Dance Is A Radical Act

furious_dancing2One of my colleagues at Mills College wore a tank top emblazoned in bold letters: “Dance is a Radical Act.” I admit that at first, I did not understand what she or the shirt meant. Dance is art. Why should it be radical?

As I continued my study of dance history and theory, I realized… of course dance is radical. Dance expresses independence of body, thought, and expression. Dance has been a vehicle for protest and dissent (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Exodus”). Dance critiques warmongerers (Kurt Jooss: The Green Table). Dance exposes the heartbreak of marginalized communities (Kyle Abraham: Pavement). Dance challenges preconceived notions of itself (Yvonne Rainer: Trio A). Dance can satirize itself and critique the fetishization of marginalized peoples (Keith Hennessy: Bear/Skin). Dance can bring together disparate cultures and celebrate beauty and love (Mark Morris: Layla and Majnun). Dance allows the disenfranchised a physical and corporeal voice.

And within each of our bodies is incontrovertible truth. Even if we are denied truth through biased news outlets, corrupt politicians, and even from members of our own families, we still have our bodies. When deprived of political and social power, we still have our bodies. Oppressive governments, regimes, and political climates have tried to suppress dance for centuries. Look to the exile of the ghawazi by Pasha Muhammad Ali, the outlawing of hula under missionary rule in Hawai’i, the banning of the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance by both the United States and Canada, and many more. Dance is, indeed, a radical act.

For me, my worldview and dance are intrinsically linked. When I dance, I am expressing my physical and personal power. We make art that reflects what we value. I value truth, justice, kindness, compassion, cross-cultural understanding, inquiry, self-reflection, corporeal independence, and the pursuit of embodied knowledge. I believe that there are facts, and that the existence of facts is not and should not be controversial. Indeed, when I wrote the Salimpour Compendium, I sought to dispel many of the myths that surround belly dance, hoping to nip them in the bud, and provide a sound foundation for those new to the dance form who also wish to dig beyond the “wishtory.”

In these troubling times that might pit you against your fellow countrymen, neighbors, or family members, I hope that you reflect on what you truly value. Does your dancing embody those values? Do your everyday actions? What about who you vote for? Does your art align with your politics? If it doesn’t, how can these defining aspects of yourself be reconciled?

Dances need not always be political. But for those of us who are afforded the freedom to move, to take studio classes, to perform for each other or on stages, we must remember that dance is a fundamental act that has phenomenal power to both express and shape humanity.

I hope that you dance not only for yourself, but for all humankind.

 

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Blog as Thought Incubator

Today is Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and one of websites I follow, Big Think, posted this quote of his:

 

It reminded me that I wanted to write a blog post about blogging.

I have been keeping a public blog for nearly 10 years. That’s a lot of thoughts. And that’s a lot of thoughts that have been refined, changed, and deepened. What I knew 10 years ago is not what I know now, thank goodness. My opinions on dance are not the same as they were 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. My knowledge on issues such as race and gender as also deepened, and hopefully, I have become more sensitive and knowledgeable. I have written some blog posts that I don’t even agree with 100% today. I consider that a success.

My blogs are incubators for thought. They aren’t meant to be a static truth or opinion. They aren’t meant to be a decree of “This is what I will always think about XYZ subject.” Indeed, my blog is more of a “This is what I’m thinking about right now, and I’m using my blog to crystallize those thoughts, and maybe people will engage me in a critical discussion about those thoughts that I have decided to make public.”

People have disagreed with me, some more rationally than others. Some of messaged me privately to tell me of how I could expand upon my knowledge of a given subject. Others agree with me and share the post (although it is certainly the most ego-boosting response, it’s not necessarily what I seek). I appreciate the praise, but I seek to generate discussion, thought, self-reflection, and deeper consciousness about our respective dance practices. My truth will never be your truth. We might align in some places and deviate in others, but how can we ever find out where we stand if we never engage with others?

It takes a kind of bravery to put your thoughts out there for anyone who reads your language to read. Every time I click “publish” I get nervous. But for the sake of working out my own thoughts and helping others work out their own, I do click that button. And I hope that you all get something out of it, even—ah, no—especially if you disagree with me.


I Wrote You A Thing!

Yes, that’s write…. har har har.

