Hires, Pliers, and Nose Rings

She screwed her eyes tight, shutting out the light, trying to shut out
the realization…

SNAP.

“There. Take a look.”

She opened her eyes.

Blue eyes she didn’t recognize stared dully back into her own. It was
a cleverly painted face, individuality concealed under a thick
shellack of conservative pale foundation, Feminine and Sexy all
covered up with non-offensive and subtle tones. Nondescript earrings
and a slick, severe bun, meant to be noticed and then promptly
forgotten… Gingerly, she fished the broken half of her nose ring from
her face. The empty hole glared at her.

Her eyes dropped to her suit: pressed, starched, crisp, corporate
and fresh from its plastic garment bag. She didn’t know the child in
this costume, this bland business face…

His arm around her shoulders jolted her out of her reverie. “You look
so grown-up!” he said with a proud laugh, his smiling face appearing
behind hers in the mirror.

She turned to her father, holding the wire cutters in his hand and the
other half of her nose ring.

Déjà vu hit her in the form of another face, another tool, another
state, and another state of mind…

***

A dusting of freckles lay sprinkled across her tanned nose, and her
face was screwed up in a look of intense concentration, willing the
pliers not to slip…

There.

She stepped back to survey the results. She turned her head from side
to side, examining her nose ring that she had just pinched closed, her
uncontrollable curls fanning out in all directions. It was July in
South Carolina, and the heat hung on the air like a shroud… any
attempt to control her hair was simply an exercise in futility.

She sighed and smoothed her vintage apron over her cloth skirt.

Kind of a wild outfit, but what the hell. Fashion is negligible, I’m living amongst a damn circus, she thought wryly.

The thought made her breath catch in her throat for a moment.

I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m so lucky. I’m so
damn lucky…

***

“—Lucky.”

“Huh?”

“Spacing out already, nice. Try not to do that in your interview,” he kidded.

“Sorry,” she said, forcing a grin, “I was a million miles away for a
minute there.”

“I said, ‘You sure are lucky.’ I can’t believe you got an interview
in Chicago in a field you’re not experienced in,” he said, shaking his head. He clapped her on the shoulder. “Welcome to the working world.”

With a teasing grin and another shake of his head, he headed for the
garage, wire cutters and the twisted metal remnants of a gypsy
identity she knew and loved in hand.

“I just wish I knew what I was working toward,” she said to the empty
house and the warring factions of her mind.

Altars

I came from a country where for many people, Easter is a commercial holiday that gives people an excuse to hard-boil some eggs, gorge on chocolate, and rediscover that Peeps (even in small quantities) really are a terrible idea.

In Málaga, things are different.

There are four to six parades daily – I repeat, DAILY – to honor Jesus and the Virgin Mary. There are marching bands and soldiers decked in their full gear. Women march in black dresses and veils to symbolize their mourning, and hundreds of people march dressed as Nazareños, people from Nazareth (wearing tunics that are very jarring to watch as an American, since they are reminiscent of the garb worn by Klu Klux Klan members).

If it rains, the parades are canceled. “If that happens, you will see grown men cry in the streets,” one of my English students warned me when describing how passionately this celebration is practiced in Southern Spain and how devastating it is to lose the ability to carry out the ritual.

But by far the most important custom practiced during Semana Santa is the carrying of altars. Usually around 100 men carry two massive and ornate altars – one for Jesus, one for Mary – on their necks and shoulders, swaying back and forth as they carry the heavy weight down the street. It is such an important part of Semana Santa that when a cholera outbreak crippled the population in 1759 and left too few healthy men to carry the altars, a group of inmates actually escaped from prison to carry the sacred statues — and also willingly turned themselves in after the procession (and interestingly enough, to this day one prisoner is pardoned every Semana Santa as a tribute).

I noticed that many of the Semana Santa rituals — wearing black, carrying a heavy load, dressing in traditional clothing — have one goal in mind — to foster empathy by relying on the power of shared experience. Regardless of what faith you subscribe to (if any), I dare you not to be affected when you see hundreds of people coming together to willingly carry a heavy and ornate altars on their necks and shoulders. I thought about what a powerful symbol it truly was.

