I am not known for being quiet, calm, timid, shy or restful. I dance for many reasons, one of those reasons being that I cannot sit still, but a mind often needs a break. When I dance, my thoughts can find time to rest even if my dynamically energetic dancing does not give my body downtime.
In the studio just a few nights ago, as I watched snow falling onto the porch, lingering on windowsills, catching the rims of hats of pedestrians on the sidewalk, I started playing some new music in an effort to clear my head through some free dance practice before my students arrived. The hour drew later, students late to arrive, and snow began to accumulate on the streets and pathways and I could feel a chill in my legs. As I undulated and turned, reaching my arm out for the warmth of light from the Moroccan lamp on the table by the mirrors, the snow seemed to melt and I was transported else. I was not transported in time and space so much as internally within my body; I could feel every molecule, it seemed, every hair at its root, every tendon and muscle reaching for the lamp as if willing the cold of winter to melt into the light warmth of the lamp. In this span of time, my movements seemed to be as close to perfection as ever while I grew closer to the present moment and the passion I felt listening to the music.
With my hand reaching desperately to touch the lamp so far from me, I took notice of my body line stretched forward with a lifted chest and straight spine, my left leg in lifted releve and my right pointed perfectly back and away with a slight tuck in the oblique to accentuate the hip. I was breathing, I was emoting, and I was perfectly connected and felt every ounce of emotion being the source of my ability to sustain this statuesque poise.
Known for my technique, that reach shattered my old theories and in an instant a fleeting moment of clarity shaped the rest of my dance and subsequently my night of teaching and plans for my growth as a dancer. I have always instilled a strong sense of technical ability in my students and have always felt that strong muscular technique is the tool we dancers use to be able to connect with and represent the music passionately. In that moment of clarity, however, I saw so many things by being open to the music: that the stillness I crave to find in my life has to start on the dance floor first and, in my searching for it I get closer to my heart and express myself in my dance better. But more than anything my passion for technique is not just that my technique can allow me freedom to dance beautifully but also my heart can help sustain a beautiful moment in dance. When there is no passion, my fingertips droop to the floor and aren’t as concerned with reaching for that lamp. When there is no emotional connection, I have no need to stand strongly on one foot in releve and can instead let both legs lazily hold my weight. When there is no connection to making the music meaningfully visible, my body line can slump and say something inaudible rather than powerfully meaningful.
As I took a few back turns and landed reaching up into the snowy sky above the ceiling of my studio, I caught the glimpse of a dark shadow approaching and realized a student had finally arrived – the first one to this class in 2015 – and my lesson plan instantly shifted. Upon entering, I decided to give her the most important lesson of my teaching career using these very new discoveries. As I try to instill this relaxed, but powerful calm in my dance, I now take a break from the years I have been teaching regular weekly classes. Focusing now on coaching/private lessons to really cultivate better dancers, I will also focus on the development of my own movement theory; continued growth as a performer; and the direction of my student company, the Head over Heels Student Dance Ensemble. While still in the field of dance instruction, I feel so connected to this dance. Passion is so critical in sustaining technique and is at least as important as using technique as a tool to allow us freedom to express our passion. I am so excited to develop and share these ideas more – and for the many gifts dance continues to give me in new and unexpected ways – as I cultivate calm and stillness. Peace and serenity to all. Thank you for everyone’s support and years of dedication working with me. Thank you - shokran.
First, I want to say that I am so pleased that my Facebook news feed over the past day has been filled with thoughtful conversations from dancers of a variety of ethnicities discussing the Salon article about "white" bellydancers (see link to article at the bottom of this post). How awesome is my world now that what has gone viral for me is an article about cultural appropriation in bellydance and the ensuing discussions surrounding it?! Thanks to some thoughtful quotes by other dancers, I have decided I do, in fact, want to add a few of my cents into the pot - even just to keep my own intellect in tact and to be sure I am being a respectful dancer in the field.
The writer is well entitled to her opinion and it is indeed valid...for her. Just as not all white bellydancers can be lumped into the same culturally appropriating category, not all Arabic writers will have the same opinion about bellydance or "white people" bellydancing. There have always been those in power who oppress others, take their culture from them, reshape it into something cheap and plastic and glossy, and sell this watered-down version of their culture back to them at a price they cannot afford.
As a white women, I try never to be too far from the knowledge that I sometimes have privileges not always offered to all women of color, which deeply saddens me. Because of this, I feel a duty to be eternally grateful, to not take my privileges lightly or for granted, and to do my damndest to use them for good and to try to ensure others have those same privileges. Part of that is that I always try to learn about other cultures and to share in them. If I live in my own narrow view of my own narrow culture, I don't think I could ever try to become a better human in a world filled with FAR more cultures than my own. To not occasionally partake in or at least start to learn about other cultures in some capacity, for me, is not only stifling, but a pretty self-centered little reality. But I also do my damndest to know my platform - I am a Westerner approaching a culture other than my own and so I try to stay open and teachable. Dance is a perfect way to do that - I have to be open and teachable about my technique, my artistic expression .... and about many cultures other than my own (not just Arabic). And in this endeavor, I aim to achieve a cultural exchange and sharing rather than appropriation. But for me, belly dance is dance. It is art. Its public image has been shaped by cultural appropriation of Middle Eastern culture turned into two-dimensional stereotypes. Its public image, however, has also been shaped more by patriarchal systems across many different cultures perhaps more than anything else. And as a woman, regardless of my culture, I dance not to depict a harem fantasy or to entertain men for some cheap pleasure; I dance because in all cultures, it celebrates joy and music and community and relationships. And I belly dance because as I learned more about the art form, its debated history, and the myriad of cultures from which it comes, I wanted to do my part to show gratitude for the fact that this dance exists. It is my humble hope that that I can play even a small part in helping my audience see the respectable art form that is Middle Eastern dance so that some of those old patriarchal and stereotypical ideas can start to dissipate. Belly dancers of all cultures have the ability to do that if we are respectful, learn, stay open and teachable, and stand and dance in solidarity with dancers from the Middle East, North African, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Iran, Romania, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Australia, Germany, Canada, the U.S. ...
