Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I Was Mistaken.

I have to write down a few more thoughts.  It's the accumulation of thoughts and things I have been saying privately for the last couple of years, so I might as well say these things here.

Back in 2014 I rescued some vintage bellydance magazines from a shop in New Orleans.  Not only a glance back in history, what initially caught my eye were articles on Ruth St. Denis (one of my idols) and North African dances. The following summer, I was gifted a bunch more vintage bellydance publications, several of them coming from the city I now live in.  Between the two hauls, the majority of issues spanned the 70's through the 80's.

As I sat down to enjoy them, my eye was drawn away from the prize articles and delicious photos to editorials and articles discussing the state of the dance.  Issue after issue, dancers voiced their opinions about quality of dancers, whose style was more authentic, what was appropriate costuming, who could dance to what music, where was the line between fusion and authenticity, undercutting, 6 week wonders, double-scheduling, lack of professionalism, etc.  With no punches pulled and lacking the art of critique, dancers ripped apart each other, rival events, and so forth.

Rather than being inspired by history, my heart sank. I flipped close the magazine in my hands and looked at the date on the cover. 1978.  I said to myself, "these people have been arguing about the same old shit for as long as I have been alive."  I remember many stories from my dance mentors, so it's not like this was a new revelation for me.  But seeing it in print, page after sucked at my soul.

All that time, and seemingly so little progress on these issues.

I could go into extensive detail about how these arguments have continued to play out for the entire time I have been involved in dance.  How many times the community has essentially set fire to itself in that timeframe -  in ALL of its factions, regardless of what label you want to use.  But I'm tired of/from hashing it out again and again.  Of lip service and no action.

In early 2015, I talked about the decline of the dance community population. Throughout the last two years, I wrote about issues and solving problems, from fostering innovation and expanding community to tackling cultural appropriation and considering why we dance. And so much more, even if it cooled down to about a post a month.

And here's the thing, I didn't just write about these things. I did them. Everything I write about, I practice.  In my classes and workshops, at events, in what I produce and bring to the stage.  And I'm going to continue doing that, even if I'm not writing about it. I know it works, and see the growth.

Y'all can argue about labels and styles all you want, but it's basically arguing about what the gravestone should read and who gets to carve it, all the while kicking the body into the casket.  There are bad representations of the dance in EVERY style, and no amount of labeling is going to fix that internally or externally.  Yes, there's plenty of stuff labeled as bellydance that makes me want to tear my hair out, but that doesn't change what *I* can do. 

It all doesn't matter if there's not a new generation of younger dancers coming in. If we're not fostering an inclusive, positive environment for people to come to.  The hilarity of the young vs. old bitch-off is the "young" dancers are mainly now in their late 30's-40's, so perceptions need to drop on all sides and reality needs to set in. Another divide the drama sinks into, when there are real things to consider.

So if you're interested in growing the dance and building community, here's the bullet list I recommend for doing it:

-To get more interest and classes growing, there needs to be outreach and interest for a younger generation, as well as reaching out more to the general public - a larger, more diverse demographic. Dancers for dancers is lovely, but it doesn't grow the dance.  Promote outside the dance box, and be welcoming to all ages, sizes, genders, cultures.

- ALL areas of the dance need to address the sticky topic of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. It's not going away, and it can be handled with grace on all sides.  Tradition has always held hands with innovation, both can be encouraged and positive for each other.

- ALL teachers of the dance need to address history and culture, connect movement with music, promote professional ethics, behavior, and give constructive feedback.  Even in a "for fun" class, students can be exposed to the cultures the dance comes from, see both tradition and innovation, be introduced to building community, and professional standards.

- Practice collaboration vs. competition. Foster positive and open communication in your town/city/state/country. Separation doesn't help, working together with mutual respect does.  Nobody wins playing shark in a empty fish tank.

My (hopefully) last words on all of this: I don't think we're going to be able to build a bigger community in the next few years to come, but I do believe we can each build a better one where we dance.

And final words by Billy Joel: "We were keeping the faith. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Keeping the faith. You know the good ole days weren't always good. And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Closing Windows & Opening Doors: One Look Back

Photo of Tempest by Carrie Meyer
I feel I have come to the point where I've said pretty much everything I can say in regards to the bellydance community.

For the last several years I've written extensively and passionately about bellydance as a living art, a tradition, and a community. I did it from the combined perspective of a teacher, performer, producer, vendor, audience member, and student; situated on a bridge somewhere in the middle of various generations, styles, and views.

 As I announced last month, I'm taking a hiatus from event producing to focus more on my artwork, writing, witchcraft, and other projects. I will continue to teach and perform dance, where and as my heart and spirit calls me.  I found this piece I wrote back in 2009 for Belly Dance New England, and was published on this blog in 2010.  I find it still very relevant today, so I am sharing it here one more time.

I'm leaving the article intact, copied below - even though I'd probably tweak a few things.  The only thing I'd add, I'm putting right here and it's a list of beatitudes for fostering community of any size: be inclusive, be respectful, be collaborative, be communicative, be engaging, be ever-learning, and be kind. 

"What Is Community?"

I talk a lot about the “bellydance community” to my students, in workshops, online, etc, and depending on the situation, the community may refer to the global one, a regional one, or a stylistically based one. But what does it mean to be a part of a bellydance community? What is its purpose?

I have also said on several occasions that I don’t believe in a “sisterhood of the dance.” Actually, I still don’t, but that doesn’t mean at one time I did. And I firmly believe that the “bellydance community” and (the fabled) “sisterhood of the dance” are two very different entities, and I think it is very important that we all understand this difference.

What do I mean? Read on…

Part I: The Myth of the Sisterhood

I came to this dance (and through most of my life) as a tomboy. I grew up with two older brothers and no sisters. For most of my life, I was hanging out with the guys more than the girls, partly out of familiarity, also most of my female friends threw me for a loop (and under the bus, in the closet, and down the stairs) – I couldn’t understand why they were so mean, cruel, and backstabbing. I idolized my brothers’ girlfriends – they were so pretty, so smart and sophisticated, so above all the nonsense I experienced with girls my own age. Truly, I thought, there must be some magical change that happens, some possible sisterhood in my future. (na├»ve much?)

So in coming to bellydance, hearing these undertones about the sisterhood of the dance, female fellowship, the beauty of “tribal”, etc – YES! Here it is! Here we are, we can celebrate the beauty of our diverse female bodies – all size, all ages, and enjoy the dance together! Finally! I can have sisters! We all love the dance, we love and support each other, we share the joy! Um…wait, why are they so mean, cruel, and backstabbing? “Clearly, you have never had sisters…” was the reply. The truth is, people are human no matter what, and sometimes age doesn’t improve on the lesser traits. And the only way a “sisterhood” is going to exist is in a family-like structure, and with that comes all of the good, and all of the bad. Luckily, you can choose your troupe-mates more than you choose your family, but that doesn’t stop it from being dysfunctional and chaotic at times, as well as fabulous and supportive. So, the “sisterhood” exists more in a microcosm, a contained group working together, and takes a great deal amount of personal work and energy. But putting together 2 or more of these units does not mean that a grander sisterhood will instantly happen. Just like in real tribal communities (meaning non-dance, anthropologically), one tribe does not automatically trust another tribe. Regardless of style or background.

Part II: Community: Making It Work

Now just because the “sisterhood” is an illusive entity does not mean that community has to be as well. Community is about looking past the individual for the greater good and needs of the many who are a part of it. Community does NOT mean we all have to be the “bestest” of friends, but rather, it’s about working together even if we’re not. So let’s look at what purposes a bellydance community serves, how it works, and how we can all build it.

What is the purpose of the bellydance community, what is it all about? I believe there are 5 key elements:
1. Networking & Fellowship (to share the dance!)
2. Education of students, other dancers, and the general public (classes, workshops, events)
3. Support structure for professionalism (upholding wages & standards/fighting undercutting, creating excellent guidelines for students to follow)
4. Providing performance opportunities (haflas, shows, events)
5. Marketplace (to sell/swap goods and services)

Things that a bellydance community should NOT be about:
  1. Bolstering egos
  2. Exclusion & cloistering
  3. Supporting unsavory practices/unprofessional behavior
  4. Cutthroat competition & playing mind games
  5. Spreading misinformation for any purpose

So what does this mean?

As a Teacher:
As teachers, we need to realize that we must be positive examples for our students and are responsible for their exposure to the bellydance community outside of our classrooms, and how they behave once they’re out there. It is our job to not only guide their class experience, but help them interact positively with other dancers and teachers, and bring them to the larger community as informed students. We all have our opinions of what we like and dislike in the dance, but it’s important to be tactful and respectful in expressing those opinions. You can’t make yourself look better by being rude about other area dancers and calling them names – rather, this drags you down as well, is a negative experience for the students, and can definitely come back to bite you in the bedlah.  As the saying goes, you get more flies with honey than vinegar, and it’s far better to teach by positive example then a tear-down. It also our responsibility to be as educated as we can about what we teach and discuss so that we can share this knowledge with our students which brings us to the next category…

As a Student:
Aren’t we all students? (we should be!) As students, we must be respectful of not only our teachers, but others as well. It is up to the individual student to listen, to practice, and to learn as much about the dance as possible – and never stop doing this, no matter how many years you’ve been dancing – there is ALWAYS something new to learn, and there are always basics to review. Even if we can’t do regular classes, taking workshops whenever possible will always present you with new ways to explore the dance. Don’t be afraid to attend cultural events, haflas and shows, even if you’re not scheduled to perform. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Is there a style you don’t understand? Ask your teacher about it, read up on it, take a class on it. It is far better to be educated than ignorant. You can always learn something from each experience, even if it’s not your “thing.”

