Performance Clips

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Reading Alan Watts

"For the world is a spell (in Latin, fascinum), an enchantment (being thrilled by a chant), an amazement (being lost in a maze), an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game... it is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry." - The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan W. Watts.

Grateful for my breathing body.

How I practice:

When the body calls, and I pay attention, I sit.

Sunday November 20, 2016 : Melina's Student Recital & Belly Dance Party


11/20/16 at 5:30 p.m. This is going to be great. Tickets on sale now at Moody Street Circus.

Sunday, November 13, 2016 : Celebration and Benefit for Fred Elias



Amazing musicians! Beautiful souls united -- only topnotch love for Freddie! I'm excited to dance with the Fred Elias Ensemble to honor and celebrate the legendary Mr. Fred Elias! This Sunday in Woburn - see the flyer for details.

Birthday in Perdika

This is an essay I wrote a few birthdays ago about our Greek island adventure on Aegina. With my mom, it is always an adventure!


Birthday in Perdika 


It is late and blazing hot in August on the Island of Aegina. It is my birthday. My husband Sacha, my daughter Zoe (then age 13), her friend Mason (age 13) my mom and I are on a journey from Agia Marina to the fishing village of Perdika at the southern-most tip of the island, bound for a freshly grilled lunch. Zoe, Mom and I have been driving a rented four-wheeler for an hour or so already, and the pain Mom feels in her hip from being in one position too long is too excruciating for her to continue. Mom needs a hip replacement and has been dealing with constant pain for a few years now. We have no idea how far we are from our destination. “Just leave me here by the side of the road up there in the shade and send Sacha back for me on the motorcycle,” she says. “I have my backpack with my water, my coffee and my spray bottles, I’ll be fine.”

Mom’s cavernous black backpack goes with her wherever she goes. No one knows its full contents, perhaps not even Mom. I have seen a great number of things emerge from the backpack, or disappear into it: tambourines, Turkish wooden spoons, finger cymbals, bottles of wine, greasy napkins wrapped around bones, gluey peaches, meat for the cats, and teeth. Right now, the backpack contains a jumble of plastic bottles, some empty, some partially filled with fluids: coffee in one, water in another, and spray bottles filled with home-made concoctions of chamomile and bay leaf. If there are liquid leftovers at a cafe or lunch, like wine, ouzo, ice or a side bowl of olive oil, in they go to the empty bottles, or they are siphoned into the filled ones to add new layers of natural medicinal depth. The spray bottles are used to cool Mom down in the heat and to moisturize her skin. Mom is a master multi-tasker. She can be occupied for hours talking on the phone while nourishing her skin, rubbing on one potion after another, from her little toe on up to her black hair, which she often coats with egg, honey and oil before going out into the sun. I sometimes check her head to see if the egg has cooked and turned into a scramble.

Calmly, I pull over. (At least, I like to think I’m calm. Sacha later tells me that when he saw me, I looked very worried). To tell the truth, I’m not driving, its my long-legged 13-year old daughter who is at the helm, and I lean into her red helmet to tell her her grandmother’s command. The four-wheeler comes to an elegant stop outside the white fence of the pink house. For my birthday, I let Zoe drive, mostly to keep her from complaining about the fact that we have to squish three generations of bodies onto a vehicle designed for two. Zoe was sitting half-way up on the engine, I was squished in the middle clutching my bellypalooza bag that contained my money purse and the kids’ swim goggles, and Mom was perched behind me so that her legs could be as stretched out as possible to minimize her hip discomfort. The famous backpack was stored in the tiny “trunk” of our vehicle. We had been making frequent stops under various sources of shade by the side of the road since setting off from the Hotel Anatoli, so Mom could get off and yelp or groan in pain and stretch her legs, then get back on. We have been making wrong turns as well, but since it is a small island, you always find your way back to the main roads, and there is no real worry about being permanently lost. I don’t believe there ever is this worry. You will always find your way, if you proceed in peace.

Somewhere up ahead of us, Sacha is driving the moped with Zoe’s school friend perched behind. A relatively worthless map of the island is in Sacha’s pocket. In the beginning the guys would stop and wait for us here and there, and we would slowly chug up from behind. This time, at the top of the mountain we were driving over, by the pink house and yellow car, there was only one road -- that isn’t named or even featured on many maps we looked at later -- and this road stretched and twisted on for many more kilometers before us. Sacha would no doubt be waiting for us at the next major crossroads, but we had no idea how long it would be before he would start his journey to retrieve Mom on the motorbike and come back down the mountain. We had no choice but to have faith in the plan and continue on.

