“I Can Breathe or Improv…Not Both”

“I Can Breathe or Improvise…Not Both.” These words, uttered by my dear student this morning, ring true for so many budding dancers. I take that back, it’s not just applicable to dancers. It applies to most human beings who are nervous to do something. In almost every skill I can think of, there’s doing something well and then there’s the art of appearing relaxed while you do it. Appearing relaxed = relaxed breathing.

I recently started rock climbing and I can tell you that there are points, especially when I’m 30 feet off the ground, when my breathing becomes more shallow and my muscles seize up. I can grab the same holds and feel infinitely more relaxed when I’m 5 feet up. Why? It’s literally the same activity! My nerves are making it so much harder.Tava rock climb

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH BREATHING?

The primary muscles of inspiration (inhalation) are the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (which increase or decrease the spaces between the ribs). The diaphragm contracts first, followed by the intercostals, and then you’ll engage some accessory muscles in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Here’s where things get interesting. When you’re relaxed, you pause briefly after an exhale. It’s called an “expiratory pause.” The longer the pause, the more relaxed you are. The shorter the pause, or no pause at all, means your body is perceiving some type of threat. . .or, a bear is literally chasing you. So, try moving in a smooth, rich and juicy way when your sympathetic nervous system is ready to pop.

Fear is Excitement without the Breath – Robert Heller

This is not the same as when we’re concentrating on something and our split attention temporarily favors the task instead of the breathing. You should see me when I’m putting on false lashes. I’m not even aware that I’m holding my breath until my body kicks it back on and I realize it when I hear a louder than usual exhale.

Activity + breathing go together like…

Breathing for a specific activity switches it from an automatic metabolic process to a behavioral one. Certain conscious techniques can make you better at whatever the activity is. Check out this video on breath work for clarinet.  And when you’re done with that, this master of Pranayam is really something to see. Whether it’s Yoga, meditation, clarinet playing or circular breathing for the didgeridoo, you have to learn how to consciously alter your breath to improve performance.

When you’re new to improvising, you’re thinking about what to do next. You feel like you’re dancing without the safety net of a prescribed set of moves. It’s like climbing without a harness. Tack on the need to concentrate for certain moves and your split focus chooses that omi or, in my case, the tricky barrel turns to the dreaded left. This is something each person has to cultivate because there is no one technique that works all the time for every dancer in every style. Generally speaking, smooth and relaxed breathing is always a benefit because I can see it immediately when dancers seize up. I actually stop breathing when I watch them. Take this stunning clips of Nesma and notice how you breathe when you watch her. Even though I’ve seen it 50 times, I still find myself slowing down my breathing down to match hers.

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Aleathea looking cool, calm and relaxed during a performance at JeBon

WHEN YOU DANCE 

When you dance to music without the safety of following the instructor or learning a choreography, start with your breath. Consider “drawing” the song in their air with the dips, pauses, tempo changes, etc. Settle on one or two moves to repeat and modify based on what the music is doing. When you freeze, just stand still and breathe for a while. The bellydance police won’t come banging on your door if you start with music that you know and love — even if it’s Prince, Vivaldi or Metallica. Perhaps, improvisation to Farid al-Atrash is a “next step.” That does bring me to another important point. Develop your musicality!

You can’t truly improvise and slink into the pocket of the music if you aren’t familiar with it. I highly recommend taking workshops, buying DVD’s and anything else you can do to understand what makes music sound/feel Turkish, or Moroccan…or Egyptian…the list goes on and on. What is the structure of the song? What are they singing about? I like to imagine the musicians. Are they in bow ties sitting in an orchestra or out on the street wearing jeans? There’s so much more to write on this topic that it has to be another blog post.

So, let’s recap. Listen to your song of choice (repeatedly) and just breathe to it. Crawl deep in to the song and put your musician hat on. Then start with just a few moves to repeat. Before long, you will surprise yourself with the risks you take. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake because there are none. I’ve jumped to hit an accent that wasn’t there and morphed it into something gooey. I’ve fallen and turned it into beautiful floorwork. Once I got my bracelet stuck in my hair and just kept my arms lifted while I worked on deep pelvic movements. Let it all happen. All of it.

Enjoy the ride!

