Dreaming darkly for real: A dancer's remembrance of Christopher Lee

I'm a writer whose work includes horror and gothic poetry, fiction, and prose, as well as news journalism and arts and entertainment coverage. I am not a writer or a journalist simply because I say I am - they are what I do. I also sustain myself by writing professionally. I am not a "famous" author, but I am an established one, with peer-reviewed credits in a variety of publications, in print and online. Fame in the conventional sense may come, or not, but I will be writing as long as I am physically and mentally able.

 

There is the dream of writing, and there is the fantasy. To me, the dream is already real as long as I keep making it so.

 

In a similar way, I am an Oriental dancer, again, not because I bought a costume and decided to tell people that I am. I am because I work at it - practicing, performing, and sharing my dance in many ways and in many venues, including producing events that bring dance and literature together. This includes the "Edgar Allan Poe Show" and its upcoming fourth incarnation, and "Dance of the Beloved", a collaboration with my late husband, the writer and devoted Middle-Eastern dance fan, Lawrence Carradini.

 

Again, my life in dance is not a fantasy, but a dream, a dream that many of us share and make real in our passion and dedication, and sometimes in disappointment, but often in the joy of doing something we love to do.

 

I've been thinking about all this since the actor Christopher Lee's passing on June 7 at age 93, and reading the accolades and tributes, including many from my friends in the Middle-Eastern dance community. I've been a fan of Christopher Lee since an early age -  age 10, to be precise - seeing him in one of his signature roles as Dracula. In this role, and in many others since then, he spoke to something in me - with poetic darkness, sensuality, and danger, and battles between good and evil.

 

All enticingly agreeable in an artist's landscape.

 

Since then, Christopher Lee's long, diverse performance resume has shown something to which I think many of us as performers can relate - the desire to create, and to forge a bond with a caring audience. Much like his films, those creations won't be all things to all people. But if they come from something honest that their creator can stand by, they can seal that bond with fire.

 

So, whether looking back to the haunting "Scott of the Antarctic" (1948) in which Lee had only a supporting role, to my forever favorite Hammer's "Dracula", to "Count Dooku" and beyond, I think about this: Not only what a magnetically handsome and commanding presence (yeah, that, without qualification or apology), but how important it is to keep working, keep creating, keep reaching for the things that inspire, not always with immediate rewards or appreciation, but with belief, hard work, and again, more hard work. Have a presence. Be a presence.

 

And always toward making something real from a dream. And that's no fantasy.

 

Morgana Mirage is the assoicate editor for Belly Dance New England.

Tai Chi Shimmy

by Melina, of Daughters of Rhea
 
This essay was written in part to explain why Tai Chi is so important to me and why it might be of interest to belly dancers. 

Tai Chi and the internal martial arts have long fascinated me and informed my belly dance practice. I grew up going between my belly dancing mother and my fathersquo;s standing meditation and slow movement sequences. I loved both practices, never tiring of my watching Greek audiences respond with authentic verve to my mother’s sizzling energy, and filled with peace as I watched my dad’s stillness unfold when he practiced Tai Chi outside on our NYC fire escape. Exploring and blending these disciplines has long been my secret sauce.  Centering and breathing, conscious transitions, body and soul awareness from footfall to fingertip and beyond nourish and replenish my dance. Even when my dance is at its most wild and ecstatic, I try to stay rooted yet agile. I try to be aware of my central equilibrium and the ways my energy is simultaneously stretching skyward and down to the center of the earth.

We all want to feel at home and at peace in our bodies. You’ve heard it before: Your body is your temple. Your body is your temple. And you are a goddess who dances with dignity and grace. I take this idea - your body is your temple - seriously on every possible level: nutritionally, spiritually, kinesthetically. Tai Chi postural awareness practice is key in helping a dancer be centered moving from a place of balance and well-being. Alive inside and out. That sounds good to me!