Behind the fence of the pink house and yellow car was a barking dog. Mom is a friend to all dogs, and I knew that if necessary, she could tame the dog, explain her situation to the pink home owners, get more water if she needed it, make phone calls from a stranger’s cell phone, hitch a ride to Perdika on some old guy’s bike, order a ride back to Agia Marina on a taxi I’d pay for later....anything was possible. But if we were going to have my birthday lunch -- all of us together -- in Perdika, Mom would have to stay put so Sacha could find her. This, I wasn’t so sure of. In addition to multi-tasking, Mom is a master of perpetual motion. If she moved from the pink house yellow car spot and Sacha never found her, I would be having my birthday lunch in a charming fishing village overlooking the sea in silence between two teenagers glued to their electronic devices. Wait a minute - that doesn’t sound half bad!

“We just abandoned Dancing Ami by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere!” Zoe exclaimed in wonder as we drove off, just the two of us. “She’ll be fine,” I say, “And we’re not in the middle of nowhere, we’re on Aegina, a small island full of nice Greek people who would always take care of Dancing Ami. She could hitchhike home with one of those old gents on a motor bike or visit with the pink house people and make friends. She’ll make it somehow. Anyway, its not like she never abandoned me by the side of the road when I was a kid.” “She did?” Zoe was fully ready to accept that her grandma would do this to me. “Well, not literally by the side of the road, but if she wanted to do something and I didn’t, like go out to the airport bar with a boyfriend after we had danced together at the Athens by Night or keep socializing into the wee hours when I didn’t want to, I would either have to put my head down on a table and nod off, drooling on the taverna table cloth, or walk home alone through the Plaka at 2 a.m.” Zoe knows these streets well, having traversed them many times during our multiple visits to Athens since she was a baby.

In the 70s, the streets of the old city were safe for a kid -- or anyone -- at any hour, but it still wasn’t anxiety-free for me, and I learned to scuttle quickly like a cockroach home, sidling along buildings, summoning invisibility like the goddess Aphaia who is worshipped on Aegina. According to legend, Aphaia managed to escape the lust of both King Midas on Crete and a fisherman from Aegina who caught her in his nets by literally disappearing into the trees at the crest of an Aegina mountain with the assistance of Artemis. A beautiful temple was erected in her honor. The name Aphaia means invisibility. A re-enactment of this myth takes place every year on Aegina, on my birthday as it so happens. We were no doubt missing the re-enactment at that very moment, and I was hoping that Mom would do the opposite of Aphaia: that she would appear, larger than life, to Sacha as he whizzed back to find her on his bike.

Assisted by my own patron goddess Athena, I always made it home safe on my journeys home from the Athens by Night, walking past the discos, I was seemingly invisible to the transvestites that teetered by on their high heels as I walked quickly by. I was always OK, and Mom, as I do now after having abandoned her by the side of the road, had complete faith in the cultural mores of her chosen country. Greeks would always look out and take care of you. You would always be O.K.

“I could never have done that.” Zoe said. “Yes, you could have, if you had to. You could do anything you set your mind to. That’s one of the gifts Dancing Ami gave me with this way of thinking. Nothing cannot be navigated, with a little determination. And people will always help you, if you ask.”

The island scenery passes us by as we progress slowly on the four-wheeler. It has all the power of a senile golf-cart. Fields, overflowing dumpsters, roadside shrines and the Aegean sea view accompany our ride. I keep an eye on the time. Mom has been abandoned for 20 minutes and counting. “Where is Sacha?” Zoe and I ask each other out loud, as now the road winds in descent toward the other side of Aegina. We have no map. We have no cell phone. We carry on. Now we have been on the same road for over 30 minutes, slowly and carefully keeping to the right side, getting passed by Kias and Fiats and motorbikes carrying summer lovers. We reached a point at which we had to make a right or a left turn. There is no other choice. We peer both ways -- and there are Sacha and Mason, off to the left, waiting for us! We turn in kind, and I wait a few beats for Sacha to look into his rearview mirror again and ask himself what is different about our passenger load? He finally does....he slows....he stops. We pull up alongside.

