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)

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.

On being in community

There’s just something about ATS® dancers.  We’re a big, close-knit community, a worldwide extended family. Cues and Tattoos felt like a family reunion.  And I think Homecoming will feel even more wonderful.

We all have personalities and opinions, and it’s ok to let those unique stars shine. When ATS® works well, it’s a beautiful coming-together of diverse people who share a common passion. We all trust each other, and we all have to trust ourselves.  (Go read Wendy Allen’s essay on Trust, ATS® style for why it’s important to trust yourself.)

tribal-reacharound

The community does break down sometimes.  I’ve seen it happen in dance communities all over the world.  Here are two of the reasons why it happens.

1. Jealousy. We have feelings about other dancers’ successes and opportunities.  It happens.

However, if you think other students are advancing because they are sucking up or kissing ass, you are wrong. They’re advancing because they’re working harder, showing up, being easy and fun to work with, and generally devoting more of their time, energy, and focus to the dance than you are.

Consider this: there is a difference between jealousy (I’m afraid you will take an opportunity from me) and envy (I want something you have, but I’m glad you have it).

Envy has the potential to be a much more positive, supportive emotion than jealousy. But did you catch the definition of jealousy? At its heart, it’s about fear. And if you’re so afraid that someone will take something from you, consider what that says about you.

2. Entitlement. We think we are owed an opportunity for some reason.

Here’s the thing: I don’t care how long you’ve been dancing, or what other dance styles you know — or even how good you are. If you think you are entitled to anything, you are wrong.

And the more you act entitled, the fewer opportunities you will get.  No one wants to work with someone who thinks the world owes them something.

We all have these feelings. We all have feelings of jealousy, entitlement, and so on.  That’s ok; we’re human, and emotions are part of the human experience.  What’s critical, though, to live and dance in community is to acknowledge them for what they are and let them go.

We need to release these things to be in community with other dancers. And the more we release our egos and enter into the dance with an open, inquisitive mind, the better dancers we become, and the more opportunities avail themselves to us.

My point is this: get over your own ego. Get out of your own way.  Stop worrying about other people, and worry about yourself.  Work on your own technique. Be easy to work with.

These things build community, and they build joy. And who doesn’t want that?

This is hard sometimes.  I struggle with this too, and it’s  not always easy to come to the studio with an open, inquisitive heart. Sometimes, I honestly need a break from the studio so I can take care of my own needs first.  And sometimes, if I’m feeling ungrounded, it’s a little too easy to get caught up in the swirling whirlwind of others’ egos.  It’s necessary sometimes to take a step back.

What tools or techniques do you use to release your ego?  In what ways do you build up, rather than break down our community?  I invite you to share in the comments below.