Pro Track Week 0: How to get into professional aerial dance school at age 33, part 2

In the week before the audition, I probably drove Ben crazy.  We would go work out on the playground early in the morning, and then we’d grab a quick chai from Starbucks, sit outside in the sunshine, and I would obsessively talk about the upcoming auditions for Pro Track.

“I’m the oldest one,” I’d repeat like a broken record.  “The other girls are all ridiculously strong and flexible, and they’re not broken.  Most of them are 8 years younger than I am.  I don’t have a gymnastics background.  I don’t have a contemporary dance background.  I don’t quite have the strength requirements.  But I have a lot of experience.  My different movement background has got to add something unique to the program, right?  And Nancy and Val have been stepping over and correcting my form in fitness and giving me encouragement about my progress, so they have to see something in me, right?”

Ben would patiently let me fret, take a sip of his coffee, and then lovingly tell me I was being stupid.

Over the course of the Aerial Dance Festival, Ben and Andi and I would pick up tidbits of information about Pro Track and the auditions.  Someone said they’d take up to 12 candidates for the program.  Another said the ideal number was 10.  Someone said six had already been chosen.  Someone else said four.  Ben and Andi had talked to one of the women who’d already been accepted at an earlier audition, and she’d made it in even though she didn’t quite have all the strength requirements nailed.  Or so they told me.  Andi and I both hoarded this information, trying to figure out what our chances would be.  I trained harder.

In the meantime, I started week two of ADF with handstands, taught by a little, badass Japanese acrobalancer named Yuki.  I have never been able to hold a handstand. In fact, I hate the sensation of trying to train for one.  The idea of holding my bodyweight up by what have until recently been stick thin, lanky arms that were likely to give out and dump me straight on my head and ailing spine was a horrific one.  So I never learned.  I figured the best way to get over the mindfuck, and get closer to the minute handstand hold in the audition, was to sign myself up for a five day, 1.5 hour a day intensive at ADF.

Dani and Mary were in the class, both of them Frequent Flyer company members.  Dani performs stilt acrobatics and aerials at Lannie’s Clocktower with me, and was due to be one of the judges at the upcoming audition.  Both she and Mary confessed to struggling with handstands.  I felt a little better.  Jenna, the rose-haired pixie who was going to audition with me, rocked handstands and was wanting to work on pressing into them better.  Some people in the class, like me, were looking to dive into technique for the first time.  And so we did.  Over and over and over and over and over again.  We started with walking into them at the wall, holding for a minute, and then coming down.  And then doing it again.  And again.  And again.  Then we worked with partner spotting in the middle of the room.  First lifting a leg, and doing it over and over and over again.  Then working on a kick up.  Then a tuck up.  Then a straddle up.  Then a pike up.  Yuki came around and corrected our forms.  “You are not strong in shoulders,” she would admonish me in a Japanese accent.  “You need to work on shoulder strength.”  I found out that I didn’t have a lot of internal rotation in my arms.  I sat on the floor, puzzled, then did a snake arm (which is pretty much all external rotation) and a lightbulb went off.  When I purposefully rotated my shoulders internally, and gave myself a slight turnout with my hands, things started to go a little easier.

By day two I was doing handstand drills against the wall without a spot.  By day three I was cartwheeling out of them instead of waddling my feet and hands down.  By day four, I was finding places of balance for a few seconds in the middle of the room.  My arms and shoulders ached mercilessly, but I could see the progress, so I kept going.

On Thursday night, I went to the Dairy Center for a full makeup and costume dress rehearsal.  I’d been invited to participate in the first ever ADF Cabaret show, full of professional performers who were attending ADF.  It turned out I was the only ground-based act; I was doing my acrobatic sword routine, while everyone else was performing an aerial piece. Four of the performers were graduates of last year’s Pro Track class: Kate and Heidi, who did a hilarious lyra duet; Ilsa, whose piece started on lyra, proceeded into a back somersault dismount, and then continued with a running, flying dive roll into catchers hang on a low flying trapeze that just about stopped my heart; and Kayleigh, who is an absolute beast and does an amazing rope piece where she drags a briefcase onstage with her and keeps tearing receipts out of her costuming and hair.  The tech was gorgeous, and everyone stayed long after their tech times were done just to watch the other performers rehearse.  I found to my delight that I suddenly had my Silvia Salamanca toe sword balance standing split working, and that my hand balance section was a lot closer to a scorpion.  Score!