As a Performer:
If you’re a professional performer, then maintain industry standards. Stick to the going rates, and work to improve them whenever possible. Don’t undercut for “exposure”, “experience” or any reason! Yes, we all love the dance, but dancing for free/less in venues where a rate has been established doesn’t benefit the dance. There are plenty of opportunities to share your love of the dance – benefits, haflas, etc – without damaging what others have worked hard for and making their living from. Take care of your costuming, dress appropriately for your gigs, have a cover-up, and keep your behavior professional when you are in costume! You never know who is watching, and yes, your naughty behavior can reflect badly on other dancers! Also, respect your fellow performers and event coordinators at events by arriving promptly and prepared, have your music labeled and ready, don’t hog the dressing room, be aware of what’s happening on stage, and be a good audience member – which means if you’re in the audience, smile, interact, and be supportive for ALL dancers. Again, you never know who’s watching and hearing YOU.

As a Vendor:
Vendors are the source of shiny goodness in our community, and are often the backbone of events. The fees vendors pay to be at an event help pay for the venue, the instructor costs, sound gear, etc. By supporting vendors, we support our whole dance community. But it is also important for vendors to speak positively, plan accordingly, be responsible for their wares, and be respectful of the space and other vendors. Remember that you are the gateway for students, and it’s important to educate them about what they’re buying and its value.

As an Event Coordinator:
Event coordinators provide many things for the dance community: ways to showcase the dance, offer workshops and classes, vending opportunities, networking occasions. There are so many things to consider when putting on an event – venue ability, dates, draw, economy, etc. Sometimes, a date can’t be helped – an out of town instructor just happens to be visiting friends/family or a tour has a specific schedule, and when he/she is here, well, that’s when they’re there. But when we have options in when and where, we need to really look hard at the calendar. New England is a relatively small area (seriously folks!), and it’s a good idea to consider what’s happening anywhere from 1-3 hours away from you, and who the target audience is. It is also important to network with other event coordinators and discuss plans with them for the coming year. Having 3 events within 2 hours of each other, on the same weekend that all have to do with Cabaret or Tribal Fusion is a bad idea for everyone, especially in this economy. When you can plan otherwise, space accordingly, that way all of the events can be successful and be supported, rather than making customers chose between one or the other. One idea is to have local/area studios/teachers who host events regular to get together and choose a weekend of the month (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc) to hold their events, so that everyone has the best chance to support each event. If a weekend has a possible conflict because an unexpected visiting instructor, then talk to who has that weekend and see about switching. Again, it makes it a win-win situation, and spreads good will in the community!

Some things to remember:
  1. You don’t have to love everyone to work with them. Part of being the bellydance community is being a good business person, and being community-minded. That means working together, despite differences for the greater good of the community
  2. There is a lot of room in bellydance for both tradition and innovation. Be respectful of both!
  3. It’s not all about you. You weren’t asked to be in a show? Then instead of bitching, don’t be afraid to ask about it and put yourself out there!
  4. Not in a show cause it filled up? Go and support your fellow dancers anyway! (see #3 again)
  5. You won’t lose students just by exposing them to other teachers and dancers. If they were meant to follow another path, they’ll find it, and sometimes they follow two or four.
  6. If you want people to support you, you have to support them, it’s part of the cycle.
  7. A good bellydance community is something EVERYONE benefits from, and it’s true that what you put into it, you will get out of it. Be positive, be supportive, be respectful, and remember that we’re all in this because we ALL LOVE THE DANCE!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Love in the Time of Tacos & Pomegranate Seeds

In my spiritual path, this is a time of closing the door on the previous year and preparing the way for the new year – a balance of endings and beginnings. I am very excited for the new year, with many new developments and creative opportunities on the horizon to focus my attention on. My artwork is becoming very popular and greatly appreciated. I've written one book for a major publishing company and I just contracted for a second one. My ideas about witchcraft and spirituality have been receiving such fantastic feedback. I have an incredible creative life in music and dance with a real partner whom I love more than anything in the world. We've started new collaborations and ideas with other creative folk. There's big travel/touring plans on the agenda. We've even considered expanding our family beyond cats. I am so blessed beyond words and a bit breathless over it.

In order to have the time and energy to devote to these new projects (while also maintaining sanity), I need to make some changes in my workload and the various hats I wear. The biggest one of those changes concerns Waking Persephone. Producing such a festival is a year-long task that requires an enormous investment of my time and energy, even with the help of a fantastic staff. I know the following news is going to be very difficult news for many of you, but I need to listen to my gut. I am taking a hiatus from producing a major event for at least a year, possibly longer.

I have been creating and producing dance events for nearly as long as I've been a dancer, with my first BD events starting in 2001. (The timeline goes back a bit farther if you start with Art or Pagan events.) Despite being an introvert, I come from a long line of doers, so when I see and feel a need, I manifest the thing.

I have been extremely successful at it, and despite the repeated results (the proof in the pudding), I'm always a bit awed and amazed – yet I always stress about it all coming together, how will people feel/react/what will be their experience. I've also stepped up to help a lot of other folks make their events happen. I've done every aspect of what makes an event happen – from headliner to vendor, student to web designer, and everything in between.

I co-produced Gothla US from 2008-2010, and stepped away from it, handing over the reins, because I didn't feel the amount of work I was investing in it directly benefited my own students, as I was living on the east coast and it happened on the west coast.