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Tava is a highly regarded professional bellydancer, instructor and choreographer. She performs regularly throughout Connecticut and the NYC Metro Area. Equally at home performing at galas, family occasions, cultural events, theaters or in music videos, she prides herself on having a career with as much variety as possible.

In addition to the “sparkly bits” of her life, Tava has a Masters in Counseling from Fordham University and uses the dance as a tool for building self-esteem and healthy body image for women.

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In Memory of Millie

IMG_20170221_195619_509This is not a bellydance post. This is about a little dog named Millie.

On Friday May 12th, we let our sweet Millie go. She woke up to Pete and I staring at her (we barely slept so we could savor her last bit of time with us). We gave her a breakfast of freshly cooked burger and then took her to a nature preserve for a final walk before heading to Smith Ridge Veterinary Center. She was happy and walked better than she had in days…weeks even. We felt the horrible pangs of, “should we do this today?” Millie had mast cell cancer. We had, over the years, treated her tumors in every possible way (except for the several thousands of dollars daily IV chemo treatment option). We had her on supplements and medication which worked well for a while, then she underwent surgery for a full tumorectomy, then a cryosurgery, then an oral chemotherapy and then another oral chemotherapy. We were out of options.

Millie was 16 years old, highly anemic, uncomfortable from a gigantic bleeding tumor but she was still– Millie. Her energy was fading, her back legs were wonky and sometimes slid out from underneath her, she had become mostly incontinent and that tumor made it hard for her to get in the right position to sleep peacefully. We wrestled for months wondering how we would know when it was “time.” A dog that can walk and shows desire for food seemed like a dog that was worth fighting for, but we began to realize and accept that she was not comfortable and her day to day joy was declining. Car rides that she used to love became stressful for her, afternoons lounging in the sun became, “take me back inside.” Her life had become bandage-changing and perking up only for meals. It was time to do the right thing for her, even though she seemed willing to live through the discomfort in order to stay with us. Millie never wanted to miss a party. Her love of life was her signature brand.

The process of letting go was incredibly sad and painful, but there was also tremendous love, beauty and gratitude for all Millie had given us. Our veterinarian/good friend was amazing on the morning we said goodbye. Millie loved being at her house and hanging out with her on our vacations so there wasn’t the usual stress of seeing “the vet” in her final moments. We sat on some blankets under a tree on a beautiful Spring day, sobbing and kissing our sweet pup. We hugged and said kind words to her and to each other. When I heard the words, “She’s passed,” I kissed her head a thousand more times and tried to think thoughts for her transition to be as peaceful as possible. Her little body, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by love.

The scene is burned into my mind forever and I beat myself up over things like, was I too early? too late? what did I regret? what would I do differently? Now, I am grieving. I don’t sleep, when I eat …it’s usually crap. I stare at photos and videos and sometimes cry hysterically without warning. I have no attention span for anything that isn’t about Millie. Typical grief stuff. Today, I am trying to process and make sense out of her life and her impact on mine. Focusing on Millie’s contributions seems a fitting way to honor her, and that’s where I want to be right now.

Dogs expand our capacity to love

IMG_20150526_173134Millie was a puppy mill rescue who was full of mange and suffered poor conditions. She was later adopted by a member of our family and enjoyed being a family dog– she even had a dog BFF. Sadly, her dog BFF was killed in an accident and the family situation changed so she became “dog to single guy.” That’s when I met her, visiting friends and family throughout the US on a cross-country trip. I was immediately struck by her quirks and she slept under my bed, snoring wildly all night. Near the end of our visit, my bro-in-law said, “Wouldn’t you like to take her with you?” I did, yes. But Pete was a firm, “No.” So a day later we packed up our car to continue our trip and became dog owners (ha! I won).

Millie’s charming quirks were amusing and I loved her sincere face, but I didn’t know how to bond with a dog that wouldn’t let me pet her. She loved being near us but wasn’t fond of hands. I had never been a dog owner before but I was really looking forward to the cuddles and belly rubs and ear scratches which I could only sneak in when Millie was half asleep. This lasted for at least a year. Then, over time, she gave us the green light and learned to love affection –but it was still on her terms. This was alternately frustrating and endearing. But we accepted that this is how Millie wanted to be loved. We adapted. We enjoyed her and it was an honor earning her trust. We also learned to appreciate those snugly moments a thousand times more because we earned them.

