Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Packing the Trapeze

Belly Dancer Celia

          How does one fit a trapeze into a suitcase? This is the question my boyfriend Aaron and I found ourselves grappling with two hours before our flight to Athens on April 1, 2012. The trapeze was made by fifth generation circus performer Sacha Pavlata, who is married to my belly dance mentor, Melina. Together, they run a studio in Waltham, MA called Moody Street Circus where Aaron and I practice trapeze. The packing issue was not really the size of the object, but rather its weight. Our Delta international flight allowed each passenger one 50lb bag to check and two small carry-on items. Throughout the week of preparation which preceded our departure, I had selectively (and erroneously) packed with the volume – not the weight – of my suitcase in mind.
My packing list included two belly dance costumes, veils which do not need to be ironed, false eyelashes, a stack of books, my dance notebook, a travel journal, and clothing for the trip. These items reflect my reasons for embarking on this six week voyage. Aaron and I are going to live with the legendary belly dance artist Rhea of Greece. For one week, Rhea will take us to Cairo, Egypt. For another week, we will go to Venice. I am going to Greece because I want to study with Rhea and take my dancing to a new level of professionalism. I am going because I want to spend time reading up on great dancers (Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Twyla Tharp, and Martha Graham). Finally, I am going because I want to reward myself for the two years I spent at a limited and sterile vocation: processing contracts for a company that, while committed to treating its employees well, nonetheless necessitated 9 hours of corporate drudgery every day. When I return to the United States, belly dance will be my full time gig.
          I am also going to write. Writing and dancing are the two activities that have enriched my life above all others – they are the two mediums which, I believe, will allow me to express myself if I am able to become technically versed. When I was child, I used to entertain myself by writing novels. When I grew tired of playing author, I would turn up my mom’s 1980’s workout music and throw myself—leaping, lunging, and twisting—around our living room. My connection to the music was physical. I felt the energy of the songs and it made me want to move. I did not always comply with the beat or articulate the melody. Since I discovered belly dance at age 17, I have worked every day toward turning my instinctual love of moving into an artful expression that I can offer for audiences. Another of my favorite childhood past-times was playing on the singlepoint trapeze I hung from a tree in our backyard. This brings me back to my packing dilemma.
          Aaron and I were able to coerce my suitcase into making weight by removing items. These items, now, needed to go into his suitcase. On my performer’s budget, I could not afford to pay $100 to check a second bag. We confronted the suitcase, eyeing its swelling, bloated, garment-spilling form with determination. The zipper had to zip. Otherwise, the trapeze could not go to Greece! We took turns straining against it. We exercised our geometric brains by repacking things in more efficient ways. Finally, Aaron sat on the suitcase, and I sat on him. The zipper gave in! We were going to Greece!

Rhea of Greece

Rhea in Athens

          Our ten hour flight concluded with an introduction to the legendary performer at the Acropolis metro stop. Rhea is like Socrates incarnate. Completely true to herself and a wealth of insight, she loves engaging the people she meets in conversations on history, society, and human nature. On many occasions since our arrival (usually over souvlaki, mousaka, or some other culinary indulgence), Aaron and I have heard her views on Greek culture, her theories on the effects of arbitrary authority, and her understanding of recent political events.
          In its corner of the Plaka, directly beneath the Parthenon, Rhea’s apartment is an unforgettable place. She has lived there and supported herself through belly dance for thirty-five years. Everything about its appearance conveys her vast experience. Its walls are adorned with photographs of herself and her two daughters, Piper and Melina, who are also professional belly dancers. They strike proud, feminine poses in bejeweled costumes—appearing in family photographs, on promotional fliers, and on CD covers. Every surface of Rhea’s apartment is covered with a Middle Eastern tapestry, a colorful cloth from Egypt, or a beaded veil. Her seating area, where students gather after class, is plush with embroidered cushions. Swords, golden canes, and other props hang on the walls and occupy corners. For visitors, all this adornment has both a sensory overload effect and a way of communicating the extent of this expert dancer’s accomplishments. Her travels, her vibrant performances, and her work as a mentor for others are represented by her décor.

 Celia in front of a Byzantine Church in Monastiraki

The City

          When Isadora Duncan and her siblings discovered Paris in the early 1900’s, she experienced an unprecedented excitement which she expresses in her autobiography: “we used to get up at five o’clock in the morning, such was our excitement at being in Paris, and begin the day by dancing in the gardens of Luxembourg, walk for miles all over Paris, and spend hours in the Louvre…there was not a moment before which we did not stand in adoration, our young American souls uplifted before this culture which we had striven so hard to find”. With a similar sentiment, Aaron and I have spent our days navigating the labyrinth of ancient streets in the Plaka – wondering mortals – two persons out of countless others that have passed before these ancient ruins in the 2,500 years since their construction. Each morning, I wake up early to go running beneath the Parthenon. On these excursions, I feel my body take in the Greek air. I contemplate the scale of the monument before me and allow my spirit to reel with vertigo. I feel connected to the pan-historical human pursuit of art and physical aptitude.

