Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Heart of Darkness

In the last few weeks, I have unfortunately witnessed several individuals making disparaging, bigoted, fear-mongering, and racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims*. While people displaying their ignorance and hate on social media isn't anything new (alas) - what really and truly upset me was that in their own photos and posts, showing them dripping in Afghani/Kuchi jewelry, Egyptian fringe, while laying on Berber and Persian textiles, these people claimed to also be bellydancers.  From a variety of styles. 

That pretty much broke my brain.  I don't see how you can claim to teach and/or perform this dance, decorate yourself and your living space in objects originating primarily from Arabic and Muslim cultures, and make money off of it, while totally trashing the people largely responsible for all of it.

Whether you're doing Turkish, Egyptian, ATS, Tribal Fusion, Vintage Oriental or Fusion, the roots are clearly there, and when you study and practice a dance, you are (or should be) acknowledging where that dance came from.  Even if you want to claim the fantasy that this dance was done thousands of years ago in temples to honor Isis, Ishtar, or Inanna (which it could have been, we have no way of knowing for sure either way) as a way of divorcing it from the modern culture, you're wearing costuming and jewelry, and decorating with objects made by people LIVING in that culture right now.  Who are not terrorists or extremists, and are just trying to get through life with as little hassle as possible.

Even if you claim that all of your stuff is made here (be it the Americas, or Europe, or anywhere NOT the Middle/Near/Far East), that doesn't take away the responsibility of cultural responsibility.** Here in the United States, we don't just study only American History - there are mandatory curriculum classes in World and European History. Why? Because it's important to know these things, how everything and everyone evolves, and how we are all interconnected globally. So the same is true for modern fusions of the dance - know the evolution, know the roots, respect them.

Which brings us to a very hot and relevant topic in bellydance right now - cultural appropriation, a phrase that often causes hackles to raise - and with good reason on all sides.

First, let's look at the definition of the word appropriate, which in this application means: "to take to or for oneself; take possession of, or to take without permission or consent; to seize; expropriate; to steal." Now, notice the difference in definition for the word appreciate - "to be grateful or thankful for; to value or regard highly; place a high estimate on; to be fully conscious of; be aware of; detect: to raise in value."

To appropriate is to disregard or disrespect the origin of something, while using it for your own gain.  To appreciate is to acknowledge and respect the origin, while raising positive awareness for it through your actions. 

I would rather be guilty of cultural appreciation than appropriation, wouldn't you?

There are those out there using the tagline of "cultural appropriation" not as a means to open up a dialogue (which should be the intent right?) but to draw attention to themselves, as in "I'm pointing out the wrong, praise me for showing how wrong these people are, I did a good thing, and you should totally vilify them."  That's about operating a personal agenda, not raising social awareness and sensitivity - and that sort of tactic tends to bruise more than it heals. It's frustrating, and it's the easy way out, because it is much more scary and difficult to open up a conversation with the Other.  We can get comfortable behind our screens - but so much more good can be done face to face. (And yes, I realize the inherent irony here of a blog, but I definitely work on practicing what I write about in "real life.") 

With that said, it's vitally important for bellydancers to listen, understand, and address these concerns. When someone raises the cultural appropriation flag, we should not look at it defensively as someone yelling at us "You need to stop dancing!" but rather ask ourselves, "What are we doing to honor this dance?"

It is also very important for us to understand what and how the younger generations see us.  As I have mentioned earlier on in the year and last year - there is a decline in younger students.  One of the many reasons for this is that young people are far more culturally aware and sensitive now than ever. They don't want to be involved in something that seems offensive and outdated. So we must ask ourselves, "Are we aware of how we are representing the dance?"

So that solution part I mentioned earlier? Regardless of what style you dance, understand it's definitive connection to both Arab and Muslim cultures.  The least you can do is be respectful of those cultures - and the most you can do is immerse yourself in learning about them, from classes to travel abroad, or within your hometown. Reach out to help with refugees through donations or services, be an advocate against hate speech.  Learn, know, and respect the roots of your dance by treating those people as you would wish to be treated.  That's human thing to do.

*I specifically say "Arabs and Muslims" because not all Arabs are Muslim (they can be Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or whatever), nor are all Muslims of Arabic descent (Turks, Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, Caucasian, etc).  Hopefully this is not a newsflash, but from the state of the Internet, it seems a lot of folks don't understand this.

**Most bellydance imports today are made in North Africa (Egyptian, Morocco, etc), Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.  I can guarantee for you that the majority of those workers aren't Christian white folk. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Real Safe Haven

“Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on C├ęzanne
A little while ago I noticed a fair amount of folks throwing around the concept of "the stage as a safe place for our art."  And it really puzzled the heck out of me. In fact I am pretty sure I made this sound.

I credit my years of art school training with instilling within me the concept that the studio/classroom is a "safe" place to learn and grow, but once it goes out to the gallery, anything can happen.  You can practice your technique, charter your concept, execute your theory as much as you want, but once it goes out to the public, it's largely out of your hands how people will respond. So it's not "safe", and by the nature of it, is actually extremely risky and full of danger.

Which I think therein lies in much of the source of stage fright.  Sure, you're afraid you're going to mess up, but much of the fear has a lot more to do with doing it in front of a whole bunch of people, and not knowing how they will react: the unknown frontier. We know this to be true through our own experience as the audience - because of what we have thought when we have been exposed to other people's art on stage. (Everyone's a critic right?) 

The stage and the gallery, these are not "safe" places. You can think you're hitting your target market and sympathetic audience all you want, but you have no control over what people think. Whether you're walking out on stage or hanging your art up on a wall, you are vulnerable.  Whether it's your body as a performer, or your visual art, or the music you play - you become exposed. It is the nature of performing, of putting your art out there.  We hope that we will be treated kindly, with insight, understanding, and respect - but we should also be aware of the diversity of human nature. It's hard to control who watches and comments on your videos and photos when you're trying to promote your work and get it out there. In order to become better performers, stronger artists, we have to accept those risks, process the feedback, and do what we can to protect ourselves in ways that won't hinder our growth or harm us.

Which is why I'm a big advocate for making sure the classroom/studio IS a safe place. Because of the dangerous nature of the stage, the classroom must provide a positive environment to build better artists. It must come from a place of respect and understanding between and among teachers and students.  It is important for students to feel comfortable enough to allow themselves to be challenged. It is vital for students to learn not only how to give but also how to receive constructive critiques.

What I try to do to make my classroom a safe place, in no particular order:
-Cut back on negative talk: whether it's self-deprecation or gossip/gripes about specific people/events/situations, the classroom is not the place for this. There's no room for excuses like "I can't do" or "I didn't do that because" - instead we focus on how we can make it work.
-Address students and others respectfully: All of my students are on the same level, despite how long they have been involved or how long I know them. I may push the ones I know closely a bit more because I can see when they are not giving themselves a fair shake, but there are no "stars." I will also name folks I respect by name and why, but I'm not going name those I don't agree with like "Glitterbibi can't find a beat to safe her life." Instead, I will use what irks me to find inspiration on how to teach my students to do better. Students should treat other as well respectfully.
-Balance general and specific feedback: Everyone can use posture reminders. Telling my class to make sure their chins are up creates a meerkat experience in my classroom that is fun and effective, but I also look for gentle ways to address problems individual dancers have without them feeling targeted or interrupting the class flow too much. We work on critique exercises, including the infamous "crit sandwich cookie."
-Communication: I encourage my students to ask me questions and to come to me about issues and concerns. I also have signals for when we need to cut down on chit-chat and get to work.
-Body/Age/Gender Positivity: All sizes, all ages, all genders are welcome in my classes. I am sensitive to the fact that moves will vary visually from body to body, and seek to help each student discover how to make the most of each move on their frame with their skill level and ability.
-We all Mess Up: I acknowledge the fact that I'm a dork in other people's classes (and well, in my own as well). We all make mistakes, that's how we learn how to do it right. If we can take away the fear of "doing it wrong" in class, students have much more confidence when it comes to doing it right on stage.

We can't protect our students from everything that could possibly happen on stage, but we can prepare them, and give them to the tools to be stronger performers. Which, if you think about it, makes them better audience members as well. Both elements in turn makes for a stronger, more supportive community that continues to elevate and empower itself.

Lastly, while we understand the stage is NOT a safe place, we recognize that beyond the dangers lay the possibilities for growth, transformation, education, and inspiration. That it is a risk worth taking for the artist who wishes to surpass their ego for the sake of enriching their work, as well as those who will come in contact with it.  Together we change.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Lies Beneath

Now that another successful Waking Persephone has come and gone, and I'm back from being on tour, I'm starting work on a series of posts to help foster positive growth and stability within the dance community.  This first post highlights things I said in the community roundtable, and recent workshops. 

