Monday, November 25, 2013

Belly Dancers Can Learn From Katy Perry's AMA Performance

I did not watch the AMAs last night, but I have been reading with interest the comments and opinions regarding Katy Perry's geisha-infused performance.  Many people found it racist, many people found it artistic.  I cannot comment either way, having not seen it myself.  However, I do have this comment, and I hope all belly dancers, especially those of us who are in the cultural and racial majority, will take heed:

If you don't think it's important to study and honor the history and culture of the societies whose art you are appropriating, you are wrong.

See, western civilization has a nasty tendency to to create stereotypes of other cultures.  Some of these are negative, and some are intended to be positive.  Thing is, stereotypes hurt us all, even if they are "positive" because they absolve us of actual effort to understand others.  Not only do we then relegate every person we encounter of a different race to some pigeon hole, we deny ourselves the fullness of that person.

Now, I'm not saying white people should never wear bindis, or black people should never don kimonos, or Asians should never wear ascots.  I'm saying everyone should understand what they are doing and why.  It's OK to like something brought to you by another culture.  It's OK to incorporate it into your own self-expression.  Just make sure you know what it means, or how it might be interpreted by others.

Obviously, since this is a belly dance blog, my main area of focus is on North African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian cultures.  Many American women come to love belly dance because of our initial exposure of Orientalist imagery- imagery that continues to perpetuate many mythological ideas of the Middle East to the western world.  I still think a lot of Orientalist art is beautiful.  However, I admit that some of it has become unappealing as I have learned where it originates.  I am thankful that I have had amazing teachers who have immersed themselves in the art and history of the countries whose dance they are teaching, and that I have had a natural curiosity about the region and its history.  When I break a rule, I am not doing it out of ignorance, or worse yet, laziness, and falling back on the excuse that it is "art."  Art requires knowledge.  Art requires technique.  Art requires depth of understanding.

If you are a belly dancer, and your teacher is not encouraging you to study the history of belly dance and the Islamic world (and beyond), please, find another teacher.  If you are a dancer who has never taken the time to learn why some dancers dance with snakes, or why belly dancers started baring their midriffs, it's not too late.  Go right now! Shira's website is a great place to start!  But please, start.  The truth in your art depends on it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Good Friends

Throughout the years as a belly dancer, I've been drawn to producing my own shows.  Perhaps it's the control freak in me, because I want to have an event that highlights what I want, and I'm particularly big on enforcing a positive and safe environment for all dancers.

A few years back, my former tribal improv troupe drove out to Vegas to participate in what was advertised as a Big and Glorious Competition.  That's a story for another day, but suffice it to say it was not as advertised.  However, something wonderful did come of it: I got to meet the beautiful ladies of TABU. After our category (which they won), out two troupes hung out and became fast friends.  The competition that I produce, Hips of Fury, was coming up in a few months, and I encouraged them to come out and compete in that, which they did.  No surprises, they won the Ultimate Troupe at HoF as well.  I was (and still am) a big fan.

Here's the very best part.  I've told you that many amazing belly dancers came to put on a fundraising show to help pay for the enormous adoption fees.  Well Raven, one of these multi-award-winning dancers, was one who not only performed at the Belly Dance Baby fundraiser, but taught a workshop and donated the profits to the fundraiser.  See, adoption is dear to her heart because she is adopted.  There are a few dancers who I feel have an extra special place in Alice's life and her placement into mine, and Raven is one of them.

Since then, Raven has gained Sister Studio status and now also directs Kumuda Tribal in Las Vegas.  We have many belly dancers here in the Antelope Valley and nearby Los Angeles who love American Tribal Style Belly Dance, so I am extremely excited to be hosting Raven in two workshops this coming March.  Once again, I marvel at the talent and beauty of the women in the belly dance community, my good friends.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Maybe it's because I'm getting old.  Maybe it's because I have the responsibility of a child.  Maybe it's just that people are annoying.  Maybe time just marches on and the world changes.  Whatever it is, I find myself clinging to and grasping for the Way Belly Dance Used to Be.

