Monday, January 19, 2015

The Magic & Mystery of the Dress

The first piece of bellydance costuming I ever lusted over (aside from the black Egyptian chiffon triangular hipscarf with silver coins that I stalked on ebay circa 2000 and still have today) was a "ghawazee coat." The unique sleeves, the underbust cut, the frock-coat like fitting. I was (and still am) in love with the design, as well as the whole look presented in the engravings and lithographs depicting the dancers.  And while I was able to capture some of those elements early on, the one that really eluded me was the coat.

In 2001, a group of friends chipped in and bought me a gift certificate for Artemis Imports.  I spent hours pouring over that crazy, wonderful catalog.  If you never have had the pleasure of getting the mailorder catalog from Artemis Import (and back then it was either shop from her in person at events or send in a few dollars to get the catalog), it was a HUGE plastic-tooth bound cut-and-paste bonanza. And she had ghawazee coats for sale - so with my gift certificate, I bought one!

I'm not sure why I thought it was going to be wine-colored (wasn't the catalog in black and white? Maybe there was a one-off color sheet in there...), but I was very surprised that when it arrive it was 1/4" wide red and black stripes. And  unfortunately was WAY too big for me, especially in the chest. I sadly returned it (but I did get the FCBD "Tattooed One" and the rest of the Solace albums I didn't have yet in exchange).  This pattern would repeat again and again over the years - every coat I came across didn't fit me (and/or came close to fitting in my meager budget).

Despite that continuing disappointment, I never stopped being inspired by those early images, hints of them repeatedly showing up in my costuming throughout the years.  Why? What is about these women, dancing in their many layers of fabric, that drew my eye and inspired by my heart?

This image shows a small sampling of my "covered" costuming - over a decade of dresses.  Where it seems that many of my fellow dancers work to show more and more skin, I keep coming back to these looks.  Why?

Some women prefer to wear dresses to cover weight/body size, stretch marks, or for modesty (when they're not specifically being used to represent a folkloric dance). Being comfortable and confident in your own skin via your costuming is a HUGE factor and if a dress does that for you, that's fantastic. Me? I'm happy with the shape of my body - whether you can see the skin/shape or not, nor do I have marks to hide (at least not yet!), and I don't think I qualify for any modest awards.  Basically, I'm not hiding anything.

Or am I?

Over the last year, I transitioned from dancing with The Nathaniel Johnstone Band to also being an active musician as well.  This means during an entire show, part of the time I'm dancing and the rest of the time, I'm playing keyboards/percussion. The far right image of me, I'm wearing the costume I pulled together for "Stone Woman" (our Medusa song), which is mainly a re-purposed thrift-store find.  While on tour, I found that there wasn't time/space for costume changes, so I stuck to one costume to make the most impact - and it was this costume.  It has a huge bling factor, really shows off isolations, while letting me move big when I need to.  I also realized that I felt more confident not being the "half-nekkid" band member, especially at steampunk events, where nearly everybody has MANY layers of clothing on.  I hadn't realized this was even a thing, until we were doing a show last month where I grabbed my "Amulet" costume to wear instead of digging out the Medusa one - and I felt really exposed. I'd already worn "Amulet" at several bellydance events and for the Stoneburner shows, and felt fine and fabulous every time.  But with my own band? Nope.

So I decided to order a style of Egyptian dress I've been oogling for over a year, to get another blingy dress for bandwear. I didn't have any plans specifically for it, so I was pleasantly surprised when it matched the Amulet costume perfectly. And it was stretching enough that I could move the neckline to scoop the bra instead of covering it.  Without trying to, I managed to get the perfect "ghawazee coat" inspired piece I have been lusting after all these years - the scooped bustline, the stripes, the sleeves! And it fits perfectly!

I think I have figured out why those layers have fascinated me all these years.  There is truly something sensual, magical, empowering about revealing less of your outside while showing more of your inner awesome.

Then again, I could just be a Victorian re-incarnated.  Which would probably surprise no one.
HRM Steampunk Steamposium on the Queen Mary, photo by Wade Watkins

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Business of Being An Artist

(This particular post can be applied to any kind of art, it's getting placed in the dance blog for convenience.)

2015, for me, has the subtitle of "the year of getting down to business proper."  (I have no doubt that it will acquire many more as it ages.) So it's probably no surprise that articles and discussions about the difficulty of being an artist and trying to do business at the same time are catching my eye. There's a particular line of "oh, but I just really want to focus on MY ART, I'm not any good at the other stuff."

This is nothing new.  I've been hearing it for years in the dance community. "I am/so-and-so is/such a lovely dancer/teacher, but no one has heard of me/them - and it's because I/they focus on my/their art, and it's not fair. Marketing/business takes precious hours away from my true love and vocation."  Which is then paired with the implication that anyone else who is making it, isn't as TRUE an artist, they're just better business people (sometimes this is unspoken, sometimes not).  (Because of course blaming/disparaging someone else for their apparent success makes your own lack-there-of easier to justify, right?)

And you know, I understand, really I do.  I'd love to just work in my studio all day long, while having my art completely support me without having to do anything besides make it.  Such a lovely fantasy.

So keep that in mind when I say: SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP.


You spent a long time mastering your art/craft, yes? And probably (aka should) still put more time now into expanding it via workshops/classes/etc. There were certainly times where you lacked the proper skill/knowledge to accomplish certain movements perfectly, work with a particular media, write the perfect prose. Yes, you may have possessed inherent talent (aka, doodling on the living room walls when you were 3), but it had to be honed and developed.  Countless hours were spent investing in your craft, and not all of them were enjoyable. And you're lying if you say they were.  (If I have to make one more graduated black to white chart in charcoal again with 12 variations in between...)  Face it, at some point in your journey, probably dozens of points, you sucked and you were frustrated, but you kept going.

The hard truth is that business skills fall into the same category.  And they are not separate from your art, they're integral to it.  Marketing and networking doesn't come easy to introverts, but you can learn to do it well, or at least well enough.  (Fake it until you make it.) Like everything else, it just takes practice, and you're going to suck at it for a while.

And while having someone who solely does all of those business aspects for you would be fantastic  - no one is going to sell your work (and essentially YOU) for you, unless you believe in yourself and your work first.  Meaning you have to get it out there in the first place - which takes working on some of those biz skills. It's not going to happen overnight.  There are very few (if any) true "overnight successes."  All of the artists/performers/musicians I know who you hear about, they've been at it for a while.  There is rarely ever one "big break" that makes it all happen. It's more of a juggernaut effect - but you have to get the ball rolling first.

There is also a lot that can learned in acquiring those business skills that can advance your art in other ways.  When you start to consider your audience (or potential audience), how it's being received/perceived, and what is working - that information can all be used to help you pinpoint your own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore you can become even better at your art than you can producing in a vacuum.

Now, if the opportunity comes to me to have a go-getting agent and/or numerous financially supportive patrons, I'm not going to balk at having to handle less of the load (Hi! Write me!).  But I will recognize that it happened because I busted my ass in the first place and muddled through the sucking stages.