One of the many thoughts that ran through my head as I watched the chaos build, ebb, and spread online in mid-September is that these things were simply more rocks hitting an already cracked and compromised windshield, more bricks building on a crumbling wall, more weight on a thin sheet of ice.

To put it simply: the "bellydance community"* is not as strong as we'd like to think it is. A strong community knows how to properly and responsibly react to and handle problems.  It knows how to provide adequate support, help foster resolution, and clearly communicate. It repeatedly sets up and holds to positive examples of professionalism while addressing personal needs. And if it doesn't know how to do these things, it learns how to do them in order to become stronger.

I believe it is very important to stand up against objectification and fight sexual misconduct. But in order to best address those and similar issues, we need to make sure we're already taking care of ourselves and each other solidly. There is a significant level of harm that is done by dancers to each other through slander, theft of intellectual property, undercutting, and other shoddy business practices.  These very rampant issues cause much harm to our community - personally and professionally.  But they are rarely dealt with head-on and more often ignored for the sake of the cult of personality or "being nice."

So what can we do?

It all comes down to communication.

Communication is the cornerstone of community. Good communication fosters growth, stability, and solidarity.  Poor communication drives wedges, feeds negativity, and brews distrust.

It is very easy to get carried away with things we read online, misconstrue them, and feed into controversy.  But more often than not, all of that can be avoided entirely with a few easy steps.  Words can build and words can break, so it's up to us to use them effectively. So here are three points that can help us all build a better community:

READ. Practice comprehensive reading.  Before you share an item or reply to something, read it. Then read it again.  Then read it at least one more time to make sure you understand it. Then read what you wrote. And re-read it before you hit enter.

ASK.  If you don't understand or unsure about something, ask. And by ask, I mean, politely, concisely ask for clarification. "Could you please explain or expand upon what you meant by ...?" Then read (or listen to) the answer and review. Ask can also mean questioning yourself and your own thoughts: exercising critical thinking.  Why do you believe something to be true? Do you automatically agree with someone because they're your friend or your teacher, or disagree with someone because you don't know them or heard something about them? Why is that?

BE DIRECT & OPEN. This is probably the hardest part, but it definitely solves the most amount of problems. Women especially can have a hard time communicating with each other when they are afraid they may disappoint someone or make them angry.  Or read much deeper into something beyond what was meant by it. Have a problem with a person? Respectfully address THAT person - not your buddy, not their friend, not everyone but them and vaguebook it.  Instead, by being clear and upfront about concerns and issues, you can meet most issues head-on before they fester into serious problems.  FYI - being direct does not mean having license to be an asshole. I have seen some folks be very abusive under the heading of "I'm just telling it like it is." Remember to address people respectfully (even if you disagree with them), and consider how to address the problem and works towards finding a solution.

Hinging on that note of respect, here's the other vital part about understanding community and making it strong: what do we ourselves bring to it? If communication is the cornerstone, we are the earth underneath it and the stones built on top of it.  How stable are we? How much do we honor our own integrity?

It is very hard to treat others with respect if we don't do it to ourselves.  How often are you self-negative about your own body and abilities? If you are very critical of yourself, it stands to reason you will be critical of others.  Likewise, if you fail to have compassion for yourself, it's very hard to have it for anyone else.  Everything we build starts with us, as individuals.  How we treat ourselves often dictates how we treat others.  And probably the hardest piece of advice on this whole page is "be kind to yourself."

By addressing ourselves and each other with positive intent and constructive thinking, together we can build a better community for all of us. Which means that what lays beneath the icing is some gloriously fantastic cake.

(Yes I'm ending this on a food metaphor when I started out with a construction one.  Because cake.)

*(I put that in quotes because there are many different groups and communities - regionally, stylistically, by troupes/groups/associations. You could say that the controversy mainly impacted the Tribal community, or that the Oriental community is more grounded - but neither statement would be entirely correct either.  First of all, over 60% of dancers participate or work in multiple styles, so they're usually involved in multiple communities.  Secondly, one merely needs to look at old bellydance magazines or recent forums to see there has been and is just as much drama in the Oriental/Cabaret scene, for decades. And also, the advice here can work for EVERY kind of community...)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It's Not "Us or Them." It's Just "Us."

Today I need to make some steps to get back to some semblance of daily life. I want to say a few more things, and then I'm doing what I can to move forward in my own way.

Everyone has a right to express their reactions, emotions, and feelings in the face of tragedy. Everyone is going to have their own healing process and timetable. Talking about healing doesn't mean it's happened, or should happen quickly. I don't know when things are going to be "normal" again, nor do I have all (if any) of the answers.

As human beings, we are highly complex. Our backgrounds and experiences make us who we are, and that allow us to have different perspectives. The answers we are given are rarely the answers we want or crave. And that in turn makes us angry. This situation is far more complicated, and so there is no one side or two sides or eight sides. I can forgive and still be as angry as fuck and raw from in the inside out. I can talk about the hope of rebuilding without condoning the atrocities. I can only approach difficult situations the way I know how - with kindness. It may sound like an easy solution, but it's not. But once things are said and done, it's me I have to wake up with every morning. I'm the one who has to live with what I say to others and how I treat them.

I have not only been deeply pained by the original issue, but the way I have seen fellow human beings treat each other because of it. Slandering, name-calling, and bullying in private groups and exchanges makes you no better than the individuals responsible for this mess. It's good to vent, but it's not good to abuse someone who has a different perspective than you. No one has all of the information, no matter what they claim.

It's very important to stand up and fight against the injustices being done to us by "them." Words have power and can harm greatly - whether they are of a sexual nature or not. Abuse is abuse.

We need to communicate WITH each other, not at or around. So much treachery has been done by dancers to other dancers behind closed doors, or by people claiming to support them. This in itself is nothing new, we've been doing it ourselves forever. We have all done it, and have it done to us. I made a conscious decision a few years ago to try separate myself from participating in that vicious cycle. It's not easy, but it's made a world of difference in my life.

Your fellow dancers need you. We need your love and support. Stand up with us, not just for us. Ask us what we need, not just what you think we need. Be involved in building a healthy dance community that includes everyone, and where we work to solve problems by communicating, listening, and being kind.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How Do We Heal? Looking for solutions when our hearts hurt.

I look upon my dance community, and it causes me great pain to see and hear all of the anguish, suffering, and confusion. This dance is supposed to be about celebration, exploration, and expression. It should be a safe place for all to learn, grow, and share in.

I received notice that my own image was included in this controversy. I have not seen the images, but I don't need to - it doesn't change my anger and hurt over this. My heart goes out to my fellow dancers likewise directly or indirectly affected, and I appreciate all of those who wish to support us. I am deeply hurt, shocked, angered, and disappointed by actions taken by individuals in our community who claim to support us and our work. There is no excuse for such behavior, and wrong has been clearly done.

Having been a teacher, vendor, and volunteer at Tribal Fest for over a decade, I feel wrecked and raw. Kajira has been a close friend and mentor for many years, and has been there for me in times of need. I can't even properly express the amount of anguish I feel for her, and all of us affected - which really is...everyone. No one, it doesn't matter how many or how few, should be treated in the manners that were expressed.

I feel that I must make a statement about this situation for several reasons. I was not involved or consulted in the statement that went public on Sunday, and I don't feel comfortable letting other people speak for me or make actions on my behalf. My name and my word is my power. I want to talk about resolution, what is being done and what can be done to rectify this situation, what actions can be taken to further prevent these kind of activities and other dishonorable behavior within the community, and what sort of future are we building for our dance.

While I have not talked with any of the other members of the private group, I have spoken at length with Chuck and expressed my hurt and my anger to him in no uncertain terms. He was forthright in accepting his responsibility and apologizing unreservedly for his actions. But an apology doesn't remove the pain or make the situation go away. It is a step in the right direction, though - the first of many steps that he will need to undertake in order to properly make amends for his actions. I do believe he is truly sorry for his actions (and also lack there of), and that growth can come from this. Regaining trust and respect is going to be a difficult road and is going to take a long time - of that I have no doubt.

This past Tribal Fest was an especially powerful one for me. After years of working through difficult personal circumstances and professional drama within the community,TF15 truly felt like a homecoming. I feel like I was able to make peace with folks I have been estranged from, and I know others felt that way as well. So this tragedy makes that contrast all the more painful. Tribal Fest means so much to so many people, and has weathered so many changing conditions in the dance community. I believe it is possible to rekindle the spirit and beauty that is at the heart of the event, and get past this as well. I am willing to give Tribal Fest the benefit of the doubt, and lend my support to Kajira for reclaiming it as a safe, loving, and powerful space for our community.

