THE GREAT "WHITE BELLY DANCER" WAR OF 2014 - And How It Finished Off My Career
Updated: Feb 15
In May 2013, I had a seizure onstage. It was just one of those little blip-of-a-seizures, but in the middle of a dance, a blip is a big deal. One minute I was whirling under the stage lights at my annual festival in Durango, CO.
The next minute I "woke up" still under the stage lights, but at a very different part in the music.
I was also on a different part of the stage from where I'd been "a second ago."
Considering that this stage was elevated about five feet off the ground, I'm glad that's where I "came to." Unfortunately, I had no idea where I was in the music. I had blanked out the final third of the song except the last twenty seconds or so. The sound system was blaring out the repetitions of the ending melody, but I didn't know if it was the first iteration or the fifth.
As a lifelong dancer, my body subconsciously knows what sequences of four and especially eight feel like. It's how the majority of music I dance to is constructed--in counts of 8, 16, 32. I can often sense where we're at in the music, even when the song starts up partway through a phrase.
But this piece of music doesn't fill out the customary sequence of eight. Oh, heck no. It's interesting and groovy and ends abruptly on iteration six.
*smack of forehead*
This means I've always had to count if I want to stick that ending, but I had no idea where I was. Then the drums dropped out. The tambourine shimmered, so I screeched to a halt and lurched into some sort of ending pose with that, "I meant to do that," smile, thanking all the Dance Deities that this song has a trailing echo after the pop of its finale.
I hear nobody noticed. I hear my feet kept moving without a glitch. I hear my Performing Monkey Girl grin stayed plastered onto my face. It's unfortunate that there was no videography that year, because I'd be verrrrrry curious to know what I did during those thirty seconds of Izzy Has Left the Body.
After that show, I have fewer and fewer memories. I lost my shit one day and wound up becoming Dying Pris from Bladerunner amidst my costume rack that had toppled onto me. I "woke up" a mile away from the house, sitting in the blessed silence behind a big storage unit facility out on Powers Blvd with no shoes on. Had no idea how I'd gotten there.
Lost my shit again after another seizure while trying to transfer numbers from receipts into my Profit & Loss spreadsheet--the third seizure that week.
During the summer wildfires, I was invited to come take a break at a friend's house. Boil in the hot tub. Chill in the gazebo. I actually slept out in the gazebo every night until I woke up one morning covered in ash. On a day when the wind switched, I curled up in the gazebo again and spoke to my parents about everything going on. I had left the guy who'd laughed about punching me so hard he gave me whiplash (as well as all those seizures, although we wouldn't learn that for a few more years down the road). I was crammed into a friend's basement that we'd turned into a beautiful sanctuary for me. But with the state of my health I could barely make our agreed rent, much less anything else.
Everything was collapsing, me most of all. My mom and dad suggested that I should consider moving to Arkansas where they lived, so they could finally do for me what they'd "wanted to do thirteen years ago" when a drunk driver rammed me.
I did not hesitate. My answer wasn't, "Yes." It was, "WHEN?"
I have one memory snapshot of the moment when my literary agent called me a couple weeks later, asking to represent me. I have a literal snapshot of me ecstatically wolfing down chocolate cake and champagne amidst the celebration dessert with my roommate/writer buddy.
I also have a memory snippet of saying goodbye to a few of my besties who came to help load all my stuff into my rented section of a mongo semi truck. I have a very clear memory of passing from the flat, scrubby Kansas/Missouri landscape into the dramatic limestone passes we get here in the Ozarks, as well as my astounded glee when I turned down the road that was about to become my new home.
That neighborhood, as well as the one in which I currently dwell, are built into the sides of woodland ravines. After seventeen years at altitude, living between semi-arid and alpine climates, in a state I'm basically allergic to (clay, sage, juniper, cottonwood), a return to lush forests and water features has been like heaven for my body, heart, and mind. It has reconnected me to my spirit in a way that the stark, breathtaking majesty of the Rockies never could.
As September 2013 closed, I skidded into Arkansas with my tailpipe on fire and my hair singed off. Apparently I have a pretty good stage face, even at my worst, but I can see the toll that this time in my life was taking on me. I did two photo shoots right before I moved away. They're gorgeous, but I so wish I'd had more to give my amazing photographers.
This is the first one by Dennis Nejtek:
The second one by Beth Shell:
After crash-landing in the furnished, two-level townhouse surrounded by AllTheGreen, I began unpacking. I also began wheezing. Then I started itching. After my parents took me out to eat on the third night, the olfactory palate cleanser of those few hours out of the house allowed me to realize why.