Aaron stands before the Parthenon Amphitheatre

          Aaron and I have enjoyed fine Mediterranean weather here in Greece. For us, Athens has been a happy city of curving streets, quant tavernas, neo-classical buildings, gyro stands, Byzantine churches, and Ionic architecture. These picturesque sights threaten to make us forget the economic and political context of our trip, which Aaron’s twin brother has named the “World Crisis Tour 2012”. With their economy on the verge of collapse, protestors have been gathering in Syntagma square to decry the austerity measures government officials put in place – particularly pension cuts. Per Rhea, another major change in Greece that has not gone over well is the new property tax. Several days ago, a heavily publicized suicide attempt by one of the protestors dramatized this state of affairs, as did troops armed with tear gas lining the streets around Syntagma. Despite these events, the overall mood remains calm. Since Syntagma reopened after officials briefly shut it down, the day to day pace of the city continues as usual.

The Plaka

The Dance

          At age 25, I am completely committed to belly dance. I am a professional dancer in the greater Boston area, and have been performing several nights a week at a variety of venues for the past two years. Belly dance is an art form that allows the dancer to explore her individuality. In most venues, the music is live and the dancer performs a 20-30 minute set by herself. Without choreography or other performers with whom she must coordinate, she is free to improvise. The combinations she invents on the spot are original and unique to her understanding of the music. While encouraging individual expression, belly dance also offers a rich cultural framework. The vocabulary has roots in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, and North Africa. Women perform belly dance as part of big celebrations and in restaurants where people go for live entertainment. Especially in the Middle East, women also belly dance in groups, purely for their own enjoyment.

The Porch of the Caryatids

          I love belly dance for is physical and intellectual demands. When I perform, I feel that my soul and my body are united in an aesthetic challenge. The mind must interpret the music quickly and create combinations in real time. The body must sustain the aerobic nature of the set. There is a wonderful, social element as well. Melina has taught me to respond to my audience in ways that are suited to the crowd that turns out on the night of my show. If there are children, it is fun to teach them snake arms. If there are people who have just gotten engaged, bringing them out on the dance floor can make their night. Usually, audiences want a belly dance show to include moments in which the dancer is the star and moments in which the dance floor is open to all. On the best nights, I feel that the restaurant becomes a community of parties who have never met me and have never met each other, but can dance together and experience an unconditional, positive exchange. This attitude towards performing is consistent with something Rhea revealed to me: much of one’s success as a belly dancer must come, not from technical ability, but from an understanding of human nature.

Rhea, Celia and Aaron celebrate the trip in a local taverna

Since I arrived, Rhea has provided unending opportunities for me to dance, learn, and fulfill my purpose in coming here. I am the student of a great master, and I have much to improve. On several occasions, Rhea has taken me to dance in the local tavernas where she, Melina, and Piper have performed for many years. On the stages where I found myself spinning and shimmying, their rhythmic feet have tread with grace and ability –contributing to the art of belly dance as we understand it today. Rhea’s connections run through the Plaka like arteries which channel the blood of her influence. Everywhere we go free food and wine appear on the table as opportunities for me to perform present themselves. Live orchestras play upbeat, traditional songs and smooth taksims. Between my numbers, the Greek patrons participate in line dances and sporadic solos. These are evenings of storytelling, red wine, music, and performance – evenings that offer me the chance to share my skills as they currently are, to look back into the past through Rhea’s stories, and to learn things which will inform the future of my craft. I have come to Greece, and I have begun my immersion into the art of Terpsichore. If the Greeks had a muse for the trapeze, I would be her devotee, too.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Crossing the Street in Cairo

            There are no crosswalks in Cairo. Picture the scene: I have just arrived with Aaron and Rhea. Our cab has dropped us off across the street from the El Hussein Hotel. With a nonchalant demeanor, Rhea steps into the street. Aaron and I observe her from one bank of the surging tide of cars. Horns blast. Buses, taxis and mopeds are carried along by undercurrents of diesel and post-industrial pollution. She has planned her course with perfect timing, calculating the velocity of the vehicles and accounting for possible jams. The Egyptian pedestrians around her are doing the same. Efficiently, she arrives at the far bank. Aaron and I prepare to get our feet wet and follow.

