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.

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