Our society is in a state of flux, where outdated and small-minded acts are being purged for a more equal, healthy society that fosters respect and understanding. There are definitely some trees in our forest that need pruning, and I think we can do that without burning down the whole forest. I know that I, myself have made mistakes in the past, and have been granted the space to make it better - and I have extended this same courtesy to others. I believe in making amends and helping to facilitate positive change. I'm asking myself, those involved, as well as you, what are our next actions? What can we do to foster growth and healing, promote education and support, and strengthen our community?

One thing that I am doing to address this: In just a few weeks, the event that I produce, Waking Persephone, will take place for its 4th year. One of our features is our free, open-to-all community roundtable experience, where attendees can discuss problems, issues, and perspectives affecting them, and ask questions of their dance leaders. I am honored that Kajira is on our teaching staff this year, and I have asked her to address what has happened and be open to the community's questions and thoughts. I invite all attendees and the larger community in general to come and participate.

I am still absorbing the shock of all of what has happened, and it will take time to recover. I will do what I can to be available to my friends, students, and family, and I am very much interested in your thoughts and suggestions. My deepest hope is that the dance community will emerge out of this crisis even stronger, more beautiful, and more supportive.

Blessed be.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Core Concern: Why I Don't Film My Classes

My home studio - photo by Geisha Moth
I have received many requests to offer my classes online, to just please film my weekly classes and make that footage available.  I truly feel for the folks who want to study with me on a regular basis, but live too far away or their schedule doesn't allow it.  I love teaching, so of course I want to respond to that need.  I am also aware that in this strange new world of the bellydance economy, a lot of workshop bookings happen because that teacher offered online classes.

But I just can't do it. Why is that?

It's not the technology.  I have an excellent camera, an excellent internet connection, and there are a multitude of resources to help me get that footage out there.

It's not the money. I work as an artist/dancer/designer full time, so the extra income isn't something to be blinked at.

It's not the content.  I have over two dozen workshop topics and offer 3 kinds of intensives, and I know the material is good and proven.  And for those of you who think I'm amusing and fun in weekly classes are even more so...and with cats.

It's not quite the time either.  I do have a very full schedule, so the obvious choice would to be film the classes as I'm doing it to make the best use of time and effort.

So what's the deal?

It's about respect.

I respect my students, and endeavor to offer them a safe, positive environment to learn in.  I recognize the fact that class is about the learning process: that you don't get it right on the first try, that you're going to mess up something you know quite well, and you want to be able to do that where you feel comfortable as possible and supported.  My home studio is mirrored on 3 walls, and not a huge space, but we use it completely in a variety of formats throughout the class, so everyone would be in the frame of the camera regardless. And that's not something they need to be worrying about when they're spending their time and money with me to learn dance. (It shouldn't be a surprise to most that my classes aren't made up of lined up drills and repetitive combinations - which are easy to film, but not what I believe in when it comes to teaching dance.  There are other ways to build strength, muscle memory, and understanding of dance.) 

I also cater my classes directly to my students' needs.  I'm not teaching the class for my sake, it's all about them.  I invite my students to bring me their questions, concerns, and desires about what they want to learn.  If something comes up in class, I want to address it and work with them, rather than worrying about sticking to a set syllabus, or worrying about the clock. They need to feel free to ask questions and get feedback, without an unknown audience watching.

And online students can't get that level of direct feedback and interaction (at least not yet, maybe when there is real holodeck technology, and you could actually "beam" into the class, and interact like you ARE there), so that's another concern of respect.  And if I can't give you personal feedback and response in class, you might as well be watching one of my DVDs.  Which happens to be what my students use to keep in practice when I'm on the road and unable to offer weekly classes.

So what are your options if you don't live by me then? Well, obviously it's not the same as a live class for the reasons stated above, but both the Bellydance Artistry and DecoDance DVDs are a good place to start to work with my material.  I do offer skype lessons, schedule-permitting, but the best things to consider are in-person opportunities.   If you're traveling near Seattle (or I'm traveling near you), see about scheduling a private lesson.  An hour-long private lesson with me typically gives you at least a month or more of material to work on. Check to see if I am offering any intensives near you or if I am offering workshops at an event near you. Or inquire with your local event producer/promoter about hiring me for their next event - because as a producer myself, it helps to know about interest and draw concerning who to hire. (Well, this turned into the shameless self-promotion paragraph...)

Lastly, I don't offer online classes because our cats can't sign release forms.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Manifesting Dreams: Custom Orders - Part 1 - Being A Client

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself talking again and again with very different folks about custom orders - from both sides of the spectrum (as the provider and as the consumer). Discussing what worked, didn't work, and how to make it run more smoothly - because we all make mistakes, the key thing is to learn from them!  I hate to see anyone have heartache over this special kind of transaction, so I decided to compile notes that can be useful regardless of which side of the process you're involved in.

(For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the business/provider as the designer, and the customer as the client. For Part I, I will address things the client needs to know.  Part II will discuss what the designer needs to know.)

First, why choose custom work?
-As a client, custom work means getting a product that is especially designed for your needs - whether it's a unique design (such as a logo), a portrait, song, or special work of art, clothing made especially to fit you. There's a thrill to have something made especially for you, that very few or no one else will have anything quite like it.

What to know as client: 
First, it's important to have a fairly clear idea of what you want.  Most designers are not psychic or mind-readers, so they're going to need to know what you're looking for.  Keep track of ideas you like (and don't like), and prepared to answer questions and give feedback.

-Choosing a Designer: Look for someone whose work/portfolio both appeals to you and is in alignment with your project.  It's important that your project and the designer are a good fit.  If you're looking at getting a full color logo digitally made, but your chosen artist does only black and white work drawn by hand, that's not going to work well.  Likewise a designer who makes clothing specifically for large men might have a difficult time making a dress that fits properly for a petite woman. Also, if they do indeed tell you they don't do what you're looking for - don't take it personally. A good designer knows what they are capable of, and what they are not. Similarly, if a designer's portfolio doesn't reflect the kind of project you are looking for, but they say they have done that sort of work before, ask to see it/hear it/reference their client.  Also, be sure to look for reviews or get feedback from other clients.

-Are you compatible? A custom order is indeed a kind of relationship, so it's important to feel you are able to communicate effectively with the designer.  If you don't feel comfortable or understood, don't go there, no matter how much another friend or famous person may say they're awesome.  Trust your gut!  I have seen plenty of folks who have made names for themselves by getting their work seen/used by someone famous.  Little does the "regular" person know that some designers often give away or sell their work at a discount so that it can be seen...then the famous person or friend wears it once or twice (if that's as long as it holds up) and boom they have a reputation.

-Pricing: Custom work can be expensive, and it can take a while, depending on the designer's schedule.  First peruse their regularly available work and consider if the price matches the quality of the work. Many designers charge more for custom work, because it can take more time and investment of materials on their part to create your project.  So expect to pay generally 10-30% more depending on what you're looking for, make an investment upfront, and for it to take some time for the project to be completed.  Similarly, if a price seems too good to be true, it usually is.

-Time: And ah yes, timing.  Deadlines are important, for both parties. Very rarely will you be the only client a designer has - and orders are typically addressed accordingly to access to materials, order dates, and other details.  Work that is done by hand definitely takes longer to be done right, so exercise patience and listen to projected dates when discussed. If you are in a rush, let the designer know that before you place an order, and if they say they can't do it, don't push them.  I would also suggest adding a 1-2 week buffer for your deadline.  Confirm in writing or in a contract when the project needs to be done/delivered. If you say "oh no rush" or "whenever you feel like it" - some designers take that as a cue to keep pushing your order off when someone else has something more pressing. Or that you're not serious about your project.  Yes, I know you're trying to be supportive and polite, but it's better to be specific.

Here I would like to take a moment to talk about the almighty triangle of cost, quality, and time.  I first heard it when I worked in a high end frame shop and it applies to all custom projects.  Out of those three terms, you could only choose 2 out of the 3 at any time:

Time + Cost = A project done quickly and inexpensively, but the Quality will be lackluster.

Quality + Time = A fantastic project delivered quickly, but it will Cost you more. 

Cost + Quality = Great work at a reasonable cost, but will take a longer Time to finish.

Now that you've chosen a designer, and begun to work out the details, let's look at getting down to manifesting that project successfully:

-Follow directions carefully.  Read all instructions, contracts, etc, carefully and repeatedly.  Make sure you understand them and what is needed from you to get started.  If not, then ask questions!

-If you need help with determining size, color, etc - then get it.  Don't wing it - you will only be disappointed, and have only yourself to blame if you give the designer the wrong information in the first place.

