Lit. On Fire. WHOOSH.
Can you hear it crackling?
The smoke, the heat, they keep me from sleeping. (And it doesn’t help that there’s a tiny monster laying on my chest and his whiskers keep going up my nose.) So there’s nothing for it but to get up and let the fire burn its course.
I taught teaching today, one of my favorite things. I’m kind of a pyromaniac that way… I like lighting people on fire… especially those who are going to light other people on fire.
Have I mentioned that some of my Denver friends call me Cat? Nothing to do with my name, or with the furry monster on my chest.
It’s short for Catalyst…
Things are whatever they are, and they remain that way until you add a catalyst, and then things start happening. Something chemical. A chain reaction. Heat, light, fire.
Have I mentioned I love teachers? One of the best things is teaching teachers, because once lit, they light up others. Chain reaction. So very cool.
Today my students were teachers, Belly Dancing and Yoga. The first of today’s Big Questions is one of my favorites… Why Do You Do What You Do? Dance? Yoga?
And people gave some real truths in answer: Because it’s fun; Because in it I find acceptance, of myself and others; Because I feel beautiful; Because I feel at peace; Because it is a way to create and express myself; Because I feel healthier; Because I feel better in and about my body when I do.
Because I love it.
And here’s where I need to say… No. You don’t. You do not love yoga, or dance.
You think you do, but you don’t. The “it” is not the object of your love… you do NOT love yoga or dance.
What you really love is Who You Are when you do it.
The dance, the yoga, it is a vehicle. It is the way, the path, the mechanism. It is Your way, it is what is working best for you right now, and may always be what works best for you, but it is still just a tool.
Consider this… when I taught ballroom dance for a living, nobody ever came in because they needed to learn to waltz. They THOUGHT they needed to learn to waltz… but… did they really? Was it that they needed a box step and a hesitation and an underarm turn to make their life complete?
Really, I just desperately NEEEEED a box step! Pleeease! I am not whole until I have one!
Or did they need what those moves were going to give them? The ability to go and do something fun with their spouse? The confidence to talk to a beautiful woman and know they were going to be able to entertain her? The knowledge and relief they would not look like fools on their wedding day?
What you really love is Who You Are and How You Feel when you do it.
It’s like strawberries. I say I love strawberries. But really, is it that I love them? Or is it that I love the sensation of their taste? The feeling of delight that comes from looking at their shiny redness? The stimulation of feeling their smooth and stubbly brail exterior? The sweet and sour satisfaction of eating them? What I love is the sensation of strawberries. I am grateful for their existence, but what I love is how I experience them.
What you love about yoga, about dance, is how you experience yourself and the world and others when you do it.
So… to my teachers I say… what is it, really, that you love?
Because once you know that, you will know what and why you teach. And then you can really teach it.
… can you hear the crackling? Feel the heat? Smell the smoke? I can…
“First Class Belly Dancer”… or would that be… “Welcome to your First Class, Bellydancer…”.
I was poking around and came across Lex’s story of her first class, it made me think of mine.
Do you remember your first class? I do.. that was how many years ago? More than thirty anyway. I remember I wasn’t going without a friend, and it took a number of tries to convince someone to go with me. I remember I was excited, agitated, hugely intimidated, a bit short of flat out terrified. I remember being as small as possible waiting for the class to start, and watching the other students hang about. I remember looking for the other newbies like me, hoping I’d be less visible among them. I remember being sure I was going to embarrass myself, what with being so completely an uncoordinated geek. I remember finding a spot in the back where no one would be behind me, no one could see me as I tried to follow along.
I remember the teacher walked like watered silk in summer breeze.
I remember the music, the sound, the feel of it, George Abdo’s voice on my skin and in my bones… I remember is set me on fire.
I remember nothing moved, nothing worked, and I couldn’t even begin to communicate with half the parts the teacher wanted us to move. The idea of having those disconnected parts even answer to me, much less dance seemed remote beyond hoping for. I remember I had to fight for every inch of every move. Not that it mattered, really… once I was on fire, there was simply nothing else to do about it. Work and learn or become a pile of ash.
Thirty three years later George Abdo still lives in my bones. I can still feel the touch of his voice on my skin.
It’s part of why I teach, and why I still teach beginners. Because every once in a while you get to be there when someone catches fire.
Sometimes they go up WHOOSH all at once and sometimes they smoke and smolder for a while before they burst out in flames. Sometimes you know when they step off the cliff into obsession, and sometimes you see it come on gradually an inch and an inch and another inch until they’re all in.
Sometimes you get to see it transform who they are.
Slowly, a day a class a performance at a time you see who-they-were turn into who-they-want-to-be. Sometimes you see them transmute into someone they never even imagined. For some it is a brand new self, a brand new world. For some it is coming home.
