The EPL Experiment: Getting Started

I’m flying high — literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense — my flight is coming back from Fort Meyers, where my grandpa lives, and it has internet access. It is the first time I have ever connected to the internet whilst 32,000 feet in the air!

Figuratively, I have been in a great mood the past few days. These last few weeks of November, I have been doing a lot of reflection on what I want to get out of my Eat, Pray, Love experiment, and what I feel are some good ideas for those participating to operate under.

1) This experiment is not a chore. If it becomes a chore, modify it. I feel like I could approach this experiment two ways. My first month goal could be, “I’m not going to eat any crappy food, I’m only going to eat raw vegetables, and I am going to lose 10 pounds.” But… that sounds really boring and not fun at all. And they practically know me by name at the Taco Bell down the street from my house, so I have a feeling it might be difficult — it’s hard to stick with something you’re not super excited about it. So my goal is not going to fight my nature. If I am craving chocolate, I am going to eat chocolate. But I am going to buy the best dark chocolate I can find, cut a reasonable portion, and then sit down with no distractions and enjoy that piece of chocolate — as opposed to, say, eating half of a chocolate cake with my eyes glued to an episode of 30 Rock (… don’t judge me, but I’ve actually done that before in a chocolate craving gone desperately wrong). My first goal is that I am going to spend a month exploring new foods and experimenting with what will make my body feel optimal. And let me tell you — I absolutely cannot wait to start.

2) There is no failure, there is only learning. Who knows, three days into my food experiment I could find myself laughing through a chocolate-frosting-encrusted mouth at Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin — old habits die hard. I’m not going to call the experiment off just because I had one crappy day. I WILL, however, take note of how that decision affected how I felt, I will try to learn something from the experience, and I will try harder the next day.

3) Keep track  of your experiment. Believe it or not, I only recently got into journaling and keeping a written account of what’s happening in my life. Looking back and reading the few things I have written has reminded me what an important tool it can be, especially when embarking on a quest of self-exploration. I am currently looking into getting a message board or online group started, so anyone that wants to take part can stay connected with others. Stay tuned!

4) Build a supportive community. I am asking anyone and everyone who might be interested if they would like to take part in the project, and I hope you all do, too.  It’s always nice to have buddies when tackling a large undertaking.

5) Read the book! “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert is the book that inspired this whole project. I am in the middle of reading it now, and it is inspiring me and getting me psyched to tackle this project.

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.

Obsessive Tribe Checking Disorder and Youtubefrenia Outbreaks!

Sharon “Shay” Moore: the co-director of Seattle’s Infusion Tribal. If you have been on tribe at all, chances are you have read this woman’s work. In case you don’t recall the name, Shay is that woman on tribe who responds to posts with such insight and accuracy that you’re left in front of your computer, your hands kinda awkwardly drifting over the keys, thinking, “Well darn it, why didn’t I think of that?”

Sadly, I have never gotten to meet this wonderful dancer in person, but we are friends on tribe. I have been following her tribe posts for quite some time, and I’ll tell you, this woman has a good head on her shoulders. I recently found this article on Gilded Serpent, titled, “Does Modern Media Kill the Organic Process?:

http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2009/07/16/sharonorganic/

Some of my favorite snippets:

“Our art as performers exists in a finite amount of time and is never the same twice – no matter how we might strive for consistency, we are not carved of stone or molded metal. As a moving, living, breathing conduit of our art, we are always changing so our art is always changing.”

“…In recent years, in Tribal Bellydance, the expectation to impress or entertain seems to fall squarely on the performers with the audience taking little to no responsibility for their part in the equation. Audiences expect us to deliver an emotional response to them like so much cheesy pizza, while they sit back and wait for it to fall in their laps. And if we don’t hand it to them as “promised”, they find fault with us as performers. Add to that, when we take our art from one venue to another, somehow the expectation is that it should have changed and evolved significantly in the time between, however short. If they see “the same thing”, instead of feeling a responsibility within themselves to try to see it in a new light/from a new perspective with a richer understanding with fresh eyes, they chalk it up to the performer failing them for not bringing them something ‘new and cutting edge.'”

“Basically, no wonder performers these days are so hungrily seeking the next new fad to lead the pack with. The message being sent by bellydance audiences is that if it isn’t the newest, nuttiest, oddest, strangest, sexiest, most different thing on that stage, then it won’t be worth trying to focus their narrow field of attention. But what will last? Being true to ourselves.”

Shay has written an article that, like so many of her tribe posts, threatens to make me stand up and clap in my own house. (My cats are used to these crazy outbursts… they give me that arch cat look that says, ‘Why is that lunatic jumping around again?’ before rolling back in their patch of sun.)

Youtube, tribe, blogs… good lord, I have such a love-hate relationship. I can’t think of another dance form in which the internet has played such a tremendous role. Since BDSS never holds auditions near the Midwest, I was happy when BDSS offered “The Future of Bellydance,” an online scouting site. I love that hours after the Indigo perform at Tribal Fest, chances are I can see their performance on Youtube. I like that teachers like Ansuya and Suhaila are embracing the technologic dance age by offering online classes.

But Shay is absolutely right — this internet age, with all the good it brings, also brings problems. Yes, I love being able to see what the Indigo has thought up this year for Tribal Fest — but I don’t enjoy watching the video and realizing for the next year all I will see in the tribal community is vaudeville and crinolines. (Can you imagine how the Indigo feels? Like Shay said, they must feel enormous pressure to raise the bar — and when they do, they know their great ideas will be copied and regurgitated for years after). I also get a sinking feeling when a dancer dances a beautiful piece and all the Youtube comments say is, “OOh, what’s that song?! I have to dance to it!” I also didn’t enjoy realizing early in my dance career that I was probably spending more time on tribe than I was training. Once that realization hit, I put down the mouse, backed away from the computer, and admitted that I had a problem: I was addicted to a website (Hundreds of bellydancers each year are diagnosed with Obsessive Tribe Checking Disorder… often, it is found in dancers also suffering from Youtubefrenia. Absolutely sobering statistics, no?)

Joking aside, I am grateful for the role the internet has played in my short career as a dancer — especially as an aspiring artist living in the Midwest. I mean, heck, I got into tribal because of Rachel Brice’s Tribal Fest 06 video. Living in Missouri, it is absolutely wonderful to get to see my favorite dancers without flying to Cali. And I do know that the internet will play a pivotal role in my future. I was talking to Asharah about how to do this art form full time, and her first piece of advice was, “Get as much internet exposure as you can.” Think about it: how many artists rely on blogs, frequent Youtube videos, tribe, and websites to get their name out there?

Shay said it best: “Keeping my mind and heart on my troupe sisters and what we want to say with our collective voice, is a surefire way to keep my own creative well overflowing for a long time. It ensures that what we create together will be authentic to us. Dancers could take more risks, and if it didn’t work out, live to dance another day.”

Internet is a great tool, but that’s all it is: a tool. At the end of the day, are you dancing to make people gasp or are you dancing for you? I would suggest to any dancer that finds themselves suffering from Youtubefrenia or OTCD to step back, go outside, journal, go for a walk, listen to your iPod on shuffle… figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don’t try to be someone else, be you! Remember what Ben Folds said: “I do the best imitation of myself.”