Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Renée’s Teaching Diary 9/10/09

First class at the Boulder Creek Rec Hall last Thursday morning. Had 3 women I didn’t know, plus Audrey for a total of 4 students! All of us over 40, at least. All of us with physical limitations. My goal for this class is to find ways to dance that respect those limitations while also developing dancing skills and confidence. Ultimately, I just want us to experience the sheer pleasure of dancing together.
Although I’d tried to prepare a syllabus, I really didn’t have much planned. I had a short warm up (which I ended up using as a cool down as well). And I decided on-the-fly to introduce the shimmy, Egyptian hip twist, ribcage slide, and chest lift. I finished with a lesson in grapevines and then jeni jol,  a Macedonian folk dance that incorporates a hip bump and a modified grapevine. I think everyone should be able to do a grapevine step.

I explained that the grapevine is performed in all variety of dance from ballet to bellydance and if you master it you will be able to dance anywhere in the world. I broke it down very carefully: cross right foot over left, step side left, cross back with R, step left again. Four steps equal one grapevine. All of a sudden one of my students stopped: “This is The Stroll!” she exclaimed. We did it like this…” and she proceeded to execute a cool little grapevine with a 1950s groove (if you can remember the song “C C Rider” you’re probably old enough to have learned The Stroll).  These are precisely the body memories I am hoping they will tap into. When I mentioned that a hip twist is just a formalized version of the Chubby Checkers dance, I saw a change in their level of confidence. What I hope they are thinking is: Oh, I can do this.

I’m also teaching ATS privately. We started with the basics: Egyptian, crescent, choo choo, and Arabic. Sort of the four major food groups of American Tribal Style. I do love teaching, especially dance.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Community of Dancers: Part 1. The Search for Community

I suppose I first began wondering about the nature of “community” when I left the one of my upbringing. Some of this was natural: I was a young adult, and I’d moved away from home, family, classmates to set my own sail. Some was more fundamental: I left the religion of my childhood. I was raised in a Baha’i home with strong ties to the (then relatively small) Baha’i community locally, regionally, and nationally. It was in that world where I established best-friendships and teenage crushes, where I shared in a common experience of both mundane and spiritual content, and where my intellectual curiosity was encouraged and developed. It was “my community” in ways more profound than the one provided by our residence in Rockville, CT. Growing up in a Baha’i home was a great gift: my decision to leave it behind was profoundly difficult even though I no longer felt a sense of membership in that community. And ever since that decision, I have been looking for a suitable replacement.

I looked in lots of different places for that sense of belonging. In the 1980s I tried to establish myself within the Hartford, CT modern dance scene but ultimately found it competitive and sometimes contentious. In the 90s I looked to wicca, a community in which I could satisfy some of my spiritual longings and through which I met many wonderful like-minded women. Witchcraft almost did it for me but in the end my pragmatism won out (and, oddly, I much preferred the New England witches to the ones I met when I moved to California). Sacred Circle Dance, which I encountered through my pagan connections, seemed promising since it overtly claims to be creating community through revitalized European folk dances. Unfortunately, I discovering that (for me) there was just no there there.

For the purposes of my dissertation, I took up the Japanese martial art, Aikido, in order to focus my scholarly attentions on the subject of community itself: what is it, how is it created and maintained, who can become a member. Aikido provided me with concrete social and physiological practices that lead to a sense of connection between practitioners—in short, a community. The stated goal of aikido is to achieve an energetic (ki) “connection” with each training partner through repeated tactile and kinesthetic experiences. This is coupled with a variety of social activities that bind members together: from dojo upkeep to serving on committees to participation in cyclical rites of passage. These dual “socio-somatic connections” produce a sensuous community of practitioners.* This was rich soil for a dissertation project, and it satisfied my intellectual curiosity about “community” as a socio-cultural phenomenon. But once I was finished writing, I found I had no desire to return to the training mat. I hadn’t found my community yet. Besides, I wanted to—needed to—return to dance.

I began to study bellydance after one of my UCSC anthropology of dance students (Crystal Silmi) demonstrated a modern variant called American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Over the course of the next 8 years, I studied ATS and many other styles of bellydance. Along the way, I cultivated a personal sense of belonging in the Santa Cruz County bellydance community. I work at belonging by attending performances, taking classes and workshops, and socializing at non-dance events like movie nights, crafting parties, or yard sales. This is work that must be maintained. It is a sign of my commitment to the community as well as the means by which I create my belonging. Indeed, our collective work is the very stuff of this community.

Look for my upcoming blog: “A Community of Dancers: Part 2. Why We Need Communities”

* Aikido Sensibilities: The Sociosomatics of Connection and Its Role in the Constitution of Community at North Bay Aikido in Santa Cruz, California. Renée Rothman, University of California, Santa Cruz, Dec. 2000

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Renée's Teaching Diary: Page 1

I am about to start teaching a course of my own invention that I haven’t invented yet (Bellydance For The Rest of Us). Its not like I don’t know what I’m going to do in general terms. Altho I haven’t taught a weekly dance class in mumble mumble years, I do remember the basics. Plus those classes in modern and jazz were 90 minute classes, whereas most bellydance classes are only 60. But just to brush up, I thot I’d look around at other beginning bellydance syllabi.

I looked around online but it seems few dance instructors are willing to share their syllabus. It makes sense, really. Teachers work hard to develop their courses and want to have control over their intellectual property. In addition to that, bellydance doesn’t have a universal language or technique so even when I do find a document that lays out a course’s development, I don’t necessarily know what steps they are talking about. For instance, Sitamun’s raks sharki syllabus calls for “thigh circles” and distinguishes between three styles of camels: Arabic, Egyptian, and Turkish. I’ve never heard of thigh circles and only do one style of camel (I think).

Dance steps, especially folk and street styles, often don’t have names although they may acquire them in their transmission. It makes communication easier if you can tell a dancer to do three grapevines and a hip drop. Some bellydance steps have names that are commonly known—like the shimmy—but which in practice may have local variations. Even within as contemporary a form as American Tribal Style (ATS), basic steps are reinvented and renamed by independent groups. For example, my troupe—Mountain Tribal—has an Arabic variation we call the “Hairy Eyeball.”  Its an Arabic 5 (a traditional step described and named by Jamila Salimpour) with three position changes cued (an ATS characteristic) with direct eye contact (hence its nickname). No other ATS dancer would be able to do this step based only on its name, though its various parts would be familiar to them.