-Get ALL the requested information to your designer in a timely manner, in order to meet your deadline. If you have a troupe of 12 dancers getting custom tops, and you only give the designer 10 of those sizes up front, and then 4 weeks later send along the other 2...and expect it all done in 5 weeks total, it ain't happening.  Anything that involves physical materials and multiple steps - a designer MUST HAVE that information up front before starting.  "I think they're a small" won't cut it, especially if you come back with a medium and a large.  The designer needs to know how much material to buy (determined by the sizes), and then will cut all the pieces in one stage, then sew all the pieces together in the next, then embellish all the pieces, etc.  Rarely with such an order will a designer make one piece at a time for a large order. It's a poor use of time and energy.

-Be sure to get all of the details in writing.  Many designers will have a contract for you to look over and sign - which protects BOTH parties.  If there isn't some sort of project order or contract, then compile an email that you both agree to all of the details on.  "I'll remember what we talked about (6 weeks from now)" isn't the best way to do business!

-Material Girls....When dealing with multiple orders/troupes, it's important to realize that a designer calculates how much fabric/materials are needed by the sizing, and typically work in steps....all the pieces cut, then sewn, then providing two troupe member's sizes 3 weeks after placing the initial typically pushing your order back 3 weeks.  The delay is your fault, not the designer's. Likewise, if the project relies on you sending materials, do so promptly and be sure to follow up with the designer that they have received it. If there is going to be leftover material, outline whether the designer should keep it or send it back to you.

-Expect to pay a deposit UP FRONT. Personally, my project deposits are typically 50% of the total cost upfront.  As a designer it means that my client is serious about their project, understands the terms/contract, and I have the means to invest in any necessary materials for the project.  Other designers may charge another percentage or a flat amount for a deposit.  The client pays the remaining balance when the project is ready to be delivered.  Also note, additional changes may cost you more (again, read the details), and shipping or tax may not be included in the initial project total.  Be sure to work these details out in advance so you're not surprised.  I also would recommend exercising extreme caution regarding anyone who asks you for the full amount up front.  Consider the balance as an incentive. If for any reason YOU decide to cancel the project or can't pay for it after it has been started/contracts signed, then expect to lose your deposit.  It's only fair for the work the designer has put in.  Similarly, if a designer fails to work on a project or deliver it within the time discussed, they risk forfeiting the deposit.

-Lastly, remember that poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on the part of the designer.  Be realistic in making your choices, exercise clear communication, follow directions, and you'll be on the way to manifesting the best outcome for your custom order!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cure For The Common Clone

It's one of the truths of evolution: diverse roots make for a stronger gene pool.

Continuing on our exploration on how to keep moving with the changes with the bellydance economy, I wanted to try and tackle something I have heard a lot of folks comment on over the last few years: the homogenizing of dance styles.  More specifically, personal style being overpowered by cloning/copying - meaning that X, Y, and Z dancers all look like A dancer - moves, make-up, music, costuming, facial expression - mostly devoid of their own personal sparkle in the equation.

But wait! All artists must learn from the masters, and they learn by copying! 

Yes, but as an artist transitions from being a student to being a professional (on their way to being a master themselves right?), they are expected to start producing their own unique material.  And if you copy from only one style of master (say the Impressionists), then you're narrowing your educational base severely.  Also, learning isn't about only picking to study what you like.  There are plenty of art movements/styles I don't personally like, but I still needed to learn about them. Why? Because having a strong foundation means having more to choose from as I grow - that I understand the history, the rules - and how they were broken.

No matter how much I may love the artwork of Andrew Wyeth, if I put up a show of consisting of paintings copied directly from his work, but presented it as my own at a gallery, it wouldn't fly. I could use a similar style of painting, approach to light and subject matter, but the imagery and expression would need to be entirely me.  So students copying their favorite dancers and trying the material out at recitals and haflas, or dancers presenting choreography as a homage to a certain dancer (with permission/fitting a themed show) is one thing - but if you're claiming to be a professional dancer, you'd better be presenting your own work. The same is true for teaching.

But wait! There was such an explosion in the dance community over the last 15 years - more teachers, more access to material, online videos, more shows, more workshops, more festivals - shouldn't that mean more diversity?

It could, but booms also mean that things move faster than perhaps what is best - so more teachers with less training, more performers without proper backgrounds, more and more events produced by folks without experience or focus, etc - essentially leading to over-saturation.  And as the economy continues to get more precarious, event producers have been more likely to to hire names that they may think will guarantee their investment - but even those names will stop selling out their workshops when all of the events seem to have the same names, and there are less students to go around.  And if the majority of those names all have the same background/style, then the students are essentially learning from the same genepool, producing more of the same.

How was it different 10, 15, 20+ years ago? Fewer events meant that there were less chances to study  which means taking advantage of that event when it happened in or near your town. More often than not, those local events also only featured one or a few teachers, versus a large roster festival (destination event!), so the producers cycled instructors and styles taught every year.  So no matter what style you learned from your weekly instructor, you got an infusion of something different a few times a year that definitely impacted how you saw the dance.

Weekly in-person classes - another changing creature.  DVDs and online classes are great for on-demand instruction - and exposure to diversity (if you make those choices) but you're not going to get the same level of feedback (if ANY - cause if one of my DVDs starts giving you feedback, it's probably possessed...) one gets in a weekly class.

Another factor is the Combo-Nation. ATS, ITS and assorted TS variants are based on a system of codified combinations devised to allow for cohesive group dancing.  While different troupes can surely come up with their own combos or "accents" on existing combos, the system is still inherently based on clearly identifiable moves that are performed for a set number of beats, counts, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with that in itself, but when a dancer decides to branch out into dancing solo (which was at the root of Tribal Fusion when it started), it can be very hard to break out of using that system.  Another by-product of that system is the tendency to override the music - while a combo could be fast or slow (and therefore applied to fast or slow music), unless it was crafted and choreographed for a very specific section of that music, it can rarely capture all, let alone even some, of the nuance of the music, if it has to be in so many repeated counts with certain movements.  If the dancer hasn't been immersed in how Arabic music works and the art of improvisation without relying on combinations, something special is lost in translation when they move into a soloist format.

But if that's what all the community/audience has seen and accepted as bellydance for the last decade, it unfortunately becomes the standard.  And folks like to follow what's popular - it's safe.

(Here lies the ironic situation of now being that cranky older dancer going "damn kids, get off my lawn! that's not bellydance!" which is pretty much what I heard 15+ years ago bringing Gothic Bellydance on the scene.  Is it the same? Not quite, because we mostly understood what rules we were breaking back then, and had the foundation.  The drama was more about fear of dark concepts and looking weird making it "not bellydance" verus not understanding the music, improvisation, or cloning someone else.) 

So what am I doing about it?

I am very proud of the fact that of my students who have gone on to be professionals - none of them look like Tempest-clones. (If you see such a thing, it is most likely someone who hasn't studied with me personally.) How/why? I teach foundation of music, movement, and culture alongside fusion concepts. I encourage them to dance and dress to what suited their bodies and personalities.  I recommend other teachers and workshops for them to study with.  And I'm always studying myself as well - never stop learning!

I produce bellydance events designed to introduce them to concepts beyond what I offer - particularly Waking Persephone. I have designed WP to be an event that offers any style of dancer a complete experience that gives them a buffet of choices.  I have heard some ill-informed snarkery that seems to think because we don't have certain "big names" in our line-up, that we're somehow poorer for it, or didn't have "connections." (insert maniacal laughing) As if hiring a famous dancer was some big elusive mystery (it's not) or that I haven't been an internationally-hired teacher/performer for at least a decade now and didn't know pretty much everyone (I am and I do).  Nope. I could build the perfect formula event based on the usual model, but I'm not interested in that. The point of WP is to focus on folks who are doing things differently, who you may not have heard of already (but should get toknow), and to give established folks a chance to do something they're really excited about, but rarely get to offer. It's essentially an exercise of the Anti-Popularity Game. It's rather risky because we're going against the grain, but the results make it oh so worthwhile.Every year, we help more dancers find their own personal styles, learn to speak with their own voices, and grow their foundation.  That is pure win.

(Yeah, that was some shameless self-promo, but this is my blog.)

So worried that your dance feels like something from the Bellydance Borg? Here are some things to consider:
  • When was the last time you took a weekly class?  If that's not available, how about a workshop?  How about a private lesson?
  • When was the last time you took a workshop with someone you hadn't heard of/outside of your style?  Next event, check out the OTHER names on the list and sign up for something different.
  • If you're coming from a TS/TF background, be sure to study some Oriental/Cabaret, and in particular, learn more about Arabic music.
  • Add to your practice some free-flow taqsim (no combos), for 1-3 songs.
  • Costume for your own body and for your own personal tastes.
  • Want to see someone different at your local event? Let the producer know!
  • Consider what it is you want to say with your dance - because you should be saying something, in your own voice. 

