Suhaila-style classes in Jefferson City, MO

I am now teaching weekly classes in Jefferson City. If you’re in the area, stop on by!

WHERE: Dancenter, 2507 Industrial Dr., Jefferson City, MO 65109
WHEN: 9:45 AM – 10:45 AM, Saturday mornings
CONTACT: 573-636-4528
PRICE: $10 drop-in, first class free!

MeganHartmann.com

I’m Engaged.

Everyone, I have a very important announcement to make. I’ve been in a relationship for four years now, and something really special has happened to me that I want to share with you. After a long courtship, I finally have decided to make the most important commitment one can make.

I’M ENGAGED!!!

…What? Oh, no, my boyfriend didn’t pop the question yet. I realized the other day that I am engaged to belly dancing. Sound ridiculous? Probably. The other night I found myself thinking, “All right, belly dance, you win. You make me want to work hard and be a better person. I am completely and utterly addicted to how I feel when I’m with you, and I can’t live without you. I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you and build a future with you.”

Then it hit me: “…wait. Did I just propose to belly dancing?”

Nothing makes you question your sanity more than realizing that you just mentally proposed to something intangible. Believe me, I understand if you think I’m crazy. Belly dance can’t snuggle with you, give you a foot rub after work, help you raise a family. But for me, belly dance makes me feel good and special every day, it keeps me sane, it helps me create goals, it gives my life passion and purpose… if that’s not a relationship I could make a serious commitment to, than I don’t know what is.

So I’m going with this, as crazy as it seems. Starting now, I am committing to this dance and I am committing to making my dreams a reality, 100%. I will dedicate as much time as I can to my training. I am relishing the thought of working my ass off to get what I want. I am so excited to continue developing my voice and style as an artist, and I am craving opportunities so I can really start working on getting my career started.

Now I just need a wedding planner.

There aren’t a whole lot of books dedicated to the subject of breaking into the world of belly dance. A lot of famous dancers I have talked to have readily admitted to me that a whole lotta luck and serendipity factored into their success. My friend Nichelle Lawrence once told me, “I never dreamed of being who I am. I just… kinda fumbled into myself and my identity.”

But I do think certain things can help you create opportunities, build connections, and help you do what you love to do. I am reminded again of some of the best advice I have ever received, courtesy of Petite Jamilla: “Be your own business.” And because of my new commitment to this dance, I am putting a lot of faith and work into the business side of my art. But I’m slowly learning there is more to it than just the business side of things — along with being a shrewd businesswoman, I need to work on the product — me. Think about this if you are married, engaged, or in a relationship with someone who you could see marrying — how much has that person changed you for the better? I feel that belly dance has changed me for the better, and now I need to work on being the best person and artist I can be as I take this huge next step.

Recently, I have been fortunate enough to talk to several amazing, incredible, hard-working artist who have been where I am now and have figured it out — they are doing what they love and they are successful at it. The more I talk to these women — Nichelle Lawrence, a freelance photographer; Kandice Grossman, a belly dance instructor, choreographer, director and producer; Suzanne Vansickle, a costume designer and manufacturer, the more I observe several key things that these women are doing to further their success.

Ladies and gents, I give you… a work in progress. It’s not a foolproof plan to “make it,” but it’s what I’ve gleaned in my short time trying to navigate this crazy, sparkly, world of belly dance.

1) Figure out what you want to say. Nichelle (who I am considering paying to be my life coach; the woman is just so wise) asked me this one day: “What makes a great belly dancer? What is it about their dancing that intrigues you the most and is what YOU want to watch?” I thought about it, and I tried to explain to her what I connect to the most while watching a dance. Nichelle looked at me and said calmly, “You want to know how to find your voice? Start there.” That element is where I’m starting from in my discovery to add something unique and special to this art form that is ME.

2) Start believing in what you can offer people. I had a lot of hesitation putting myself out there because I harbored insecurities that people would not like what I had to offer. Then I realized something: There is going to be someone (maybe many people) who absolutely do not like what I want to create. And that’s ok, as long as I’m happy with what I am offering. Have confidence in the product you are selling — you.

3) Put yourself out there, again and again and again and again. Asharah stressed to me the importance of an internet presence, and she’s right. Get a website. Get quality videos of yourself on Youtube. Get visible. Get people interested in learning more about YOU. Perform as much as you can at as many events as you can. Study as much as you can with as many dancers as you can (although I personally think having a primary instructor helps tremendously, someone whose skill far exceeds your own and who inspires you at least weekly). You’re marketing yourself — show people that you have something to offer.

