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

No comments:

Post a Comment