Now, I'm not talking about when I first started - though, I can tell you, I've had more than one crotchety old bellydancer conversation with other dancers my age about how kids these days don't know how good they have it and what we had to go through to create local gigs.  I'm talking about what is WAS.  Before westerners got ahold of it.  Before sequins were added to costumes.  Before navels had jewels shoved in them to get around censorship.  Or, at the very least, the Golden Age of Belly Dance when dancers still knew the origins of the styles they were dancing, and what was authentic and what wasn't.

See, I love all styles.  Yet, I find that certain styles grow without any understanding or even respect for the cultures from which belly dance derived.  Dancers choose western music, do hip hop, and toss in a hip drop or two and call it belly dance.  That is legitimately dance.  It is probably legitimately art.  But is it legitimately belly dance?  I'm a-ok with rules being broken, but an artist must KNOW the rules before breaking them.  Otherwise, it's just ignorance.

I am by no means professing to know All.  In fact, the more I study Middle Eastern dance, the more I find it is a bottomless chasm of culture and art and history and misinformation and wonder.  That shouldn't let us off the hook, though.  It should inspire us!  The more we understand, the better we can portray and preserve this beautiful and ancient art. 

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Community, Not Competition

Something that drives me crazy is when women compete with each other.  Now, I'm not talking about actual, sportsman-like competition, but competition over attention, or worse yet, a man.  Our culture has socialized us to put each other down to prop ourselves up.  One phrase that pops up on the 'net every few months is "Bones are for dogs, real men like meat" to say that skinny girls are somehow not worthy of male affection, or anyone's for that matter.  Why do we let the media, and more importantly, each other speak of women this way? 

One of the things I love about belly dance is that there is no one body type that it looks good on.  Because of this, I can, through it, model for my daughter that there is no one-siz-fits all Beauty.  Furthermore, in tribal style in particular, women actually build each other up.  Tribal belly dance requires us to rely heavily on each other in order for the team to look lovely and cohesive.  We must trust the other dancers in our troupe, or we cannot have unity.  Through this walls come down and art is created.  There is no competition, only community.

Just think how much more powerful all women would feel if we would stop making catty comments about other women?  If we focused on each other's amazing qualities?  We would never again wonder if someone meant something unkind.  We would begin to recognize the amazing qualities we ourselves possess.  That's worth a zaghareet.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Sisterhood

One of the things that is so amazing to me is the sisterhood in belly dance.  Of course, when you have lots of estrogen in one place, drama is bound to happen, but remarkably, it is very minimal in a good portion of the belly dance world.

Naturally, for me, it helps that I get to dance with ladies who take dance seriously, but not themselves.  I have so much fun dancing with my Tribal Improv troupe Djinn Swizzle.  When we practice, we are not afraid to correct each other's technique or cues or formation, yet I am sometimes concerned that we're not getting any practicing done since we spend so much time laughing together.  Yet, isn't that how it should be?  We get to experience the joy of dance with and through each other.  And somehow, we manage to grow and improve.  I suspect it has as much to do with how much we crack ourselves up as it does with my obsession with drills.

When women shuck the societal norm of competing with each other for All Good Things, we accomplish great things!  We create beauty, we feel healthier, we sleep more soundly, we enjoy life more.  I am so glad I found belly dance.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Alice's Debut

Jr has made her belly dance debut.  I wasn't sure it was going to happen, because at the dress rehearsal for Faizehpalooza, she flung herself on the floor and declared she did NOT want to dance, and then wouldn't get off the stage when the song was over.  Ah, the exploration of independence! However, as soon as everyone started cheering for her, the giant ham that exists inside Alice emerged. :)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Top Ten Things Never to Say to a Professional Belly Dancer

10. We don't have a changing room.

9. You mean you're a stripper?

8. Can you break a five?

7. You don't look anything like Shakira.

6. You charge what? But it's only a half an hour of your time!

5. Here, let me show you real belly dance.

4. Take it off!

3. You can do it for free, because you'll get lots of exposure.

2. How hard can it be?  You just shake all over.

1. Can you give me the number of the dancer who doesn't charge?

Monday, April 29, 2013

My Beauty Does Not Come From My Hair

Recently I talked about how much I needed to acknowledge the ways I am beautiful in order to model that for my daughter.  There was all kinds of talk about how as women, our beauty blossoms from our strength, or sense of humor, or intellect.

After all, how can I possibly tell this little person- or even the women that learn to dance from me- to do as I say, not as I do?  "See how lovely you are!! But don't mind me as I compare myself to impossible photoshopped beauty and decide I come up short."