Still, the basics are the basics. You can’t shimmy until you can lift and drop your hips in isolation from your upper torso. And you can’t do a Basic Egyptian (aka Egyptian Twist, double Egyptian, twisty hip step, and who knows what else) before you learn to bump the hip forward and back. So I guess all I can do is make a beginning and see how things develop. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Summer of Bellydancing in Santa Cruz

Our bellydance community is active all-year-round holding regular showcases, specialty workshops, concert performances, or strictly social occasions, and we don’t slow down for summer. Earlier in the season, Pleasure Point Dance and Fitness (formerly Masala Raks) held its one-year anniversary hafla (see blog posted July 15). In late July, Mountain Tribal (Kim, Audrey, and Renée) hosted another bellydance flea market. These are great opportunities to buy, sell, or trade costume items we no longer use. They are especially good for beginners who are just building their costume collections: good items at greatly discounted prices.
It was a beautiful day at Kim’s house in Boulder Creek. Shade was provided by a large fig tree; an old, but handy swing set worked perfectly for me to set up shop; we drank water from her collection of jelly jars and chatted happily with one another. Shoppers strolled in and joined us, alternating between browsing the goods and settling in for a visit. We had such a good time that we began planning the next one before this one was over. (By the way, the money I raised at the sale to help pay for the heater I set on fire back in May while recuperating from shoulder surgery…that money…I blew a goodly portion of it on this beautiful pink dress I found on Haight St., in SF. Look how perfectly it matches the pink tassel belt I made last year! I couldn’t say no.)
On the 30th of July, Helené hosted her quarterly bellydance showcase at Don Quixote’s Mexican Restaurant. This always includes live music by Orient’al with Armando and Michael Gruber (left) and this month with guest oud player Mark Bradlyn. In addition to her own solos, Helené invites some of our local favorite soloists and small companies. This month it included Rebecca, who carried us away with a Turkish Rom, Sese—delightful and funny as always, and Janelle wearing a gorgeous new white cabaret outfit. Malia came down from Half Moon Bay as the featured guest. Dripping in self-confidence (and black and silver sequins), she performed a traditional raks sharki masterfully. I’ve seen Malia perform Saudi Arabian khaleegi and Tunisian traditional with similar depth making her one of my favorite artists. She is truly inspirational.
The 18th annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz began on Aug 2. The 14-day event includes a two-day Music, Art, and Wine Festival on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. It features all variety of music and dance and this year Janelle Rodriguez was invited to produce the final set on Saturday. She gave us an hour-long set of bellydancing with Orient’al once again accompanying the dancers. The set featured her company, Desert Dream (left), and her student group The Rakset Mizmar Dancers (who made their debut at the aforementioned anniversary hafla).  There were solos and duets by Kelly Elyse, Victoria Silva, Summer Duppen, and Anne Abraham. Helené made a brief appearance in a solo improvisation. But for me, Tribal Moon was the Wow act of the day.
Tribal Moon (right) is an American Tribal Style company under the direction of Kathy Stahlman, a former dancer with FatChanceBellyDance in San Francisco. I’ve been studying ATS (a form of group improvisation) for some years and recently, as I focused on my solo work, I thought I was through with tribal. This performance set me straight. The riotous colors of the costumes and the vibrancy and power of the dance made me want to rush home and dress up and dance with my friends…or go take classes with Kathy S…neither of which I did.
These are only some of the bellydance performances that took place this summer. I missed Sahar’s students on Sunday at the Cabrillo Festival; the Park Avenue Belly Dance Studio’s presentation “Evolution of the American Belly Dancer,” June’s Cypress Raks, most of the Saturday Crepe Place showcases, and innumerable other festivals and restaurants where our dancers performed. Last night, after a 3-month hiatus, I joined these artists and performed at the August Cypress Raks.
The beautiful Aruba is hostess for this monthly showcase at the Cypress Lounge in downtown Santa Cruz. (See my blog My SITA Chapter 7: Solo Improvised Dance at Bellydance Showcase posted April 6, 2009). I performed second, after Nathalia who I first saw at the Cabrillo performance with Rakset Mizmar. I watched from the “wings” and wondered how I was going to follow this sexy, nubile young woman. My answer: with maturity.
I was nervous all week, afraid I might fall victim to some kind of kinesthetic alzheimer’s. After a few libations to help me forget my fears, I let loose on the dance floor. I performed to a tune called “Danzon Barocco” by Cuban flute master Maraca. Danzon is an old Cuban style, with a more moderate tempo and lyricism than salsa. Maraca’s flute playing is as sweet as a songbird and I let myself revel in it. I danced for the crowd and, best of all, I danced for my husband, Charles, who rarely attends these events. He doesn’t care for Middle Eastern music, but luckily, hardly anybody used it last night. We heard Latin, techno, even Abba! But no hardcore, traditional bellydance hits. The final performance was by Ginger (aka Aruba) y Los Cubanos Calientes, who danced to a 1940s Cuban song. They were fabulously entertaining in their fluorescent green, pink, and orange ruffles.
At the end of the evening, we all got up and danced to “Hips don’t lie” and some hot salsa numbers. I danced ecstatically with all the artists: Nathalia, Sabra, Johara, Saphra, Safiyah, Rebecca, members of Arba’a and Raqs the Casbah, Ginger and her backup dancers. I was flying high and loving it. I achieved in this humble venue something I have been seeking for a lifetime: ecstasy through a fully embodied dance to beautiful music before a joyous community. Thanks, Aruba, for making this possible for me.

for more photos from these and other events visit

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stewart, Maher, Colbert: America’s Sacred Clowns

After Walter Cronkite died, a Time Magazine online poll voted “fake newsman” and comic Jon Stewart as the new Most Trusted Newscaster in America. A few weeks ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time guest Anna Deaveare Smith referred to Maher as a “clown.” I’m fairly certain she meant that in a sociological sense. I believe this because, although most people know her as a film and television actress, she is also an award winning political playwright. Seems to me she would know about such things as sacred clowning. “Clowns” in the social sciences are understood to be more than entertainers: they are important, sometimes even sacred, social critics. Our modern clowns—among them Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert—are the American version of sacred clowns.

Sacred, or ritual, clowns have been documented in many cultures, most notably in American Pueblo societies (Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, et al). They are known in other cultures as tricksters, jesters and fools. Their purpose is to subvert cultural norms. Their tools are satire, parody, and ridicule.

Clowns are given social license to provoke. The fool stands slightly askew of the mainstream, taking a critical perspective. Their comic antics and satirical commentary are both entertainments and methods for controlling social behavior. They expose the flaws and the made-up-ness of cultural rules, creating in the witness a temporary state of uncertainty. From this liminal state, we reflect upon our personal and collective behavior. The role of Pueblo clowns is to “preserve the moral integrity of the community” (“White Face, Dark Heart”) by demonstrating the chaos that will ensue without those moral guidelines. The often offensive behavior of the clown arouses strong emotions of outrage, surprise, or shock. The laughter that ensues is a cathartic response driven by fear of that moral chaos.


When Bill Maher announces his “New Rules” at the end of an episode, he is contending with small(ish) social practices or large political events which cast a sharp light on the current ambiguities of our social rules. Maher rubs our collective noses in our fears about the current free-floating social order by inventing his own counter rules. Some point out the ridiculousness of the new status quo: “New Rule: If you're stuck on a plane that's not moving for more than five hours, you get to punch a baby.” (Episode airing Aug. 14, 2009) Some are bitter attacks on the political practices of right-wing radicals: “New Rule: Never underestimate the ability of a tiny fringe group of losers to ruin everything.” (Episode airing July 31, 2009)


Stephen Colbert acts as a “heyoka,” the Sioux clown who does everything backwards. Watch the old movie Little Big Man for an excellent portrayal of this traditional figure: he washes with sand and rinses with water; says hello when he means good-bye and no when he means yes. In the context of his nightly program, “Stephen Colbert” is a comedic contrarian; a false-faced persona reflecting right-wing absurdities as in a circus mirror. He impersonates extreme conservative pundits by assuming implacable and narrow religious positions, rudely shouting over his guest speakers, and surrounding himself with hyper-patriotic images. His “entrance” after he announces the evening’s guest (who would normally be the ones to enter the stage waving to the audience) is an overtly contrarian device.


All joking relies on collective knowledge of the socio-cultural rules; it isn’t funny if we don’t understand which social rule the joke is overturning. With our world—our society, culture, politics, and economy—in turmoil, with separate truths competing for control of our national agenda, it makes sense that we rely on our comics to help us sort out reality. We trust Jon Stewart because he is a clown, because he makes the turmoil palatable by helping us laugh at it. We are painfully unsure of our future as a nation and a people. Stewart’s humor helps to “preserve the moral integrity of the community.” He reminds us that we do still have a collective reality, even though we may be hanging on to it by a thread.

