Tribal Fest 9-Tsungani and I danced the Lonely Sheppard that year.
As I’ve said, I was no great dancer-especially compared to my contemporaries and the visionaries of the time: Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, Heather Stants, Mira Betz, Frederique David, Elizabeth Strong, Jill Parker, Carolena Nericcio, Princess Farhana (who had just “come out” as a burlesque dancer as well), Kami Liddle and so many more. I </em>was<em> a good teacher, and I loved the way I could see the women. I could see deep into them. It reminded me of basic training actually. I remember being able to see those who would rise to the challenge to become something more than they were, and also those who would break.
Tribal Sooz and I on tour in the Pacific Northwest 2007
After the first class, I could spot those who had found their soul and would rejoice in the beauty they had found there. They were far and few between. These ladies would rocket past their peers in a class and soon be on their way to bigger things. They always had a star quality about them. They cared more about how they looked than their classmates, always coming to class with the perfect mix of street clothes and belly gear that made them look otherworldly. They worked on their technique constantly; were voracious in their quest for more and needled me with questions I couldn’t answer. They pushed way past what I considered good enough at the time. They soon were beyond what I could do for them in a class. And I would be faced with that emotional demon of them surpassing me in some ways. And somehow, I would be able to fight my own demon and open the door, hug and kiss them, and send them on their way with love and encouragement. I recognize now that what I was feeling was a jealousy because I didn’t make myself—my own training, technique, look–the most important thing the way the other big dancers of the time did. I made the class and the troupe and the organizing of everything more important because I was afraid. I was afraid to show all of myself. I was afraid to be as big as I felt inside. Part of it was that I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough, part of it was that I would be judged by my husband and my family. So I played it safe and did what was “adequate”. So instead I excelled at organization and bookkeeping and rallying others to do what I secretly wanted for myself. This made an acceptable excuse for why I was not the best I could be.
Politti Ashcraft and I with our students performing Disco ATS at Tribal Cafe
Other ladies came to support their femininity. They loved class, were devoted students, and very clearly couldn’t or didn’t want to get beyond the place they were in their dance. They wanted the feeling of the class to always be the way it was. They wanted to feel the excitement of being a beautiful sensual goddess, then return to their lives a little lighter, with their cup full of joy. These ladies are the ones who make having a career in belly dance possible. They support their teachers, and anyone else their teacher deems worthy. They pay for workshops and belly dance weekends, and buy the clothes and the jewelry and the DVD’s. They download the music, and come to the shows and have loyalty and devotion for their teachers. And once in a great while, you do touch one of these women in a more profound way. Maybe you had them in a workshop in a town you barely remember for 2 hours. They suddenly wake up in a new way. And you said one thing, you gave them permission to do, or be, or try something they didn’t think they could. And they are changed forever and think you had something to do with it. These moments were/are still so inspirational. They kept me going beyond the time when I should have been done.
Shawna Rai, Politti Ashcraft, and me in the Flame and the Shadow.
Then there were the tormented women. Those trying so hard to connect with themselves, to find a bit of strength and courage to be themselves. I could see very quickly that they never would, at least not in this form. They would do their best, but you could see that were struggling. No matter how well they did in class, they would insist they were terrible. You could see so much on their faces; judgment, and shame, fear and loathing, sadness and anger, with even the most basic concepts. Then one day, some breaking point would occur. A classmate would make and off-handed comment, or I would make a technique correction, and there would be tears or a panic attack and they would run. Sometimes literally. I would never see them again in class. If I did see them again in the world, they would say that belly dance was a huge mistake. I could see that they had touched something and had woken up a part of themselves that they didn’t have the courage to deal with. Maybe they had an emotionally abusive partner, maybe they had been abused as children, maybe they had been sexually assaulted; whatever the reason, they just couldn’t wrestle with their own self-loathing centered around being a woman. In these women I could see a terrible fear, as if they had woken a dragon and weren’t sure they would survive. These broken women I pitied and was also glad they stopped coming. I thought I had been low, and its true—I had been LOW—but I had never been there, or so I told myself. I had never wanted to stay in my cage to be safe. And because I thought I had mustered the courage to leave my deepest darkest cage, I had no patience for those who could not. I know now, I was in a cage of my own self-doubt and dislike, the cage of my marriage, and the cage of others expectations. Mine was a gilded cage that maybe I should have been grateful for. But I did not want to see it and I didn’t know how to get out. I was too tired to even try.
Solace Tour 2007 Trier, Germany with Ruben van Rompaey
Maybe there could have been a time where I should have gone in retreat, and refueled and inspired myself and found new breath in this dance. In fact, I tried to learn from my most inspired friends. But what I noticed is that they appeared to be self-absorbed. A quality at the time that I felt to be deplorable. But they were the most beautiful, they were the most original in their music and their dance. Their costumes were the most gorgeous and intricate. They spent hours getting ready for a performance, creating space, a ritual for themselves to become their best. They spent hours per day perfecting their craft. I didn’t do that for myself. In fact, couldn’t in a strange way. Now I realize that I MUST do this for myself—no matter what I choose to do. I must allow time, space, and effort to surround my endeavors. I am no longer willing to do the cheap version, or the fast version, or the good-enough version. I want to find my full expression, and let that take as many hours or days or months or years as is required. I want to find the best of myself, and keep making it better. I want to continue to evolve, and NOT be satisfied with the status quo. I thank you belly dance for inspiring me. After all my long 20-some years, I have finally received your message.
My first belly dance family at Zamora’s Belly Dance in Fresno, CA