Much like the oneness that Indigenous peoples feel with their land - the indivisibility of land from spirituality, law, family, kinship, survival - dance is the same glorious, amorphous mess for me. It is not an activity... much the way that breathing is not an activity. I cannot tell you what I am developing, because what occurs is a development of me. My consciousness. It develops at a pace and magnitude beyond me. And I cannot know what will happen before it happens. My current collaborator Krystal Trickey wrote this: "the body of a dancer is always dancing, and that 'practice' is contained within an acute embodied awareness of everyday movement - the quality of the body moving through space in the mundane spheres - as much as it is within the time ordinarily considered the dancer's 'practice'. As dancers, our body is with us always, it IS us...yet it is also our tool for making art. With a tool for art-making as such, it is intertwined with everything we do, at any and every moment. Inspiration is everywhere." For people who don't love and dream of dance, this idea appears lofty. Childish even. Am I an overgrown fairy for feeling I can take flight when I drift from bed in the morning, just a few footprints from the threshold of my dreaming? Am I a fool for imagining dance through books, through words, through the thoughts of strangers staring blankly on trains? Even when I am chained by the schedules of life, and not even thinking about dance, dance is happening in me. Waiting for that moment, when I stand in a space, breathe, and let it unfoil... with all the richness and sumptuous flavour that unspent, mulled dance conjures in a dancer. For even when I dance no more, when I am but traces of song carried over oceans, I will be there dancing.
Here is the moment where the human sees their full suffering; their full insignificance. The clown is a metaphor for the cosmic joke that is human existence… a joke that is as sweet and beautiful as it is sad, and sad as it is beautiful and sweet. The other dancer is a human who is drawn into the orbit of this clown, becomes entangled in the realization of their insignificance, a crashing realization that is brought to life by the haunting music of the Antlers. Their song “Kettering” immediately positions the audience into an otherworld atmosphere, one that slowly builds in tension, a brimming undertow, that finally engulfs the dancers halfway through with a magnificent drop. From there, the dancers move into contact. Their interaction is far more dialogic, designing each other’s movements with a spontaneous flow of information, kinesthetic, visual, tactile, emotional… The dance is completely improvised from beginning to end. Continuing with the cosmic references, I wanted to explore how we as dancers could imitate the behavior of stars and planets in outer space. Of course, my love of spinning and spiraling was a natural fit, but deeper inspection revealed a range of motion triggered by gravitational pull, slinging, trembling, as well as the power of internalizing the process of a star… in imploding into a blackhole, thereby creating a new internal universe. I was reminded of Emerson’s saying about how during our darkest winter, we may discover an invincible summer within us. And the philosophy of Carl Sagan that reminds us of our insignificance in this grand universe, as well as our connectedness through the stardust in our DNA. This philosophy leads me to see everything as neither good not evil, just as is… the stories we attach to things help us to heal, to make sense of, to give meaning to and importance to what happens in our lives. But in reality, we could attach any story. We could attach a thousand stories. The only thing that is real is what we feel in our hearts in that moment. Perhaps the only thing that is real is love?
Through the elements of contemporary dance and contact improvisation, we honoured this idea of creating in real time. Being authentic to that moment. I was inspired not only by the intellectual concept, by the interaction with my contact partner Gabe Reese, by my connection to spiritual realms and the music, by my secret internal universe of love and dreams and human experience, but to the audience, who I felt breathing with us. Which brings me to the final part of being made of stars... we are all connected.
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff… We look at stars at say, “look at those things of beauty”… but they are mortal like us. They are burning like us. Falling apart like us. The stars say: look at these things of beauty, these sad human beings. Their end, just as insignificant as their beginning, is inevitable. Yield that gravitational pull. Dance like a wounded bull. Your stage is a pale blue dot in a faraway place. You’re beautiful. Collapsing, human being. I can barely remember you, only see your trace, an echo of a memory, a whisper in space. So be kind to one another, let your compassion not rust, as beneath your foolish attire, look at us...We are all made of stardust. (The introduction I wrote based on the writing of Carl Sagan.)
Many thanks to the producers of Threshold, Sian Bhala of Opalesque Dance and Holly Wodetski.
For more photos (gratitude to Tidal Creations photography) visit here.
To hear the beautiful song by the Antlers, click here.
My dance teaching has taken a back seat this year while I focus on training to become a qualified secondary teacher. I've discovered teaching in a school classroom is far more challenging. However my driving philosophy remains the same...
Children are born with curiosity and kaleidoscopic ways of looking at the world. My philosophy as a teacher is to nurture this curiosity and sense of adventure in discovering the world, not to inhibit it. Similarly, I don't believe that only some children are born with creativity. I think that creativity is an event that manifests in the right conditions, and as a teacher we can create those inspiring conditions, and reward risk-taking.
To impart the craft of being a writer or dancer also means being explicit and detailed in the way one teaches. My dance students can attest to my attention to detail, fine-tuning at times imperceptible differences in technique, to create that sublime aesthetic. As dancers, we partly learn that aesthetic from watching other dancers, from absorbing the perfection of music, literature, other art forms. To learn this vocabulary and ways of putting it together with fluency and flair, we need to see its components. The invisible needs to become visible.
The challenges of the school classroom are partly created by the system requirements, the demands of assessment, the sheer numbers of students and dramatic variations in achievement levels. But what i know from dance teaching is that it is possible to have a class with varied abilities that is still supportive, positively energised and safe for all. And while some students might be great with technique, others might just have that way of being present. That way of standing, of breathing, of looking into the audience. We all have something to learn from those around us.
The road to becoming a teacher teacher feels enormously uphill... luckily, i love it with all my heart.