“We abandoned Dancing Ami by the side of the road!” Zoe says. “You’ll have to go on the bike and pick her up.” I say. “We’ll meet you in Perdika. Mason, hop on the back here.” More words are not needed. Sacha nods. He is ready for the new adventure. I add more words: “Sacha: Mom is at least 15 minutes back, if you go fast on the bike. Look for Pink House, Yellow Car. She’ll be there on your left. We’ll meet you in Perdika.” Sacha is nodding, ready to take off. “Wait: Sacha -- what color house? What color Car?” I often do a check to see if Sacha has retained any details of my explanations. He is prone to mishearing information and filling in any gaps he has not understood with his own, completely unrelated, material. He smiles “I don’t know.” “PINK HOUSE, YELLOW CAR.” I am now being completely annoying. “Repeat after me: Pink house, yellow car, on the left” “Pink, yellow, left. GOT IT!” He says, peeling off in the opposite direction.

Especially since the road we left Mom on has no name, I have a feeling this will work out. Because if the road did have a name, Sacha would for sure get it wrong and morph it into a fruit. This has happened before. Many years earlier, in Missouri, Sacha once explained to me how to reach his circus school location outside of St Louis from the site of Circus Flora where I was performing. “Get off Strawberry Avenue,” he said. I drove for miles, looking for the Strawberry Avenue exit....until I realized there was no such place. He had meant Shrewsbury Avenue, but you know, what’s the difference? I did somehow make it there. Now that we live in the Boston area, we often visit Blueberry Street. You know, the one that sounds like Newbury? Luckily I like fruit and enjoy the linguistic twilight zone that I live in with Sacha. And now I feel that Sacha looking for Mom on a nameless road in Aegina will produce successful results.

Sacha later told me that Mom had moved to the right side of the road from the left, that he found her opposite the pink house, which he claims was white, not pink, but that he did notice the yellow car. Mom yelled out his name as he slowed to look at the yellow car and that’s how he found her. Mom said she moved from the left side of the road to escape the bees, who were swarming her since she was slurping on the dented peach she had extracted from her backpack. She left a piece of the peach in front of the pink/white house for the bees, and ran to the other side of the road to eat the rest of the fruit, watching for Sacha with a keen and ready eye. So though the road had no name, there is still fruit involved in this story.

Meanwhile, the kids and I motor along toward the seaside. Mason has said little so far, mute perhaps from the culture shock of traveling from Newton, Massachusetts to Greece with a Bohemian family of circus artists and belly dancers for nearly two weeks. Then again, he is an intelligent young man of well-chosen words. When his skin flared up in a mild allergic reaction during the first days of our visit and my mother drew him up a bath with calendula, honey, Noxema blended with Greek mountain chamomile, athlete’s foot cream, a squirt of Dermagen with Arabic writing on it that she had brought back from Cairo, and freshly minced garlic, Mason asked, all deadpan: “Are you going to eat me?” Then shut the bathroom door behind him and carefully locked it. You couldn’t have scripted the small daily adventures we have had so far, what with finding a cockroach in Mason’s sneaker in Mom’s basement apartment, rats lurking behind the fridge, a gekko ejecting its tail on Naxos (the tail kept wriggling while the gekko made its get away), and well-moisturized, egg-coated grandmothers abandoned by the side of the road. His father told him to “come back dirty” and boy, I could guarantee that one! I haven’t checked whether Mason took a real shower where he washed his hair; I haven’t made him change his shirt or checked if he brushed his teeth for days. I let him have as many cokes and gummy cherries and breads dipped in olive oil and gyros and shrimp and ice cream as he wanted. He jumped off cliffs, swam into a cave, and drove a four-wheeler all alone. This is his first time riding on the back of a motorbike, which his dad did approve during a Skype conversation, given that a Flying Wallenda wire-walker circus guy was the driver. So Mason was coming back dirty and then some! And he never lost his glasses!

Though I am concerned for Mom, I have complete faith that Sacha will find her by the side of the road and that we will all meet in Perdika for my birthday lunch. I also have a parallel complete faith that if he doesn’t find her, she will find her way either to Perdika or back to Agia Marina, and Sacha will do the same, and we will meet eventually at the motorbike rental place as the vehicles are due at 4 p.m. Either way everything is fine, it is my birthday, and I will eat grilled octopus by the sea today.

