Tag Archives: tribal

Belly Dance: It’s Harder Than it Looks, but You Should Do it Anyway

Take enough belly dance classes and you’ll see her: The nervous but glowing newbie, bounding in in her $12 jingly hip scarf and yoga pants, inspired by some video she saw of a belly dancer where she thought “I can do that!”

She comes in and is ready to SHIMMY. Because, of course, she’s going to pick that up in the first class, and in no time she’ll be a brilliant dancer, awing her friends and family with her amazing moves.

But then, in the midst of the class, she realizes how crazy freaking HARD belly dance is. Her hips won’t shimmy, she can’t figure out how to make a belly roll happen, and when she tries the movements she looks nothing like the other dancers. Her enthusiasm turns from joyous to deer-in-headlights.
So after a couple of frustrating classes, she never returns.

This is, of course, a tad of an exaggeration, but similar experiences happen all the time.

I have to admit, I had no idea how hard belly dance was going to be when I took my first class. I grew-up studying ballet, tap, modern, jazz, and swing dancing. I had lots of performance experience. I was going to breeze into class and pick it up in no time, I just knew it. I’d always been a very “hip-oriented” dancer. I had this in the bag.

But then, those first few classes, I became so frustrated.

Belly dance uses muscles I wasn’t used to activating. I could not, for the life of me, activate my glutes separately in order to make my hips lift, belly rolls from down to up just weren’t happening, and walking while doing a vertical figure-8 was the most mind-boggling thing ever.

But, I would not be dissuaded! I took classes once a week, I supplemented with videos so I could practice more at home, and I shimmied while doing everything: The dishes, vacuuming, and even unconsciously in public. Eventually, my muscles activated, and my body got it down. Months went by, and my movement vocabulary started expanding, it felt more and more comfortable in my skin. What bliss! Finally, I could shimmy shake it like I’d always dreamed! But I think it took me, even with my years of dance experience, about a year of hard work to feel like I’d reached a more intermediate level.

I think we do have this perception in our culture that folk dances are less disciplined, less complex, and thus easier to do than the dances we perceive as high art forms: Ballet and Modern. But that’s not really the case.

I don’t want to dissuade any potential belly dancers from taking classes because they’re hard. Quite the opposite. Things that are challenging are SATISFYING. This dance is a complex flower that will slowly bloom for you over time, not some cheap dime store entertainment to be fiddled with and then discarded. You will get an awesome workout, you will get more in-tune with your body,  and you will look badass while doing it.

I feel blessed that my first teacher was Dilek Hoss, who was teaching Suhalia Salimpour technique Level 1 style classes. It was very meticulous and technical, and while it wasn’t as immediately gratifying… I took a 6 week class and didn’t learn much in the way of choreography, only drills… I know it made me a better dancer. A strong foundation is where it’s at. Yes, that means LOTS of “boring” drills.

So there it is. If you want to belly dance, realize it’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be a journey, but if it sings to you in your heart, you should DO IT.


Frolicking at The Oregon Country Fair

There is a place, in the woods of central Oregon, where thousands of hippies, mystical creatures and weirdos (and some cute suburbanite tourists) converge for three days out of every year. Music, vaudeville, dance, juggling, and performance art of every shape happens on several stages simultaneously, not forgetting the buskers in every nook and cranny. I have attended The Oregon Country Fair for the last 3 years, and it’s now on my must-do list forever more.

Aside from art and performances, part of the fun of the Fair is just the people-watching. It’s hotter than all get-out, but everyone dresses-up just the same. Some people’s costumes are mind-blowingly amazing, or just hilarious. Groups of these costumed people also create random parades along the pathways of the fair. This is one of the most entertaining things there.

Whilst walking to get to another stage, find the bathroom, or buy a glittery unicorn horn headband, you may run into jugglers, drummers, a bunch of  people stumbling in the wilting heat, dressed in brown bananna costumes…

Or really tall clowns…


Or a pod of orcas…


Or a roving pool party complete with cocktails…


Or a ferocious dragon.


