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 Salon.com.  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!