Bridging the Gap

“You should go for it!” Claudia said after we had shimmied our hearts out. I was sweaty and utterly exhausted, and had no patience for whatever she was babbling about. She gestured excitedly to the poster hanging on the studio wall. The large, colorful advertisement shouted at me: One day, six workshops! Sepiatonic presents Samba, Bollywhack, Expanding Movement, Afro-pop Fusion, Waacking & Vogue Fusion, and Isolation Drill Bits…We are Bridging the Gap! “There is still scholarship money available!” She told me gleefully. The application involved several essay questions and a video audition. “Oh,” Claudia mentioned quasi-casually, “and the application deadline is tonight.” How in the world did she think I was qualified for this kind of scholarship? I’d never even heard of half of these dance styles! And how would I stand out among so many talented dancers? I imagined them all recording their auditions on a stage in front of a live orchestra, finger cymbals winking in the spotlight and $900 costumes flashing to the sound of the audience’s ooohs and ahhhs, while my audition would most likely consist of me in my clammy workout gear in my living room.
Bridge the gap
But Claudia never doubted me, even when I had little faith in myself. She had been my belly dance teacher now for over eight years. Yemaya had been my first mentor, and the one who helped instill solid muscle memory and strength in me. Several years ago, when she moved out of the country and I expressed panic at losing her—just when I was beginning to perform—she reassured me that a new teacher would guide my dance education from then on. Claudia had been nothing short of amazing. In addition to the solo performances I had already taken on, duet, and troupe performances had been checked off under her watch. I built my style, and learned to better understand my strengths and weaknesses during her classes. I also admired her insistence on learning from a variety of teachers—she was all about building the self through a community. She knew my uncertainties and apprehensions almost better than I did… so I tried to trust her conviction in my ability.
I went home and thought about it, determined to make a decision that was based on fact, not fear. Normally I would have pushed all hopeful thoughts out of my mind and gone to bed, making excuses of why I couldn’t do this. I’m tired. It’s too late to submit. I’m not qualified. What was bridging the gap, anyway? I Googled the group’s website: Bridge the Gap is a way to stay connected, to collaborate, to innovate, to celebrate diversity, and to keep making art and growing community in these fearful times of oppression. The more that different artists, thinkers, feelers, and awake people of our communities unite, the stronger of a power we are against forces that strive to annihilate free-thinking, passionate creativity, and diverse and alternative lifestyles in our country. It sounded like something magical and daring… It sounded fantastic…it sounded like it could be perfect for me. My dance community was wonderful but small, and expanding mine could only build me up as a dancer and a human being. Suddenly, I knew I needed to do this.
I started with the essay questions. I’m excellent at tests, especially long form writing ones. I considered each question, and wrote each answer with loving intention in my heart, excited to share my passion for dance and the experiences it had provided me up to this point. Then, the video. I propped up my phone, pressed play, and performed my best 30-second belly dance/Latin fusion that I could muster after two solid hours of dance class and a full day of work. I watched it, then re-watched it at least three times, then re-recorded it at least three times, then took a deep lungful of air—don’t forget to breathe—and clicked send on the application.
A few days later I received a reply. I opened it nervously. I had submitted my application literally at the eleventh hour. Was it possible I actually got in? I had to read it twice for it to truly sink in. I had won a scholarship—for the full day of dance!
I walked in that Sunday feeling terribly nervous and only somewhat physically prepared. I had packed way too many snacks and not enough confidence, but it didn’t matter. I was here now, and the embarrassment of running out the door trumped embarrassing myself in the classroom. First up: samba. I had taken a few samba classes over the years, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by this style. My arms were on fire after the first few rounds of choreography and my feet were constantly playing catch-up, but I grinned through the sweat. Overall, I was keeping up! I could do this! The smile didn’t leave my face for the rest of the day.
Bollywhack was next. Kumari Suraj is a force, a stunning, feminine presence that I was immediately attracted to. As a curvy woman, I was ecstatic at the sight of someone larger than a size two teaching the class. It turns out that this combination of Bollywood (The dance form used in Indian films) and Waacking (Waack/Punk is a form of dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s) was exactly what I needed to experience. I instantly fell in love with the crisp, energetic movements introduced by two seemingly opposite styles of dance, but it worked, and Kumari stole a piece of my heart. Following were Afro-pop Fusion, Expanding Movement, Waack and Vogue Fusion, and the last, which unfortunately I had to miss due to a previous commitment, Isolation Drill Bits. The workshops made me feel weightless. Nothing mattered but the movements, and my physical body was almost secondary to the energy and spirit I exuded.
This community of dancers was a diverse one—not only belly dancers, but those who samba, waack, vogue, play, flounce, whirl. People who aren’t one type of beautiful. Men with giant braided ponytails of hair, flinging them madly, within dangerous distances of other dancers. A big and beautiful dancer like me, who astounded the crowd and made me want to rip out my eyeballs and send them away with her, to continually watch her dazzling generosity of movement and flair. These people were all so human, so robust, boisterous, and raw. I could read it in their eyes; they proudly polluted the definition of societal allure.
My definition of what a dancer is has forever been altered. There is nothing like the rush of power I feel when I move to the ancient Middle Eastern music. Belly dance makes me forget to feel self-conscious and be proud of who I am; I forget to crave the comforting stability of the status quo. Dance obliterates my worries and wraps me in a bubble of protection that I yearn to hold on to in my everyday life.
A dancer of stunning feminine essence was born in a basement studio. My name is Maysam Janan, meaning beautiful heart and soul, and dance has set my heart on fire. Shaky or strong, my breath keeps the fire going, and the community I continue to build will hold me up when I can’t fuel it alone.

