My oldest son is writing his first book. This book is one of many that have been inside of him for a very long time. He is nearing the end of his first draft, but it has been a battle. I have watched the process from afar and have thought how much it is like giving birth at times when we create. Sometimes it just flows and emerges with minimal battle scars. At other times, it is long, drawn out, and painful and there are many scars. It is the same for probably most creations.
Good choreography is like this. I have created amazing choreography in 3 hours. Other times it has been weeks, months, or years of percolating. I recently created 12 mini choreographies in 12-14 weeks back-to-back for my students. All different styles, regions, languages. I used Modern dance, theatrical dance, ‘belly’ dance, jazz and had no problem. It felt amazing and wonderful and empowering when that flow happened. Each week I thought would be the week where the particular student would say I missed the mark. Each week…success! And let me tell you that they did not pull their punches and take it easy on me. Hungarian, Estonian pop (Yikes!!), Sri Lankan, The Tea Party (which I don’t know how to describe), and good old school traditional music. That was an experience.
This was immediately followed by the discoveries of the babies at the locations of residential programs. I refuse to call them schools. It was a gut punch. They continue to find more bodies. These were weeks full of pain and sorrow. My heart literally ached. On my mother’s side there is a mix of many nations one of them is the Boricua peoples of our island. I cannot express in words how this feels yet I am a privileged person. I can pass.
I felt compelled to create a dance in order to deal with the powerful pain I felt from the nations. It was cathartic but oh so painful. It is a good dance but most likely will never see the light of day. There was one portion one night which I couldn’t get through and I quite literally broke down in front of my students while trying to teach them the steps. I am blessed with amazing students that follow me on my wild dance journeys where I step off the beaten path. These same students showed me such compassion and kindness that night. My professionalism took a beating, but my humanity was uplifted.
You know, there are times in your life when you must figure out who you are all over again. Your old identity, your old labels, your old purposes have gone by the wayside, and you have to figure it all out all over again. This also happens in your dance journey. You sit there and don’t know who you are as a dancer, as a person. You want to be honest in your dance, but you don’t have that truth to hold on to and guide you. So, what happens? You begin to freeze. It is a necessary but crappy place to be. It is painful, it is scary, and it hurts. And this is where I am right now after so much success, struggling with figuring out what style, what costume, what do I want to share with the audience. More importantly, who the hell am I now? As I said, it is a very uncomfortable place to be in as an artist.
So, what do you do when faced with that blanket of fog instead of that creative space you usually inhabit? My son, the one struggling and fighting it out with his book, reminded me of the answer. We were messaging back and forth, and he shared this song with me that he is using for his motivation. I love it. It is called ‘Such a Loser’ by Garfunkel and Oates. You will understand when you hear the words. Here is the link:
So, I will put one foot in front of the other and am going to reach for something greater and if I fail, I will fail spectacularly.
“It is better to be a loser than a spectator”
-Garfunkel and Oates-
I cannot think of belly dance without thinking of Dora Nasr. A beautiful Egyptian lady that attended the same belly dance class I did for a short period of time. She was from an era before religious leaders of Islam gained a stronger hold in the country. She wore tailored skirted suits. She did not cover her head. She was an engineer. She was strong and she was intelligent. She made it clear to our instructor that she would never perform in public; culturally that was unacceptable. She was strong in her belief of what was right and wrong. Dora had an innate femininity and grace and had a confidence that had just as much to do with her as a woman as it did with her accomplishments; she knew who she was. That was the impression she made on 16-year-old me.
I think for every dancer there is that one person that changes the trajectory of their journey. This person turns up seemingly out of nowhere, believes in you and genuinely wants to help you with no ulterior motive. This person just as quickly is gone from your life leaving an indelible impression. Dora was that person for me.
I was 15 when my mother dragged me to my first class because she felt I needed to learn how to be more 'lady like'. I was thrown into a class where everyone was much older than I was. I entered the class feeling completely out of place. Then the music began. As always, music is a driving force in what I do. I ended up enjoying the class and staying. Fast forward to year 2 where I was picked to do a solo. I cannot remember how I was picked. I do not even remember if I was given the choice or just told to do it! I don’t remember how I picked the music or if I picked the music. I was left trying to pull something together with little or no direction or experience. This is where Dora came in. I can’t quite remember but I feel that during a class she asked me about the dance and maybe how I was doing. My first clear memory was her in our apartment and me dancing. Somehow, miraculously, she was there.