After that, I thought that I was done doing big events for a while, but then the universe hit me with the idea for Tapestry Dance Retreat, followed by the idea of Waking Persephone. I'm a weird mix of gut-feeling, instinct, business sense, and organization. If I feel a thing strongly in my gut and heart and I sense a path in my brain, I make it happen.

Different from a festival, Tapestry called to my sacred and folkloric roots, and focused on a much more intimate atmosphere. WP allowed me to take the parts of Gothla I found the most useful, and forge them into a safe and creative space for the dance - in my own backyard, steeped in my own values and visions. I saw it as a way to build fusion dance to be stronger, to expose it to its own roots, craft its artistry, while bringing to light new teachers and performers among the established ones. To step away from cliques, cults of personality, and cloning copycats. The focus would be more on learning and building, rather than performing.

Tapestry took place in September 2011 in Providence, RI, a week after I came to the decision that I wanted a divorce from my marriage of 15 years. It felt like literally walking directly into a hurricane on so many levels, yet I came out of it renewed and reborn on the other side. Waking Persephone took place in April of 2012 (also in Providence) – with divorce proceedings happening the week before the event (and my ex not relocating out of the house until the end of May). Despite the turbulent undercurrents of my life, both events were successful and meaningful for so many people.

I decided Tapestry would return when “the stars aligned again”, and we're still waiting for that to happen. But WP got scheduled to happen again in Providence in 2013, with my local students and other community folks stepping up to help since I had relocated to Seattle. The event grew, but I was reminded how difficult it was producing an event from 3000 miles away, no matter how enthusiastic my PVD students and friends were. As we contemplated the 2014 event, our venue got bought out by developers, and if you don't know, finding the right venue is the biggest factor in producing an event.

I had spent months trying to find the right venue the first time back in PVD, and there was slim chance I'd be able to do it again from across the country. So that meant considering moving it to Seattle – but the West Coast had multiple events happening very close to the same time-frame. Being a conscientious producer, I chose not to dump my event on top of those. I found a venue that would work with our design and budget, and then worked with other local producers to select a weekend that didn't directly compete with existing events, even though our format and scope was completely different than anything else out here.

So if you're keeping track, I not only moved my event across the country, away from the community that helped build it, and changed it to a completely different time of year, but I was also presenting this weird model to a new community that didn't fully understand what I was presenting. Year 3 ended up being like Year 1 in size and reception, which was very hard. But to my surprise, for many of the people who did come, they loved it. Not only that, but they seriously stepped up to help build it when I wondered if I should keep it going or not.

Year 4 was off the hook. We had the venue figured out, we had a team in place, and word about the event was spreading far and wide. The event more than doubled in size in terms of registration from the previous year, putting it back on track despite the year 3 upheaval/setback, Gala shows were back to selling out like in the first years, and the Underworld Ball was huge. For the first time, as we first approached and then wrapped up the event, I wasn't asking myself if we should go another year or not. It had been a running joke since the first year that I would be all “hey guys, I'm not so sure about doing this next year” and by the end of the event, they had me convinced we'd do it again. This time around, I was already booking the venues before we were done.

Coming off of Year 4, word was spreading like wildfire for Year 5. We had over 100 teaching applications, and had to turn down many performers as well for the shows. Registration was steady and consistent all the way throughout the year. Vending was sold out in a hot minute. We could have made it bigger, offered more classes and space, but I decided we still had room to grow in other ways, and it was important to keep everything to scale. I'd rather have an overflowing PB&J sandwich of goodness than too much bread and not enough filling. Year 5 was a huge success. I couldn't have asked for better.

But personally, as I moved from 2015 into 2016, I sensed something different in my gut, and I hunkered down to analyze it.

I knew the event would be successful, both in concept and financial success. Truth be told, Waking Persephone has been an event that has been designed to and has paid for itself since Year One. I don't create events with the specific goal of making money on them, but I do build them in such a way to pay for themselves. The feedback/response from participants also proved that it was on track and appreciated.

The gut-feeling was from a different source. I had managed to produce events while my life was falling apart and rebuilding itself. But in the past couple of years, my artistic, spiritual, and personal life has been expanding in new and amazing ways. Coming into this year's event, I've spent a lot of time thinking, talking with my partner, my mentors, and the coordinating staff of WP. So yes, I had reached this decision before this year's event came to be. But I refused to change the feel of the event by announcing the hiatus for 2017. I had friends recommend that I announce it to “fill the classes more” because other events that had announced it was the last year saw a boost in attendance. WP doesn't work that way. You come because you feel the need to come regardless. You came because you were called to come, by your own guts and spirits. We also unanimously agreed that it wouldn't be the same for anyone else to take the helm. I've been told again and again that WP is the event it is because of me. I believe it's because of you as well.

A collection of faces who were at both the 1st & 5th WP
I know that some folks thought that surely after I saw how hugely successful this year was, that I would change my mind. That for every person who told me how awesome it was, and what it meant to them, it would change my mind – like the pattern of the earlier years. But no. The resounding answer when I asked myself the same question was a loud “NO” from the root of my being. But that didn't stop the beautiful words from both filling and wrenching my heart, leaving me desperately trying to hold it together with a smile.