The fair also has booths with every manner of amazing art, costumes, clothing, instruments and the like woven throughout the huge piece of land. This year I b-lined to my favorite feather booth to stock-up on amazing vibrant blue and purple facinator hair clips, and I bought a stunning black and gold parasol at another booth.

Here is my new fabulous parasol, and my sassy Fair outfit:


Here’s the fantastic hand-painted leather mask my mom picked-up:


And the food is nothing you’ll find at any other Fair, it’s actually healthy and delicious, with a vast multitude of choices. My favorite meal this year was a heaping plate of Cajun red beans and rice with riblets and watermelon, it fueled me up to frolic for the entire day. And of course in the mid-day heat we HAD to also stop at the Coconut Bliss booth for a coconut ice cream bar. Delish. There are tons of options for a variety of diets, from gluten free, to vegan, to paleo, etc.

But I have to say that, hands down, one of my very favorite places to be at the fair is the Gypsy Caravan Stage. It’s a small stage area on a side path where you sit on pillows in the straw and watch some of the most amazing belly dancers on the planet.
I know most of the people in that audience have no. idea. how famous and amazing these dancers are. It’s like they’re watching Jimmy Hendrix but have never heard of him. I always want to tell them all: “DO YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE!? SERIOUSLY. YOU HAVE NO IDEA…. WHAT, HOW DARE YOU GET UP TO LEAVE DURING ZOE’S SET… SIT THE FUCK DOWN.”

You can watch the likes of Rachel Brice, Colleena Shakti, Zoe Jakes, Sharon Kihara, and many more on a tiny stage. (and ALL of the performances at the fair are free. Just for a $22-$25  per day ticket, or $58 for all three, gets you access to everything.)
My first year I spent HOURS just sitting there, wide-eyed, mouth agape, watching the belly dancers and zagareeting my heart out.
And, at the end of each set, just to make any belly dance fan-dork’s heart leap out of their chest, the dancers walk around in the audience and collect tips in baskets. You then try to act really really normal (don’t act like a fan dork!) while giving them cash and telling them you loved their performance.

This year I had the pleasure of seeing Zoe Jakes (which was awesome because I wasn’t able to get anywhere NEAR the main stage during her band Beats Antique‘s set), Colleena Shakti, Sharon Kihara, and an amazing local dancer named Claudia.

This year’s videos aren’t up yet on youtube, but here is a recording of part of the show from 2013.

There is also camping around the fair grounds, to which I would highly advise:
a) Book early.
b) Be very, very mindful of whether you want a party camp or a family-oriented camp. There are some crazy all-night parties in some of them. Read the camp descriptions carefully.
c) Cell phone reception sucks, so camp near your friends.
d) Bring wet wipes, because your feet will look like this at the end of the day:


So if you’re ever in Oregon in July and want to have an amazing time, dress like a wood nymph, and get all sweaty dancing with a bunch of weirdos in the woods, come to the Country Fair.

To entice you even more, here is a gallery of some of the photos of the fair that I’ve taken over the past 3 years:

Connection: The Heart of Tribal Belly Dance

I love group dancing, more than any other style. This is why American Tribal Style captured my heart.

When doing Improvisational Style Belly Dance (ATS, ITS, etc.) the class participants bond and interact more than any solo-oriented dance I’ve ever studied. You have to, because the dance form is, like the name implies, improvisational. Each dancer learns the language of movement, then small to medium groups of them perform it, with one person in the front as a lead. The group rotates regularly to share the lead spot.

It is so beautiful and exhilarating to experience the “mind meld” moments we have while dancing. Sometimes you’re in the back of the group, fixed so keenly on the lead dancer’s every gesture, that you just KNOW what she’s about to do even before she does it, and you both glide so seamlessly as a flock.

I grew-up attending modern and ballet classes, and these are so singular feeling. The students shuffle in, stand separately, stare at the teacher, then they shuffle out. In ATS/ITS you stand close together in a pod of dancers, you tune into each others movements, and you make intimate eye contact, and you SMILE at one another. It’s magical.

