Thursday, December 25, 2014

Yearly Solstice Musings

Rather than posting them here on this blog, I have posted my Winter Solstice musings on my Witch Blog - check it out here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Right Dance for the Right Place

Dragon*Con 2014, acoustic set with The Nathaniel Johnstone Band, photo by ?
There is a time to dance...and the right place to do it in.

When I cover professionalism and elements for performance in my classes and workshop, I always talk about considering venue appropriateness when crafting a show.

What is venue appropriateness?  It is taking into consideration 3 key bits of information regarding the venue you are to be performing in/at.

1) The type of place (restaurant, bar, farmer's market, club, church, festival, hafla, etc)

2) The audience (for other dancers, for a general public, children, teens, college kids, the elderly, etc)

3) Your performance: how well the costume/music/style works when you have considered #1 and #2.

This may seem fairly elementary, but a lot of dancers get so hung up on the excitement of performing that they rarely take into consideration what they're presenting and how appropriate it may be.  And it's very unfortunate when that lack of planning leads to the dancer (or the dance in general) not being received in a positive light.  Or if a dancer has only ever performed for the dance community, he or she may not realize that the general public is not the same audience they have encountered before.

I have come up with some sample situations to consider:

-The Ethnic Restaurant: when performing at an Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Middle Eastern, or other ethnic restaurant where dance performances are standard (I know several Indian and Ethiopian restaurants that feature dancing), it's important to check with the owner/manager/house dancer to see what type of music and costuming is preferred. Do NOT be afraid to ask! There seems to be an attitude of "if I have to ask, then I will look unprofessional" - and frankly, I believe you look MORE professional asking the client what THEY want. Some places only want a traditional cabaret look, others want what is hottest "over there" right now, and others don't care, as long as the customers are happy. But you won't know unless you ask.

And unless the restaurant is more set-up like the golden days of "dinner and a show" with proper stage, sound, lights, and being announced - you're expected to essentially be a novelty, an element of atmosphere, a nice perk for the diners, but they're probably not really there to see you.  The show should be family-friendly/all ages.  So it's a safe bet to leave the nearly-nude designer costume at home, as well as the goat sacrifices choreographed to whalesong.

-Clubs & Bars: As goes with the territory, this tends to be an adult crowd, but how they behave and what may be expected of you depends on the area and kind of bar/club.  In a college-heavy area especially, they tend to expect to see more skin - but it's important to keep in mind, as the booze (and hookah) flows, your own personal safety. If the club/bar has a particular focus or theme, then your performance should be aligned with that theme. For example, at a Goth night, dancing in a baby pink costume to George Abdo may not go over quite as well as a more darkly-inspired costume to Dead Can Dance. Also, unless it's a hookah bar where the dancer is often eye-candy/background, performances are best kept short and sweet.  People come out to club nights to see some cool stuff, but also to get on the dancefloor themselves.  Keep it short and sweet.

-Festivals& Conventions: these tend to be all-ages, all crossroads of humanity kinds of events, but often have a theme - and to really fit in, again you need to know and understand that theme.  The set you use for the restaurant, the farmer's market, and retirement community may work perfect for all of those events, but if you're using that same music and costuming for a Steampunk or Pagan event, it's going to feel weird, in an otherwise appropriately-themed line-up. In the way that throwing tassels on a costume doesn't make a dance tribal, adding a bustle or goggles won't make it steampunk either.  If you're performing at a spiritual event, what will you do to make that connection?  If it's a festival for Egyptian Style Bellydance - then breaking out Tribal Fusion isn't the thing to do. And vice versa. Unless there's a context for it.

Really, I could go on and on about many different kinds of situations - but just from these three, you should get the idea. (I could also get into making sure you are compensated effectively for all of these, but that's a post for another day - I'm going to assume for now that you've already negotiated a fair wage/deal for the job, in agreement with community standards.) 

It's wonderful to perform (and especially to be asked to), but it's even better to make sure you're properly prepared and indeed are the right dancer for the job. Consider where and when you are performing, who you are performing to, and how you're going to cater your performance to satisfy the situation professionally.

If your style, your ability, or your presentation doesn't fit, then don't force it.  Part of being professional is knowing when to perform and when NOT to perform.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Spiral Up: Empower Your Students!

The more resources we provide for our students, the stronger they will become.
Photo by Geisha Moth

This concept is something I firmly believe in and practice regularly.  I feel that my students excel not only because of what I offer them through my instruction, but also by making them aware of other opportunities outside of what I know or do. Multiple influences make for stronger, more unique dancers.

So it confounds me when I encounter teachers who won't tell their students about upcoming workshops, shows, festivals, and other events. It makes me sad for not only the students, but for the teachers, as most of their possible reasons are rooted in fear.  And fear doesn't belong in the classroom.

Here are few of the reasons I've heard along the way:

-"I want to check out this workshop teacher first, then I will know if it's OK for my students."So when's the next time that teacher may be in town again? Bringing in visiting instructors is not an easy or inexpensive task, and for it to happen regularly requires the support of a community - teachers AND students.  If the topic is something I am interested in, I'm pretty sure my students are going to be interested as well. Likewise, my students may be interested in things I don't teach.  It's not my job to pass approval on who they can or can't study with.  Of course you definitely want your students to learn from your idols and influences - all the while you don't want them to waste money on a class that's poorly taught or may injure them.  But you don't have to vet every workshop and instructor for them.

-"I prefer to keep ahead of my students." Or "I don't want to look dumb in front of them." 
If you're only a couple steps ahead of your students and are relying just on the odd workshop to keep that distance, you probably shouldn't be teaching.  It may sound harsh, but if that's your main fear, it's not a healthy one.  Understand that everyone learns differently, and what you pick up on depends on what you are open to in that moment, and the same is true for your students.  So don't be afraid to have your students in the same workshop you are in.  They will absorb what they can or are most interested in, and you can always go over that material together in class and talk about it further.  And it's also important to recognize that EVERYONE feels like a student when learning new things - no one is born a perfect dancer.  It shows compassion that you understand the process and wisdom that you don't claim to know everything.

-"They're not ready."
Workshops can be a geared to a wide range of levels.  Unless a workshop is specifically marketed for intermediate/advanced dancers or is a master class, most students will benefit from trying a workshop. Just as long as they understand they're not going to get everything, and THAT IS OK.  In fact, it's unrealistic to retain absolutely everything you learned in a 2 hour workshop! Heck, even in an hour class, there's a reason why we go over previous material.  So don't hold them back - challenges make for growth.

-"I don't want to lose my students."This is just the wrong attitude to have and it WILL make you lose them. You don't own your students, they pay you to teach them.  If they are inspired by someone else, and want to try their classes, there's nothing wrong with that.  If they truly enjoy working with you and learning from you, they will be there for as long as they can.  But realize, everything is temporary, everything changes.

So if you want to be a good teacher, keep an eye on your local community and what's happening.  If there's bigger events in or out of your area you enjoy, pass along the word. Share the love, spread the knowledge, and you'll see the growth!  Everyone spirals up together!

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Different Kind of Dance Event

WP 2013 - photo by Carrie Meyer
I've been producing events now for over 15 years.  From organizing the very first Pagan Pride Day in Rhode Island and other spiritually-minded events through The Cauldron of Annwyn (the open-path group I founded), and my first bellydance-themed event "Between the Veils" (2001 in Massachusetts), to "The Temple Gathering" and "Gothla US" in California, "Tapestry Dance Retreat" in Rhode Island, and "Waking Persephone" (RI and now WA).

While many of these events involved different people in various aspects, myriad locations, and a multitude of perspectives over the years, I feel that my purpose in producing them has remained consistent: to bring people together to celebrate culture, raise awareness, and promote education.

