Category Archives: Blog Entries About Dance

Poetry In Motion

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Holly and Farima after the Jewish Nutcracker production at ODC Theatre San Francisco

Holly and Farima after the Jewish Nutcracker production at ODC Theatre San Francisco

Today I had the pleasure of working with San Francisco Bay Area dancer and ethnologist, Farima Berenji.  Farima and I met while we were both doing the run for my friend Katy’s production The Jewish Nutcracker . Farima made a most exquisite Persian Sufganiyot Fairy as you can see from the picture. Farima has been working on this Poetry in Motion project using Persian poetry for over a year now.  She thought it might be interesting to collaborate with me as a flamenco dancer. As she was describing  this project it reminded me of my piece from last summer, Describe Yourself As A Work of Art.  For one section of that presentation, I had audience members do a writing exercise where they described themselves as a work of art and then also explored what they were resisting in that moment.  Then, in the dance performance with the girls, I read one of the audience members’ prose and the dancer interpreted  it. This was a truly powerful experience for both the dancer, but also the woman whose writing was danced.  She was about 40 years old and came up to me later and expressed how moved she was to have something so close to her heart interpreted by this teenage dancer. Farima was thrilled to hear about this experience and we decided to also include this exercise in the upcoming performance. So if you come to the Salon just know we may be asking you to write a little something for our dance inspiration;)

This is just a taste from today’s rehearsal.  The “music” is Persian poetry. I can’t tell you what its about cause its a secret;) Come to the salon and find out the answer! We are performing this as an improvisation at my event the Sunday Salon coming up January 27th at the Garden Gate Creativity Center in Berkeley.

 

Why I Teach Belly Dance

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HollyShawbellydanceWhen I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001, I got a job teaching belly dance at 24 HR Fitness.  I had never taught dance before but I quickly fell into the role of fitness dance teacher.  I needed a job, but didn’t know it would be sooo fun! Belly dance is alluring to people for its fluid beautiful lines and body conditioning potential, but it can also have a deeper purpose in its body awareness that can surprise and awaken people.  I LOVED teaching it. It often felt like I was acting from a separate new part of myself. A wiser part of myself. I carved out technique exercises for the class, but the places I would lead them to through the dance and the things I found myself saying would surprise even me.  It was as though I was speaking from a higher self.  I experienced a high after classes that would last for hours. I felt like when I was teaching I could really truly see people and together we reached great natural heightened awareness.  I remember looking out at the crowd of sweating smiling women who had been dancing for an hour and feeling such appreciation to be leading such beautiful people.

But then inevitably, as I was trying to pay San Francisco rent prices, I got another job.  My accounting job. I hung onto the teaching for awhile, then I had Aleister and I had to make choices between belly dance and flamenco. Flamenco is much more challenging for my body type and so that desire won out and belly dancing mostly feel by the wayside for a number of years.

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Holly (in blue) teaching belly dance at 9 months pregnant

So of course recently as I saw my accounting job coming to an end, I wanted to seriously ask myself, “What do I want to do?”  And very important to that: “What would be fun to do?”  Any time I contemplated getting another accounting job or doing bookkeeping even on a freelance basis, my heart would sink.  I’d log onto Craigslist and as soon as I clicked on Jobs/Finance, I would feel nauseous.  Well, my body didn’t need to shout at me any longer.  It was clear to me, whatever I do next it would not include a lateral move to accounting. It was time to get back to where I belonged.

Naturally I remembered my belly dance teaching days and realized I had several very good reasons to teach it.

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Holly teaching BellyDance for Mamas

Belly Dance is accessible to many people.  One of the things I love most about belly dance is that it is so accessible to so many people. While it is true that it can take years to really master a movement, it also is true that it can take only one hour to learn a few movements and be dancing it, even if you don’t consider yourself a “dancer.” The movements may be rough and not as refined as you desire, but you can still get the satisfaction of dancing from the minute you begin learning.

