Friday, July 29, 2016

The Navel-Gazing Bellydancer

Let's be perfectly honest - no one got into bellydance with the singular, primary aspiration of being a cultural ambassador.

You came to bellydance because you saw someone perform and wanted to try it, or noticed a class being advertised and thought it sounded like fun - or wanted a different way to exercise. It had cultural allure in the sense of either being something exotic/unusual, or it was a way to connect with your own roots.  Or a friend talked you into it.

And then you stayed because it satisfied something inside of you.  It made you happy, it gave you something to focus on, it challenged you, it brought new friends into your life, or strengthened old bonds.  And hopefully, in the process of becoming a bellydancer, you learned more deeply about the cultures surrounding it, and fell in love with them as well.

In the beginning, it was all about you, and ideally in the end/in the process/journey, it became something larger.

In my generation of dancers - and by generation, I don't specifically mean by age, but rather those who took up dancing in the late 90's/early 00's - I have noticed a similar trajectory.  We all seemed to be missing something in our lives, and bellydance was the game-changer.  Many of us were (and are) some variation of geek and/or goth: passionate nerds.  This was an activity we could do that not only energized our bodies, but stimulated our minds and filled our spirits - as we were those little kids hooked on hieroglyphics and myths of ancient civilizations.  It had roots, it had meaning, and it made us feel beautiful and that we belonged somewhere.  Despite the fascinating theories that several researchers have put forth - the fusion aspects of bellydance (particularly gothic), were not a response to tragic world events (war and terrorism), but the natural blending of ourselves with the art we loved.  We were drawn to bellydance because it represented something beautiful, and something a bit dangerous.  And that danger wasn't linked to the cultures the dance originated out of, but the danger of being a sensual woman in control of herself - or with tribal, the danger and power of a group of women working together. Not unlike the allure of supernatural entities such as vampires, witches, etc that cycle in popularity.

It infiltrated our lives, changed them, changed us.  Upwards of two decades later, our lives taking drastically different paths than we ever imagined (in the realm of location, careers, relationships, families, etc), we look at the dance and wonder about what it means to us now.

I remember one time in my first year of classes, I was waiting for a friend to pick me up so we could go to class together. (I think my car was in the shop.) And for some reason, at the last minute, she couldn't make it - and since it was such a late notice, I would never make it to class in time via the bus.  I bawled my eyes out, it meant that much to me to go to dance class.

In the years that followed, I continued to go deeper, striving to become a professional performer - you can go back years in this blog to read about that journey with all of its trials and tribulations.  Looking at the overall arc of the journey - and comparing it to those of others in my dance generation, there's a definitive pattern.

We got into this dance for what could simply defined as "selfish" reasons - we got into it for us, hoping to find ourselves (not even knowing we were lost). But that's the right kind of selfish - exploration of art that leads to a journey of discovery and revelation, to something bigger than ourselves.  In the process, we built (or re-built) ourselves up, fell in love, and learned to grow and share.  We found that the dance is more than us - it's the cultures that it comes from, their history - ancient and living - and that we should respect them through learning and performing with context. It's the community that is formed around the dance: what we share, teach, and give each other through the dance.  It's the education of the body, of the people, of the senses.

We may have started out dancing for ourselves - to become masters over our own bodies, to feel beautiful, powerful, and special, to experience the magic of the stage. But over time, to keep dancing, we had to find a different meaning to keep it going.  To dance for yourself only when performing for others is a one-way energy flow that's not sustainable.  But when you dance to share, to express, to inspire, and to find common ground, suddenly there's a fountain without end.  Dance is an art, and art is about communication.  Dance is not a monologue. A performance is a conversation, and the best conversations involve listening from all involved parties - including the dancer.

When I ask myself why I dance nowadays, I do it because in the performance of it, I'm creating and engaging in a dialogue that can't be expressed in any other way. Whether it's part of a live music audio-visual experience, or for 7 minutes of recorded music, I'm bringing the audience into my concept of "church." I'm sharing with them everything I have learned, and inviting them into it. The performance isn't about or for me or my ego, but the exchange that happens in the space between us.

I teach dance and produce events because I believe in the transformation that happens when someone learns to dance - and the community that is built when you focus on cultural education and foster a positive environment for everyone.

In the larger picture of things, as we face a shrinking community, a type of Ice Age - we all need to do a bit of navel gazing in the sense of examining why we are here. What do we get out of the dance, and what do we GIVE back to it? If you're looking for fame and fortune, you're not in the right place, and you're not building anything for anyone, not even yourself. Are we here to share, to learn, to express? How much are we willing to change or grow to invigorate the dance? How willing are we to let go of old ideas and unhealthy habits that hinder growth? Are we asking ourselves about the ratio of appreciation versus appropriation and understanding WHY that does indeed matter NOW.

I often remark in my classes that the navel is the "ear" in which we "hear" the audience through. It's where we receive energy and cycle it through - and it's time to stop looking and start listening.