Waking Persephone has been the most special to me of all of the events I have produced, perhaps because it became my clearest vision for dance. I stopped being involved with Gothla US primarily because almost none of my students could attend it, since it was 3000+ miles away from them. I couldn't justify putting that much effort into an event (running the website, doing all of the graphic design, vendor and workshop registration, program design, Gala show line-up, etc) and not having my own students benefit from it, simply because they couldn't afford to make the trek. I was also disheartened by the disproportionate number of performers participating in the daytime festival shows compared to actual workshop attendees. It only emphasized the trend I was seeing in the community where the stage was being deemed more important than the classroom. Which leads unfortunately to meaning there's a lot less quality on stage.

So what could I do?  I wanted an event my students could attend and actively participate in.  I wanted to promote a mixture of well-known and up-and-coming dancers for the teaching staff. I wanted to provide an excellent stage show without compromising or competing with the classroom time. I wanted there to be fantastic shopping, opportunities for networking, and a focus on featuring live music.  I wanted to give teachers a chance to teach new/unusual offerings that don't fit in at other events.  I wanted to provide a selection of classes that truly spoke to every aspect of a dancer - on stage and off.  I wanted to promote quality fusion while emphasizing a strong foundation in bellydance.

That is how Waking Persephone was born. The name was sprung from the Greek goddess whose mythical descent down and ascent back from the Underworld gave us our seasons.  "Waking" is a play on the question of whether she is coming back to life, or if we are marking her departure (as in a wake.)

I was not prepared for how powerfully it would come together. I not only have been able to feature some of the most completely awesome people I know (as in they're not only terrific dancers/teachers, but fantastic human beings) but also meet new ones.  WP has become a home for all the dancers who didn't quite fit in anywhere else, and gave them a chance to meet like-minded kin.  It is a safe place for dancers who thought they could only do one style or felt limited to their niche/reputation to try out something new and different. I was amazed by how profoundly it affected the attendees: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.  And to discover the second year that the first year just wasn't a fluke - that it happened all over again, even more strongly, rooting deeper, branching farther.  It is truly a blessing that I had no idea was possible, and so humbling.

It pained me to move it from Providence to Seattle, because it felt so good in that location and I could see the beautiful changes in the community.  But it's hard to run an event from across the country, and now I have students based here.  As Fate would have it, our home-base, Roots Cultural Center, was sold - and it had taken me years to find a venue in Providence that suited our needs.  Finding one in Seattle wasn't easy either, but we've finally found a very warm welcome with the Lake City Community Center.  Many familiar faces are traveling this way to experience the event again, bringing their great energy to it, as well as new ones.

It's not just a bunch of workshops. It's not just a bellydance show.  It's not just about one style of dance. It's not just some live bands playing or an opportunity to show. It's also not something that will always be there. It's the people who come to it, what they bring to the table and take home with them.  It truly is a different kind of dance event, and I invite you to experience it for yourself.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Durga Approach to Dance

Durga is a Hindu goddess, a calmly fierce, protective mother/creatrix figure wielding 10 arms. That's a lot of arms! But she keeps it all together.

 I have quite the affinity for Durga (having named 2 nationwide tours after her), and feel as a dance teacher, each "arm" can be something to remind us of what we need to do - as we break down past barriers and help our students find themselves through dance.

Here are my 10 arms of dance:

1) Teaching is about the students, not about the teacher.
Teaching is not about ego, it's about the information, and transmitting that information in the best way possible to the students.

2) Not everyone learns the same way - no one system works for all. 
Some folks learn better by numbers and counting, others need to copy and follow, others need imagery, others want to know the specific muscles, some need mirrors and some do better without, some need a choreography to follow and others work better via improv, etc. A specific method may attract/appeal to certain groups, but it doesn't mean it works for all, or that other systems and methods are wrong.

3) It's not how much material you cover, it's how well they get what you do cover. 
What's better? "I taught my beginners 60 new moves in 6 weeks!" or knowing that your students got a dozen movements down solid and feel confident about what they learned?

4) A syllabus is a good thing.  Flexibility to cover what's needed is even better.
It's good to have a plan for what you want to cover.  But it's not a failure if your students want to go over material from last week, and if that wanders into a different plan, that's fine.

5) Understand that every person takes class for different reasons. 
Some folks take dance class for pure fun, others want to learn about culture, some want to perform, some want exercise, others are looking for something mental or spiritual. Sometimes it's all of the above.

6) Every BODY is different. 
Being a dance teacher means being a student of the body. Movements will vary depending on weight, shape, muscle structure, frame, health, etc. Be respectful of their bodies.

7) It is never too early to teach musicality and culture. 
From the very beginning, I talk about rhythm, history, etc. It may not soak in immediately, but it does bring familiarity.  Don't short-change your students by thinking that it's "not interesting" or "relevant" to mention rhythms, artists, etc.

8) It's OK to not have all the answers. 
You don't know everything, and there is nothing wrong with that - unless you're claiming that you DO. If someone asks me a question I am not sure about - I either reference someone who may help, or look it up to find it out.  We can learn together!

9) Create a positive environment. 
Respect your students, respect your community. Don't mention names in negative situations. If there's an issue to correct/address, be general, and offer solutions. Catty time is not for class time.

10) Teach them to DANCE. Ask yourself what does it mean to dance, and are you helping your students truly do that?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Talhakimt Story

Being a huge fan of adornment, I have long been fascinated by talhakimt (check out The Red Camel's lovely blog post on them).  My attention was more intently directed to them thanks to a workshop I took on the Guedra given by Kajira Djoumahna.  Kajira brought actual pieces as well as photographs showing how the women who do the Guedra wear these objects in their hair. It was clear to me that there were several magical aspects to these wondrous objects.

Looking at the symbol, on the most simple of terms, it's a balance between the concepts of male (the long point) and female (the opening).  I have heard interpretations that the lines represent the directions and/or the elements, that they ground as well as direct energy, that they protect the wearer. This pairing of the circle and the triangle show up repeatedly in body adornment throughout Africa, the Mediterranean, and Asia.

Back in 2010, I decided to design one made out of metal, as they're most often found made out of glass or stone (particularly carnelian/agate/etc). The easiest thing to do would have been to simply "sink" an existing piece.  "Sinking" is a jewelry industry term for casting/making a mold out of an existing object.
glass and carnelian
 from my collection

I chose not to do this for three reasons:
1) It felt disrespectful to do that (my own gut take on it, and I feel similarly about the animal pieces as well - all of my "skulls" are sculpted by me, not taken from actual animals)
2) I wanted to do my own take on the design (the artist demands it)
3) The result of such a metal piece, as-is, would create sharp edges/points of irritation not found in the cast glass or carved stone pieces. (practicality and safety are good things)

So in my design, I chose to make my talhakimt similar to the shape of the glass pieces, but closer in texture to the stone pieces. The side prongs were made slightly softer, the back part of the piece is completely smooth (both for comfort/safety).  Lastly, there are "reservoirs" that can hold color/enamel - meaning not only can one enjoy the finish of the metal, but the piece can easily have color added to it.  I then took this design and made another version, about 75% smaller - as a pairing.

The end result for both is a well-weighted pendant that is comfortable to wear, virtually unbreakable, and can be modified by the wearer to suit their own desires - AND they're made entirely here in the United States, out of lead-free, nickel-free metal, cast and plated in small quantities by skilled, dedicated craftsmen/women - not mass-produced in a factory in China. Having worked in the fashion jewelry industry for years (where nearly everything is made overseas), it's VERY important to me to have my work duplicated on a small scale here by people I know, ensuring high quality results and supporting their small businesses at the same time.  It may cost a little more, but it's worth it.

I love that the talhakimt appeals to folks of all genders and persuasions, rather than just those "in the know."  I believe that's part of the magic of the piece.

