Friday, December 31, 2010

It's dark in the desert....(part 3)

Ok, so where was I? Oh yes, happy, happy, joy, joy!

Technically this part of the series is about two similar-sounding complaints with a world of difference between them: 

"One cannot express "dark" things through this dance" and "My dance is about joy, it's impossible to bring something "dark" to it."

To quickly address the first issue: Well, if the dancer is supposed to be the music made manifest - i.e., it's our job to be the music, and if the music expresses "dark" sentiments, one could follow the line of logic and say therefore, the dance itself would be "dark."  No? Yes? Of course.

The thing is, what the hell is "dark" anyway?  If you get obsessed about dividing everything into "light" and "dark", you miss the whole picture.  Our experience here on this planet is never simply one or the other, but a collection of mixed emotions and events.  To designate "dark" as all things negative, and "light" as all things positive is far too simplistic.  Not everything "dark" is about anger, angst, sadness, and pain. (And if you haven't noticed, I'm placing "dark" in quotes, because in the way it is referenced in our examples, it has been used to designate "the realm of the other", aka, the marginal. The intentional segregation of something that is not of the world or familiarity of the speaker.  Darkism if you will.  Woohoo! Congrats!  We have a whole new 'ism!) Essentially, what the dark really represents everything foreign to us, mysterious, not easily understood or addressed, things that are arcane, secreted, unclear, and not easily dealt with.

And with that, we'll move on to the second complaint. Look, I want to make it very clear, I'm not dissing anyone who wants to express only joy and happiness in their dance.  More power to you!  Because dance is about expression, and as the performer, you can choose to express whatever you wish.  For some, the dance is their only means of escape for daily life, a place of wonderful fantasy and positive creation - somewhere to get away from a stressful relationship or family situation, a tough job, to forget about pain and illness, a break from mundane troubles.  But if you also look at dance as a way not only to express, but to explore and to heal, to address issues and conquer them, then considering the whole spectrum of emotions and the possibilities they can bring, can be an amazing experience.  It's not easy, and frankly it can be downright scary unlocking those feelings and experiences on stage (performing can be already scary enough right), and I can definitely understand not wanting to go there.  It's not for everyone.  Or maybe it's just not for you right now in your life.  But that doesn't mean no else can do it either.  And it can be very very beautiful and powerful if you give it the chance.

On the flip side of this, there's also a danger in exploring deeper emotions on stage that you haven't had a real connection to, or are afraid to make that connection.  Not so much a personal danger, as a problem in being sincere on stage - it falls flat.  Anger or angsty dance for the sake of being "dark and spooky", rarely translates well, and often comes across as taking yourself way too seriously.  It dangers on audience abuse.  Please don't abuse your audience.  Similarly, not everything has to be performed.  Some things are best explored in the studio or living room, and not brought to the stage.  Dance can most certainly be therapy, but would you really want to make all your sessions with your psychiatrist public?  If you're unsure, ask a friend, your teacher, your partner. 

In the end, I believe that in order to be good dancers, we need to be able to express a wide range of emotions, a breadth of experiences - in order to truly be the music and share that with the audience.  And sometimes you'll be asked to do it just within a single song.  Don't be afraid of the dark. Don't be afraid of the light.  Don't be afraid to dance.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


there's a mini-interview with me over at The Belly Whisperer from her "Why Should I Care?" series! Enjoy! Thanks RetroKali!

It's dark in the desert (part 2)

I've heard the complete spectrum of opinions on Gothic Bellydance - from epic poems of love, passion, and personal transformation to editorial passages about how it is an abomination that will lead to the downfall of not only dance, but humanity as a whole.  (I kid you not.)

Somewhere in the middle, the statement arises that "Goth" has nothing to do with Middle Eastern culture/dance - usually with one of the following two angles: that Gothic culture is Western/alien in concept to the Eastern culture, and that bellydance is all about happiness/joy. 

Both of these views not only discredit and gloss over Arabic culture, but the very action and art of dance itself - not to mention, show a shallow understanding of what being Goth is about. And I'll tell you why.

In the past, as a tongue-in-cheek response to that sort of attitude, I have made the observation that you really can't get much more "Goth" than the Ancient Egyptians - can you really think of anyone more fascinated with death and obsessed the afterlife more than them?  (Have I mentioned that I was enthralled by Ancient Egypt from about age 7 onward? So much so I used to be able to read and write hieroglyphics.  My husband and I have a 4 foot tall by 10 foot long papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the our dining room.)

