Everything Was Beautiful At the Ballet--I mean--BELLY...no. Bella.
Life...Crap...Dookie...Problems...Issssssues that cling to your ass, year after year after decade like dingleberries stuck to the dog's butt no matter how far he drags it across the kitchen, leaving that icky streak on the tiles...
"But everything is beautiful at the ballet
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white
Yes, everything is beautiful at the ballet...hey...
I was happy/pretty/Daddy, I would love to dance...
At the ballet."
~A Chorus Line
When I was young, I wanted to be on Broadway. Did you know that? Hollywood would have been a great alternative, but I don't have the right temperament. We'll come back to that, because my shift from theater to dance is a pivotal step in the story. (har-har) Yet here I am, a quarter-century later, coming back to everything I learned in musicals and plays, and applying it to my dancing, teaching, writing.
I got to take a fabulous weekend of workshops in Tulsa recently. One of the main themes: expression in dance.
DaVid of Scandinavia is such a lovely dancer, a lovely person, and an inspiring instructor. We had met back in...2010? Viktoria, one of my Temptation of BD Sistars RIP, had invited a group of us out to Salt Lake City for a festival. David and I hit it off right away. Alas, I didn't get to study with him then because we were both teaching.
He has such a different style from mine. Ahhhh...elegance, a more gentle and masterful control, and a subtlety of movement you might not call subtlety for the immense personality that pours out of him. That's one of the things he taught in Tulsa. I loved every moment of his instruction.
And I spent the second workshop with unstoppable tears coursing down my face. Not tears of joy. Not at all.
Hissss...meh. It happens.
Usually it happens when I'm learning from a really great teacher. A deep teacher. A passionate teacher who pulls no punches while inspiring you to previously unimagined feats. And he does it all in such a disarming, personable, sometimes hilarious way. Dude is really funny!
And powerful. Obviously, if he can bring the Emoto-Queen to full stop during the workshop specifically focused on the layer of expression. No, seriously. It's very rare that I freeze in a dance workshop. I almost never experience that petrified "if I don't move, they won't see me" reaction in my primary artistic medium.
Well done, sir. Well struck.
So...no shit, there I was. We'd spent the first workshop having our minds blown open by the deceptively simple concept of, "Every dance step is really just a weight change at its most fundamental."
*mushroom cloud...Bill & Ted WHOOOA...Spock eyebrow...Fascinating*
Then he wanted us to Just Dance. And then Just Dance and Emote. No problem, right? I love to improvise. I am the eternal ham. I bleed emotion through my sweat and leave an expressive trail of myself across dance floors like unicorn poop. It's like glitter, man. It, too, happens.
But not that day.
The isssssue started with the music. I swoon for sweeping, orchestral Middle Eastern music. I lurve earthy Saiidi. I adore Egyptian pop and all the other pieces he played. There wasn't a song I had to suck up until it was done.
And I HATE dancing to it now. I hadn't realized my depth of detestation until that Saturday afternoon. Will I dance to it in my living room? You betcha! In all my sweeping, emotive glory. But let anyone see it anymore? HELLS NO. I'd rather gnaw off my big toes.
You can probably guess why. Whenever that music comes on, all I can see are his narrowed eyes peering at me down his nose, and her pursed lips shouting, "Ew!" louder than any of her snooty, eviscerating words. All I can hear is, "Your arms are horrible," and "Your hands are horrible," and "Your hips are horrible," and "Your--you know what? Just stop dancing. No, stop. Right now. Here, let me stop the music in the middle of your train wreck. You're a mortifying, disgraceful, disrespectful, bastardizing, too-skinny, too-muscular motherfucking hack who is only allowed to dance because you're here in this little metropolis in the sticks, but you'd never make it on either of the coasts so you really should just slink offstage with your head on the carpet and are you EVER going to do anything in the theme of this show because belly dancers are supposed to be SEXY!"
That's what lives in little body. I'm sure you have your own peanut gallery of doom. Honestly, it's amazing that I ever stuck with belly dance. With dance in general, but especially with belly dance.
David gave this amazing mini-lecture in the middle of that second class about the freedom this dance affords us. "Okay," he says, turning off the music. "I see a bunch of pretty-pretty princesses. Where are the WOMEN?" And he goes off about all the bullshit and damage heaped onto the feminine psyche.
If you wear this you're a slut.
If you do that you're a whore.
If you don't look like this you're ugly.
Don't you dare do this, that, those, or especially this thing over here because your tits and your vagina ensure that you have no right so you should be snuffed out or at least mutilated or at the very least mentally and emotionally mutilated for even thinking you can.
AND BELLY DANCE SETS US FREE FROM ALL THAT!
David is far more elegant about the way he puts it. In just about everything he does, he's far more elegant than I am--boot-tromping, sewer-mouthed sledgehammer that is me. It's one of the many reasons I was so excited to study with him, and now I can't fucking move!
His gorgeous, elegant students are all around me. Some of them are my friends. Some study with me, too, and it doesn't matter. I need a safe-space. I need my woobie. I really, really need a punching bag!
Because I've had the exact opposite experience from what he's describing.
There was a reason why I chose belly dance over every form on the planet. There was a reason why I made it my career. There was a reason why I abandoned my classical Western training after college in favor of this style. (In truth, I mentally abandoned it during college because of the way many of my instructors and peers reacted to this dance form creeping its serpentine tentacles into every choreography I made.)