Belly Dance Soul Fire

The ladies of BDSF

Recently, I wrote an article that was published in Jareeda Magazine for their “troupe extravaganza” issue. I thought I would share it here with you. For more great articles, check out Jareeda for yourself! If you’re in the Portland area, be sure to catch these beautiful dancers at a show near you. They can often be seen collaborating with other dancers in town in shows such as Salon L’Orient at the Fez Ballroom. Later in 2012 they hope to take their Dance N.O.W. show on a Pacific NW tour. Check their website for more details. 
Belly Dance Soulfire is an undeniable example of a troupe success story. I’ve followed them through every incarnation, through member changes and name changes. I’ve watched them grow from a group of individual dancers to a collective of passionate belly dance power. Their goal is to show the world that it is okay, and in fact a wonderful thing, to explore what it means to break the mold of traditional belly dancing while still honoring its roots, and that no one needs permission to create a new definition of dance fusion. Belly Dance Soulfire believes that performance art is always shifting, constantly making room for new ideas. Their juicy and—dare I say—tantalizing choreography stems from years of diverse experiences of four unique women. I know first-hand how palpable their synchronicity is, and not just technically. It is easy to see the loving energy flow through each performance.
My own fixation with belly dance started eight years ago. My first dance mentor and an original member of Belly Dance Soulfire, Yemaya, who has since relocated, taught me a lot about dance theory, basics, and the culture of belly dance. I saw performing as a unique and beautiful expression of an individual’s passion for an ancient dance form. When she joined a troupe which today is called Belly Dance Soulfire, I didn’t completely understand the reasons. I had come to think of cabaret belly dance as a solo dance, and saw tribal as a group one. So why did Yemaya need to join this troupe when she was a wonderful solo dancer? Watching the group mature and hearing Yemaya talk about the experience, I learned that a troupe is far more than women getting together to dance in unison. A troupe is made up of sisters in dance, who grow together, support each other, and who develop a loving unity that is meant to be shared with an audience.
The group has become an illustration of diversity in every sense of the word. Not only do they each come from very a different background, it has also been noted more than once that there are a variety of body types in the troupe. The four women of Belly Dance Soulfire use this advantage to fuel a movement of body love and acceptance. They encourage all women who feel a connection with the dance to grasp that feeling and cultivate it to their full potential, regardless of society’s “standards.”
The four dancers of Belly Dance Soulfire are each dynamic solo dancers in their own right. Sedona, the founder, creative director, and co-choreographer, had been dancing her whole life before she discovered belly dance. This dance opened a world to her that she instantly felt she was meant to be in. Relatively early in her belly dance career, she decided she wanted to form a troupe of experienced dancers that would become a celebration of all types of women coming together in dance.
Claudia, also an original member and co-choreographer, has been known in Portland as a dynamic and fiery dancer for years. She was already an established dancer and instructor performing regularly at area restaurants and shows when she and Sedona connected. Her 13 years of dance experience has made her a major contributor to the troupe’s bold choreographies. Soulfire gave her a chance to express herself beyond the constraints of the cabaret style that was so in demand in traditional Middle Eastern venues.
Before joining Belly Dance Soulfire, Shara was known for her energetic samba-belly dance fusion in North Carolina, called Sambali. She moved to Portland for a marketing job. Soon after, she was laid off, and in the aftermath realized she was meant to follow her true love of dance full time. I met her in her first session of classes in Portland and instantly liked her. I knew the ladies of Belly Dance Soulfire would be drawn to her too, so I invited her to a show they were putting on…and the rest is history!
Karolina was brought into Belly Dance Soulfire temporarily from California to bring some extra spice to the audition for summer TV show “America’s Got Talent.” The strategy was a success! They made it to Vegas and were complimented on their style, flair, and diversity. She fit in so well that she moved to Portland to stay with the group. Karolina brings a distinctive flair to the troupe with her signature trumpet belly dance and Vaudevillian sass.
Belly Dance Soulfire has quickly become a staple of the Portland belly dance community, joining forces with several other dancers to put on amazing performances and to show everyone that there should not be separation in belly dance because of difference in style; unity is the key to success. Making a bold statement in 2011 with their Dance N.O.W. (Not One Way) production, they emboldened women to reach further into their hearts and break boundaries, asking other groups to join them in an act of faith that their followers would connect with the other troupes as well.
Belly Dance Soulfire is truly a fantastic model of charismatic and ambitious dancers working incredibly hard to ensure the continuation and permanence of this ancient art form. With their goals to spread the power and knowledge of belly dance to all, I know Portland and beyond will see a lot more from Belly Dance Soulfire in the coming years, because these women really do have Soul Fire!

