancers at all levels. The camp emphasizes women's dances and traditions, but a session tonight will focus on what Gray calls "macho Uzbek dances."
"There wasn't a lot of interest [in the camp] until the tragedy of September 11th, when all of a sudden people woke up and realized that we're not alone on the planet," said Gray, who is the artistic director of the Washington-based Silk Road Dance Company and teaches Islamic dance. "All of a sudden, we've awakened to that part of the world, and people who have gone there have been fascinated and charmed by it. For me, there's so much ancient wisdom about how people should live both physically and spiritually. It's this unmined treasure that's been waiting for us for a long time, but we had to find it on the map first."
Gray found the region more than 30 years ago as a teenager in Spokane, Wash. That's when she began studying Russian and looking for information about Central Asia. A dancer, Gray attempted to learn folk dances of the Soviet Union from library books.
"I remember in high school people saying, 'You're studying Russian? It's completely useless. Why don't you study Spanish?' Little did I know it would be one of the most important tools of my life," she said.
Gray first traveled to the Soviet Union as a teenager, taking in the dances and culture. By the time she started the camp 10 years ago, she had founded the Uzbek Dance and Culture Society, lived in Uzbekistan for two years and visited the country 10 times.
Since the beginning, Gray's Uzbek dance instructor, Qizlarhon Dustmuhamedova, has been a mainstay of the program. The renowned dancer, whom Gray met on a cultural exchange in 1979, teaches Central Asian dance forms, which involve spins and turns as well as upper torso movements such as wrist circles, hand undulations and arm rotations.
At this year's camp, Algerian dancer Amel Tafsout is teaching alongside Dustmuhamedova -- hence the camp's 2005 theme, "Exploring Afro-Asiatic Connections." Sessions will explore the links between Central Asian dance and North African dance, which employs distinctive rhythmic moves with the torso, hips, feet, arms and hands.
"Both dance traditions are very graceful and fascinating and rich and sensuous, but not at all vulgar," said Gray, who hopes participants gain not only new moves but also an appreciation for the regions' rich cultural histories.
"This is so much more than learning movement," Gray said. "When you're learning world dance movement, you are learning about people. You have to understand the culture, the costumes, the folklore. You're really embracing the entire people."
The Central Asian Dance Camp is taking place at Joe's Movement Emporium, 3802 34th St., Mount Rainier. Daytime classes today and tomorrow run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $90. Evening classes today and tomorrow are from 7 to 9 p.m.; admission is $30. Sunday's session is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $60. For a schedule of programs, go to www.worldartsfocus.org or call 301-699-1819. From 1:15 to 2 p.m. Saturday, dance instructors Qizlarhon Dustmuhamedova and Amel Tafsout, along with the Silk Road Dance Company, will present a free performance at the National Geographic Society's Explorer's Hall, 1145 17th St. NW in the District. 202-857-7588.