The kids and I drive on past beaches shaded by pine trees, nestled tavernas with their crisp white table clothes. Achingly simple pleasures abound, lovely sea views, near naked men and women whizzing about on motorbikes, families enjoying the summer. We briefly park under some trees, tiptoe through a stony shore into the cool salty sea, then run out again in search of a place that offers bottled water and a W.C. We are parched. Once on the road again, the coast line curving, then curving some more, and still no Perdika, we resume our “old” joke from last week: “Its just around the next bend!” This is a leftover mantra from when we were back in Athens driving down the coast in Lykis’ borrowed car to show Mason Cape Sounion, site of Poseidon’s Temple. “Its just around the next bend!” We kept that up for each curve for at least a half hour, until we finally made it to the majestic marble structure that rises from the cliff where King Aegis tragically flung himself into the sea, mistakingly thinking his son Theseus was dead, thereby giving the Aegean its mythic name.

We have been on the road to Perdika for over three hours now, a journey that, uninterrupted, should have taken 45 minutes tops, or 25 minutes by car. We have abandoned a passenger at her request and lost her rescuer and his vehicle, and still we chug towards the fishing village where our sights are set. A large square sign “Welcome to Perdika” finally springs into view, and we drive down the final crescent into the cove. I recognize it at once by its charming row of fish taverns lined up one against the other, small boats moored nearby. The first time I saw how they beat octopus against a rock again and again to tenderize the tentacles before hanging them out on a line was here in Perdika, when I was 7 or 8 years old.

This kids and I check out the cove coastline -- many urchins to watch out for! many hungry little fish darting about! -- and sit at a cafe to wait for Sacha and Mom. We order a Nescafe frappe for me and Zoe to share and a coke for Mason. I am just about to calculate how long we can probably expect to wait for our lagging group when the drinks get delivered and a familiar pair zip into town. Sacha, shirtless with his head wrapped turban style in a colorful Turkish scarf, and Mom, with her black one piece swim suit, broad-brimmed black hat and back pack zoom cheerily down the last hill. We see each other and wave. Mom comes over and immediately orders an ouzo with a bucket of ice on the side, and Sacha wanders off alone to gaze at the water. The kids get the wi-fi code. I have abandoned plans of returning the bikes on time, I will just pay over-time and point out, since the guy has kept my license with the proof, that it is my birthday and we were having lunch in Perdika. There is no way to make it from point A to point B in a linear fashion while together with my mom in Greece -- and since we have all ended up together at point C, then who cares how we got there. We walk over to Antonis’ Fish tavern and I get my birthday octopus grilled with a side blend of olive oil and lemon. It was a blessed day.


Spring 2016 Recital Speech

Sacha and I began Moody Street Circus over seven years ago. We had until then been performing and teaching circus and belly dance all around the world for decades. We had never committed to such stability (read: signed a lease), and we had no clear idea of how things would go. We had faith in our instincts and in the name Moody Street Circus. With that name, I wanted to encompass both the grounded notion of place - Moody Street, Waltham, MA - Here We Land! Our chosen neighborhood! - and the circular sense of circus (from the ancient Greek kirkos, meaning circle/ring) as community as much as artful, athletic entertainment. One of the powerful aspects of the circus is that the audience, organized in a circle around the circus ring, becomes part of the action. Positive emotions are amplified as audience members see each others' faces on the other side of the ring, laughing and enjoying the spectacle. Though in the studio we are not organized as a ring, the space has nonetheless become a community beyond anything we could have conceived when we started out. I have never put down roots in any one place with such a dedicated purpose for so long to be able to relish the sweet and tender flowers that blossom from that planting! It has all been unexpectedly wondrous. In this studio we have experienced the circle of life, the fruits of true community. We have supported one another through celebrations and hardships, witnessing new lives entering our tribe and mourning beautiful souls who have moved on to another dimension. We feel privileged to be part of so many people's lives and artful journeys in circus and belly dance. We are honored by the families that choose to bring their children to grow with us, year after year. Thank you all for coming and please enjoy the show - featuring our beautiful, flourishing flowers!