Belly Dance allows you to appreciate where you are. There is no other dance form as forgiving and accepting of your body’s fitness as belly dance. It meets you where you are. Truly.  Go ahead. Wiggle and shake your jiggly thighs. Bless them.  You can see the movements best on thicker women anyway.  I remember when I was 22 years old traveling the world, and I

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Holly dancing in nightclub in Cairo circa 2000

spent some time in Egypt, dancing at a three star night club in Cairo.  The dancers there are beautifully voluptuous and large by Western standards. By the time I had danced there for three weeks I was so slender from all the dancing that the patrons were regularly complaining about me. “We can see her ribs” they were saying.  “Eat eat!” They chanted at me in Arabic.  When I began there, I was a fun anomaly “We love America!” they cried.  But they got tired of watching my skinny body move.  Move over Skinny, there were “real” women to see.  I never felt more appreciative of Arabic men as in the moment I realized I was in the wrong place.

This generality about belly dance has become a core value in my teaching as a whole: If you truly desire transformation, then love where you are now.  By accepting and blessing and embracing all of yourself, you allow yourself to “catch up” to your expansion of all you desire to become.  In belly dance class this philosophy is in plain sight: Bless those curves, bless them!

Belly Dance has props! One thing that is so fantastically fun about belly dance is there are about a million different props and things you can add to it to make it more fun, use different muscles, or simply switch it up: colorful veils! add rhythm with finger cymbals! and let’s not even talk about balancing things on our heads? swords, trays, candles . . .the list is endless.

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Holly teaching dancing with veil

It’s great for the core muscles. Let’s just speak to what everyone is thinking.  Belly dance can have a tremendously thorough effect on your core muscle tone. No amount of pilates, yoga, or crunches can compare to the nuanced workout of belly dance. I remember when I was teaching at 24HR Fitness, there was a young woman there who was a bit on the pudgy side.  Not really overweight, just sort of shapeless.  As she came to class week after week I noticed that her clothing went from baggy tshirts and boys’ sweatpants to more slimming fitness gear.  After a couple of months, she came up and gave me one of the most memorable testimonies I have ever had the pleasure of receiving, “My body has CHANGED!” she said to me with enthusiasm.  “I’m telling you, I never used to have a waist. At all. No waist line. Just a block of body from my chest to my hips, but now there is a WAIST THERE!”

And finally, like I said from the beginning, teaching belly dance is fun! Teaching belly dance is only one piece of my new career.  I also do creativity coaching, choreograph, and perform.  But being a belly Hollyfeatherfansdance teacher is such a natural fit with all of that. I love having an influence on women’s lives and I love that belly dance can reach so many women.  I love the non-exclusivity of it.  It has a wide loving embrace.  I love that women can come to my class and love themselves, every part.  Dance has the power to transform the way we think about ourselves. Physical movement can usher the internal movement of our minds and spirits – providing new resources through metaphor.  The body has its messages and wisdom to impart. I can only hope to provide a space for those who want to

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Holly and her son on Halloween this year

listen.

Holly is a full-time dancer, choreographer, coach, and mom living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She currently teaches weekly BellyDance for Mamas classes in Oakland and Berkeley. Click here to find out more about BellyDance for Mamas classes.

Change in Costume at the Mutual Appreciation Station

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Just last weekend I had about five other dancers over to my house for a clothing swap.  Just for those of you that don’t know, a clothing swap is when you bring together a bunch of folks who want to get rid of their old digs and find some new.  Everyone brings clothes they don’t want anymore, you know those items that they bought on a whim and never worn or have outgrown, put them all in a big pile in the middle of the floor and spend an hour or two rummaging through other peoples’ things.  With the right women this is a wildly fun process. Not only do you get to try on new stuff, but there is a lot of “ooooh look Tracy, this would look great on you with your big booty” or similar adoring comments.  It becomes a kind of Mutual Appreciation Station. The end result is everyone leaves with at least a few free new items to spice up their wardrobe and feeling hecka good about themselves.  The remaining garments that nobody wants are bagged up and taken to Goodwill or a charity drop.

