Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Cleanliness & Godliness

I just mopped my kitchen floor. And it was dirty. Brown-water, sinfully dirty. Brackish as the marshlands. I have noticed that I regularly tell Beezy not to play on the dirty floor. Sometimes this is because we are going somewhere soon, and I want her clothing to look presentable. But other times, the dirt is so visible as to be a living entity which might gather her up and blow her out the door...

That saying, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness"--I often wondered, as I lived in an embarrassingly messy apartment, what did it mean? Did it have something to do with how often one bathed, or did it refer to purity of mind? Or could it--please Lord, no--have to do with the state of one's housekeeping? If a tidy home equaled a beautiful soul, then mine was as dark as the filth I rinsed from my mop this evening.

Eventually I had read enough self-help books to concede that the state of one's environment surely had an effect upon one's peace of mind--or lack thereof--and vice versa. The feng shui theories of clearing blocked energy via proper placement of furniture and decorative elements, reducing clutter, and keeping one's living quarters clean became commonly accepted wisdom. I lived alone until I was 33, so there was no one else in my apartment to blame for the chaos, unless you counted the cat. And I certainly felt better when I cleared the debris. I could think. I could breathe.

It doesn't matter, really, whether we live alone or with five children and a husband. My neighbor has 4 kids under the age of five, yet you can drop in any time and find her home always immaculate. What is the meaning of this madness? In two words: good habits. It isn't about whether you are married or single, childless or running a mini zoo. You either have good habits or you don't. I don't. Today I break free of my denial! If I were truly holy, would my house be cleaner? Am I not holy enough because I can't keep it all under control?

Before we get carried away, let's just take the first step of awareness. While there is certainly room for improvement, I have in reality made a great deal of progress. I think that at one time I had a mild hoarding disorder. I wouldn't have gotten on "reality" television for it, but I had definite anxieties about throwing anything away (and this was before the days of recycling). I no longer have a hoarding disorder, though I will balk if my husband tries to force me to go through an entire stack of papers and decide in a split second whether each item should stay or go. I still need the time to make sure. Besides, we don't want to be too much Martha and not enough Mary. You know, the sisters of Lazarus in Bethany that Jesus visited. He told Martha that Mary took the better part by sitting at his feet when she was fussing about doing all the work. Perhaps holiness is only one part cleanliness and two parts prayer and contemplation.

Saints Mary and Martha with Jesus

My home is probably six times bigger than my old apartment when I was single, and now I have a husband, child and dog. And by and large, things are cleaner and less cluttered. This is a huge accomplishment, and of course I have a lot of help from my husband. While it is a constant, repetitive battle, I do believe it is our sacred duty to instill good habits in our children. This is a gift we can give them that will serve them for their entire lives. Some day, perhaps, Beezy will be mopping her own kitchen floor, and the water will be a mere light gray.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Belly Dance: Workshop with Paulette!

Last night I drove an hour to attend a workshop in Toledo by Paulette Rees-Denis, founder of Tribal belly dance troupe, Gypsy Caravan. While I have to admit to being quite starstruck, Paulette is no distant diva. She is warm, down to earth, and has a smile to light up the darkest day. Aegela hosted the workshop at her studio, and having taken classes on occasion with the lovely lady, it was fun to be a fellow student with her.

I felt like I already knew Paulette. I learned Tribal from Angie Hay (a.k.a. Angie Never) in Columbus, who had learned directly from Paulette. When I moved away from the area to Northwest Ohio, there were no belly dance classes being offered in my county, so I decided to teach, and I began with Tribal. Angie was always so helpful when I had questions, and she recommended that I get some of Paulette's videos to refresh my memory. I did so, and also purchased Paulette's biography, Tribal Vision. Last night she signed it for me! I have subscribed for some time to Paulette's online newsletter and have been published there twice. We have corresponded a little via email. But actually meeting her in person was such a sweet treat!

Paulette has been belly dancing for 30 years, but she has been a dancer since childhood. Her mother still dances Flamenco at age 86! In addition to Flamenco, Paulette has extensive training in ballet, jazz, and African dance forms. She was Tribal pioneer Carolena Nerricio's first student and was an original member of her troupe in San Francisco, Fat Chance Belly Dance. They had their first performance in Paulette's backyard. Paulette eventually moved to Portland, Oregon and began teaching her own group improvisational belly dance style. Carolena's format is called ATS (American Tribal Style), and she has requested that other groups do not use this name. Paulette refers to her dance as Tribal, and one common name for non-ATS formats is Tribal Group Improvisation (TGI).

In a nutshell, Tribal belly dance combines movement vocabulary and aesthetic elements from dances of the Near and Middle East, India, Spain, North Africa, and the Romany (Gypsy). It is specifically a group dance which uses a system of cues, transitions, and intuition in a lead-and-follow format, having a homogenous "flock of geese" effect. It looks choreographed but is in fact art created in the moment, improvised within a structured form. The emphasis of Tribal is on a trusting community.