Women-owned businesses who have helped fuel my obsession are reliable resources for purchasing the actual glass and stone pieces:
The Red Camel
Silk Road Tribal

If you're interested in purchasing pieces from me, check out my website - and contact me before ordering, as my stock is always moving, and I often have more metal finishes than are listed.  I can also custom make a batch for you in certain colors/shapes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Costume Design: The Mucha-Klimt Lovechild

"Gothic White Assuit"
photo by Michael Baxter
I have always loved the artwork of Alphonse Mucha - the artist largely responsible for the Art Nouveau movement. I remember eagerly anticipating when we would cover it in Art History at RISD, and then being bitterly disappointed when it was briefly lumped in with several other "minor movements" and maybe discussed for about 15 minutes total. (Yet it seemed like we spent 6 hours on Bauhaus. Maybe longer - I don't know, because I fell asleep. Nothing holds my attention like the discussion of concrete minimalistic architecture and its social implications...zzzzz)

"Salomatra" Costume
I made up for the slight by hoarding Mucha and Art Nouveau books, and though I have made several BIG moves over the last 20 years and sold large portions of my library off, I have always held on to those books. They have been a major source of inspiration for my costuming since I started dancing, some just as a starting point, and others very directly, such as the "Gothic White" assuit costume from 2005 and my "Salomatra" costume, from 2006. Both of those costumes, I had a very specific idea in mind, and I gathered the materials accordingly to make them.

Other costumes were birthed simply out of what materials I happened to have on hand collide with a random crazy inspiration. This is definitely the case with what I'm now calling the "Mucha-Klimt Lovechild."

At Tribal Fest 2013, I purchased some pieces of Indian tapestry - two small strips that had been fashioned for use as a headband and for a belt, and a larger wall piece. I had a vague idea that I would make a costume for myself and a matching vest for Nathan, but the pieces sat in my closet untouched. I would pull them out to look at them, and then put them back.

Then at Clockwork Alchemy, I bought a body-chain piece that was very Art Nouveau in design and coloring. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but it was only $10, and I figured I would think of something.

Then in July, I bought an obscene amount of two-tone yellow and peach chiffon at MedFest from a neighbor vendor who was going out of business. I'm not sure what came over me, but I eyed it for two days and bought it all as we packed up, thinking that somehow it would work with the body-chain, even though it was so untypical of a color choice for me.

It all sat in my studio closet, waiting within a pile of other costumes-to-be. And the thought wiggled into the back of my brain that I hadn't made a big theatrical costume since the Klimt costume (see cover of my website).  I had made/altered several versatile costumes in the past year, but nothing EPIC. How could this be? But what to make?

As fate would have it, I was trying to re-organize my closet after a small avalanche had happened. I wondered about the pile of chiffon I had bought, as I hadn't seen it in a long time. The bag with the Indian fabric fell on top of me, so it got pulled out.  Then a strapless nude bra I bought for a base became unearthed. I hunted down the chiffon and pulled out other bits and pieces from my fabric and jewelry pile, some pieces that I've had for several years.  I remembered the body-chain and luckily also found it.  I pulled out my worn and well-loved Mucha books, leafed through them all, and made sketches of various parts that caught my eye. I considered the pile of random objects on my floor, and wondered if it would work.

The tapestry pieces had been lined with a dull brown cotton, then finished off with white seed beads.  I got to work ripping off all of the fabric and white beads, and was astounded at how well the colors of the remnants now worked with the chiffon.  I covered the base of the bra with a vintage warm-gold brocade, and topped the bra off with the smaller strip of tapestry.  I took the "belt" piece, and relined it with the same brocade, edged with gold seed beads, and set it perpendicular to the bra. I took 3 yards of each color of chiffon and attached the center of each underneath the front panel. The body-chain was disassembled, broken, and reshaped to fit with the curve of the bra cups, and a vintage-style necklace/belt I had rescued from my last job served as a centerpiece and anchor. I found the brass belt that I had bought as a teenager at Lerner, had used minimally in other costumes, and hand-painted it to match the rest. Next I constructed a matching headdress, set off with an old brooch that my friend Tinah had sent me, with unused flowers from my wedding constructions, and other flower, ribbon, and jewelry bits I'd collected over the years.  Under it all, went a pair of gold and salmon-striped pantaloons Anaar had made (also scored at Tribal Fest 13), and on top, an emerald chiffon veil that Azar (one of my early teachers) had gifted me.  I devised a knot system for the peach and yellow chiffon to balance the bra in the back, similar to how I made my wedding dress - but this got taken up a notch by Geisha Moth right before I performed, where she did it even better! Hair by Diva Dreads (the set I had commissioned for myself and my girls in Providence for our "Sirens" performance several years ago), and necklace by my friend Shakira.

The visual result, with the intricate patterns of the Indian tapestry, and the colors and lines of the overall costume, truly makes it a lovechild of Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt!

photos by Corinne De La Coeur, taken at MedFest 2014

 There are still some details I'd like to add to this costume that I didn't have time to put on yet, but I'm thrilled with how it came out.  It truly captures the feel of Mucha's work, and is very sensual, while interestingly enough, covering a great deal of my body.  Which wasn't any part of my intent - I was very much focused on the artwork that was my inspiration, versus making this a "sexy" costume. I don't think it would have had the same effect as a typical bra and belt set.

Monday, July 14, 2014

5 Golden Keys to Help Unlock Success

Being both a well-known instructor/performer and event producer, I often get asked how up-and-coming dancers can get themselves "out there." It's particularly my job as an event producer that has helped me develop a list - usually as a result of experiencing "what not to do."

Being a professional dancer isn't just about how many hours you put in at the studio - it's about putting your best foot forward in a business sense as well: creating a brand, having your promo materials ready, and being involved.  If you think being a professional dancer means being awesome artist who just dances in her/his studio all day long, devoting every waking moment to dance, and the clients come a-knocking without ever having to do anything else - well, that is just an ADORABLE fantasy.  The reality of being professional means taking care of business - in and out of the studio.

The harder it is for you to be identified, and for a promoter to get succinct, reliable, and professional information from you, the more difficult your journey will be. So, besides obviously doing the work to advance your dance skills, I have put together a list of 5 key things to address that will aid you on your way.

Use The Google
When considering a professional name for yourself or your troupe - ALWAYS GOOGLE IT FIRST. There's been a growing trend to use given names vs. stage names, but even then, you should google it. Why? There may be a well-known person/troupe already using that name (whether it's a dancer, or a lawyer).  They may be local to you, or not at all, but that means little in consideration of searches and global context.  That name you're just starting out with, and some big name dancer has too? Don't tell yourself there's no way you'll be confused with them. You want to be easy to find and clearly identifiable as YOU - and not get incorrectly identified as being someone else, for better or for worse. (You have no idea what their reputation is really like, if you don't know them - and/or if someone hires you by mistake, that can create a really ugly situation on multiple levels.) If you're set on a certain name, and there are 3 other dancers using that name in other states/countries, you will want to brand yourself "Sparklepants of Cat City" instead of just "Sparklepants" to help define you and your market. Also, if it's a name originating from a foreign language or a fantasy invention, you may discover it means something different than you think it means out on the web. Like, it may sound beautiful but actually means "owl droppings" in Persian.  Lastly, read more than the first page of hits to get a complete idea for whatever you are googling. (Side note: be sure to say it aloud and consider how it can be mispronounced/misread. The worst I get is "Temptress"...which well, kinda works.)

Lean & Mean Biography
Your "fast and quick" biography should address who you are, where you are from, what you do/why you are awesome, and how to contact you - all in about 3-5 sentences.  This is the ideal format for websites, show programs, and introductions.  Don't list every teacher you have ever had, that you took ballet at age 3, that you once won an award in high school, are the best dancer in your area, or count that vacation cruise to Bermuda as "international performing".  Make it short, sweet, and to the point: "Tasselbottom is an award-winning Whovanese-style dancer based in Yourtown, Country.  She is well-known for her amazing lamp-balancing skills, which she presents for us this evening! She teaches weekly classes at X Studio, and performs throughout the Greater Jingly Area with her troupe FabulousShimmy.  For more info, go to" You can always have an extended biography on your website if you want to include more background. Also, use the same voice throughout, typically the third person: "Bunnyhop loves performing drum solos" versus "I love performing drum solos."