We also realized why every other outlet in the joint was fitted with plug-in air fresheners. The scents had been nauseating, so I had taken them out, allowing the real state of affairs to gradually come to light...ermmm...to nostrils. The realtor company had masked the scent of choking cigarette smoke with those plug-ins.
Not only am I asthmatic, but I also have an allergy to it. I'm not so bad that I get hives at the merest whiff, but this was beyond ridiculous. When my body broke out in dime- and quarter-size welts and my lips swelled up upon the return to my townhouse, we knew that I couldn't stay there any longer.
For the next three months, I stayed in my parents' guest bedroom while we ran an ozonator in ever-increasing blasts. Living with my mom and dad gave them an up-close look at the wreck of me, but unfortunately, having only that one room to retreat to in semi-solitude never allowed my brain the silence it needed. My seizures continued to increase in frequency, occurring sometimes more than once a day. Neurological meltdowns were a constant plague.
At last, I was able to move into my townhouse. By pretty much doing nothing--no driving, working, socializing, nothing--I was able to halt most of the seizures, because I was no longer forcing my brain to deal with sensory stimulation or executive functions.
For that first week, I did little beyond meditate, stretch, sit on my beautiful deck and watch the bird-and-squirrel show, drool, and snooze on the big, puffy couch that had come with the place--blessedly without awakening to a cheek full of hives. I also began the process of washing the ozone off every item in the kitchen, as well as every piece of clothing and costuming I owned. All the fabric had been inundated with cigarette smoke, even through the cardboard boxes, so it all had to be cleaned.
And I mean alllllllll.
Even my cabaret costumes. That was fun.
That winter, I finally saw my first neurologist. Like--EVER. Yes, you're reading that correctly. Thirteen years of seizures and I'd never seen a neurologist.
See, in Colorado, I had been relegated to the state-run equivalent of health insurance for people who couldn't afford it. For the five years of my first marriage, I'd been on my husband's insurance, but after that, I had ridden the ever-rotating Lazy Susan of residents-just-about-to-become-doctors.
Every six months, I would meet my new physician. They would ask me the gazillion questions about my medical history and current circumstances. By the time I got to, "I have seizures when my brain is too overstimulated by sensory input or trying to do tasks that I can no longer do--"
The conversation would always come to a screeching halt.
There would be the big eyes, the furrowed brow, the frantic scrolling through my chart. I could conduct this dance in my sleep. Patiently, I would wait until the eyes returned to me, now demanding answers. "What do you take for your seizures?"
"Nothing?! What does your neurologist say about that?"
"I've never been sent to a neurologist."
Blink...blink. "Oh. All right. So. Anything else?"
In the beginning, I used to ask if maybe I should see one of those. Maybe? But after learning that I didn't have grand-mal seizures, they always said it wasn't medically necessary. I couldn't afford to pay for a neurologist on my own dime, definitely not on my husband's dime, so that was that.
And besides, I hadn't had regular seizures since 2003. My car insurance company had shucked me off with a "you're as good as you're ever gonna get," so seeing doctors wasn't really in my world anymore. All they wanted to do was shove drugs down my throat anyway.
I believe in eliminating the cause of symptoms, not guinea-pigging and poisoning my body, along with our precious water supply, from gulping pills designed to make me STFU and keep shelling out money to an already rich, greedy entity.
During those five years when I had medical insurance--and could afford to regularly see a chiropractor--the seizures almost never happened. They only trickled back around 2007 when I started working with producers who disregarded my medical requirements, and when I started regularly traveling for the big festivals with jet lag, protracted hours, and intense stage lights. But incidents remained sporadic. I was mostly able to stave them off by taking a few weeks off to recover once I got home.
In 2009, I got divorced and eventually remarried someone who had promised to put me on his health insurance, but never did. Hence the state-run medical facility. That's when the seizures became noticeable. I could only go to the chiropractor about once a month, and I couldn't afford to take breaks from working after the travel gigs because... AllTheRea$on$ of my second marriage, compounded by the economic state of 2010.
By 2011, I had started snidely answering my every-six-month medical interrogation with, "A neurologist? Pfft! What's that? Wouldn't that be nice."
Still, such a luxury was deemed medically unnecessary until my final interview, two weeks before I moved away from Colorado. My shiny new resident gave me the big eyes, the furrowed brows, the flabbergasted reaction. But then, for the first time ever, someone insisted that I see a neurologist. He offered to write me a letter if necessary, because I would have to set that up in Arkansas, and he ordered an EEG before I left.
Alas--woohoo?--I was having a good day during that test and it came back negative for seizure activity.
This made it easier for the good-ole-boy neurologist who saw me once in the winter of 2014 to brush me off with Hysterical Female Syndrome. With that skeptical condescension they ooze down their noses, he wrote me a prescription for a drug more commonly used to treat bi-polar than seizures.
He also neglected to tell me that it had a Black Box Warning label.
My mom and I tend to be those people who have rare, weird reactions to drugs, so when he casually mentioned that the "rash can be serious" as I was walking out the door, I looked it up. Yeah, I'd call lethal flesh-eating necrosis serious.
Good thing I do my research before taking drugs. Needless to say, I didn't take it. Neither did I ever see him again. Since NWA wasn't a burgeoning hub of brainy treatment options, I had to figure the seizures out on my own. In 2016, we would finally learn that it was my neck issues that were causing them, and that being punched in the face had turned them chronic.
But in 2014? We had no bloody clue.
This is the state I was in when I came across the following article in April, 2014:
I bet you were wondering when I was ever going to get to the title of this post, weren't you?
I hope I don't have to explain why I wasn't in any condition to be one of the American white belly dancers in question to respond to this piece.
I did, however, give it a lot of consideration because it touched on things that had been rumbling in the underground for years, and things I'd been uncomfortable with as an American belly dancer for more than fifteen years. As such, I Googled the topic at length. Woe unto my dance career that was already gasping out its last wheezes from everything I've mentioned above, I only encountered the encouraging, "Yeah! No shit! Thank you for saying what we're all thinking!" responses.
These were compounded by another search I did out of curiosity, because it's just a little pertinent to who I am: "cultural appropriation fantasy fiction writing."
I found even more rabid opinions damning anyone writing outside their race, color, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, (gender identity wasn't being discussed much yet), or life experience, whether in general fiction or fantasy/sci-fi.
In other words, all writers are relegated to memoir and fictionalized memoir.
WHAT. IN. THE. LITERAL. FUCK.
Yes, I am 100% against the legit damage done by cultural appropriation.
Yes, I agree that marginalized voices have been shoved aside for too long in favor of the Ruling Imperial Classes, and needed to be put in the spotlight.
As a devotee of history, I understand that the pendulum must have its swing. I'm actually thrilled at the swing, even if it means that it sometimes hits me in the teeth. I'm a martial artist and a survivor of domestic violence. I know how to take a punch and get back up.
Obviously. I'm still flapping my trap, training in self-defense, and dancing my dastardly dances in spite of all the times people have tried to stop me and shut me up.
So back to that infamous article. For the next few weeks, I desperately searched for any way that I would be capable of responsibly, respectfully continuing to belly dance in my pasty, American skin, study "non-white" martial arts, or write fantastical fiction according to the world's climate of April 2014.
Or should I say, the world that Google kept showing me.
Seizures, divorce, disability, destitution...these things took just a little precedence over mustering up my thoughts in defense of this subject, my arts, and my life decisions. I did try to do a few workshops and open up a dance class in my new home, but the reception only pounded more nails into that coffin of "you're no longer welcome in this sandbox."
So I drove a stake through its heart and I buried the motherfucker.
I danced in my kitchen.
I danced under the moonlight on my deck.
I danced in the little space between the patio doors and my coffee table.
I danced in the bathroom while brushing my hair.
I danced to anything but belly dance music, because it broke my heart to hear those glorious sounds.
I wrote an entire novel about Persephone & Hades.
I kept writing my Gladiatrix fantasy series.
I resumed martial arts training the second I could.
I set to work healing my body and my brain.
I set to work healing my heart.
BLAM. In October 2017, as I drove home through the fall foliage, I was struck between the eyes with a revelation. I suddenly knew what to do with all the skeletons of these arts rotting in the ground, and all their ghosts frolicking in the Underworld. I needed to transform my Elements System.
So I took a peek at the state of the world with regard to white chicks belly dancing and people creating fusion arts, just to see if things had opened up again.
Nope. The first post I found was, naturally, my old friend from above. This was the second one I found:
I next stumbled onto:
And the seismic wave rumbled on. Not just about belly dance. Again, I poked around the other topics that were pertinent to me, finding the same theories for fantasy writing and Americans practicing any martial arts that come from Asia. So...like...almost everything I've ever studied.
In the long run, I can only attribute this to the Fates cackling with their diabolical senses of humor while encouraging the Muse to wield a modern weapon of devotee-artist-bitch-slappery: the Search Engine Algorithm.
Why would the Fates and the Muse do such a thing to a devoted artist like me?
Herding purposes, naturally. Sometimes we think we know what we want and what we're meant to do with our lives. Sometimes we're really determined to prove ourselves right about that misconception. Sometimes we who are accustomed to trudging up Sisyphus' hill of chronic health conditions become accustomed to trudging. We think we were born to trudge, when we actually need to be thrown off a cliff because we had no clue that all that trudging has given us wings.