It was my friend, Hannah Romanowsky, that suggested we do it – she insists that clothing swaps are the wave of the future; but for me the timing was just perfect.  As I leave the financial district world behind me in my career as an artist, I’m open to leaving behind the personality-less wardrobe as well. Before the girls showed up I went through my closet I yanked loads of “office” clothes from their hangers and into my contribution pile: pencil skirts, business casual pants, plain boat neck tops, and anything beige. It was all going! Luckily there was one woman there with an “office” fetish;) But my high heels, well, c’mon now! My high heels. . .I admit that they have stayed;)

365Dances: What I learned this year? Lean Into What You Love

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When I began this project my intention was to make a different dance every single day.  Oh! The things I would learn about choreography! Oh the learnings and the amazing art which would follow! Well, after about twenty days when I was shaking from the exhaustion of not getting enough sleep (see the video Crossroads? That is a woman that needs to chill the bleep! out). I realized I needed to come to some sort of modified agreement with myself.  It was not really realistic for me, a single mother working full-time 30 hrs a week AT A DESK to create entire dances every single day.  Laundry has to get done at some point. What I could do is vow to create a little sketch every day. Ah! Yes! That feels better! A little dance sketch.  Could be a 30 second sketch off a gesture I observed during commute, could be an entire five minute improvisation, could be something I’d been thinking about in the back of my mind for days.  But whatever it was, I realized, I needed the freedom to just let it be and not judge it.  This is tough when you are putting your videos on youtube.  But that was important to me too.  We don’t make art to live inside of bubbles.  Art is supposed to be out there.  And so even when things weren’t WOW really good, I still liked posting them for the moments of value that I found in them. For the transparency of the process. When I began this project, I couldn’t have predicted how my life would change, but I did know on some level that it would. You can’t set a plan to do something every day and NOT change. It would be impossible for me to list all the things I learned this past year, but I’ve tried to highlight some of the major points:

Things I have learned this year:

Take It Seriously, but Keep It Light:  I noticed that in order to keep up with my 365dances challenge, I had to maintain a certain amount of discipline – which means sometimes I just had to make myself get in there, put down the other “busy” work of day to day life, and just do it.  Dance a little. Throw on some music and find out where my body is.  But on the other hand, sometimes if I pushed too hard on myself, I reaped very little benefit. Extreme frustration would follow. Disappointment. There is this important balance between fun and discipline. The optimal creative conditions are when you are inspired to work. You are in a playful mood, but feel compelled to do it. The “discipline” doesn’t even enter into it. The best work was when I was having extreme amounts of fun, so much so that I wanted to keep working at it.

When Taken Seriously, Ideas Keep Showing Up: The more I started listening to my ideas, the more ideas I seemed to have.  Nobody asked me to make dances you know.  Probably some would rather I stop. I decided that my dances were important. Once I made the decision to care about them, my ideas became stronger. Try it. Try taking your ideas seriously and writing them down for a week. It pays to take yourself seriously this way.

Work With The Best People You Possibly Can:  I think it is really important to try to put yourself in situations where you can learn from people who are much much better than you.  Often this is scary. Sometimes you have to be brazen and swallow your ego. I don’t pretend to know everything and I love to learn. I studied with some outrageously talented people this last year. Often I would be in a class and wondering what the hell got me into this situation and who did I think I was trying to do this stuff? I think it is a good check on yourself as an artist to challenge yourself. And you can really take your skills to a whole new level when you do this.

Making Dance On Yourself Is Limiting: Yeah, I got really bored with my dancing. I mean, not forever or anything. I’m still dancing and loving it, but creating work on myself is limiting. For one thing, it is really impossible to be impartial whatsoever.  I have a really healthy body image, but still got annoyed with myself for giving undue criticism. It’s tough to take yourself out of the art when the art is you.  Of course there is no such thing as being objective when looking at others either, but I have really generous eyes for dancers I create on and this tends to make everything work better.  The most rewarding experiences were working with other dancers and musicians.