A Picture is Worth...A LOT
Professional photos are essential. Whether they are posed studio shots or active performance shots, your photos should be clear, eye-catching, and flattering. And sell what you're offering! Yes, that sexy implied "no bra" backshot with a pretty scarf draped on you is alluring - but does it sell "American Tribal Style Classes for Children"?  Are you trying to sell a Gothic Workshop when the only photo you sent is you in a bright pink Egyptian costume? Selfies are not proper headshots.  Promoters and event producers also often want high resolution images for printing, so be sure to have your photos ready for both "web" and "print" to ensure that you don't end up being that dancer with a poorly pixelated image in the program.  Also, does your photo work well in both color and black and white? It's so worth it to invest in a proper photoshoot with a professional photographer whose work you admire. And update your photos regularly! If you're still using the same shot from 10 years ago, it's time to get some new work done.

It's also important to consider the moving picture - video! As a producer, I want to see clean footage of an uncut performance - meaning, while it may have been edited for switching camera angles, I am able to see you dance in a properly lit setting to the actual music you're performing to, for the length of the piece. I despise "best moments" videos with background music laid on top, and unless I have seen you perform in person, it's a one-way ticket to my "nope" pile.  Why? Your "greatest hits" with a soundtrack and pieces that change every 5-10 seconds tells me nothing about how you put together a performance, your musicality, and overall technique. It may wow the general public and inexperienced dancers, but it tells me nothing about what you can really offer outside of a few sparkling moments.

Your Home on the Web
Do you have a website? If so, is it easy to find, navigate, and holds relevant current info? Is the URL easy to spell? Is it attractive and visually appealing/easy to look at, or does it look like it was built in 1998? There are many affordable and easy DIY - including free options for creating a web presence - even if it's just a professional page on facebook. Your website should include your quick bio + an extended biography/resume, class/workshop schedule (if you offer them), performance schedule, contact info, gallery (video/photos). Be sure to include your website when someone asks for your bio! I used to hunt them down and add them for my instructors - but I don't have the time or patience to do that anymore.  If you have multiple URLs and websites, indicate which one/s you want to use.

Be Prompt, Get Involved, Be Gracious
When you're dealing with promoters and producers, be prompt in getting information to them when asked.  Always re-read and double-check that you have included (and attached) all of the information that was requested.  If you're traveling/out of town - even just a quick reply with a date of when they can expect the material is appreciated.

Get involved in the event - if you're teaching and/or performing at an event, be sure to promote it on your social media platforms, post flyers/postcards, and share it with your students, friends, family, newsletters, etc. If it's an event you would LIKE to teach/perform it, and it's within your means to attend - then do so - and see about volunteering, introduce yourself to the producers, etc.  Take workshops. Event producers are often thinking about the next event, before the current event is even done.  However, contacting a festival two weeks before the event and asking to be added to the current year's teaching roster because you happen to be in town or think you're the next hot thang isn't going to fly. It will get you a fast ticket to the NOPE list, even if it does make us laugh.

And ALWAYS be gracious!
When you're at an event, if your schedule allows, take the time to watch the show - the pros and the students! EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT. Understand that the best events rotate some or most of their teachers/performers regularly - so don't pitch a fit publicy if you're not asked back for the next one.  Event producers work hard to bring back favorites while offering new/fresh/up-and-coming teachers/performers to keep things from getting stale.  Consider feedback when it's offered (or ask if there's something you're unsure about).  And it sure doesn't hurt to say please and thank you :)

So there you have it - 5 keys that will help you get through some very important doors. There are always more things to consider, but these are an excellent start that will help get your name out there, build a solid reputation, and signify that you're an active participant who is great to work with.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April - May - June (& Beyond!) News, Tidbits, & Assorted Parts

Greetings everyone!

Have so much in the works that I've not been great about sending out newsletters, so going to try and remedy that now. SO many great things to share about upcoming workshops, events, projects, and other happenings!

First news about upcoming shows and workshops in April & May:

Happening tomorrow (Saturday, April 26th) – Nathaniel and I will be performing at Hexenfest in Oakland, CA – starting things off with an opening ritual live music/dance performance, and then we will join Ego Likeness later on stage as well! Hexenfest is a music and arts festival dedicated to myth, magic, folklore, fairytale, and the numenous. Hexenfest has a flair for the darkly exotic. Gothic, Pagan, and Tribal belly dance themes are featured prominently, evoking the forbidden forest more than than the enchanted wood. If you feel at home in dark fairytales, join us in the realm! Tickets & info at

Then we are off to New Jersey for Rakkasah Spring Caravan for May 2nd-4th! I will be teaching 3 exciting workshops over the weekend, and The Nathaniel Johnstone Band will be playing music live for dancers on Saturday and Sunday. We'll also be vending! Details at

Then the band is on tour on the East Coast from May 6th-14th:
May 6th: Bellefonte Cafe - Bellefonte, DE
May 7th: Red Maple with Stoneburner - Baltimore, MD
May 8th: BSP Lounge w/ Frenchy & The Punk - Kingston, NY
May 10th: Pete's Candy Store with Not Waving But Drowning - NYC, NY
May 11th: Loose Stalkings Salon - Boston, MA*
May 13th: Dusk with Frenchy & The Punk - Providence, RI
May 14th: Le Grand Fromage - Atlantic City, NJ 
Links & Details at

*On May 11th, Nathaniel and I will be offering our “Applying Artistry” workshop in the Boston Area - details

Then we are headlining at Steampunk World's Fair in Piscataway, NJ May 16th-18th!

And then we're off to Clockwork Alchemy in San Jose, CA – where the band will be officially releasing our brand new album “The Antikythera Mechanism” - there will be multiple live music and dance performances throughout the weekend, and I will be offering a workshop as well on integrating bellydance with Steampunk with integrity. Details: - check out their website for a special FREE download of one of the new songs + samples of other ones!

Then we're back home in Washington, and I will be offering a “Bellydance Decopunk” workshop in the Olympia, WA area on May 31st – followed by a hafla! Details at

Now, in other news, especially for or related to June!!!

DVD News!
This past weekend, we re-filmed a large portion of the DecoDance DVD – I am VERY happy with the results, and we're expecting to be able to release it in mid to late June. More details on that in May!

Artemis in Seattle!
June 13th-15th – Seattle – WA! It's my birthday and I am bringing to town one of my “dance mama's” and mentors, Artemis E. Mourat! There are 4 workshops throughout the weekend, and it all kicks off with a fabulous live music show featuring the Nathaniel Johnstone Band & House of Tarab at the Columbia City Theater in Seattle. Details on all of this at:

Tribal Revolution - Workshop Change!
Also in big news – we have altered one of our offerings at Tribal Revolution in Chicago, IL (June 26th-29th) – we're replacing the “Dancing with Live Musicians” to “No Fear Bellydance! The Epic Quest for Artistry & Improvisation” - Saturday, 6/28
When we look at dance as art, we open ourselves up to being able to say more through our movement, while making a conscious effort to connect more deeply with our audience. Herein lies the secret to more beautiful, expressive performances! Art is not an abstract concept to be used as an excuse for poor planning. Nor is it an elusive esoteric experience for the elite. (Say that 3 times fast!) Art-making DOES involve concrete technique and critical thought. Yet it also requires the ability to let go, and be open to chance and exploration. Coincidentally, working with live music brings in similar challenges. How can you be prepared and be in the moment at the same time? What does it take to push beyond dancing to the music, and giving a dynamic performance that appears polished and planned? (Answer me these questions three!) In this workshop, dancers will learn to set aside their fears about improvising, effectively incorporate artistry into their dance, improve their communication skills (for working both with an audience as well as live musicians) and push their own boundaries and style - while working with both recorded and live music. Students will be challenged to build their creative thinking processes, apply them directly to their dance, and exercise new critique skills in class. All the while surprisingly themselves AND having fun! The quest is ON, who will find the grail?!
Register for it, as well as find out other details at

Lastly – we are offering THREE kinds of Museum Quality Intensives this year – each is limited to 15 students or less and are filling up!:
* July 5th-6th – Sturbridge, MA – Summer Salon Mini MQ (2 days):
* August 22nd-24th - Indianapolis, Indiana (3 days) - Hosted by Celeste:
* November 13th-16th, 2014 - Lancaster, PA (4 days!)- Hosted by Luna Ketta -
Find out all about how Museum Quality can change your dance experience!