The last thing I want to do is let anyone down, but I understand that some will feel that way. I also need you to understand that I want you all to be inspired and happy. I want you all to have a community to call home. I believe in what I have built and I want to see it continue to build. I want to see the beauty that will grow from what's been rooted. But I am being called to rest from producing, at least for this year or so, and I am asking you all to respect that need.

Right now, I can't promise anything except to say that I don't believe I'm killing the event and I won't say that 2016 is the last year. Trust me, when you've been producing events for nearly 20 years, it's a hard habit to kick. But since the beginning I have said that the name “Waking Persephone” holds two meanings – sometimes we are awakening her, and sometimes we celebrate her as we put her down to rest.

A single event cannot be home. Not in this economy, not in the shifting state our dance community is in. We desperately need more people to build little homes everywhere that are inclusive, accepting, open to communication, preserving tradition while innovating and allowing room for creativity and celebration -of both the individual and the community we build. Amongst the staff, we've discussed releasing a vision statement (or manifesto if you will), as well as guidelines to consider in helping to build the community in different ways. As that comes together, we will make it available on the website and facebook groups.

It has not been an easy thing for me to come to this decision. I want you to know how much I appreciate every single person who has put their own energy into WP in their own way. Words cannot fully express the love and gratitude I feel.

I think this is an opportunity for all of you who believe in the vision of Waking Persephone to step forward. I am definitely open to helping and guiding these ideas to continue however I can. We all have eaten from the pomegranate, the seeds are within us.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Consume or Create?

"If we focus more on the end result - the product - more than we do on the process, we teach ourselves and others how to consume instead of how to create." 

The quote above is a thought that came to me yesterday while discussing visual art, but it is applicable to all art forms, including dance.

It's not entirely accurate to say that bellydance originated from folkloric social dances that became stage dance much more recently. I think if we consider what the emergence of dance in civilization looked like, we would find the revelation and emotion of movement - the pleasure of not only doing it, but also watching it. And when most of your waking life is dedicated to surviving, time to dance often becomes relegated to times of celebration and sacred rites - and in some cultures, combined with fitness and combat training. In these situations, being a dancer wasn't a hobby or pastime, but more about a valued profession that helped to sustain the culture.

As we gained more time for leisure, and economic structures changed, dance as performance became entertainment that was available to all of society in many places. (Dance as entertainment for royalty and the very rich emerged much earlier, as they achieved that leisure first.) Dance became more about being a means to make a living for general performance: for putting on a show without the strict context of celebratory or sacred rites.

I think in the last few decades especially, there's been a distinctive overall shift in how we consume bellydance. It's moved from a market as a show for the general public to a "by dancers for dancers" market. And while there has always been famous bellydancers (often recognizable by non-bellydancers), personality cults emerged, with more and more focus on performing, and especially the glory of being the performer, emulating and imitating the icons. Selling the image and opportunity be like, look like, dance like the star.

As we built events for ourselves, the festivals became centered around the opportunity to showcase one's performance - not to the larger public, but to other dancers. Hours spent trying to call-in to get a precious spot at a big event for a few minutes on the stage - or hoping to get the best spot at the applied event so that a career may be launched. Crafting and calculating what would make you stand out or catch people's attention. So much stress, focus, and importance pressed upon a few minutes that could mean everything or nothing at all. Or did it?

I'm not dissing performing here - if you've read my blog at all, you'll know that I believe that powerful, beautiful, and amazing things can happen in a performance - for both the dancer and the audience. But as I said in my last post, so much focus on the ego aspect, and not the growth suffocates the art. We're talking here about the artistry of the dance, not the artistry of ego-stroking. Worship of ideals and personalities leaves many in the dust, questioning their inspiration, their bodies, and their emotions.

I am also not talking about glorifying the process. Spending countless hours in the studio and many many dollars on certification only matters to the clock and the bank accounts in the end. It's not the consuming that solely makes the dance, it's the dancer. Education and practice are vital for growth, but it's not the completion of them that guarantees the success, but the desire to keep growing and not having a specific end-game.

 So back to my quote. Is it more important that we learn, or more important that we perform? Of course, in order to really perform well, we need to learn - but how much are we valuing and understanding the importance of continuing education? By selecting classes not just because we know the teacher's names or they are our friends, but by choosing topics that will challenge us, and finding new ideas presented outside of our circles. Do you go to a festival to show off and maybe be spotted by so-and-so star, or do you go to grow and to find yourself? Are we teaching our students that performing is the end-all, be-all? Are we focusing more on fame than function, form, and substance? Are we watching dance to be inspired and find our own voice, or as a fantasy to be that other person on stage?

The true beauty and art of dance is not about accolades over a specific moment of performance or marking time in the studio, but the ability to truly create dance as you in every moment of your life.

Some performance thoughts:

What is Your Dance For?
A Captive Audience: Understanding the "Performing" part of Performing Arts

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Navel-Gazing Bellydancer

Let's be perfectly honest - no one got into bellydance with the singular, primary aspiration of being a cultural ambassador.