Culture is not a concrete or stable thing; it is a symbolic universe created by our own actions and words. Clowns remind us of what and who we are, and how tenuous that is, how easily order dissolves into disorder. They specialize in walking the wire between order and chaos, a dangerous balancing act. They make us laugh, and think, and reassess what we want from our nation. That’s why nearly every night, when I watch The Daily Show, I inevitably shout at some point “Thank you, Jon Stewart,” thank you for reminding me that I’m not crazy…they are.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Announcing my new class BELLYDANCE FOR THE REST OF US

For several years now, friends and acquaintances of mine have asked that I create a dance class that can accommodate women with limited dancing abilities and relatively senior bodies. As I have struggled with increasingly ridged joints myself, I sympathized. I have had to drop out of a number of bellydance classes because it simply hurt too much to do the work. I know, I know…modify. But there is only so much modification you can do before you are doing an entirely different routine than the one the teacher is presenting. I wholeheartedly appreciate the core-strengthening value of a rigorous syllabus, and 20 years ago I’d have been all over that. But I have different needs now, and so do many of my friends. So, here it is, ladies: Bellydance For the Rest of Us.

We will learn the fundamentals of bellydance: shimmies, hip lifts and drops, choo choos, Arabics, Egyptians, and various other basic movements. While a certain amount of drilling (repetitions of specific techniques) is necessary, I hope this to be a stress-free practice. My main intention is simply to get women moving together in time. That alone is powerful enough to engender confidence and collective joy.

I think often of this description (fanciful or otherwise) of women dancing:

“Speaking only from personal experience, during lunch hours in the gym, we girls danced with each other in the middle of the basketball court, while the boys careened and vied around us. Girls were taught to dance by other girls, boys learned to dance from us...Is it possible to dance our way back into community, culture, and civilization, while the boys careen and view around us? Only time will tell, but dance we must—circling—doing a figure 8 through a maze of contradictions, dodging confrontation, tugging the hands of faltering sisters, the group rhythm transporting us round. Just that is our most practical, political strategy—for our greatest, tested strength is our collective spirit.”

This is a completely untested course. I have not taught it before; I don’t know how it will differ from other bellydance classes; I don’t know where it might lead. But dance we must, circling our hips, undulating our bellies, shaking our shoulders. And yes, we can dance our way back into community…this is my central goal for this class: to increase the community of women dancing together.

Class schedule:

Beginning AUGUST 25, 2009 @

Back in Touch Pilates Studio

4135 Portola Dr (@ 41st)


Tuesdays 5:30-6:30

$12.00 drop-in

$40.00 per 4-week session

beginning SEPTEMBER 10, 2009 @

Boulder Creek Recreation Center

13333 Middleton Avenue


Thursdays 10:30-11:30 am

$12.00 drop-in

$40.00 per 4-week session

PS: look for me at Cypress Raks on Sunday. I'm performing to some Cuban Timba music at about 7:15

* Grace Shinell "Women's Collective Spirit: Exemplified and Envisioned" in The Politics of Women's Spirituality. Charlene Spretnak, ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press: 1982

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Economic Rave

(Reader caveat: this is NOT about dance but you’ll have to indulge me.)

I just got turned down for a job driving an invalid to his intravenous therapy four days a week. That’s all; just driving and a little housework. He said I’m overqualified (I’ve heard that a million times). He must have guessed from my manner of speaking because he didn’t even know about my degrees. I’ve been trying to appear less qualified: modest dress, no make-up, I leave my degree dates off my resume, sometimes I leave education off altogether. Besides, wouldn’t you want to have someone overqualified for a job rather than underqualified? Does my degree make it more difficult for me to drive my car across town? Do these employers think that because I have a doctorate that I don’t do my own laundry? How dare they assume that I’ll get bored and leave. Frack them all! What’s an old broad like me suppose to do to get a job?

I have been underemployed for 20 years, beginning when I returned to college to get my bachelors degree. Since then, I had one short-lived, full-time, full-benefits job from which I was laid off during the 1990s economic downturn. I listened to the advice of my college councilors and signed up for graduate school. (I should have listened to the college Cassandra’s who kept saying “Graduate school is hell,” “Don’t do it” and “You will regret it.” They were right.)

Aside from the mental and physical exhaustion caused by graduate-level studies, the economic effects of this move (literally from Massachusetts to California, and figuratively from layperson to scholar) were disastrous. I left the work force during my peak earning years and accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I have had to cobbled together teaching assistantships, fellowships, and temporary teaching jobs. I worked at an office supply shop, a video store, and I managed an import shop: all part-time, all underpaid. I did have a 6-week gig last summer as an editor but that business relies on government contracts. So that ended prematurely.

For the last year, we (my husband, whose inadequate salary keeps us just above water) and I have borrowed money from his parents, emptied our moderate retirement funds to pay our income taxes (and you can bet it chapped my ass when Washington was bailing out Wall Street with my tax money), and are living off the remnants of a workers compensation settlement.

I developed disabling tendonitis and arthritis in my hands while working in retail. My job options are thus limited by a small physical disability, and by my higher education, but also, I am convinced, by my age and gender. No one wants to hire an old woman (57), regardless of her skills.

Over the past two years, I have made every possible effort to secure any kind of job. I paid for the services of a career councilor, spit-polished my resumes, broadened my employment scope. I tried networking but that’s BS in an area as depressed as this one (San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley). I started a blog and signed up on Facebook and joined LinkedIn on the recommendation that this is the new way to network. I have lowered my expectations and lowered my standards. I still look for jobs but aside from medical and technical opportunities, there just aren’t any out there. And its even worse now than a year ago

We have tightened our belts (sold the boot-straps for a sandwich). I stopped going to dance classes, stopped renting movies, stopped eating out. We make our own pizzas on Friday nights instead of ordering one. We groom our dog at home and I only get my hair cut every 8-10 months. Changing our lifestyle was easy compared to changing our lives. We considered getting rid of some of the expensive technologies that our new society demands we own, but that would only cripple us more. I’ve sold many of my books and bellydance jewelry and costumes for spare cash. I’ve considered selling more precious items but when I examined the sales for these sorts of things on eBay and Craigslist I noticed no one was buying.

This story is not unique. I know plenty of other women struggling desperately to find jobs (or even those jobettes the Feminists used to decry). My husband and I are not destitute—we have a lovely rented cottage and we haven’t gone hungry. And we have many good friends here. I count heavily on those blessings.

So the moral of this story: if you have been unemployed for more than 6 months and are beginning to despair, know this: it ain’t your fault. It isn’t because your resume isn’t written well, or because you have too much or too little experience, or because you didn’t follow up with a phone call, or because you have a character flaw, or because you aren’t trying hard enough. It is a brutal market out there and there may be nothing you can do about it. I’m not saying you should stop looking for a job, but—and I know this is hard—try not to take it personally.

Friday, July 24, 2009

SYTYCD Choreographers have mastered the art of the 90 second duet.

One and one-half minutes is not long, yet SYTYCD choreographers have crammed a lot of content into that brief time. And perhaps because the human condition is so complex, they have used that time to reflect on innumerable subjects from the mundane to the sublime.