Because we all are shouldering our own personal altars, aren’t we? Some are monuments to perpetual worry, piled higher daily with verbal bricks from a mental narrator. Some create shrines for ego, interested only in the people willing to add more to an already gaudy, overdeveloped structure. Some people put a particular lifestyle up on a pedestal; some opt for people. Some create altars to lovers, to jobs, to children, to pets.

I’m not always happy with the monuments I create for myself. I start with a framework of unreasonable expectation and worry and then slowly invest my time, energy, money, and passion into structures that I’m not comfortable carrying.

But I’ll continue to rebuild, remap, rework, and retry…

Happy Easter!

Gypsy Life: ¡Viva España!

Fiona Apple once sang, “But I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time.”

A few weeks ago, I decided to leave St. Louis, put in my two weeks, move out of my apartment overnight, couch surf through mover’s limbo with all my shit and Little Orange Cat (creativity abound in that name, I know…), drive home to Illinois, and it’s finally starting to hit me that I’m leaving for Spain TOMORROW.

Life has been so insane the past few weeks that I haven’t really had time to just sit down and even think about moving… again. I just moved to St. Louis this past August, and now I’m moving to Spain for three months with a rusty grasp of Spanish, no real thought of how I’m going to make money, and not knowing anyone but my sister.

Still, it’s the right move for me. It really is. Fiona hit the nail on the head, and I am a full-blown change addict. It didn’t help that to me, living in St. Louis was like being being at dinner with someone that you really WANTED to like, but couldn’t help noticing their little dealbreakers the whole damn date (“Jesus, how many times is this guy going to use the word ‘literally’ incorrectly…?”).

I tend to assign colors mentally to towns I’ve spent any real time in — maybe just because I would have loved to have been a painter in some other life. For example, South Carolina was green — everything was new, thriving, and just so alive. I remember my first night outside in Natalie’s backyard, barefoot in the dirt as music cut through the muggy air, fire blazing, people dancing, and I would swear that the air around me was vibrating, ripples of pure energy coursing through me. And it was smacked me in the face — that gratefulness of being exactly where you want to be and knowing that something incredible was just beginning. Something, some seed of a thought, some grain of an idea of what I might really want in my life was planted in me that trip, surrounded by that crazy circus.

Green.

St. Louis was gunmetal grey and brick red. Hard and toughened. People carried that hardness with them in a sense. I remember one time when picking up my friend Sierra downtown when she came into town from Columbia. I watched her run across the sidewalk, in a classic Sierra outfit (a hot pink jacket and pink boots), she sat down in my car and immediately said, “Wow, I wore the wrong thing for St. Louis.”

St. Louis just isn’t pink.

I’m not knocking St. Louis. From what I saw in my brief time there, St. Louis is filled with really good people who work hard and stay grounded. I appreciate that there are people pushing to expand the art scene on several different fronts. I met some people there that have had such a profound impact on me and how I’m moving forward in my life… I Don’t Know if they realize how much they’ve changed me.

But the longer I lived there, I noticed that while St. Louis is a city with lots of potential, but many people I met described landing here by chance and getting stuck in a sense. A lot of people affectionately joked with me that St. Louis was a bit of a black hole for travelers. It’s uncomplicated to live there — good people, cheap expenses, etc. It’s an easy city that is hard to leave.

It was easy for me to live there, but not good for me. I didn’t have to work hard, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to make decisions about my life, so I didn’t. I look back on my time in St. Louis and have regrets.

I feel like I have learned all that I can from living in places and waiting for life to happen to me. When I go to Spain, I’m going to study flamenco. I’m going to figure out how to live there comfortably. I’m going to absorb the culture and every experience I can squeeze out of this. I’m going to surrender to the fact that while I might hate structure and loathe routine, it really could advance me.

I cannot wait to go to Spain and refocus on what I love to do, my passion, my art… dance. I cannot wait to feel alive again, I’ve been hibernating far too long and I’m ready to thrive.

Here goes…

5 AM, St. Louis

Ah, insomnia, we’re starting to become good friends, aren’t we?