"Fusion" forms of dance that have erupted from Tribal often veer in directions away from any cultural roots of style and music, and in my opinion, no longer qualify as belly dance. While Paulette's form is contemporary and embodies many influences, her band, Gypsy Caravan, uses traditional Middle Eastern music and rhythms. The music is more simplified than classical Oriental to allow for the lead-and-follow format. And her dance is solidly grounded in traditional movement vocabulary. It is at once a modern, interpretive dance and a distinctive form of belly dance that is descended from American Vintage Oriental, earthy and organic but light and graceful.

I found Paulette's technique and teaching style to be of the highest quality. Aegela, who specializes in Egyptian Oriental and Folkloric, especially appreciated her emphasis on the importance of knowing the Middle Eastern rhythms and being able to play them on the zills, as well as teaching movements and combinations on both sides of the body. With Paulette's training in the various dance forms I mentioned, I think her style can be considered a true fusion, particularly with its distinctive jazz influence. Unfortunately some dancers are insufficiently trained in the forms they are supposedly "fusing", but this is not the case with Paulette. She is a true fusion dancer.

Paulette is not concerned with the "style" her students dance, but rather that they become good dancers and learn to express themselves creatively within the community context. Her style and posture are very natural to the body. She wants to be able to keep dancing forever, so she moves in a way that will not cause injury. She also feels that whatever style belly dance one does, Tribal can be incorporated. I used to teach mostly Tribal belly dance, but for the last year and a half, I've been focused on getting back to the roots of Egyptian Oriental. Lately I have become interested in revisiting that Vintage Oriental style I originally learned at Habeeba's in Columbus. Now I am moving toward putting all of my experience together in the vein of the recent trend of "Tribaret", designated as the "new classic" form that returns to American Cabaret (Vintage Oriental) roots but incorporates elements of Tribal. So I guess I am coming full circle!

If you get the chance to study with Paulette, do not pass it up! She is beautiful (even more so in person than in pictures) inside and out and is a wealth of experience and artistry. Thank you Paulette from the bottom of my heart for traveling to Toledo. I hope you will return soon! And thanks to the incomparable Aegela for hosting this truly memorable event.

Monday, November 5, 2012

American Vintage Oriental Belly Dance

In the 1960s and 1970s, Middle Eastern night clubs were opened by immigrants across the U.S. in places such as New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco. Middle Eastern dancers were brought in to perform in these clubs, bringing the “Oriental” styles of belly dance to American audiences.

Belly dance originates from three main branches—Egyptian, Turkish, and Lebanese/Syrian. Each of these styles comes from the folkloric, social dances of the people of various regions in the Middle and Near East, Mediterranean areas, and North Africa. In the night clubs of Cairo in the 1920s, ballet was incorporated into the traditional, cultural dances to polish them up for the stage. Along with glitzy, glamorous costuming invented by Hollywood, a professional, Oriental version of belly dance was born.

American women interested in learning belly dance picked up what they could from the dancers coming through the Middle Eastern night clubs. While the three main branches of the dance share the same, basic movement vocabulary, Americans could not distinguish between the nuances of music, style, and presentation. They blended what they learned together into a distinctly American version of belly dance. A 5-part format developed, with sections of the performance to include an entrance, a slow segment, a drum solo, floor work, and a finale. The prolific use of props such as zills, veils, and swords became distinctive features of the American style, and there was a strong flavor of Greek and Turkish influence. 

 Elena Lentini

Today this style is known sometimes as American Cabaret. This label is problematic, as it leaves out the fact that this dance, though an American “fusion” form, is composed of authentic Middle Eastern dance. Perhaps a more accurate term is American Vintage Oriental, which reflects the Middle Eastern roots while at the same time acknowledging the contribution of American dancers at a particular point in history.

In the U.S., American Vintage Oriental belly dance has evolved into two main “camps,” typically referred to as Tribal and Cabaret. The Cabaret version reflects the glamorous night club style, with its heavily beaded and sequined “bra and bedlah” costuming, usually worn with a skirt. It also retains the airier ballet influence with much dancing done on the balls of the feet, and is most often performed as a solo dance, although group choreographies are sometimes used.

The Tribal style descends from Jamila Salimpour’s troupe, Bal Anaat, in the San Francisco Bay area. Salimpour brought her version of the dance out of the night clubs, to be showcased instead at outdoor Renaissance fairs. She used folkloric style costuming and an earthier interpretation of the blended Middle Eastern dance forms. Individuals performed within the context of a large group of background dancers and musicians. 

 Aida with Bal Anaat

These categories are very general and are meant only to provide a broad framework for understanding the evolution of American belly dance, and in fact many dancers today use a combination of both Tribal and Cabaret stylistic elements and costuming. The dance has continued to develop in various ways in the United States, including the study of specific forms as performed in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries of the overall region, returning the dance to its original, distinctive cultural roots, in more “pure” variations. A movement in the polar opposite direction champions personal interpretation and an “anything goes” fusion mentality over the preservation of traditional representations of the dance.

While Vintage Oriental is still performed, it has become something of a dying art. Perhaps it is this forgetting of the Middle Eastern roots of the dance, and the specific blended form that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, that has contributed to the disintegration in some sectors of authentic forms of belly dance in the U.S. Yes, belly dance is a living, evolving art form that welcomes personal innovation, but its cultural roots are inherent to any true understanding and representation of this beautiful, feminine expression.