4) Collaborate with others. Talk to other artists. I can’t even begin to stress how much I have learned simply by asking people about their artistic journey. Not all of these people were belly dancers. The most important thing is simply to listen. Open yourself to ideas. Never stop learning, processing, or analyzing.

5) Put out the vibes you want for yourself. Try to do one selfless thing a day, or once a week. If someone helps you out, do something for them. Don’t it because you feel obligated, or because there is some score to balance out. Do it because it’s making you a better person and because if we all can help out one another, we can go farther than we would fighting to break into this world on our own. Help out other artists that you admire. Barter. That energy, that good vibe, what you put out there is what people are going to want to give back to you. Work hard, stay humble, never forget those that helped you along the way. Without them, you would be less of the person and artist that you are today.

6) Write. I am someone who ordinarily is not inclined to keep a journal. But once I started dancing, I found out it was essential. If you’re reading this right now and you’re thinking about skipping this idea, I urge you to reconsider — just try it for a little while. Write down your ideas, journal when can’t get that little voice out of your head that’s telling you can’t do it, journal not only about dance but about you as a person — your hopes, dreams, insecurities, frustrations. I feel like if we want to be artists, we need to figure out what we want to say. But if you don’t even know who you are, how can possibly hope to find the means to express it? That’s the true beauty of art — an artist finds a depiction of herself or of her reality and expresses that in a way that resonates with people.

7) If you really want it, commit to it. I am working part-time right now. I have minimal health insurance that my parents are graciously helping out with. There have been more times than I care to admit where I’ve had less than $10 to my name. Awhile back, all I could think was, “I need to focus on making money right now. I need to figure out what to do. I don’t have time to devote to dance, that just has to go on the back burner right now.” My heart wasn’t buying it, though. I was miserable, even though I was trying to make these sacrifices in order to be happy. Now, I realize, I need to adapt to what I have. I need to find loopholes. I need to budget my money and live frugally. I can’t lose sight of what I want for myself just because times are tough, now is just a time where I need to work harder. I’m committing to dance, even though now it’s more difficult than ever. And you know what? Every since making that commitment a few days ago, I have felt better than I have in six months.

8) Fight for your happiness. A week or so ago was one of those $10-in-my -bank-account days. I was sitting at home, wondering why I felt so hopeless and depressed. I was feeling like no matter what I did, no matter how much good I was doing for others and despite my hard work, the universe was just not throwing me a bone. It’s so easy to give in to that despair and give up. But then I got mad. I thought to myself,  “Goddamn it, I am working hard. I am living a good life. I’m a good person. I deserve to be happy, and I am going to fight for my happiness. I refuse to let the circumstances and the sadness overwhelm me.” It’s proving to be a really important life motto for me. I think this is really important as an artist to maintain. As artists, we’re vulnerable. We’re exposing our innermost selves for the world to see and judge. The losses, let-downs and frustrations, as a result, can be incredibly crippling. But fight for it, because you deserve it.

I’m committed. It’s going to be difficult at times, I know that. But I’m a romantic — I’m willing to sacrifice for something that I truly love with all my heart.

Bellydance Competitions: A Firsthand Account

This weekend was a first in my short career as a bellydancer — I entered my first belly dance competition, the 2009 MAQAM Challenge in the Pro Tribal Soloist category. I have talked about belly dance contests before (see my post “Contests and Certifications — What Are They Worth?”) where I discussed a Gilded Serpent article where Miles Copeland shares his thoughts about competitions.

A few weeks ago, I contacted Kimahri about entering the competition at the last possible second. I got signed up and I had only a few weeks to seriously start working on preparing. Luckily I had enough time to prepare and I could choreograph something really great I could be proud of, right?

…Um, wrong.

Between starting two jobs and life just getting in the way (a continuing problem emerging in my dance career 😀 ), I completely ran out of time to prepare something. On the way down, I gave myself a pep talk — “You’ll be ok… sometimes you don’t do too badly just improv-ing,” “Well… it might be a learning experience. Maybe.” You know. Deeply encouraging self-talk.

Competition morning arrived. Mark and I left my parents house at 8:30 AM to arrive at the competition in Lombard, IL. My category was second. I got to compete against (and I speak completely honestly and genuinely) probably the best 5 tribal dancers I have ever seen in the Midwest — Susan Warner of Illinois, Ayperi of Madison, Jezminda of Illinois (my first tribal teacher!) Eliza of Illinois, and Mae the Bellydancer of Illinois. Not only were they all extraordinarily talented, but every single one of these women were just true professionals — everyone was so supportive of one another and it was a pleasure sharing the stage with these women. What I thought of the competition:

— Susan Warner was obviously an exceptionally well-trained ATS dancer who incorporated flawless cymbal work over perfect hipwork. She did an excellent job of conveying emotion, and I was impressed how she fused a solo performance with ATS technique. Beautiful posture, and overall Susan was just an incredibly genuine person. I praise her for using more patterns that just gallop, and at the one time I took a few eight counts to just focus on her hips, the girl was doing perfect zillwork over perfectly articulated three-quarter shimmies. The girl has SERIOUS skill.