Traditional (heterosexual) couplings of ballroom dance are obvious duet choices and we have witnessed every variety: cha cha, samba, waltz, foxtrot, jive, disco, tango, rumba, paso doble, and the dreaded quickstep. These have been performed with more or less success and many have been outstanding. But for me, the really original work is being done in less specific genres, ones they call contemporary, jazz, and hip hop, even Broadway. These have styles that are particular to them, but are so flexible that they can be employed to express nearly any human experience.

Week 7 had two exceptional examples of what I mean. Tyce Diorio’s touching duet for Melissa and Ade addressed an immensely emotional subject: cancer. In 1 minute and 30 seconds, this team of artists expressed the fear, confusion, and loss of a cancer patient while demonstrating the difficult role of friends and lovers in providing a safe place for her to stand. The closing lift, with Melissa reaching into the future on Ade’s shoulder, was one of the most powerful single moments in SYTYCD history. Has anything else brought Nigel to tears (not to mention the rest of the judges, Diorio, and the studio and home audiences).

From this sublime performance, we jumped to a dark, zombie choreography by Shane Sparks. This theme always recalls Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but in the capable hands of Sparks, it was entirely fresh. Kayla and Jason performed it brilliantly building the drama to another electrifying conclusion: the strangulation of Kayla.

On the 100th anniversary program, we had a chance to see some of our favorite mini-dramas from past seasons. The Hummingbird piece was as magical as the first time, with those preternatural creatures poking inquisitively at one another. I had hoped we would see Mia Michaels’ moving tribute to her father. Michaels is a daring choreographer: remember her addiction piece from week 5.

I would love to see some of these short-form choreographies developed into larger forms, though many of them are so complete in themselves its hard to imagine how that could happen. A good drama has a beginning, a middle, and end, and a good plot. How they accomplish all that in 90 seconds is truly admirable. Is it any wonder that 4 of their choreographers have received Emmy Award nominations?

We will get a chance to see and hear from these and many other contemporary choreographers in an upcoming documentary “Move: The Film” due out in 2010. Meanwhile check out their website and YouTube preview. And for a cogent review of week 7 SYTYCD, check out Tonya Planks blog, Swan Lake Samba Girl.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Local Bellydance Studio Celebrates 1-Year Anniversary

One year ago, Janelle Rodriguez bought Masala Raks dance studio, renamed it Pleasure Point Fitness and Dance Center, and continued with the original owners’ (Ray's and Naomi’s) excellent dance programming. Their emphasis is still bellydance but they now offer ballet, Spanish sevilliana, nia, zumba (Brazilian-based aerobics), and four varieties of yoga. Janelle and her business partner, Jennifer Moore,  celebrated their anniversary by holding a dance party (called a hafla). As Ray and Naomi had done at Masala, the dancing took place outside the studio in the parking lot with a shade tent and carpet for the dancers. And lots of traffic stopping to ogle from 41st Avenue. 

In performance were Pleasure Point dance instructors, their students, and a few old friends of Janelle’s who came in for the event. Like Santa Cruz more generally, PPFDC boasts a wide array of bellydance varieties from traditional to modern. We saw cabaret with and without veil, Egyptian-style cane dance, and gothic tribal. It was a wonderful way to see what the instructors are up to, but also for students to experience performing in public. In fact, my first public performance as a bellydancer took place at one of Masala’s haflas (American Tribal Style with Kim Okrant). The general casualness of these haflas makes it a welcoming environment for beginners.

So congratulations to all the beginner performers and many thanks to Janelle and Jennifer. We all appreciate your efforts and look forward to the next year of classes and workshops.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

DSL Finally

We finally have DSL service up here in our mountain home. So I should be able to load pertinent photos and YouTube videos. Just for practice, here are a few from National Dance Week in Santa Cruz.

Friday, July 10, 2009

SYTYCD: Let’s talk about the choreographers

The producers have gathered a tremendous cast of choreographers, most of whom would never have been heard of outside their small circles. Every season they get better, perhaps because the dancers get better and can handle more complex choreographies. The last two weeks (4 and 5) have been outstanding showcases for these talented choreographers.

This week top honors go to Mia Michaels and Leo Barrionuevo and Miriam Larici. Michaels created yet another moving and startling contemporary piece, this time for Kayla and Kupono. The subject was addiction and the dynamic created between the dancers (Kupono as the addiction and Kayla as the addicted) truthfully depicted that relationship of longing and despair. Kupono’s relentless and confident pull on Kayla’s attempts to escape were performed with deep conviction. These two performed with similar intensity and skill in week 4 with Sonya Tayeh’s outstanding contemporary piece, another of my favorites. (I can’t believe that only a few weeks ago I thought Kupono should have been eliminated. He has proved me very wrong. I now think he is the best male dancer of the season.) Michaels’ talent seems to grow stronger every season and I wish she would create a touring company so we could watch a whole evening of her work.

Barrionuevo and Larici are (I think) new to the broadcast and I hope they become regulars. Their Argentine Tango for Janette and Brandon was filled with the passion and complexity the form is known for. They didn’t seem to hold anything back just because their dancers were inexperienced in tango. And with the considerable talents of Janette and Brandon, they didn’t need to. Even Lythgoe gave them a standing o. Brandon, usually so childlike in behavior and appearance, completely transformed himself into a dramatic tanquero and Janette’s long lunges and flicking feet were gorgeous.

Last night, though, there were many other excellent choreographies. Joey Dowling’s Broadway number (the Dance at the Gym music from West Side Story) for Kayla and Kupono was joyous, jazzy and fun. I loved its playfulness, despite the judges who thought it wasn’t enough like Robbins’ original dance (they were wrong: I don’t think Dowling intended them to be the Jets).

Mandy Moore and Wade Robson, both veterans of SYTYCD, consistently bring us exciting new choreography. Moore’s lyrical jazz finally gave Caitlyn and Jason a chance to shine. These dancers have too often been the unfortunate victims of unsuccessful choreography and atrocious costume disasters. Moore created a charming and delicious piece that was just too short. I wanted to see where this was going. Maybe she will develop this into a longer dance.


Robson, along with Michaels, is favored by the dancers and audience alike. This week he choreographed a jazz piece for Janette and Brandon who interpreted Robson’s unique movements to perfection. As thieves, the dancers skulked around the stage with fresh and quirky movements.

D Sanchez’s disco was superbly performed by Melissa and Ade and had me wanting to join in. This was true for the disco she created for Janette and Brandon in week 2. It helped that she got to use real disco music. Tony Merideth’s jive utilized the technical skill of Jeanine and the stage presence of Philip to great advantage. He also created a lovely foxtrot for Caitlyn and Jason, again demonstrating their talents. I thot Nap and Tab’s lyrical hip hop (who knew hip hop could be lyrical?) was delightful, although I don’t think Evan was really up to the task. Randi’s performance, however, expressed genuine pleasure in the movement.

A quick comment on the Russian Kalinka performed by Jeanine and Philip. I was thrilled that the producers took a risk and introduced a dance from the folk tradition. This one is technically and stylistically challenging and the dancers performed admirably. Philip’s lines could have been crisper and Jeanine’s landings could have been lighter, but I hope the unusualness of the style won’t discourage voters or the producers from trying again.

Postscript: Results show.

