Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Belly Dancers by the Bay

Text and pictures: Tim Coleman
A titillating trip to San Francisco and its tattooed belly dance troupes, Fat Chance, Ultra Gypsy and Indigo.

Published in: Skin&Ink Jul 07 and Taetowier-Magazin (German) Jul 07
Translation from English to German: Petra Tilg
Re-translation from German to English: Ursel Meyer (Tribester)

Note from Ursel: Please bear in mind that this text is a re-translation of the original translation, and that it can’t exactly reconstruct the original text. Potential mistakes or misquotes may occur due to these circumstances. Thank you.

Five years ago, when I first wrote about the dancers of Fat Chance, there were only a few tattooed bellydance troupes. (Re-translators note: either the author or the original translator has to be mistaken here, as his first article on Fat Chance was published in the November 1996 issue of the Taetowier Magazin. I know because I own that issue, too.) But things have changed since. Nowadays there are tattooed troupes all over the US. For this article I met with three of the most talented from the (San Francisco) Bay Area: Fat Chance, Ultra Gypsy and Indigo.

Fat Chance – The Pioneers

All eyes are on the wave of dancers, gliding gracefully into the room. Flowers adorn their hair, hands play zills, and traditional costumes reveal exquisitely tattooed waists. Welcome to an exclusive event in San Francisco: the 20 year anniversary of Fat Chance Belly Dance, one of the most gifted bellydance troupes in America, that has more than anybody else contributed to inspiring a blending of the art of tattooing and this ancient dance form.

“People keep telling me that our dance and our body art impress them profoundly. They feel so inspired that they change their lives radically to include both into their lives”, explains Carolena Nericchio, founder of Fat Chance.

Just like they were the pioneers of the new tattoo aesthetic in bellydance, Fat Chance have also introduced a new dance style, “American Tribal”.”In traditional bellydance the steps are improvised by the dancer”, explains Carolena, “in American Tribal the dancers move in formation while the leader calls out the steps for the others. We use codified steps, and we don’t digress from them.” Six of the eight dancers are tattooed. When the founding members first met they were astonished when they discovered that most of them had been tattooed by the same artist. Her name is Vyvyn Lazonga. “It felt as if our tattoos created the strong bond between us, that brought us together”, confesses Carolena, “we thought it so strange and exciting”.

It is not surprising that some of Carolena's tattoos are inspired by Middle Eastern culture. The blue diamond on her back, done by Bill Salmon, originates from patterns on amulets of the Tuareg, a North African tribe. The hand of Fatima is a symbol that is used in the whole Arab hemisphere to repel evil spirits. The Arab word “ghawazee” on her back has two meanings: dancer and prostitute.

Not only in the Arab hemisphere people connect bellydance and sexuality. Western club owners have debased bellydance for decades by announcing performances in ridiculing ways as cheap vaudeville acts, sexually stimulating or openly erotic. Outsiders all too easily misunderstand the undulating movements of bellydance as sexual animation. This assumption enraged any dancer that I talked to.

Ultra Gypsy – The “Sisterhood”

El Rio, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, is packed. The crowd waits patiently. Suddenly a group of beautifully costumed women glides out of the shadows and onto the stage, accompanied by a firework of folk rhythms. This is Ultra Gypsy, another one of the famous and talented bellydance troupes of the Bay Area, that perform at parties, in clubs and in theaters. The founder, Jill Parker, started to learn the dance in 1988. Today Ultra Gypsy consists of 13 members, five of them are heavily tattooed.

The name of the troupe bears witness to Jill’s fascination for the culture of Gypsies. “Gypsies were always at the fringes of society”, she explains, “I like that, and I fully identify with their lives as outsiders. Gypsies are tribal people. They have much strength and a strong company.” A characteristic that she finds as well in the world of bellydance. “Ultra Gypsy is like a family. We are a sisterhood”, she explains, “we have a strong connection. None of us wants to make big money by dancing. We fulfill our artistic dreams, and that can be risky. You have to love what you do, and the people who work with you as well, otherwise you’ve got a problem.”