Several years ago, the Salimpour School invited me to help edit a collection of Jamila Salimpour’s articles that she had written for Habibi magazine in the late 1970s and 1980s. As we read through the articles we thought that we needed to contextualize them. Jamila, while passionate about education and oriental dance in general, was not a trained scholar. She rarely cited her sources, and often conflated terminology. She had also been writing at a time when the theory of Orientalism had not yet entered the popular parlance, let alone with regard to its applications to belly dance practice in North America. While her articles have great value, not only for their content but also for the sense that they convey about her life and the state of belly dance at the time she was writing, we didn’t want students reading them and thinking they were gospel truth. They are and were Jamila’s truth, and of a certain time and place in belly dance history.

Suhaila and her team came to me and said, basically, that they wanted a companion volume to Jamila’s Article Book. I thought the project would be fun and illuminating, and with my background in history, political science, international relations, and of course, Middle Eastern studies, I took on the job. I thought we’d end up with a little guidebook to various topics related to those in the article book… but every time I overturned a topical rock, five more pertinent subjects would rear their snakey heads.

A few years later, and after reading myriad books, journal articles, web articles, and other sources, the Salimpour School has published what is now called the Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium Vol 1.

Inside you’ll find a narrative of Jamila Salimpour’s life, adding details and depth to the autobiographical articles she penned for Habibi over 30 years ago. This section also contextualizes the origins of Suhaila’s groundbreaking belly dance format.

You’ll also find my pet project: a survey of subjects, theory, history, and other subjects to supplement your studio practice. These topics include a brief history of the Islamic Middle East, including an overview of Islam and its main religious sects; the professional dancers in the Middle East, from the köçek to the stars of the 1960s; an introduction to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism; a look at some of the male performers in our genre; the emergence of the national folkloric companies in Egypt; and how Hollywood used and abused Oriental themes on the big screen…. and that’s just a taste. It’s nearly 200 pages long, lavishly illustrated, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

This is the book on belly dance I always wish existed. I hope that it is illuminating and enlightening, and that it helps situate yourself and your practice within this dance’s rich and complicated history. I also hope that it will inspire you to read some of the many sources cited, and begin or continue your own investigation of belly dance in both practice and theory.

Available at the Salimpour School Online Store.


An open letter to the administration at Mills College

Recent proposed curriculum changes at the small, private, women-only, liberal arts institution Mills College, which sits in the Oakland hills in the San Francisco Bay Area has threatened the Dance Department there. Mills’ Dance Department is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation, and it happens to be where I am currently earning my Master of Arts in Dance. The MA program has revolutionized dance, and how I think about dance.

Here’s what I wrote in response to the proposed cuts, and the power that I believe dance has for all bodies, particularly in the 21st century.

Sign the petition to save the undergraduate major at Mills College!

Dance is not just movement. Dance allows us agency over the one thing we all have: a body.

What’s in a body? Our selves, our being, our identity. Our family histories. Our presence. Every place we have ever been, seen, heard, and walked through. Everything we have ever done.

Dance is not an activity relegated to the elites of society, the super-bendy, the strong, or even those with four limbs. Dance is for anyone with a body.

Dance has been the realm of the subaltern, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the activist, the protester, the visionary. Take away everything else, and we still have our bodies. With our bodies we express our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations… our fears, our pain, our sorrow, our anger, and our joy. We are rebels, yes, and our cause is justice.

Dancers are some of the most mindful, community-oriented, well-rounded people I know.

Dancers in higher education must be leaders, exceptional team players, fast learners, and problem solvers. We are motivated. We are always striving to improve ourselves and those around us. We are interdisciplinary. We work with lighting designers, set designers, costumers, seamstresses, musicians, visual artists, writers, historians, social scientists, psychologists, politicians, programmers, biologists, chemists, and physicists. Some of us are these things. Dance teachers are a hybrid of instructor, psychologist, physical therapist, body-worker, analyst, scientist, and community leader. And even though we are the most underpaid, underfunded, and under-appreciated art, we are very much equipped for life in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch.

So what happens when we as a society start chipping away at dance in higher education? We eliminate the one discipline that allows humans agency over their bodies, themselves, their identity, their very essence. You take away the voices of the marginailized, the disadvantaged, the minorities. Dance is one of the few disciplines not dominated by cis-white-hetero men.

You can’t take our bodies away from us, and we will fight for dance as long as we have agency over our bodies.

You might see this as “just” eliminating the Dance Major. But we see it as an affront to our entire art form. Centuries of struggle, expression, and fighting for social justice. We see it as an affront to our very bodies.

Do you dare take dance away from us?

Sincerely,
Abigail Keyes


The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

Let’s talk about the Ego.