Street Scene in Cairo

            The pace of life in the streets of Cairo was stimulating, unnerving and fascinating all at once. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt’s political climate is unstable – a reality that caused Aaron and I to think hard about our decision to go. We did not want to get caught in a politically motivated riot. Part of our apprehension came from the government’s suspicion of Americans in the country. Nervously, we followed the news coverage of the American activists who were imprisoned by the government earlier in the year and accused of spying. Weighing in favor of the trip was the fact that I could not find any recent accounts of Americans being harmed. The activists made it out of the country safely. In addition to researching the news publications, I consulted a friend who is living in Cairo. She told us that day to day, she feels safe. Egypt has mostly escaped the extremism that exists in its neighboring countries. Aaron made the point that if we wanted to see the Pyramids and experience Egypt, this might be our last chance to do so. Who knows what the political climate will be like in a few years. Additionally, we had the added security of traveling with Rhea, who is familiar with the culture and knows how to navigate the country.
Just as the protagonists of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights use their wit to oust evil genies, Rhea has outsmarted danger in her previous travels. In 1984, she was hired to do a series of special shows in Khartoum.  Her routine performance schedule was interrupted when a group of 6 armed men in militant garb broke down the door of her room, demanding money and alcohol. To feign incompetence, she repeated their words instead of responding:
 “We want money and alcohol”
“Yes! We want money and alcohol!”
“No! WE want money and alcohol!”
“Yes! Yes! We WANT money and alcohol!”
            Finally she switched to pleading: I have nothing to give you – I am not a wealthy patron of the hotel, I am just a dancer here. She performed a few head slides. Believing her, the leader took a flask out of his pocket and gave her a sip. The group left. Rhea laughs when she tells this story because in the end, she was the one who got alcohol from the militants. Reflecting further, she says she does not know why she was not killed, or why her instinct was to resist their demands. She acted based on the feeling that the aggressors were like kids who had just tried on their uniforms. They did not appear to be hardened killers. Her proven ability to assess situations quickly made Aaron and I feel confident in traveling with her.
For me, crossing the street in Cairo has become allegorical of the trip as a whole. I activated my faculties and set out into the oncoming traffic with the same sense of purpose that helps me perform aerial arts with Melina and Sacha. Is it dangerous? It could be if one does not take responsibility for oneself. Is it worth it? Yes! Rhea’s confidence in my ability to cross safely reflects the risk-taking attitude she and Melina have always shared with students: you must not allow psychological spooks or unfounded hang-ups to prevent you from living a life uncommon.

Belly Dance Costumes for Sale in the Market.

            Rhea visits Cairo several times a year to shop. The 700 year old marketplace in Old Cairo is her destination for swords, costumes, and healthful oils. Her hotel of choice is located across from the El Hussein Mosque. At 20 Euros a night, it agreed with my performers’ budget. It was also noisy. 5 times a day, beginning at 5 AM, the call to prayer sounded from the minarets. All night, the street bellow boomed with music from a nearby hookah lounge. After Aaron repaired the light in our bathroom by wiring it to the hot water switch, we were ready to make ourselves at home. At night, we ventured out to absorb the sights. There was a buzz and an energy on the streets that is uniquely North African. Almost all of the women were wearing the hijab. The variety in the rest of their dress ranged from full face veils to loose fitting tunic dresses to jeans. Many women wore long-sleeved shirts under tank tops – a fashion that was both modest and contemporary. 
While we were out, I saw beaded skirts and jewelry for sale everywhere! It was the Raks Sharki world capital! When we finally returned to our room at 2:00 AM, I could not contain my belly dancer’s high. Picking up the rhythm of an Egyptian ensemble playing somewhere outside, I dug a hip scarf out of my luggage and danced wildly between the closet and the night stand.