I still can’t really believe it that I’ve been here in St. Louis a month already. So much of my mind is still in South Carolina, living on a couch in the Circus House…

I have started this blog post countless times over the past few weeks, but somehow I haven’t been able to write down what I’ve been experiencing in any sort of meaningful way. Let’s just start at the beginning:

A lot has changed. My couch surfing has landed me in the abode of Ms. Lola van Ella while I attempt to figure out life here in St. Louis. I’m working at a diner in town. I’ve begun teaching classes at the Dance Co-Op on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 PM (my website will soon be updated with all the pertinent information). I got to take an incredibly rejuvenating Level I workshop with Suhaila Salimpour, one of my biggest dance influences and mentors. I got to work with a gifted local photographer, Tim Barker. I’ve had a breast make a surprise guest appearance at a gig, and performed at another (difficult) gig that taught me a hard lesson about making sure the places that book me understand what exactly it is I do.

But all of my experiences, positive and negative, just seem to keep circling back around to the same questions:

Who do I want to be, and what do I want?

It’s quite a jolting question when you start to realize that the universe is offering you a rare chance to redefine several important factors in how your day-to-day life is structured. All of the sudden, I need to think about what part of the city I want to live in. I need to figure out how I will make my income. I need to figure out what to fill the hours of my days with in an unfamiliar city with few friends. I need to figure out what direction to take my dancing with — what image to market, what material to teach.

I’m not trying to whine — it’s definitely an exciting prospect. I’m truly looking forward to living on my own for the first time EVER, and I’m glad to be in a new city. But I’m starting to realize that I am procrastinating (are you surprised?) really identifying what I want out of a city, dance… and life in general.

All my life I have wrestled with unrealistic expectations. When I was in Columbia, I dreamed of getting the hell out, getting to a new city, and starting a new life for myself. Now that I’m here, I realize that I was an idiot for thinking I would come to a new city and things would be different without a clear idea of what I wanted my life to be like. You have to know what you want before you can devise a plan to pursue it.

I think a lot of my indecision centers around jobs. I have been dreading getting a full-time job because I’m not ready to give up my focus on dance. I worry that a full-time job will prevent me from touring with the Happy and Humpy Traveling Medicine show. I worry it will hurt my dance education. When I think about the highlights on 2010 so far, all have centered around me traveling to study with some of the best instructors I’ve ever worked with. I really don’t want to give that up for a desk job. But I also want to be able to support myself, particularly now that I’m on my own.

And unfortunately this all-too-familiar indecision has begun to push my life back in a direction I don’t want to go in. I’ve become indecisive about everything, from what I should eat to what I should teach in class. When I start to think about a way to be financially stable while pursuing dancing the way I want to (traveling, taking lots of classes, starting on bigger projects here), the indecision and procrastination pull on either side of me to prevent me from committing to anything. The fear of “not getting it right” has begun to dominate my life.

I think we’re all familiar with how crappy day-to-day life feels when fear is your primary motivator. I truly believe what Amy Sigil says, that “Fate favors the risky.” With dance, I have taken a lot of risks — some which have panned out, others that were epic flops; all were totally worth it– but in my life off-stage it’s proven to be more difficult. I incredibly frustrated that my fears of failure have jolted me into this long, unsettled period, especially since this was the type of path I was hoping to avoid by leaving Columbia.

All of this stupid angst and fear has had a definite impact on my dancing. I feel unmotivated to dance at all, and when I do, it is flat and emotionless.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I had a really hard time writing this post. Part of me feels like a failure that I do not have these life questions figured out. Part of me reads this post and thinks, “No one wants to hear you whine.” Part of me thinks that it’s important that I’m honest when I blog and post about my experiences, positive and negative. Part of me is ashamed to admit that I have struggled so much with feeling unmotivated.

But writing has always served as a way for me to articulate everything that has been floating around in my brain and begin to make sense of it. I have noticed that many times once I get to this point of blogging, I often come out the other side with a better sense of what I need to do and where I need to go from there.