One of the other reasons I think I was so enamored with ATS right off the bat was that it reminded me of something I saw in a dream (or past life memory?) many years ago. As a teenager, one night I had a vivid dream of dancing with other women. It looked to be somewhere in Western Europe around the middle ages. Myself and the other women were dressed in plain, country style dresses, with little flowers woven in our long hair. We were dancing in a circle in the grass, cloudy sky overhead, and my soul was bursting with joy and contentment. The feeling was so connected and grounding, being one with myself and my sisters.

Fast forward to a few years ago, the first time I was exposed to ITS movement. I was taking Sabrina Fox’s Tribal Fusion class in San Diego (Tribal Fusion is different- it’s a mostly solo dance form). Sabrina  mixed it up a bit that evening and had us do a little ITS style movement. Since I had only taken Cabaret and Tribal Fusion style classes up until this point, the movement was totally new to me. The class was instructed to form the classic “horseshoe” shape particular to Improvisational Tribal Style, then we danced in groups in the center. I felt so lost! But it was fun.

Then we all shifted out of the horseshoe shape and started circling the room doing grapevine shimmies, and I had a flash of that dream where I danced with other women in the grass. I was suddenly filled with that same exact joy I’d felt in the dream, and I almost came to tears right there in class.

So perhaps one of the reasons why I love ATS so much is that is reminds me of dances I’ve done in another life. Regardless of the past life connection, I think it resonates with many people simply because circle dances, and communal dances have been a part of so many cultural histories. We can’t discount our genetic memory. Many of the modern Western dances that focus on mostly the isolation of the individual don’t give us that same human connection that we really need. In our compartmentalized, nuclear family structured, transient capitalist lives, dance like this is nourishment for our starving souls.

And, of course, I couldn’t close this post without a little video of Fat Chance Bellydance, the mamas of ATS…


Why I Don’t Roll Up My Spine

The body is a sacred garment.

This post will be part of a series of ruminations on dance technique,  healthfulness, and dancing with disabilities.

Of course, as with everything, it is up to your own personal discretion to figure out what works with your body. I give advice based on what I have learned and experienced.

I grew-up dancing, taking mostly modern and ballet classes, and we always did a similar series of stretches and warm-up movements. I’ve since seen the influence of these warm up movements in belly dance classes as well. There is always the assumption that these movements are good for you, when in fact they are often just what that that teacher learned from her teacher, who learned from her teacher and they may or may not actually be good for you. I think as dance teachers, we have the responsibility to study the body and know why we do what we do.

I didn’t start to question these traditional warm-up exercises till I took a Kinesiology class at Mills College several years ago. There I learn about the bio-mechanics of the body and how movement can positively or negatively effect it.


Everyone knows bending over is bad for your back, so why is it when we do it in dance it’s okay?

One exercise my Kinesiology professor had a serious beef with, was the “roll through the spine” movement. This is something I had done everywhere, from jazz, modern, ballet, yoga, belly dance, and even acting classes. All of these very skilled instructors were using this movement, so how could it be bad? Now, this, like most things, is certainly still up for debate. But, as someone who had dealt with serve back issues in my life as a dancer, I tend to listen when I hear a particular movement is unhealthy for the spine.

Here is an example of the movement:

The spine is made up of vertebrae and discs, essentially. When you bend over and curve your back, the curved section of your spine is putting the weight of your entire upper body on that squishy disc  (the “jelly doughnut” as my professor called it) at the hinge point. Repeated performance of this can cause wear on the doughnut, then leading to a herniated disc (of which I actually have had several).

Here is a lovely illustration of this that I found in an article published by Olga Cabel, a yoga teacher who is also not a fan of rolling through the spine:


The only dance teacher I have heard speak of not doing roll down movements was actually Rachel Brice. I give her mad props for that.