Belly Dancer Seeks Soul-Arnica

Belly Dancer in a Box

I have been bellydancing for almost eight years. I have been blessed with many instructors, each of whom has a different forte and dance style. I feel extremely lucky to have had all of this vast knowledge at my fingertips for so many years, and I know I have grown from knowing every belly dancer who has been in my life, teachers and classmates alike. But…I can also have a big ego, and I’m not afraid of waving around my street cred. Sometimes I get in my Belly-Dancer-in-a-Box mode, where I am the be-all end-all of amateur belly dancers and everything I say should be gold. Sounds familiar, right? Needing (or faking) being the perfect [insert your noun here, in this case it’s “belly dancer”] in every way? Can we PUHLEASE just excommunicate the word perfect already??
When I began Claudia’s class last year, everyone else in it was a beginner. Why would I join a beginner’s class when I’ve been dancing for eight years? Let me explain. A while ago I had a mini burn-out. Belly dance was still a part of my daily life, but I was no longer interested in studying intensively. I flitted around from teacher to teacher, occasionally signing up for a workshop here and there, but not dancing at haflas (belly dance parties) or looking for the next stage performance opportunity. It was almost a year ago when my good friend Claudia started her beginner’s class. She invited me to attend, and I jumped at it. I had taken classes with her in the past and loved her teaching style. In this class, I thought, I could brush up on my basics and get a great workout while not worrying about the pressure of a performance prep class.
Oh, the irony. The class had been together for about six months when Claudia announced we were going to perform the choreography we had been working on at one of the restaurants where she danced. At first I was nervous…but there was no pressure, as it was a student show, the choreography was super simple, and we didn’t have to put much effort into our costumes – basically just black clothes with red hip scarves. I was lucky; I had just purchased a slinky top that was black with red seams and had mesh arms. It was perfect for the performance. The costume was taken care of, the choreography was seamless…everything was set! The night went fantastically and we were very well-received. It was really fun!
A short time later we started a new choreography, and Claudia asked us if we were interested in performing it at Saqra’s Showcase in November. This is a great venue for all levels of dancers to show off their skills. We excitedly agreed. I had danced in the showcase before, and knew the ropes. I began giving the other girls advice and hosted extra practices at my house. If they had questions I answered them, sometimes inwardly rolling my eyes and thinking DUH, they should know this stuff already! In class I was the first one to memorize all the choreography, which made me feel great…and slightly superior. After all, I was the seasoned pro, wasn’t I? In class, while I was dancing with the troupe, I wasn’t particularly thinking about anyone other than me. I have always performed as a solo dancer in the past, so thinking about my fellow dancers was a pretty big adjustment…and one that my ego did not particularly find comforting. I think Claudia could tell, because the one big critique she kept giving me was that I needed to be conscious of where I was dancing in relation to the other women. “You have to mark me, Becca!!” She would say. I honestly had no idea what she was talking about for the longest time. The practices felt tense to me; I could feel my internal pressure rising every week. I knew the choreography perfectly, but I was feeling like a total loser because I couldn’t find my place among the other women.