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Dogs fill a void and teach us the value of presence.

Leaving NYC and moving to the burbs, I felt like the only person around who didn’t have a house and 2.5 kids. I had shag coats and rock t-shirts when everyone around me looked like they had a professionally designed wardrobe. I bellydance for the bulk of my income and that seemed to be a conversation stopper instead of a starter. Slowly, I began to find my way, stumbled upon some pockets of great community and learned to love what my state has to offer, but I still feel very “square peg” in the suburban round hole. Millie was a true companion who was impossible to feel lonely around. She was always near me. We spent so much time together that I used to tell her, “I’m going to feel lost without you when you leave me.” There is just something about the company of a dog who is, literally, always glad to be with you.

Now that she’s gone, I realize that I need to cultivate more community. I’m an introvert so I don’t really like putting myself out there but I do need people. I already feel a creeping loneliness without my girl and once I’m healed, I will do more to feed my need for companionship.

Dogs are comic relief IMG_20161222_202344

All it took was a funny look, an aptly timed snort, unbridled enthusiasm for a tiny little treat and I smiled or laughed –even in a crappy mood. I was just telling Pete about the time I left Brooklyn at midnight, exhausted from rehearsal, and discovered the highway was closed with a non-moving wall of traffic. As I was about to spew profanity, Millie and I both turned our heads and looked at each other. She looked positively thrilled. With her doggie smile and happy half-closed eyes looking at me, it seemed like she was saying, “This is amazing. I get MORE time in the car with one of my favorite humans.”

Dogs, near the end, will love you even more.

I know that shelters are swamped with dogs that have medical conditions or simply get too old to perform in the way that people like them to. This always made me sad, that people wouldn’t honor their commitment to an animal in the best way they could. Of course, financial restrictions are very real and I wouldn’t judge anyone for being unable to spend top dollar on expensive medications or treatment. But, if people abandon their pets because it’s no longer fun or convenient, they are missing out on a deeper level of connection.

The love that a senior dog has for his/her companion is extra special and I cannot explain how or why. Millie knew Pete and I loved her. I have no doubt about that. She knew we cleaned her messes, rubbed her head to comfort her when she didn’t know why night felt like day, she knew we cared for her when she was getting weak and that we would protect her. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. They solidified our bond.

IMG_20170404_235235_991Millie was a dog who lived, loved, snorted, played, road-tripped and ate with gusto. I don’t know how long it takes to find joy again when a being like that leaves this earth. Pete and I are forever changed because of her.

Yesterday, Pete and I shared a moment of sadness and cried in each others arms. He suggested we go outside because it was rainbow weather. Well, the sky did not disappoint. It was the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life and a perfect arch. We drove to the nearby beach to admire it. Standing there, smiling and crying with Pete…under the magnificent colors, it felt like a gift. I said, very softly, so it would feel less crazy “Hi Millie.” We stayed as long as the sky performed…in spite of the chill. As I walked back to the car, a man approached us and said, “I think you’re the couple I snapped a photo of under the rainbow.” He was kind enough to share it with us. I call it Millie’s rainbow, which you’re welcome to think is a bit nuts. But I think it’s ok to be a bit nuts when your heart is hurting and you’re trying to heal. I miss my girl. I miss her terribly. If you knew her, you just might think she was capable of lighting up the sky too.

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Why I Bellydance – The Jennifer and Susan Edition

I asked my students a series of questions hoping to get some insight about why people come to bellydance class vs. why they stay in class. I have noticed that when people commit to pushing through the initial hurdle of understanding the basic moves, they become hungry for more. Others say it’s “too hard” and don’t go beyond a class or two. The idea of committing to an art form or a hobby for several years seems to be increasingly rare. It requires an intrinsic motivation, humility (to accept that there is always more to learn) and, in today’s world, there are a lot of demands on our time. While many may be drawn to the latest fitness craze or need the thrill of variety, I’m thankful there are some who understand that “bellydance” has enough challenges to keep us all eternal students.

Jennifer has been my port in the storm during my biannual events. Her project management and stage manager experience have been exceptionally valuable. She’s even volunteered to be a gig roadie on a few occasions (including a marathon gig night in NYC for New Year’s Eve…whew)!