            Purchasing a costume was one of my biggest priorities. In popular culture, belly dance attire is understood simply for its sexiness. Revealing the midriff and covered with sequins, the costumes are indeed sexy. They are also extremely expensive. For me, their costliness and their elaborate adornments elevate the female dancer and celebrate the work she has put into her art. She communicates her creativity and quick-thinking through the dance combinations she performs, allowing her audience to appreciate her mind. Intelligence and skill are associated with the gorgeous costume, and they become sexy, too.
On another level, having a striking costume that catches the light is a critical aspect of a dancer’s showmanship. Just as I would go to a music concert to enjoy a form of art that I respect, but have not invested in learning, audiences watch me perform so that they can experience belly dance without putting in the years it takes to become a professional. They want to see an extravagant costume because it is not something they have in their closets. The gems and sequins take the dance out of the quotidian realm and make it special.
            That having been said, finding a costume in the United States is not easy. Belly dance stores are few and far between. I used to drive an hour and a half to shop in Rhode Island until I began commissioning costumes from designers who create them especially for me. Ready-made costumes can be purchased on eBay or from friends in the belly dance community. The problem with these methods is that the selection is never very great. It can take months of searching to find something nice. Once one purchases a costume, it needs to be tailored. Many of the costumes one acquires this way originally come from Egypt, where they are created. Dancers like Rhea travel to Cairo and fill their suitcases with items to sell to their students. By going to Egypt, I was able to browse the surplus myself.
            In the Khan El-Khalili market, I saw more costumes than I have ever seen assembled at one time. They drape from manikins in shop windows. They hang outdoors in sparkling, colorful rows. Veils, cymbals, and other props are sold in glittering heaps.  After perusing the outdoor vendors, I made an appointment with the internationally famous dealer, Mr. Mahmoud Abd El Ghaffar. His shop is like a belly dance department store. The quality he offers is the best in the market, and he does not barter. The costume I decided to get for myself (a present from Aaron) is a bright purple color will shine onstage. Dripping beads and crystals will emphasize all of my movements. Happily, we paid about a third of what it would cost in the U.S. In the last days of our trip, I found three more costumes which I will resell to pay for my plane ticket. 

Celia poses with Mr. Ghaffar in his store.

            While we were in Egypt, Aaron and I experienced political tension first hand. On our third day, there was a protest in Tahrir Square. Without English newspapers in the area and a long walk to the internet café, we fell into the habit of getting news updates from Mr. Khaled at the concierge. The day of the protest was a Friday, and we had decided not to go downtown. In Egypt, there is no work on Friday. For that reason, it is the day of the week when political agitation usually manifests itself—either before or after the heat of the day. In our morning news briefing, Mr. Khaled told us that one of the candidates for president (Hazem Abu Ismail) was being eliminated because his mother had American citizenship. “People are very angry”, he said. “They are in an uproar against him”.  The ever-present shade of wariness that colored our trip suddenly got darker. The event suggested a pervasive anti-American feeling. We feared what would happen if it were directed against us.

View of the front line of the protest from our taxi.

            Resolute on avoiding Tahrir Square, Aaron, Rhea, and I set out in a taxi to meet up with some Greek friends. The cab was following its course through Cairo when we saw the road before us closing down. A crowd of protestors was approaching, numbering over 100,000 and carrying Egyptian flags. The cab made a U-turn and reversed its course, driving parallel to the protestors and allowing us a long view of the march. The driver came to the road on which he had intended to turn and found it was already closed. He made another U-turn and sped straight through the heart of Tahrir square, attempting to outrun the protestors. Aaron and I found ourselves in exactly the kind of situation that had made us hesitate to come to Egypt: a large crowd that had rallied around an anti-American issue. From the front of the taxi, Rhea shouted “Yunan! It means you are Greek! If we are stopped we will say Yunan!” Police carrying road blockers waived our taxi through a florescent gate. We were the last vehicle to pass before they shut down the square. Beyond the crowd, the highway took us by the burned-out headquarters of President Mubarak’s government: the aftermath of Revolutionary riots.

President Mubarak's former headquarters.

            When we finally found an English newspaper, the front page had a large color photo of the march. Reading the article, I learned that the protestors were actually Ismail’s supporters. The language barrier that separated us and Mr. Khaled had created a miscommunication. People were outraged that their candidate was going to be disqualified, not that his mother had an American passport. Suddenly, the anti-American feeling we had sensed seemed like a false perception. Reading up on Ismail, however, I learned that his ultra-conservative policies would have included building an Egyptian state similar to Iran in its opposition to the U.S. Two weeks after we departed, a subsequent protest left over 20 people dead. In this light, layers of real and imagined dangers present themselves. Going to Egypt was definitely a risk, but it was one that we thought out thoroughly. There is a huge difference between the peaceful protest that occurred while we were in the country and the one that happened on May 2, which was closer to the elections. In the end, we were able to experience Egypt and go home.

Celia climbs the final 15 feet of the Bab Zuwayla Tower.