The showcase came horrifically fast for me. We ordered our tops and skirts just a week and a half before the performance. Then we began the process of sewing our belts. This is a laborious process, and it takes a lot of attention to detail (which I have) and some basic sewing skills (which I have…but they aren’t great). I started feeling way less superior when it took me twice as long to sew the fabric and coins onto my belt. I started feeling panicky when I realized exactly how much work was involved. In addition to the belt and all of its bells and whistles, I needed to reinforce the hook and eye on the skirt, hem the skirt, create some sort of accessory with the fabric (Head band? Arm band? Choker?), redo the hook and eye on the belt because it was too big the first time, find my flare pants to go under the skirt, buy a shrug to go over the coin top, paint my toenails…you get the picture. Plus, I live alone with no one to help me. On the Saturday before the performance I attempted to enlist help from every person I could think of. I just needed an extra set of hands. Many of my friends were out of town for some reason or had plans for the day. A large set of others were preparing their own costumes for the Swashbucklers Ball that evening. I posted on Twitter and Facebook trying to find someone to help me. Not one bite. I felt my big superior ego shrinking by the minute. I was quickly learning that even though I had learned the technical skills of belly dancing long ago, there was still a ton to learn. It made me realize I should drop all the superior crap and just live the experience, piece by piece, because clearly my whole Belly-Dancer-in-a-Box routine was just not working.
I finally suckered my new friend Rich into coming over for a few hours. Poor guy…he barely knows me, and I didn’t even tell him that he would be at risk of losing his Man Card by helping me with a sewing project. But he didn’t ask, so when I told him, I was relieved to hear that he was pretty sure his Man Card would remain intact. He kept me focused on my project and lent me a kind ear while I babbled about all the stress I was feeling over this crazy sewing project.
The showcase was last night. Our group did a great job. We all looked lovely and the audience clapped and cheered for us. It was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. No one cared that it was not perfect. Afterward what I felt most was relief that it was over. I’m a little sad that I could not let myself enjoy it as much as I could have. I was still feeling so much pressure and stress that I really wasn’t in the moment. Now that I’ve had time to let the experience marinate, I have a couple of realizations.
*I’m not ready to start performing solo again, nor do I particularly want to perform in the troupe more than a few times a year.
*I am not the be-all, end-all Belly-Dancer-in-a-Box. I am one unique person in a huge community of dancers with all kinds of the skills it takes to create a great show.
*Memorizing choreography isn’t the only measure of a good performance.
*My ego needs to chill. I need to give myself time to breathe, no matter how rushed I am. Stress for me brings on denial, which brings on a fake superiority so that I don’t have to think about what my flaws are.
*Most importantly, and one that I have to hear daily: No one is perfect.

My troupe, Benet Jenna, all unique and beautiful women