This is my presentation I gave in March 2014 at the Georgia Women's Conference. The images here are screen shots of the Prezi slide show I prepared for the presentation, if you want to see the full Prezi slide show click here.
I was raised by one of the founders of the Houston Area National Organization for Women. She was obese for the entirety of my life. She was a social worker, psychology teacher, and the Director of the American Red Cross in our city. She was mentally active….not physically active. I was raised around such women. Many varieties of bodies but not one that had a media standard of beauty. I wore baggie t shirts, cut off jeans, ratty shoes (if I wore shoes at all) and rolled my eyes at girls that went out of their way to be cute.
Most of you in here are probably familiar with the Bechdel test. The point of the "test" is to suggest that since a woman's entire daily life does not revolve around men then maybe dialogue in the entertainment industry should not either. My mom trained me to take this one step further. The majority of images of women in media and the entertainment industry should also not revolve around the tastes of men. This gives the viewer a very skewed view of the world. It trains us who to listen to. Having mostly women that are industry model perfect implies that only women that are sexually interesting to men are relevant. That a woman has to be beautiful in order to be seen and heard. Generally the only women that differ from industry standard are comediennes, and if a woman does not meet the industry standard when she becomes famous she is then groomed to comply with the standard of beauty, poise, and social acceptably. A standard conversation in any living room revolves on the professional lives of men and the personal lives of women.
A recent conversation I had contained all of the horrors of how the public sees women. I was watching a news program and the woman I was sitting with started commenting, not about the news, but on the female news anchor’s personal life. "She's married to (insert random basketball star's name) and has two kids with him. Doesn't she still look great?" I asked her who the male news anchor was married to and she just gave me a blank stare and told me she didn't know… with an exasperated voice like she was talking to a 5 year old. So it didn't matter what news that female newscaster was delivering, it mattered that she had married “well” and still looked good after two kids. If you read most women's bios they lead off with whose children they are, who they slept with and/or married and how many kids they have. Then it will talk about their careers. Rarely will you find this pattern in men's bios. In their early life you will see what lead men to their career path instead of who they had sex with. So that is my programming. And yet…. My first real memory of a bellydancer is watching one walk by and seeing those side "skin rolls" just to the back of her lower ribs. It looked like fat rolls to me and my thought was one of distaste. I have a vivd memory of thinking "If THAT is what bellydance does to your body then I never want to do that!" A bellydancer's torso is loose and flexible with bellies that are round and prominent. This is not the female body the media sells us. They want flat, toned, scrawny and uniform in shape. In reality women are rarely that, and bellydancing especially asks women to have some jiggle and suppleness.
Shouldn't my reaction to the bellydancer walking by have been something like "Wow, she has lots of make up on!" or "I can't believe she is displaying her body like that, she is dragging us back to the stone ages." or some such thing a 13 year old feminist might think? Unfortunately I had already been programmed by the media to judge her by whether she had fat rolls, and to abhor ever having them for myself. All the feminists in the world could not save me from the wide net of the media. (Here is some subtext: What I noticed from looking for pictures to post is that dancers still abhor that little roll of skin and muscle. I only found one picture, other than mine, that had it. The dancers were either posed in a way that they didn't show their side, lifted their torso abnormally high so it was stretched out, had it smoothed out digitally, or just did not allow a picture with the roll to be public. ) So how did I end up a bellydancer? Here is a quote from my blog on tribalbellydance.com: "I began dancing to alleviate dreadful congenital pain in my knees and back. My knees were bad from day one, my mom said I always had bruises on the sides of my legs because I couldn’t swerve to avoid objects. I tried many forms of exercise and either they were too vigorous for my knees to take (I still have the scars from falling on the clay track in high school) or did nothing to relieve the pain. In college I was not a sedentary person, my job was selling roses at restaurants and nightclubs which meant walking all night from 6pm to 2am holding a huge hearth basket of roses above my head while weaving through crowds. To get from place to place I had to drive, this meant I had to slip in and out of my driving knee braces which was pretty tedious to do 5 to 6 times a night. I finally had a doctor suggest bellydance after his wife took a sample bellydance class at a medical conference. He said that standing with my knees bent, yet not having any impact on them, might just do the trick. I conveniently had a friend interested in classes at the same time so we signed up for class at the local studio. While I don’t remember the class, I do remember that at least the endorphins were a release from the pain and that was incentive enough to go back. All this pain made me a cranky person and a benefit of the classes was that I was in a great mood after class. On days that I said I was not feeling well enough to go to class my boyfriend (now husband of over 20 years) would push me out the door because he wanted a less cranky person to live with. I don’t blame him a bit." Ah but the dilemma…..Although I kept going to classes because they made my body feel better, I was not comfortable, or interested, in the look of a bellydancer. I did not want to wear push up bras or skirts slit up my thigh to gain attention. It wasn't that I was a prude, it was just not my interest. I was hanging out with people that were the beginnings of what is now called the Modern Primitive movement.