So, in my medieval group, a group of people are arranging a Locks for Love drive, and will be cutting/collecting the hair at an upcoming event.  My hair grows very slowly, and after five years, it is only at my shoulders.  But I had Drew measure it from the longest point, and it is long enough- if I cut it basically from my scalp.

I've decided to make the commitment, but I am absolutely terrified.  My vanity is bucking against my decision!! So my mantra for the last few days has been, "My beauty does not come from my hair.  My beauty does not come from my hair."  My compassion is what is pretty.  My kindness is my charm.

Yet for all my cheerleading of other women, I find myself overcome by insecurity.  I'm not going to change my mind, though.  I just need to keep repeating my mantra.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mini Me

While it is a huge responsibility knowing that Alice is watching a learning to be an adult from me, it's also very fun sometimes.  She likes to belly dance with me when I do my drills in the morning, and her little shimmies and snake arms are the cutest! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I am beautiful because...

One of the things I find very important to teach the women who learn belly dance from me is one of the things I find very important for Alice to learn, and that is that women are beautiful.  And I am a firm believer that true beauty shines from the inside out.  Kindness is beautiful.  Sauciness is beautiful.  Intelligence is beautiful. Confidence is beautiful.  If a woman is shallow, or self-serving, or otherwise a jerk, no amount of highlights or spray tan or squats can make up for it.

Yesterday, a campaign by Dove was making its rounds on Facebook, and while there were a few legitimate concerns (like the lack of diversity in the featured women), the point was still very poignant.  We as women allow the photoshopped media to distort our view of ourselves, and- I was going to say are overly critical, but I think I would say we manufacture flaws that are nonexistent in our physical appearance.  Or at the very least, we magnify them in our minds.  I often say I wish my female friends would see themselves the way I see them.  When I look at the women with whom I am close, I think the mischievousness in their eyes, or the defiant tilt of their chin, or the way they toss their head back to laugh is what is the most beautiful thing about them.

When I first got Alice I had no idea how much being a mother to a daughter was going to be about facing my own demons and insecurities.  I'm pretty quick to ra-ra other women, but I'm just as guilty of zeroing in on my "flaws" as the next woman.  Now that a person is learning to be an adult from me, I really need to quit that.

Alice is affectionate.  Alice is silly.  Alice is way too smart for my own good.  She also has bright blue eyes and and infectious giggle and can dance like a (three year old) rock star. She is amazingly beautiful because of these things.

I smile sincerely.  I am smarter than I let on.  I am good at hearing what people are saying even if it's not what words are coming out their mouths.  I work hard to be healthy.  I have a crooked smile. I don't take myself too seriously.  I am beautiful because of these things.

What about you?  Tell me why you're beautiful.  Please.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Monkey See

Now that I have a tiny version of myself, I am so much more aware of everything I do and say.  I knew motherhood would be a huge responsiblity, but of course I never imagined I would feel this kind of weight.

Thankfully, when Alice joins me on some of my more tedious but necessary pursuits, I am encouraged by her cuteness.  Every morning I have the struggle with myself over doing my exercises and belly dance drills.  I'll be honest here.  I hate them.  I HATE exercising, and drills are booorrriiing. However, I like being healthy.  I like being a good dancer.  I like the way my depression is contained by the onslaught of endorphins.  But, I also like snuggling under my covers and sleeping longer.  I like sitting on my butt and vegging.

Yet, Alice, like all toddlers, wants to be like her parents and mimics what I do.  When I'm doing sit-ups, she tries to do them, too.  When I'm doing yoga, she gets into downward facing dog right next to me.  Today I was drilling shaabi, and she hopped along, too.  And said, "Look!  I'm just like Mommy!"  It is very gratifying knowing I am instilling habits in my daughter that will last her whole life.  Habits that are good for her health.  Of course, yesterday after doing some tiring housework, I collapsed on the couch and declared that I needed to sit on my butt for a while.  Alice ran to the couch shouting, "I wanna sit on my butt, too!"  There's that reminder that she is watching *everything* I do, not just the things I want.

I pray every day that I will be a good role model for her.  She's an amazing girl.  She deserves a Mommy who will do everything she can to be amazing, too.