What can I say? I’m disappointed, dismayed, pissed off. I was sure Randi and Evan would be going home. Evan just hasn’t impressed me as much as I thot he would; he hasn’t grown as a dancer. Philip has surprised and delighted me consistently. And I’d rather watch Caitlyn than Randi. Caitlyn is the best soloist the show has ever had. At least Philip and Caitlyn will be on the tour. From here on, every elimination will be a disappointment. Best get used to it, I guess.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It don’t matter if you’re black or white: MJs racial and gender ambiguity

Much has already been said about Michael Jackson’s racial makeover. Some have speculated that it was an attempt to deny his blackness. Others suggest his medical procedures were an attempt to erase the image of his father as it was reflected in his own face. Certainly he felt compelled to alter his nose again and again for reasons we many never understand, tho there is growing evidence that plastic surgeries can become an obsession.

But I’d like to offer another possible interpretation for these changes: that his desire was to become all races, all humans. I am not arguing that white is the universal default. No matter how white MJ came to appear, we never for a moment forgot that he was black. His music, dance, and other contributions to black culture (and to American culture) are undeniable. But examine his humanitarian videos: in Black or White we see Jackson metamorphize from human to black panther and back again (am I reading too much into that metaphor?). And in an exquisite representation of his belief in the oneness of humankind, we watch smiling face after smiling face morph from one race to another and from one gender to another.

Jackson’s ambiguous gender and sexuality were also frequent subjects of discussion. His pre-pubescent voice, underdeveloped physique, our doubts that his marriages were “real” (that is, that he was even capable of consummation), each contributed to MJ’s apparent polymorphism, as well as to the frequent references to his childlike nature. After all, children, in American ideology anyway, are pre-sexual and gender neutral.

Perhaps, not content with the narrowness of his given self, Jackson made himself over into a universal figure. He was both child and adult, man and woman, black and white, gloved and ungloved. He was not “either/or” but “both/and.” Jackson stood at the crossroads of socially polarizing forces. His music and dance shattered divisions of race, gender, and class. His corporeality came to reflect that. He violated the cultural order, unmasking its ability to divide us. And that made him subversive and threatening, and, for people who cannot tolerate that threat, perverse.

The body—its surfaces and its interiority—is a reflection of social norms and altering the body is a comment on those habits. Perhaps Michael Jackson’s body modifications and presentations were a somatic response to his social politics. This isn’t to say that the other explanations are false, only that there may be another way to look at it (both/and not either/or). It is, after all, just me speculating, but then speculation is all we will ever have regarding Michael Jackson’s fantastical transformations.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lythgoe announces national dance foundation

Inspired by the success of American Idol’s charitable efforts--Idol Gives Back--SYTYCD producer Nigel Lythgoe has established Dizzy Feet Foundation with the help of choreographers Adam Shankman and Carrie Ann Inaba, and actress Katie Holmes. The Foundation’s goal is to “support, improve, and increase access to dance education.” It will provide scholarships for disadvantaged students and create a national standard for teaching.

This is the first time a national effort has been instituted at such a public level.  Many urban dance schools offer scholarships but their resources are limited and their scope necessarily narrow. I know that there are national arts education standards developed for K-12 but I don’t know if they apply to independent studios. It will be interesting to see how these standards compare with DFF’s. I am certain their stamp of approval will help parents make better selections for their kids. Right now, anyone…and I mean anyone…can open a studio and claim to have sufficient knowledge. If you’ve watched the early auditions on SYTYCD, you may have heard Lythgoe take some of these morons to task for claiming to be teachers. Its one of the reasons I respect him so much.

Watch SYTYCD’s 100th episode on July 23 for their introductory performance (a tribute to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” from Summer Stock, my favorite of her films). For more details check out the official press release on their website

Also in the news, in addition to the passing of Michael Jackson (see my tribute blog on, the dance world also lost German avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch. She was most popularly known for her 1982 piece in which the stage was covered in pink carnations. She died of cancer at the age of 68.



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More MJ Tributes

For more tributes to Michael Jackson as a dancer check out the following: Commentary: Michael Jackson, A Dancer's Tribute to the King of Pop, the Godfather of Commercial Dance Michael Jackson (1958-2009) Moon Walker His Moves Expressed as Much as His Music

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: An American Dancer

I heard the news when, on the elimination show of SYTYCD, Nigel Lithgow announced the deaths this week of three American icons: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. We expected the passing of McMahon (from age) and Fawcett (from cancer), but not Michael Jackson. When I finally had a chance to flip over to the news, they were focusing on the confusing eccentricities of Jackson’s later life. Since I really detest celebrity gossip, I switched over to MTV where we all discovered the enormity of this man’s talents.
"It wasn’t only his dancing we loved,
but the power of his music to make us dance"

MTV is showing Jackson’s impressive catalog of videos, not just clips but the whole unedited versions.  What a joy it is to see this collection one after another. If ever I had doubts about his dancing talent, they were put finally to rest when I watched the long version of Bad with its lengthy group choreography worthy of Broadway. In Beat It the choreography paid tribute to Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story rumble scene. With his slightly shortened pants and stark white socks he remembers Fred Astaire, who was evidently a fan of Jackson’s. And, like Astaire, his dedication and respect for dance is evident in how his videos where shot: with the whole dancer, the whole choreography unmediated by tricky camera shots or sliced up by over-zealous editors.

But, of course it wasn’t only his dancing we loved, but the power of his music to make us dance. In Black and White we are treated to dancers from Africa, India, Native America, and Russia performing to his song. His moves are a part of the world dance vocabulary now. The choreography from Thriller and Beat It are the most well known pieces in the history of dance. I suspect all of us can recall at least one movement from Thriller.  Boys from across the globe learned and performed these choreographies at weddings, parties, in the streets. It a way, Jackson helped make it possible for men to dance with pride and freedom, the effects of which we see today on shows like SYTYCD and America’s Best Dance Crew.

He was generous with his music which never failed to make us feel its power. Whether it was for sheer enjoyment, as in Jam in which he attempts to teach Michael Jordan to moonwalk, or for global healing as in We Are the World, for which even Musak paused its programming. And how can we forget his tender voice in his tribute video for Ryan White. That song, Gone Too Soon, expresses what many of us feel today. What a tragedy that we will not hear from the mature Michael, who was in rehearsal for a new concert tour.

This is the Michael Jackson I morn today; the American artist, the American genius. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SYTYCD and the American Dance Renaissance

The new season of So You think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) has started (FOX Wed. nights 8:00, competition; Thur. nights 9:00, results). They are thru with the auditions and have selected the final 20: 10 girls and 10 boys (from this point forward the dancers work almost exclusively in mixed-gendered couples). As always, they have selected a range of dancers, some with already established skills, others with great artistic potential. And naturally, I didn’t always agree with their choices. In fact, they threw out almost everyone I was rooting for. Still, I anticipate an exciting season of dance. How could I not? Even the dancers who were cut demonstrated a level of talent that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented in dance history.

I have been out of touch with mainstream dance for several decades now so I was unaware of the developments in American dance training. How is it that so many dancers—male and female—can sustain multiple spins, acrobatic flips, and extreme splits? In my day it wasn’t even thot physiologically possible for most men to attain a full leg split…how wrong we were. Without doing any deep research (which I may do at some point), I am guessing that the increased strength, flexibility, and coordination of today’s studio-trained dancers is in part due to the increase in scientific knowledge about the human body in motion.  

Janelle Rodriquez, one of my bellydance sisters, once commented that bellydancers of the 1970s-80s demonstrated only a surface understanding of the movement rather than a deeply embodied one. After the fitness crazes of the 1990s, however, a deeper knowledge of the workings of the body in motion produced approaches to dance that require a more sophisticated somatic sensitivity. Suhaila Salimpour, Janelle’s case in point, is a product of this era and developed a technique that goes to the “core” of the movements, deep inside to the musculature.