But being cheeky aside, that thought sequence came back to me when I recently attended the Arab Dance Seminar in NYC.  This particular session was about the depth of the Arabic language, especially concerning understanding the meaning of the lyrics in the context of the culture.  And as we talked about the poetry of the lyrics, the culture from which they were from, who wrote them, who sung them, and how they are expressed with the music, I couldn't help but think "how Goth!" From the frustration of being marginalized in a culture unlike (or that is) your own and the pain/longing of the diaspora condition, to beautiful pain of unrequited/unattainable/secret love.  Of course, we were just sampling a few songs from multiple Arab cultures, but you can't argue that these are happy/light topics, even though some of them sound downright peppy when you hear the music.  And if you study about the people who wrote the lyrics, you will find that most of them were moody, marginalized artists who led difficult lives.

Which brings to mind a passage from Chaim Potok's "Asher Lev" books, where there's a dialogue between two artists about making truly great art (summarized), "Can you think of any great artist who was truly happy?" "Well, Rubens was happy." "And he painted happy paintings. Anyone else besides Rubens?" "Nope." "Because most great art is made through pain and suffering."  The Asher Lev books are about the difficulty of being an artist in orthodox Jewish culture.  That it is not considered an acceptable or respectable occupation. And while I'm sure some people will get huffy about me making the comparison, there is a similar mentality found in Arabic culture (which is NOT surprising considering the similar backgrounds and thousands of years of co-existence, so get over it).  Any dancer who has done even a little bit of research will know that dancers, musicians, singers - while enjoyed by most of the community, they are still often looked down upon.  They are marginalized.

So you may be saying OK, but what does that have to do with Goths?  Well if you unburden yourself of the wrist-slashing, devil-worshippin', pastey white and dyed black stereotype for a few moments (or preferably forever), really what is at the heart of the Gothic culture is a love of the arts, the ability to see beauty in the tragic and the macabre, and a sense of being marginalized for not fitting within society's norms.  And you may also be surprised to find that although the movement may have started in "the West" the people who make up the Gothic subculture are not from one place or race, but they are found throughout the world, on every continent.  It is a microcosm that occurs within many macrocosms. What I am saying is that there is a mutual understanding here of the human condition from a dramatic perspective. 

Further proof of this understanding is that there are numerous Gothic musicians/bands who not only incorporate Arabic instruments, maqams, vocals - but are Arabic/Middle Eastern themselves.  If the roots behind these fusions were so discordant, it would not have been possible to successfully weave them together - as they have been, for decades.  And with the music, comes the dancing.

Next up, happy happy joy joy and dance...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's dark in the desert....(part 1?)

This is probably going to be an ongoing series and exploration....

I have a confession to make.  I am absolutely obsessed with North African dance and music.  I cannot get enough of it.  When I'm doing it, I feel like YES! THIS IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT! (And while I had been introduced to bits and pieces of it over the years from many different instructors, it was Amel who really helped me come to this realization, but that will be for another post...)

But inquiring minds ask, what does that have to do with Gothic or Dark Bellydance?  I think the inquiring are often so busy looking at the labels and the surface conditions that they rarely look below the surface and the stereotypes.  I don't work from the outside in, I work from the inside out. In all things.  Nor am I one to play the who's the darkest, ookiest, spookiest biatch on the block, because I just don't own that much make-up (nor do I give a rat's patootie).  ;)

But sometimes I forget that I'm weird - as in, I'm a bit odd, especially in how I think.  Recent case in point: I was selling my wares at the alumni holiday sale for RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and we all know that art students are pretty weird/out there kind of people. (And if you don't know this, you should.)  And I'm looking at my fellow alums' work, and I'm gauging customers' reactions, and I sort of slipped out of my head for a moment to see how other people view what was in my booth.

In between an "upcycle" clothing booth and raku pottery is a rack of corseted items, a pile of darkly-colored lush ruffle things, dramatic looking hooded scarves on 20's looking heads, an array of jewelry featuring animal skulls and imagery, and flowers with eyeballs in them.  And owls.  Folks, this is some seriously weird shit going on.  MY seriously weird shit.  In a room full of artsy crazy people, I was still pretty far out there.  But I'm so immersed in what I consider normal for me, I never even think about "pushing buttons", "shock factor", or "edgey" - cause weird IS my mundane.  It's THAT intrinsic for me. 

So, what does that say?  That pretty much everything I do, comes through my own weird filter.  Whether that makes it "dark", "Gothic" or any other adjective, isn't really the point.  The point is, it comes sincerely from my heart and soul.  As it should!

So, there's the first (part 1) factor to consider.  What's going on inside the individual.  Part 2, I'd like to talk about culture and dark tendencies.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Spiral Journey

Contrary to quasi-popular belief, there is usually a method to my madness.  And my madness being how I chase/am chased by the muses.