Here’s a wonderful image imparted to me by the great circus equestrian, Katja Schumann: "Imagine that your body is covered with eyes...You must know how to control them, how to point the eyes of your hips in the right direction in order to let the horse know which way to go." When Katja casually dropped this gem on me outside the horse stalls at Circus Flora I was floored. I’m sure you horse people know all about this but I had never heard this idea, and I loved imagining all those eyes blinking on my body. Instant full-body awareness!
By the same token, Tai Chi-influenced dance practice helps you get in touch of all the eyes nestled on the inside of your body, helps you become aware of whether they are open or closed, or in which direction they are looking with every movement. Constantly communicating with these interior sensations, the dancer becomes the ultimate energy priestess as she explores and awakens every unconscious piece of herself, delighting in herself and creating the sacred space that she moves through. By consciously tuning into your center, your breathing, and the profound process of a smooth shift of weight, you start to feel as if you are moving as part of one long, beautifully unbroken poem rather than dancing a series of technical movements packed together in chunks.
 
Inner awareness is a keystone idea for the Chinese internal martial arts. It feels increasingly important that a performance artist dance with this idea that movement must be generated from inner awareness, not just an external “how we should look.” I love it when I sense that a dancer is palpably in touch with her inner awareness, not just “going through the motions.”  The pleasure a dancer can experience when her body, mind, and soul are joined through breath as she uncovers her dance and expresses beautiful music is a gift that can be enhanced by practicing Tai Chi. We all acknowledge the power of stillness and allowing for pauses in our dance - mystical moments in which we and the audience, when there is one, are transported by simply not doing for a beat or two...or three... 

I was particularly struck by a passage from Sifu Jan Diepersloot’s trilogy Warriors of Stillness, in which he talks about stillness as the state of being fully alive, stillness as being pregnant with possibilities for movement. This kind of practice can only help dancers improve and feel more at ease as we improvise to live music. Tai Chi practice can help us get into, as Aszmara would say, “The trance of the dance.” 
 
Though posture is often thought of as stillness opposed to movement, actually our posture must be considered a type of movement also.  In other word, the stillness we are talking about is not the stillness of death as opposed to the movement of life. It is not the comparative stillness of plants as opposed to the movements of animals. It is not the stillness of sleep, not the stillness of couch potato TV-watching, not the stillness of paralysis, not the stillness of passed-out stupor, nor any other stillness in which the machinery for movement and its controlling mechanism have been fully or partially shut down. No, the stillness we cultivate in our standing (postural) meditation entails readiness, a stillness that is pregnant with possibilities for movement. [...] The stillness we are talking about, in other words, is movement not yet released. It is the stillness of potential movement as opposed to actual movement. In this stillness, awareness enables us to respond to our environment rather than react to it.” (Jan Diepersloot,  Masters of Perception: Sensory-Motor Integration in the Internal Martial Arts, Qi Works, Walnut Creek, CA, 2013, p. 24.)

Belly dance is a performance art in which yes, we must externalize as entertainers and think about how we look, but it should also be an internal martial art, a meditation to music. It is about integrating isolated movements into the seamless whole of your entire body while maintaining a peaceful awareness of your central equilibrium. Posture and the shift of weight are major components of dance that must be undertaken consciously and ideally without involuntary movement or hiccups. Tai Chi can help foster this inner awareness and help the belly dancer craft or improvise a movement poem that is rooted and agile as well as smooth, supple, and seamless.  
 
Melina of Daughters of Rhea will present visiting guest Sifu Jan Diepersloot in an introductory workshop at Moody Street Circus October 25 and 26. See the website for information and to register.

How to go pro

by Kelvia

Let me start by saying that just because you took some belly dance classes, it does not mean you are a belly dancer. It is disrespectful to the art form and our dance community to label yourself as such when you go out to perform in any public show, even if it's a non-paying event.