The Blessings of Weaknesses

One of my favorite quotes is when Joseph Campbell paraphrases Nietzche:

“Nietzche was the one who did the job for me. At a certain moment in his life, the idea came to him of what he called “the love of your fate.” Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, “This is what I need.” It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to the moment – not discouragement – you will find the strength is there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege! This is when the spontaneity of your own nature will have a chance to flow.”

As one who grew up navigating constantly changing circumstance but unwilling to accept a narrative of victimization, I am drawn to the idea of turning the shit of our lives into gold and flowing from there. Whatever is happening to you, if you bring love to the moment and not fear and anger, you will learn and evolve in more positive ways that will improve your life. It is not always easy to shift your perspective and do this -- it is hard work -- but it is worth it.

In the same vein, I was struck last night reading this interview between Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Nancy Stark Smith from Cohen's book Sensing, Feeling, and Action: The Experiential Anatomy of Body-Mind Centering. The book is formed by the collected articles for Contact Quarterly dance journal 1980 - 2007 (Contact Editions, Northampton, MA, Second Edition 2008). Their conversation brings the love of your fate idea into the body.

Nancy: You've often talked about an apparent weakness as a gift, in that it offers a kind of leverage for bringing about some new learning that we need. I think that's a good way of looking at ourselves. It helps to eliminate the fear that may block us from learning or changing. So often we're so busy judging ourselves that we can't move ahead. But if there's a training that encourages us to become more curious at that point, to become sensitive rather than defensive, then that changes the whole pattern of how we deal with problems, and how we deal with decision, change, and confusion.

Bonnie: Yes. You've said that so beautifully. When there's a point of weakness, so often our focus becomes trapped on that "place of stress" or problem. But the cause may be elsewhere. For example, if you have a knee problem, and you just look at that particular weakness, you're probably going to be stuck with it all your life. But if you see it as a result of forces that are converging on your knee from other places in your body, and you look at everything in relations to it, then the knee becomes a leverage to a kind of integration of the whole. If you don't have a point of focus, you don't have a place of entrance. [...] When my husband, Len, and I lived in Japan, we rented a house during the night and the next day found out there was a wall in front of the window. Living there made me realize that I never would have noticed the view beyond as much as a I noticed that wall. And if it had been my house and I was able to knock down that wall, I know I would have noticed the life outside with such a greater intensity than if the wall had never been there. So we have to develop respect for things about us that seem to be weaknesses. Otherwise, we have no place to begin.

Today I'm going to appreciate the views from my windows a little more than normal.

Rhea on the Gilded Serpent

My Mom, the wild-and-crazy-like-a-fox Rhea of Greece, has written some really fun stories about her adventures in belly dance around the world. They are posted on the Gilded Serpent. It is worth a look when you have some time! I especially like the story of her first taverna gig. And the Gilded Serpent is a great resource for all belly dancers.

Sacred Props

When I was six years old, mama Rhea took her sword, finger cymbals, black liquid eyeliner and all the belly dance costumes she had ever made and moved from San Francisco to an entirely other country called Greece. Mom's costumes were hand-hewn. She drilled holes into hundreds of antique foreign coins, used pliers to attach jump rings and sewed them one at a time on to her hip belt.

At the time, I had never heard of this place called Greece, but I was intrigued to find out about the ancient ruins there that were very often dedicated to Athena, powerful goddess of war and wisdom (with her props of shield and owl), or Zeus, head honcho of Mount Olympus, (with his spectacular lightening bolt props). At the time Mom left the states, I knew a lot about belly dance props and what you were supposed to do with them but I didn’t know much about Europe or Greece or Athens – I barely knew about the rest of the U.S. for that matter – but now I was going to be with my mom in this mythological ancient city, a city that she said had called to her, and now, through her, it was calling to me as well.

BEAUTIFUL ATHENS


I mentioned a sword. Rhea’s teacher, Jamila Salimpour, had first placed that sword on Mom’s head and said “Dance”, and thanks to Jamila, Mom became one of the first American belly dancers to take sword balancing into the context of a belly dance cabaret show. (Check out the story: its in Kajira Djoumahna's Tribal Bible). The sword became Rhea’s signature prop, and she is still a master of the balanced blade.

RHEA WITH SWORD IN TROUPE BAL ANAT

In Greece, Mom would glide from gig to gig through the streets of Plaka, and when I finally arrived in Athens, I walked each night by her side. She wore a long purple velvet cape covering her costume and in her hand carried a sword in its scabbard. Every night waiters in the outdoor tavernas we walked by would yell out:

“Rhea! Are you going to KEEL ME WITH YOUR KNIFE?”