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Jennifer performing with The Manipura Dance Collective at JeBon, NYC

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Susan on her way to perform Assaya dance at the NICE festival in Norwalk, CT

Susan brings her artistic mind to the dance and she is a very dedicated learner. She is often in class 3x per week and the first to request private lessons to work on specific concepts or combos. In addition, she designed the layout and cover for my book, for which I am eternally grateful.

How long have you taken bellydance classes?

Jennifer: I started in 2000 with another teacher in Fairfeld, but took time off for a few years before finding Tava.

Susan: Almost 6 years with Tava.

Why were you first inclined to take a bellydance class?

Jennifer: I took my first bellydance class through continuing ed as a way to meet others in a new town. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for that.

Susan: It was a complete whim, but I was def attracted to the Workit studio look, and I was feeling starved for something exotic, something way out of my comfort range. I also missed dancing like I did when I was a small child. I did it in defiance of my age in other words.

How long did it take for you to feel like you grasped the basic movements?

Jennifer: I don’t recall exactly how long it took to feel like I had a clue about this new-to-me form of dance. Truthfully, there are still times I question my abilities! Strong supportive teaching, provided by both my primary teachers, helped my confidence to keep going. 

Susan: 3 years of weekly instruction but my body felt marvelous all over, and my mind started to feel more confident.

If you stopped attending classes at any point, what did you (or what would you) miss about it the most? What keeps you coming back now that you’re past the initial hurdles?

Jennifer: I have taken breaks of various amounts of time (from a few months to a few years) over the course of my study and I always miss the fluidity in my joints that comes from practicing bellydance on a regular basis. I also tend to feel less sure of myself and body image when not dancing regularly. Since finding Tava’s classes, I find I miss the camaraderie of the other students and Tava when I’ve taken time off. The support of smart, funny women is inherent in this community that I don’t find elsewhere. 

Susan: I would miss two things, the people and the fact that I feel I have made some progress. I keep coming back because I’m curious how far I can go.  

What particular benefits does this dance, or dance class(es) offer you that you cannot get from other exercise, community events or dance form?

Jennifer: As I mentioned earlier, the support of smart, funny and caring women does not translate into other aspects of society as much as it does in Tava’s bellydance classes. I love the music and watching the wide variety of dance genres that fall under the umbrella of bellydance. It’s wonderful and inspiring to watch women from all backgrounds, faiths, educational levels and countries perform, and that includes the seasoned pros and the novices! I think that because bellydance is difficult to “master,” the feeling of accomplishment after a performance is palpable.

Susan: An all in one body-mind-spirit integration and super fun. Yoga has mindbodyspirit but is not fun for me like this dance is

What would you say to someone who is curious to try bellydance but is hesitant?

Jennifer: Just try it. Bring a friend or don’t; purchase some bling or use scarves you have; maybe visit a few teachers to find one who makes you feel comfortable and JUMP IN. As someone who could never figure out an aerobics class and feels out of place lifting weights in a gym, I love the exercise and confidence this dance brings me. It’s fun to have that little shimmy secret your co-workers or friends don’t know!

Susan: You will grow in ways that you cannot possibly imagine until you try it for at least a year. Plus, you’ll get some non-judgmental buddies you can’t get anywhere else!

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Susan and Jennifer joined by their sisters in dance performing a Turkish piece at a Dance Conference in Ossining, NY

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For Tava’s class schedule, please visit:

http://bellydancebytava.com/tavas-current-class-schedule-for-fairfield-county-ct/

Why I Bellydance – The Debra Edition

I asked my students a series of questions hoping to get some insight about why people come to bellydance class vs. why they stay in class. I have noticed that when people commit to pushing through the initial hurdle of understanding the basic moves, they become hungry for more. Others say it’s “too hard” and don’t go beyond a class or two. The truth is, it’s difficult. And it’s not the sort of difficult that immediately impresses an audience because it looks so easy. Therein lies the frustration for new students. Trained dancers merely become “in on the secret” that moving your body in serpentine waves or percussive isolations takes a great deal of coordination.

Debra joined my classes in 2016 and I could immediately tell that she had a solid foundation with the ability to perform complex movements with ease. She is a quick learner when it comes to choreography and, having just seen her perform a solo, she’s dynamic and captivating on stage. 15515811_10102226942581092_911954376_o

Q: How long have you taken bellydance classes?