Some of the hallmarks of the Modern Primitives were tattoos, often in prominent places like chest, neck, faces and hands; excessive and/or large gauge piercing; chunky ethnic jewelry; avant garde hair styles like dreads, bright colors and shaved portions; and bold ethnic textiles. These were the trashy carnies that you would never let your daughter date. This look is much more common now, but I was one of the first people in my age group to get a tattoo. Back then tattoos were so outside the social norm that the first thing my friend Susie and I said was "Well, I guess we can't ever be strippers now,” because back then even strippers couldn't be tattooed! So I stood way outside the norm of what a bellydancer looked like. Then there is my next issue with bellydance. My three main teachers were not thin or young so they could not perform in restaurants, or on stages at the Greek Festivals or Ren Faires. They were relegated to in studio performances and casual settings. One teacher completely refused to perform at all even though she was the teacher of all the other teachers. This solidly gave me the message that since I wasn't going to be conventionally pretty I wasn't going to have a place in public either. I had to be hidden away behind closed doors. This did not make me love this dance form very much. It wasn’t until I encountered live music around the fire in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) that I found interest outside of class. My boyfriend was in the SCA so I started going to events with him to meet his social group. I slowly became involved and one event I volunteered to cook the main feast. On Friday night of the event someone had a “tavern” open to serve food and drink to people arriving on site. There was a drummer and some dancers at the tavern. They weren’t performing, just party dancing. It was the first time I had seen any dancing outside the school/workshop/restaurant atmosphere. The party dancers were so bad but having so much fun. As I watched them I realize two things: what a good education I was getting at my school, and how much more fun dancing in this atmosphere was than just memorizing 16 counts of a combo in class. I didn’t join in that night, but instead went to bed early because I was cooking feast the next day. My feast for the event was successful but after a long day of cooking my knees and back were killing me. I lay back in my chair that night, not even having the energy to take myself to bed. I heard music off in the distance and I thought if I could just get the energy and nerve up to go dance a bit it would relieve my pain. I walked over and stood in the shadows for a while just watching the few dancers and musicians having a lovely time. Not finding the bravery to go dance by the fire I just swayed in the shadows, loosening my back up, until I felt good enough to be able to get a good night’s rest. Many events down the road I eventually became brave enough to join the dancers around the fire and became addicted to their camaraderie and laughter. Now I was all in and wanted more! As I traveled with the Renaissance Festival circuit, managing a high end pewter shop, I sought out teachers in each city a faire was near. I discovered what a high quality education I was getting at my school and so when I was back in Houston each year I studied with more fervor. I still felt totally out of place in the bellydance world but slowly I was finding others within the SCA, and on the Ren Faire circuit, that did not fit in within the "cabaret" bellydance esthetic either. The largest of the events was Pennsic and the bellydance community that developed filled us up with joy and vibrancy each year.
Then one of my teachers here in Atlanta showed me two videos, one of Fat Chance Belly Dance and one of Gypsy Caravan. She had bought them from a catalogue because she thought the people on the cover looked like my friend Val and I. That's when it happened, I learned that there was something called Tribal Bellydance and that we weren't such outsiders after all. There were other Modern Primitives that found a love for bellydance AND they had sprung from an entirely feminist created troupe, the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe. Here are clips I showed the conference of Gypsy Caravan, Fat Chance Bellydance, and Ultra Gypsy. Then I showed the raw footage video of Moria describing the origins of Tribal Bellydance.
After I settled down in Atlanta permanently, to be near some of my SCA dance friends, I decided to start teaching to form an even larger community of dancers. I quickly found like minded people and formed a dance company…way too soon. I spent much of my energy the first 10 years of Awalim trying to figure out how to market such a diverse group of women.