Creating On Others Is Challenging and Rewarding:  As a choreographer I make work to enhance the individual I’m working with. Not everyone does this, but I do.  Maybe I’ve been on the other side too often, trying to make someone else’s choreography fit on me. But whatever the cause, I don’t think of a piece and then try to find dancers for it. I find dancers I’d like to work with and then begin imagining pieces made on them.  The work comes from their strengths and sometimes their weaknesses too.  Those things that will also leave them vulnerable and expose some of that real depth to the rest of us.

Making Art Is About Being Resourceful: Let’s face it. Nothing is created entirely “new.” Being resourceful matters. The universe is a place that is ridiculously abundant with ideas, art, people, things.  The San Francisco Bay Area is full of people making things all the time.  Rather than being discouraged by all of this, I find it a delightful source of inspiration.  I praise innovation everywhere I see it. Being curious is the engine of resourcefulness. I am both very curious about others and their art AND very resourceful.  This is part of the reason I study many different kinds of dances.  And then those dances become my resources. Some of my best ideas are when I realized there is one wonderful thing that has never been put alongside another wonderful thing. I put them together. I feel like a genius. Then I see a youtube video of someone doing the same thing fifty years ago the next week.

Give It A Break Once In Awhile: I love to dance, but bodies do need rest.  I’ll be the first to admit it. There were definitely some days here and there that I sort of “eeked” by on my intentions because I just bloody well didn’t feel like doing it.  Also, besides making a dance “sketch” I taught dance, took workshops, had rehearsals for performances, coached and worked with other dancers, and I did sometimes let that count towards the project.  One of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of rest. We dancers say that it’s important, but do we mean it?  On those occasions when I would allow myself a day or two of no real physical activity, I noticed a difference when I hit the studio again.  I’d be amazed after a lazy weekend that I actually felt stronger.  And my body and imagination would be itching to create and move again. Rest dancers. Rest!

And a couple more things I learned on a more personal level:

My Family is Awesome:  I never once forced Aleister to dance with me, but a few times did suggest it and he was game.  And I think that shows.  I love those videos with him and know I’ll love them even more as the years fly by all too quickly. I realize that he and I aren’t what most people imagine as a complete “family.” But this year, I realized we are. We are perfect.  His maturity and support of me as an artist is generous beyond his years. And I think this has something to do with the level of fun that we have with dance in our house.  Art isn’t just something I do.  It is something that pervades everything in our home life from the food we eat to the artful way in which we ride those scooters. I am really proud of that.

There Is Still That WannaBe Movie Star Inside of Me: This project began as just a dance project. The videos were supposed to be really very secondary. I initially imagined terse and perfunctory videos made in the dance studio.  Clearly, I very quickly realized the possibilities of my awesome little iPhone (I am still waiting for them to call me and offer an endorsement!) and the videos themselves took a life of their own.  At a certain point I realized that there is probably still that little girl in me that always wanted to be on film.

And Finally. . .

Lean Into What You Love: I discovered a million and one different “techniques” for creating and coming up with ideas: games to play with myself, exercises to do, different types of meditation.  This project taught me more about those creative pathways than I could have imagined. But all those pathways can be boiled down to one simple lesson: Lean into what you love.  What? you say. . . that’s it? Really? Lean into what you love? Yes really.  Every creative step is a step taken in desire. The more you follow that trail of what you want, the more you know what you want. The more you know that, the more it shows up. The more you lean into it, the better you become at feeling your way towards it. I will probably spend a lifetime exploring this and teaching this, and yet it really is that simple. Lean into what you love.

Intimate Audiences

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Finally I got a good video of this piece! And I ask you, what flamenco dancer doesn’t want to dance in front of flames? This piece, Effort and The Triumph of Being debuted at the LEVYdance Salon on June 2nd earlier this year.  I am still working it and refining it.  This was an interesting performance because it was challenging to perform something like this for an intimate audience.  It forced me to be brave and play with the audience.  Genius. Just what I needed.