A: It’ll be 4 years in Jan.

Q: Why were you first inclined to take a bellydance class?

A: I’d taken many dance classes over the years starting with ballet and jazz as a kid. Kelli Hornachek actually invited me to one of her classes at Serena’s back when we worked together. I really loved it, but couldn’t consistently go to that class. I’ve always loved the movement you see in bellydancers, the grace and the passion – and the sparkly costumes and amazing makeup were just a bonus!

Q: How long did it take for you to feel like you grasped the basic movements? What kept you coming even if you may have felt awkward trying to do serpentine movements or had limited range of motion in the hips.

A: The weirdest part for me was that I felt many of the movements were ones that my body was always meant to do – like maya or undulations. It was always the movements that others seemed to pick up easily that I had the most trouble with (like a shimmy that I still struggle with). What always keeps me coming back is knowing how much more there is to go. There is always another challenge, another level, another prop, a way to make your movements more crisp or more smooth. When your teachers still take classes to better themselves, you know there is so much more to do. I love that I know I’ll never stop learning.

Q: If you stopped attending classes at any point, what did you (or what would you) miss about it the most? What keeps you coming back now that you’re past the initial hurdles?

A: On the occasion that I have to miss a few classes (for whatever reason) my body actually misses it. And no matter how tired I am at night, or how little I slept, I always feel better after being in class. The minute I step on the dance floor, the troubles of my day are no longer an issue. The tiredness I felt has been replaced and I feel energized. The other thing i love about this community, is that you can walk into a brand new class without knowing anyone and you’re welcomed with open arms. When I went in search of classes after moving to CT, I knew there was nothing to worry about and Tava (and the studio) made me feel right at home.

 

Q: What particular benefits does this dance, or dance class(es) offer you that you cannot get from other exercise, community events or dance form?

A: I was in the ballroom dance community for quite a few years, and while I never competed, I never quite felt like I fit in or that I could compete. This dance community is so much more open and judgement free. I’ve seen women and men of all ages, shapes and sizes looking stunning while bellydancing. While so many people in the outside world think of it as just sexy (which it absolutely can be) it above all, celebrates femininity and the female body – well every body for that matter. It makes you feel good from the inside out for yourself and for those around you. When you see a dancer being taken over by her passion for the dance and the music it’s really something to behold – whether just in class or in a performance – that speaks to the audience and it’s something you don’t always get in other forms of dance. You can really let yourself be free.

 

Q: What would you say to someone who is curious to try bellydance but is hesitant?

 

A: I usually use my answer for #4 when trying to convince people to come with me actually:) I always tell them the movements will start out feeling strange, your body won’t be used to it, but even after just 2-3 weeks you’ll get to understand how your body moves in a totally different way.

Thank you Debra, for taking the time to answer these questions. Thank YOU for taking the time to read. I hope it’s shed some light on what attracts people to this dance vs what keeps them coming back year after year.

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For Tava’s class schedule, please visit:

http://bellydancebytava.com/tavas-current-class-schedule-for-fairfield-county-ct/

To read Why I Bellydance – The Mary Edition (aka Tava’s Mom), click here!

Why Do I Bellydance? The Mary Edition (aka Tava’s Mom)