Raq on folks!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Tribal Fest History & Homecoming

2015 - Photo by Carrie Meyer
(A little late in posting this - but have been on tour for the last month, so not much time to collect my thoughts! And there are a lot of them...)This year marks 13 years of attending Tribal Fest.  The only ones I have missed were the very first one and Tribal Fest 14 (last year - as the band was hired to play at Steampunk World's Fair in NJ - which is alas, always the same weekend as TF - but we did make a 2 week tour of it!).

My journey into the world of bellydance came via a friend's recommendation that I check out this amazing troupe she had seen performing at a San Francisco street fair.  That troupe was Fat Chance and even in the way back early days of the internet, I found myself going down a fantastic rabbit hole of pictures, articles, and discussion threads.  I read (and re-read) numerous articles and interviews by Kajira Djoumahna, author of The Tribal Bible and founder of United We Dance (which evolved into BlackSheep BellyDance). Through following her work, I found out about the first Tribal Festival that was about to take place - in some place called Sebastopol, California.  A recent college graduate, supporting 2 on an hourly wage as a gallery assistant and having no idea of how to even financially manage a trip to CA, I felt miserably stuck all the way in Rhode Island, unable to attend this mystical event.

2015 - Tish, Nathaniel, and Tempest
So you can bet your binti bells, when I moved to the Bay Area of California the following November, Tribal Fest was top of my list! When TF2 rolled around finally, the same friend who had introduced me to FCBD and I set off towards Sebastopol to see what it was all about. The drive up was a comedy of errors, including getting ourselves trapped and detoured by the Bay to Breakers run and the infamous 101 traffic - but we did eventually make it up there that rainy afternoon.  I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of beautifulshiny things for sale and the amazing performances.

And after that, every year, I have been involved in some shape or form - first with performing and vending, and then adding teaching to the list a couple of years down the line, organizing gatherings (the first Motif in 2007, and live music afterparties at Aubergine) - as well as helping out graphic design in some shape or another.  Through Tribal Fest I have studied with amazing legends of the dance - and shared the stage with them(!), met countless wonderful people from all over the world, shared my ideas with fantastic students, my designs and art with even more folks.  I have encouraged so many folks to attend, including dragging friends out from the far reaches of the East Coast! And even when I moved all the way back East in mid 2007, I still trekked out every year from NJ or RI - to be reunited with my extended bellydance family.

Though I also have to say, it wasn't all butterflies and hipdrops. As I advanced along in my dance journey/career, the vibe started to change for me - I think around 2007. There are so many factors contributing to that feeling over the next 6 years that it's unfair to place the weight of it on one thing in particular.  Instead a culmination of personal issues stemming from relationships, a feeling that there was more of a focus on "what's cool/popular/how weird" by performers/audience than of "what makes good bellydance," making for a stressed greenroom and terrifying stage (unless I was dueting with Anaar, then everything was peachy), less of the super friendly folks from the midwest/east coast attending (due to the rise of some really great events out those ways), dealing with other people's drama llamas, and the stress of having a vending table directly in the auditorium - as it got more and more crowded each year, and the show grew longer hours. (Not ideal for an introvert who relishes quiet.) The mix of all these things made my experiences bittersweet - there were things I truly still enjoyed, but I was also stressed about a lot of things too.
The Decision - Photo by Geish Moth

When 2013 rolled around, being in a new and healthy relationship - and moving to an outdoor vending spot made a huge difference in my outlook.  I was focusing on being more positive and putting negative experiences in the past. However, a few of the folks I encountered weren't on the same page, and that was extremely disheartening.  So I have to confess to being a tiny bit relieved when we were booked for the east coast in 2014.  But it was definitely weird being surrounded by steampunks instead of dancers for that weekend - and watching friends post TF photos of everything that was going on! I felt displaced.

With an invitation to teach in 2015 and the theme of family reunion, I wondered how this year's experience would be.  How would it differ from previous years? How would the changing bellydance economy effect everything? How would it go with some of the "usual suspects" missing? I mentally tried to brace myself for it all.

Didi and Tempest in the Green Room
And you know what?  It was WONDERFUL. Not only did it have all of the sweet parts from years before, but there was an overwhelming positive vibe surrounding everything (at least to me).  Vending went extremely well - probably due to the new Mago Djinn line and focusing more on my artwork.  My workshops were well-attended with enthusiastic students, and I felt great about my performance (which had felt a bit risky coming into it). But what really was the icing on the cake was all of the positive interactions I had with so many people - old and new faces alike.  On one hand, there were so many new folks, coming to Tribal Fest for the first year - and they brought their excitement with them! (Hilary from PA gave me several beautiful flower crowns over the course of the event, that she handmade from the local wildflowers ;))  On the other side, there were long-term folks reaching out, and starting new positive threads. And other folks in my close circle of friends also reported the same.  This news lifts my heart so much on what it means for the bellydance community in general.
The Mago Djinn/Owlkeyme Arts Booth

Some of my favorite moments: watching the opening ritual with Guedra Blessing with Amel Tafsout, catching some of our Waking Persephone teachers perform, spending time with old and new friends, doing some incredible shopping at the Tuareg Jewelry booth (I may have sold my soul to Terri, but I am OK with that), hanging out with Geisha Moth and making use of her special lounge area, and lots of good discussions with fabulous people.

And I'm stupid excited already for next year. I really am!  If you haven't been to Tribal Fest yet - or perhaps haven't been in a while, then I would seriously consider coming in 2016.  And the theme has a sci-fi twist to it: "Dance Long & Prosper" - what's not to love? I think it's going to be a blast!

Lastly, here is my performance, music is "When The Wolves Return" by Ego Likeness - thanks so much to Donna and Steven for letting me dance to it before it was "officially" released:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Healing The Hater, Part I

Why do people hate?

Sometimes hate is born of a grudge or past transgression -and serves as a form of protection (though doubly barbed inside and out) - but most of the time hatred is rooted in misunderstanding, fear, and insecurity.  Hate tends to be something we learn from someone else - hearing what family or friends say as we're growing up, what we hear down the line from peers as adults, etc.

As human beings, we are given to fearing or mistrusting that which we find unfamiliar or different from ourselves.  There's an underlying drive to feel part of a group, to feel accepted and familiar. Then there's a point in our development of self and personality where we can find excitement in the unfamiliar and embrace the different - or absolutely abhor it.  Perhaps it's a vestige of a survival instinct or really a matter of personality (nature vs. nurture) - but in modern-day society, the sense of difference tends to pare down to "does that make them better or lesser than me?"  If one is fully secure in one's own self, that question never even comes to the surface. But that's not such an easy state to get to either.

I want you to think about someone you extremely dislike or disliked in your life.  Think about how it makes/made you feel to be around them, to have to interact with them, or hear someone mention their name/talk about them. You most likely felt a mix of anger and anxiety - a bad feeling from your chest to your gut - and perhaps panic as well.  Not a nice way to feel, is it?  But at least it would tend to go away after the experience was over, for the time being, though it probably left you feeling a bit dirty.  Like that feeling corrupted your peace of mind and body, and left a residue. Not very healthy is it? Hate is essentially raging an energy war that flares up every time that you run into that person.

Now imagine if those same feelings and energy weren't directed at another person, but instead at yourself.  And not just you as a person, but a particular part of your body.  Perhaps that body part doesn't fit within society's so-called standards of "beauty", or maybe it doesn't function as well as it used to. Maybe you were fine with it until somebody made you feel ashamed about it.  Whatever the reason, it falls into this category of being "Other" - something that is a part of you that makes you devalue yourself.

It's a part of you, and it's not easily going away.  Which means you have declared war on yourself - on some level, you are constantly throwing that negative energy at YOUR OWN SELF. Which isn't a healthy state to exist in emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually.

In the many years I have been teaching dance and traveling all over the world, I have found no shortage of dancers who hate something about themselves, especially while they are comparing themselves to other dancers.  I have heard "well, I can't dance until I....(fill in the blank with some sort of body-related issue)" - which often means, they're not dancing at all.  Or they're constantly going through cycles where they are dancing/not dancing - and often fighting more health issues along the way. Further compounded by our healthcare system that tends to treat the symptoms, but not the source.

Right now you may be saying, "Oh Tempest, sure I get it - now you're just saying if I throw 'love and light' at myself, all of my problems will go away...NOT."

Nope. I'm not saying that, and those who actually know me, know I'm not all "love and light and fluffy bunnies."  Well, I'm all about fluffy bunnies.  Because bunnies! But I don't believe throwing glitter at problems makes them go away - that's pretty much the treat the symptom, not the cause all over again.