How do you feel when you dance? In some dance styles, I feel the pleasure of being with other dancers. In others, I am vessel for the music - finishing as a breath, a rag or at the music's grace, an illuminated being. Those things for many years drove me and satisfied me as a dancer. I was never driven by accessories or dazzling costumes. The few pieces I own are much adored and worn to death. The spectre of being someone mysterious is fun of course. But during my 20s, and then increasingly in my 30s, I am getting a taste for a new feeling in dance. A feeling that is about being enlarged, transformed. No longer am I trying to fit prisms of 'beauty' from a world I do not belong in. I am interested in that feeling of disappearing when you dance. Disappearing. Transforming into breath. Into flesh and bones and wondrous spirit. Surprising myself! Spilling over with joy, ridiculousness, awe, ache. Attempting the impossible. Over time this will mean that some changes need to be made. I will need to take away some of the things that I like. Some things that are precious to me. Just so that I can make room for the things that I love.
The truth can set you free... and your relationships free too :) A poem I wrote some time ago.
You told me
Our culture created philosophy, mathematics, writing
Our culture was the birthplace of liberal thought and expression
But it wasn't until I went to belly dance class
that I learnt women in the ancient Middle East were powerful
That women danced...
There were decades even, more recently, when dance was revered,
ballet and folkloric companies thrived
Before men with agendas cloaked in religion shut them down
And spread the belief that dancing is shameful.
I remember dancing in loungerooms and being celebrated for my dance
when I was a little girl
One day when I became a woman,
I learnt how shameful it was to dance to public.
Then when I travelled back to the Middle East,
to find the parts that I thought were missing from me,
that magic of belonging i'd seen in homecoming movies,
my white travelling friends were treated better than me
because being Arabic, I should be different.
I should have respect, honour, obedience.
And when I told my family that I danced
I found myself in a glass box
detained, outside, separate, shunned
What is wrong with you?
The words you said and no longer say
because I am over here and you are over there.
Where can I be a dancer who is Middle Eastern and love contemporary dance?
How much of my cultural identity can be forged by me?
And how do I tell the truth about this without causing more injury to a people who are already under attack?
Through storytelling and dance?
I love my culture, my heritage, my ancient history.
Because to say that God doesn't love dance is a lie.
I connect with spiritual realms, when I dance.
I become full, complete, with no missing parts, when I dance,
I am still missing you, when I dance
I wish, I wish
I could dance without it dooming me.
That I can release forever those voices telling me I have chosen
a deformity of life,
because I dance.
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...
Determined to make a breakthrough with my fitness, i signed up to an unlimited yoga and pilates deal with a studio down the road. This is my story.
Tues 8 Dec: Yoga Flow. Hey i'm not too bad at this. But how can one person produce so much sweat? Slid home. Remember to bring towel next time.
Weds 9 Dec: Woke up at 5:30am raring for yoga. What is wrong with me? Bounced down the road to Pilates class. Crawled back. Cannot move. So sore. Cannot. Push. Button. On. Microwave.
10am: Daughter gave me a hug and I fell over. Took 20 minutes to get up using only micro-movements.
8pm. Yoga flow class to help move lactic acid. Apparently i have never used my triceps before. Yoga flow helped (along with magnesium tablet). Remember to bring a towel next time.
Thurs 10 Dec: OH MY GOD WHAT DID I DO TO MY BODY YESTERDAY. I am a shell of a human being. Did Gentle Yoga class. On way home I discovered my house is on a hill. Considered contacting council to put in a conveyor belt like at the airport. I'm sure it's a high traffic area. Remember to bring a towel next time.
Fri 11 Dec: Hey i'm getting stronger. My posture is better. My abs are switched on. Time to ramp it up. Did yoga class with new teacher. He picked my technique to pieces. I bet he's one of those people who takes an hour to build a sandwich. Placing his bits of cucumber with expert precision. It's OK. i like those people. For goodness sake, bring a towel!
Sat 12 Dec: Today I got to see what someone with lower abs can do. Lower abs, you and I have to talk. Finally brought a towel. Didn't use it.
Fast forward a few days... Tues 15 Dec: I felt some big shifts today. A new range of stretch in my pelvis. And emotional shifts too. Loving the play of yoga. I'm still working out the detail but there are moments of surprise and grandeur. Most of all i'm loving the journey with myself.
Have you got a yoga story?
I remember attending a workshop with a US-based dancer who said that when we perform, we only achieve 80% of the greatness that we have off-stage. I reflected on this at the time and came to the conclusion that while I am often more relaxed when dancing in the studio, I am definitely more powerful, stronger, and more capable on stage - thanks to adrenaline and being in the zone. But this isn't the case for many dancers who feel more burdened than empowered by nervous energy when performing.
Undirected nervous energy can lead to feelings of flightiness and ungrounded movement - sometimes spilling into a loss of balance, physical disconnection or dis-embodiment (where the origin of movement comes from the periphery rather than the centre of our being) and 'throwing out' of energy, often manifested through unfinished movements and phrasing, and even sudden transitions. A great technique for making performance on stage your supapowa is to incorporate moments of grounding into your pre-dance or dance routine, where you deliberately connect with your para-sympathetic nervous system, breathe & exhale, melt, ooze, cultivate, be. Just be. And in that moment, you will know you have your supapowa at your disposal.
Standing on the earth outside is a great, immediate form of grounding but that's not always available to us before going on stage. But we can replicate that feeling through practice. Yoga is another way. Contemporary dance and contact improvisation have also helped me immensely. It helps not only with our stage presence, but our balance and quality of movement on stage. I also believe that stage fright is often caused by a loss of grounding because the dancer becomes very reliant on the audience's energy, which can stimulate feelings of vulnerability and cause us to shut off.
Make the stage a fertile ground for your supapowa and you will never look back.
How do you connect with your supapowa? What is your experience on stage? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
For Rita's latest news