I did not call myself a “belly dancer” - my mentors and teachers were the first to present me as such. I did not call myself a "professional belly dancer" - my mentors and teachers were the first to name me as such. This title came after five years of intensive dance training and workshops. I then maintained this title, after an additional two years of training with multiple reputable teachers within the industry.

I did not go out and get myself my first paying gig. My mentors, teachers, and sisters within the dance community provided that, telling me it was time to leave the nest. You do not "debut as a belly dancer”. You are embraced by a dance community of women who have walked miles before you and broken ground within the community to build a reputable name for our dance form, and know what it feels like to dance with glass dug into their bare feet, pain in their backs, or with clients who expect them to put on a spectacular show in only two inches of dance space.

Moreover, the green light does not come from one person alone. It took three professional dancers to give the ok for me to start marketing myself. Hence, the reason I say it's a “community embrace”. Your teacher may be biased in their affection for you, and it could cause them to misjudge your readiness. They should be bouncing the idea of you going pro with other pros.

Until all this happens, know your place and market yourself accordingly. You are a "student of  Middle-Eastern dance". Heck, even that title requires you to actually be actively studying with one or more main core teachers, while pursuing workshops and attending community dance events. One does not go without the other. If you only train with one teacher, attend one or two classes a week, but don’t invest in studying the art on your own time, then you are not a real student of Middle-Eastern dance. You are a person who simply "takes belly dance classes". There is nothing wrong with that. There is just a difference and a student hierarchy too.

It takes a minimum of 4-5yrs of dance training in this art form before you can earn your slot in the “belly dancer” performance arena (if we can label it that). Even after all that time of training, you still actually need a mentor. This should be a reputable teacher or tenured dance professional who brings you in and gives you the backing as you start your journey.

On a side note: Please be aware that once you "go pro”, it is professional etiquette to name the person who brought you into the pro scene on your website acknowledgment page. You don’t just credit your teachers, you credit the people who got your foot in the door. Too many people forget that this person who promoted you and got you your first gigs did so despite the fact that they are helping a competitor. To me, I have even more gratitude for my dance sisters, who never collect a check off of my dance training sweat, but still promoted me anyway. 

Understand that belly dance is just not just some dance you pick up and “BAM”, you are a belly dancer. There is a cultural awareness you must have, and etiquette that must be followed, so that you do not misrepresent the dance form or disrespect an entire culture based audience.

While I am on this tangent….please know that not everyone is qualified to be a belly dance teacher. I taught my first class under the guidance of my first belly dance teacher. I knew enough to recognize that she had thrown me into something I was NOT prepared to have. I had not earned my stripes yet. Her confidence in my dance ability had clouded her judgement.

Let me explain why she was wrong. She had been the only teacher I had ever trained with. The only workshops I had ever gone to were with her, and the only community events I would attend were the ones in which she was present. I was WRONG! With the opportunity to teach, I saw how unprepared I was to fully give my students a well-rounded foundation of this art form. I quickly saw my mistake and took the first opportunity to close up my classes. It was not until three years later, after having taken private lessons with three other teachers, gained 3yrs of pro-type performance experience, and enrolled in the Egyptian Dance  Academy in NYC (which gave me endless opportunities to train with international superstars within the industry)...not until after all that did I decide to teach dance again.

Also, please note that I did not open up dance classes for self gain. I decided to teach because I saw a need in my dance community. I had now gotten to a point in my dancing where it would have been irresponsible of me as a new professional to not carry my own weight within the community. I felt that as the new wave of dancers came in, I should try to expand or continue the legacy the established pros started.

I started dance classes with kids first because I saw the priceless value of how this dance teaches women to love and accept themselves. I wanted our CT youth to have that resource and learn these lessons during the most crucial moments of their cognitive development. I then started adult classes based on public demand, and because I had made a deal with the dance studio that welcomed my kids classes. If they let me have a dance home for kids, I would provide a class for their adult studio members too.

I'm not saying that I have all the answers. I'm just providing a public service announcement about what it really takes to be a belly dancer, based on my experience and exposure to the industry.