Whew! Yeap, that's a whole lot, and there's so much more, but I'll contain it to this for now. Just want to add that right now in Seattle, there is a solo exhibition of my artwork up at the Pioneer Square Saloon for a few more days – but if you're not local, you can see the newest paintings at

Be sure to follow my pages on facebook for regular updates – and stay tuned for more exciting news in the future!

Thanks so much!

Nouveau Noir Dance

Tempest's Teapot - A Bellydance Blog

OwlKeyMe Arts

Waking Persephone: Dancing Through the Dark & Unusual 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nobody's Right If Everybody's Wrong.

The blog title this week is from a song I grew up hearing, and that one line especially came to mind when I considered a lot of what I saw online recently. (see bottom of post for video of the song and link to a discussion about it). 

Last week, the bellydance community (as well as some overlapping sub-cultural communities) was in an uproar about an opinion piece that was posted on  Many things have been said in response, ranging from really beautiful, articulate responses to visceral, raw rants and raves. Followed in hot pursuit by another wide range of successive responses to those responses.

I am pretty sure I have now seen where every single opinion, thought, and nuance has been both lauded and attacked in turn.  Essentially culminating in: it doesn't matter who you are/where you come from/what you say/how you say it: you are wrong, so shut up. Which doesn't empower or help anyone.  Solutions don't come from shutting people down, they come from understanding, respect, and acceptance of differences. In particular, the acceptance and understanding that your neighbor's opinion and experience can be different from your own, and respecting that opinion doesn't negate yours or validate theirs.

Many people have asked me for my opinion on the original piece.  Here it is: I can appreciate the author's point of view and issues raised and even agree with them on several levels.  I am not a fan of the delivery, as there was a lot of misinformation mixed with a clear intent to inflame.  I can indeed respect work where the major intent is to incite, as it can certainly bring about change (though not my own preferred method, as I don't go "ok, how do I piss the most amount of people off" before I make any of my work - art, dance, writing, etc), but I expect the presenter to have their ducks in a row, and be prepared to open a dialogue, versus shutting it down.

I wasn't offended by the article, nor did I think it brought up anything new.  It is also somewhat hard for me not talk about my own experiences growing up in a home of mixed religion and as many would also think, mixed race - in an area that's seen more than its fair share of conflict between "marginal" communities over the last century. Yet I feel that if I do talk about my history, it opens up a counter-response that says I should shut up - invalidating my own experiences, and feeding into an ouroboros of ineffectual discourse.  But it is my experience, and my voice - so regardless of what you think about me because of my apparent racial background, gender, or religion, it has just as much right to exist as anyone else's. ANYONE.  We are all human, plain and simple. Which brings me to one of my frustrations that I have had with some of the  "social justice movement" over the last 5-6 years: there is a whole lot of "you're doing it wrong"  mixed with "you are X, so you aren't allowed to have a say" - neither of which fosters change or brings about positive solutions.  And by saying I think that mentality sucks, I am NOT negating the fact that there are real issues or invalidating their right to be heard. Nor am I attacking that person, their community, etc.  We need to get down the the bare roots of "I'm a human, you're a human. There's a problem here - how do we talk about solving it?"

It is especially because of my background that I have been hypersensitive about cultural exchange for most of my life.  I remember in 4th grade, our teacher separated us into "ethnic" groups to make a point about stereotypes and racism.  Over here were the Irish kids, there the Italian kids, Indian ones over here, Polish ones over there, etc - and she dictated what each group could or couldn't do, such as go to the movies, or an amusement park, or certain restaurant. Oddly, what I remember most about that exercise was out of two dozen kids, there were only about 2 or 3 of us (including myself) that couldn't be placed in one of those "all-X" groups, and that was frustrating for the teacher.  So ironically, during an exercise about overcoming racism, we felt even more singled out than everybody else.  But I think more importantly, this was the beginning of my journey to understand where I came from, what did that mean, and who does that make me now.  What does it mean to be a creature of many backgrounds, living in America today? Not only for myself, but how I interact with others?

It also meant to me that whatever art I was interested in, that I would learn everything and anything about it that I could before I explored it. It is natural for me to be an adamant researcher into whatever I explore, so it is a bit startling to realize that not everyone approaches life that way.  See something cool/different? Find out about it before you wear it/do it/sing it/play it.  That's what you do.  Emphasized again and again throughout all of my art school training - know what you're using before you use it. If you screw up - admit it, then go remedy it.

See or encounter somebody who doesn't know what they're doing? Then reach out to them and help them discover what they're missing, versus berating them.  Educational honey vs. vinegar.  Which is the same point I have been arguing about fusion and traditional bellydance for the last dozen years.  Know where it all comes from - and be willing to teach those who may have missed out, versus bashing them. Yes, I am sure that perhaps being scolded works better for some individuals than reaching out to them, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt - that they do also want to learn, but they just didn't know or realize it.

In the last century, humanity has made a fair amount of progress in moving forward - about understanding our differences AND similarities in race, gender, sexuality, religion.  It was slow at first, but now, with the help of the internet, we're moving along at a hyper speed, much faster than anything else we've ever experienced.  Borders are being blurred and erased - more and more cultures are intermarrying, new paradigms of family units being created. We are becoming even more culturally blended, a truly global community, yet are still extra sensitive and cautious.  We are somewhat stepping all over each other trying to point out what's wrong.

We can't solve all of the problems out there in a day. But we can take each day as an opportunity to understand ourselves, where we come from, and reach out to our neighbors and friends to do the same.  We can learn from history - our ancestors and their actions, without saddling ourselves or others with the transgressions of those long-deceased, or the currently ignorant. We can listen to each other and share our experiences respectfully and be willing to open up dialogue for change, rather than discourse for chaos.

It is within our human nature to be wary, even fearful of "the other", but it also within our nature to share and to create.  One of the most powerful aspects of the arts is their ability to cross borders and revel in what it truly means to be human.  In learning about the arts - be it a dance of your own culture, or the theater of another, we expand upon the human spirit and emphasize our connectivity. And that is something we can all be right about. 

(more on the story behind this song here...)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cultural Exchange

"Spirit I" - original painting by the author
Back at the dawn of civilization, a tribe of people from one area met a tribe of people from another - and didn't set out to obliterate each other. Instead, they oogled over each other's crafts/skills - special to each tribe because of its natural surroundings, resources, and developed abilities.  

It is human nature to find interest in things that are different from our normal existence.  And through this mutual appreciation, trade happened.  Whole villages, towns, cities and routes were built on the concept of trade and cultural exchange.  Humanity advanced as a whole because of it when the exchange was respected - and inversely failed when it turned to greed and war instead. 

We are of the age now where the tribes aren't just a small region, country, or continent - we are becoming a global community, where the lines of origin are often blurred at the individual level, roots far-reaching and tangled.  We are all interconnected, regardless of the color of our skin, shape of our bodies, gender, sexuality, or age. Our continued goal as humanity is to foster respect and understanding across a multicultural world - for in respecting and honoring others, we do the same for ourselves.

-Laura Tempest Zakroff, 3-5-2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dance Naked!