On Friday I started to break down from utter exhaustion.  I skipped the playground in the morning.  I jammed my ankle coming out of a handstand in class, and started to tear up.  I thought about sitting out the rest of class, or maybe going home and resting before the show, but I decided to push through after reasoning that it probably wasn’t a good idea to quit in front of Dani when she was judging my audition in two days.  So I stuffed my anxiety down, went back and forth between Dani and Mary as partners and spotters, and gently landed on my other ankle first as much as possible.  After about ten minutes, my ankle was doing ok and my handstand was as solid as I could muster again.

Sometimes you just have to work through the brick wall and the anxiety and the fear.


The show went well, although I did lose my sword at the end of the scorpion and was shaky on the standing split toe balance.  I was just exhausted.  The rest of the piece, as I saw on video later, was one of the most solid and competent routines I’ve done in a long time, so I called it square and collapsed into bed.

On Saturday I didn’t leave bed.  Well, I left once to run an errand, but I just let my body poop out and stay there the rest of the day.  I had thought about going to open gym at the circus center to run my routine a few more times, but I knew I was at the point of diminishing returns and didn’t want to subject myself to further injury the day before my audition.  The Brit coddled me and fed me.  I watched movies and napped.  I came to terms with the fact that my audition was going to be what it was going to be, and I’d have to be cool with that.

On Sunday morning, I got up early, stretched a bit, ate well, and put on a leotard, tights, and rolled up sweat pants.  I did my makeup.  I rolled my hair up around an elastic headband and pinned it tight.

And then I drove to Broomfield for a Donna class.

Donna Mejia has been holding two hour workout workshops throughout the summer, mostly long conditioning warm-ups with drills and across-the-floor sequences.  After bombing these kinds of classes when I first arrived, I was really proud of the fact that I could handle the hardest variations and drills by the end of the summer.  Donna’s work always makes my body feel amazing and happy, so I decided to use this last class at Tribal Church as a warmup.

“Shouldn’t your audition be soon?” Donna asked when I came in.

“Today,” I answered.

She gave me a “damn, woman!” look, wished me the very best of luck, and gave me the best warmup and stretching session I could ask for.  She also spent a long time on modern fusion choreography toward the end of class, and to my surprise, I was nailing it.  With all the working out and conditioning I’d been doing on the playground, I was finally able to make a lot of moves happen that I hadn’t seen since my ballet training at age twelve.  “Holy crap,” I thought.  “I’m having a good day.  Rock on.”

When I arrived at Frequent Flyers with snacks and a giant water bottle, I found the audition had expanded to 8 women.  Andi had made the late cut, and a few girls who made the decision to audition at ADF applied and were allowed.  At first we were pretty quiet.  Those of us that had been in classes together during ADF made small, quiet chitchat, but for the most part everyone was stretching in straddle on the floor and looking nervously at everyone else.

The audition went like this:  we had a little bit of time to sign in, pay our audition fee, and warm up.  From there, Dani taught us a modern dance choreography for half an hour.  The sequence wasn’t impossible, but the instruction moved quickly, so you had to be on your game to get it all and have it completely under your feet.  By the end, when we were performing in two groups a few times, pretty much everybody had it, even the girls without as much of a dance background.

From there, Nancy Smith (founder and director of Frequent Flyers) taught us a low flying “dance” trapeze choreography.  It was relatively simple and straightforward.  The instructions were to perform it slowly, efficiently, controlled, and with a relaxed neck.  Totally doable.  Everybody nailed it.

Then Valerie pulled down the silks and started showing us a sequence.  It was a single knee climb (flipping upside down, hooking a knee on the fabric, pulling yourself upright in a giant situp, and then doing it again), to a salto (forward somersault that’s a little terrifying), into a back balance, into a helicopter (spinning sideways down to the ground while handing the fabric that’s holding you up around your body).  In other words, shit was hard.  My brain understood what they were doing: “Oh,” said brain.  “This is where they separate the women from the girls.”  Meanwhile the bottom had dropped out of my stomach, and I thought “This is it.  This is where I blow the audition.”