Now, this is not to say that you need to always keep your back straight as a board and never flex your vertebrae. Not at all. Experts advise only doing dramatic spine flexion movements where you can successfully engage your core muscles to protect the spine. Also, try to avoid doing movements where the entire weight of your upper body (your top half and especially your head are HEAVY) is not hinged on your curved back.

Also, NEVER feel like you have to do everything that the teacher does. Modify it if you need to, it’s your body, and it’s your job to keep it healthy.

Whenever teachers do the roll-through-the-spine thing, I always go down with a flat back, do a deep bend in my knees, so my thighs support my lower back, drape myself there for a bit, and then rise with a flat back.

Always remember your health is number one in any dance class. You don’t need to push yourself over your limit to impress the teacher or other students.

Also, on a totally different note, I had my first performance with Black Magdalene the other night! I will post more about it soon, hopefully when photos are in. It was fun, sweaty, an exercise in endurance and mind-over-nerves, and we looked fabulous. This weekend I’m performing at Cues and Tattoos with Red Moon Rising. So many good things happening.

Cheers. xx

Mentoring Yourself

A few weeks ago, I got a soft knock on my front door. I opened it to find  the 10-year-old daughter of my neighbors, a sweet and bubbly girl who I always hear belting soulful songs through the thin apartment walls. She asked me, in an adorable child-like rambling fashion, if I would be her “mentor” for a school project. She and her classmates were assigned to find some adult in the community who had shared interests and work with that person for 6 hours total, broken into one hour a week. She wants to be a fashion designer (and a singer) so my experience as a costume designer is relatable.

My first thought was “ME, a MENTOR?” And then self doubt and negativity flooded my brain for a moment… I thought: “But, I’m a broke office drone who has had to switch careers due to random circumstances a few times and still hasn’t realized my forever dream of being a fiscally successful artist… How could *I* mentor anyone???” But the neighbor girl’s cute little face was peering up at me and I just couldn’t say no.
Sure, I said, I used to work as a costume designer, I think I can share something.

So I’ve mulled over in my brain what I would tell her, teach her and talk about. And then I realized that maybe I DO have wisdom to impart. All of my hiccups and false starts and moments of brilliance, and the successes and failures of my peers, have imbued me with knowledge.
So this little girl and I are going to meet for six sessions and talk about being a fashion designer, and I’m sure it will be great fun. Maybe I will inspire her, maybe I will put a little seed in her mind so she has the confidence to succeed better than I did. That would be awesome.

This whole thing has also got me thinking about how I could mentor myself, both the present and past me. I’ve never had a mentor, and I think I’d like one. Who better to do the job then someone who knows me as well as I do? I think I have had some amazing experiences and learned so much from them. So what if some bumps in life kept me from getting where I wished I could be now? Our challenges and flaws are part of our beautiful imperfections, or as the Japansese define it, “wabi-sabi”,  the comprehensive aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

So here are a few things I would advise to my past self. This is also what I try to keep in mind and manifest as much as I can in my present situation:

Be TENACIOUS. Seriously. Once you decide on what you want to do, clamp your jaws down on it like a rabid bulldog and don’t let go. There will be bumps, periods of doubt, critiques from friends and family, but don’t let this dissuade you. Figure out all the steps you need to do what you love. Enact them smartly. And, of course, don’t hold on to a dream that’s not going to work. Know when to let those jaws open and let it go, but give it a damn good try first.

Don’t go into crazy debt if you can help it. Debt hobbles your future mobility, makes you take jobs for money that you generally might not take, and keeps you from being free enough to realize your dreams sometimes. This is a hard one in our society, especially with the pressure to get a college degree and the obscene cost of tuition. The necessity of a college degree depends on your career goal. And getting a degree as a “back-up” to your artistic dream means you’ve already given-up on it. Really. This leads to the next tip…

BE CONFIDENT. (Just like Atreyu) Those big-busted sphinxes with laser beam eyes won’t get me, OH HELL NO.