So, I’m putting this out into the universe:

I am going to find an apartment, where I can live on my own, have a dance space, have my cat back. I am going to find job(s) that allow me the freedom to travel but allow me to support myself. I am going to take more dance classes and continue to teach. I am going to make a goddamn try at this whole “living in St. Louis” thing. No more bullshit, no more excuses. I will take a risk, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try another.

Fate does favor the risky, as I’m told.

Life After Cirque

Ah, the joys of public transportation. The train has just made its much-anticipated lurch forward – only two hours behind schedule. Good ol’ Amtrak, reliable in its perpetual tardiness.

After six weeks of living away from home, I’m finally coming home to St. Louis.

I began broken.  I lost two people that were dear to me, one to death. Everything I had prioritized for the past five years suddenly was no longer important.  The thought of redefining myself in a completely new city was wholly unexciting… and downright frightening.

My mornings were marked by that weight of dull dread that sat on my chest. The days were marching forward but I was stuck, paralyzed by indecision. Every once in awhile I would grudgingly allow myself to hope that today would be the day where I would find that magic road map for my life. It’s hard to find that clarity when you honestly aren’t sure where you made the wrong turn.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I don’t want to grow up.

I went away because I had to, for my sanity and to figure out what the hell I wanted out of life. All I could figure out in Columbia MO was that I was miserable and that I had no idea where to go next. I opened my email one day and out of the blue I come across an offhand message from Natalie Brown: “You should visit sometime and come train with us.”

The next thing I knew, I was on the phone asking if I could come the next week.

I was expecting to learn a lot from both Natalie and Asharah. They are phenomenal dancers that I have followed for years now, both with a completely different skill set to offer me. I knew their classes – Natalie’s American Tribal Style and Asharah’s Suhaila-based classes – were areas that I wanted to train in, but I wasn’t really anticipating how much I would gain from actually living in a house with other artists.

Natalie and Asharah became a little family for the month I was there. We would cook good meals for one another, discuss and sew costuming, train and do yoga together, work on pieces together – we managed to teach Natalie and perform the Suhaila Level II drum solo with finger cymbals and most of the Level III layering while I was there.

I realized there that I hadn’t taken a belly dance class since November.
I realized that I really had missed that more than I thought.
And I realized – and witnessed – how incredibly important it was to have community… to have those tiny families, those scrappy bands of people that share your weird. Where you can create, and grow… and heal. Few people get the rare opportunity to have several of those families. I’m one of the lucky ones that could call many places home.

I had many really incredible experiences this trip. I got hypnotized and thought my name was Susan. I cried during the best Reiki massage ever. I fell in love with quinoa (it’s a complete protein!). I saw one of the most incredible puppet shows of my life. I got to perform with Columbia Alternacirque at their Art Bar Show. I made my first fairy costume. Fractals helped me see a link between science and God. I drove to Atlanta to TA a workshop with Natalie and Asharah and dance a solo in the show.

And I had dance epiphanies!

1) The moments of silence and stillness are just as powerful – and just as important – as the movements themselves. I am always convinced my choreography is not interesting enough. I will sit and nitpick a 20-second section of choreographies for hours upon hour, trying to perfectly represent every beat, note and lyric. And I realized that this a form of insecurity and fear Natalie helped me realize that I need to allow myself to hold out some of the longer phrases in the music. Already I can tell that this concept is going to be very important for the development of my dance style.

2) Be honest in your song choice. Asharah helped me through a bit of a quandary when I was trying to pick my solo music for the Atlanta show. I really wanted to dance to “Song for You” by Alexei Murdoch, but I was afraid that the audience wouldn’t get it, or it wouldn’t be impressive enough, and I was debating if I should go for a “crowd-pleaser” song. Asharah reminded me that honesty is everything in any form of art that we create. I chose “Song for You.”

3) Learn how you work best. I worked harder on this Atlanta solo more than I have worked on any one individual solo, and a lot of the work I did was not accomplished on the dance floor. I had every note of my song memorized. I recorded and watched videos of myself dancing to the piece. I developed a pretty complete framework for my entire piece listening to it on repeat on the drive to Atlanta for several hours and had choreographed large chunks ahead of time.  I danced my piece out at the workshop space and ahead of time on the stage I would be performing. For the hour before I went on, I stretched with my iPod and visualized myself dancing the piece repeatedly. I did some emotional prep. By the time I went onstage, I felt like I could surrender and let my body remember and retell the story I had spent weeks teaching it.

