No Words Art: Beats Antique

I am so impressed by the recent work I have seen of Zoe Jakes, Kami Liddle, Liz Strong, and Rose Harden.

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes.

I was with some friends a few weeks back, and we all decided to read our tarot cards. Believe what you want about tarot — you can believe that the cards truly feed off your energy, or you can believe someone just wrote some universally applicable statements on some cardboard. No matter how you feel, some level of self-reflection is almost unavoidable when reading tarot cards, which I feel is never a bad thing. All I know is I enjoy taking a few minutes to appraise and analyze where I’m at in life.

When it came to my turn, I drew the Death card.

The Death card has a bit of an undeserved bad rap. It seems pretty scary and ominous, but read this description from a tarot site I like:

“In the Tarot, as in reality, Death is nothing more than a transition to the next level of life… Nothing is destroyed, because nothing can be destroyed – there can be only transformation…When the Death card appears, big changes are heading your way. Usually this change refers to something in your lifestyle; an old attitude or perspective is no longer useful and you have to let go of it. Death is not simply destruction; it is destruction followed by renewal. Even though one door may have closed, another is opening. Will you have the courage to step through?”

And wouldn’t you know it… here I am, a few weeks later, and I am appreciating how accurate this card was.

I am someone who has a very hard time dealing with changes and transitioning. I think one of the most important lessons I need to take from this card is that I need to have courage, strength and energy to step through new doors. I have been finding myself asking the universe a lot, “What should I be doing now? What should I be focusing on?” I keep putting off decisions because I’m terrified I’m going to move in the wrong direction. But I am trying to turn that fear into excitement. I am at a point where there are a multitude of paths lying in front of me — I just need to have faith in my instincts that whatever path I choose is the one I’m meant to be on. I need to roll with whatever happens. I’m starting to come to the realization that I waste a lot of time wondering what I should be doing, as opposed to just DOING something. I read in a book once the line, “Understanding is a delaying tactic.” I feel like in my life sometimes I spend too much time and energy analyzing what has happened and trying to understand it, when I could be putting that energy toward dance. Nike got it right — Just do it, Megan.

So I’m just doing it. I finally committed to pursuing a really amazing opportunity that was presented to me. Yesterday, I bought my plane tickets to travel to Sacramento for two weeks in January to study with Amy Sigil of Unmata. I recently posted a review of Amy’s workshop, and to recap, this woman’s approach to choreography and teaching has truly inspired me on a deep level. My mindset going into this trip is that I will be going on an artistic pilgramage (I’m a fusion dancer, so of course California is my mecca!). I want to study with as many teachers in the area as possible while there (Suhaila, Mira Betz, Ariellah, Fat Chance). I feel that right now I’m in a huge transitional phase, and two weeks to focus on what I love, to journal/blog, to contemplate, to plan, to receive inspiration and good energy, and to start to look ahead is exactly what I need.

Back at home, I’m pursuing as many forms of training as possible. I still am taking 6 hours of free ballet and modern dance classes every week through my job at Stephens College, which has been a huge gift from the universe. I have also been studying Odissi (a Indian dance style), which if I had to describe it, I would call it “danced sign language.” Studying the different mudras (hand gestures), what they represent, and how they can be connected together to tell a story has been absolutely fascinating. I just took my first hula hooping workshop this weekend, and I am definitely going to try and attend more regular classes for that, as well. I am always looking for more training and new dance groups to work with.

There are some other really exciting opportunities on the horizon. I performed my latest piece, “Love and Loss in One Act,” at a fundraiser last weekend for Artica, and art festival in St. Louis (visit Artica’s website for more information on the event!). The night was absolutely wonderful — I love meeting new people, and it’s so inspiring to talk with people who are creating really powerful art. I will be performing this 17-minute dance piece again alongside Nichelle Lawrence’s photography show, “Unrequited Love,” at Artica, which will take place on December 19 on the St. Louis riverfront. My piece includes music by Etta James, The Flaming Lips, Cat Power, Keren Ann, Damien Rice, and Janis Joplin (covered by Melissa Etheridge). This piece is one of my tentative forays into what I have been labeling “contemporary belly dance fusion” — a combination of belly dance, modernized interpretations of classic belly dance props like finger cymbals and veils, modern dance, theater, and other contemporary dance styles.