What I'm talking about is taking some time with yourself and examine the root of your self-hate. Stress often manifests itself in a variety of very physical issues - affecting your digestion, your skin/hair, your weight, etc.  And if you're throwing hate at those parts, it's not going to make them get better. That's like trying to get a plant to flower while giving it acid instead of water, darkness instead of sunlight, and a smaller pot versus ample room to grow. Instead, the cycle will continue to spiral downward, and take you with it.

If you find that stress is at the root of your issues, I very much know that it's not easy to simply remove stress from your life, but there are always ways to change/improve the situation - if you really truly want change.  Sometimes it requires serious, big change - but if that's what makes you healthy and happy, then it'll be worth it. (Personal example - from about 2009-2011, I was losing my hair, or at least the hair on my scalp, and the doctors had no clue why.  They just had shampoos, tonics, lotions, and talk of biopsies to offer me.  I realized I was deeply unhappy and in a relationship that was unhealthy for me that I couldn't make any better. It took a great deal of pain and change to start a new life...but within weeks of that, my hair started growing back, skin issues cleared up, etc. That was the start of a new journey, a new me...)

But maybe it's a learned behavior that's the problem.  A feeling that your body or part of your body is too big, or too small or doesn't look "right." Someone made fun of you, someone said you weren't pretty/beautiful, that you were fat or flat-chested. First, why are you letting someone else's opinion (rooted in their own insecurity) determine YOU? Secondly, compared to whom?? How you are put together is what makes you, YOU.  Celebrate those parts that make you up while focusing more of what makes you special.  Every person has a feature that someone else wants, EVERYONE.

So for this, I'm going to propose something you may find silly, but trust me on this.  I want you to make a little altar or shrine to you (or to that body part/system), and start to be NICE to it. Every day. You can put affirmations in a jar, buy flowers, have a pep talk - anything that is positive.  True, it may feel silly, but consider where you have been - this is essentially the opposite.  This is the fresh water, sunlight, and space you were denying yourself.  This will change your war to a truce...and possibly get you on the road to being friends again with you. And that's where everything good begins.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Temptress's Coffeepot: 10 Secrets of How To Achieve Bellydance Fame & Success...*

Looking for the fast track? Here it is!*

1) Haven't studied dance for very long? It's ok - you can mix a whole bunch of unrelated things together and call it fusion! Nobody will ever be the wiser, and you'll look super cool.

2) Still worried that your moves aren't up to snuff? Make sure to wear a bra that doesn't fit properly - whether it gives you sideboob, the cups aren't big enough, or the straps are too long, nothing will take the audience's attention away from poor technique like boobs that may burst out at any moment.  (For guys, this means wearing costuming that may reveal your prince at any moment, and/or which religion you could be.)

3) You know what else the audience loves to see? Your crotch and various shaving habits.  Nothing makes an evening of dance quite like a good shot of your crotch sans underwear. Woohoo! Or is that hoo-ha?  Bonus Tip: be sure all of your backbends are done with your crotch aimed at the audience.

4) Practicing with your prop is overrated. Props are just things to distract the audience anyway and keep them occupied. Bonus points if you have never even picked it up prior to going on stage before.

5) The height of theatrical proficiency is dropping your veil in the smack center of the stage...and then trampling over it several times during the course of your performance.  Exert your dominance over that veil!  And then be sure to bend over to pick it up with your butt to the audience for that final view of you.

6) You don't actually NEED to study any other forms of dance you are thinking of fusing into your performances or costuming.  A half-hour of  watching Youtube videos should cover it. Who really wants to learn about appreciating culture and history? In fact, you can learn everything you need to know about bellydance from 6 weeks of classes...and then start teaching it!

7) Don't ever undercut for a performance - unless it's for exposure, then that is totally OK. Similarly, it's totally OK to bitch about people undercutting you for performing meanwhile supporting businesses that knock-off small community designers/artisans, and/or promote sweatshop work.  Also, don't forget to try and bargain down the services of photographers, musicians, and costumers - don't they KNOW who you ARE?

8) On that note....Want to be seen as a big-name?  Treat everyone else around you like peons - they will assume you have greater abilities and load reverence and respect upon you.  Because of course all the big-names must be divas.  Disrespecting everyone else is how you get up in the world.

9) ) When you get into the dressing room or green room, spread your stuff over EVERYTHING.  Yeah, there's 20 other folks who need to get in there too, but you got there first, and everyone will respect you for claiming your territory so gloriously. Obviously you are VERY important!

10) Lastly, whether you have already performed or are waiting to go on, do NOT pay attention to whomever is on stage.  Be sure to be extra loud in talking to your friends, extra snarky, especially near any video camera.  This dance is all about you anyway.

(*complete title is: "10 Secrets of How To Achieve Bellydance Fame & Success In All The Wrong Ways" - Happy April!)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder

When you watch a dancer, what are you looking at and why? What wows you the most?

 Have you ever gone back to watch a video of a specific dancer or style of dance that blew you away years ago, but doesn't give you the same feeling now - or perhaps the exact opposite? Something you thought was "boring" has now become captivating?

Ever wonder what changed?

I'm not saying it was aliens, but....

(Just kidding...)

What changed was you. Really.

An integral part of my formal fine art and design training over the years has been the task of considering the audience.  This means thinking about what will capture their attention, how it will make them think, and what it may make them feel. It also means contemplating who your audience is. For a fine artist, the sum of this work is to consider how much of impact your work may have on others, so that you're not just creating art in a vacuum. For designers, it's about selling product (services, items, ideas). And well, sometimes both worlds overlap - and it certainly applicable to the performing arts.

In the realm of my professional work as a designer, this trained me to watch how people react to things: what they get excited about, what they dislike, what causes a trend. Not just for art or jewelry, but for dance as well. It's really quite fascinating - both in person and online. (Peoplewatching!)

So back to you: Your own experiences inform and flavor everything you see.  The more you learn about something, the more you will see - and how easy or difficult that process was for you personally will also affect what you see.

What do I mean?

Think back to the first time you ever saw a dancer perform live, prior to taking classes/starting your dance journey. You most likely took her (or him) in as a complete experience - the fluidity and grace of the movements, the sparkle and flash of the costume, their smile and gestures, and how it made YOU feel - excited, wowed, inspired.  It didn't matter if that dancer was a newbie in an airport special or a grand master of the dance in a Madame Abla.  She was the epitome of beauty and magic to you.

As you started to take classes, the next time you saw a dancer, your focus was most likely on technique.  You were learning how hard certain movements can be, so the more difficult the moves on stage appeared to be, the more you were impressed.  Who cares what she did with her face or what she wore, did you see those amazing isolations???

When you started to tackle issues of costuming, suddenly you were paying a lot more attention to what other dancers were wearing.  What worked, what didn't worked. And how it could look on you! Who cares if it worked with the music or the moves?

When it's time for you to perform yourself, whether that's crafting a choreography, doing improv, or somewhere in between, and choosing music, you start to notice how other dancers put together their dances. You also start to notice how other people respond to those performances as well. You wonder how they may respond to YOU.

What style you learn also informs how you view a dance.  Human beings often feel more comfortable watching something they have familiarity with.  Something they can measure up as a "doing it right" or "doing it wrong." If you're totally unfamiliar with a style unlike the one you're learning, it may be difficult for you to enjoy because you lack a frame of reference, except you know it's not what YOU know.

When you truly learn what musicality is, and how to apply Arabic musical concepts to the movements, regardless of the style of music, you start seeing performances in a whole new light.  That excellent "technique" back from the early days might not make sense any more when he pops his chest to the "dum" or she does hip drops on the "tek".  You start to see folks dancing over their music, and you discover the amazing quality of breath and stillness.

When you start to understand stage presence and the value of deepened expression, you really begin to notice facial expression (or lack there of) - and when a dance says something to you as a whole, or leaves you cold. You get excited when you see a baby dancer truly enjoying herself, and find yourself on the verge of tears as a veteran of a dance  pulls from the depths of her heart and holds you in the palm of her hand - without a single "trick."

And lastly over time you learn that when you watch a dancer, you can't compare them to you or to anyone else  They are their own dancer with their own story, journey, and path to follow.  You enjoy that for what it is, and the only dancer you compare yourself to, is the dancer you used to be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

7 Keys to Finding Happiness in Bellydance

Less is More:  When it comes to dancing, less is more. Don't throw everything and the kitchen sink in there.  Remember to breathe, and remember to have breath. And not all of that statement is about air intake.

More is More: But when it comes to costuming, more is more. And not just your costume, don't forget stage appropriate make-up, hair, and accessories. BE SHINY.

Be inspired, but be you, which sounds easy but is very difficult.  Imitation is easy and short-lived.

There is always more to learn. If you think you have learned everything there is to know about bellydance, you're nowhere near the finish line (of which there isn't one anyway), and especially NOT BETTER than anyone else.

