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.
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