— Ayperi danced with a sword, and I unfortunately did not get to see any of her piece because I was backstage behind a wing, but my family raved about her performance. This girl came all the way from Wisconsin and ended up carrying the first place trophy back home. I’m looking forward to getting my DVD to see her piece!

— Jezminda was THE girl who launched me into the tribal fusion world. I remember going to my first class with her and saying, “I’m a cabaret dancer… I’m not sure about this whole tribal thing.” After watching this girl dance, I was hooked (she also showed me my first Rachel Brice video!). What I really admire about Jezminda is 1) her incredible hip work and 2) her originality. Jezminda did a beautiful double fan dance that had Spanish elements and a ton of characterization — completely unique and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This girl oozes stage presence!

— Eliza dances with the Chicago ATS troupe Jezebelly, who I became a fan of a few years ago after seeing them perform when Rachel Brice came to Chicago. What really sets Eliza part is her beautiful lines of her arms and posture paired with her spot-on technique. Her piece had some really well-played little sassy moments and characterizations. I felt like it was a very thoughtful and well-choreographed wor, truly impressive and just a lot of fun to watch. The audience agreed, and she walked away with the People’s Choice award and tied for second place.

— Mae the Bellydancer took gothic bellydance to a whole new level with her piece. Mae was hands-down the best facial and bodily storyteller I have ever seen. She did a beautiful piece that told a clear story, which I realy appreciated. I feel like belly dance technique is sometimes sacrificed in gothic bellydance while the dancer was focusing on telling the story — absolutely NOT the case with Mae. Not only was her piece technically impressive, but she incorporated a unique prop — she crafted a poi out a wooden ball and a thick rope, a very gothic take on poi. I was quite impressed.

So imagine how nuts I was going backstage — each performance was incredible, I don’t have anything prepared, and I didn’t know my music that well. Right before I went on, however, I had a huge moment of clarity. I looked into myself and I asked what I wanted to present, what I wanted to say, and how I wanted the audience to feel when I danced. I completely got in the most zen state I’ve ever been. When I walked onstage, any half-hearted efforts I had made at choreography left my head. I danced from my soul and shut off my mind competely, something I’ve never been able to do before. 30 seconds before the end of the piece, I remember turning to face the back, and I felt something I had never felt before in a piece: complete and utter exhaustion. I had given all of my energy and stregnth to that performance. I realized I didn’t care how I placed because I had given it everything I had. I was proud of how I did.

After some confusion, I discovered that I had gotten second place. I was really happy with how everyone did, and I feel like first place could really have gone to everyone. It was a tough, tough competition and I just feel honored to have had my first competition have been against such worthy competitors. Ladies, if you’re reading this, thank you for your inspiration and sharing your art and beauty onstage.

Thoughts to leave on:

— Hats off to Kimahri for organzing a professional, classy, good-paced competition. The awards were awarded after each category, and dancers got to take their scorecards and DVD of their performance that DAY. Talk about a smooth and high-class event!

— I think competitions can be a really positive experience or a really negative experience depending on how you approach it. If you go into it focused on ranking or awards you’re bound to either be disappointed or not get a lot of personal growth out of the event. To be honest, for awhile I was stuck in the mindset that I had to get first. But after I watched the other dancers, and I saw how all different we were, I realized… ranks aren’t the most important thing. All of those girls were talented, original artists — what matters is focusing on giving the best performance possible. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the competion of it all. I was glad that what I took away from the event was pride in my work and inspiration from the girls I got to compete with.

Overall, I gained a lot from the experience and I’m glad everything happened exactly the way it did.

Marketing Yourself as a Belly Dancer

So what has worked for you in terms of marketing yourself and getting a name for yourself? Some things I’m trying:

  • I went to website that has a listing of bands in the area, and I posted a classified ad that said I was looking for a band to dance with. I made sure to add my dancing was “family friendly” as a subtle indicator that by “dancing” I do not mean “bumping and grinding onstage in a skanky outfit.”
  • I’m working on creating a really professional website using Dreamweaver. What hosting do you all use?
  • Making a business card and media kit and distributing it to wedding planners and event organizers in the area.