UGLY DUCKLINGS, SWANS & BIRDS OF DIFFERENT FEATHERS: BellaDancer Takes Ballet and Finds Loie Fuller
Updated: Feb 17
**WRITTEN ON MEDIUM JUNE 9, 2020
Fall 1991 18 years old
I used to think I was good at dance. Now, training among real dancers for the first time in my life — dancers who have been taught by other real dancers since they were in kindergarten or younger — I feel like a one-legged ox on a tightrope. The gazelles leap and prance around me. The swans flit and float.
And then there’s me.
In the mirror — more so in their eyes, I catch the reflection of myself when I try to pas de bourrée. I’m worse at jeté, and an absolutely nightmare trying to make it grand. On me, it’s more bland.
Can it be over now? I used to live for every moment I was able to dance. When I signed up for the first semester of my Theater Major and Dance Minor, I was elated to see Ballet I on my list of required courses.
Now I just want the hour of torture to pass.
My teacher surveys us from her spot in the corner near the tape deck. She points a critical finger at me, accompanied by the stern-eye. “Dance with your body, not your face.”
I cringe and try to paint the serene expression across my too-expressive features. I know, I know. I’m all eyes and eyebrows and oversized grin. But the music was so gorgeous just then, and I really love this combo and I wish I could do it a shred of justice but —
Flutter. And flap. And flap. And float. And turn. And flutter and flyyyyy —
I trudge back to my spot in line behind the more experienced girls. Two of them flick a glance at me, share an eye-roll, and turn their backs on me.
I do not fit in here at all. I know that, too, but this class is required for both my minor and major. A year of ballet is the prerequisite for the entire dance curriculum. I get why. I’m sure when it’s all over I’ll be glad. But can’t we fast-forward to that day?
I force my heaving sigh to trickle from my lips in silence. My loathing of this class has little to do with being new to ballet. All my life, I’ve been challenging myself to learn new moves I can’t pull off at first. I actually love the taste of that kind of challenge. I live to sink my teeth into it, and this adventure is no different. Certain things are improving with every week. Strength, flexibility, posture, breathing. Everything my dancing so desperately needs.
But other things…
At least I’m paired with Terri. She is a jazz and tap dancer. “Oh, my gawwwd,” she mutters across my shoulder with her teeth clenched so our teacher can’t read her lips. “I’ve been dancing for eight years, but I feel like a damn elephant out there.”
It’s horrible how good it feels to hear her say that. I thrust out my hand in offering. “Hi. I’m Ox Cloddy-Shod. Nice to meet you.”
We share a good chortle, then scoot farther down the line toward the corner-of-doom where we’ll have to do the whole combination again, starting on the left hoof. That’ll be even worse, I guarantee.
This is good for me. This is good for me. I know this. It’s what I’ve been missing my whole life, but I also know something more.
I hate Ballet.
Actually, that’s not accurate. I love to watch the swans. I could watch them all day. But doing these movements myself? They are…not me. Not in body, not in spirit. I’d been waiting and waiting to graduate from Hell so I could finally grow my ugly duckling self up into the swan I just knew was in there somewhere. Now that I’m swimming with real swans, I see.
I’m not one of them either.
Isis Wings, Colorado Springs, 2014
“‘What if?’ Through the alchemy of those two words, something new comes into the world.” ~David Morrell
THE SKIRT DANCERS As the 19th Century closed, many dance rebellions took place in Europe and America against strict ballet technique: vaudeville (4) and burlesque (5), the can-can (7), the skirt dance, and its evolution, Loie Fuller’s famous Serpentine Dance (1).
Ballet of the day:
Skirt dance in ballet slippers superimposed upon Niagra falls footage, around 1900:
Here we’re transitioning from skirt dance into Serpenine or what we would today call a variant on Isis Wings, Ameta in 1903:
As the description on this YouTube Video reads: Ads in the New York clipper proclaim “mirror dancer” Ameta “the most elaborate act in vaudeville.” They describe four dances performed by Ameta, none of which appears to be the dance featured in this film: a “shower of confetti, ribbons;” a “prismatic fountain of real water;” a fire dance…
In addition to influencing the earliest dancers who would eventually pioneer Modern Dance (3), these forms also impacted what would become the Westernized nightclub or cabaret styles of belly dance (6, 15). (Which, in return, circled back to influence any Middle Eastern styles catering to Western Orientalism and Hollywoodization…which then convinced some Western dancers that they’d learned and passed down “authentic” ancient, sacred or traditional styles, only to learn later how Westernized they were…it’s a can of worms that we’ll crack open later, because it sure messed with my head while I was trying to sort it out on too many myths and not enough access to dance anthropology). (17)
Americanized belly dance is known, and sometimes criticized, for flinging huge skirts around (11) — in certain Romany cultures, it’s taboo to touch one’s skirt, much less make an entire dance doing so (12) — or for peeling veils off the body in the manner of a strip-tease and then swirling them around like a matador (13), rather than wearing them as sacred and/or traditional garments.