So I slammed the door on ever returning to the belly dance world. Instead, I created something different that had nothing (and yet everything) to do with culture, tradition, nationality labels, geographical borders, color, or race. I created something for HUMANS.
Really, I created it for me. I have no idea who else might want to play with it, but it's here on this website for anyone who does.
Funny fuckers, the Fates.
December 2019: I start posting about my big car wreck after a drunk driver pisses me off.
March 2020: My little blog has grown into an online memoir collection on Medium.
April 2020: My Medium account finally earns its first $0.35, instead of costing me money.
May 2020: My tales shift from Dain Bramage and childhood trauma to dance, so I dive into a massive research stint about the connections between all those earliest influences that created me as a dancer: modern dance, vaudeville, burlesque, and belly dance. These topics, especially when combined with where, when, and how I began studying dance, cannot help but open up touchy cans of worms: cultural appropriation, prejudice, exotification, exploitation, and Orientalist fantasy.
May 25, 2020: Shit Happens.
May 26, 2020: I STFU and decide to do more listening than posting. Because. That's what ya do.
June 2020: I go off on a rant about how all the Shit Happening today has been a current of discord plaguing my dance career since it began, because I'm an American white chick who chose belly dance over ballet, St. Denis over Graham, and innovative fusion over cultural preservation. A prominent member of my inner circle pooh-poohs this rant. The BLM explosion gets called "not that big a deal" and these "overblown" social conditions are waved off as a bunch of "sensitive snowflakes throwing more tantrums"--plus, they couldn't possibly have any affect on my dance career. As such, I get called "paranoid and melodramatic" one too fucking many times in my life, so I start drafting my thoughts on this topic.
October 2020: I let the touchy mess of my early dance career topics keep fermenting. Instead, I switch to filling in that big timeline gap between becoming a cheerleader and a belly dancer: the shitstorm of trauma that was junior high and high school.
November 2020: I pick the Dance Series back up because I've drafted all the posts through high school and am back to writing college adventures--which means the timeline gap has been bridged and next comes my first belly dance class.
In preparation, I go hunt-seek my old friends, the posts stating all the reasons why "white belly dancers are sucky McSuckertons" so I can link to them when this series is finally ready to be published.
Then the Fates and the Muse high five. They have another good cackle at my expense. Wanna know what they finally let me see?
Apparently, while I was stewing in my backed-up cerebrospinal fluid and incapable of putting my thoughts together about cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation, other people waaaaay more eloquent than I am were firing back at the author of "Why I Can't Stand White Belly Dancers."
Like...the very day that the original post was written. So were other voices outside the belly dance world.
Thanks, Google. That sure would have been nice to know back in 2014.
As I said, I attribute this to the Universe herding me very purposefully away from this conversation so that I would have the space, alone out in the toolie bushes, to create what I was meant to create instead of spending my energy trying to get my old belly dance career back.
Below is just a little taste of the conversation that got opened up in the wake of this one brilliant post. I call it brilliant, not because I am a staunch champion of everything expressed in it, but because some of the points are absolutely valid and need to be addressed by any of us even dipping hobbyist toes into these waters. More importantly, because it got people thinking and talking about it.
If you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend that you follow the rabbit hole of links in these posts. It's worth the multiple cups of coffee:
So there ya have it. Even though I was absolutely a player on this stage (sputtering and drowning out my last from 2010-2014, but still), I wasn't in any neurological state to engage in this conversation during the years when it was a rumbling volcano on the verge of erupting, much less when the shit hit the fan with that article. I'm super late to this party, so I'm not going to reiterate what's been said by better writers, dancers, historians, and educators than I am.
Instead, I'm going to tell you what things looked like back in 1992 when a little nineteen-year-old French Canadian outcast discovered belly dancing in Northern Minnesota. I'm going to tell you about how it saved my life. Then I'm going to tell you about the mistakes I made, all the bullshit I was fed, and the gazillion ways I tried--and continue--to course-correct amidst navigating this issue for thirty years.
Back in 2014, I didn't have it in me to fire back eloquent and educational blog posts. Instead, I did this:
Someone recently asked me, since I was one of those many U.S. fusion dancer washouts, if I will still continue to dance and teach? Absolutely! This is the dance portion of the Hartebeast System:
DANCE OF ELEMENTAL ALCHEMY
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
UP NEXT: The environment into which my dancing was born, and why I chose belly dancing over every other form.
--OR if you're missing the gap in the chronological timeline, here's where I had started telling my tales of college where I officially got to study Dance, Theater, Language, & History.