You came to bellydance because you saw someone perform and wanted to try it, or noticed a class being advertised and thought it sounded like fun - or wanted a different way to exercise. It had cultural allure in the sense of either being something exotic/unusual, or it was a way to connect with your own roots.  Or a friend talked you into it.

And then you stayed because it satisfied something inside of you.  It made you happy, it gave you something to focus on, it challenged you, it brought new friends into your life, or strengthened old bonds.  And hopefully, in the process of becoming a bellydancer, you learned more deeply about the cultures surrounding it, and fell in love with them as well.

In the beginning, it was all about you, and ideally in the end/in the process/journey, it became something larger.

In my generation of dancers - and by generation, I don't specifically mean by age, but rather those who took up dancing in the late 90's/early 00's - I have noticed a similar trajectory.  We all seemed to be missing something in our lives, and bellydance was the game-changer.  Many of us were (and are) some variation of geek and/or goth: passionate nerds.  This was an activity we could do that not only energized our bodies, but stimulated our minds and filled our spirits - as we were those little kids hooked on hieroglyphics and myths of ancient civilizations.  It had roots, it had meaning, and it made us feel beautiful and that we belonged somewhere.  Despite the fascinating theories that several researchers have put forth - the fusion aspects of bellydance (particularly gothic), were not a response to tragic world events (war and terrorism), but the natural blending of ourselves with the art we loved.  We were drawn to bellydance because it represented something beautiful, and something a bit dangerous.  And that danger wasn't linked to the cultures the dance originated out of, but the danger of being a sensual woman in control of herself - or with tribal, the danger and power of a group of women working together. Not unlike the allure of supernatural entities such as vampires, witches, etc that cycle in popularity.

It infiltrated our lives, changed them, changed us.  Upwards of two decades later, our lives taking drastically different paths than we ever imagined (in the realm of location, careers, relationships, families, etc), we look at the dance and wonder about what it means to us now.

I remember one time in my first year of classes, I was waiting for a friend to pick me up so we could go to class together. (I think my car was in the shop.) And for some reason, at the last minute, she couldn't make it - and since it was such a late notice, I would never make it to class in time via the bus.  I bawled my eyes out, it meant that much to me to go to dance class.

In the years that followed, I continued to go deeper, striving to become a professional performer - you can go back years in this blog to read about that journey with all of its trials and tribulations.  Looking at the overall arc of the journey - and comparing it to those of others in my dance generation, there's a definitive pattern.

We got into this dance for what could simply defined as "selfish" reasons - we got into it for us, hoping to find ourselves (not even knowing we were lost). But that's the right kind of selfish - exploration of art that leads to a journey of discovery and revelation, to something bigger than ourselves.  In the process, we built (or re-built) ourselves up, fell in love, and learned to grow and share.  We found that the dance is more than us - it's the cultures that it comes from, their history - ancient and living - and that we should respect them through learning and performing with context. It's the community that is formed around the dance: what we share, teach, and give each other through the dance.  It's the education of the body, of the people, of the senses.

We may have started out dancing for ourselves - to become masters over our own bodies, to feel beautiful, powerful, and special, to experience the magic of the stage. But over time, to keep dancing, we had to find a different meaning to keep it going.  To dance for yourself only when performing for others is a one-way energy flow that's not sustainable.  But when you dance to share, to express, to inspire, and to find common ground, suddenly there's a fountain without end.  Dance is an art, and art is about communication.  Dance is not a monologue. A performance is a conversation, and the best conversations involve listening from all involved parties - including the dancer.

When I ask myself why I dance nowadays, I do it because in the performance of it, I'm creating and engaging in a dialogue that can't be expressed in any other way. Whether it's part of a live music audio-visual experience, or for 7 minutes of recorded music, I'm bringing the audience into my concept of "church." I'm sharing with them everything I have learned, and inviting them into it. The performance isn't about or for me or my ego, but the exchange that happens in the space between us.

I teach dance and produce events because I believe in the transformation that happens when someone learns to dance - and the community that is built when you focus on cultural education and foster a positive environment for everyone.

In the larger picture of things, as we face a shrinking community, a type of Ice Age - we all need to do a bit of navel gazing in the sense of examining why we are here. What do we get out of the dance, and what do we GIVE back to it? If you're looking for fame and fortune, you're not in the right place, and you're not building anything for anyone, not even yourself. Are we here to share, to learn, to express? How much are we willing to change or grow to invigorate the dance? How willing are we to let go of old ideas and unhealthy habits that hinder growth? Are we asking ourselves about the ratio of appreciation versus appropriation and understanding WHY that does indeed matter NOW.

I often remark in my classes that the navel is the "ear" in which we "hear" the audience through. It's where we receive energy and cycle it through - and it's time to stop looking and start listening.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Your Next Dance Move

Where do we go from here?  That seems to be the question on a lot of people's minds.

It's been over a year since I wrote this piece expressing my cumulative observations on the decline of the bellydance economy, and the rest of the year I spent writing about exploring possibilities, considering our community and our artform, and overcoming terrible things.