The problem was I had no business plan, no idea where I wanted this all to go. I loved rehearsals, I love music, I loved working hard and studying. I would go to Pennsic each year, and get filled up, and try to spread that feeling to my dancers throughout the year. But that isn't a plan. Awalim had a huge variety in looks, races, and ages, which did not fit into any standard hiring model for bellydance. We did not dress like what people thought of as bellydancers. We danced to music that was not standard for bellydancers. PLUS I only wanted to sell us as a group, not individual dancers, which would cost much more. This marketing model did not exist. The hard truth was that not all body types were "commercially accepted". If I wanted to make money then sometimes I had to make at least one concession and pick those dancers that were the most appealing to the general population…or Gen Pop. The pictures of my diverse group of women on the website meant I got many tentative phone calls from people trying to tactfully (sometimes not so tactfully) tell me that they didn't want any fat women performing at their party, or picking specific dancers from the website based on surface looks, not understanding they might not be suited for the gig. I was rarely one of the dancers people picked since I was very average looking and not curvy in the right way. The customers were searching for that cliche'd look of a bellydancer, or just a "pretty girl,” to dress up their party. This created an emotional roller coaster for both me and the dancers.
I tried the Orientalist Fantasy sell the hardest, figuring that might feed into to the general population's idea about bellydance. The genre of modern bellydance was actually created on the backs of the Western world's Orientalist images. Badia Masbni opened a club in Cairo in the 1920's to attract the tourists coming to Egypt. She had the dancers trained to travel across the dance floor and clothed them in Orientalist and Art Nuevo costuming that was not authentic in anyway. The music the band played was also often created out of an idea of what this fantasy creature would dance to. Near the beginning of Awalim's formation a drummer in town started producing small show at the Red Light Cafe as a response to a dancer complaining that she wasn't able to perform to whatever music she wanted to at her restaurant gigs. He wanted this to be the place where the dancers in town did not have to follow any of the rules of standardization. They could wear and dance to what they wanted. It also gave us a chance to have live music every once in a while. This was the beginning of my event production career. Between helping out with set lists and stage management at the Red Light shows, and starting to organize more of the Middle Eastern community within the SCA, I was getting an education into what it took to run events. I was not thrilled to join in the process, but if I wanted shows and classes to happen I just had to buckle down and do it.
My life took on a multifaceted career path that made things hectic. My aesthetics and training as a feminist took a serious backseat during all this. I was a weekly solo restaurant dancer to put meat on the table, I was a dance company director and promoter, I was a stage and production manager, I was a web mistress, graphics designer, costumer, set designer, and teacher on the bellydance workshop circuit. Eventually I added being a mom to that. Somewhere in there I was also a wife. Slowly through the community I was gathering around me in the Southeast US I was finding that my position as an event producer gave me the power to promote what ideas I thought people needed to see and hear. I could choose to hire not just the popular teachers and performers, but I could curate events to get my message across. I wanted to promote live music? I just had to find the right mix of musicians and keep producing shows with them. I wanted to promote a sense of history of our art form? I would hire the teachers that began Tribal Bellydance, and the ones that covered general bellydance history in their workshops. I wanted to give people a better idea of the broad range of Tribal dance on the East Coast? I would hire the best and bring it right here to Atlanta. I want to promote the idea of dancers that have brains? I began to have opening night lectures for my festival. I want to give the audience the highest quality show possible? I jury my festival shows to give the audience the highest quality example of Tribal bellydance I can. They have always sold out well in advance since day one. I went from producing little shows and workshops thru the Red Light Cafe to now being in the 11th year of the largest Tribal Bellydance Festival on the East Coast. Each year is curated to give a certain message to our community. There are live music parties each night to give the dancers a connection to that joy that we experience in the SCA.
Great….but I am a dancer too! Not just a producer and a promoter. I was still finding it hard to reconcile my feminism with trying to promote my dance company to be hired. After brainstorming with the dancers it dawned on us to treat the dance company and students the same way we do the festivals and workshops. Do it ourselves! I mostly stopped touring on the festival circuit so that I could pour myself completely into my local community and started to produce stage shows for my students to perform in. Full stage and lights, crazy fast costume changes, long hours of rehearsals, and exacting standards of quality. We put quality on stage and the audience loved it. They were drawn to the beauty that came from women enjoying the freedom to dance. We controlled our public image finally. We didn't have some guy telling us who was allowed to go on stage, only the amount of work the students were willing to do held any of them back. I could finally really allow myself to love bellydance because I wasn't judging others by their body type, I was glorifying each person. After 16 years into having a bellydance company I finally figured out how to be a feminist, a community activist, AND a dancer.