Clients: Don't be fooled by those who try to sell you this dance without fully understanding it themselves. Also, if you ever wonder why professional belly dancers are higher-priced than the one that cut you a “deal”, read this entire document again. The answer is here.   

Students: Don’t just accept just any teacher. When you find the teacher who is right for you, don’t take everything they say to be correct. Look at their community contributions, professionalism, and dance training. Nourhan Sharif still takes dance workshops. You never just arrive and stop learning. When was the last time your teacher took a workshop or worked on their own personal dance improvement?

Sadly, some tenured teachers have lost their way.  They are not practicing what they once so heartily preached: sisterhood, professionalism, communicating with your dance sisters. Look fully and realistically at your mentors. When you have learned all you can learn from them, move on and train with others. If they are truly professional, and love you, they won’t hold it against you for leaving the nest. In fact, they will make attempts to join you on your journey, and still mentor you wherever they can as you continue to grow.

If you find that you are wrong in any of these areas…as we say in the military - "get right”. As a person who has intensively trained in 16 different dance forms; as a person with the work experience in other dance industries (I came out of the ballroom/Latin dance scene, and I am a member of the latino community, exposed to the work within their dance community as well), I can tell you that this dance form is an entirely different animal. It operates completely differently from any other dance community I've been exposed to. Don’t pretend to know one because you come from another. Just when you think you have a good handle on it, that is right when you realize how much more you have to learn.

When it comes to my dancing, I am further along today than I was yesterday, but light years away from where I wish I could be tomorrow.

Kelvia is a performer and teacher based in Naugatuck, CT. She has studied with Nourhan Sharif and Adina of CT. Visit her web site at www.kelvia.com.

Consider Your Audience

by Alizah Afet (Amy Smith)

I want my audiences to be as open-minded as my characters. - Jason Reitman  

Is one type of audience member preferred over another? 

I was pondering this after corresponding with a dancer about her upcoming events. She expressed concern that, at her last event, while the house was full, not a single belly dancer showed up.

My first thought was: “WOW! You sold out!!” Granted, in this particular dancer’s case it was a smallish space, but to fill your event seating to capacity is always gratifying. For performers, there’s nothing like looking out from the stage at a full house. These days, with so many events happening concurrently or so close together, event producers are happy to have warm bodies in seats - dancers, neighbors, friends, family members, and random strangers dragged off the street.

I’ve also had the opposite experience - where a dance event audience was full of nothing but dancers. Of course, it’s great to have the support of your local dance community. In many ways, we are the ideal audience. We all understand what it takes to put on an event. We want to support our dance colleagues and friends. We understand why a performer might make this artistic choice of music, or admire the exquisite work that went into a hand-made costume. Lastly - and this is not a small thing - we enjoy seeing belly dancers perform!  

But sometimes - especially after attending several events within a short time span and seeing the same people over and over - I feel like we are performing only for each other. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing! But I think many of us got into performing thinking that we would be sharing our art with the larger non-dancer community (I call them “civilians”). We share our art because we love it, and we want them to love and understand it, too. Even in this enlightened age, belly dance (of any style) suffers from misconceptions of what the dance is about and why any one would perform it, so dance events can be educational. If I had a nickel for every time a civilian told me “I get it! Belly dance is sensual, not erotic!” I would be able to quit my day job.

It’s much easier to accomplish this goal for some venues - restaurants, for example, where people are coming in to get a meal anyway. Getting civilians to purchase tickets for a theatrical type venue is far more difficult. So I say to that dancer with whom I was corresponding: “DOUBLE WIN! Full house of CIVILIANS!!!"

As a sometime event producer, the bottom line is - always - to get rear ends in seats, so we can keep on producing these events. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a healthy mix of dancers and civilians in those seats?

About Alizah Afet
Alizah strives to be a good audience member and to try and always bring a civilian to provide cosmic balance. She publishes Belly Dance New England.

