On building an ATS® troupe

So you’re a teacher, and you’d like to create a troupe for your students or dance partners. How do you decide who’s in and who’s out?

FatChanceBellyDance®, as an example, famously doesn’t audition its members. Your “audition” starts the moment you walk into your first Level 1 class, and continues throughout your study. Many ATS troupes around the globe follow this model unquestioningly.

But this approach to troupe-building is deeply problematic, and as a community we need to do better. This model discourages clear communication, censures ambition and promotes dishonesty, and creates an environment ripe for gossip and discrimination.

Let’s break it down.

1. This approach discourages clear communication

In the “always auditioning” model, the guidelines for inviting new dancers into the troupe are rarely, if ever, clear – sometimes even to the troupe leader. Dancers who get invited demonstrate some combination of skill, commitment, personality, and perhaps other traits.

Because the “audition” guidelines are never shared, students are continually compared against an unclear standard. They may unwittingly fail without ever being told why. And worse, they are being tested without their awareness or consent.

Contrast this approach with the working world. The best companies encourage clear communication between managers and employees. If an employee is doing well, she knows why, so she can keep doing it. If an employee is having performance problems, the manager addresses these problems early, directly, and frequently, with the assumption that the employee is capable of changing behavior and ultimately succeeding.

Without this shared value of clear communication, the employee will fail, because she is never given the opportunity to improve.

Which would you rather have – a culture of secrecy, or open and transparent guidelines about how to get to the next level?

As a troupe leader, know this: People can’t read your mind, and you shouldn’t expect them to. ATS® as an art form involves interpreting many subtle cues, but you should never expect mind-reading.

2. This approach censures ambition and promotes dishonesty

At FCBD®, my experience was this: The moment a dancer expressed an interest in joining the professional troupe or becoming a teacher, that was the moment it was guaranteed she wouldn’t. Anyone who showed ambition was immediately painted as a “diva,” or sometimes “uppity.”

(For those not aware: “Uppity” is a deeply racially-charged word. Historically, it’s been used to disparage ambitious Black people. When you use this word to disparage someone’s ambition, you are participating in a racist dialogue. My heart sunk when I heard someone I respected describe another dancer in this way.)

This name-calling encourages dishonesty from the most advanced students. Some people are genuinely goal-oriented, and I guarantee there are dancers in your advanced classes who wish to join the professional troupe. If you discourage them from stating their goals out loud, you are encouraging them to lie to you and themselves.

Again, contrast this with the working world. At a company with a healthy culture, if I’d like a promotion, the steps to requesting it are clear:

  1. Express to my manager that I’d like to advance in my career.
  2. Ask her for help in creating a clear path forward, including skill development and opportunities to practice those skills.
  3. Actively work towards the promotion, and re-assess after a time period.

If I succeed in meeting my goals, and the company has the availability to promote me, we move forward.

Students come to dance classes for many reasons; exercise, de-stress, the atmosphere. The most advanced students are advanced for a reason: they have goals and are willing to work towards them. This motivation has to be okay if you want healthy group dynamics.

3. This approach encourages gossip

The “always auditioning” model creates an environment where troupe members are encouraged to talk about potential members. They’re explicitly invited to speculate not only on technique, but also perceived motivation, family life, and personality traits.

Because the student is participating in an audition, not a conversation, the troupe members do not discuss these things with her; they judge her solely on their perceptions. She is never given the opportunity to offer her perspective, or counter the troupe’s speculations.

This is gossip, and is unhealthy.

4. This approach promotes discrimination

We all have implicit biases. I know we’d like to think we’re judging our fellow dancers based solely on skill, but we’re human beings, and that makes us fallible.

When you as a troupe leader don’t create clear advancement guidelines, you don’t create structure to combat your implicit bias. Your troupe will wind up sharing most of your demographics, and then your implicit bias becomes entrenched and institutionalized.

I’m not only thinking about race, of course. Perhaps your professional troupe is multiracial, but is made up entirely of cisgender women over 40. Perhaps the group has people from many age groups, but none are parents. Or perhaps the group doesn’t have any members who have full-time office jobs.

Wouldn’t a greater diversity of thought create better art? The only way to create that diversity is to have clear guidelines to combat implicit bias.


All of that said, there is one benefit to the “always auditioning” model. As a troupe leader, you know that your prospective member is easy to work with and deeply skilled. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re bringing into the troupe. You may even like them. And because they’re “always auditioning,” they’re never allowed to make a mistake.

But the downsides of this approach far outweigh that benefit. Instead, if you want to build a professional troupe and a class environment with positive, healthy dynamics, look to the working world. There are companies with good, supportive cultures that encourage clear communication. Learn how they do it, and apply it to your dance life.

The bigger picture.

In a few short weeks, I’ll once again be helping to run ATS® Homecoming, an event that gathers the American Tribal Style® community together here in San Francisco. I’ll be running the registration table with Cat Ellen and a few dedicated volunteers; please stop by to say hello when you pick up your name tag.

And come to my workshops! There’s three workshops over the course of the weekend, with room in all:

Many of you have asked after me, and I appreciate it. For me, this event will be bittersweet and hard. A few months ago I was coldly “suspended” from the FatChanceBellyDance teaching collective, with no advance notice or conversation, and with no clear or realistic path to reinstatement. Further, when I announced this, I was subsequently publicly gaslighted when representatives from the collective falsely told the community that it was my choice to leave.

As someone who manages people in my day job, I have a lot to say on how to fire someone with grace, class, and dignity, but for now I’ll say: this ain’t it. All of this bitterness and anger on both sides could have been avoided if someone from FatChance had simply reached out to me first.

But you know what? As a community, we have bigger problems than petty interpersonal crap. We are living in a scary political time, when global nationalism is sweeping the USA and other countries.

Our art form may be uniquely American, but it has its roots in social dances from the Middle East. In addition to the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, many in the Middle East belong to a religion that our incoming government has publicly maligned, leading to intensifying, more public discrimination and violence against our neighbors here at home.

These are frightening times.  The world is painful and scary, and many of us — especially white women — are only just now waking up to how painful and scary it is.

As artists inspired by the Middle East and India, we could just sit back and make art. We could send “thoughts and prayers” to Syria while we lavish ourselves with pounds of antique jewelry from that region. We could set our intentions for global healing as we make art and hope that somehow this changes the world outside of our own heads.

Unfortunately, the most effective currency we have to make change, even as artists, is still currency. Money. While it’s important to support the artists in our community who make costuming and jewelry, or the teachers sharing their knowledge, we need to act in other ways too. Here’s where I’m sending my currency: The American Civil Liberties UnionInternational Rescue CommitteeIslamic Relief USA. And there are so many other organizations worthy of our financial support.

If you have the financial ability to do so, I invite you to join me. The challenges we are facing as a community are bigger than any of us. And they are real, and tangible, and our response should be too.

A new chapter: returning to my roots.

In the early 2000s, I was living in an unfamiliar town, without a lot of friends or family, and was profoundly lonely. I stepped into a group improv bellydance class and found — community. Joy. Support. It was life-changing. And so when I moved across the country to Maine, one of the first things I did was find a bellydance class; I knew exactly how to find community.

As I matured in my dance, and as I grew closer to the the source of ATS®, that focus changed, little by little. Distractions began to pile up.

First it was the obsession with the costume: not just a belt, but the right belt. Not just a skirt, but the right skirt. Ten yards or more, please. And then the makeup: not that lipstick, it’s too neutral. Your bindi isn’t big enough. You need to fix your eyeshadow. Paint your nails. Your eyebrows aren’t right. And the jewelry, oh, the endless jewelry.

(A confession: I despise wearing so much jewelry.)

And then it was the technique, even beyond the quest for perfection: am I doing this right? Is my elbow at exactly the right angle? Is her elbow at exactly the right angle? Should I dance with someone who doesn’t have great technique? Will someone tell me if don’t have great technique? Will someone tell me directly if I’m doing something wrong?

And finally, and most pernicious, the obsession with hierarchy. What are the guidelines for advancing to the next level? Who’s in the troupe, and who’s out?  What are the rules for getting in? Who’s good enough? Who has the wrong attitude? Who has the certifications, who’s approved to teach? Who can successfully intuit the ever-changing unspoken rules?

I’m ashamed and sad to say that I got caught up in this culture, because I thought it was necessary to support the ATS® brand. No more.

All of these distractions from the reason I started dancing have built up to this:

I’m no longer part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching collective. This was not by my choice, and I’ll save the story for in-person conversations. This heartbreaking shift has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship with dance, what I want out of it, and whether I will choose to continue.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: I want to remember why I started doing this in the first place. I want to go back to the beginning.

The most important thing for me in dance — beyond technique, beyond spectacle, beyond performativity — is connection. I cherish my connections with the worldwide ATS® community. That is the root of why I do this, and that is where I will focus as I move forward.

Speaking of roots: “community” and “communication” share the same linguistic root. We can’t build community if we are hesitant or afraid to communicate freely, honestly, and authentically. With open, compassionate hearts. Fearlessly.

I want to dance with people who are fearless communicators, on and off the dance floor.

I want to dance with people who are bighearted, generous, and kind.

I want to dance with people who only expect mind-reading when we’re dancing together.

I want dance partners who find the good in their fellow dancers. I want dance partners who open up communication instead of shutting it down.

I want to dance with people who don’t care about hierarchy. I want dance partners who prioritize joyful connection. I want dance partners who know that our art form isn’t a sorority, it’s a method of communication.

I want to work with community builders.

So, what does this mean in practice?

I’m still devoted to American Tribal Style® bellydance, as created by Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman and FatChanceBellyDance®. I love the strength, the beauty, and especially the connection that having a clear shared dance language enables. I respect Carolena and her brand, and will continue to support her artistic vision to the best of my ability, as I have for many years.

And I will still be teaching at ATS® Homecoming in January 2017, and offering SSCE at least at that event and perhaps beyond.

I will not be teaching regular classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are enough excellent teachers here, and I respect the local teachers who rely on dance for their income.

However, I will happily travel to teach workshops. I love working with the global community. It’s also important to me to keep the workshops affordable for the communities in which I offer them; reach out to me if you’d like to talk logistics.

Additionally, I don’t want to run my dance career as a business any more; I only want to support the worldwide ATS® community. To that end, any funds I earn will go to charity, or to support your local dance community.

And if you live in the Bay Area — or are visiting — and you share my goals, consider this an invitation to come dance with me. In my living room, in yours, in a studio, or in the street. Come back to the roots with me, and let’s focus on connection and communication.

Come dance with me in joyful community.

 

(Photo credit: Don Labit Design)

The end of an era

I first came to 670 S. Van Ness in April of 2010. I was visiting from Maine, in town for General Skills. I remember walking down 18th, turning left at the Whiz Burger and rounding the corner onto South Van Ness, and slowly realizing… I was not alone. There was a group of women, different ages, sizes, faces, wearing skirts and cholis, congregating in the driveway as if they belonged there.

And they did, of course. They were all just early. Carolena arrived – what a presence! – and opened the door to the Mothership.

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That was the beginning. Since then, I’ve been there countless times, connecting with other dancers and connecting with my own body and my own heart. This is a sacred, transformative space. And I’m only one of the newest people to participate.

Fast forward six years. There have been twists and turns, friends gained and lost, and countless connections forged in this space. I have met new friends from around the world; I have danced with people who barely spoke English. I have calloused my aching feet on that famous squeaky floor.

I never aspired to teach as part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching faculty. Really. I wanted to work hard and refine my technique, and if I happened to be invited, I would have welcomed it gladly. But it was never an aspiration.

I’ve been part of the teaching faculty for two years now. What a gift. For people in this community, it’s the ultimate honor: to teach at the Mothership.

Today, I taught my last classes in this space.

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Forgive the blurriness. It was humid today in the studio and I hadn’t wiped off the lens.

We’re not stopping, of course. We’re moving next door for a while, and will be expanding into additional spaces in the Bay Area soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not bittersweet to leave this transformative, beautiful space.

Farewell, Mothership. Here’s to the next evolution.

A meditation on body love.

I’ve never been a small person, in any dimension.

I’m tall and muscular, not petite or skinny. My shoulders are broad, and I don’t fit in a lot of clothing made for women. My arms and legs are long; when I buy tailored shirts or long-sleeve cholis, sometimes they barely cover my elbows. And skinny jeans?  Forget it. They barely fit over my calves. I take up space.

Bracelets made for dancers’ upper arms? Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can wear them on my forearms.  I’m not kidding.  I’ve seen my troupemates wear the same bracelet on their biceps that I wear as a bangle.

