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