Photo by Becky Plexco, at the NOLA Witches Ball 2013
Recently, I had the lovely opportunity to meet with a group of high school students who are involved with the SEEDS program here in Seattle.  My task was to share with them a little bit about my experiences as a business woman in the arts (dancer, designer, artist) - and to answer any questions they may have about me, what I do, etc. It was a lot of fun!

At one point during the session, I talked about how being Goth merged rather naturally with my bellydance performance inspirations - it made perfect sense (to me) that my aesthetic and personality would influence how the dance came through me.  And I found myself, probably out of years of habit, noting that being of the Gothic subculture did not mean I was depressed, obsessed with death, hurting myself, satanic, or any of the other typical incorrect stereotypes that can pop up.  Rather, that to me, Goth is about seeing the beauty in all things, finding the balance of light and shadow, thinking outside the lines, and expanding our understanding of myth, mystery, and the unknown.  Therefore, this view of the world influences everything I do - my art, my dance, my design, and how I interact with the rest of the world.

They got it.  I dare say they even thought it was really cool. (Considering I'm old enough to be in the "mom zone,"  I'll take it!)

On the drive back home, I got to thinking about what makes a "dark" bellydance performance successful - and well, what makes it dark?  What does it mean, that considering in my earliest days of performing, when I wasn't doing anything intentional other than being myself, that others identified that there was something else going on there, indicative of silent film, film noir, and dark imagery?  What does that say about all the other elements and ephemera that people may feel are necessary to bring into it now?

If you strip away the make-up, costuming, and props - would the piece still read as dark? If there wasn't a gravemarker there to show you're in a cemetery or mourning, if there's no fangs or fake blood to show you're a vampire, if there's no daggers, whips, or other types of weaponry to look menacing with - can you still get the point (hah) across? If there's no leather or corseting, no spikes or chains, shredded or netted attire, does it still look dark?

Well, for some people, it IS all about the look, and it will always be - so all of those things are deemed necessary. It's not that different than demanding that the classic bellydancer must have a certain look - hair, costuming, body-type, etc.  Some people feel much more comfortable with markers they can easily recognize and label.  In the larger picture, those theatrical elements do count in adding to the experience - personally for the dancer (to aid in any transformation) as well as visually for the audience.

But we know the right "look" doesn't mean everything else is there.  Nor does just having the moves down do it. The dancer must be one with the music AND translate it to the audience, being in command of their body while performing.  And that is something that will be present in a successful dancer - whether they are wearing a top of the line costume, or a bathrobe.  Whether it's expressing the core emotional quality of song, or sharing in the sensation of human existence, the dancer is truly communicating content beyond a series of moves and gestures.

Gothic or  dark fusion takes that intense level of expression, and blends it with theatrical, mythical, and/or sacred content - adding another layer of storytelling. For me, it all started because I was taking my visual artist brain - already deeply focused on telling stories and exploring myth- and applying it to dance. I told myself a story to remember how I wanted to move through the dance through various parts of the music, and then subsequently discovered that the audience picked up on that.  As I grew in my dance and performance ability (and will continue to do so - until I die!), my communication skills as a dancer increased even more dramatically.

So while I love creating new costuming for my dances, I'm also fascinated with how simple I can make things - how much can I get across without needing to spell out all of the details visually through props, make-up, and costuming? And I love to challenge my students with the same task, making them stretch their skills, push their own boundaries, and find their voices within.  Essentially - if you were to dance "naked" - that is, without any additional special aids, can you still get your point across to the audience?

Regardless of what style you dance, have a go at dancing naked, and see what happens!

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Difficulty of Being In Your Body

I get twitchy when people talk about implementing uniforms in school, particularly "to crack down on bullying".  I attended Catholic school from kindergarten to my freshman year of high school, and a big thing I realized - instead of being made fun of because of what you wore - since everyone had to wear the same thing - it was much more personal: your body, your face, your background - whether you were too fat, too thin, too dark, too light, too tall, too short, too whatever.  All of which are elements about yourself that are not easily changed, and can seriously impact your self-esteem and how you interact with the world. When my family moved and I ended up going to a public high school,  I noticed was that while some people may not have cared for my style of dress, no one made fun of my body or background, nor did I observe it with anyone else.

That contrast in experiences came to the forefront of my mind this past weekend, as I gave two back-to-back sessions of "Tempest's Guide to Style", which focuses on how to make flattering choices in costume for your body, regardless of age, size, or style.  In order to figure out how to do this, every participant examines his/her own body-lines to determine the shapes that make it up, what they need to emphasize, and what they want to downplay.  It's not an easy task, but it's amazing how people react when they start to look with fresh eyes not only at their own body, but at others as well.  I believe that every dancer, regardless of their shape, size, age, etc - can look AMAZING on stage - if they are given the tools on how to do it, which includes looking at themselves objectively.

And every time I teach it, it gets me thinking about how we perceive our own bodies versus what other people see - and how we get there.

During those early years of school, the uniform only really served to show others that I was skinny, flat-chested, hairy, and of a mixed background.  It made me feel uncomfortable and very critical of not only myself, but also in defense mode, to be critical of others.  But with the move, going to a new school, and being able to dress how I wanted, I found that I had no desire to be critical of others physically.  Instead, I switched over to "reading" people.  I figured others out more by sensing their energy, body language, and general behavior - not their size, shape, or color.  And as I began to mature as an artist, I became fascinated with lines and shapes - what made each person unusual, and uniquely them.  My senior AP Art portfolio focused on portraits of a particular classmate because I found him intriguing and unique.  

Essentially I learned to look at every person I encountered from the inside-out, instead of the reverse.  And to observe the lines, shapes, and patterns that made them up as part of their existence, versus judgment on who they were or could be.  I see "Betty who is genuinely friendly, energetic, with the beautiful flower tattoo and gorgeous eyes" not "Betty who is short, 40 pounds overweight and shouldn't be eating a hamburger" and "Dreamy Sally with the amazing hair and soothing voice" not "Sally who is very tall and thin and needs to eat more." 

It is certainly not my place to judge someone else's physical appearance nor apply my opinions on what they should or could do with their life and lifestyle choices.  

Yet society (and the glossy media especially) tends to push us to do just that - to judge others and ourselves.  We can be especially way too hard on ourselves, as show by the  prevalence of eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and fad diets.  We develop skewed perceptions of our own bodies, often failing to see the beautiful aspects in favor of blowing out what's wrong.  But we all possess some characteristic that someone else finds amazing and beautiful.  If we could only see that in ourselves! And especially understand that we're all struggling with the trials of the human existence.

I know for me personally, I'd be happy to live in my head/heart/spirit, and not have to focus on my body - it is full of mysteries, changes, and requires constant upkeep! Let's face it - being a physical entity is extremely difficult - for ALL of us.  Every single person out there is having a struggle, regardless of their size, shape, age.

And I know there are probably folks out there going, "Oh sure, that's easy for you to say, you're thin/young/whatever." But again, - we're ALL in this experience together, we all have issues we are dealing with. 
Why make it even harder? Why discount anyone else's experience because of what you THINK they may be about, from their appearance? There is no "greater than" rating between someone who struggles to lose weight and someone struggling to gain or maintain it.  Each is valid.  And aren't we supposed to teaching young people to value actions over image, sincerity over gloss, and that true beauty comes from within first and foremost?

That kind of thinking has to start from within each and every one of us.  For a minute, stop comparing and contrasting yourself to others, and listing what's wrong about your body, and start to think about what's right.  What do you like about yourself today? What about you makes you, you? What is beautiful about you?  I can guarantee you there is at least ONE thing, and probably a heck of a lot more than that. Write it down. Try to do it once a day, for a whole week, and then go back and read them.

Next challenge: the next person you encounter: try to get a sense of who they are, not by what size/color/age they are, but how they feel to you.  Even if it's someone you never end up interacting with - try it and make a note of what you think.  I promise soon you'll start looking at people in a whole new way.

Start with the beauty within, and you'll start to see it not only in yourself, but in those around you.

