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!