 

Remembering Larry

My husband Lawrence 'Larry' Carradini was a great dancer husband, to be sure, but he was also a part of the New England Middle-Eastern dance community in every sense.

We always considered that our relationship began one night in the summer of 1996, when I was dancing at the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., and he came to see me.

But he served as more than dancer chauffeur, photographer, videographer, bodyguard, and sword roadie, although he did all that and more. My journey in dance was part of our shared journey in poetry, the arts, and in life.

Early on, we talked about how we might collaborate, as Larry was also a poet and involved in the local performance poetry scene.

In 1998, we created 'Dance of The Beloved,' an homage to the mystic poet Rumi and love poetry in its many Larry and Morgana onstage in their "Dance of the Beloved" poetry and dance event. forms ancient and modern. It debuted at the Poets' Theater at Club Passim in Cambridge in June 1998 and we performed it together at several venues throughout the area over the years.

Early on, Larry turned his writing talents to chronicling events, and became a dance journalist in his own right, writing for Belly Dance New England and also for Jareeda magazine, for which I am also a writer.

He was an artist and promoted and respected Middle Eastern dance as an art. Those who knew him know he was supportive of and caring toward them as well.

Many friends who also about Larry's health struggles supported us greatly, including Susan Morgaine Stanley and her husband, Joe, who organized a benefit on our behalf in September 2011. We continued to draw strength from that event and from the dancers - and their spouses, partners, and families -- who contributed in performances, raffle prizes, and their presence.

Having shared the dance of life with him for 18 years, I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to cherish, and a lot to miss. The stage is a little emptier. But here at home, and wherever my travels may take me now, Larry's legacy still sparkles beyond the veil.

Morgana Mirage is associate editor of Belly Dance New England.


Memorial service

Calling hours are set for Friday, May 9, 4-7 p.m. followed by a memorial service at Morse-Bayliss Funeral Home, 122 Princeton Blvd., Lowell, Mass. All are welcome. For more information visit www.morsebaylissfuneralhome.com.

Pride and prejudice: On shamrocks, shimmies, and being a green dancer

by Morgana Mirage

Almost from my earliest childhood days, I remember two pieces of artwork that were up on our wall at home. One was drawing of the Irish harp, and the Gaelic words, "Cead Mille Failte" (a hundred thousand welcomes), by an artist friend of our family.

The other was a copper plate from Egypt, with a profile of Cleopatra, given to my father by an Egyptian friend at the hospital where they both worked. I studied the intricacy, beauty, and mystery of both pieces. One represented a magical land with a mysterious language of my ancestors. The other was from a different land - but one to which I felt deeply and unapologetically drawn.

My mother came to Boston from Ireland after nursing school, and my father grew up in a predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in the Charlestown section of Boston. Perhaps, being between two cultures, they had an affinity for others negotiating similar or even greater challenges.

Some years later, I decided to fulfill a dream of studying Middle-Eastern dance. I worked very hard at it. I sought out teachers who not only could teach good technique, but whose respect for and understanding of Middle-Eastern cultures shone through.

I had no desire to be something I am not. But I did and still do have a great desire to understand, to the best of my ability, not only the dances of the Middle East, but their origins and cultural context. Simply or maybe not so simply, my desire is to be the best dancer I can be.

All along the way, I've been aware that this is a path fraught with controversy. There's a lot of concern about what motivates women not of Middle-Eastern ancestry to study Middle-Eastern dance.

That controversy recently erupted in the instantaneous online sphere with an essay, "Why I can't stand white belly dancers", by Palestinian-American writer and author Randa Jarrar, at salon.com.

I thought, dare I say it, here's someone telling me, gosh, I don't know, "No Irish need apply"?

I read this essay a couple of times, to make sure I wasn't missing some nuance or point that the dance community should perhaps stop and take stock of and reflect inwardly upon.

And this is saying a lot because like many people, I found my first objection right at the title.