I took a couple of deep breaths and decided to give it all a shot and see what I could make my new, somewhat stronger body do.  I hadn’t been able to do knee climbs well as I was rebuilding, but I tried it and though it was awkward, I mostly did it.  Salto I managed to do, trying to gloss over and skip the period you go through when you’re learning a new drop where you sit in the wrapped position at the top of the silks and stare at the ground below you and work up the courage to let go and fall.  Back balance I understood by the second practice run.  Helicopter I just. Couldn’t. Do.  We’ve had it a couple times in level 2 and I still haven’t gotten my brain wrapped around it.  Or my body stable enough.  As soon as you lose control of it, it cinches like a torture device around your stomach, squishing your internal organs with your body weight, and you’re toast.  I kept getting stuck.  Fuck.

Again, sometimes you just have to work through the brick wall and the anxiety and the fear.  I went ahead and made peace in my head with not making pro-track, and decided to keep going for the experience.

When we ran through, the girls in the audition ran the gamut from “nailed the sequence” to “got parts of it and ended with a tangle on the floor.”  I was in the second group.  Andi, knowing that she was also going to end up in the second group, made the absolutely brilliant choice to turn her entire run through into an awkward physical comedy routine that had everybody howling with laughter.  It also showed off her strength as a trained actor.  Brilliant.

After this was the strength and flexibility requirements.  We’d all warmed up to each other enough that we all made an effort to cheer each other on, which was helpful from a mental health standpoint.  I got all of the flexibility requirements, most of the strength requirements, and was in the ballpark for the rest (2 and a half dead hang pull-ups, 50 second handstand hold, 5 toe ups that didn’t quite hit the bar, but were kinda close).

After that was the 1 on 1 interviews.  We all stretched, rehearsed a little bit, ate snacks, and chatted with each other while we waited to go back.  We were much more open and friendly now.  One awesome professional dancer and aerialist, Mandy, had just flown in from San Francisco the day before and was working through both the audition demands and the altitude adjustment.  Another, Joanna, was a professional ballerina who’d danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet and had been exposed to aerial work during a couple of ocean cruise gigs.  Joanna was a last minute auditioner, and was a little sheepish about not being as familiar with aerials, and about not coming with a fully fleshed out audition piece.  She asked me a lot of questions and I tried my best to reassure her that she wasn’t dead in the water, and that they were just looking to see how she moved in the air.  When they gave her a two point harness, she did an extraordinarily beautiful improvisation with some of the most beautiful lines and movement quality I’ve ever seen.

When my interview finally came, I stepped into the office and sat down in the hot seat.  They asked me how my body and back were doing, and I told them truthfully that I was doing well, my body workers were supportive and gave me the all-clear, and that the last couple weeks of training hard had actually reduced my usual chronic pain.  They asked how I would deal with being a student again, after having a mature career on my own, and whether I would be willing to put myself in their hands and let them remake me, to which I responded with an enthusiastic yes.  Then they asked how my job was going, whether I thought it was stable, and if I’d be able to handle the balance of working and pro track, and I said I thought so.  At the end, I made my case that my brain and ideas and experience were my greatest assets, and that my body would catch up pretty quickly to the rest if they gave me a shot.  They agreed, and I was dismissed.

Our individual audition pieces were the final part of the audition.  By that point, we’d been going pell mell for almost five hours, and we were all starting to fade.  I wondered if this was part of the audition design as well, seeing how well we could handle long hours of pro track beat down.  Most of us started rethinking our pieces, switching more to improvisation, pulling out power moves that we weren’t sure we’d be able to land.  In the end, everyone was amazing.  Mandy was competent and smooth on silks.  Jenna cranked out an extremely athletic static trapeze routine.  Joanna’s double harness improv was beautifully graceful.  Linda hauled in a portable pole and did a fierce and frenetic routine.  Meri, another young pole dancer, used an invented apparatus called a T-pole and spun quickly.  Andi did silks and worked the emotional content.  A young girl with blonde dreadlocks from Denver named Halle pulled off a solid silks routine.  And I?  I did ok.  I wanted to push the story of my musicality and maturity as a choreographer, so I made a silks piece about revolution and worked really hard on really hitting musical cues.  It’s a risk because fabric can sometimes misbehave, which can put you off the music and leave you scrambling the rest of the piece to catch back up.  My body was exhausted, and so the lines probably weren’t quite as straight as they could have been, and some of my transitions were more of a fight than smooth, but I hit all the cues, and didn’t think I’d done anything to beat myself up about.