I asked my students a series of questions hoping to get some insight about why people come to bellydance class vs. why they stay in class. I have noticed that when people commit to pushing through the initial hurdle of understanding the basic moves, they become hungry for more. Others say it’s “too hard” and don’t go beyond a class or two. The truth is, it’s difficult. And it’s not the sort of difficult that immediately impresses an audience because it looks so easy. Therein lies the frustration for new students. Trained dancers merely become “in on the secret” that moving your body in serpentine waves or percussive isolations takes a great deal of coordination.
Mary, my mother, dances almost every day. She practices with her DVD’s, takes a weekly class at Work It Dance & Fitness and commits to such practice goals as “100 omis a day.”
Q: Why were you first inclined to take a bellydance class?
A: Because of you
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For context, when I first left New York City, I started teaching as a way to meet people and bring a bit of the culture I felt was missing from my new life in CT. Mom took my class purely to support my endeavors but, 10 years later, here she is — a loyal student of bellydance.
Q: How long did it take for you to feel like you grasped the basic movements?
A: At least a year. At most…I’m still having issues.  When I realized how difficult it was, I also realized how much my body needed this type of movement.
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Q: If you stopped attending classes at any point, what did you (or what would you) miss about it the most? What keeps you coming back now that you’re past the initial hurdles?
A: I would miss two things.  One, the specific kind of movement which comes from the core and moves outward to other areas of the body in waves. (and because I’m learning about science – all energy moves in waves so what better way for the body to move). Two, you are an excellent teacher so I feel like I’m in good hands taking risks with movement.  I won’t get hurt in class. (Aw, thanks Mom).
Q: What particular benefits does this dance, or dance class(es) offer you that you cannot get from other exercise, community events or dance forms?
A: To me this dance is organic.  It seems to come from a natural expression of the body.  It improves strength and fluidity.  I wish I were young enough to improve but just holding a level of ability is good for me.   I think the movements are especially good for older bodies which become stiff and more difficult to insert grace.
Q: What would you say to someone who is curious to try bellydance but is hesitant?
A: Since most of my friends are my age, I say what I just said in the last question.  I’m amazed that more of them won’t try.  It always strikes me as odd that people want to go places to explore but they don’t always think to explore within.
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Why do YOU bellydance?

Dancer Origin Stories #3 – Tava — Grace Notes Blog

Our next installment of Dancer Origin Stories features the glorious Tava. I have hosted Tava in the past for workshops at my studio in Portland, ME and I look forward to the next opportunity to learn from her. Tava has been a professional belly dancer in New York City and the surrounding areas for over 15 years. She’s currently based in Norwalk, CT, where she brings her deep knowledge and caring attitude to her weekly classes, while continuing to perform regionally and teach workshops up and down the East coast. Now… on to Tava’s Origin Story!

via Dancer Origin Stories #3 – Tava — Grace Notes Blog

Oh, Just Leaving Pieces of My Soul

This blog post comes after my most recent experience of dancing with tears. Here’s the thing, it happens, and it’s ok.

I have cried a few times during performances. Once when my cat died and I was still healing. I put a taqsim in my set and dedicated it to my sweet fur baby. Tears flowed. Another time I ripped off my toenail during floorwork and the pain was overwhelming. But, on occasion, I get teary when the music really moves me and I’m lost in the moment of feeling everything I feel when I become a vessel for beautiful music. Now, this may not be appropriate for a high-end corporate gala when I’m hired to entertain –BUT, for a theater show or community event, is it really so wrong to show that we’re human?

I know some people feel strongly that a dancer shouldn’t express this emotion; that s/he should be “on the verge” but never cross the line. I’m not one of those people. I can recall performances where the dancer had genuine tears in her eyes and I followed suit and joined them. To me, there is something so refreshing about the authenticity and vulnerability of real emotion on stage. If I’m being honest, I see more and more faux-motion and less e-motion as people seem to want to emulate the Tarab-like expressive qualities of their favorite dancers on YouTube (ouch! too harsh??)

Nonetheless, I think the audience can generally feel it when it’s real and tears are a pretty good indicator. I’m not talking about balling or being unable to get through a performance because of an emotional release. I mean tears that are like a spice to a performance by flavoring it with sincerity.

As dancers who are sometimes hired to create ambiance or fill a room with “party vibes,” it is a gift when we are able to contribute to a show that is more about our artistry. When you have those opportunities, savor them. Seek them out and support them so others can experience the same. These are the events that drive our passion and give us outlets for our true style. Choose music that challenges you with space to pause not just music that fosters your favorite tricks (I’m not anti-flash…just like a good balance). Enjoy every moment of being true to your artistry.

In the above photos from Bellydance Night at Roxy & Dukes, I closed my set with tribute to David Bowie; an artist with a legacy of creative risks. I had been running at full pace without rest and, perhaps, a little run down. I knew when the song began I was raw and there was no hiding from it. But it turned out, it was exactly what I needed. And I’m happy to say I left a little piece of my soul on that stage.