I admit that I don’t have a background in psychology or even a strong background in philosophy… so if I get little nuances in definitions wrong, I suspect someone with more knowledge than I will call me out, and that’s ok.

Ego, Ethics, and Dance blog post by Abigail Keyes

The Ego Separates You from Me

Ego, in the strictest sense of the word means “I” in Latin. It is our sense of self. I am not you, and you are not me. It delineates each of us from one another.

In a contemporary context, however, Ego has taken on a larger and often more pejorative meaning. When we talk about someone having a “big Ego,” we mean that they are full of themselves, that they are self-centered, and that they are willing to make self-centered decisions at the expense of others. This contemporary interpretation is slightly different than the Freudian original, which included the psychological counterparts of the Id (primal drives) and the Superego (internalization of cultural and societal norms). For this blog post, I wish to use the more contemporary idea of Ego as a force that drives our need for recognition, praise, and attention.

Using Our Ego for Better Performance

In a performance context, the Ego can get the better of us. Dancers are notorious for wanting to please, to get the praise and approval of our teachers and peers, and to be on stage. We want to be seen and recognized. A friend of mine who is studying childhood development and dance said that we dancers are “Praise Junkies.”

The Ego, the self-driven aspect of each of us, is not entirely bad. The Ego allows us the confidence to take the stage without fear. It allows us to feel good about what we’re doing. It drives that dopamine rush to the head, that the Id then laps up like a thirsty dog. But the Ego is a trickster, a nasty beast that we must keep on a very short leash.

And I don’t think there are many other dance forms out there that placate and pander to practitioners’ Egos as much as American belly dance.

Focus on Performance and Appearance

So many of our festivals have been based on wanting to perform. Performance is an essential part of being a belly dancer; it is a performing art. But I think we must ask ourselves why we want to perform. Because we want our audience to tell us that we’re good? To show off our skills? Are we seeking validation? Are we hoping to be hired as an instructor at next year’s festival? To perform means, roughly, to do something with the intent of it being seen by others. We might seek validation from our peers that we are Enough, because, perhaps we are not Enough in other aspects of our lives.

So much of the business of belly dance is based on wanting to look good, whatever that means. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costuming, photography, jewelry, and the costs required to attend the festivals that give us opportunities to perform, including lodging, transportation, and food. Even our workshop attendance fees feed our Ego. We take workshops that offer us quick and easy tricks that we can instantly incorporate into our own performances so that an audience will ooh and aah over us during that short 3-5 minutes that we are allowed on stage. Our performance times get shorter and shorter as festivals want to give more opportunities for dancers to perform… because the demand is there.

The Ego Influences Our Decisions

Our Ego, as it feeds our Id, blurs our vision. We are willing to make decisions that contradict our own ethics, because we want to look good and we want people to praise us. Maybe we don’t even examine how our Ego is affecting our choices.

This is why some belly dancers want to perform professionally and teach well before they’re ready. This is why many belly dancers often spend more time and money on costuming, travel to/from events in which they are performing, and one-off workshops than they do on deep and consistent training. This is why some belly dancers wish to take workshops with famous instructors, hoping that somehow that fame will rub off on them, that that famous instructor will ask them on stage with them, and somehow transform the student into a superstar.

The Ego drives these decisions. Every decision is a choice. Every choice we make determines our personal code of Ethics. Philosopher and psychologist William James aptly called this the “ethics of choice”: “What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.” (James, Consciousness and Freedom, 41.) Basically everything we do today affects our tomorrow.

But what if we let our Ethics drive our choices, rather than our Ego?

Self-Reflection as Antidote to Big Egos

Self-reflection is paramount in the realm of Ethics. And self-reflection requires humility, and humility requires that the Ego take a back seat.

Take a moment and write out your answers to these questions: What do you stand for? What do you believe in?  To whom will you give your money? What are you willing to put up with as a student, a practitioner, a customer, a consumer? (A recent blogger wrote “What’s your Shit Sandwich,” i.e., what are you just not willing to put up with?) What are the values of the people, businesses, entities to which you give your time and money? What is your limit? Do you have one?

Are you going along with a crowd to look good, or because you truly believe in their cause? Are you defending someone only because they have something to offer your Ego? Are your decisions hurting others? How could you minimize that pain? Are you asking questions not only of others but of yourself?

Everything you do is a choice. Make those choices worth it.





Consistent Challenges are the Key to Improvement

All artists seek personal improvement, but what’s the secret?