Jill believes that their tattoos contribute to the atmosphere within the troupe. “I think it is important, because it demonstrates our will to show ourselves, bear art on our bodies and tell the world something about who we are.”

Jill got tattooed before she discovered bellydance. Freddy Corbin did her biggest tattoo, an elegant grape-vine that winds around her hips.

Jill remembers how it was when she went to a bellydance class for the first time. “When I entered this room full of strong women, who were sensual without being competitive, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do”, she says, “ and many women who come to my class for the first time feel the same. It is a very deep and healing feeling.”

Indigo - Bellydance and Cabaret

It is late afternoon. I’m sitting in a café in Berkeley and waiting for the appearance of two members of Indigo, another great tattooed bellydance troupe from San Francisco. Rachel Brice, the founder, and her best friend Zoe stream laughing and giggling through the door. I wave with an issue of the Taetowier-Magazin (or is it Skin&Ink?) and they grab their coffee and come to me. During the interview they share the microphone and present such a funny double-feature that my sides begin to hurt. “Don’t worry”, says Rachel, “we’re always like that, especially on stage”.

For both women it was love at first sight when they first saw bellydance at the California Renaissance Fairs. To Rachel it happened when she saw Hahbi ‘Ru dancing. “I saw them, and I was so touched it brought tears into my eyes. I felt something release inside me, and I wept and wept. The next day I started taking lessons. I never stopped dancing ever since.”

Currently only Rachel and Zoe are heavily tattooed. Zoe lifts part of her top to show a sherry bloom (cherry blossom?) design on her shoulder, done by Philip Milic of Braindrops. On her back there’s a crowned fairy with an eye at the center of the crown. “What does the eye mean?” I ask. “It stands for the third or the spiritual eye,” Zoe replies. “Yeah, Zoe has three eyes” jokes Rachel. “It may sound odd,” explains Zoe, “but it stands for a spiritual connection that I have with myself and the world around me.” “Honey, you’re cheesy,” Rachel japes, and both start to giggle once more.

Now it’s Rachel’s turn to show her wonderful flower design by Tex of Cold Steel, that winds around her muscular belly. Some Sanskrit letters are artfully worked into it. “They originated in the yoga sutras, written by the Indian mahatma Patangali,” Rachel explains, “they refer to the necessity of practicing yoga consistently and in humbleness for a long time, to reach your goal.”

2003 Rachel founded The Indigo Dance Company. Where does this unusual name come from? “It’s such a beautiful word and so full of spiritual meanings,” explains Rachel, “the root is Indian, and some people believe that bellydance originates in India, so that is a connection. But also the Tuareg in North Africa dye their clothing with indigo, and I’m enthused with their aesthetics. Then indigo is a royal color, even indigo as tattoo ink. There’s so much in it.”

“We love calling our dance style Dark Cabaret,” Zoe adds, “we draw our inspiration from the time period between 1890 and 1920. When women like Mata Hari and Ruth Saint Denis took up bellydance and interpreted it in their own ways.”

When Zoe and Rachel were studying with Ultra Gypsy, Jill Parker didn’t only teach them to become better bellydancers, but she also inspired them to get more tattoos. “When I danced with Jill, “ remembers Rachel, “I only wanted to watch her tattoo wind around her hips. It was so beautiful. And I thought I had to work on myself more.”

Since Indigo got told that they could get a tax refund for their tattoos, they feel motivated even more. “Yeah, we want to thank George Bush for paying our tattoos,” jokes Zoe. “Yes, thank you, George,” Rachel adds, “you’re no good otherwise, but this was really cool!”

