Tribal Fusion’s Rising Star: Ela Rogers, Written by Kendra Recht

This week I’ve got something a little different for you: an exclusive profile of Ela Rogers written by my dear friend and phenomenal writer, Kendra Recht.  I am huge fans of both of these women and when you put the two together, the product is awesome.  See for yourself!

BEAUTY AND THE BEAT by Kendra Recht

It’s three in the afternoon and it’s raining like it’s never rained before. Although outside the outlook is bleak, inside the Andala Coffee House in Cambridge, MA, the bold orange-and-yellow walls brighten the day. Sitting with her back to the downpour, professional bellydancer Ela Rogers discusses her dancing, her costumes, and her life with cheerful candor as her husband, Jim, looks on with affection. Ela Rogers

Rogers sits at one of the mismatched tables at Andala, killing time before embarking on a full evening of dance. Today, she is not decked out in one of her elaborate costumes, but with her twice-pierced nose, loosely curled auburn hair, bright violet pants, and a partial sleeve of colorful tattoos, she still manages to retain the quirky, alternative vibe of a Tribal Fusion bellydancer. She’s driven all the way from Cape Cod to Boston to attend both a performance and an exclusive workshop starring bellydance titan Mardi Love. As excited as she is to see Love dance live, she’s even more thrilled to be learning new techniques and honing her skills.

Rogers recently gave a stunning performance at Tribal Fest 2011, an annual five-day festival in Sebastapol, CA. To her great excitement and disbelief, she has just been added to next year’s festival’s esteemed roster of instructors, including Sera Solstice, Kami Liddle, Mardi Love, Zoe Jakes, and Rachel Brice  “It’s such an honor,” she says with glowing enthusiasm.

It’s only been in the past few years that Rogers has really begun to make a name for herself in the bellydance community, but she’s been dancing for almost her whole life. When Rogers was only a toddler, her mother enrolled her in ballet lessons, and afterwards, she began taking lessons in other genres including jazz, tap, and modern (her second love after bellydance). But as she grew older, she began to focus more on theater and art and left dance in the dust. She grew interested in graphic design, along with more traditional forms of visual art, and pursued it as a career.

Rogers first worked as a freelance artist, then found a job as a product design artist for a major corporation. Originally thrilled to apply her imagination, passion, and free spirit to a steady job, she soon became disillusioned. “It’s really challenging to be creative in a corporate setting,” she says ruefully. “I never had true freedom.”

But it was through this job that Rogers’s life changed forever. When bellydancer Satya Lila (who now directs two Tribal Fusion ensembles in Colorado) came to work at the same company in 2004, she and Rogers became best friends.

“I’ve never met anyone in my life who was so strong,” Rogers says. “She inspired the crap out of me. Anything she did, I wanted to try.”

Naturally, when Lila talked of her interest in bellydance, Rogers had to give it a go. After work, she would light some incense and work with instructional VHS tapes, namely those put out by Neena and Veena, the “bellytwins.” Through these workouts and the encouragement she received from Lila, she realized that dance had not been just a phase in her young life, as she’d previously thought.

“She brought the love of dance back into my life,” says Rogers, “and everything I’ve accomplished now is because of her.”

To scratch the bellydance itch, Rogers began searching the Cape Cod area for instructors, who were few and far between. Eventually, she found Elena El Amar, an Egyptian-style bellydancer teaching at the Cape Cod Conservatory, and began studying beneath her. She enrolled in a gentle beginner class, fell in love with the art form, and never looked back.

Although Egyptian style was her first foray into the world of bellydance, Rogers soon found a subgenre she loved, if possible, even more. In 2005, she attended a Bellydance Superstars performance, and became obsessed with the movements and aesthetic of Tribal Fusion. “My jaw just hit the floor,” she says. “Their bellies were just BOOM! Big, long, luscious. And I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

After the show, Rogers remembers racing home, opening the closet, and imitating the movements she’d seen in front of her mirror. “I was such a novice,” Rogers says with a laugh. “I slid to the left, slid to the right – and the first time, I sprained my back.”

As a result of this first injury, Rogers began learning internal anatomy in order to better understand her sprain and her body in general. This knowledge became an integral part of her dancing life because although Rogers learned the basics of bellydancing from a capable and qualified instructor, El Amar’s studio was strictly traditional. To learn Tribal style, she had to do it almost completely on her own — and as with any self-trained dancer, Rogers learned through trial and error with very few one-on-one corrections.

To supplement her basic training at the conservatory, Rogers worked with the FatChanceBellydance DVD series to learn American Tribal Style (ATS), began a daily yoga routine, and took workshops with established Tribal dancers whenever she got the chance.

During lessons, however, El Amar (who Rogers now refers to as her “dance mama”) would give her a hard time about infusing elements Rogers had learned at home into her Egyptian dancing. “She’d say, ‘Ela, your arms are looking Tribal today!’” Rogers remembers fondly. “But she believed in me.”

And as Rogers progressed and improved, she became a part of the Zariifa Bellydance Troupe, a local ensemble directed by El Amar herself. Her teacher even allowed her to incorporate her own style into solo pieces, despite her usual insistence on sticking to the classic form.

Since then, Rogers has developed her own unique brand of Tribal Fusion, a genre based on the moves and aesthetic of ATS but incorporating ideas from many other dance styles. Because of this, says Rogers, it’s a very individual style of bellydance – although for the most part, Tribal Fusion choreography is characterized by sudden and quick changes of tempo and dynamics, deep back or side bends, breaks, pops, and locks.

“It’s about what you’ve learned through observation and through watching yourself and your performances,” says Rogers. “You go through so many stages of yourself. You mimic your mentors, and that’s just how you learn. I went through many years of that, but I found my own voice and identity somehow. It just comes with training.”