Naturally, a primary birthplace of the United States’ exposure to what was billed as the “danse du ventre” (French for “dance of the stomach”) or Hoochie Coochie, was through the various dancers known as “Little Egypt” (8–10). Some say there was stripping involved; others say there wasn’t, but belly dance in the West has been tied to that scene ever since.
As a result, these American and European entertainment dances also trickled down to influence modern-day Tribal belly dance and other fusion styles that have roots in the circus and Renaissance Festivals. (14)
My dance style is an absolute descendent of all these inheritances. From dancing with fire to dancing in fountains. From swirling skirts to whirling wings. From superimposing myself on video to mix-matching styles in the creation of something new. And — you betcha! — I have been mistaken for a stripper more times than I can count, been propositioned for a lot more than stripping, and I became mesmerized by the legends and fantasies about these exotic dance styles that, until the full-blown advent of the internet, rampantly took the place of actual dance history.
I am the melting-pot mutt lovechild of all these lineages, as can be seen in my first YouTube video ever, dancing in a fountain with matador veils to a song from a movie I had just fallen in love with, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding:
Pueblo, CO 2006
Tips of the hat to my burly-Q, vaudeville and can-can ancestors:
My first time in Memphis, 2009
Proof that, occasionally, I really am just a straight-up entertainer. With my dearest Deargan in one of the fusion dances we choreographed together for our sold-out show at the Runyon Theater:
Pueblo, CO 2008
And of course, one of my own skirt dances. This one also weaves in my studies in Mexican Folklorico, Turkish Romany dance, the Turkish Oryantal-influenced styles of American belly dance, and fusion styles like Dalia Carella’s Dunyavi (16). (More on those later.)
LOIE FULLER Another of my dancey great-great-grandmothers is Loie Fuller (1862-1928). She was originally a child actress who later performed and choreographed in circus shows, vaudeville, and burlesque as a skirt dancer. She had her own improvisational style and technique based on more natural movements than Ballet. (1)
Along with one of her contemporaries, Isadora Duncan (whom Loie introduced to European audiences via their touring days together), Loie was one of the American pioneers of the Free Dance movement (2). This style laid the groundwork for what would become Modern Dance (3).
But Loie was more than an actress and a dancer. She was also renowned as a patented inventor who experimented with the wonders of lighting to cast colors upon the silk of her costumes, and later, that for which she is most famous: immense swaths of swirling silk. She called it her Serpentine Dance.
It is from Loie and her contemporaries (and imposters) that I’ve inherited great swaths of my fabric wielding. Before I ever saw doube-veil, Isis wings, or the painted, stick-wielded silk butterfly and faerie wings so popular today, and before there was Amazon to deliver such things to my doorstep, I split my circle skirts and swirled them through the air like veils. I also pinned big half-circles to the shoulders of my costumes and used them in a fashion reminiscent of Loie Fuller’s silk extravaganzas.
Here she is using another technological wonder of the day: movie magic. (Although it’s said that not all the footage is actually her, as she experienced legal issues with imposters. Others say there is no footage of her dancing at all.)
This is the 2011 re-staging of Loie’s 1925 dance La Mer:
As a descendent and devotee of this innovative artist and scientist, I am continually asking, “How else can I use *whichever groovy thing or concept I’m into today* in a way that I’ve never done or seen before?”
I do gushy moves or floor work amidst a drum solo. I use Isis wings as though they are Kali sticks or as my "carpet" from which to roll out of as the mythical “Cleopatra” (in contrast to the historical figure — something else we’ll cover later). I love putting together costuming or choreographic combinations from widely varying styles, and dancing to music that they don’t normally accompany, rather than trying to reenact long established traditions.
There are a gazillion people out there who are really good at upholding culture and tradition in their art forms. Their place is a sacred one.
But that’s not what I do.
Well, actually, that’s inaccurate. I DO uphold a very specific lineage and tradition: that of the Innovator. The Alchemist. The Explorer. The Inventor.
And that path is just as sacred.
This is my most obvious Loie Fuller inheritance dance. Movie magic, lighting, and multiple wings used unconventionally to tell the tale of the many times I have had my wings broken and re-learned how to fly. Memphis 2019.
SOURCES & MORE INFORMATION
The Wikis to get you started and help you determine if you want to go further down this rabbit hole:
A lovely article about Turkish Oryantal and Turkish Romany dance, with a handy list of links to some of my favorite practitioners.
Another article by one of the foremost dance historians of those styles, Elizabeth Artemis Mourat
Veils in belly dance, including another detailed quote from Artemis
The Salimpour legacy —the main bloodline of fusion belly dance styles with Rennaissance Festival & circus roots originating on the US West Coast
Dalia Carella, one of my favorite fusion artists
If you want a jump-start on some of our future adventures, here is an article that would have been highly useful in my baby belly dancer days but that, alas, I only recently discovered: Belly Dance: Orientalism: Exoticism: Self-Exoticism
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: How Belly Dance Literally Saved My Life
--In the meanwhile, you can find more of my dance (and other) shenanigans here: