Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t posted in forever. I’m very sorry — really. But I have some great excuses! And I’m going to tell you all about them! So you’ll forgive me, right? Right. Onwards.
Every year, I know summer has come to a close when I find myself at the East European Folklife Center‘s annual Balkan Music and Dance Camp. Considering I’ve been attending Balkan Camp since my diaper days, it is more than just a vacation for me. Over the years it has become an integral part of my identity. Each year, I eagerly arrive and wait. But I’m not really waiting for sorely missed friends and family (I learned long ago that they’ll get there when they get there), I’m waiting for the sound of a gajda in the distance. Something about those two unique warm-up notes puts my world back in order and makes me feel at home. The following week-long barrage of Balkan music nurtures me back to my “normal” self, and now that I’ve got my head on straight, I feel like I can reflect on my whirlwind of a summer. And it was a trip. Let me tell you.
This summer was one big, fat learning process, and the #1 thing I learned is that I absolutely cannot live in New Jersey and simultaneously strive for a bellydance career in NYC. I commuted everyday this summer (1.5 hours each way), and while I rather enjoyed the train rides, I was bone-tired exhausted afterwards. On days that I had rehearsals or class, I would leave my house before 9 am and sometimes not get home until midnight or 1 am. What did I do with the hours between work and rehearsal? Wandered. Sometimes I’d hole up in a Starbucks with a kiddie-sized hot chocolate (cheapest drink on the menu). Other times I’d window shop or sit outside the locked studio like a sad little lump. Needless to say, the vagabond life is not for me. If I’m going to pursue my dance career seriously, I need to be much closer than one of the last stops on NJ Transit’s Main Line.
All the stress of catching trains and repacking dance bags with the supplies I would need for the next day sucked the joy out of some really amazing accomplishments I made this summer. I danced with two professional caliber companies–Najwa’s Ancient Rhythms Dance Company and Ranya Renee’s Dance Company. While dashing around NYC for all the rehearsals and worrying about fussy costumes was tough work, I danced in a company. I didn’t pay any money to dance with these companies. The directors aren’t my regular teachers. They invited me to dance for them. They invited me to become a part of their artistic visions. Technically, that’s a lifelong dream realized. It didn’t really hit me until all my Balkan Camp aunts and uncles were congratulating me and asking me about my “exciting” budding career. Until they phrased it that way, I’d never thought of any of this as exciting. It was just grueling hard work. But that’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely exciting! I’m moving up in the world, gosh darn it!
This summer also gave my technique a nice big kick in the you-know-what. After literally months of waiting, I have finally gotten into a class with Sera Solstice at Solstice Studio. Monday evenings in her class are the perfect way to kick-start my week. Watching East Coast Tribal technique on her body makes a huge difference in how I understand the movement vocabulary. I’m beginning to see the storytelling potential in East Coast Tribal technique, and what at first appeared emotionally amorphous and morose is now becoming much more nuanced. East Coast Tribal isn’t monotone nor is it just what Sera Solstice choreographs for her ensemble. It really is a tool for expressing all kinds of feelings and experiences both happy and sad. Is Sera’s style filtered through a moderately dark, urban, and modern lens? Yes, but by no means does that limit the East Coast Tribal dancer’s creativity or emotional intention. So in case you can’t already tell, I’m feeling totally reinvigorated in my pursuit of this technique.
Also, this June I was blessed to have 4 hours of private lessons with Susan Frankovich. I decided to study with her kind of on a whim. I did’t know anyone who had studied with her or seen her perform live, and she has a limited selection of videos on YouTube, not all of which are very clear. But my heart told me to study with her during her recent visit to NYC (she currently lives in Croatia), and so I sent her an email. By some miracle of miracles, she accepted me as a student, and she is hands down the best teacher I have ever had (that includes all the teachers I’ve worked with for ballet, tap, jazz, etc.). Let me give you an example: Susan noticed that when I layer a chest lift on top of a large, slow hip shimmy, my chest lift goes about two degrees to the right rather than straight forward. That’s the kind of thing I probably never would have noticed nor would anyone else. She also figured out the key to fixing my kyphosis. After just a few yoga/pilates exercises designed to disarm my trapezius, I was visibly standing straighter. She figured this out after 10 minutes of watching me dance. Teachers that I’ve worked with for 10+ years have been completely stumped by my poor posture, and she figured it out in 10 minutes. I am an official lifelong fan.
But the icing on the cake was getting feedback on my “Tribal Fusion for the Balkan Aesthetic” style from my very own Balkan brethren. I decided to donate a “Balkan Bellydance Breakdown” class to the EEFC’s auction, and to create a little hype (and to therefore raise more money for the EEFC), I had a small performance at Kafana (our after-hours booze and music joint). I find myself mixing more and more Egyptian/Oriental movements in my Tribal Fusion style in an effort to better convey what I love about Balkan music. Some dancers blend the two styles in a way that makes them lose their particular point of view, and I was worried that I was headed down the same path. But the praise and feedback I got following my performance assured me that I’m pioneering a style that keeps the Balkan purist happy even if the Tribal purist might raise an eyebrow. More importantly, it’s a style that speaks to me and my experience as a simple human being growing up with a Balkan backdrop to my life, and to know that so far it’s a success is such a huge relief. I feel like I’m doing something right.
I’m leaving this summer with my eyes opened to all the things I have left to learn, but I also leave with a deeper sense of certainty and self-understanding in my practice. Heading into a very tumultuous senior year at Barnard, I think this was just the summer I needed.