Indigo are delighted that bellydance is spreading so fast all over the USA, and with it the tattoo aesthetic. “You know, it’s unbelievable,” says Rachel, “but I found out that some grannies in my classes consider getting tattooed for the first time in their lives. Women in their sixties and seventies who have discovered bellydance for themselves are now getting their first tattoos, and their grandchildren as well – oh my God, ain’t this cool?”

Source: an Ultra Gypsy forum

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Afghanistan Exhibition Provokes Questions

'the king and the dragons' gold pendantBy ROBIN POGREBIN
Published: June 6, 2007

The National Geographic Society has struck a $1 million deal with the Afghan government to bring a rare cache of gold artifacts to the United States in a traveling exhibition. But some cultural experts who have followed the negotiations are questioning whether Afghanistan is being properly compensated.

Plans call for the ancient Afghan pieces — part of the storied 2,000-year-old Bactrian hoard — to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, although contracts have not yet been signed by those institutions.

The National Geographic Society and the Afghan government signed a protocol accord over the weekend in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, outlining an exhibition schedule that would begin in May 2008 at the National Gallery. The document calls for Afghanistan to receive $1 million as well as 40 percent of “total revenue,” which is defined as exhibition revenue, minus expenses.

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”

She said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the show.

The protocol accord signed over the weekend says that the exhibition revenue going to the Afghans will be derived from the fees paid by the museums as hosts of the show and from corporate sponsorships. It does not guarantee them proceeds from ticket, catalog or merchandise sales.

Reached by telephone in Washington, Terry D. Garcia, the executive vice president of the National Geographic Society’s mission programs, said that the financial terms “were dictated by the Afghans.”

He said that no decision had been made on proceeds from the merchandising or the catalog sales. He added, “Those categories of revenue are in fact included in what the Afghans would receive.”

Ana Rosa Rodriguez, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, said in a telephone interview from Kabul that she felt the society had taken advantage of a country that has endured nearly three decades of violent upheaval.

“I think it is my duty to express my concerns about this deal,” Ms. Rodrguez said, complaining of “the unacceptable manner” in which “a prestigious American society has dealt with a postconflict country with a devastated cultural heritage.”

gold earringsThe collection includes more than 20,000 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and personal items from the Silk Road culture of Bactria, an ancient nation that covered parts of what is now Afghanistan. The hoard was discovered in 1978 by a Russian-Greek archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, at a grave site in Tillia-Tepe, in northern Afghanistan. The works blend Greek, Bactrian and nomadic traditions, reflecting Afghanistan’s historical position at the crossroads of ancient civilizations.

The treasures were only sporadically displayed over the next decade and then packed away. Then, in 1989, when Afghanistan’s last Communist president was facing a growing insurgency by the Islamic rebels known as the mujahedeen and the imminent withdrawal of Soviet troop support, he ordered that the treasures be hidden. He was ousted in 1992, and for years it was widely assumed that the gold had been looted or destroyed and would never resurface.

The treasures were unearthed from a bank vault beneath a former royal palace in Kabul in 2004. They were among the few examples of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage to survive decades of war. The collection had been kept hidden by curators and employees of the Kabul Museum at tremendous personal risk under the fractious mujahedeen and then the Taliban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001.

“It’s a compelling story, not just of the Silk Road but also the work of these modern-day heroes,” Mr. Garcia said. “We think people are going to love it.”

But Ms. Munson said that if the show proved to be a blockbuster, an impoverished Afghanistan should reap more of the benefit.

When an exhibition of 130 objects from Tutankhamen’s tomb began touring in 2004, the Egyptian government set out to clear $10 million in every city visited and to take more than 50 percent of the gross revenue.

Thomas Hoving, who pioneered the museum blockbuster concept as director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 to 1977, said Afghanistan should have held out for more. “They don’t get enough money,” he said.

“The Egyptians are getting all admissions, 80 percent of the sales in the shop, and they should have patterned it after that,” Mr. Hoving said. “Or a flat fee of a million a venue. The entity that ought to get most of the bucks should be Afghanistan.”