Being the end of the year, I was thinking back about where this past year has brought me, and that progressed to much further back, well over a decade, and then something clicked...

I have long-considered dance a journey.  But up until last night, I never gave much thought to the shape of that path - it was clearly not a linear line of progression, but rather more circular.  To be exact, a spiral. 

Let me explain.  There is the short and sweet version of how Tempest became a bellydancer.  If you've ever read an interview with me, you probably know it.  But then there's the more complex version that speaks to the very beginning.

Before I found bellydance, back in the late 1990's, I was the leader of a college-based faith organization that somehow became the largest open-path Pagan group in Rhode Island, if not in New England - as well as the leader of a tradition.  Looking back, I'm not sure how I did it, because not only because was I finishing up getting my degree full-time, newly married, and working part-time, but I was also barely 20.

Anyway, members of the group and the tradition would often socialize together, and one night we all piled into the van, and attended a live concert with Libana - a woman's folk group.  What I remember most about that evening was that they performed a short Zar segment (complete with one of the ladies going through the movements).  I had no idea what it was, but it moved me to my very core.  I had never really considered dance as an outlet up until that point of my life, but something happened to me when I heard that rhythm.  It felt...familiar and right.  But the experience would pass and soon get covered over by the waves of life.

A year or so later, most of that group (the female members to be precise) would sign up together for bellydance classes at the local community college.  Not all of us stuck with it, but we eagerly brought the movements and the music we learned into our rituals immediately.  Some (mainly the guys) became interested in playing the music, so we had a terrific time jamming, moving, and dancing.  About 6 months down the line, Zingari (music and dance ensemble) was born, and we had our first performance at a local street/metaphysical faire.  I had a hard time picking a song to dance to, but in the end I chose "Solitude" by Solace.  If you're unfamiliar with that song, it's underlying rhythm is the ayyub, more well-known in dance circles as the Zar rhythm.  But I wouldn't come to realize this until some time later, after we had moved to California, and even further along when I connected it to my experience with Libana.

Also at the same time Zingari was experimenting, I had bought "Tarantata - Dance of the Ancient Spider" by Alessandra Belloni.  Little did I know then that one day I would experience Alessandra perform live as well, and get to study with her.

I spent those early years in California academically studying trance/ritual dances from around Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia and North Africa - but as my physical study in bellydance advanced, it got pushed aside.  It seemed to me that spiritually profound aspect that drew me to dance, wasn't found/present in what I was studying - that I would have to bring it myself, and even then I wasn't so sure about it.  Most of the teachers and dancers I met led me to believe that it really didn't exist/doesn't anymore/this is not the place for it/etc. The closest glimpses of that spiritual sense, happened when I performed improvised duets with Anaar - we performed (and still do) sacred fusion and ritual dance.  But the weight of everything else seemed to bear down on me when I performed solo. 

Then I moved back to the East Coast, and if you read further back in this blog, you can learn more about that transition time.  And I had series of experiences with amazing mentors that re-awakened that sense of spiritual in a more deeper, grounded way than I ever thought possible, and confirmed what I believed.  Most importantly, I found the roots that I had been looking for in those early years of the dance - that they weren't mythical or buried in dust, but alive and thriving today in the world.  A part of me too.

And this 30-something woman can smile and brush fingers with that 20 year old girl whose heart first began to beat to the Zar on a cold night in Rhode Island - as she dances past her in a spiraling path toward her next destination.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right

Remember the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Where every item Goldilocks encountered was an extreme or just right?  The porridge was too hot, too cold, or just right.  The beds were too soft, too hard, or just right.  The chairs were too big, too small, or just right.

Pretty much all of the performances I see fall into 3 Goldilocks-like categories.  There's Over-Dancing, Under-Dancing, and Just Right.

Over-Dancing is when the music says "the mouse is black" and the dancer is saying "the super-fast tiny mouse is most certainly black and is-hiding-in-the-corner!" There's far more movement going on than the music asks for.  Consistently throughout the entire performance.  And sometimes there's a prop integrated that doesn't make sense with the music. There's no sense of breath, no relief for the audience, and a sense of audio-visual incongruity. Often the dancer is trying to capture too much - the rhythm and the melody all at once, all the time.

Under-Dancing is when the music says "the small mouse is very black" and the dancer is saying "mouse" and "black". Again, and again.  Basically hitting only the bare minimum without acknowledging any of the language happening in between.  There's too much space, not enough movement, and it feels remedial and gets boring quickly, not matter how big and exciting those initial movements are.  It's like typing in ALL CAPS.  ALL CAPS.  ALL CAPS. ALL CAPS. The dancer here is catching only the accents or only the rhythm with no attention paid to the ornamentation. Dum. Dum. Dum. Dum. When the music says Dum Dum tekka tek, Dum tekka tek, Dum tekka tek tekka tek tekka tek.