I observed this teaching style in the gothic dancers as well. Since Salimpour and Gothic techniques require isolating and articulating joints and muscles, pedagogy focuses on contracting and releasing fractions of movement. Kinesiology courses, which address the science of motion, are sometimes required in serious dance training programs. In addition, teachers encourage cross-training in other dance genres as well as in stretch-and-strengthening programs like yoga and pilates which are now offered in dance studios. The results of these approaches is evident in the levels of strength and flexibility of today’s dancers.

The sheer numbers of talented dancers must also be attributed to our current dance-friendly environment. Borrowing from Anthony Shay, we could argue that America is undergoing widespread choreophilia: a love of dance.* There is also a vibrant circuit of dance competitions which challenge dancers to ever higher aspirations and afford teachers and choreographers with national exposure.  Show business ventures from the music industry, television, and touring dance companies provide dancers with real career opportunities.

In short, scientific knowledge, a choreophilic society, and economic opportunities are driving our dance renaissance. So, tune in to SYTYCD and let me know what you think.

* Anthony Shay coined the term “choreophobia” to refer to societies where dance “carries highly negative connotations.” Anthony Shay Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World 1999.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My SITA Chapter 8: Teaching and learning improvisation from Sahar

Suspecting that there was much more going on in solo improvisation than I understood, I decided that I needed more training in SITA. I turned to local performer and teacher Sahar. I have long admired Sahar’s solo improvisations with live music. They are sheer delight: refined, elegant, and humerous. In addition, Sahar and I had spoken about her teaching philosophy and goals and I knew they were in keeping with my current interests. As I believe its always best to start at the beginning with a new teacher, I signed up for her 6-week beginners course.

Sahar teaches beladi, the traditional folk dance and core rhythm of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and many other cultures of the region. Raks al Beladi (Dance of the Country) was traditionally learned and performed in the home by and for women, passing organically from mother to daughter. Movements extend up from the feet and hips giving it a grounded, domestic sensibility. It is distinguished from Raks al Sharki (Dance of the Orient), a variant of beladi that developed in urban and more public settings. Sharki drew influences from India, Persia, Turkey, and eventually from the West. It lifts out of the hips, reaching elegantly into space. Today, American dancers are likely to blend the urban and rural Egyptian varieties with our own social and classical traditions. Based on Wendy Buonaventura’s[i] descriptions of the traditional Egyptian forms, Sahar seems to be teaching a hybrid of beladi and sharki.

Sahar maintains the relaxed and inclusive spirit of the original beladi dance. Her goal, she tells us, is to give to us a vocabulary of movements (drawn primarily from Egyptian, but also from Brazilian and American dances) from which to make our own dances, expressing our own lives and not the lives of some timeless Egyptian dancer (my words, not hers). She provides us with a supportive environment in which to discover our personal expression of the musical rhythms and melodies. Sahar encourages us to leave aside our reluctance to move, to shed our emotional inhibitions so that we can discover how we uniquely express this vocabulary.

When Sahar teaches a technique, she also teaches the emotional, or spiritual, content it is meant to convey. For example, she tells us that the shoulder shimmy is celebratory and should be high and joyous. To demonstrate, she remarks on the exceptionally warm weather—“I can’t believe its January”— and performs a rapid shoulder shimmy. Emphasizing the importance of hands, she tells us that they should project energy and joy. Arm and hand gestures should say, “I’m so happy to be here!” Stylistically, hip lifts can be big and free or small and percussive. The latter “save” the energy for ourselves by pulling it in; the former gives it out by bold movements.


It is uncanny how Sahar directs our attentions to issues I have been consciously exploring at home. Learning to listen to the music and respond to it thru movement is a case in point. (See my blogs My SITA Ch. 4 First Try and Ch 7. Cypress Raks.) In her intermediate class, Sahar has us just stand, listen, and ask ourselves “Where do you feel the drum in your body? In the hips? In the shoulders?” Then she asks us to practice letting that impulse, our own impulse, move us.

Working towards a studio performance in June, Sahar has constructed a piece that alternates choreographed and improvised sections. We stand in a semi-circular chorus and learn a simple 8-count pattern of stepping towards one diagonal, opening our arms to frame, and dropping the hip for 4 counts. We then step to the other diagonal and repeat. Once we drilled that sequence enuff so that we didn’t have to think about it, Sahar asks us to perform it while concentrating our hearing on the drum patterns that play over the basic rhythms. Finally, we take turns stepping out of the chorus and improvising to those patterns.

I was just beginning to be able to do that…but here’s where my story ends, at least temporarily. Upcoming shoulder surgery will prevent me from performing until late summer and I have had to drop out of the class. In the meantime, I will practice conscious listening in anticipation of my return.

[i] Buonaventura, Wendy.  Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, (Interlink Books, Brooklyn, New York, 1998)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Funniest Dance in Movies

On May 22, a new Wayan’s Brothers movie called Dance Flick opens. It claims to be the funniest dance move ever. To get us in the mood, I’d like to share with you the movie sequences that I think are the funniest. The only criterion here is “Did it make me laugh?” or at least smile with delight. Some are full choreographies but some (like Bill Murray’s) are only a few seconds long.

The first, of course, is Donald O’Connor’s performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” in Singing in the Rain. The rest are in no particular order and I haven’t included video clips due to the slowness of my dial-up internet connection. So look them up yourself and please add your own favorites.

1. Airplane spoof of “Stayin’ Alive” number from Saturday Night Fever
2. Bill Murray’s wet suit groove in Life Aquatic
3. Father’s quirky private dance in Strictly Ballroom
4. Danny Kaye’s knighthood ceremony from Court Jester
5. Policemen and Pirates dance in Pirates of Penzance 1983
6. Almost any number from Reefer Madness, The Musical
7. “Guten Tag Hop Clop” and “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers (did you know that a German version of this show just opened in Germany?)
8. Christopher Guest in his backward jeans from Waiting for Guffman
9. Rowen Atkinson’s street dance in Mr. Bean’s Holiday
10. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd as the Blues Brothers
11. Bugs Bunny in What’s Opera Doc?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

National Dance Week 2009: Santa Cruz, CA

My Dance Week began a little early with a lecture-performance of Isadora Duncan technique by dancer Lois Ann Flood and historian Joanna Harris. It was, as always for me, wonderful to see Isadora’s style expressed on a living artist. I have had only two other opportunities: In 1981, I saw Annabelle Gamson perform at a dance conference called The Early Years, convened in part to keep alive the work of early modern dancers. That same year I took a workshop with Kathleen Quinlan-Krichels and had first hand experience attempting to move in the fashion of this early 20th century pioneer. Ms Quinlan-Krichels also performed several small selections of Duncan’s choreographies. In the intervening years, I have not seen much of Duncan, making this lecture-demo a rare opportunity.

Ms Flood’s performance evoked the Isadora we know mostly thru descriptions by witnesses, still photos, and artist renderings (there are no moving pictures of Duncan). The way she carried her weight, pressed thru the space, raised a gentle arm, and the soft shapes of those classical poses: Flood brot those ideas to life. Ms Harris, at comfortably paced intervals, spoke about Duncan’s life and artistic development, and reminded us that she was native to the San Francisco Bay Area. I only wish the audience had been larger. Few people knew about the event and I was truly dismayed at the general lack of knowledge regarding Duncan’s contributions to American art.