And other brilliant remarks in the same vein. Every. Single. Night.

http://www.gerlachstudio.com/p183.html


We would regally ignore them and keep striding, goddess-like, along, which was brilliant on our parts. I imagined that Athena was up on the Acropolis looking protectively down at us with her shield and fluttering little owl. Athena had our back should we ever actually need to 'keel' those waiters with our knife.

ATHENA WITH OWL, SHIELD AND SPEAR PROPS BY BEBESDUPOIRE

Nowadays, belly dance students rush to balance the blade before they have even learned to dance, or adequately developed as artists. In their haste to show off a skill, they miss opportunities to create personal sacred balance ritual, to make magic with their prop. Some common mistakes: Dancers unceremoniously plop the sword on their head and then shimmy like speed demons. They try to make it look too easy, put their fingers all over the ‘sharp’ end of the blade and rush to show all they can do under the blade. If you’re going to put a prop on your head, take your time and treat the whole process with respect. You are enacting dance theater, an otherworldly, revelatory slow motion moment of power and drama in your dynamic dance repertoire.

SUMMONING THE SACRED ENERGY FIELD BEFORE I BALANCE MY TRAY ON MY HEAD

Be present in the moment, take the time to practice and develop a real relationship with your prop, and be clear in your mind about what that relationship is. What is your dance story? What ideas and images are you projecting with your prop? Make sure your priority is still to be a good dancer who radiates awareness and presence under the blade. Above all, don’t let dorky people take your prop from you and run around restaurants slashing the air like pirates. Woe to those who touch my props without asking. And if you do ask, I will smile, say no, and secretly skewer you in my mind. If I offer to show you, that is another story. Like the international circus performers I have worked with and still learn from, I take props very seriously: they are alive; they are my livelihood. Like Athena’s shield, they are important extensions of myself and my craft. Word to the wise: never touch anyone's prop unless they offer. It's none of your business. It's their magic.

The first time I was asked to teach a seminar on balancing, I wasn’t sure whether to do it. I asked my mom what she thought, she said no. My mom had always made a point of NOT teaching sword balancing, figuring that people should experiment on their own. Her idea was that dancers should observe the craft and technique of established, expert dancers at work with their props then work things out for themselves, hopefully adding their own original ideas to their act. You never want to ‘lift’ ideas, undigested, from other dancers – you want to create your own original concoctions. I agree with her on that count, students don’t do enough observational fieldwork anymore (though perhaps with YouTube that is changing – its just sad there aren’t as many real, non-computer venues to frequent in order to see great dancers accompanied by a live band doing a real 5-part show as there were in the 70s). But I went ahead, thought things through for myself and taught the seminar anyway. I sat down to think through our ‘family secrets’ so I could translate them to the students in some organized, meaningful way.

In the end it felt a bit unsettling to reveal our trade secrets, but it was also liberating to share, and the response I got was gratifying. Students have told me they pinned my hand-outs above their mirrors for inspiration, and incorporated balancing work into their lives on a daily basis. They were being given permission to take risks, try things and be creative. With a sword on their head.

MELINA WITH SWORD

Process not Perfection

Learning to belly dance is like learning a new language -- you can't expect to speak it like a native speaker right away. You learn a few words (movements) here and there, then develop the grammar of how to link the words, how to use punctuation and pause... and then slowly, with practice, you gain fluency. Relax into your body and enjoy the journey. And remember - once you are proficient, there is always still more to learn, especially if you want to create a poem with your dance and treat it as more than just a form you are filling out. Belly dance, like its infinity shapes and circular movements, is a lifelong discovery. When you stay curious, when you stay engaged with the process, it can lead you deeper and deeper into yourself.

I was so happy to find the following interview with Michael Cunningham from the book The Very Telling: Conversations with American Writers By Sarah Anne Johnson. Cunningham reinforces the notion of the artist as one who diligently follows the vein of their passion. Patience, perseverance, and fascination with the process itself are key to an artists' work:


“I’ve come to think that what we call ‘talent’ is inextricably linked to a bottomless fascination with the process itself, that an artist of any kind possesses, among other qualities, the desire to do it and do it until it comes out right.