While there has been a lot of excitement, some recent events have unfortunately left me contemplating the more literal interpretation of this card, as well. My grandfather was diagnosed recently with a very rare form of hip cancer — so rare, in fact, that he doesn’t even qualify for any experimental trials. He has undergone chemotherapy, I will be flying with my family to visit him this weekend. I can’t even really say how I feel about it… it’s an odd feeling. I am usually pretty good at understanding and expressing what I’m feeling, but on this issue… I just feel jumbled. I’m trying to focus on the fact that I am very fortunate to have three days to spend with my grandfather, who I do not get to see often since he lives far away.

I am gearing up for more changes in my life, and I am getting ready to put my energy into working toward new goals and exploring new opportunities. On that end, I am no longer dancing with the Dragonflies Dance Company. I, however, will cherish my Moon Belly memories dearly, for through this amazing community I have learned a lot about myself and the strength and power of women — I sincerely thank each and every woman I had the opportunity to train with. If you are in the area, do make a point to see their upcoming show on December 12, 8PM at the Blue Note: “100,000 Feet Deep: Mary Magdalene,” a theatrical/modern/belly dance interpretation of the life of Mary Magdalene. These women have been working exceptionally hard, and it’s amazing to see what this community is creating together. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at http://www.thebluenote.com.

I’d like to end with another excerpt from the tarot website:

“Take a look at the Rider-Waite version of the Death card, and note the bishop on the right side of the image. He is actually welcoming Death, because he knows of the great spiritual transformation it brings. Almost all versions of the Death card show a symbol of resurrection or re-birth.”

Bring it, Death. I’m ready for change.

Amy Sigil Workshop/Lola van Ella’s Showcase

The past two weekends, I have had a rare opportunity to really indulge in two great, amazing, dance-filled intense weekends. I learned a lot, and I am hugely inspired by the two women who made these events possible: Amy Sigil and Lola van Ella.

AMY SIGIL REVIEW:

I got to take this workshop with three amazing girls that dance at Moon Belly: Emily, Nicole, and Michele. We all agreed that this workshop was one of our favorites of all time. It is true that I have never had a negative review on my website, and I know I can be very complimentary. But I am genuine in my compliments, and I speak the truth when I say that if you have not had the opportunity to study with Unmata or Amy and they are coming to a town nearby, I would highly recommend making a point to go study with her, regardless of whether you are a tribal fusion dancer or not. The workshop was a combination of completely original, innovative choreography; intense, high-energy cardio dance drills designed to help you learn the combinations; dance games to help you think outside the box… but best of all, you are working every second you’re there. There is no time for people to ask long, involved questions and delay the workshop — but that being said, she explains things and breaks things down in such a way that if you are participating, you don’t NEED to ask questions. The Saturday night show was very fun, low-key, and relaxed, which I appreciated since my weekend was absolutely insane (lots of traveling, roaches in the hotel, a lot of sleep-deprived/slap-happy girls all together in one room). Amy and Kari’s performance was so high-energy that I genuinely felt fatigued watching them. Their performance had it all: good choreography, high energy, onstage chemistry, and lots of connection with the audience. I left this weekend with a completely new outlook on how I choreograph, how I teach, and the elements I want to present to my audience as a performer. This workshop is by far one of the best I have ever taken. Much gratitude goes to Lois “Salwa” Marshall and her husband Ken, who made this event happen. Every event I go to of Lois’ is always worth the trip to STL.