And then we were done.  The whole audition was a bit over 6 hours, and I felt completely drained.  Andi asked if she could come over to my flat to decompress and debrief.  Apparently she had started to feel very ill during the strength requirement portion and didn’t perform as well as she wanted to.  Sitting on my front balcony, we deconstructed the entire audition together: how we thought we did, how we thought each other did, how we thought everyone else did, where we thought they’d draw the line.  Really, I thought everyone could potentially make the program; it just depended on what Frequent Flyers wanted and was looking for.  I could very easily end up on the other side of the line, considering I couldn’t nail the silks sequence.

My phone whistled.  I absent-mindedly picked it up while I was mid-sentence to Andi, and the preview pane showed an email from Valerie saying “Natalie!  We would like to offer you a position in our 2014 Training Program….”

“Holy shit,” I said.  “I got in.”

Andi’s eyes opened wide, and she reached for my phone so she could check her email.  A few minutes later, her face fell.  Her email was empty.  We sat quietly for a while, me excited for myself, but also sad for my buddy, and unsure of what to say.

In the end, they took six people from my audition group: me, Linda, Jenna, Mandy, Joanna, Meri.  We joined Kate and Heidi, the pro-trackers from last year who performed the lyra duet in the cabaret—they decided to return for another go round; Anna, a single mother and trapeze specialist from Chicago; Alysha, a contemporary dance major who had torn her ACL in pro track last year and was back for a second try following knee surgery and extensive rehab; and to my delight, I found out Laura Burgamy from the Wing Project in Knoxville had gotten in on an earlier audition.  Laura performed at the fourth Festival of Doom and had helped train a couple of the girls in Alternacirque.

I’ll be doing a big catchup post in the next couple days about the first three weeks of pro-track: getting used to 25 hours a week of aerial dance, Frequent Flyers’ philosophy and approach, the amazing women I’m working with, work-life-relationship balance, and crying through my entire first week of class.  Before I go though, I do want to mention that Andi is doing awesome, has joined both the student company and the high flyers program at FF, and plans to Hulk Smash her way into Pro Track next year.  Go Andi!

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Pro Track Week 0: How to get into professional aerial dance school at age 33, part 1

When a section of my lumbar spine wrenched sideways in a sickening fashion 18 months ago, I wasn’t even doing anything difficult, or exotic.  I was brushing my teeth before heading to work to sell popcorn and peanuts.

I have always had a rotten back.  It’s been going out since I was about 15: a combination of scoliosis, weak connective tissue and a system prone to inflammation runs in my family, and my father and two siblings have all suffered from the same bad back.  By my senior year in college I’d herniated a few disks and only narrowly avoided surgery.  I started bellydancing at age 23 as a cheap means of rehab after a physical therapist gave up on me (it’s like trying to build a foundation on a sand dune, he told my surgeon.  My surgeon told me I’d never dance again).  But with the safe posture, core-strengthening, and low-impact nature of tribal bellydance, I rebuilt pretty well.  And though I’d have a mini-bad back episode once a year or so, and a slightly more major one every few years, I had a nice ten-year career in dance.

I don’t think many people realize how difficult running Alternacirque was.  Entrepreneurship is a 20-hour a day job.  I was starving and not getting good nutrition a lot of the time.  And towards the end the circus was really doing great things artistically, but I was pretty miserable personally.  I’d taken up aerials, but we had to drive hours to get to training, and I spent most of my time on my computer doing admin work and not enough hours managing my body in the studio.  I put on a brave face, but felt like the walking dead.  And so my spine stepped in and forced me stop–by breaking.

Eight months later, I got off a plane in Denver with two suitcases.  Alternacirque was done, I’d sold all my possessions, I’d done a medieval music gig in Houston with Istanpitta Early Music Ensemble on the way to pay for the flight, and I’d cried myself into numbness on most of the journey.  My spine had been a rickety stack of jenga blocks for a few months, continuing to swing back and forth without warning, followed by crippling inflammation and pain.  I’d been able to fake my way through a few gigs.  I’d canceled many more.  I’d staged 1001 Nights in the park, barely been able to get through the show, and then lost my ass on the production. So when Donna Mejia’s husband Shatta picked me up at the airport and sped me along towards CU Boulder, I felt lost, demoralized, weak, and pretty scared.  My first class with Donna that evening was humbling: the high altitude beat my ass, I couldn’t get through the warmup, and I realized I’d not only lost 2 years of aerial muscles, but 10 years of dance muscles.  I settled into Donna’s guest bedroom that night, put my small amount of belongings into the closet and drawers, set up my Tara altar on the work desk, breathed in the thin air in bed in the dark, and thought “what in the fuck am I doing?”