Friday, February 21, 2014

You like me! You really like me!

While I was away at PantheaCon, I received notice that this blog was nominated for DBQ's "Best Belly Blog" - thanks y'all!

To see the other nominees and place your vote, head over to

And again, thank you!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Out and In and Out of the Broom Closet

"The Red God Revel" at PantheaCon (2004?) with T. Thorn Coyle on the left,
Anaar on the right, Tempest in the middle (with horns)
I tend to forget that not everyone knows the "Origins of Tempest" story.

Blogger tells me that I've written over 130 posts on just this particular blog since I started it back in 2010, and well it's quite logical that most of you haven't been here for the whole ride, or very familiar with me prior to becoming a "name" in the bellydance scene nearly a decade ago. Which is totally cool - heck, you may have just found me last week, and that's how it rolls.

So, last week when I had posted on facebook that I was preparing to go to a Pagan convention (PantheaCon), I was surprised by the number of people who exclaimed they had no idea I was Pagan. Which is made even more funny by the fact that I tend to assume that most of the people I run into in various communities are Pagan, until proven otherwise.  Not that it matters to me what path ANYONE follows, as long as they are respectful to others - but my experience with counterculture folk from the last 15 years or so, is that they tend to follow "non-conservative" spiritual paths as well. 

I think that me being Pagan is pretty obvious to anyone familiar with my artwork or dance, but when I step out of my head a bit, I'm definitely not hanging it out there as a major shingle like some others in the bellydance arena who emphasize in their short description as being a priestess, shaman, witch, goddess, etc. And I am by no means as public about it as I used to be when I first started dancing.

Why?  Well, I was in a different place back then.  During college, I started a Pagan student group for RISD, which also made it open for Brown students...and then, it seemed natural to open it up to any local college students (URI, J&W, Bryant, RICC, etc), and then from there it became the largest open path Pagan group in New England, open to ANYONE. (I doubt college policies and the new security measures would allow for that now!). It was called the Cauldron of Annwyn Pagan Society.  We held the first RI Pagan Pride event, constructed giant lighted labyrinth ritual in downtown Providence at Samhain (for 2 or 3 years running), had trips up to Salem, MA, produced "Arts & The Craft Fair" at RISD (promoting the merger of fine art and Paganism - featuring workshops, ritual, and vending), celebrated the esbats and sabbats, did community outreach, and so forth.  In addition to this (and working towards my BFA + a part-time job + being married), I was also the associate editor of Crescent Magazine: A Pagan Publication of Art, Philosophy, and Belief, and became the regional coordinator for PPD.  I was 19-21 during this time. I attended the first Pagan Leaders Conference in Bloomington, IN, and got more involved on a national level. From the Cauldron and other close friends I was working with, I spawned the House of Annwyn, which was a family tradition (we don't use the term 'coven') - so then we had big public events for the Cauldron, and smaller workings with our family. My senior-year solo show was based on the facts and myths of "The Burning Times." I frequently was interviewed by the local papers/news organizations, gave lectures at local colleges, and maintained a large website. In retrospect, I have no idea how I managed to do all of these things, all at the same time.  (Probably because I was barely in my 20's and never had it in my head that I couldn't do it all.) 

I got into bellydancing because it seemed like a natural addition to our tradition's ritual practices.  The whole family signed up for classes. Several of us continued on, but most didn't. In 2001, I moved from Rhode Island to the Bay Area of California - partly to get more involved with bellydance and to be able to work more closely on Crescent Magazine - where my friend (also the main editor) lived.  I stumbled into a job as a professional Tarot Reader/Psychic at The Psychic Eye in Mountain View.  I also gave weekly classes in metaphysics (magic, divination, etc). I worked more intensely on the magazine, but I found a completely different environment for the Pagan community.  There were as many Pagans at the SF PPD as we had back at the first RI one! The Bay Area was far more progressive towards other faiths than New England (and probably still is), so the pull to unite and have solidarity was far less great (or that's my theory anyway). I also felt disconnected from my tradition and family back east. My practice became more solitary, more quiet on the political and community side of things.

Instead, I focused more on my dancing. I researched, studied, and wrote articles on sacred dance, trance, and more.  I merged goddess-concepts with my performances - presenting "Kali Ma,"  "The Rusalka," "Becoming," and "Whole & Horn" at the Living Goddess Dance Theater (2002-2005) and "Kali Ma Dance Ritual," "Dance of the Djinn," and "The Red God Revel" at PantheaCon. I found a sacred/ritual dance partner in Anaar - and we performed some of these aforementioned pieces together, as well as opened up several Tribal Fests with a ritual dance presentation.  However, in the overall genre, I encountered a lot of "woo" and not much academia or free-thinking with many who claimed to do sacred/ritual/goddess dance - instead a focus on exclusion, or a desire for dominance versus acceptance, or similar types of ego-play.  I didn't want to be identified with that, so I chose to integrate my beliefs more subtly with my concepts on stage in and in the classroom, instead of being very "in your face" about it. Those in the know, would know - and those that didn't, it was fine.

So over the last decade, I eased from being heavily involved with the Pagan community to being mostly disconnected from it, and from being a "bellydancing Witch" to a bellydance artist.  In retrospect, the transition had a lot to do with the various states of personal relationships as well - and I also now recognize, moving away from making visual art (a different arena I feel than costume design, graphic design, etc). Which had been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Entering this decade, things began to shift again - slowly at first, then drastically.  A lot of things changed for me personally, and it affected all the areas of my life. I reconnected with making art, the roots of my desire to dance, with my spirituality, and most importantly, myself.  I find myself now caring a lot less about what other people are doing, or what they think of me and about what I am doing.  And that has been incredibly freeing in so many ways.  The ideas are flowing, the doors and windows are opening, and there is much work before me to do!

I don't think I'm about to take on any more labels though.  This is simply the Tempest experience.

(Or "The Tempest Experience(tm)" LOL!) 

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Tastemaker Challenge

Gertrude Stein (portrait by Pablo Picasso)
writer, patron of the arts, revolutionary tastemaker & bad-ass
I am easing my way back into the World of Visual Arts. Not only does this trek involve making more artwork (drawings, paintings, etc), but in order to put it out there, it also means engaging the trappings and patterns that are part of selling and showing artwork. Some of them are good, and some of them are utter bullshit. 

Art is a very subjective thing - what one person loves, another person will hate.  It is also a rather abstract entity that a lot of people find difficult to understand.  Art is definitely a necessary thing in our daily lives, but it's much harder for the average person to feel like they have an educated opinion on what is good art and what is bad art.  Downright intimidating actually! Compared to more concrete activities we interact with, such as cooking (it's either good, ok, or bad food) or building/construction (safe/effective/made to last or dangerous/shoddy/temporary), it gets a lot harder to judge art without training and sufficient exposure - not to mention factoring in a person's personal experience that will affect how they interact with art.  Often people feel more comfortable with a piece of work or a particular artist if someone else tells them it's good/great work.  If it's in a museum, or hanging in a gallery, for sale at a print shop, or sold for a lot of money at auction, it MUST be valuable, and therefore good/great work! Hard to argue with that, right? It makes sense. But not every piece of artwork by a famous or "great" artist is a successful piece of work.  Not every piece in a museum is a masterpiece. And not everything hung in a gallery is great art or made by a talented artist.

A museum may have an original by Picasso or Monet, but they're often more focused on the name, than whether that piece of work is a truly a great example of that artist's work. Not every piece of artwork by a famous artist is automatically a successful work or masterpiece. A gallery may hang a certain artist because they have a popular/trendy style, or an unusual spin that may make their work standout or cause controversy in the press, even though it may not be as successful or original as a less-personally dramatic artist. 

So what does this post and thought-process have to do with dance?