In retrospect, I've spent a lot of time through the years writing missives and sharing thoughts and ideas in my workshops and events.  I've been a main voice on the forums and threads defending fusion, trying to build the bridge between tradition and innovation, advocating respect on both sides, trying to open up a dialogue.  In 2008, I remember a distinct point where I said to myself, "If it's going to be called Gothic Bellydance, it'd better be Gothic and it'd better be Bellydance" - and consciously moved forward on building a better understanding of the roots and elements of fusion - for not only myself but those I teach and reach.  And through it all, trying not to have a Cassandra complex about it.

At a recent bellydance festival, two of my workshops were mini-intensives that included discussion: one involved the history of Gothic bellydance, which lead to where we are now.  The other was about developing personal style, which also found its thread reaching to where we are now. And I realized I have been a lot more gentle online than I am in person about this stuff. Probably because it's very easy to be misunderstood online, when you can't see my face and hear my tone (and see my hands) -not to mention so many people skim versus read comprehensively nowadays.

So I'm saying fuck it, here are three of the biggest issues facing the bellydance community and ideas about what to do about it:

The Younger Dancer & Cultural Consciousness
For the last several years, the oriental dance community has been trying to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, and it seems finally that more folks in the Tribal Fusion scene are starting to do the same.  Directly related to this issue is the severe drop in popularity of bellydance among younger people.  Sure there's been a social shift in how younger people schedule their time, how they take on new practices/ideas, but the number one thing I am hearing from young dancers - and other young people who are possibly interested in bellydance - is that they're wary of its connection to cultural appropriation.

The younger generation is both globally minded and extremely socially conscious.  Add to that the fervency of internet backlash with people eager to point "You're doing it wrong!!!" without ever opening up an actual dialogue or offer solutions on what is "doing it right", and you have people who are afraid to walk into a potentially big steaming pile of mess. I can certainly understand not wanting to come under that sort of fire from your peers and people you don't even know.  No one wants to be embarrassed or yelled at.  I also suspect that other culturally-linked art-forms may also be experiencing a similar decline for the same issues.  It's not going to change without two things:
1) the eventual middle-ground balancing of public outcry on social issues, where instead of the extreme sides yelling out each other, more people have effective communication in the middle of it, to reach understanding and exchange information.
2) the bellydance community as a whole works on continuing to improve respecting its roots through cultural outreach, grounding instruction through that cultural lens, and focusing on teaching and presenting appreciation vs. appropriation.  It means re-evaluating some things, and change is never easy, but there's room for it.

If you're unsure of what cultural appropriation is, there are many articles, blog posts, and threads going on about it.  In a nutshell, are you stripping the dance from it's roots entirely, or addressing them? Are you consciously fusing or doing whatever you feel like without considering the outcome? Are you listening to feedback or ignoring it? Are you making money off the dance without respecting it?

Innovation Starvation:
When's the last time you saw real innovation that was based in bellydance? Not a costume, not a prop, not some other dance form with an undulation thrown in.  Innovation isn't about doing some crazy to stand out, trying to out-do each other far above the atmosphere while leaving the roots behind. Not someone copying some other glittery star with a slight twist of eyeshadow, but true personal style, new thoughts being evolved, while still rooted in the source?  There's a few newer dancers on the horizon, but a lot of what I've seen lauded as the next big thing is just another emulation of something else - at least for now. Innovation means having strong personal voice and style that isn't quite like any other one person.

In the oriental/traditional community, there's certainly some interesting folkloric trends evolving out the culture itself, and the main sticky point is who's allowed to teach it first, who got there "first." I see the former point being rooted in cultural trends/developments, and the latter about who gets to benefit from the market - which leads to other issues we'll get to shortly.

With the demise of the largest Tribal/fusion festival out there - and many smaller events folding/retiring, I see a lot of folks wondering "Where do we get our trends from? Who do we follow?" Having watched the development of fusion over the last 17 years, I think it could be a blessing in disguise, because I feel the boom we experienced both blessed and damned us in many ways.  It's time to look both inward and everywhere for inspiration. Ask yourself what do you want from your dance, what inspires you to dance - not just who inspires you.

What happens when you study from only a handful of "names" who all take from the same creative bin? Not much room for new growth. Innovation happens when you pull from very different boxes, and find what works for you, and it takes a long time to develop, like fine wine.  That means studying outside of your immediate discipline, exploring new (to you) teachers and styles.  And realizing that performing does not equal studying.

It also means creating community, which means going to classes and events, and interacting with other students and teachers.  The more you open your circle, the more you learn, the easier it is to find your own voice and get proper feedback as well from.  Which in turn means, when you innovate, you've got a solid sounding board to work off of, versus working in a vacuum.

We've already got enough copies, let's see some originals.  Working towards real innovation will be integral to reaching outside of the bellydance microcosm.

Getting Out of Our Microcosm
How many events and programs are geared for dancers by dancers? How many shows are we now performing to just ourselves? Not there's anything wrong with that, but we're not expanding the pool of people seeing our art-form if we're advertising exclusively to ourselves.  We need to be considering how to expand to a larger audience: how to market to them, how to get them to the shows, and then get them in the classes.  Who are you targeting with your dance and why? Who would be interested in finding out more.