And, in one final parting note, belly dance has been reshaped for centuries by positive influences and cultural sharing. Mohamed Abdel Wahab was influenced by western music, Mahmoud Reda by jazz and Broadway and western movies, Badia Masabni by ballet and western theatrics and business practices. And the dance was heavily influenced throughout the region, traveling to Spain and mingling with flamenco, picking up Roma traditions, incorporating African music and movements, and dialing in other cultural art forms. Sometimes it is cultural appropriation. Sometimes, though, it's just sharing and exchange.
Ava Fleming, Belly Dance Master Instructor, Performer & Choreographer Extraordinaire graced Syracuse with her presence to kick off the Autumnal Equinox! Dancers from Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Manhattan, and Watertown all traveled to study with one of the best in the industry and we all walked away from that weekend a bit stronger and a heck of a lot more connected to belly dance and our community than when the weekend first started.
Hannah, Tessa & I contacted Ava in the Spring and were delighted when she replied to us promptly that she would love to come to Syracuse. She had a great group of workshop offerings (including her signature progressive workshop weekend in which each workshop helps prepare the participants for the next one).
Her teaching style proved methodical and organized, but far from rigid. She had solid advice and feedback and took just enough time to provide careful, individualized attention to everyone. Even more to my surprise, she spent some time learning everyone's names and had them all down well before the end of the weekend! Ava's spirit and humility shown through in her teaching, her personality, and her interactions with the students and with Hannah, Tessa, and me.
The Gala Show was amazing - regional dancers really stepped it up a notch and then, when Ava graced the stage, the audience was speechless. Her performance was moving, dynamic, powerful and strong, and filled with expression and musical responsiveness - and all this after a day filled with workshops and a long day of travel beforehand!
On Sunday, she didn't miss a beat and kept things going with taqsim combinations and concepts and finally a dynamic drum solo workshop. When an unexpected, but pleasant, appearance by Rob on the doumbek changed the course of the workshop, Ava was on and didn't miss a (drum)beat. She gave us all opportunities to use combinations to fit live drumming and rhythmic changes and pushed us a little harder to challenge ourselves and grow in our dance. Her workshops gave us all a lot with which we can work.
Hannah, Tessa, all of the workshop participants and I left the weekend better dancers than when we started, but I gained something so much more valuable and unexpected: a healthy dose of belly dance ethics, new dancers to check out, helpful hints for sponsoring instructors, and a great sense of admiration for Ava not only as a dancer and a teacher, but as a person. She was humble, down-to-earth, and so easy to get along with. Syracuse has big plans to bring her back as soon as possible and can't wait to see what's in store when she returns! Thank you Ava for an amazing weekend!
All art is expressive; its purpose is to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, listener, reader . . . .
Belly dance is no different in these respects, but it has been my experience that the movements of middle eastern dance bring the dancer more in connection with herself and thus create a more personal connection between her, her students and her audience.
Raqs Shaqri is, in my opinion, one of the most expressive forms of dance with deep connections to the music. This is not to diminish the emotionality of other forms of dance, but my experience has shown me a vast array of emotional responses to music in Raqs Sharqi.
It has been said that belly dance is a dance that expresses joy, love, community, family, and culture. These categories are vast and encompass more than what appears at first on the surface. In order to experience joy, one must know sadness to actually celebrate joy; in love there is often heartache; families are wrought with care and devotion, strained communication and resentment, and unconditional love; and culture is deeply imprinted with celebration as well as sorrow and loss.
It is in belly dance that we see not only a celebration of life, but also the true expression of human emotion from sorrow and loss, to joy and ecstasy, to sadness and anger, and to love and hope. The musical nuances of both traditional arabic and other middle eastern rhythms as well as modern interpretations of this music allow dancers to access a full range of their emotional spectrum. At times this can be disconcerting and unsettling; so often our American culture is ingrained to experience a limited number of emotions and to express those few emotions individually.
Bellydance offers people opportunities to fully express their lives, thereby releasing sadness and sorrow through each undulation, each wave or flick of the wrist, each slow figure 8 . . . . It is in this community we can heal, we can feel, we can fully live our lives. It is through bellydance so many can find a rich connection to humanity and feel a sense of community, oneness, and belonging simply through moving and letting the music the movements that express your innermost emotions. It is no wonder so many styles of belly dance share the same movements, as members of the human race, we all share the same rich, deep emotions, which beg to be released in similar ways.