The One & Only Truth: For every "truth" in bellydance, there are at least 3 supporting facts and at least 3 facts that also disprove it. Culture is always in flux and history is full of nuance. If anyone says their way is the ONLY way, they're wrong. Move on. 

The most likely cause of losing your love for the dance doesn't come from within, it's almost always an external influence. Remove those influences and seek new inspirations, and you'll find a renewed sense of love. If you let others take the joy from you and you do nothing to change it, then in the end, it falls on you, not them.

Always wear underwear. Always. If it involves a stage or performing for anyone besides your cats...wear underwear.  I mean it. No butts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Let's Cut the Crap, Kill the Cult, and Fix The Boat

The years of my career where I worried about what people thought of me were the worst: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I didn't get into bellydance for fortune or fame. I got into it because my soul called out for it. I remember attending a world music concert where the band did a short piece inspired by the Zar, and the ayyub rhythm sounded like the voice of a long-lost friend I never even knew I had.  The beauty and sensual power of the oriental dancers I would see live at the local restaurant  transformed and transfixed me. The images and VHS tapes I would soon see of Tribal dancers moving together sung out to my heart. The music, the movements, the cultures, the costuming, the mystique - it all spoke to me.

It also whispered to the little girl deep inside who never had any sisters and had a long line of "best friends" who ended up moving away, going to different schools, or were more concerned about stuff than actual friendship. It touched the bruised young woman who was too skinny and flat-chested, too smart, too much a tomboy, too weird, too artistic, too not interested enough in the popular, typical things. It wasn't that it promised her sisterhood, but it showed her women working together beautifully to make art in motion - and that was inspiring.

And I think that same whisper comes to many women (and men as well).  That not only does this dance offer all of the amazing history, music, movements, and culture AND a chance to foster self-esteem and self-expression, but it hints at a place that feels like home. It suggests a common language, a unique understanding, and a social ground for those who don't quite fit in.

"Welcome to the Toilet" brought up a few discussions that made me think about that promise and appeal. Several dancers talked about the feeling of being unwelcome and/or not a true part of the classes they were in or festivals that they attended - which was very sad and distressing to me.

Sure, you could suggest that maybe those individuals who found the classes/events unwelcoming just aren't good at socializing and it was all in their head - that it was them, not the teacher, the rest of the class, or the event itself. That perhaps they expect for the teacher to instantly be their buddy/friend or for there to be open arms at registration check-in. But I don't think that's fair nor accurate. Unfortunately some folks in certain positions have confused exclusive and inclusive - and forgot how to be welcoming to newcomers and others.

I think some people come into this dance to feel accepted, become empowered, and think that this is now their opportunity to make up for whatever slights they experienced in their youth. That now is their time to be "cool" and begin to structure classes, troupes, and events around that model.  Human beings are very social animals, so we naturally want to foster groups where we feel we belong - but the issue comes when we start to believe our group is the only/best/coolest/whatever group.  Those individuals end up re-creating the very scenario they felt slighted in from years ago. And then it stops being about the beauty and power of the dance, but whether or not anyone else "belongs."  The popular opinion of the perceived elite becomes almighty and a cult or clique is formed.

But one style is not "cooler" or "better" than another - we're all in the same boat.  Yet folks get hung up with being part of the "one true style." They want to feel that their style/group/troupe/event is THE best - but why? Being different doesn't equate to being wrong (or right). Your path is exactly your path, not anyone else's, and there's no way to compare it.  Dance isn't religion. And throwing around canon (yes) balls around only damages the boat we're all on.

I certainly wasn't prepared to handle a lot of what I experienced from around 2004-2009. I was muddling around doing this thing that was inspiring to me, and suddenly I was under the magnifying glasses of many people I didn't know, being told what I was doing wrong or right, how I met or didn't meet their expectations or definitions, what I should or shouldn't be doing, complete with sudden new best friends, advocates, frenemies, and adversaries. Dance stopped being so much about this beautiful exploration of culture and self, and about what other people wanted/didn't want. There were several times I seriously considered quitting dance altogether.

Then I re-discovered dance for myself, and what drew me to it in the first place. I found inspiration from within, as well as considered what it could mean for others and their own experience.  Most importantly, I stopped caring what "everyone" thought and found happiness in reaching across ALL the borders. Why be just be or think one way when you enjoy the diversity of many?

I have worked hard to make sure that my classes, events, and workshops have been and are welcoming for all.  We have joked that it's a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  The dance should be available to everyone to learn and enjoy responsibly and safely. It's not about being cool or special or popular - it's about sharing the dance. We can do that across styles, genders, and origins - and have a fantastic journey together.

I'm pretty sure we all learned about sharing somewhere around kindergarten. So let's go back and remember those important lessons, kick out the high school behavior, and grow this dance in healthy, positive ways.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Groucho Marx who said "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Hang In There Until Death Comes

In case it needs stating, I didn't say bellydance was dying or that the current state of things will lead to the end of it all.

In fact, I'm pretty sure the dance will outlive all of us.  It was here before, and it will be here after. It has experienced adversity and popularity, withstood being outlawed and pushed underground, has seen many successes and booms, as well as failures and downfalls. It grows, it changes, it stays the same as well. Bellydance is an art immersed in multiple cultures and areas, and art always finds a way to move forward.  Art is part of human expression - and as long as there are humans, there will be art.

But we can't keep on with the current/standard model found with the bellydance community itself.  Once something has gone past equilibrium, changes have to be made.  There will be losses before a new cycle begins again.

Which is what The Death card from the Tarot is all about.  Endings leading to new beginnings - change, transition, and rebirth. It's akin to the myth of the Phoenix, and of Kali Ma - that sometimes there is destruction, chaos, and cleansing before there can be new growth.

But I don't think we've even reached Death (#13) yet.  I'm pretty sure if we were going to assign a Major Arcana card to the Bellydance Community as a whole, we'd be pulling The Hanged Man (#12). It signifies stagnation, being stuck, restricted, unable to make movement or change to affect one's situation. It calls for meditation, patience, introspective consideration,and sacrifice. Consider the myth of Odin hanging from the World Tree, wasting away, dying, and then falling to be reborn.

What does The Hanged Man signify? Those that are willing to be patient, to endure, to make changes, and weather it all will make it through to the next cycle when it eventually comes, or perhaps move on to other paths in the meantime.

Now, what would I like to see happen? (I can have fantasies too.)

-A balancing of the student/teacher base and influx of new dedicated students who are excited about the dance.

-The end to poor business practices - from undercutting and backbiting to celebrating cloning and mediocrity - while moving towards more grounded understanding of the business aspects of the dance, and mutual respect.

-An end to cults of personality and cliques that fail to further the dance itself, often wearing down and driving out more potential dancers than attracting and maintaining them.

-A healthy respect for both tradition/history and innovation/fusion, fostered mutual respect among the various styles and genres - seeing that they can compliment each other versus compete with each other.

-More appreciation for live music, culture, costuming, history, and taking the time to learn the craft/trade aspects, and improved communication with the larger community.

-Understanding that while the dance can bring on amazing transformation in a person (mentally, physically, spiritually), that it's not all about you - that learning and being a part of the community is about everyone involved.  It is not a tool solely for boosting one's ego, power, or sense of entitlement.

-That we all rediscover our love for the dance.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Welcome to the Toilet.

A bit of a gritty title for sure, but I've yet to come up with a better metaphor for the current state of the bellydance economy. And every person I've talked to about it has had the same response: initial repulsion followed by slow nodding and thorough understanding.

There's a lot here, so bear with me as I try to get it all out. And this is all in reference to bellydancers, within the community - not factoring in the general public side of things (restaurant gigs, other kinds of shows, etc). Everything happens in waves, and each wave is a bit different - because the world keeps changing. These are not ALL of the reasons (I would have to go to novel-status for that), but a lot of the key contributing factors we are looking at.

While I have not been around as long as others in the field (such as my dance mentors), I produced my first bellydance event in 2001, attended numerous events throughout the world (some as an attendee, some as a vendor and more as hired talent to instruct/perform), have organized multiple tours, and still actively produce, teach, perform, and vend today. I was there at the birth of the new fusion movement, and I have carefully tracked the ripples over the last 1.5 decades, especially throughout North America. And I continue to talk and network with a lot of people in different aspects of the trade.