Santa Cruz’s annual Dance Week festivities opened with a series of performances on four stages scattered around the downtown area. I managed one of the stages, a job which consisted of checking dancers in, taking their CDs and operating the player. I tried to announce and thank each group but without a proper mic, I doubt anyone heard me.

Most of the artists performed with their student companies and demonstrated the health of the Santa Cruz dance community. We saw Salsa Rueda, Tango, Hip Hop, Samba, Polynesian, African, Capoeira, Modern, and four bellydance groups. The most unusual forms included the very ancient Balinese Masked Gamelon (nearby UCSC has a South East Asian theater major) and the very new Hula Hoop dancers. The entire evening was capped off with a stilt-walking, roller-skating, fire-dancing group called Nocturnal Sunshine.

I didn’t make any of the open classes which included, in addition to the styles represented above, Zumba, Waltz, Swing, Contact Improv, Contemporary, and Ballet. Not represented at all in these events were some of the local folk groups like the English Country, Morris, and Balkan dancers. I’m telling you, Santa Cruz is a fantastic place to live for a dancer: small city ambiance; big city variety.

On Monday, May 4, I performed several North African folkloric dances as part of an afternoon Sampler of World Dance. Marlene Pitkow, Varvara Paizis, and I first performed this program a year ago at a local senior’s community. We were invited to perform it again, this year at the local synagogue, Temple Beth El. We each spoke briefly about the history and cultural context of the dances before we performed them. I performed an Egyptian beladi and assaya (cane), and a Saudi Arabian khaleeji. Varvara performed an uplifting West African-style dance; Marlene provided a rare glimpse at South India’s dance-drama Kathakali. Varvara and Marlene danced four Spanish sevillianas, a flamenco-like social dance. And we finished with an old Israeli folkdance, Ma Navu.



Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bellydance fusion: the differences that make a difference

Misty and Kerry, two of my favorite local dancers, were the featured artists at a local bellydance showcase. Both are in their early 30s (I think) and were debuting some new choreographies. They were lovely, charming, and skillful. Their choreography reflected a very new variety of bellydance, a fusion inspired by historical and contemporary images of female dancers from both the East and the West.
Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature.
This new hybrid doesn’t have a name yet. Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature. If there is a name, it would undoubtedly include a combination of terms like urban, tribal, American, or neo-gothic-burlesque. Tho its smaller roots are too idiosyncratic for me to identify, its main roots can be traced to American Tribal Style and its daughter, Urban Tribal Fusion (a phrase I have adopted but which is not generally agreed upon). I’d like to take this opportunity to describe for you how they differ, how they achieve that difference, and what effect those differences have on the dance.

All of these bellydance variants are combinations of Middle Eastern and North African movement idioms with North American urban aesthetics. American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS), a distinctive form of group improvisation, was created in the San Francisco Bay Area around 20 years ago. It is characterized by its high energy, free flowing movements. The weight is carried in the lower torso with movement and posture driven from the pelvis. It calls for a high, open, and proud sternum with arms unfolding from the center, stretching outward or upward to frame the body. The temporal quality of the movement is quick and its spatial qualities are direct and confident. Arms and torso isolations can explode dart-like at times, and at other times sweep smoothly in arcs. Their taxeem (slow, unpunctuated movements) flows freely at a low intensity, sustained but direct giving it its languid, smoldering character. Combined, these characteristics produce a powerful, driving, grounded persona; a proud and confident female. It is altogether a joyous dance to watch or participate in. ATS costumes are also distinctive and differ from all other belly dance styles. They consists of a heavy layering of brightly colored pantaloons, skirts, fringe, and coin belts (up to 5 or 6 layers) with heavy emphasis on jewelry and ornate headdress.

Gothic belly dance drew its first inspiration from the movements and costumes of ATS. This second generation began to infuse ATS with rave and goth cultural elements, including a fascination with vampires and early Hollywood vixens. In addition, they promoted an athleticism and flexibility that is fashionable in most contemporary dance. As a result, they have produced extraordinary technical combinations of rolls, flutters, shimmies, popping, and locking.

The first thing you notice in gothic bellydance is that the flamboyant, bright colors of ATS are abandoned in favor of black with silver accents, spiked jewelry, body piercings, and dreadlocks (real or fake). The daughters of ATS (gothic and urban tribal dancers) generally carry the same qualities of weight (grounded in the pelvis), time (both quick and languid), and space (direct) as their founding mothers. But where ATS dancers have a high, proud, open sternum, gothic bellydancers close off access by holding the center tightly and rotating the shoulders forward and in. Movements are controlled and cautious but reach out assertively and even aggressively. Small, sharp joint isolations punctuate the viscous circular motion of the arms, torso, head. The Fosse-like joint pops are like valves opening to release their charged energy. Then, as quickly as they open, they are abruptly locked off again. Their eyes challenge you, daring you to watch. The result is a highly charged, dramatic expression of feminine sexual power.

Because they use strong, quick, and direct movement qualities, both ATS and UTF present the feminine as a powerful force. This is no less true for the newest style that Misty and Kerry demonstrated. The vocabulary of movements is drawn from UTF but it is performed with more lightness. Instead of black and silver, they wear browns and antique whites. The popping and locking is there but now it is less threatening, more playful and flirtatious. Their faces and bodies express pleasure and invite the audience to watch and enjoy them openly. It is lighthearted and teasing, but the women are confident and in charge of their own bodies.

The differences that make a difference are often subtle. A simple rotation of the shoulder changes the mood from open and inviting to cautious and foreboding. Like Geertz’s wink. In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published a landmark essay in which he reflects on the difference between a involuntary twitch of the eye and a socially meaningful wink. The wink itself has multiple meanings (flirtation, conspiracy, sarcasm, et al), and requires interpretation of nearly invisible facial cues within a specific historical and cultural moment. Did she just twitch or was she sending me a message? Was the rotation of the shoulder merely bad technique or a meaningful gesture? In the case of successive generations of tribal bellydance, the shoulder gesture changes the entire mood and meaning of the dance.

It is not in the nature of dance to stay the same generation after generation. I love the following quote from the cover notes of an old Weavers LP. It explains the living nature of art:

“For the essential and living quality of folk music is that it is never ‘fixed’ in a scholar’s treatise or on a phonograph record; it is always growing and changing. It is at once the voice of the past and the vigorous voice of the present. It adapts itself to any voice or instrument. It can not only weather, but can profit from occasional changes of text, the addition of new verses, an inspired rhythmic alteration. And that is actually the way in which knew folk songs have traditionally grown out of old ones. Always, to folk singers, a ‘new song’ meant new words set to an old melody, and if in the process a new variant or curve of melody appeared, that seemed so natural a process that they hardly paid it any mind.”

Dance in America is having a growth spurt. Old styles are adapting to new people with a rate of change that I have never witnessed. Funk, punk, hip hop, Broadway jazz, flamenco, bharatya natyam, Vegas showgirl, neo-burlesque, 19th century femme fatales, and Roaring Twenties flappers: these are just a few of the sources that inspire and inflect today’s bellydance. How far they can push this and still retain something recognizable as bellydance, is an open question. So for now, I say sit back and enjoy the show. It has never been so spectacular.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Passing of one of America's Great Dance Pioneers: Frankie Manning

You have probably never heard of Frankie Manning but you have seen his work. He was one of the original Lindy Hoppers of the Savoy Ballroom in 1930s Harlem. He was a performer, choreographer, and teacher of swing dance. Read more in the NYT obit and be sure to view the link to Hellsapoppin' for the swingingest Lindy on record.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle, senior moments, and other stuff I’ve been thinking about

I hope you’re not sick of Susan Boyle yet because I have to share it again. She has blown the music industry open. The entire incident revealed how completely intertwined the music and beauty industry have become. You must have noticed that contemporary singers are Barbie clones: skinny, skinny, and at least passing pretty. I’ll bet there are hundreds of Susan Boyles out there, and I for one am tired of being denied their gifts because they aren’t pretty enuff for “The Industry.” Screw them.