            The day following the protest, Aaron and I met up with a pair of Australians who suggested we visit the Bab Zuwayla Tower. Built in 1092, the structure is one of the highest points in the city. A narrow, tenth-century passageway led us up the stone. The steps were steep, causing our thighs to burn as we climbed. Intermittently spaced windows allowed us glimpses of the increasing distance to the ground. Near the top of the tower, the stone stairway stopped and left us to contend with fifteen feet of thin iron rungs. We suppressed our fear of the height and ascended. Reaching the pinnacle of the tower, a panoramic view of Cairo rewarded us. The rushing wind caused us to squint and tossed my hair in my face. Just then, the call to prayer sounded from all around the city. In that experience of height, peace, and sound, I reflected on the phonetics of the word “Allah”. It is like a sigh – to utter the word is to give an expression of awe and reverence in the face of creation.  

View from the top.

All photos by Aaron P.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Whirling Dervishes and the Art of the Ancients

“Four thousand years is an eternity. Just saying it over and over again gives no conception of the ages that have gone by…stop and think of how far off William the Conqueror seems. That takes you only a quarter of the way back. Julius Caesar takes you halfway back. With Saul and David you are three fourths of the way, but there remains another thousand years to bridge with your imagination.”      — Herbert Winlock, Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing for a 1920 museum publication.

Finger Cymbal Soloist at the Sufi Performance

When I arrived in Cairo, I saw a truly profound example of art at its most sacred: a performance by the Tannoura troupe of Sufi Whirling Dervishes. I was drawn to the Dervishes by my kinetic curiosity. What would a show look like if the key performers spun throughout the entire program? I wanted the chance to marvel at individuals who could physically withstand such a long spin, and I wanted to know how they would keep the performance entertaining.
            The show started with music, beginning with an instrumental ensemble and breaking into solos. The star performer was an elderly man, clearly in his seventies, who played a set of large finger cymbals. He performed with rhythmic sensitivity and an exceptional ability to connect with his audience. We were awe struck by his musical dexterity and poise onstage. The age in his face served only to enhance his graceful gestures and balletic poses by means of contrast. His joyful expressions and playful demeanor delighted everyone in the crowd.
            As the show developed and grew richer, movement came to accompany music. The Dervishes began to whirl, first in pairs and small groups, then receding to allow one performer the prominent center position. He whirled for over twenty minutes, building on the musical crescendos and riding the rhythms with uplifted arms. At times, the other Dervishes performed simple steps in a line upstage. At other moments, they created vibrant, swirling patterns around him. For the audience, this spectacle of motion was endlessly entertaining – but it also served to create an enlightening experience for the featured Dervish.  He had a combination of powerful stimuli: the music, his whirling, the whirling of those around him, and the supportive presence of the audience. He gestured to the heavens, at times closing his eyes with an expression that conveyed both exhalation and spiritual serenity. The enraptured exchange between the audience and the Dervish became a spiraling cycle of energy and excitement, giving and receiving. I was in love with the show – indescribably happy to witness to a tradition that served to invoke the physical, joyous sensation of the Devine through movement.

Sufi Whirling

After the show, I felt an obsessive desire to relive the Sufi performance over and over – to hold it constantly in the foreground of my memory. I found articles on the Mevlevi Order of the Whirling Dervishes and cherished every piece of information I came across. It was founded in the 13th Century A.D by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī. A huge part of the Sufi doctrine emphasizes the need to give up all one’s worldly possessions in order to focus on spiritual matters. The simplicity of the white robes the Sufis wore onstage throughout most of the performance I saw demonstrates this aspect of their faith. By whirling and listening to music, the Sufis seek to temporarily induce an intoxicated state of mind in which they abandon all rational awareness, feeling only the presence of God. Since its naissance, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes has been taking this experience into the performance realm and sharing it with observers.

Lorna Dances on the Nile Pharaoh


Aaron and I in front of the Egyptian Museum

            Unlike the art of dance, the mask of Tutankhamen (c. 14th Century B.C.) is remarkable because it is static – frozen in both time and form. At the Egyptian Museum, Aaron and I paid homage to this treasure. The face of the Pharaoh has the soft, harmonious quality of living flesh. One can sense the muscle structure beneath its surface. This illusion of life is so complete that when I looked at the mask, I was amazed that it could not, in fact, move. According to the ancient Egyptians, the mask of a mummy must replicate the features of the deceased with absolute accuracy to ensure the spirit’s ability to recognize its resting place. The brilliantly realistic quality of the piece, therefore, resulted from the spiritual purpose of its creators.
            On our last day in Cairo, Aaron and I traveled out to the Pyramids of the Giza Necropolis by camel. The site includes the Great Pyramid of Giza (c. 2560-2540 B.C.), the Pyramid of Khafre (c. 2558-2532 B.C.), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (c. 26th Century B.C.). Rhea did not want to join us. She has already seen them, and found them to be “dead things”. In her view, the Pharaohs built them out in the desert because they did not want thousands of people gawking at them every day – much less going inside. According to her, they were meant exclusively, and unaestheticly, to serve the pursuit of a peaceful afterlife. I tried to reconcile my desire to see the last surviving example of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with my belief in her reasoning via a compromise: I went up to the Pyramids, but I did not enter the shrines.

