Artistry 101: Nurturing Creativity

If you are a creative person, you really owe it to yourself to take twenty minutes to watch this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity.

Elizabeth Gilbert — the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” who I have had an intellectual crush on for awhile now — discusses the tendency for very creative people to get consumed or psychologically overwhelmed by the very act of doing what they feel they were put on this Earth to do — create art. Her solution? We should consider the notion that instead of people BEING geniuses, perhaps we are just here to provide a channel for genius to flow through. She says:

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

This talk blew my mind.

I completely agree. Completely. We have a hard enough time as a species with all of the problems and worry that we try to reassign to ourselves from others, and that alone is psychologically crippling. In this culture, we’re supposed to navigate through our own worry, doubt, and insecurity while also juggling our kids’, parents’, coworkers’, and others’ feelings and issues. Now think about if, on top of all that, that the thing that owned a large portion of your mind and soul — your art — if that thing you felt called to do above all others suddenly became a giant litmus test to judge your self-worth against. “I created genius once, so I can do it again — but better.”

It’s a lot of pressure.

One of my recent posts dealt with this same issue. I had written,

God, after getting so excited about this new piece, I suffered the most severe bout of ego-death I’ve ever experienced. For the first time EVER in my life, I questioned whether I was meant to be a dancer. What purpose does it serve? I had a moment where I thought, ‘Maybe I’m never going to get to the point where I can create something significant, no matter how hard I try.’

It’s a pretty shitty feeling. It’s a big, big responsibility feeling like you have the ability to connect with something profound, and wondering why you can’t always access it. Gilbert said it best:

In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, “Allah, ole, ole, Allah, magnificent, bravo,” incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that. But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

I have never been a religious person. I was raised without any real mention of if there was a God or some greater being. And honestly, I’m not really sure I buy into the whole “supreme being” thing. In my later years, though, I have begun to sense some sort of underlying current or energy in how life marches forward, and I have absolutely no idea how to characterize it, identify it, or even talk about it.

But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Maybe this is just something outside my realm of comprehension. But what I DO understand, what I am familiar and acquainted with, is the feeling of connection something greater than myself through those rare moments of true surrender to dance. And in those moments, I feel something flow out of me that I simply can’t identify and, as a result, can’t take credit for.

When Gilbert shared Ruth Stone’s and Tom Waits’ stories on how art came to them, I felt an eerie connection.Yes, I have left a meal before to visit the restroom because I HAD to try to dance out a combination before the knowledge of it left me. Yes, when driving on long trips, portions of choreography will drift past me as I hear the music, and if you were to pass me on the highway, I would be frantically dancing in my seat.

Every artist has a very unique relationship with their art. I’m not going to assume I know how any other artist relates to his or her work, but I can tell you what it is like when I create. This talk inspired me to go through some old journals and things I’ve written. I stumbled across this journal from April that I wrote right after coming home from the dance studio:

“When I drove up, the doors to the building were wide open. It felt like a sign. It felt like a hug.

I walked into the studio. I opened my computer, didn’t bother to set up my camera like I usually do; I just put on my dance playlist and closed my eyes.

I felt the music in the very center of my bones. It curled through my toes and it prickled my scalp. I began to stretch.

And as I stretched every muscle, tendon, and ligament in my body, I loosened up. I let go. I gave my body completely to the music and just stretched. The stretching began to morph into movement, and then it melted into dance. There was no thought.

It felt so good. It felt intimate. I felt vulnerable. I felt like I was with a partner that knew every single way to make my body feel good…”

In that moment, I felt a connection and I felt like a channel for something slightly greater than myself. I go so far as to compare it to another PERSON that I’m dancing with. You can go ahead and think what I wrote was weird and creepy, but honestly, that’s what I felt. (And it’s my blog, dammit. I’ll write about what I want.)

Now, was what I danced that day pure, raw, genius that was the best thing belly dancing has ever seen and will ever hope to see? Oh, hell no. I am still training my body to be capable of expressing what I need to say. I have a lot of work to do. But Gilbert reminds me that moments like are to remind me that if I continue to work hard, if I continue to train, if I continue to put MY contribution into creating art — training and maintaining my instrument, my body — then maybe someday genius will visit me and I can really make something to share.

I’ll end with Elizabeth Gilbert again, since I’m not a writer, I’m a dancer.

And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Ole!” And if not, do your dance anyhow. And “Ole!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Ole!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

EPL and Sacramento

Here’s a blog I wrote a few days ago when I was still in Cali and never posted:

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.

I went into this trip trying not to have any. But the longer I’m here, the more I realize I did have some preconceived ideas about this trip.

