Monday, September 1, 2008

Be a Goddess

Or just move like one...

On my last day at Middle Eastern Dance and Music Camp in Mendocino this past week, I read this off the tiny skirt of the woman walking to breakfast ahead of me. I had to laugh. So that's what it's all about, moving like a Goddess, enjoying that siren song of immortal femininity. Moving like a Goddess will make you feel like one. It's true.

I'd accepted my dance teacher's challenge to spend a week in the Mendocino redwoods immersed in the scene: multiple classes a day, from Arabic singing to Persian dancing, with a full-tilt live music Middle-Eastern cabaret each night until dawn, no kidding. People of all ages and walks of life came to study dance, drumming, violin, kanun, zorna, nay, oud and more. My roommates were two little drummer girls from Santa Barbara and I felt like a shocked parent to hear them return each morning, usually, though not always, later than myself.

Watching Shoshanna, Ruby and Nadira dance the night away with their tribe of sisters, and joining in the joyous movement myself gave me some lovely, inspiring memories. Cabaret style belly dancers are truly the peacocks of the Middle Eastern dance world, and those of us transforming ourselves from ducklings to peacocks love the contact high of sensual, confident womanhood.

Men dance too! After Turkish dancer Ahmet Luleci's late-night cabaret performance, I teased him about his costume (or lack of one) "What, this Calvin Klein shirt's not good enough?" he laughed. While I may be a tiny bit biased, I don't think the men work as hard as the women at dancing...they strike magnificent poses, though.

"Translate the music with your body!" says renowned Arab percussionist and outstanding dance teacher Souhail Kaspar, (who reminded me a little of Yul Brynner in the 1956 movie The King and I.) "This is the way you can honor my culture." And of course, like learning a language, you have to learn it the way it's actually spoken by native speakers. To see the teasing between drummer and dancer was one of the best treats of my week. This kind of subtlety is lost when the dance goes completely fusion, with no consciousness of the art form's history, foundation or structure.

While American Bellydance specializes in a fusion of east and west, certain fundamentals of interpreting the music will always apply. That is, unless dancers want musicians to hear the metaphorical fingernails on the chalkboard when they perform in their luscious (and very expensive) Sheherazade costumes.

Dancers themselves are not necessarily passionately in love or more sensually fulfilled than the average Jane Doe. They face the same challenges as all women. But they are fulfilled in the dance, which is an expression of happiness within. They seem to live more in their womanhood. The body, after all, is often our greatest teacher. After much work and exploration, it is where our deepest truths can be found.

The real eye-opener (or ear opener) of the week was the beauty and power of dancing to live music. Lighthearted kanun player Hasan Issakut, with his million dollar smile (his friends say he's George Clooney's double) had no toys until he was 8 years old, when his gypsy Dad gave him a violin that became his “imaginary friend.” The first composition on his CD, "Joy Regardless" is titled, unabashedly, "I love you."

Lebanese-Palestinian violinist Georges Lamman, with his sweet pout and dour sense of humor, taught singing and violin. His students sang transliterated Arabic love songs, while he accompanied on his melancholy violin. A variety of drums kept everyone moving, the heartbeat of the week. The music is passionate, romantic, and festive. Passion, after all, is ultimately about pain, so much of the music is about lost love: I love you and I gave you my all, only to be scorned! Or dance and play now, these are the best times, when the Divine joins us on earth.

Yes, Middle-Eastern male musicians do have a well-deserved reputation. Not much drinking, but certainly a lot of focused appreciation for the feminine, fueled in part perhaps by all those ancient, seductive dance moves, mixed with passionate, joyous music. Find yourself in your body with the music and you will learn amazing things; about yourself, and about your community of fellow-travelers in this life.

A dancer, like an athlete, must do the work to create the high. It’s a practice art and even when the practice is boring, stressful, or disappointing in some way, we keep doing it. Through this work we reap the benefits of a healthier body and spirit. Constantly practicing the necessary mental and physical stength can eventually make the dance look easy. The true thrill is when that transformation takes place.

"Be a pretty martini glass," says Souhail's protegé Zeva, as we hit the downbeat with alternating feet, while Zajira of Black Sheep Belly Dance says she sees herself as one of those antique dolls with strings connecting rib-cage and pelvis. The pelvis hangs from those strings, which swirl around in our hip circles. The "urban tribal" dancers are the most committed in their way, with brightly colored hair and tattoos. It's a trance like form, with the leader guiding the troupe through spontaneous choreographies.

"What’s going on in my head is not always what’s really going on," says the beautiful Nadira, who gave a mesmerizing performance at the cabaret. Yet her internal state was quite different, critical, self-doubting. How funny! Standing in the bathroom, wrapped in our towels post-shower, we have a deep snippet of conversation about the nature of reality. Perception alone is not reality, instead it's a combination of perception and objective truth. The practice of this highly complex dance can lead one to think in these ways.

Dancers and musicians, like all performers, live most vividly in the Now, and understand that no one can do your work for you. This translates into a higher level of personal responsibility. While so much of what we achieve and learn happens in community, I alone am my pilot. No one’s coming to save me. Who'd have thought that this could be not only a liberating concept, but also an exciting one?

Gawahzee dancers of the 19th century
The divine Ruby
Ahmet in fine form
Ahmet & Hassan share a laugh
Souhail bangs the drum for Aisha
The lovely Janikea
Casbah stage
For more pics, go to my Flickr site!


Kaori said...

Nice writing, Linda. I enjoyed meeting with you, and singing together! I miss the music and the days and nights lost in the woods dreaming about the dance and music! Hope to see you there again! Kaori

Linda Rowland-Jones said...

Thanks Kaori! It was a treat to meet you as well. I loved what you said about Middle-Eastern music, that "the downbeat is so comforting." I think of this now when I dance ;-)