I’m so excited because I feel like I conquered a pretty big fear. When you improvise, it almost feels a little safe. If you look awkward or weird, you have the “I was just making it up as I went” excuse ready  to defend yourself. If you try and fail… it’s a hell of a lot more painful.  Now I have a completely different idea of how I am going to approach choreographing and performing in general. I feel like a giant door has been unlocked.

One of my good friends told me once his goal when he travels is to live in places, not just visit them. Natalie, Asharah, Nate, Chris, Kendall, Amanda, Aaron, Jessie, Gina, Maria, Susan, Dana, Gina, Jaia, Maria, James, Victoria, Lacy, Christy, the Moodys, Mark and Wendy, Josh, Tom, Fred, Darbuka Dave, Christine, James, Ambur, and countless others… this was so much more than a visit. Thank you.

City of Refuge

“In ancient times, Hawaiians lived under strict laws. Commoners could not get too close to the chief, nor were they allowed to touch any of his possessions, walk in his footsteps or even let their shadows touch the royal grounds. The penalty for violating a sacred kapu (taboo) was death.

Breaking a kapu was believed to incur the wrath of the gods. Hawaiians often chased down an offender and swiftly put him to death unless he could reach a puuhonua, or place of refuge. There he could be absolved by a kahuna (priest) in a purification ceremony, then return home with his transgression forgiven. Defeated warriors and non-combatants could also find refuge here during times of battle.”

And,

“While a fugitive was in the pu’uhonua, it was unlawful for that fugitive’s pursuers to harm him or her. During wartime, spears with white flags attached were set up at each end of the city of refuge. If warriors attempted to pursue fugitives into the puʻuhonua, they would be killed by sanctuary priests. Fugitives seeking sanctuary in a city of refuge were not forced to permanently live within the confines of its walls. Instead, they were given two choices: In some cases, after a certain length of time (ranging from a couple of weeks to several years), fugitives could enter the service of the priests and assist in the daily affairs of the puʻuhonua. A second option was that after a certain length of time the fugitives would be free to leave and re-enter the world unmolested. Traditional cities of refuge were abolished in 1819.”

I love this metaphor: If you can fight and struggle and make your way to a city of refuge, you were given a second chance and a fresh start. But you have to work to get there to be healed.

Columbia is rapidly becoming a city of refuge for me.

Thanks, Abby, for sharing this.

Welcome to the Circus…

The heat clung to me like a second skin as I sat in the darkness, feeling the drums and hearing the music swell louder and louder. In the small space illuminated by painter’s lights, a fairy with flaming metal wings entered slyly, carrying a small bowl of fire. Fire eaters solemnly filed in to receive the flame, and then there was an eruption of movement as dancers came whirling in, like leaves scattering over a forest floor.

Welcome to the circus, Megan.

I came to the Alternacirque the week of their monthly show at the Art Bar in Columbia, SC. 8 months out of the year, hoopers, fire performers, belly dancers, musicians, magicians, and freestyle dancers gather to put on a free show in the parking lot of a local bar. What started four years ago as a small show has grown to have audiences of several hundred people, and the community — including the Art Commission here and other local dance companies — has sat up and taken notice. The first night I was here, I got to sit in on a rehearsal in Natalie’s backyard, and it truly is something to see. I can’t wait for Friday’s show.

Coming to South Carolina has been extraordinarily good for me. I’m eating better, dancing every day, getting inspired by the talented artists that filter through the Circus House (where I’m staying). This whole trip is kind of a detox for me — I’m mourning the losses of my old life and identifying what I want to bring with me into the future. I’m cutting out bad habits, and I’m establishing new practices.

Seeing Natalie organize costumes, makeup, hair, musicians, dancers, staging, and keeping practices on track has been helpful to see, since someday I hope to establish my own artistic projects in a similar vein.

Right now I’m making no big life decisions, just sitting back and letting the circus life sweep me away. It feels pretty damn awesome.