LOLA VAN ELLA REVIEW:

I took my good friend Sierra with me to see Lola van Ella and her burlesque showcase. This was my first time seeing a complete burlesque show, and I was beyond impressed by how well Lola had trained her dancers and how diverse the acts were. Lola’s girls each had their own character onstage, and I honestly did not see a girl look embarrassed, uncomfortable, scared, nervous, etc. at ANY point during the show — and some of these girls were performing their first burlesque piece EVER. I was the first set closer, and I had an absolutely wonderful time. The audience was extremely receptive and the venue (Off Broadway in St. Louis) had a great vibe to it (part bar, part speakeasy). Lola graciously let me crash at her place and introduced me to a great diner downtown. We had a great talk about business, marketing, and how to make money doing what you love (the woman revolutionized the burlesque scene in St. Louis and was second runner-up for Queen of Burlesque in New Orleans this year — to say I was thrilled to pick her brain is a bit of an understatement!). I would work again with Lola anytime — she sure knows how to put together a hell of a good show!

Already I am craving more dance opportunities and dance intensive weekends. I have a few things lined up that I hope will work out… more traveling on the horizon, perhaps?

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.

Youtube Video of the Week: Yasmina Ramzy

My troupemate Stephanie posted this video on facebook, and immediately I knew I had to post this for y’all’s viewing pleasure. The past two videos I reviewed were solo performances. But hey, I think all of us at one point have danced in a group or troupe. Therefore, it makes sense to study videos where the group dynamic is powerful and effective in order to glean insights on how to be a better choreographer or troupe member. Without further ado, Yasmina Ramzy and Arabesque Dance Company:

— Costuming. In the “real world,” I work at a college theater department, sewing costumes. One of the golden rules I have heard in theater: Don’t put black costumes on dancers if you are performing in front of a black backdrop. However, as my boyfriend pointed out while watching the video, every time the dancers move, the light reflects off the sheen of the material. The result is a clean line that doesn’t blend in to the background. I feel the simplicity of the costuming helped accentuate the crisp choreography. Way to break the black on black rule and have an effective result!

— Staging. The staging of this piece almost reminded me of modern dance or some of Urban Tribal’s pieces. I think Yasmina Ramzy, the choreographer, used the space well and also used some really innovative formations and staging — level changes, dueling groups, circle formations, a weaving pattern. I also thought having one or two dancers represent different facets of the music was really visually interesting (I’m referencing the first minute or so). Yes, dancing perfectly in unison is impressive and powerful, but I also think highlighting each dancers’ strengths and personal stylization added a lot to this piece. The ONLY critique I had is that a few times, I was unclear what the formation was supposed to me — very few times it seemed like one dancer was standing in front of another, or someone wasn’t QUITE in the right window.

–Strong, graceful technique. The dancers poise and grace complimented their tight technique really well. It was like watching a troupe of Sonias from the Bellydance Superstars dancing. The arms were particularly lovely.

So what can we learn?

1) Be conscious costuming your dancers. Imagine not only what costumes would look like on dancers, but also in the venue you will be performing. After touring with the Bellydance Superstars, another tip I would give is that sheen, glitter, sparkle, etc. works exceptionally well onstage. You’d be amazed how much shimmery/glittery/sparkly elements go into their costuming — even the tribal dancers get glittery! I remember looking at one of Moria’s tribal outfits up close and being astounded by the amount of rhinestones and glittery bits on it. I remember having a revelation — tribal dancers can and do wear rhinestones!

2) Staging. Change up your formations! I get into the two-line formation rut ALL the time. If you watch these dancers, they’re not ALWAYS doing super-complicated belly dance technique. However, it stays visually interesting because they’re changing levels or formation frequently. Our eyes like to watch discernible patterns and big, visible movement — let your audience take a break occasionally from trying to analyze super-internal, complicated hip and torso work.

3) What pushed this piece into the “awesome” category was not the costumes or the staging. What I truly appreciate is that this troupe and choreographer did NOT sacrifice their technique and grace to take risks. We’re belly dancers, ladies and gentlemen. I feel like the most important part of our art is making sure we never sacrifice grace, good form, or solid technique (unless that’s the point of your piece — I once choreographed a dance for my senior project in college that was designed to be un-aesthetically pleasing).

Click here to learn more about Yasmina Ramzy and Arabesque Dance Company.