An excursion to see the Pyramids of Giza

There are works of art which unite humanity in their ability to touch all peoples, regardless of nationality. The pyramids and the ancient artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen obviously rank in this category. They have a curio-like appeal by virtue of their age alone, being material structures that have somehow escaped the decay of many passing millennia. Like dance and circus, they have the ability to make those who see them proud to be human. When audience members see a dancer perform an extraordinarily complex sequence of steps in perfect time, or when they see a tight rope walker fearlessly cross a perilous divide, the joy that they experience comes from their renewed faith in human ability. They share the glory of the achievement because they can identify with the performer as members of the same, capable species. The wonders of Ancient Egypt stand testament to the universal human instinct to create –an instinct that we share, amazingly, with individuals who lived and died over 4,000 years ago.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Venetian Chocolate

I have a sweet tooth. I got it from my father. When things were slow at my office job, I would run Google image searches for desserts. Try it for yourself! Type in “Red Velvet Cake”, “Molten Chocolate” or “Crème Brulee French Toast”. The results take eye candy to a literal level. All kinds of sweets entice me. I love little snacks like cupcakes and cookies, breakfast items like pancakes and croissants, and of course, serious indulgences like chocolate fudge covered, whipped cream topped ice cream sundaes served over warm brownie. I do not eat these things every day, and I do not gorge myself when I go out, but the level of sugar consumption I could be capable of is pretty astounding.

Walking along a canal in Venice

            Aaron and I spent a week in Venice because we wanted a treat. While our entire trip was a pleasure, I had professional engagements in Greece and Egypt. I was teaching dance classes, performing, shopping for costumes, and of course, learning from Rhea. I found great happiness in these activities, but in Venice, Aaron and I sought out pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It was a week long date, and after somehow maintaining a relationship despite two heavy work schedules for almost a year, it was just what we needed.  

Venetian scenery

            Before I left my office job, my schedule kept me constantly pushing. I knew that I had to improve my dance skills and promote myself as a performer despite having to do a full day five days a week at the company for which I worked. I would get up at 6:00 AM to review choreographies. At the office, I skipped my lunch break so that I could leave earlier. After work, I spent 1-2 hours running or conditioning on aerial equipment. Many days, I would spend another hour taking dance class. I kept journals of my progress, outlining goals for upcoming performances, taking notes from class, and planning practice sessions for myself. On Fridays and Saturdays, I performed, often several times in one evening. Sometimes, I would do an afternoon performance in Connecticut, a night show in Rhode Island, and a rehearsal in Massachusetts the next morning.
One gig in particular illustrates the intensity of building a dance career while sustaining a nine to five. About a year ago, a nightclub in Providence contacted Melina to hire circus performers for their anniversary event. Melina included my aerial silks act in the package she offered them. She and Sacha performed on the trapeze. The nightclub had booked us for two shows, one on Thursday and the other on Saturday. The Thursday show happened to be on the last day of the corporate quarter, which meant that my responsibilities at the office were tripled. I stayed for an extra three hours making sure all the contracts for the company had come in, finishing quota reports, and tallying the revenue for the past three months. I got home with barely enough time to shower, grabbed an energy bar, and drove down to Rhode Island with Melina and Sacha.
We were scheduled to perform two shows, one at 11:30 PM and the other at 1:00 AM. When it was our turn to go on, we did our aerial acts high above the crowd, under strobe lights, with a smoke machine going all around us. The management had set up the club’s ten foot speakers directly underneath us, and I could feel the sonic waves vibrating through my body as I went through my splits and inversions. We were not performing with a net or any safety equipment whatsoever. Sacha is a fifth generation circus performer. In his family, total reliance on one’s strength and courage is part of the art. We finished at the club around 2:00 AM. The next morning, I woke up early to tie up loose ends at the office. From the office, I went directly to Karoun Restaurant to do a belly dance show. Then on Saturday, we went back to the night club to do the whole aerial performance again.