There are no limits to Tribal Fusion as far as mixing styles goes. In addition to the requisite movements of ATS, Rogers applies aspects of her own dance history, including her Egyptian studies, elements of Tribal Fusion she’s learned in workshops, and her training in the more classic forms of dance, especially jazz, tap, and modern.

“It’s a unique recipe,” she says, sipping her lemon ginger iced tea through a straw. “You put in all the ingredients you love. It’s like a bellydance pie.” And according to Rogers, her particular pie is earthy but sweet, spicy and a little sassy, and has an overall aroma and feel of comfort food.

Although music is significant to any dance form, Rogers emphasizes its particular importance to her identity as a bellydancer. She’s not happy dancing to the same kind of music all the time. Her choices are based on inspiration, and she’s choreographed performances to many different types of music.

She takes full advantage of the flexibility of Tribal Fusion, and has danced to works by steampunk collective The Gaslight Troubadours, experimental fusion (and Tribal bellydance staple) Beats Antique, legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, and even alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins – just to name a few. The more she dances, the more sounds she notices in her every day life and begins to find the music within them. “The more you hear, the more you realize what to move to, and it becomes a fun way to express your personality,” she says.

Rogers now pursues bellydancing full time. After discussing it at length, she and her husband decided they were financially stable enough to allow Rogers to leave her job and follow her passion. Because she lives in an area where the bellydance community is practically nonexistent, she still trains, for the most part, on her own, and does not teach regular classes. Although she does travel often to perform, teach workshops, and attend workshops given by other Tribal Fusion dancers, Rogers’s personal practice at home is extremely important.

“It’s a self-dedicated process,” she says, declining a second glass of iced tea. “There’s no boss telling me what to do, and there’s no punishment if I don’t work. I almost think it’s easier with a nine to five job because now I feel guilty whenever I’m not working on things.”

A typical day in the life of Ela Rogers looks something like this: she hydrates, does an hour of Viniyoga, and then begins drills. After that, she works on other aspects of her career, including choreography, material for any upcoming workshops she may have, or costumes. On good days, she will spend five or six hours simply working.

“I have a sharpei puppy,” she says, laughing and displaying a picture on her iPhone. “We’re practically inseparable, so it can be hard to dance with him around, but I manage. I even moved my studio downstairs so I could be closer to him.”

Most of her days, though, Rogers works long and hard to create beautiful costumes and accessories in a spare bedroom she and her husband have rechristened the costume room, which she describes as a “fresh mess.”

An artist by nature, Rogers loves this aspect of bellydance just as much as the dancing itself. Her costumes are beautiful and unique while still adhering to the aesthetic of Tribal Fusion, juxtaposing traditional bellydance costuming with modern elements and materials.  She has a self-proclaimed insane love for antiques and ethnic jewelry, and over the years, she’s incorporated much of her grandmother’s old jewelry into her pieces. Now, she says, the stash is almost gone.

Ela RogersAlthough she’s not decked out in full costume now, Rogers is wearing a necklace of her own creation, boasting an old antique button, a small brass ring, and a dangling chandelier crystal, which refracts the soft red and yellow ambient lighting in the coffee shop.

“This is from a Yoruba money belt,” she explains, fingering the brass hoop. “It’s made of these rings and strips of leather woven together, and the rings are taken off and used as currency. I bought the whole thing, and when I took it apart, all this dust came out. I have such respect for treasures like these.”

Rogers does a lot of sewing, chain and metal work, and is now attempting hand beading. all these techniques take a lot of time, effort, and devotion. “You wouldn’t be jealous of my pre-arthritic shoulders or how I continuously sew through my fingers,” she says with a grin. The end products, though, are worth the pain.

Although Rogers spends most of her time creating individual pieces that will coexist and harmonize with others in her collection, she also creates jewelry that is unrelated to bellydance. She has sold her wares at various markets and events in the Boston area, and plans on setting up an Etsy store in the near future.

Although she can do much of her work from her house in Cape Cod, living so far from a vibrant bellydance community makes it hard to get noticed. In order to get performances, teach workshops, and otherwise make a name for herself as a dancer, Rogers relies on social media.

“You may be the best dancer ever, but if nobody knows you, you’re just dancing alone in your house. So 70 to 75 percent of my work is social networking,” she says. She uses MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe.net to keep her fans up to date, and has her own website at elarogers.com.

One of the most important Internet tools Rogers uses is YouTube. On her account, she loads videos of many of her performances; this spreads her name not only to the American bellydance community, but also to people all over the world.  In fact, Rogers was even invited to perform at the 2010 Miami Bellydance Convention simply because Nathalie, the dancer in charge, saw her YouTube videos and was extremely impressed – even though she’d never seen Rogers dance in person.

Due to her great talent, enthusiasm, and hard work, Rogers is slowly but surely becoming a force to be reckoned with in the bellydance world. In August, she will go into a self-described three-week hibernation with fellow bellydancer Dona Mejia. Together, they will be creating a dance – a duet – to perform across the country for Mejia’s graduate thesis. And on September 10th, she will be conducting a workshop in Spencer, MA at the Dancing Gypsy from two to five p.m, and will also perform later that evening at the studio’s grand reopening party.

But what else is in store for Ela Rogers? Even she doesn’t know. “I just want to keep traveling, meeting new people, dancers, and teachers, and doing new projects. My goal is to keep doing it as long as my body allows,” she says. “And I know that it’s all up to me.”

Kendra Recht is currently a Writing, Literature, and Publishing student at Emerson College in Boston, MA.  Since 2005, she has written a weekly column for the New Jersey-based paper The Suburban News.  She also greatly enjoys eating, and is obsessed with trying new foods, so long as they are not gefilte fish or bananas.  You can read her blog here.

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