For many years I was a Bellydancer, then I was a Gypsy Dancer, and to some I might have become the American Tribal Style (r) lady, but to me, I am all those things, but I identify simply as a dancer. The danger of putting oneself in a box is that you are likely to grow only to the limits of that box, rather than taking leaps and bounds into all types of genre and performance that live as possibilities within your poetic spirit. At the contemporary dance intensive I finished last week, a guest teacher Craig Bary, gave all the participants this golden piece of advice. Don't call yourself a ballet dancer. Or a contemporary dancer. There will be other people who will want to put you in a box. Don't do it for them. Give yourself space to grow. Try lots of styles. You will learn from every style you do. I got thinking about this advice and thought about all the other boxes we put ourselves in that go beyond dance styles... particularly to do with age and abilities. I have some incredibly inspiring students with boxless thinking who probably respond to the fact that I have high hopes for every dancer in my classroom regardless of when they started and where they have been. As a teacher of American Tribal Style (r) Bellydance, I sometimes feel the need to be very purist about the style. But having seen its mutations and Australian twists, and the way each dancer and tribe imbibes it differently, I now feel very happy to celebrate my tribe's own flavour. I still feel like an ambassador, but it's like a beautiful technicolour coat I get to wear, not who I am. And I feel its my own. In this coat, i've included materials and decoration from my teachers (including my students who teach me so much), my values, my cultural heritage. One day I might find a way to bring contemporary dance into more than just my class warm ups, who knows. Or maybe I will keep them to separate, equally special worlds. I am coming to terms with the idea that it doesn't matter - as nothing is final; no style lasts forever without morphing and changing and being moulded by the hands that carry it. So stay creative. Stay open. Stay away from the box.
The last two weeks was full of sink or swim moments - and there was a fair bit of sinking. I did a contemporary dance intensive for professional and emerging dancers. There were days where I became so scared about the contemporary repertoire I was attempting that I retreated into myself, and began to question my identity as a dancer. I like to be in the deep end amongst incredible creators - but these challenges were so formidable that the negative self talk team were starting to get very comfy in my head. That was until today. Today, while doing a yoga session, I went further with an extension on balance - noticeably further. Now, sure it was a Tiny Breakthrough. But this Tiny Breakthrough unleashed such JOY and triumph within me that it obliterated all the preceding moments where I felt like I was trying to smash a rock with chopsticks. And why did I have awesome balance for once? Because in the process of being stripped bare, I had given up all expectations and judgments on myself. My only commitment was to that moment. I wasn't Rita the "insert descriptive words." Nothing was true or certain for sure. I was free. So my takeout is no matter what courageous path we skip down in life, no matter how unready we may feel, just keep going - because the tiniest breakthrough is all we need.
Have you had a magnificent Tiny Breakthrough?
Everyone once and a while, an artist will experience a moment that lights so many matches in the heart that they can become engulfed in flames. As a Gypsy dancer, I experienced such a moment when dancing onstage with Uska Kan Orkestar, a Romani Brass Band from Macedonia. It was the final night of the Woodford Folk Festival, a show named "the last dance".
I was performing with other dancers from the Silk Road Tribal Collective, and when we arrived backstage, the energy was ebullient. We agreed the other two dancers (Fiona and Dee) would take the first song, and I would take the last, but speaking to Demir Kanturovski, a champion trumpeter and centrepiece of the band, he said he had an extra Spanish Gypsy piece he would throw in. The order was loose, kind of spontaneous, and the thrill of this adventure took hold in my body.
The Unusual Suspects were on before us, a 25 piece Balkan band from Australia, and their music soared through the open space. Our stage was the Grande, situated in a natural outdoors amphitheatre. My feet were caked in dirt and dust as I manoeuvred my feet into my dance shoes. "What are you doing?" one of the musicians asked when I was doing my hip opening stretches... He laughed and mimicked me and laughed again, a bit like a hyena.
"Uska Kan! you're on!" shouted the stage manager, and with a flick of a switch this rambling party turned into a slick Balkan music machine. Instruments out. Onstage in a flash and ready to play. My dance sisters launched onto the stage with Uska Kan's opening thunder. I watched those instruments shine and blare under the lights, amongst the stage fog and crisp night air. My dance sisters shone with joy in their beautiful tribal costumes. I noticed that wasn't scared or nervous at all. Just happy in my heart.
A few songs later, I heard a track that I thought was the Spanish piece, so I glided onto stage and announced my arrival with a dramatic twirl. I glanced at Demir who told me with his face that this wasn't the right song, so I shrugged and kept dancing. It turned out to be a beautiful Balkan Gypsy piece. During the trumpet solos shared between Demir and his father Usain, I swirled around to face them and became a vessel for this tremendous collective heart song.
The Spanish song did eventually come, and this time I transformed into a matador, the energy moved up into my being with such ferocity that I could barely contain it. My self was almost obliterated by the surrender to this incredible music. I looked into the eyes of the musicians as I moved about the stage. There was that knowing, that love, that commitment, that dedication to the music. THE MUSIC! that drives through generations, music to which the soul must capitulate. There were moments of synchronised showmanship and triumph. My spirit lived in complete freedom. When the song finished I made it to the top of the backstage stairs before my legs began to wobble. The energy by this point was coursing through me like rapids, and yet there was a beautiful lake, so still and deep welling in my heart. In between songs, I moved up and down backstage, to handle this energy.
Then came our final song, the famous Chaje Shukarije. I asked the other dancers to share this song with me. Demir sung with such heart as well as playing the trumpet. I began to feel overwhelmed emotionally, perhaps a part of me knew that this excursion to mountain tops was about to end.
That night my dance sisters had to shanghai me back to camp because I wanted to dance to that music forever.
Back in the real world now, there are memories from that performance, some I have not written down because they are too precious, that I will carry for my lifetime. A place for my heart song. My heart aches now. A place for my heart song. Perhaps I can dance like this again one day? A place for my heart song. A part of me wishes to never dance again so the memory of this stays rich. A place for my heart song...
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