Celia performs on the aerial silks

In sum, the past year has been sweaty. Belly dance artist Nourhan Sharif said during a workshop once that in order to be a dancer, you have to suffer. She added that this does not mean you have to be an unhappy person. I can connect with this statement because while some aspects of the job do create unpleasant sensations, feeling momentarily tired and challenged has never caused me lasting discontent. Sometimes when I am working out very intensely, a sensational thing happens whereby the feeling of exertion stops hurting and becomes pleasurable. Anyone who pushes him or herself physically on a regular basis knows what I am talking about – the endorphin high! The beautiful union of effort and reward whereby the one follows the other not immediately, but simultaneously! Novelist Haruki Murakami expresses a complementary idea in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Venetian Masks

            In Venice, there was no possibility for work. Aaron and I spent our time sampling Italian seafood, strolling along the canals, visiting art museums, and fantasizing about living like the wealthy tourists we saw everywhere.  There were many, many wealthy tourists. We learned from a gondolier that the city has under 60,000 residents. The average number of tourists who visit the city each day is 55,000. Aaron and I went at the height of the tourist season, during which the number can exceed 150,000 per day. According to the gondolier, almost everyone who actually lives in Venice works some aspect of the tourist industry. Essentially, the city is a playground for leisure-seeking vacationers who have an affinity for European grandeur and cultured recreation.

Police boat

Despite the pervasive tourist activity, Venice has an historical authenticity which keeps it from feeling like an amusement park. Founded on a lagoon by refugees who fled Rome after its decline in the fourth century, the city’s great charm comes from its network of canals and the little boats that facilitate day to day life. The delightful quirks of the city are endless. There are boats for municipal functions: the garbage boat, the police boat, the fire boat, etc. There are street lights suspended at intersections over the water. Around corners where the canal becomes especially narrow, little mirrors prevent collisions. In a city where waterways exist everywhere, romantic strolls are unavoidable. Aaron and I enjoyed trips to the Dodge’s Palace, the glassmakers’ isle of Murano, and the Peggy Guggenheim museum. At an exhibit on violin making, I learned that the city has been attracting pleasure seeking travelers since before the 18th century, and that some of Vivaldi’s music was composed for their entertainment.

Wood block printer's shop

             Opportunities to indulge one’s desires were prolific. Around the Piazza San Marco, expensive boutiques sold $900 shoes and $4,000 handbags. Glittering, elegantly decorated masks hung in display windows.  Restaurants throughout the city served up pasta, gnocchi, pizza, and white wine. Expensively dressed people walked expensive little dogs over the bridges and through the squares. Stand after stand offered gelato in great, fluffy heaps of cascading sugar. I tried gelato for the first time, and despite my sweet tooth, I didn’t like it. It has a strange texture and it doesn’t really melt. I found it to be a second-rate dessert— like ice cream’s unsuccessful cousin. My Venetian fix would have to come from something else.

Gelato for sale

            Satisfaction is an infamously coquettish thing. I find that even when I partake of the most lavish, seductive sweets, the last bite never leaves me fulfilled. Satisfaction in art is even more elusive. Some days, my confidence as a dancer soars, other days, it descends darkly into a necropolis of doubt. I have learned that these highs and lows are not just part of the creative process—they drive it. A wonderful extract from Martha Graham deals with these issues. It hangs on the door of Melina’s studio and encourages her students as they come in for class:
            “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching...”

The fix is found

            On our last day in Venice, Aaron and I stopped by a little pastry shop. I surveyed the rows of biscotti and macaroons until I found a little cookie that called to me. It was fairly simple –one round slab of Venetian chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of shortbread. I held it upright between my thumb and first three fingers, the most enjoyable way to eat a cookie! Each bite brought me happiness…and there is a great difference between happiness and satisfaction. The one is possible, the other is not. But who really wants satisfaction? The turbulence of ambition is healthier and more stimulating, provided there are little moments of relaxation along the way. My wonderfully enjoyable week in Venice was over, and I looked forward to getting back to work. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