Dance is an art - a performing art most specifically.  In traditional visual art, we're often looking a painting on a wall or a sculpture, separated from the actual artist. But in dance, it becomes much harder to separate the dance from the dancer. We can look at the movement, the costuming, the musicality, but we can never really separate that all from the fact that we're looking at a human being.  Even more so in bellydance, which is often a lot more personal, more intimate in its setting and presentation than big stage dance productions.  

And in recent years, the term/concept "Cult of Personality" has worked its way into the bellydance community - referring to when someone's charisma, quirks, placement, connections, and/or associations have garnered them a lot of attention and personality - perhaps more so than what they bring to the dance itself.  There's a lot of enthusiasm and popularity surrounding them, but there's also the suggestion that they would not be where they are at on their dancing merits alone. Sometimes there's just flat-out jealousy involved in the use of this term, but other times, it can have a pretty solid (yet possibly unpopular) argument in reality. 

Which brings me to the intersection of art, dance, and the subjective opinion. It really takes years to be able to understand what is good or great dance (and how to do it), just as it takes a lot of training to understand what is good or great art.  When we start to learn dance, we tend to believe that anyone we see who can dance or perform better than us is a good/great dancer - and we often also simply absorb in our brains that whomever our teacher believes is a great dancer, must be.  It's really not that different from believing that anything hanging in a museum, gallery, etc - must be great art. We want to go with the popular opinion and be right - we want to be seen as having good taste!

But not every performance by a famous/popular dancer is really great dance. Sometimes it takes several "drafts" to make a piece really successful.  Or sometimes, it's just not a great or well-thought idea, not practiced enough, was "phoned in", maybe they were sick, etc. Or maybe just one of the parts is working: the costume is eye-catching and expensive-looking, or there was a neat combo or trick, or the music was different, or maybe they were conventionally beautiful human beings. When I see performances being lauded as "great" and "amazing" - but they fall flat for me - I have to wonder if people would say the same thing if there wasn't a name attached, or one of those aforementioned "working" parts.  If a "no-name" dancer did the same performance under the same circumstances, would it still be celebrated? If they were older, overweight, or not conventionally pretty, but everything else was the same? These are the things I ponder. Because often, I don't think we're really looking at just the dance - it's very hard to separate out the human doing the dance.  And how we may feel about that person, or how they make us feel about ourselves or beliefs.

So how can we have better, more-educated opinions about what we're seeing? How do we become our own tastemakers?   Here are some suggestions:

* Try to separate the name from the dance.  Don't automatically assume that because it's a big/popular name, what you are about to see is great, or vice versa.

* Ask yourself what do you find successful about what you are watching?  Is there anything that you found distracting or unsuccessful?

* Does the dance match the music completely, not just a few spots? Does the costuming work with the dance, or does it distract you from it?

* If there are multiple dancers, how are they interacting? Are their movements truly precise and in unison when they are supposed to be? Or are they off? How is their stage spacing?

* If there are multiple pieces/parts, do they flow together? Is there contrast? How are the transitions?

* If there are props, how successfully are they being used?  Are they truly being danced with, or are they just an accessory of distraction? A gimmick?

* How does the piece make you feel? Ask yourself why.

* And if it's being described as bellydance - what makes it bellydance in your eyes?

Asking yourself these questions isn't about criticizing who you're watching.  Rather it's about evaluating what you're seeing, and in turn helping further your own dance journey.  As you figure out what works or doesn't, what YOU like and don't like and WHY, you can make more educated decisions about your own dance style. You CAN be your own tastemaker! 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Cheese Stands Alone (In Which Tempest Explains ALL THE THINGS...or at least what makes for a unique dancer...)

Part of my personality involves the drive to know what's going on everywhere in the communities I am involved with- locally, nationally, internationally. (The other part of my personality questions whether this is a good thing, and perhaps it would be better to live in an information black out cave...)

So I notice the who/where/what in the teaching and performing sides of things, and try to familiarize myself with new names/faces involved in events.  And sometimes I get to go "Oh wow! cool! different!".

Sometimes. In fact, that happens a lot less than I would prefer.  More often it's a..."Err..who is this again? They're offering what? Why?" and I start to suspect that I'm in some version of the original "Return to Oz"*  - and it's really just pop a different head on the same body...or just switch out the tattoos.

*(Admission: I saw that movie only once. In grade school (a Catholic school).  And the only part that has stuck with me three decades later is the hall of heads...)

I'm looking at the same sort of movements (mainly combinations), same expressions, same music/musicality, same sort of costuming.  My eyes glaze over and my heart sinks.  It gets worse when I check in on names I haven't seen in a while, and they have seemingly joined in, losing what I saw/considered what made them, 

Then I see a line-up of all of the same, and I wonder how students pick out what to take for workshops?  Same topics, slightly different face? Is that what sells? Why all the same, again and again?

It depresses the hell out of me.  How did we get from unique and diverse views to some sort of globular cloned mass? Is it about fitting in?

Now, it's not really that bad.  I know this. Really I do, but that's the feeling that comes over me from time to time, and I wonder.  Am I missing something? Should I change?

Then the part of me that also made the argument for the cave earlier, slaps me around.  (Seriously, Geminis have cornered the market on a unique form of masochism...) And I count my blessings for the awesome and amazing folks who take my classes and my workshops, because they are solid proof that there are dancers out there who want to sincerely develop their own style. That they want something different, and it truly does matter to them. This reminder makes my heart lift and my spirit soar. And I watch the dancers who I have mentored over the years truly come into their own...and it's so damn beautiful!

It's easy to be a clone. It's easy to look like everyone else. It feels safe. It can feel so right.  But it leaves you mute and backs you into corner, which is artistic death, IMHO. (And for some reason, this here makes me think of the goddess Media from Neil Gaiman's "American Gods"...).  Of course, not everyone wants to really be an artist.  (This is hard for an artist to understand, I must confess...)

Years ago, I was having a discussion with a student about a rising dancer in the year - I didn't quite get why this dancer was popular - they weren't doing anything that was different or unique - instead they were very much a clone of Big Name popular dancer.  My student said, "Yeah, but they're OUR local version of Big Name."  This was somewhat of a revelation for me.  Like the appeal knock-off of a Brand Name Designer purse - you know it's not really Brand Name, but it looks close enough and was cheaper, so why not?  (Which could be a whole other blog post...but let's not go there now...) And so the clone dancer gets exalted for being the local knock-off, gets pushed to the next level, without ever really developing what could make them THEM - finding their inspiration from within, or really being valued for what they could bring to the table utilizing their own ideas/skills.  Without that, they're pretty much guided in the direction to teach how to be a clone, versus how to be your own dancer.

It really is the hardest part - finding your own voice, your own inspiration, your own way of doing things.  It takes a lot of hard work to push through the crowd and define yourself and to do it well.  It also requires a great deal of bravery.

Which also explains the large amount of envelope pushing that has been more prevalent over the last decade. (Actually, a lot of it has gone beyond envelope pushing - it's more like throttling - and someone's knocked over the mailbox and taken out the delivery person in the process.)  

Think about it. You get known for being a great clone. Well, now there's also 50 other great clones - what can you do to stand out?  Lightbulb!  DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! And that tends to involve coming up with something weird/unusual/wacky/bizarre combination of elements because you have to STAND OUT!

But here's the thing.  You may stand out for doing something weird/unusual - but that doesn't make you different or unique.  Or mean that it's a successful, sustainable idea. In order to stand out, you need to be you.  It's not about pulling a stunt or a schtick or a gimmick.  That's a thing.  That's not you. And it's not going to grow with you over time.  Being you takes time.  It's a journey, but in the end, you'll see the difference.  Once that happens, it won't matter what you're wearing, or what music you're dancing to, or what style your make-up is - people will know you for truly being you.

And the best part is? You don't have to have any hard and fast ideas about what it means to be you.  You just have to trust yourself and sincerely explore the possibilities in front of you.  No, that's not easy, but it's so worth it.

Go forth, be brave. Be you!