I had a conversation with a student recently… we were talking about the difficulty of getting perspective on yourself. She’s come a long journey in a rather short time. I asked if she remembered who she was when she started that journey, if she knew that person, if she was anything like her now. She said she no longer knew that not-so-long-gone girl, and a little shudder told me what she thought of her. Not a happy thought, not a peaceful one.
Be gentle with that girl, I said, be grateful to her… she’s the one that got you here. She’s the one that took that first step on the road that brought you here. She took the second step, and the third. She may no longer exist, but she is worthy of your love and gratitude, she gave you *you*.
I think about my past and the lives I’ve lived and it seems there have been many… so many women I once was and no longer am… they seem quite distant from my life now, women I barely know. A daisy chain of evolution leading to me. Hardly seems so many lives could fit in so short a span of time.
Maybe it’s a bit of alchemy, the magic of transforming one thing into another, from something coarse and raw to something more refined. The baser metal in the crucible, heated until it changes forms, from stone and ore to silver pool to molten red like a liquid sun. The impurities burning off as flame and smoke, the purer thing remains. And then there’s the alchemist’s real magic, transmuting it into a higher form. Out of lead, comes gold.
The fire that heats that crucible is one we build and tend ourselves. We carry the fuel, tend the embers, stoke the flames, man the bellows. We can choose the fuel and the rate of burn, but once in a while it comes as a surprise. Sometimes we simply catch fire. My fire is built of love and loss and stubbornness and choosing the steeper, shorter, rougher path. I’ve stoked it with worldly work, and by diving into deep spiritual waters from time to time. But the part of the flame that never seems to burn down is this dance. Sometimes raging, sometimes embers banked down to a softer glow, but always burning, George Abdo’s voice burning in my bones.
Perhaps one day that alchemist’s fire will transform us into gold.
A little note to Lex… Your teacher is right, love who you are now. Love this girl who has put her foot – your foot – on the path to who you will be.
It’s a question that comes up a lot. Sometimes in the form of “I want to use this song to dance to… is that weird?” Sometimes it’s “I want to borrow from this style”, or “I don’t want to dance for people I know”, or “I think I’d like to perform”, or “I don’t want to tell the people I work with…” Sometimes it’s about an emotional reaction to a piece of music, or liking or disliking a song. Sometimes it’s about trying to figure out how the dance fits in your life.
So let me answer the question for you… but the real question. It’s not “is this weird?” But “am I weird?”
The answer is Yes. You are. You’re weird.
Ok, take a deep breath… you’re weird. We’re both weird, and there’s no getting around it, so you might as well embrace it. Once you do, you’ll feel much better, I promise.
This afternoon, a friend and I were looking at websites for universities for a project she’s doing. We were trying to get a sense of their individual presentation styles, of how they identified themselves and set themselves apart, of what they were doing to attract students and make someone interested in choosing their school over others. The more schools we looked at, the more we realized they all looked the same… frighteningly so. Like they’d all been designed by the same person. Like they’d all been drinking the same Kool-Aid. It was a little creepy. I started thinking about why they would do that, every single one trying to look like the others… herd mentality, no one daring to stand out, no one setting themselves apart.
No one daring to be different, lest they look weird.
Rather gave me the willies, actually, everything so uniform from state to state, coast to coast, every one almost exactly alike…
Did you ever notice that sometimes when you go to a big show, it seems that after a while the dancers all look alike? Egyptian after Egyptian, tribal after tribal, after a while they begin to run together. Sometimes a dancer’s look stands out, or her costume, or more rarely her performance, but far too often they begin to blur, one so much like another.
Did you ever notice when someone new and interesting becomes the rage, how everyone begins to look like them? Some dancer appears on the circuit and soon enough everyone looks like her. For a while, it was 15 new students starting a week, every one of them asking “can you teach me to dance like Shakira?” Now everyone wants to be Rachel Brice.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Shakira and appreciate the boost she gave the dance, and I think Rachel Brice is brilliant. But the world only needs one of each.
And because there is only one of each, they are, by definition, Weird. Unusual. Outside the norm. Not like everyone else.
I mean, think about it, when was the last time you saw someone who was completely, absolutely, thoroughly middle of the road vanilla typical normal… did it make your pupils blow wide open and your heart beat fast? Did you say, “Oooooh! I want to be just like THAT!”?
I’m going to guess not.
I’m going to guess not because I already know you’re weird… after all, you’re taking BELLY dance classes, for gosh sake! There’s proof enough right there.
So you might as well get used to the idea… seeing as it’s already true, and it’s too late to get out of it.
Ok, now here’s the good part… you can’t be better without being different. And you certainly can’t be unique without being different. You’re already a mile down the weird road just by taking up belly dancing, don’t wimp out now and try to be like everybody else.
Remember the Dr. Pepper commercials that went, “Don’t be one of the crowd, be a Pepper!”? Don’t be one of the crowd, be one of the… er… crowd. Those commercials always made my head explode.