Don’t give-up your dreams for your partners. (oh, we women do this too much, don’t we?) Yes, collaborate with, and support your partner’s dreams. But, as Janis Joplin said: “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” Sadly, there are those you may date or even marry that think of their partners as accessories. This kind of narcissist will feign interest in your dreams, maybe even entertain the idea of supporting you in them, but in the end will push hard to make their dreams #1. They’ll manipulate you maybe by placating you with the promise of a little slice of your dream (which often gets pulled away when it’s not convenient enough for them), or by saying that after their dream is actualized, they’ll support you in what you want to do (hint: it’s unlikely this will happen). So then you wake-up one day to find that you’re duty in life is now to be their support team and you’re expected to sacrifice and slave away to make their dream come true. If you complain about your miserable role, you’ll be labeled selfish. So, get the heck out of these situations before they permanently hobble you. (and if you keep picking partners like this, you probably have  co-dependency issues, as narcissists and co-dependents go together like peanut butter and jam.)

When I was 20 I seriously gave-up the chance to study abroad in the theatre department of Oxford-fucking-University because my partner at the time cunningly convinced me not to go. Yes, I will FOREVER kick myself in the ass for that one.
So yeah, don’t give-up your dreams for your lovers. A loving partner will always wholeheartedly support and give a shit about your dreams too. This goes back to BEING CONFIDENT.

Don’t let perfectionism cripple you. You will kinda suck at first. That’s okay. Keep doing it anyway.

Ira Glass said it best:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

It took me a long time to get up the confidence to perform belly dance. I’d been studying for years, but just didn’t feel “good enough” yet. But, you don’t get better at performing unless you perform. And I’m so glad I finally got up the guts to get up there, it has been so enriching, even if I do still cringe when I’m about to watch a video of myself!

Diversify what you do, be a smart business person. It’s not easy to be an artist in this culture. The work is undervalued and under-supported.  You have to be crafty to be successful.
A great example of this is my old-time friend, Skyler Fell. She started learning how to play accordion when I knew her in the late 90’s. She transformed her love of playing this instrument into a full fledged business. To do this, she didn’t just play the accordion, she learned how to fix them, how to teach others to play, and also opened a retail store. Badass.

And lastly, I know this speech has been up and down the internet and is like, so 2012, but I still love it.
Just make good art:

I am trying now to follow my own advice, to listen to my inner mentor, and follow these tips as best I can and repair the part of my life where I did not listen. And I think that leads into the very last bit of advice for myself, just do your best and don’t be hard on yourself, you’re amazing just by being. “Success” means many different things.

As for how I am going to mentor my little fashion designer friend, I think I’m just going to encourage her in her dreams, tell her never to give up on them, and we’re going to have a really fun time drawing and sewing purses.

Dance Updates – Shimmy Till Ya Drop

So I have been a busy dancing bee the last few weeks.

I have two big performances coming-up later this month. The first is with the band I recently joined as a dancer, Black Magdalene.
I really love love love this band’s music, it’s right up my alley, and perfect to belly dance to. So go check out their songs. And my co-dancer, the fabulous Ruby McConnell, is incredibly talented, it’s so lovely to dance with her!
We’ve been rehearsing weekly to try to get me at least a little up to speed with their choreography. Whew! It’s a lot to absorb, but such a great time. The dance style incorporates various belly dance styles, from ITS to tribal fusion to modern dance.
I’m also working on a redesign of some of the dance costumes. I’ll post about that soon. Think lovely lace and velvet and sparkly things, oh my!

The second performance is at Cues and Tattoos. It’ll be my first time performing (or even attending) this iconic belly dance festival, and I’m EXCITED. I’m performing with Ruby’s student troupe, and taking a class with the amazing Gypsy Fire Bellydance. This is at the end of the month, and I’ll be writing a whole big juicy post about it.

Aside from these two projects I’ve been dancing quite a bit on my own too, and doing much needed strength-training exercises.  I’m trying to get my chops up so I can last for Black Magdalene’s long sets!

In addition, (YES, MOAR DANCING)I’m thinking about adding some performances to April as well … stay tuned.