Sometimes I find this discouraging, but this is how I’m built. I’ll never be petite.

In my non-dance life, I’ve been going to a truly wonderful gym with truly wonderful trainers and community, and I’ve been lifting heavy things and building muscle. Just this week, I deadlifted my own bodyweight (and trust me, that’s a significant number).

And this morning, despite the number on the scale, I’m grateful that I have a strong body, a reasonably flexible body.  Not all of us are so lucky.

Today, I celebrate my ability to lift heavy things, shake my shoulders and hips, wear and shimmy with two skirts with ease, build a hair garden of epic proportions and not have it look out of place. Today I celebrate that ATS® looks good on my body, just as it looks good on every other body around the world.

The hair garden of epic proportions. Backstage at TF 15.

The hair garden of epic proportions. Backstage at TF 15.

What do you celebrate about your body today?

We are all “real” bellydancers.

So, I’ve joined a gym. I go through this phase from time to time, where I’m feeling like I’m not in touch with my body, not moving in the ways I want to be moving, not feeling like I’m as strong as I’d like to be.  And it’s good!  I’m delightfully sore all the time, and I’m enjoying the way my body is changing and getting stronger.

One thing I love about the gym I just joined is that they explicitly celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes. No matter where you are on your fitness journey, they’re happy to see you exercising, getting strong, moving your body.  They don’t shame you or tell you you’re overweight, or not good enough; they just push you to be better. It’s a really positive (and butt-kicking!) experience to go there.  There’s no competition except with yourself, and the trainers are loving and patient.

When dance class is good, it’s the same way. There are natural variations in our sizes, shapes, and flexibility levels, and there are variations from day to day, and we all need to work with the bodies we’re given today, in this moment.  We all strive to be more skilled and expressive, but the only real competition is with ourselves.  Not all of us can do a back bend or floorwork, or hold a plank for five minutes, or do ten burpees in a row, and that’s okay.  We don’t have to match someone else’s arbitrary standard of thinness or flexibility.

The nature of ATS® is that it works on many different bodies.  The standard costume and the new Bessie skirt look good on bodies of many different shapes and sizes.  (Go check out the super cute fashion show to see the new line in action!)  And because the costume is flattering on so many different shapes, we get to focus on the joy of building community and creating art.

Audiences, too, are inspired by seeing dancers of different shapes and sizes and ages and races and whatever – all celebrating their bodies moving together. They love witnessing a social, community-based experience that is welcoming and expansive.

This is not a call for sloppy technique, however.  Work your body. Get stronger and more flexible. Practice, and come to class, so you can execute movements with skill and precision, and be a better dance partner.

It is a call to love your body where it’s at, today.  That will let you focus on the artistry and community you’re engaging with.  Build yourself up, and build up your dance partners.

The hardest part is showing up.

Photo by Don Labit Design.  Jewelry by NakaRali.

Photo by Don Labit Design. Jewelry by NakaRali.

So, this summer, I:

  • went to Maine to teach some workshops;
  • started a new day job, where a lot more is expected of me;
  • took a family camping trip to Yosemite; and
  • got married!

I hope I am forgiven for being relatively absent from the dance studio (and this blog) for a few months.  I’ve had a bit going on.

I admit: It’s hard to get back to the dance studio after a hiatus.

But good gracious, it feels good!  It feels good to move my body in these ways that are so familiar. It feels good to connect with my community again, and it feels good to sweat and pulse and breathe with other dancers.

Here’s what doesn’t feel good: I’ve lost some technique. I’ve lost some sharpness. I’ve lost muscle in my upper back. I’ve even lost some language — my first class back, I couldn’t remember the name for Circle Step!  And I’ve been doing this for over a decade!  How embarrassing.

While it’s awkward and weird to come back after a hiatus, it just highlights for me the importance of regular technique practice.  Those of you who are teachers, how often are you able to work on your own technique?  Those of you who are advanced dancers, when’s the last time you went back to Level 1?  When was the last time you took a private lesson?  With the summer over, it’s a nice time to come back to basics.

Moral of the story: Get your butt back to class, especially if you’ve been away for a while, or have lightened your dance practice for the summer.   We have to take the time to focus on these things, or else we lose form and technique. Come back. The dance misses you.