About a week ago, I finished up my first year as a graduate student in dance at Mills College. My course work included four days a week of modern dance technique, ranging from Jose Limón’s/Doris Humphrey’s “Fall-and-Recover,” Martha Graham’s “Contract-and-Release,” Merce Cunningham’s split body awareness, and a myriad of contemporary and classic stylizations from the 20th and 21st centuries. I sustained a debilitating injury (minor tear of my biceps femoris hamstring) and have mostly recovered; I cried quite a few tears of pain and frustration.

My fellow students and colleagues have also struggled and triumphed. In addition, I have continued my training at the Salimpour School, beginning work on my Suhaila Format Level 5 and training for Jamila Format Level 4.

If I have learned anything at all in these programs, it is that consistent practice is key. But it’s more than just consistency: it’s consistent challenge.

Adult Students Aren’t Patient

Adults are a funny lot. Adult students often want the result without realizing the hard work it takes to get there. We see what we want, and we want it now. A friend of mine teaches cello, and many new adult beginner students have asked her how long it will take for them to play cello like Yo-Yo Ma.

Similarly, new adult students at the Salimpour School ask me how long it will take for them to certify Level 5 (the highest level of the program of which there are currently two dancers). The answer to these questions is complex. It depends on how hard you want to work, how much you want to be a master of your craft and your art. It will take you as long as it takes you, if you continue to work for it.

Hard Work Is The Answer

I will tell you what it takes to get there, though. Hard work. Consistent hard work that continually challenges your technical, creative, physical, and emotional limits. There will be tears. There will be frustration. There will be injuries.  …and there will be so many triumphs, joys, and accomplishments.

Many dancers talk about drilling, and while drilling can be an incredibly valuable element of becoming an accomplished dancer (no ballerina would ever go without doing her barre exercises), it is the difficult work that truly helps us grow. If you continue to drill, say, glute squeezes at a tempo that is manageable for you, it is unlikely that your dancing will ever improve dramatically. You’ll only ever be able to do hip work at the tempo at which you work in the studio. (Why would you want faster hipwork? Maybe that song you love calls for it at a particular part of the music.) If you drill them at a tempo that at first seems completely outside your abilities, but you keep a positive attitude and you work for it… ahh, then that’s where the palpable, embodied, and visible improvement lies.

Struggle Can Make You Stronger

Even plants benefit from struggle. Winemakers turn off irrigation to their vineyards in the summer, when the weather is hottest. You might think that this would cause the grapes to wither on the vine, ruining the crop, but it does the opposite. Turning the water off forces the roots to dig deep into the earth, and the vines grow grapes that have an intense flavor and rich sugars. The vines that struggle are the ones that have the potential to make a better wine.

Of course, humans are not wine, but when it comes to improvement, struggle is necessary.

Struggle Properly

In my training both at the Salimpour School and now at Mills College, my teachers ask of me work that I hardly ever thought possible for my own body. But I am tenacious. I continue to work to do movements and phrases that are just within my technical and emotional reach. I know there are things that might always be beyond my physical abilities, such as doing the splits, but I still keep working at those things.

My training might not bring me greater fame or visibility, it might not make me more money, and it probably won’t bring me love and adoration. I am not training for these fickle accolades. I train because I am in love with my own progress. I am addicted to the rush of reward chemicals that flood my brain when I can finally dance that combination on the left side without fumbling, when I can play that fast new finger cymbal pattern, or when I strike the final pose of a choreography that once seemed so outside my physical and technical abilities.

Your Work Is Never Finished… Celebrate That!

The lack of an endpoint might frighten some people, and it might discourage them. Why do something if you’re never done? For me, that’s why I do what I do. I see improvement in my work every day I show up for class. I also see it in my colleagues and my students. The students who don’t back away from a challenge are the ones in which I see the greatest improvement.

How do you get better at something? Do the things that you think you cannot do. There will be frustrations, there might be tears. That’s all right. If you can’t do them now, keep trying, and one day you will do that thing you thought you could not do. Celebrate that you did the thing. Then get back to work tackle the next challenge.

How do you keep yourself challenged in your dance practice? Tell us in the comments!





What are we seeing, anyway?

Many times I see fellow dancers commenting that they “Loved!” a performance that they saw, or that a performance was “Amazing!” without really qualifying or identifying why. Of course, it’s awesome if someone loves a performance, but if they can’t identify why, then I question whether or not they know what they’re looking at (ending a sentence with a preposition eek). Read More