I feel lucky to have launched the larger part of my dance career in the midst of a boom.  Thanks to a new DVD market, new social online media (remember and myspace), and a hungry, inspired audience, the first nationwide tour I planned in 2006 (The Durga Tour) was a huge success across the board in terms of full classrooms/shows and merch sales. For the most part, sponsors didn't need to market hard or be that experienced to make it a success.  The second tour for the most part saw equal numbers (or more) in workshop/show attendance, but the overall economy was hitting the merch sales hard.  Where attendees may have dropped $50-$200 easily in 2006 on merch alone, most were sticking to the $20-$40 mark in 2009 (a CD, DVD, or t-shirt vs. pricier costuming) after buying their workshop/show ticket. This trend to me showed a willingness to invest in learning and something they could appreciate and work with for a long time, despite economic hardship. In 2012, I planned a smaller, low-key tour to help me move from Providence to Seattle, and numbers were down generally across the board, minus a few hard-to-reach spots (like Billings, MT) and locations were I have a dedicated, established fanbase. Newbie sponsors especially had a hard time, and most sponsors mentioned the number of events happening at that time - more on this further down.

I have also noted a transition in the last 10 years is a move from weekend events that featured 1-3 teachers offering workshops with a show to more and more big, multi-headliner festivals. When I first started out, the majority of the events I was hired to do featured only myself, plus maybe a local instructor for a weekend, where I would teach 2-4 workshops and perform in a show. Now I'm mainly hired to teach at festivals and to do intensives. I'm still quite busy and in demand, but in different ways and now, in different markets.

Really, when you stand back and look at the bellydance community as a whole, you could say wow, there's more teachers, more events than ever, more stuff happening - that must be a good sign!

It would be - if we had a continually expanding stream of new students coming up to support it. And we don't. More on that shortly.

So there's more and more new festivals/events happening, meanwhile the festival events that have been the initial inspiration and mainstays in the community for years are being hit hard, and some of them are folding/closing down.  And many of the new events barely make it out of the gate. Why?

Location: Folks who would normally travel for hours to attend an event in another state or country, now have one in their own backyard.  Why put out a lot of money for airplane tickets, hotels, etc -  if you can have your favorite dancers in your own backyard? Or have 3 events that do that for you within 3 hours drive? Just how many big events can you attend in a year?

Vendors: Many of the old school importer vendors have closed up shop as well - because it's hard to compete with their own suppliers in India and Egypt selling directly online to their customers. Other vendors find it's easier/more affordable to sell their wares online than to shoulder the expense of traveling to sell at an event.  And it's the vendor booth fees that really help finance the cost of an event (at least the venue) - so less vendors = higher costs. Then you have the independent designers whose work gets copied/knocked-off either by overseas manufacturers or other "designers."

Production: When there was very little competition for events, and when the market was booming, it was pretty easy to have a successful event, regardless of producing skills, attitude, etc.  When you're the only game in town, folks want to play it.  When they have choices, they're going to look for the game that's more user-friendly and treats them well. You had a limited number of platforms to advertise with back then, and you would reap the rewards of it easily.  Now there's countless social media platforms to consider, and even more competition on them for people's attention. Nowadays, an event has to have an easy-to-use website, use online forms to apply for shows, have positive and prompt interaction, wallet-friendly pricing, and promise to deliver a whole lot to get folks in the door.  Not like back in the day where you could hang a black-and-white flier on your studio door that Miss SuperHips would be teaching a workshop there in 3 months and be sold out in a week.  So if a new producer NOW thinks all they need to do is have some big-name dancers on their ad and call it a day, they're going to be feeling the hurt soon enough.

Accessibility: Especially if that big-name dancer is at the more effectively produced/friendly event down-the-street, or also has online classes, or was just in the area a few weeks ago. When a student feels they could study with that teacher "next time", they will most likely wait.  Do online classes, dvds, and youtube really cut down on event attendance? I think for some people, yes.  Especially if they are on a tight budget.  They will forgo the live experience for the digital.

Scheduling: Not only are we seeing more and more events as folks try their hat at producing, we're seeing more events planned right on top of each other - sometimes in the same city/area. And there's no excuse about the markets being different when surveys have shown that 60% of the community will attend both tribal/fusion and oriental style events. There's also a new trend in events designed to feed off established events, where they happen the week before/after the established event, trying to latch on to that fan base.  There are only so many attendees to go around, and only so much money.

Money: Which brings us to money. Rarely are bellydancers independently wealthy, and you can only write so much off on your taxes (if you're doing this professionally vs. a hobby). The typical dancer has a set budget that they work with - how much they will spend on classes/workshops, how much on costuming/music, how much on travel. More events means that budget gets stretched tighter over several events, or they cut back to just one or two. You can only do so much with one body and a limited amount of money.

Cost: With the switch from bringing in 1-2 teachers for a weekend to dozens, the cost to produce an event goes up.  Not only do you have more airfare, food, and accommodations to cover, but you need a bigger venue to have room for more workshops, more vendors, bigger show, etc - and hopefully more students. The idea is that if you have more choices, you'll attract more people than those that have fewer instructors/workshops.

The Dedicated Dancer: Those of us who were baby dancers in the beginning of the last boom and have still continued on (and those before us) - are looking for more serious experiences.  They don't want a basic workshop, they want an intensive with their favorite instructor.  Or if they're looking for workshops, they want to try new and different things or more in-depth approaches, rather than taking the same workshop with the same big-name - but with a different title. They remember forking over a lot of money for years to certain names, and began to notice that the material didn't change much - or wasn't delivered.  When the Big Name Draw Glow begins to fade with the disappointment of non-delivery, they stop investing, no matter how much they may like that personality.  However, the type of experiences the Dedicated Dancer wants is going to cost more money (and they know it) - so they're going to budget for those special events, versus going to other events. It doesn't mean they care less about those events or think the price is wrong - they are simply conserving their time/money for what they believe will advance their dance more.

Student Base: And this is where I think it all comes down to. You can keep expanding as long as the demand exceeds the supply (and the supply would be teachers/events/etc). But where are the new students?  I'm not talking the usual crop of dancers in the hobbyist range who will come across a dance class at their local fitness center and fall in love.  Or see you perform at a show or restaurant, and want to take classes. I think this group is a wonderful standard that has been pretty even across the board for the last several decades.  No, I'm talking about new dancers under the age of 30 who are just coming into dance. The teens and the college-age folks who are excited about the dance and want to keep going. Before you start yelling at me "But I'm 18/24 and I love bellydance!" - yes, I know there are some of you out there (whom I love dearly!) - yay! But there's a whole lot less of you compared to when *I* started in my early 20's.  So where are the rest of the young dancers? What are they into? Why are they not interested in bellydance? I have my theories on this too which deserves another post unto itself.  But if we can figure out how to attract that market, it would mean an increase in students - which would feed everything else (though it's not a solution unto itself).  You can't have more teachers than students.  And right now, the majority of this whole economy is based by dancers for dancers (and hence a major issue for continued growth.)

Apathy: Lastly, when events/teachers are easily accessible - when there is a wide choice of workshops and shows to attend, things become less precious.  Especially if the quality of any single event is less than stellar, then the market is less likely to take a risk, even if it's a different show/people entirely. One moldy apple can really spoil the bin.  This tends to be especially true in large cities, where a lot of different events happen often at the same time or closely.

So in summary, basically we had a huge new explosion in the bellydance community/economy starting around 2000.  Tribal attracted a whole student base, and Fusion even more so as it reached new inspirations and sources.  The Bellydance Superstars latched into the college-age market with the music festival circuit (remember Lollapalooza?) and pulled more folks in to the weekly classes. There was a demand for more and more classes. More people started teaching. More events started happening. (Somewhere in here I will insert the issue of the larger economy crashing - where a lot of folks lost their jobs/got laid off/etc, and they switched to more creative/independent means to make ends meet - teaching dance, producing, vending, etc. And few recognize how hard it is when you make your hobby your job.)And the teachers and events continued to expand in number, while slowly the student base shrank. So now the toilet bowl has stopped up and has reached its capacity. We're at overflow with nowhere to go until things dry up  and we've been holding at this overflow point for the last couple of years.

Maybe it just all needs to get flushed, and things will follow a new wave in another decade or so - which is what history seems to indicate.

Some events will continue to work the times, tap into the market effectively and prosper (or break even). Other events will just stop happening. Some teachers will keep with it and others will move on.  There will be less classes, less events, less resources. And perhaps it will be missed and people will treasure what they have and support it more.  Perhaps there will be another new innovation/spark of inspiration that will kick things off again. It's the circle of life, but with more glitter.

In the meantime, what do we do?

If we're producing events - ask ourselves, who benefits? Is it a quality event? Does it support the community and is supported in return? Are we reaching our market and interacting with them effectively?  Are we networking with other producers to prevent overlapping, combining efforts to build better events?

If we're teaching classes/workshops - why do we teach? What do we offer that's different? Are we offering our students the best experience and material possible? Are we investing in our own education?

And ask ourselves, what can we do to support quality teachers and events? What we can do to expand our study of bellydance - the dance itself, the music, and culture.  How do we reach out to the larger community and interest them?

And here's to the newest prop in the bellydance world: the almighty plunger.