What was supposed to be a one-week stay with Donna turned out to be a generous two month camp out while I struggled to meet people and find work.  Donna’s family opened up their hearts and spirits and made my transition as sweet and friendly as possible.  Bit by bit my body began to adjust to the altitude, to the climate, to the dry air.  I ate well and put on weight.  Slowly the muscle began to come back.


Epic birthday care package arrived! Thanks, guys! So much!

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On one of the car rides towards the flatirons to get to the campus, Donna asked me if I wanted to become an academic.  I’d moved out here ostensibly to get an MBA and MFA in dance, since CU Boulder specialized in both Tribal Bellydance and had an aerial dance program run by Frequent Flyers.  I told her I didn’t see myself becoming a professor, I just wanted to train and study intensively and then go back out into the world to make better work.  “My advice is to maybe not do the MFA then,” she said.  “If you wanted to be an academic, I’d say go for it.  But that’s a lot of debt to take on when you could just stay here and train to get what you need.  You’re a great dancer, and you have all the tools you need already.”

Donna is a wise woman, so I took her advice, and abandoned the MFA.

I met an English chef six weeks after I landed in Boulder, fell in love, and we moved in together.  By the new year, after working with a great chiropractor, I felt ready to try aerials again and signed up for a Fabric 1-2 class at Frequent Flyers.

Boulder is a small town, about 120,000 people when school is in session, but there are actually two studios in town that run aerial programs.  One is the Boulder Circus Center, and the other is Frequent Flyers.  Frequent Flyers has been around for over 25 years, which is almost unheard of in the aerial world (which has only really started to gain prominence and a ton of steam nationally in the last decade or so).  Instead of focusing on circus-based aerial movement, Frequent Flyers considers themselves aerial dancers and takes a much more modern dance approach.  The founder and director, Nancy Smith, had to be a pioneer and figure a lot of stuff out on her own, similar to what I had to do with Alternacirque.  Much like when I saw Donna Mejia for the first time and thought “this is what I want my bellydance to look like,” when I first looked up footage of Frequent Flyers, I thought “this is what I need to learn.”

I started my first class in January on a work-study program.  And I was wretched.  I had no pull up.  I had no inversion.  The apparatus I’d been performing on a year felt awkward in my hands.  It was like I’d never touched it at all.

Now something to know about Boulder is that it’s considered the fittest city in America, with an obesity rate just under 12%.  Not only is Boulder healthy, it’s incredibly athletic, with streets shut down for triathlons and Iron Man competitions the way New Orleans shuts down for Mardi Gras parades.  Almost everyone here runs, lifts, climbs mountains, and bikes on the vast network of bike lanes and dedicated bike paths.  So to be in a beginning aerial class with a circus performance background unable to do a basic pullup while complete beginners were hauling themselves up and down by their biceps was humbling, to say the least.

But I loved the way the classes were set up, felt safe with the amount of conditioning and the competency and care of the instructors (your strength will come back, they told me, and quickly), and started to make friends with some of my classmates: Andi, who was in her last semester of a contemporary theatre MFA at Naropa; and Ben, a young former stunt-cheerleader from Kansas in the same MFA program as Andi but a year behind.  The three of us cheered each other on through the session, and for the next several sessions made sure we all took at least one class together.  It felt good to have a little hint of a circus family again.

I started taking the conditioning classes twice a week as well.  In those, the Frequent Flyer professional company benevolently beats the ever-living hell out of you with cardio, pilates core work, and then hardcore workouts on aerial apparatus that switch every 90 seconds.  Most of the people that trained consistently in these were the Frequent Flyer professional company members and the Professional Track–or “Pro Track”–students, who were in a 9-month, 30-hour-a-week intensive aerial dance training program.  All of these women were super sweet, super supportive and super hardcore: talented, professional, dedicated.  And as I trained with them, I wanted nothing more than to be like them.