All That Glitters

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” ― Voltaire
Celia reads Isadora Duncan at Delphi
Following our indulgent sojourn in Venice, Aaron and I spent the final weeks of our trip in Athens once again, immersing ourselves in Rhea’s world of dance and storytelling. She took us out to the tavernas every night until our departure, procuring saganaki, answering invitations to dance, and sharing episodes from her past. She told us that one of her greatest accomplishments in life was finding a means of supporting herself without hurting anyone else in the process. That means, of course, was dance. Family, art, and income are inextricably bound for Rhea and her daughter Melina. As their student, the instruction that I am receiving goes beyond technique and choreographed sequences. They are showing me the art of reaching audiences on a deeply emotional level while earning a livelihood at the same time. For them, and for me, belly dance is not just a hobby. It is a highly evolved, complex art form.
Belly dancing requires endless work –ideally, a lifetime. A dancer must understand a wide variety of Middle Eastern rhythms, have the ability to reflect different musical textures, and recognize the emotional impact of her art. She needs to spend time studying music, conditioning physically, and evolving aesthetic ideas. It is also important for her to acquire performance experience in a variety of settings. In America, professional belly dancers are often hired by many different cultural groups. Becoming familiar with the tastes and taboos of each group is a gradual effort that involves some armature anthropology and an intuitive sense of the universal human spirit. Due to all of these challenges, belly dance will only continue to grow as an art form if dancers can pursue it full time. It is worthy of being considered a career.
My first professional performance was a 30 minute set at Karoun Restaurant, where Melina had invited me to dance as a kind of apprentice. We performed an opening number together and two solo pieces – one for each of us.  During her solo, I watched with hushed appreciation from the side of the stage. No one can captivate a crowd like Melina. Her shows are rich with a multitude of talents. One moment, she is revolving with her veil like a whirling dervish. The next, she is executing a perfect back bend while perched atop three glass goblets. For some shows, she dances while balancing a tray of burning candles on her head. For others, she does her world renowned sword and dagger act. Sometimes, she does both.
Melina performs at Karoun with the Fred Elias Ensemble. Photograph by Alice Gebura

I had the enviable role of both spectator and participant. After my solo ended, her sword music came on and I watched her descend to the floor in a full split, clenching a dagger between her teeth with a saber balanced on its tip. Her costume glittered in the warm restaurant lighting. Beyond her, awed audience members gasped as she gently pushed the sword with her hand, causing it to spin. To conclude the show, we moved into the finale, both of us spinning colorfully across the dance floor, engaging the audience, and collecting tips. At our invitation, smiling people got up from their tables to join us in free dance. The whole restaurant was alive with music and happy patrons. When the show was over, we picked up our props and paraded offstage, Melina raising her sword triumphantly, I letting my veil trail behind us in the air. The bathroom sink served as an area for us to pool our tips. I remember looking into the heap of cash and contemplating the experience she was sharing with me. As a means of getting paid, it certainly seemed unique.
By performing professionally, Melina continues the legacy of her mother. In a world of oiliness, greed, sweat shops and cancer causing commodities, Rhea has supported herself by teaching dance. Her work gives others an artistic outlet and a means of making friends. On our last night in Greece, Rhea took us to a tribute show which was held in her honor. It was the perfect conclusion to our trip. In addition to belly dancing, there was a Brazilian samba, an Egyptian knife dance, and an Ethiopian duet. I danced with my hula hoop—a specialty that I developed at Melina’s Waltham studio, Moody Street Circus. The show was a happy testament to the dance community that Rhea has created during her 35 years of teaching and performing. This life has not brought her wealth. Rather, her experience has been one of sparkling costumes, stage lights, and bright personalities. She has brought new meaning to the adage, “all that glitters is not gold”.
Aaron and Celia at the beautiful island of Hyrda
I believe that during our time in the world, we should sustain ourselves (financially), and we should engage with creation in ways that are not destructive. What is the purpose of existing as corporal beings if we were not meant to explore and contribute to our surroundings?  Melina and Rhea have shown me that art can be both the sustenance and the means of exploration. Through dance, I have created new strength within my body. Dancing has allowed me to feel connected to others: those who have danced before me, audience members who receive my dance, and my students. Like the whirling dervishes of Cairo, I have even had ecstatic moments during which I feel, physically, the presence of something higher.
I am back in the United States now, and I have embarked on the fiscal adventure of dancing full-time. It is difficult to predict how much work I will have month to month. Sometimes, I go a full weekend with no shows. By contrast, last Friday, I had four gigs in one night. My first show was in Brighton, Massachusetts. My second show was in Derry, New Hampshire. For my third show, I drove back to Massachusetts to dance in Attenborough. My last show was in Windsor, New Hampshire. Annoyingly, it would have taken only ten minutes to get from my second show to my fourth. Going back to Massachusetts added an extra two hours of driving.
 I prepared for the epic night by packing a quadruple gig survival kit. It contained a casual change of clothes, soap, water, snacks, and my stage makeup. Between each gig, I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts to wash off in the sink and reapply my makeup. From twelve in the afternoon to twelve at night, I drove, performed, cleaned up, drove, and performed again. I wore comfortable cloths in the car because the sequins on my costume became itchy after a few hours of wear. By my third show, I felt like I was in some sort of dream reality in which the landscape was comprised entirely of performances, my car, and fast food restaurants. When I was finally finished with all four shows, the work had paid off. I had made all of my rent money in one day. We’ll see what happens next month. 
Celia performs with Bellybeat Dance Company back in the United States