After the first month of EPL, I remember having this feeling that the goal I had at the beginning of the month and the result I had at the end were so different from one another. I remember thinking, “Well, in Month 2, there’s no way I’ll be doing anything but training hard. I’m going to California and New York to dance, and I’ll only have 8 days in January when I’m even in Columbia.”

But this trip, while I have danced a LOT and I still have a few days at Shoebox and a day at the mothership with Suhaila, the most important things I have learned so far have been outside of the dance studio. I’ve learned so much about hard work from these women and men. I’ve learned what a healthy, functional dance community looks and operates like. Amy sets the bar REALLY high for these dancers choreographically and interpersonally, and it shows.

Some of the best experiences I have had here have been outside of Hot Pot, even! On Sunday, we went to a Japanese bath house in downtown San Francisco called Kabuki. The first thing you see when you walk in are these beautiful shower stations. Everyone sits down and bathes, and then you enter the main room.  There was a hot pool, a cool dip pool, a wet sauna, and a dry sauna. You’re not allowed to talk loudly and you just slowly drift between the different pools and saunas for as long as you want. When I got out, I felt so cleansed and restored. It was absolutely beautiful. After we got sushi, some sort of crepe-ice cream sundae and walked Haight-Asbury in San Francisco.

EPL: End of Month 1/Beginning of Month 2

January has arrived. Month 1 of my “Eat, Pray, Love” Experiment is officially over.

My goal last month was to foster creativity and become more productive at creating art.

So how did I do, you might ask?

…Well, I have mixed feelings about how “successful” I was. At the beginning of the month, my goal was to really work hard on a large project I’m working on. Now, there’s no quantitative way to measure how much you’ve worked on your creativity, but you could measure it by how much art I’ve created… and if you measured it by that criteria, I did not accomplish as much as I would have liked. I made very little progress on that particular project.

But I do feel like I have accomplished a lot this month: I created a vision board that is currently hanging above my desk. I researched a lot of videos, choreographers, dance styles, movies, etc. and surprisingly, I feel like I accidentally identified really crucial elements that I want to bring to my dancing — both on a performance level and an instructional level. I have felt more goal-oriented and productive recently — I am starting to fall into a regular exercise routine, I’m getting some much-needed “business work” done, and I’m starting to use my time more productively. I definitely feel that this has been a result of this experiment, of sitting down and thinking to myself, “I have one month to focus on one part of myself.”

I think I’ve learned a few things: One, life can sometimes get in the way. Partway through the month I received some news that forced me to slightly change my focus (stay tuned 😉 ). I also learned that goals have a way of mutating into new goals. I went into this experiment with the mindset that if it wasn’t working, I would modify it until it worked — so while I wasn’t as successful in the areas I originally wanted to focus on, I made a lot of personal progress.

But Month 2 I think is going to be a little different.

Month 2 is my training month. I will be leaving on Tuesday to spend two weeks with the incredible Amy Sigil of Unmata. While I’m there, I’m hoping to stop by several other instructors’ studios: Cera Byer, Mira Betz, Ariellah, SUHAILA!, and Fat Chance Bellydance, if all goes according to plan.

To prepare for it, I am working my ass off the next few days so that I will be able to operate optimally:

  • I got a free week trial at a gym. I’ve discovered I do a lot better when I have a place to GO as opposed to trying to work out at home. I’m researching affordable gym memberships or perhaps applying for a gym scholarship
  • Vitamin D supplements work wonders for me. I get super depressed and lethargic in the winter. I think Mark thinks it’s all in my head, but I feel more inclined to work out when I am taking the supplements (I don’t care if it IS me imagining it — if it gets me to the gym, I’ll take it!) And read what the Vitamin D Council has to say: “Current research has implicated vitamin D deficiency a major factor in the pathology of at least 17 varieties of cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects, periodontal disease, and more.”
  • Eating right. I’m sick of putting crap in my body and feeling like crap, so I’m not doing that anymore.
  • Drinking plenty of water.

Throughout my travels in January, I am going to make more of a point of trying to blog — even if it’s really short, just blogging SOMETHING. I’m hoping to be more present on the EPL tribe. I’ve been so inspired reading everyone’s individual journeys 🙂

So stay tuned!

EPL: A Little Update!

I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I would liked to recently, but it’s a good thing. I have been working hard on my goal of creating, and I have made several strides:

1) Inspiration board is up. I finally finished my inspiration board, and oddly enough, a few things on it have come to pass!

2) Focusing on different forms of inspiration, not just belly dance. Since I no longer have access to regular belly dance classes, I have lately been focusing on other dance forms. My ballet, modern dance, and Odissi classes ended for the semester, but I have been working hard on working out every day and working on exercises I picked up in those classes. I also have been trying to research modern and contemporary dance videos lately, some of which I’ve been trying to post here.