It took me some time to understand that what I needed to do was not reform my natural inclinations, but to give in to them.

I’m not convinced that writers must only write about what they know, but I’m sure we should only deal with that about which we care passionately.

Have patience. Don’t panic.”

Belly Dance Marketplace

This piece first aired on NPR's Marketplace in 2003. I got to record it for the radio on location in the WBUR studios. I was told that in my speaking voice I had a "sibilant s" which is the first time I had ever heard that term. I liked the word and thought it should be spelled "sibyllant," like the Cumaean Sibyl. A prophetess, yessss. But no, my "s" sounds more like a hissing snake...which given the fact we are dancing the 'dance of the serpent' is entirely appropriate.

This photo was taken in 1978 at the Athens by Night Taverna where I performed every night with my mother Rhea of Greece. I was 8 or 9 years old.

Belly Dance Marketplace


My first lesson in economics came backstage at the Parthenon Taverna in San Francisco where my mom belly danced on Saturday nights. I was two years old, and already I knew exactly where money came from: it came right out of Mom’s coin girdle after a show. It was my job to pluck out the cash and count it up. One by one, I’d pull out the sweaty dollar bills, carefully uncrinkle them, and make humid piles of ten as she changed into her evening gown. The next day, we’d go to the supermarket and spend these same bills on fruit roll-ups and Ho-Ho’s – or at least that’s what I remember buying. Not only did I learn to count this way, but I intuitively knew that the number of grocery bags we carted home was in direct proportion to the amount of tips Mom had made the night before. She was a popular dancer, which translated to a lot of groceries in the trunk of our Morris Miner.

During that same year I made the more personal connection between shimmies and cash. One night I decided it was time to take to the raised stage with a costume pinned to my diapers. Audience members, beside themselves before the spectacle of this diminutive toddler belly dancer, leapt to their feet to tuck tips into my Lilliputian hip scarf. Among these admirers was a little boy, sent up by his parents to add to my wealth. Upon seeing my cash bounty waving gaily at him from my costume, the boy sought instead to make a cash withdrawal. We wrangled over the money and I won, of course. My mother didn’t teach me to sit back and just let things happen to me. I learned early that once having acquired money, you must fiercely protect it to prevent its loss.

It wasn’t until the age of seven, after Mom had moved to Greece, that I began to dance professionally in earnest. The currency was now foreign, but the fiscal concept was the same: if I danced during Mom’s performance, she would pay me 100 drachmas a night. Since I enjoyed dancing and preferred to be up on stage with Mom rather than getting my little freckled cheeks pinched by the Greek waiters in the kitchen, it worked out rather well. Plus I learned that if you saved up your money over time, you could buy things that really mattered. By the end of the summer I had it all: a bicycle, a bracelet, and lots of magazines with Charlie’s Angels on the cover.

The one thing that Mom never really taught me about was banks. For whatever reason, we saved our money in hats, boxes, books, hollowed out cabbages in the fridge. Our cash may not have earned interest, but it did gather dust and mold. Eventually I learned that a penny saved is just that: a penny saved. I stopped saving up to buy stuff and learned to love the process of just saving up, watching my stash grow, thinking that eventually I might need it for something really important and I’d be able to provide it for myself. Indeed, my childhood belly dancing earnings quickly got swallowed by my college tuition bills, but I’m pretty sure it was worth it: after earning a B.A., M.A. and PhD in French Literature, I’m back to belly dancing for a living (that's a whole other story!)


The Marketplace essay had to be very short and ended there, but here are more of my thoughts on tipping that could come in handy for dancers or audience members. Aha - finally we reach the crux of the double meaning of my blog, "Tips from the Hip." OK I will spell it out: I am passing on "tips" about what I have learned about the nature of "tips" (money given by audience members as appreciation for a belly dancer's performance). These tips are things I learned from a childhood dancing literally at the hip of my mother, who also received tips in her hip. Have I beat this double entendre to death or what?