So I say embrace your weirdness. Find the weird that is uniquely, precisely, completely you. Discover the ways you are like those you admire, but also discover the ways you are different from everyone else. Become the complete constellation of yourself, the unique combination of choices that is truly only you.
The more you can find your unique way with the music, find the dance that is authentic to you, the better your dance will be. It’s called integrity… how much a thing is consistent with itself. When you embrace your likenesses and your weirdnesses with equal enthusiasm, when you trust that weird is an important and valuable part of who you are, then you are on your way to being fully, freely, actively and completely yourself. And that self will be interesting to watch on stage.
It’s like Sungha Jung. He’s 11. He’s been playing the guitar for two years. He takes a couple of days to learn a song to performance quality. He composes his own music. He creates his own arrangements. He plays with the soul of someone four times his age. And frankly, that’s just weird. In a truly wonderful way.
Enjoy these videos of him embracing his weirdness. Links to more about him below.
Here’s to the truly, deeply, wonderfully weird. Aziza
Sungha Jung playing Manha Do Carnaval
Sungha Jung playing Kiss From A Rose (Seal)
More videos: Sungha Jung on YouTube
Sungha’s YouTube channel: Sungha Jung
Bilge. It’s about bilge. Its the water that washes over the gunwales, sloshes over the decks, runs down in the cracks between the carefully tended bulwarks, sweeping along the detritus, the litter, the discarded and unnoticed scraps. It seeps and trickles and drips carrying the untended chaff and refuse, the spent engine oil and sweat and dirt down into the belly of the ship. There it gathers, that bilge water, in that lowest chamber, the smelly, murky runoff.
<< Whatever IS she on about? >> you ask…
Bilge water. And green living.
<< Ah, it’s about recycling, then? Alternative power sources? >>
Well, yes. And about dance. It’s about why we dance, and what dance is made of. It’s about recycling bits of our experience into performance. It’s definitely about alternative power sources.
So… bilge. It’s that mucky, oily, smelly water that’s sloshing around in the belly of a ship. It gets there because sometimes the water is too deep, the waves too high, the rain too heavy, the storm too strong to keep it out. Sometimes the waves crash over onto the deck. It runs down in the cracks because the defences are not water tight. It accumulates in the belly of the ship, building up, adding weight, pulling the ship lower into the waterline. If enough builds up, the ship can lose it’s buoyancy, can be swamped and sink. It’s mass sloshes and rolls counter to the ship’s movement. It interferes with maneuvering, it’s momentum trying to carry the ship on it’s previous course, resisting the effort to turn. With enough bilge, the momentum can roll the ship if it tries to change direction fast.
It’s that mucky, oily, smelly emotion that’s sloshing around in the belly of your life. It gets there because sometimes the water of your life is too deep, the waves too high, the storm too strong to keep it out. It runs down in the cracks of your awareness because your defences are not water tight. It acumulates, building up, adding weight, destryoing your buoyancy. If not tended it can pull you lower in the water until you swamp. It’s momentum can make it difficult to change, pulling you on in the same course, resisting your efforts to turn.
<< So, you’re saying I need a bilge-pump? >>
Perhaps. Or maybe you just need to see that mucky, oily, smelly bilge water as the great gift and resource that it is…
Think of it as Alternative Fuel For Belly Dancers.
Out of that bilge water, you can pull the power for performance, for power on stage, and for transformation.
Ever notice how sometimes a song will tap into an emotion, something that comes up strong and out of nowhere? That’s the bilge water rising up, carried on the music. That’s some emotion, some event, some bit of your story that’s been washed down into the belly of the ship. It may have been washed away by the water on the decks, swept clear enough you’ve forgotten it was ever there. And yet, there it is, still sloshing around, washed back into experience by a tremor of qanun, a whisper of ney or the rumble of drums. A feeling so strong it shortens your breath, takes your voice, brings tears you barely catch, fills your chest with a tension or an ache or a swelling sense of the rising feeling… all brought on by the simplest of things… a sound.
What power there is in such a simple thing. The breath of a musician through a reed, the touch of his fingers on a string and up rises that feeling…
What magic there is in being a human being… to be able to react with such power to such a simple thing.
And what a gift it is to a dancer, that rise of feeling, that momentum, it’s fuel for movement and performance. If you can take that rise and turn it into movement, if you can stay with that, ride that, be swept along in it as you dance, your performance will be transformed. The integrity and power of that submerged emotion can be remarkable.
If you want to create a feeling in your audience, create it in yourself. If you want to move them, be moved yourself. Nothing creates feeling like actually feeling.
That bilge water, it’s potent stuff.
And as an added green-living bonus, the more bilge water you recycle into performance, the less you have to carry around. Every ounce burned in performance lightens your load, raises your buoyancy, lets you float a little higher in the water, adds to your maneuverability. The more of the oily, smelly, murky stuff you feed into performance, the stronger your performance is and the lighter your life is… now that’s recycling at it’s best.
So here’s to belly dancing, and bilge water.