Just Right is when the music and the dancer are saying the same exact thing, more or less, throughout the performance.  Sometimes the dancer works the melody, sometimes it's the rhythm, sometimes a balance of both, but without getting too busy.  There's a sense of breath, a place for both the dancer and the audience to rest and enjoy, and not feel like THERE'S TOO MUCH GOING ON!  The dancer works within the structure of the music without doing too much or too little, with a sense of variety.

All of this is part of Musicality means to me, and what I teach. It's so important to really learn how to listen to the music, and not just the rhythm and not just the melody.  Far too often dancers simply go "oh, I like this music!  I'm going to perform to it!" without really considering the music and what it is saying.  Just assigning choreography to a piece of music isn't it.  You really need to take the time to consider what it says, and visualize the movements it is asking for.  It's this philosophy that allows me to do improv without trepidation.  And the more you listen to the music and get in the moment of it, the less you will anticipate what's coming next too far in advance. And the more you will be able to really own those movements and express through them, versus just executing them. The more you listen, the closer you get to "Just Right."

(If you want to learn more, check out the workshop "Musicality & 'Motion" with Tempest at Tribal Fest 11!)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Opinion/Feedback Time!

I promise there's a deep, thought-provoking sort of post in the works (and has been for about a week, but alas, time has been short), but in the meantime, it's time for you to share your thoughts/opinions on a subject. 

So for about 2 years now, I've been brainstorming DVD projects - and I've got enough material for frankly several, but this a self-producing sort of project, so reality says, we're looking at one for now, and go from there.  Lining up all of the ducks to make this happen in 2011 (and sooner rather than later), but what I would love to hear from y'all is, what do YOU want to see more of from me, in a DVD format?  Don't be shy. :)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Challenged Much?

(or perhaps better titled: how to avoid being in my blog...)

So, as of last week, I'm offering a second workshop now at Tribal Fest 11 - it's a brand new workshop debuting there called "Shimmies: Sassy to Sizzling!" - which was spawned from the fact that I have noticed a lot students, especially more Tribal/Tribal Fusion ones, having trouble getting a variety of shimmies, and rarely include them in their performances, or if they do, they don't incorporate them successfully in relation to their music. Anyway, upon announcing this new development, someone said to me, "oh, I wish it was another topic, I'm not very good at shimmies." (and yes, I did warn them where this conversation would end up, but I promised not to say who..)

So let me get this straight, you know you're bad at something, but you don't want to take a workshop that would help you get a better understanding of it? I wish I could say this was the first time I heard something like this in the dance community, but it's not. And it's not the same thing of saying, "Ok, I've studied X-style for a good amount of time, and it's not for me" or "I have an injury that prevents me from doing X.")  Instead, it's saying "I'm not good at doing X, and I'm afraid to do it for fear of looking bad."

Folks, the point of taking workshops isn't to do stuff you're really good at.  Rather the exact opposite. They're about finding your weak spots, engaging areas you don't know much about, expanding your horizons,deepening your knowledge, and making your weaknesses your strengths.  And you won't know what these things are unless you try, nor can you get better at them until you seek a solution.  And you're not going to look totally awesome doing it - rather the opposite.  This is one of those weird situations where, if you feel like a moron in class, chances are, you're on your way to becoming brilliant (eventually). After you continue to practice it, of course.  Some of my most favorite/best moves started off as moves I had a lot of problems with, and if you ask around, I'm sure you'll find many other professionals feel the same way.

And sometimes, you just need a new voice telling you how to do something.  Someone else may have a better way of explaining or breaking down a move or technique than what you've been exposed to before.  And don't assume that just because someone is "big name", that they know everything there is about all things, or are "the one true path."  If you only study from one group of people/knowledge area, you're closing yourself off to a wider range of knowledge and perspectives.  Or look at it this way - picture yourself as an elephant, walking trunk to tail in a line of elephants, the only perspective you're getting to get is the elephant butt in front of you.  Don't be a cenophobe - try something new!

I think part of the problem is that culturally, there's been a switch in mentality in the last 10-20 years in how we approach challenges - in that they should be removed/avoided, because they may cause people to feel bad about themselves. (and I'm generalizing here, but you get the idea, because if you're a parent or teacher now, you've experienced it.) When in fact, it's the challenges that make for stronger, quicker-thinking, problem-solving personalities.  And challenges make for better, more diverse dancers.