In the belly dance world, tips can be a hotly contested practice with two major camps:  those who accept tipping as part of their dance performance and those who do not. There are valid reasons to stand on either platform and I respect everyone's choice especially if they have thought it through. I stand with my mother, my sister, and the long tradition of cabaret belly dancers who do accept body tipping at the hip, as long as there are off-limit zones and the practice is done tactfully and with humor, dignity, cultural sensitivity and wit. Belly dance has long struggled to attain a reputation as an honorable art form, as important, reputable and well-considered as ballet, modern and jazz dance.  Great belly dancers have worked hard in this country and others to elevate the art of belly dance and bring it to the theatre stage, removing it from the lively taverna atmosphere and cleansing it of its "hootchie kootchie" dance reputation from the time of the World's Fair in the 1800s.  My sister Piper did her part in this by founding the BellyPalooza festival in Maryland and staging the "Belly Dance Magic" Show at the Baltimore Museum of Art theatre.  My mother Rhea always does her best to rebel in these more rarified settings by leaping from the stage and dancing into the audience for a more immediate transfer of energy.   She hates how theatre lights blind her and always makes the lighting guys put on the house lights when she dances -- she wants to see the audience and her affect on it.  Guess which dancer got a standing ovation in the last Belly Dance Magic show!  You can take Rhea out of the taverna but you can't take the taverna out of Rhea!  

There is something magic about the taverna context and the community aspect of the tipping ritual. This is the time where the audience can show off to their friends and display their wild good natures, their wealth, their appreciation of the dance artist and join in the dance.  Instead of passing the hat, belly dancers are given money showers, money necklaces, or respectfully tipped at the hip.  If money falls to the ground we dancers do not stoop to pick it up with our hands - this is considered very bad form.  Tipping time is often an expected part of the dance in a taverna / restaurant context, and the dancer must be a superb diplomat in nonverbally guiding the audience to the most respectful way to tip her.  She must understand different cultural mores.  When I haven't "gone around for tips" customers have mournfully approached me later with the reproachful "you didn't come around to our table," and pressed a crumbled bill into my hand.  

The art of going out for tips is a performance unto itself, where the dancer must be able to read the make up and mood of each table, decipher what country they might be from, divine who is the one everyone would like to see celebrated or teased, understand who would like to get up and dance, who would prefer to stay seated, and who would, after protesting they don't want to dance, actually secretly enjoy be dragged on to the stage. You can learn a lot by just placing a hand lightly on a shoulder and reading the person's energy. If it resists and is hard as a rock, better leave the person alone. If you sense a movement, pliability... they want to come and dance!

Tipping time is the ultimate improv situation.  The dancer must be ready for anything. She must be gracious and quick -- and above all, not act like it is about money, for in the end, it is not.  It is about the ritualized interaction between a modern day goddess and the audience who has just been transported by her hip work and grace to another dimension.  

I always tell dancers I mentor: Never count your money in front of the customers!  Never pick up tips that fall to the ground!  Never leave your tips unattended in the bathroom.  Never let your boyfriend collect your tips.  Always tip others who help you.   Beware little old ladies who lean in to tip you in your bra strap.  One elderly woman once knuckled my nipple when I least expected it.  I didn't waste my energy getting pissed off -- I just laughed it off and moved on, marveling at the new ways I realize I must be on guard when I'm in the tip zone.  Spectators, please don't tip me when I'm balancing a tray of lit candles on my head, the fire is real and the tray is not held on by glue!

Tipping is the ultimate landscape for social anthropological study. What type of person will first tip the dancer? Whoever you are, we love you! If they leap to the stage and shower you with a stack of bills, goddess bless them!  Others follow suit. If they come up on stage with a $20 bill and respectfully tuck it into your hip for all to see, goddess bless them!  Others may follow suit.  If they wave a $1 like its the Hope Diamond and summon you over whispering "this is for you if you take care of my friend over there" - whoosh!  You will see Melina disappear from your orbit leaving the dollar waver still gripping his dollar which is now fluttering in her wake.  If you find little kids trailing you like the pied piper -- train them to pick up all your tips and put them into your prop box -- goddess bless them!  Don't linger by patrons who haven't tipped you or lunge for money just because its held out.  Dance, laugh and keep it family friendly.  

I have uncrinkled steaming money from every country of the world.  It connects me to the world and the world to me.  It is an honest tangible exchange.  I learned the many techniques of dealing with tips and tipping from watching my mother, who has a knack for humor and human relations.  You learn how to engage, who to ignore, and when to run.  





Melina's belly dance and circus arts studio is Moody Street Circus in Waltham, MA. Ongoing classes in the dynamic, organic Daughters of Rhea "vintage oriental" style - check studio calendar for listings.