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Tava is a bellydance instructor, performer & choreographer based in NY & CT. To learn more about weekly classes, workshop bookings or events, please visit: www.BellydancebyTava.com

Coming Full Circle and the Art of Non-Compromise

Back in 2006, I walked into my supervisor’s office at a major NYC University and I gave a generous 4 weeks’ notice. I had just been offered my 2nd promotion (and a raise), had a retirement plan, a decent salary, plenty of paid vacation and had earned the respect of my colleagues. I had a comfortable job. I worked hard. As a trained counselor with strong admin skills, disability services was a rewarding path for me. What happened? Two things:

  1. I was bitten by the professional dancer bug.
  2. They restructured our department and moved us out of our offices and into cubicles. Yeah….CUBICLES! My colleague and I referred to it as the “glass case of emotion” — (cool points if you get the reference).

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No way was I going to do a soul-crushing commute to sit in a cubicle and dream about being a full-time dancer. I was a diligent student who did whatever gigs came my way but I wanted more and I was ready to follow my passion without regret. Suddenly I had photoshoots, a web site, business cards and a cell phone that was always within reach. I had an agency pumping more gigs my way than I knew what to do with and I secured some regular restaurant jobs. I was busy and it was exciting.

As years went by, I found myself wanting to be more creative than the typical gig called for. I joined dance companies, choreographed some pieces for theatrical shows and scratched the itch as I went along. Now, my need for creativity and non-sparkly dance outlets has only grown stronger. I still enjoy the typical “gig” but only because I do about 1/4 to 1/2 of what I used to do.

Returning to a day job on a part-time basis has given me the freedom to cherry pick the dance jobs that I accept. Since dance is no longer my sole source of income, I can spend more time feeling like an artist or diving into my love of folklore. It’s afforded me the ability to be non-compromising. If a client doesn’t appear to respect what I do, or if the job seems like more hassle than it’s worth, I don’t take it. So now the jobs I do are, for the most part, really fulfilling.

I realize my future will see even more “day job” work and fewer gigs, but I suspect this will be a very rich time in my dance life. The irony isn’t lost on me. I left a full-time job to earn my living as a dancer. After a while, the full-time dance life left very little time to actually enjoy dance. And now, what sustains me is the fact that I am able to choose dance. We’re best friends, but no longer co-dependent. I’m more in love with every movement as a result. I show up to my gigs excited to be there. My relationship with dance is on my terms now and I had to come full circle to reach this place.

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Shimmyathon, 2016, Peter Paradise Photography

If you’re considering a drastic life change to allow more space for dance, just go into it with eyes wide open. It’s a great thing to experience and teaches you a lot of about running a small business, managing client expectations, pushing through physical limits, dealing with the ebb and flow of fluctuating finances and a heck of a lot more. If you want more time to dance for YOU, out of pure love for the culture and the music, you just might want to remain a hobbyist.

The dance hobbyist has the best of both worlds. You can have all the sparkly and adventure…with a 401K on the side.

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Tava is a highly regarded professional bellydancer, instructor, choreographer and author of the best-selling book, “Little Book of Big Advice: Enlightening Ideas for Bellydance Professionals.” She performs regularly throughout the NYC Metro Area and the tri-state area. Equally at home performing at galas, family occasions, cultural events, theaters or in music videos, she prides herself on having a career with as much variety as possible.

In addition to the “sparkly bits” of her life, Tava has a Masters in Counseling from Fordham University and uses the dance as a tool for building self-esteem and healthy body image for women.

An Artist’s Legacy

With the recent passing of two musical icons who really nailed it in the legacy department, social media is flooded with their previously unknown exhales of art that will be around for at least another generation or more. Whether it be vaults of unreleased music, inspiring stories of artistic integrity or heartfelt letters from people across the globe confessing how Prince or Bowie’s music got them through the roughest of times, it’s all got me thinking. Those of us who will never reach such levels of fame or notoriety, are we hoping to leave a lasting mark on our art? Am I?