Mr. Garcia declined to discuss how the traveling objects would be insured.

He said the museums had each signed a letter of commitment regarding the artifacts, though only the National Gallery would confirm this. “They’ve all expressed their keen interest and hope to be a venue,” Mr. Garcia said, adding, “We’re working on contract negotiations.”

The protocol signed by the society and the Afghan government stipulates that a new museum would be selected should any of the four museums not be able to play host to the exhibition. Ms. Munson said she was concerned that this could lead to the objects’ being displayed at an insufficiently secure location.

Mr. Garcia said the National Gallery was expected to be the lead museum, subject to completion of the agreement.

Asked about its plans, the National Gallery said through a spokeswoman, “The National Gallery of Art is interested but has nothing to confirm at this time.” The Asian Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts both referred calls to the National Geographic Society. Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum, would not comment on any agreement but added, “This would make a valuable contribution to the exhibition schedule.”

The accord signed last weekend calls for the exhibition to run at the National Gallery from May 25 to Sept. 7, 2008; at the Asian Art Museum from Oct. 17, 2008, to Jan. 25, 2009; at the Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 22 to May 17, 2009; and at the Met from June 14 to Sept 17, 2009.

“The timing sequence is subject to change till we become able to work through scheduling,” Mr. Garcia said. The agreement with the society was signed by Afghanistan’s information and culture minister, Abdul Karim Khoram, Mr. Garcia said.

bronze river goddess
About 100 of the Bactrian gold objects were recently on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris, along with 131 objects from three other Afghan archaeological collections, and are now in Turin. The terms of that exhibition were unclear.

The new show is to be overseen by Frederik Hiebert, an archaeologist formerly affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Silk Road artifacts and is a fellow at the National Geographic Society. Mr. Hiebert led the effort to compile an inventory of the collection in 2004. The National Endowment for the Humanities helped underwrite the project with two $30,000 grants.

The society also paid for Omar Sul tan, an Afghan exile and archaeologist, to assist Mr. Hiebert in his dealings with the Afghans. Mr. Sultan became Afghanistan’s deputy culture minister in January 2005, while still a consultant to the National Geographic Society. He also led a committee responsible for selecting the institutions that would display the objects.

“Did this create a conflict of interest?” Ms. Munson asked. “We’ll never know.”

But Mr. Garcia said in response: “Our selection as organizer of the exhibition was made by the full Afghan exhibition committee, and approved by the minister of information and culture, Minister Khoram. The process had the full support of the entire committee as well as the ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad.” He said that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, “was aware and fully supportive of the process.”

Ms. Munson said that during a 2005 trip she made to Kabul, Omara Khan Massoudi, who leads Afghanistan’s Museums Ministry and is now the director of the Kabul Museum, expressed concern about how the National Geographic Society had handled the inventory of the hoard.

“Mr. Omara Khan Massoudi told me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that he thought National Geographic had disrespected the Afghans and their objects during the inventory,” she said. “Massoudi said the Afghans had no more need for National Geographic. So that they’re being awarded the exhibition means something has gone awry.”

Asked about his position by telephone, Mr. Massoudi said, “It’s out of my hands,” but declined to elaborate.

Ms. Munson suggested that there should have been an open competition among museums for the show to assure maximal revenue to aid in Afghanistan’s cultural reconstruction, and that the National Endowment for the Humanities should have exerted greater oversight.

“Instead it seems we’ve ended up with a National Geographic monopoly and a very poor deal for the Afghans,” she said.

Source: The New York Times
View: Afghan Rediscovered Treasures

Learning to Dance, One Chunk at a Time

Published: May 27, 2007

LAST month in a studio at American Ballet Theater, Angel Corella was studying the former Ballet Theater star Gelsey Kirkland as she showed him sequences from the second act of “The Sleeping Beauty,” a new production set to have its premiere this week at the Metropolitan Opera House.