3) Reading! I get in this bad habit of rereading books that I’ve read a billion times before. I have been trying to branch out and read more books specifically on subjects that help inform my dance.

4) Learning my creative habits. I have noticed I tend to be more productive in particular types of situations. I have learned I can’t really choreograph at home or anywhere where I can find an excuse to surf the internet. I tend to get a lot more accomplished if I pack up all my crap and go SOMEWHERE to work – usually the Stephens College dance studio (big thank you to the Stephens College dance department!)

5) Building a creative training plan. I sat down one day and made two lists – my physical training plans and my creative training plan. On my creative plan: books I want to finish, research I want to complete, exhibits and shows I want to visit.

The “Eat, Pray, Love” Experiment

I’m not sure if anyone else feels this way, but every time change comes in to my life, I try to read a really life-changing book (I know, I know… I take nerd-dom to a new level). I have had a few people recommend the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert to me, so I picked it up the other day from the library. In this autiobiographical account, Elizabeth details her year-long quest for true spiritual enlightment. — 4 months in Italy, eating good food, learning the language, and seeking pleasure in life; 4 months in India, studying yoga and spirituality at a yoga Ashram with a guru; and 4 months learning life lessons from a Balinese medicine man in Indonesia.

Well, I definitely picked a life-changing book to read.  It’s honest, really well-written, and dripping with wisdom.

It got me thinking… I think people do not take nearly enough time in our culture to work on their own happiness and spirit. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if I went on my own journey pursuing three things I wanted to develop or experience to make me a better, more enlightened person? And what if I could work on my passion, dancing, like Elizabeth pursued a relationship with God? I think it’s safe to say that I am a preacher of the dance gospel — maybe that makes it my religion (“Please open your Bibles to the gospel of Martha Graham, please…” ).

So I’m doing it! Starting in December, I am going to spend one month focusing on eating, nutrition, and keeping my body at optimum health. I am going to try to make meals for myself more, try new food, and learning as much as I can about taking care of my body. I will be traveling to Chicago during this time for Christmas — resisting my mom’s fudge will be an interesting challenge. I’m hoping to explore the city with this new mindset.

Come January, my focus turns to training. I’m hoping for bootcamp-style, constant dancing and studying as many dance styles with as many dance teachers as possible (even as a kid I always loved the montage where the dancer is training feverishly). I will be in Sacramento to study with Amy Sigil and other belly dance teachers in the area for the first half of January, and I’m planning to continue studying Indian dance, modern, ballet, and explore some new dance styles.

February is going to be the month where I am going to focus on creating. I am surrounding myself with as much inspiration as possible, collaborating with other artists to achieve my goals, and work on some pieces. I am hopefully going to be traveling to Atlanta for Tribal Con during this period, which I am really looking forward to for a lot of inspiration.

And I think you should do it to!

I’m calling it the “Eat, Pray, Love” experiment. Who would be interested in focusing on three passions, three things-you-always-wanted-to-do, three do-your-soul-some-good things; spending some time pursuing each one (it could be a day, a week, several months — however long you want your experiment to last); and sharing our experiences as a community? When going through huge changes, sometimes it can really be great to have a community of people supporting you doing something good for yourself. It’s also great to hear about one another, and it will keep us all motivated to keep with the experiment. If you’re interested, post a response to this blog.

EPL… On Hold Due to February Sucking.

I try to stay positive most of the time — really, I do. But can I just say, man, this is my worst February in awhile.

Usually it’s not too bad. Sure, I don’t particularly like Valentine’s Day (I much prefer the day after Valentine’s Day, actually — discount Valetine’s Day candy makes me happy). And by the time February rolls around, I’m so DONE with winter that I want to scream; but usually it’s bearable.

I think the thing that REALLY tipped the scale this month was the fact that I had to completely put dancing on hold because of this stupid hamstring/glute injury. I’m so frustrated that I haven’t been able to train and keep in the shape that I was in when I left New York. But as my mother wisely said, “Injury is the universe’s way to kindly tell you to slow down.”

I felt like I went from working really hard every day to sitting, worrying, and eating constantly. Blah!

It could not come at a worse time, since I finally figured out the focus of my last month of EPL: I want to focus on combining what I’ve been studying the past two months and moving forward from there. In a word, this is my work month. I’ve gotten a lot of new training and life experiences. I looked for inspiration everywhere I could the month before. Now it’s time to create.

However, I feel like most of the month is already gone. So I am changing the rules of my experiment, and I will be tackling my last goal starting in March.

I have some exciting things coming up — a couple of projects with some really great performers, I am teaching a workshop tentatively in Kirksville on April 10, and I will definitely be attending the Amy Sigil workshop in Kansas City. I’m working on getting my big project I’ve been mulling over for awhile into motion, as well.

How have your EPL experiments been going? What are this month’s goals?