Yes, the title is offensive and it is racist. And I'm not given to the reactive outrage or so-called "faux rage" that is de rigeur on the Internet.

The article is a broad and inarticulate swipe at an entire group of people, singling them out among all the practitioners of Middle-Eastern dance on the planet. It's not worthy of a writer praised for her articulation of history and contemporary issues.

So it's a little hard to get past it to other points the author is trying to make. Which near as I can tell, are that people outside the Middle Eastern cultures - and white women above all - don't get what the dance is about and are merely imposing their own needs and desires upon it and thus upon women of the cultures of origin.

In one sense, I can relate to the idea of a culture being misrepresented or even misappropriated. As I write this, St. Patrick's Day is not far away, and with it will come the annual debauchery of green beer, stupid hats, gross-looking green milk shakes, and a general excuse for drunkenness and hooliganism, and the somehow undying stereotype that Irishness itself equals drunkenness.

But it doesn't offend me that Irish music is embraced worldwide, or that people from around the world come to Ireland to discover its beauty and history. Even if they go to the pubs first, as tourists often do. Maybe along the way, they will lose some of those stereotypical ideas and learn the depth and breadth of Irish culture if they are embraced and educated, rather than shut out.

That there is amateurization and a need for greater cultural awareness in the dance community is a valid concern. When I see someone showing off floor work during Armenian line dance music - and, insanely in my view, in the path of the line dancers - this to me signals ignorance and no small touch of arrogance.

I've also heard complaints about people picking Arabic words for dance names that make no sense, such as the equivalent of "cash register", and using music or props that were inappropriate for the dance they were performing. However, they are issues of training, teaching, and of attitude. They are not matters of complexion, skin tone, or having a European surname.

And it's my experience that those who are drawn to the dance for superficial reasons, or just because of the makeup, costumes, and sense of glamor, generally don't stay once they realize they have to work hard and give something back as well as revel in the affirmation they seek.

I love costumes, makeup, and jewelry and make no apology as a woman for being drawn to them. But, for me, Middle-Eastern dance has always been much more than that - it has been passport to the cultures of the Middle East, to the opportunity to travel and learn, and make friends.

This experience not only became part of my education as a dancer - it made me a better journalist, and gave me a doorway of insight into covering local Arab and Islamic communities. I took courses in Arabic, read from the Koran, and traveled to Egypt and Turkey - all in the service of trying to further my understanding.

Through it all, the love, friendship and respect I have received, as a dancer, writer, and hopefully, a world citizen, were freely given and freely returned and not stolen or misappropriated.

In her essay, Ms. Jarrar writes that, "The most disturbing thing is when these women take up Arabic performance names — Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali." Putting aside the snide and disrespectful tone, respectfully, my dance name, Morgana, isn't a made-up name or arbitrary choice any more than I suppose are that of the Egyptian dancers Lucy, Nelly, and Ruby. My dance name reflects both Arab and Irish sentiments. So maybe we are not so far apart after all.

Not long ago, I found a plate just like the one that my parents had. It is now up in a room in my house, along with a rug I bought while in Egypt. These do not stir in me a pretense of identity. Instead, they invoke thoughts and memories of friends and experiences. To quote, well, a western band of Anglo-Irish origin - the Beatles: "In my life, I've loved them all."

And, from "Batwanes Beek", a song made popular by Arab singer Warda: "Whether near or far, I am happy with you" - you who have extended to me, across divides of language, culture, and continents, a hundred thousand welcomes.

Morgana Mirage is associate editor of Belly Dance New England.

Note: Belly Dance New England will be hosting a TweetChat on Wednesday, March 12 from 9 - 11 pm EST. The topic is "Belly Dance: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?" Open to everyone in the belly dance community. Use #bostonraqs to participate in the conversation. Our handle is BDNE.

Never participated in a TweetChat before? See http://janetfouts.com/how-to-participate-in-a-tweet-chat/

For those who can't attend, we'll capture and publish the conversation.