It would be all to easy to become cynical about Ms Boyle. The media can suck the life out of anything. But this unexpected, wonderfully surprising event in the midst of widespread social failure should be savored, not perverted. We are undergoing tremendous change in our social, cultural, economic, political structures. Its painful and its confusing. Why not take pleasure from the few moments of relief afforded us. In that spirit, here’s a wonderful dance video.


Senior moment:
I don’t know when I turned 57. Oh, I know the date of my birth but it turns out I’m not 57. I only found out by accident. I was at a doctor’s office reviewing my records and I pointed out that they had me as 56 and 11 months but I’m 57 and 11 months. We did the math: May 1952 from May 2009…56 and 11 months. Sometime in the past year, I added a year. How the hell did I do that? I know I’m a pessimist but really. So I’ve decided to take a do over. I’ll be 56 for 2009 then I’ll turn 58 in 2010…or maybe 55. Benjamin Button effect and all that.

A few words about technology and experience:
1. I have no photos to show you of my SITA performance. I don't know if anyone in the audience took snapshots. I had only a few personal friends there so no one had any compelling reason to take a picture of me. And that's okay with me. Here’s why.

A few weeks ago my husband and I drove down to Big Sur which is about a two hour drive south of where we live. Big Sur is one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and I'm not kidding. It's something that everyone should see. You can't help but pull out your camera and go snap-happy taking pictures: and it's hard to take a bad picture at Big Sur. (See example.) Its even more fun with the digital cameras because you can just click away without worrying about whether or not you're really getting anything good. It’s so easy, in fact, that taking pictures can become compulsive, a compulsion I try to moderate. Because if you don't stop and look, your experience will be completely mediated by the technology. As soon as I got home I uploaded my photos onto my computer and admired the nice pictures that I got. Later that evening, I realized that what I remembered of my trip to Big Sur were images from the photographs and not the place itself.

So when I realized that I would have no friends in the audience at Cypress Raks to take pictures of me performing, I also realized that that would mean that my experience of dancing would not be mediated by any photographs of me dancing or any video clips of me dancing. I danced. That was then. The next dance is to come. And I’m just as glad to leave it that way.

2. iPods as rehearsal source. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am learning how to hear music in a new way. As a result of anxiety and a lower level of development, I struggle to have a bodily experience of the music itself when I’m dancing. But I wonder if my listening-in-the-moment troubles are also affected by the fact that I've done a lot of my rehearsing listening thru my iPod.

The iPod is a very practical instrument for practicing. I can load only one piece of music and let it repeat over and over, playing directly into my head. It doesn't disturb my husband and whatever is he might be doing. And the music is so intimate it is easy to hear and discern musical layers. It is then easier to respond in movement. But then when I get out on the stage, the music seems remote shifting in and out of my awareness. So I wonder if using the iPod becomes a detriment to my ability to listened to music when it is physically remote.

I’d love to hear what you all think about these random thots.

Monday, April 6, 2009

My SITA Chapter 7: Solo Improvised Dance at Bellydance Showcase

I finally did my SITA performance at Cypress Raks, a bellydance showcase for local dancers. I'd done my work. I’d studied, watched, listened, practiced. I performed for my friends, at a local senior center, and at the open floor opportunities at festivals and showcases. Each performance improved my ability to improvise a balanced and entertaining solo. And even though there were a few moments leading up to this performance when I hoped I'd accidentally drop a cast-iron skillet on my foot, mostly I was excited about it. I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure I was listening and responding to the music, take time to feel my space, remember that I have some technique that I can rely on, and interact with the audience.

I spent the day primping, reviewing the DVD Secrets of the Stage Volume 3, and watching NCAAW basketball (where you can see many fantastic athletic improvisations). Once again I found Secrets of the Stage very inspiring and helpful. Amira’s performance is just simple and graceful and beautiful. Nanna performs a wonderful style that I've ever seen before; it may be something of her own. Its flat-footed and bouncy and I have become completely charmed by its folky style. And Shoshanna, with that curvy, hourglass figure just feeling thru her space ecstatically. I felt ready.

I headed down to the Cypress Lounge, located in downtown Santa Cruz. The place was formerly and more famously known as the Javah House, which was, at least during my time at graduate school, the place to drink coffee, meet TAs, or study. The current owners have maintained the locale’s very friendly, open atmosphere. Its somewhat cavernous architecture helps this as well. For this event they pushed the dinner tables back into several long rows opening up a good size space. There was also space along the front of the counter facing several luxurious lounging couches arranged for good viewing. There was no shortage of space in any direction so it was also a good stage for dancing with veil or Isis wings. Next to a small passage that leads to the restrooms, they set up a wooden screen where the dancers could change and have a place to wait before or after their performance.

I was third in a very diverse lineup. Tatseena and Zurah Malika, cabaret-style soloists, opened. I was followed by the amazing Raks Araby, a modern, urban style with Crystal, Amber, and Jessica. Then came Rebecca and Julia who performed with veils, Tribal Moon (American Tribal Style), and finally our hostess, Aruba, who finished the evening. As I sat on a barstool watching the other soloists, I scoped out the space. My eye caught the corner of one of the couches and I thought, Well that's just a prop waiting to be leaned on. It called for something luxurious and sultry. I saw too, that the wooden screen by the performer’s area had potential for something playful.

For my music I decided to use Bela Fleck’s Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, a light and very playful jazz piece with banjo and harmonica. I had been bellydancing for about a year when I first heard this music and knew instantly that I wanted to dance to it; I just had to figure out how. At that time I didn't have enough technique or confidence to attempt it, but my time had come. And even after so many years, the music is still so much fun. It appeals to the ham in me and expresses humor, a characteristic that is very important to me and my heritage.

I'm not sure I could describe what I did. I was dancing so I wasn't really trying to remember anything, plus I enjoyed a little 420 and a glass of wine before I went on. One of my strengths is my musicality. I like to respond to the music, mimicking it in my body in some way. It feels right to me to parallel the sounds that the musicians are making. This audience seemed to appreciate my ability to hit a percussive moment with a hip pop or to undulate to the melody.

The moment I put my hand on the couch I heard people making complimentary oohs and ahhs. So I knew I could play with that as much as I wanted and I did. I stretched out along the curved arm, reclined, threw in a little hand floreo in the air. As the music wound down I headed for the wooden screen, executed some flirtatious looks, and exited with a vaudeville-like disappearance behind the screen.

Afterwards, I sat behind the wooden screen with my performance left out on the floor and the audience applauding and the next group getting ready to go on, and I felt overwhelmed with joy and pleasure and satisfaction. I'd really, really let myself go; I went for it and I did it and tears came to my eyes.

Later I told Aruba (and everyone else I spoke to) that it was one of the best performance experiences of my life and that I was totally hooked. I can't wait to try it again and I promise that I will out there at every opportunity. I feel like I am only at the beginning, that I have so much to develop, so much more that I can learn to do. And it's a really a wonderful thing to be in my late 50s looking forward to developing myself as a dancer instead of back at what I once did. It was all quite liberating.