I think it was only one afternoon. It was an afternoon that changed my life. My biggest problem at that time was that I would freeze. She just would not let me. ‘Keep dancing, keep dancing’ she would say. She never once said that is bad, or incorrect or out of step or off beat. She just said, ‘Dance!’ I remember that unlike most of my life I did not feel intimidated or judged. I felt safe, I felt helped, I felt encouraged. She herself did not dance. She did not tell me what or how to do anything. She encouraged me to keep moving and work it out in my body. She told me to keep what I was doing with my mouth. I had no idea I was pursing my lips in concentration. She said it was good. I can’t remember the words she used but with her hand gestures and comments I understood it was becoming and maybe flirtatious.
Dora encouraged me that day and then she told me about the ‘glue’. The glue is the secret. That which joins the steps and changes them from mere steps to dance. The glue is “the story between the steps” to quote Yasmina Ramzy. The glue is the nuance. The glue is the emotion. The glue is what keeps the story going and pulls in the audience. This I learned years later. At that time, I just knew it was the glue.
Dora also told me about having, ‘It’. She explained that a young girl cannot have ‘It’ it is something that only life can give you. Some might think this was a bad thing to say but for me it lifted a big burden off my shoulders. I was not to try to be or act like something I was not. She kept me honest in my dance and she allowed me to stay true to who I was.
I am forever grateful that this beautiful, busy working woman took time to help a disingenuous young girl. I carry Dora in my heart, mind and soul. I carry her when I dance. I will never forget her. One afternoon. It was one afternoon.
This might be my one and only blog, but I needed to write down some things. I have had thoughts swirling in my mind due to some conversations I had recently. Here are some random thoughts as I wait to hear about new lockdown measures…
I had the opportunity to speak to an out-of-town belly dance sister this week. She shared with me that she had considered giving up the dance due to attacks about appropriation. I still cannot put into words how I felt when she shared this with me.
What I can share is this, this is the dancer that my Egyptian friends have been excitedly waiting to see perform again. This is the dancer they felt imbued the dance with Egyptian feel and style. A beautiful, respectful dance artist. Fortunately, I was able to share the excitement and anticipation of my Egyptian friends. Due to Covid we were forced to cancel the 2019 show, so it has been a long wait. I wish she could see how their eyes light up as they remember her performance. I wish she could see how energized they become!
At one time I joined an on-line group supposedly about promoting and uplifting the dance. I was shocked to find only judgment and hatred. When I expressed the notion that my Middle Eastern friends loved and enjoyed our dancing, when I shared one of their comments “if you feel it, dance!” I was told by a North American dancer that “they didn’t know any better”. This is the height of privilege. To decide that you know better than the people of the culture. To decide that you as a North American get to sit in judgment.
I had a friend tell me I could not legitimately discuss appropriation because I was a belly dancer and the fact that I am means I am appropriating the art form. This is someone that will play the blues despite its roots.
As a dancer that has taught at studios teaching hip hop, jazz, ballet etc. and as someone that has attended many yoga classes run by non-Indian instructors, I am puzzled as to why belly dance is considered appropriation while this is not. I am not talking about authentic folklore and regional dances I refer to belly dance as a whole.
I remember sitting in an audience raptly listening to Mahmoud Reda founder of the Reda Troupe speaking about his life and career. He talked about the dance and the art. About how creativity has no bounds. About attempts to restrict him as a dancer and an artist. About how he studied ballet. He encouraged us to not allow ourselves to be restricted as artists. His audience was mostly made up of North American dancers. To this day his choreographies are performed in Egypt and the Reda Troupe exists.
I love this dance. Not the over sexualized, over the top, sensationalized stuff. I love the dancer that digs deep. The dancer that dares to show you who she is when performing. That moves to the music in a way that shows a connection and understanding of the depth of this dance, culture, and history. I love the new dancers discovering themselves and the rhythms. I love the sounds and the layers. I love the intricacy and I love the simplicity. And I love, love, love when the light comes on and they ‘get it’. I love when the thirst for knowledge kicks in and suddenly it is not only about the dance anymore. It becomes about people and culture, about sorrows and hardship and joy and life. It becomes about communication and extending a hand in friendship.
My final thought is this… if you love this dance keep going. Do not let the naysayers stop you. Listen and engage with and learn from the people of the culture. When you know better, do better. Accept that every time you do something great and not so great, every time you step out on that stage there will be critics. The question is do you love it enough to risk it? Do you love it enough to leave your heart out on that dance floor? I can promise you this, the right people will recognize the gift. Keep dancing my friends. Dance for joy. Dance for sorrow. Dance for life!