The truth is, I don’t think so. The longer I dance the less I care about receiving recognition for it. My dance goals are in the here and now. I seek ways to grow and challenge myself and, while I am tremendously grateful that I get to inspire my students and maybe some audiences, my dance is not so innovative. I am one part of a long lineage that connects an ancient dance to the present. Sure, I use movement to transcend problems, to express what words can’t, to tap into something far more special than taxes or weekly trips to Stop & Shop, but I don’t feel disappointed to think my story ends with me. prince

I’m deeply moved by the body of work these two musicians created. They are examples of people who became famous in spite of themselves, on their own terms, who maintained control of their artistry throughout their careers. I’ve been moved to tears listening to Prince’s latest album and re-discovering Bowie’s  Lady Grinning Soul; dancing to both with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine how satisfying it is to know that your art lives on without you and I would be honored to learn this were possible for me but… it isn’t. And that’s ok. bowie-1152551

Prince and Bowie’s passing has renewed and strengthened my desire to have integrity in my work. Heck, did you see the letter Prince wrote to Suzanne Vega? It’s beautiful both in its words and penmanship/design. Thriving creativity doesn’t take a nap when it’s time to write letters. Artists who don’t phone it in, can inspire in so many ways beyond the talents they’re celebrated for. (Note to self: Write more sincere letters that people feel compelled to keep for years to come).

Both Prince and Bowie harnessed their creativity and paired it with a diligent work ethic. Learning about how they lived and made music has been like a little slap on my wrist reminding me that life is short and it’s time to dance all the dance I can. I heard a story on NPR about a jazz musician (sorry I forgot his name) who got a visit from a friend’s little girl near the end of his life. The little girl asked if he was dying and he said, “Yeah, but it’s been a great gig.” That’s what I want to feel at the end of the line…more than anything.

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Photo by Ale Vega (Oriental Dance Pictures)

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Tava is a professional bellydancer, instructor, choreographer and author based in NYC and CT. She is available to perform at family occasions, cultural events, theatrical performances, galas or media appearances. Tava’s weekly bellydance classes are in Fairfield County, CT with a range of workshop topics offered in various locations in the U.S. To learn more, visit: BellydancebyTava.com

Live With Art: It’s Good For You

Art is about crossing boundaries, building community AND boosting the local economy. Prospective residents are attracted to areas based on their public gardens, art galleries, music scene and other avenues for creativity and culture. So, why aren’t the arts thriving across the U.S. when all signs point to its significance?
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Some of the variables mentioned were time, cost, access and resistance to going alone. Well, there isn’t much artists can do about most of those things, but we still need to keep touting its’ value. We need to remind the public about the benefits of dance, music, visual art, architecture and creativity in their lives.
Since I left NYC 10 years ago and became a bigger fish in a smaller pond, I’ve worked tirelessly to instill the value of cultural dance in my community (and beyond). I began to produce events where people could see what we do and be entertained or inspired to join us. Without sponsors or much in the way of a budget, I’ve financed cultural dance events since 2002 with the hopes of breaking even. My goal was to create an experience similar to what I had in New York City — here in my own town.
Fortunately, there are many people who get it and consciously create space in their lives for art. In 2010, when the economy was pretty much toast, audiences at art events provided $74.1 billion of valuable revenue for local merchants and their communities. I suppose the million dollar question is how do we reach people who consider art to be an “optional” perk to explore when time allows? How do we override the other variables listed above?
Hey, if kale can surge in popularity because of it’s benefits, art can too. It’s a much easier sell. Here’s why:
1. Participating in the arts increases well-being as measured by life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors. https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/hidden-benefits-participating-arts
2. If you’re interested in art, turns out you may be more altruistic, tolerant and racially tolerant. Doesn’t that sound nice? http://news.uic.edu/interest-in-arts-predicts-social-responsibility-study

3. It’s good for the local economy. “Arts and culture contribute to local andregional economies, generating jobs and spending, attracting tourists, and making places attractive to businesses and their employees.” https://www.giarts.org/sites/default/files/public-benefits-value-of-arts-culture.pdf

4. Dance, specifically, improves cognitive functioning and pours awesome sauce on your brain.
5. Cultural dance “serves multiple functions (e.g., traditional/ceremonial practices, celebrations, healing, spirituality, cultural transmission, and social connectedness).” http://www.healthevidence.org/view-article.aspx?a=15502
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Michael Baxter Photography (Do not use without permission)

In short, support the arts as best you can. Look for low-cost ways to involve yourself. You deserve it. Your community deserves it too.

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Tava is a professional bellydancer, instructor and author in NYC and CT.  She performs regularly for all family friendly events, galas, weddings and corporate events. Tava also performs in creative/theatrical endeavors and enjoys her balance of commercial and artistic fulfillment.  To learn more about classes in Fairfield County, CT or to inquire about hosting Tava for a workshop, please visit: BellydancebyTava.com