Then, if we are performing to the general public, what are we presenting to them?  Are we being specific about what we're presenting, or just throwing whatever we feel like at them? For example, over the last several years, there's been something of a trend to perform in more and more casual clothing (and I'm not talking about folkloric presentations). There are many reasons for it: budget, comfort, modesty, etc - but there's also a helping of "not knowing better" meets a touch of "lazy." It's a lot of work to get all of the make-up on, and bedlah can not only be expensive but also really darn uncomfortable....but when we present our dance to the general public, we not only need to make sure the proper information is being put out there via an emcee or program, but that we're following professional stage protocol - for all dancers.  The thing about all performance arts - they're about selling the fantasy, the power of the experience. I am not talking about selling "oriental fantasy" but rather the stage appeal of someone seeing an art presented beautifully and saying to themselves "Wow! I'd love to do that too."

As teachers, it's not only about teaching students a choreography - and the roots of the music and movements they are doing, but also how to look professional on stage.  Sure, there are folks who get into bellydance just for fun or for fitness/health, but that doesn't mean not caring about proper presentation.  We need to instill in our students a respect for the stage and the work involved to getting there - and that it takes more than 6 weeks to get there.

So for the next show you plan, consider not only the importance of what you're putting on the stage and how you're doing it, but who are you seeking to put into the audience and how to reach out to them.

In Conclusion:
In learning and loving this art - and wanting to see it flourish, we need to consider our own personal responsibility to ourselves, to the dance, to the cultures it comes from, and those we present it to.  We need to be ever-learning, ever-thinking, and ever-exploring.  We need to treat ourselves, our teachers, and our students with respect. So what's your next dance move?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dance: At the Ocean's Edge

Sunset (Diamond) Beach, North Cape May, NJ
When I am able to visit my beloved Atlantic Ocean (and the temperature allows), I love to take off my shoes and immerse my feet and ankles in the shorebreak. As each little wave comes up to my legs and swirls around them, my feet disappear into the sand, becoming one with the beach and redefining the shape of each wave as it flows and ebbs. Sometimes I will advance forward and immerse my whole being in the water, and other times I will stay transfixed by the breakers, taking it all in.

I grew up with the ocean, and no matter where I travel, the Atlantic is an integral part of my being. I don't have to be submerged or swimming to enjoy the ocean fully.  I can fill my soul by watching the waves, feeling it touch just a part of me.  I can breathe in the salty air and enjoy viewing surfers and swimmers go the extra mile.  When I'm hundreds or thousands of miles away from the sea, I can still feel it inside me, hear the surf tumbling, the sparkle of the sun or the moon upon its surface. No matter what changes have gone on in me, in my life, the ocean has always there been there, waiting.

In that liminal space between land and sea, I find a similar existence with dance.

I find so many of my friends who found the dance about the same time I did, have been struggling with the question of what does the dance mean for them? When is it time to let go and move on? All those years, emotions, and finances invested in the pursuit of the it a sunk cost? Are we different now, will it ever be the same? Is the spark cooling until it extinguishes, or will it flare again? Something else is requiring my attention or fueling my inspiration, so is there an end?

If we keep with the ocean as our metaphor for dance: sometimes there's too many people at the same beach, and they're too loud/rude/obnoxious/polluting and spoil your experience. Or maybe there's no one else there, and you don't want to swim alone.  Sometimes you just really want to hike in the desert or go to the woods.  Sometimes you're tired of sand in your shoes and the salty air drying out your skin - or you get waterlogged and need to dry off. Or you had a scary experience - a near drowning - and you need time to heal and recover.

Here's the thing about the ocean (and dance) - it's all OK. You can take a break, you find a different ocean, you could chose not to visit it at all. You can sell the beach house AND still come back to visit. Basically, there doesn't need to be any ultimatums. You don't have to make any hard and fast choices. You don't need to announce to anyone your intentions. You don't need to tell the ocean (the ocean doesn't care, it's the ocean...ok, well maybe the ocean spirits will care.)  To those that you visit and swim in the ocean with, you can simply say, "I don't feel like being in the ocean right now, I need some time away" and leave it at that.

All relationships change, and that includes the relationships we have with certain activities. For many of us, finding dance was/is about finding ourselves in some way - control over our physical being, emotional and spiritual health, and something to immerse ourselves in. It is/was a safe place, an outlet, an opportunity, relief from a difficult situation, a means for expression. Then it got/gets us past that point, we grow and change, and our relationship needs to be redefined, reconsidered, renewed. It's natural and most importantly, to be expected. It may mean not teaching or performing, or participating in certain events. It may mean the style of dance will change, or a break all together.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things. There is no need to feel guilty or obligated. (Staying attached to something because you feel obligated or guilty is about the worse thing you can do for you/them.) Follow your inspiration, follow your heart, and happiness will follow you.

You don't have to say to the ocean, "I am breaking up with you forever." The ocean knows forever. You, on the other hand, do not. You never know what path could lead you back there.

Even if your toes aren't touching the ocean, it's still there inside you.