One of the world’s finest dancers, whose powerhouse technique and dramatic intensity propelled him from his native Spain to American Ballet Theater when he was still a teenager, Mr. Corella also has a rare, less visible gift: he is able to reproduce a dance simply by seeing it once — not only his part, but everybody else’s too. After observing Ms. Kirkland, he was soon following behind her, humming as he mirrored her movements. Forty minutes after they began, he had the hundreds of steps down cold.

But for Mr. Corella and the other Ballet Theater dancers, knowing the steps of a dance is just the first phase in perfecting it. They must also convey the intention and feeling of the works they perform, which, in a repertory company like theirs, run from classical to modern to brand new. During the 2006-7 season alone, the dancers have rotated regularly through 21 works by choreographers as varied as Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Lar Lubovitch.

That dancers can remember such a wide range of steps, roles and styles is sometimes forgotten in the awe produced by a great performance; the seeming effortlessness of it all suggests that each phrase and combination is spontaneous and not a memorized series of steps. But in getting to that point, most dancers share a relatively similar path, first learning the choreography and then adding layers of detail and color. Finally, they absorb the work so completely that its elements literally become automatic, leaving the dancer’s brain free to focus on the moment-by-moment nuances of the performance.

Dancers call it muscle memory. And while it obviously manifests itself physically as far as dance is concerned, what actually happens, according to neuroscientists, is that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing. We may speak of a musician’s fingers or a winemaker’s nose, yet the resulting product is all the brain’s doing, explained Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist who works at the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic organization devoted to health care based in London. “Of course you need a body to dance,” he said. “But as dancers transition from conscious awareness of a newly acquired routine to the automatic performance of it, the brain is not doing any less work.”

Dr. Glaser is one of a handful of neuroscientists who have studied dancers as a way to understand the body’s relationship to the brain, and vice versa, better. Because classical ballet relies on certain discrete movements that a dancer must repeat thousands of time throughout a career, the brains of dancers, it turns out, are exquisitely sensitive to seeing movements they’ve rehearsed. If they see someone performing an arabesque, for example, certain motor areas of their brains respond as if they were themselves performing the step.

But before they get anywhere near muscle memory, dancers must first, as they like to say, get the dance into their bodies. This was uppermost in the minds of Ballet Theater’s dancers last month as they prepared for the current Met season. Some were learning new roles; others were refreshing their memory of works they had already performed.

In one studio, Marcelo Gomes led David Hallberg, the company’s newest principal dancer, and his fellow principal Gillian Murphy through their opening entrance and the pas de deux from Ashton’s one-act “The Dream.” The pair were to play the regal fairies Oberon and Titania, and Mr. Gomes, who has danced only Oberon, knew both parts. As they followed behind him, sketching his moves, Mr. Gomes gave a master class in cognitive learning — or so it seemed to an outsider.

First he demonstrated each role, calling out verbal cues (“You look at the moon”), ballet positions (“Put her in fourth”) and movements (“You’re doing bourrées and saying ‘no’ at the same time”), and then described in more detail the impetus for the movement (“As you back up, you’re scheming, and we see it on your face”), all the while humming the Mendelssohn score and counting the beats (“One and two and three, tee-ta-tee-ta-tee”).

Within the hour they had learned most of it. The next day they rehearsed with the ballet mistress, Georgina Parkinson, adjusting movements as she called out visual images and described the intention of a particular moment. The 10-minute duet requires great stamina, and the quality of any step can vary depending on its speed and texture: fast, slow, honey or molasses.

Ms. Parkinson wanted to see more lushness and amplitude in the lovers’ sensual choreography. “You need to explode,” she told Ms. Murphy, advising her to rely more on her back muscles as she flitted her arms madly about. Mr. Hallberg, who does not have Mr. Corella’s gift of being able to learn steps from sight alone, looked on. “It’s not in my body yet,” he said. “I’m just trying to get the feeling of it.”