Do Quit Your Day Job

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For the past 11 and a half years of my life I have worked as the Accounting Manager for a San Francisco law firm.  That means I have not had a break for longer than two weeks in eleven years.  Ok, save for when I had Aleister. That was four months. Damn, sounded much better eleven years straight. . . but even still! That was almost ten years ago when I had Aleister! Eleven years.  When was the last time you did the same thing for eleven years? The only thing I can compare it to was public school grades 1-12. And we all know how that transforms us.  And so it is with a joyful heart that I announce that I am leaving this job and beginning the new business of me.  Yep, I won’t go into all the ornery details about how or why, just suffice to say I have been calling for this opportunity for a number of years now and the nice easy push has finally manifested.

I’d like to think it has something to do with this last year.  We are always expanding, growing, and changing every day.  Whether we want to or not. Spend 365 days leaning into what you love and it is like leaning your foot onto the gas pedal – you speed up and something is bound to happen. And so as I come around the curve into the final stretch of this project, I wanted to dramatize a little part of me that I’m leaving behind.  So, please enjoy a Farewell To A Pity Party. It is the end of an era.

Feeling for It

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More and more I  use movement as a resource to shift myself from where I am to where I would like to be. You know when there is something you’ve wanted for a long time, but do not have it yet? Yeah, it sorta blows. And you can keep yourself there by continuing feeling the lack of it.  Today I was feeling the lack, but in the middle of it was able to find this little sliver of what I was wanting when I listened to this song and so I decided to stay with it and move with it and see if I could move myself closer to it.  I didn’t make a fuss over it.  Just stopped off in an alley mid-run and spent five minutes dancing towards it. (you know, like anyone would do;) This is me feeling for it with a light touch.

Allowing the Woods to Move Them

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Tonight was our first night on-site and I think we all really enjoyed it.  We met at the parking lot and hiked in all together and I felt everyone’s energy sort of shift as we walked through the meadows with the sun setting on them and the dark, thickly forrested picnic areas. Everyone’s voices became more hushed and there was an unspoken reverence for the majestic redwood rooms we walked through and the sounds of birds and insects singing their final set of the day.  I look forward to the rest of this workshop. I look forward to creating movement in the studio and bringing it into the woods, and I especially look forward to watching the girls create their own movement as they allow the woods to move them.

On the Playground

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Every once in awhile when I’m in a “mood” I do ponder what exactly am I doing? It is especially difficult when people ask me “what type of dance do you create?” well. . . it depends on who is asking.  If you are a modern dancer I will tell you that I am creating contemporary flamenco, and if you are a flamenco dancer I will tell you I am creating contemporary dance because most of what I do horrifies the flamenco community. I understand why and am at peace with them.  In fact, I love that they hold down the traditional stuff.  Without it, there wouldn’t be the container for expansion and play.

Then I watch the video from a studio session like this and I’m like aha! there’s a little tap in there, ah and some belly-dancing hips, the fluid lines and turns of a lyrical dancer.  I consider myself a contemporary dancer influenced by the many years of flamenco dance and my own personal physical strengths and weaknesses.  I use what is easily available, long-limbs, expressive hands, curvy body (I can’t escape being curvy if I tried – which I have), flexible body – and I’m working on my weaknesses (strengthening a narrow core that has to support all the rest of my curviness, and I really want to find some ease in dancing on/with the floor more often). In reality, I am a Holly dancer, just as each of you are in turn your own unique dancing vibrating being. 

And sometimes when I’m not in a “mood” I allow myself to be just that.  A Holly dancer in her studio playground. I play and it is good and fun.

 

It just gets weirder. . .

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Sometimes you should just stop while you’re ahead.  But sometimes, a little corner calls to you and the lighting is just right and you think, “I’m going to dance and see what comes up.”  This was one of those times.  In retrospect, I think that everything is valuable.  Movement, when allowed to flow freely, can speak to something deep inside that is unexpressed.  Whether or not it is valuable as “art” is another subject altogether.  This 365 project is all about letting go  of that judgment and just seeing where my interest leads me.  Hmmm…. Perhaps next year I may spend another 365days working on how to actually put those ideas together and sift through them to get to the really good stuff. Well, I certainly said a lot to warn you without actually warning you didn’t I?