At my first class, these movements WERE freedom. After taking ballet and modern, it was like I could fully breathe for the first time since I was that little girl, closing the living room curtains for fifteen minutes every morning, squeezing out that last millisecond of glorious dance time before I had to scurry to the war zone--I mean, school.
Because Everything Is Beautiful At the Ballet.
Until they find out that you've been corrupted by those dastardly belly dancers. I needed the corruption. I need the shackles broken. I needed everything that David was talking about, and belly dance delivered. It started to heal my fractured, stunted heart. It started to heal my deep and crippling feminine wounds. It started to heal my sexual trauma.
You can't draw circles and infinities with your body, over and over and over, and not have it blast transformation into your every cell. I mean, you can, but not if you draw those shapes the way I do--with your whole heart, mind, spirit, breath, and being.
Belly dance transformed me.
And belly dancers crushed me.
And one more time until I fucking hated dancing to that music--no, of course, #NotAllBellyDancers. Merely the most crucial instructors, mentors, and some trusted "friends."
I miss that music. I miss a whole lot of things about belly dance. Things that were healing me cell-deep. Things that were healing other people cell-deep. Things that my psychic friends said were opening other things that neurotypical individuals don't see. (I don't say "can't" because who knows what they're actually capable of.)
All these hand movements so many people ooh-and-aah over, and that get me into black sheep trouble? I've been doing them since before I ever saw my first Bollywood movie. Since I had ever heard of flamenco. I have no bloody idea where they came from. I just...did them.
I don't anymore.
Correction. I am beginning to again. I'm beginning to thaw my arms and hands and breath from where I shoved it all into the tupperware container in the back of the freezer with the labels,
"Don't You Fucking DARE!"
"How DARE You, Bastardizing, Disrespectful Hack?!"
It's that word that does me in.
Call me horrible? Meh. Practice cures that. Call me awful? Pffft. Opinions are like assholes. They warrant the eye-batting, dismissive David-Thank-You. Call me a bastardizing hack? I absolutely am. Proudly so. That's exactly what I do: I hack up every art form I've ever done and I glue it all together into something else. I am a devotee of Bruce Lee, after all.
But call me disrespectful and you'll gut me.
I shouldn't have typed that out here for all the flamers and the trollz to read. ;P
It's this misunderstanding that finally did me in. That and others like that one horrid review I got--"I wish her Indian Fusion had had more Indian dance in it..." Yeah, no shit! You and me both, sister! That dance was mislabeled by my producer, and by the time I found out about it--while watching the final cut--it was too late. And you just don't talk smack about your producer in the middle of launching a show.
I'll have a lot more to say about the conditions of that show, now that we're more than a decade out from it. I'll have a lot to say about whole lot of things that I experienced in the grand belly dance fishbowl, in the privacy of my own home, on the martial mat, and some other places that are touted as "safe spaces."
"You're Going To Have To Save Yourself." That's what's etched into the rubber bracelet on my wrist right now. It's a theme lately. In fact, it's one of the most fundamental themes of my life, and now that I'm here in my woodland refuge, no longer having to wear the gleaming, professional smile, no longer having to work with individuals who have done some truly awful things to me and to people I love and to whole slews of people I don't know...
No. Everything isn't beautiful at the ballet, any more than it is at the belly. But when something lives within us at such a foundational and cell-inspiring, soul-infused level, we just can't quit. That's how dance is for me. And writing. And martial arts.
Get knocked down eight times, get back up...
It's all intertwined in me. Belly dance tentacles infiltrate my ballet. Jazz mucks up my belly dance. Tap fucks up my flamenco. I will never stop dancing with my face and you can't make me "do it right." I've never said I was traditional anything or tried to authenticate my art with something other than my heart. People simply love what I do enough to want to learn how, too, and other people kept inviting me onto their stages. I always warn that I'm a fusion artist. Other people omit that when advertising me, or they advertise me incorrectly. It's one of the main reasons I have a torn meniscus right now.
And I'm not willing to strangle myself into silence anymore.
Am I shooting myself in the foot, just as I'm creating a new online school? Yup. There will be people who are offended and mortified and blah and yada by the beans I'm starting to spill, and right now my income is no longer dependent on them. My ability to consume food is no longer intertwined with people who punch me. My human-contact-and-touch tank is no longer being filled by people who shove me out windows.
So, thank you, dearest David! It is a really good instructor who can crack open a bristling fortress like that of the Ice Queen. (Yeah. That is actually one of my longtime nicknames, if you can believe that from the Fire Sign.) Every one of those tears that ran down my face in that workshop is a tale. No matter how tragic, ragey or angsty, they all have their silver linings. I've begun to write about them on here, and to create fledgling art about them elsewhere.
But the hard shell you broke open that day was this longterm silence about my experiences in dance.
I have known for a long time that I have deep dance trauma. I've also known that I have rape and domestic violence and female body trauma. What I hadn't known until I froze in that workshop was how intertwined they are. That the former had stopped the healing of the latter in its tracks and shoved me face-first onto the martial arts track instead, when I started having to defend myself from dancers, too.
All of that's swinging back full circle now. Things are cracking open left and right. It's time. It's time for a lot of things.
*shrug* I needed to write the blog post series about "What Is All This BellaDancer and Beastie Nonsense, Anyway?" They go hand in hand. Untangling all these intertwined spools of thread in the box helps me answer that question for myself. Because the online school I'm building isn't merely a dance school. I've known that for a long time.
Now putting an exact label on what it IS? That's the trickier part. That's the adventure.
Bella Means "Beautiful"
and I still love my belly dance costumes
Photo by Beth Shell