Where initially dancers see one move and then another, eventually they merge the steps into phrases and then into longer sequences. Brain scientists refer to this process as “chunking.” Dr. Glaser likens it to learning to tie a shoelace. First you think “left over right, right under left,” and then you make a bow. But once you’ve learned the steps, they become one seamless movement.

“What dancers are able to do, which you and I cannot,” he said, “is to take a set of those moves and turn that into one long phrase and then take a dozen of those phrases and put them into one long movement.”

Karen Bradley, a movement analyst who directs the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland, said: “No two dancers chunk the same way. Some do it rhythmically, some consider spatial configurations, some think about weight shifts, some rely on imagery, and some follow an inner monologue.”

After his third rehearsal for “The Dream” — about three hours of studio time — Mr. Hallberg could run through the pas de deux with Ms. Murphy nonstop. “This means that it’s not only in the body,” he said. “But it’s nowhere near performance value. Now you can add yourself into the performance.”

For that, the dancers rely on Ballet Theater’s coaches, many of whom have danced the works themselves and can help the dancers create a performance that resonates with an audience.

That was the lesson the ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova was trying to impart last month to Mr. Gomes and Veronika Part, the opening-night leads in the new production of “Sleeping Beauty,” staged by Ms. Kirkland; Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director; and Michael Chernov, with choreography after Petipa. A former Kirov ballerina and celebrated Princess Aurora, Ms. Kolpakova, 74, frowned as she watched the pair run through their pas de deux. “It’s very nice, but where is your feeling?” she asked, and then demonstrated what she wanted. Following behind her, the younger dancers were all taut, sinewy limbs and unlined faces; it was in Ms. Kolpakova’s expressive face and articulate phrasing that the choreography came alive.

“You work your muscle memory in rehearsal so that when you get onstage it’s only your brain and your emotions working,” Mr. Corella said. “You don’t think about what the body is doing anymore. When I go into the wings, I can’t remember what I’ve done. I don’t remember if my foot was pointed.”

But not all dancers achieve this every time, he added: “They stay in the rehearsal period. You can see that they’re thinking if their leg is in the right place.”

Scientists say motor learning like Mr. Corella’s can actually be observed in the brain. To know precisely where our bodies are in space at any given moment — an ability called propioception — our brain receives signals about the length of each muscle and the angle of each joint and “does a kind of mental trigonometry,” said Prof. Patrick Haggard of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London. Professor Haggard, who has measured the brain activity of ballet dancers using brain scanners, observes that dancers “have better propioception than the rest of us.”

“Those brain signals seem to be of a particularly high quality in dancers,” he said.

For many dancers, music can be a helpful prompt for muscle memory, enabling them to recall dances they did years ago. “It all comes at once,” said Mr. Corella, describing his response to familiar music.

But music can trip up dancers too, as the ballerina Julie Kent discovered while rehearsing the new “Sleeping Beauty” with Ms. Kirkland. Ms. Kent had danced the version by Kenneth MacMillan many times, and as Ms. Kirkland demonstrated a different position of the arms, Ms. Kent tried to resist her body’s natural impulses. “Your conscious thought has to override the stored memory and say, ‘No, it’s not that, it’s this,’ ” she said.

A self-described slow learner, Ms. Kent, 38, recalled that early in her career she didn’t perform a new work because she couldn’t remember the steps. Occasionally, she still forgets them. In rehearsals with Mr. Gomes, 27, a quick study and her partner this week in “The Dream,” she acknowledged that “I drive him crazy, because sometimes I’ll just blank. But I tell him, ‘Wait until you get to my age and you have all these ballets in your head.’ ”

Frederic Franklin, 93, can attest to that. Mr. Franklin is among the last of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo stars of the 1930s and has one of the most prodigious memories in dance. After watching a rehearsal at American Ballet Theater studios last month, he jabbed his temple. “It’s all in here,” he said. Even now, he added, “when I’m watching them, I can feel my muscles doing it.”

Source: The New York Times