At the end of my first six-week session, I had one little baby pullup.  By the middle of the second, I had my inversion back.  It was messy and ungraceful, but I could get my ass over my head.  One snowy night in February after class I sat in our favorite Irish pub with my Brit, and asked him what he would think if I auditioned for Pro Track in the fall.  We were sitting by the fireplace and I was drinking a hot toddy, which was pretty much my method for surviving wintertime. “It’d be hard, and I’d have to train my ass off, but it might be doable this year.  Definitely next year,” I told him.  “It’s similar to what they teach in the MFA program, but 1/3rd of the time and about 1/10th of the cost.”

“Then I think you should do it,” the Brit replied.  And I hugged him, and watched the snow come down, and started to plan.

Gorgeous day for a hike.

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In February I successfully auditioned as a bellydancer into the rotation as a sub at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret in Denver.  Lannie’s is a legendary stop on the burlesque circuit.  It’s right in the heart of downtown Denver on 16th street in the basement of an old Victorian clocktower.  The small little cabaret is luscious and beautiful, the stage is tiny, but the performers who work there are consummate professionals.  I had a decent audition, and started performing once a month starting in May.

In March, I got a contract job helping to open a dance studio on Pearl Street.  I couldn’t hit Frequent Flyers as often as I wanted, but I could sneak into the dance studio early in the mornings and work on new bellydance pieces.  I started work on a new, acrobatic-inspired sword piece, and went about trying to find ways to accomplish the choreography that was taking shape in my head.  Some of the stuff, like a hip balance into a split, surprisingly worked out.  Some of the stuff, like a variation on the standing split toe balance that Sylvia Salamanca does, wasn’t possible in reality (and I pulled a hamstring, which sucks and takes a long time to heal).  Some, like a propped scorpion balance, wasn’t possible yet, so I came up with a propped froggy leg hand balance instead.  I got the piece in a sort of entry-level workable order and performed it a few times at Lannie’s, and it went well.  As the weeks went on though, and my job became more and more hectic, I realized I was going to have to put Pro Track on the backburner.  This was particularly difficult because it was right about this time that I went to see the Pro Track graduation show, a culmination of the current student body’s work for the year, and it was absolutely phenomenal.  I was sad, but figured I could develop a community through the dance studio and focus on my dancing for a while.  I was making enough money to make Boulder liveable, so I squared my shoulders and figured “ok, next time.”

Until the owner suddenly pulled the plug on the studio in June, citing a change of heart, vision and direction.  Within a week, I found a new job at a crowdfunding consulting startup as a copywriter, and extracted a promise from my new boss and mentor that I could work a flexible schedule around school hours.  “What is it you’re going to study?” my boss asked.  “Trapeze,” I answered.  I was hired.

The problem?  The final audition date for the Pro Track program was six weeks away, the application was due in 10 days, and my body was nowhere near where it needed to be.  In fact, my training had tapered off.  The audition was long, arduous, and had strength requirements that I’d never even had in my body before, including the following:

Splits front to back both sides
Straddle of at least 130 degrees
3 dead hang pull ups
5 push ups
5 toe ups (hanging from a bar and lifting your toes all the way to the bar)
10 elbows to bar sit ups hanging upside down from a trapeze
1 minute planks face up, face down, and each side
1 minute handstand

My body had been doing well, recovering well, putting on muscle and handling everything I was giving it without breaking down, but though I was making progress I wasn’t in THIS kind of shape.  I’ve never had a handstand in my life, and my long, lanky body was going to have issues with the dead hang pull ups and the toe ups.  Everything else was doable, but I had a lot of work to do in a hurry.

So I started training my ass off. I borrowed a bike and started riding the 8 miles to work (which FINALLY got me completely over the altitude adjustment), then rode 2.5 miles from there to the studio for fitness and open gym when work was done, then would weave my way home 5 miles at the end of the night.  I’d come home and work on pull ups on a pull up door jerry-rigged over the Victorian crown molding.  I found a bowflex on craigslist and started working on it every couple of days.  The Brit started taking me on long, elevated hikes and on boldering expeditions to the tops of cliffs every weekend.

Climbing the dome

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I continued dancing and teaching.  In the final few weeks I started going to North Boulder Park, which had a workout playground for adults built in the last year.  I’d head out early in the morning before it got hot, and work out while staring at the mountains.

Andi would join me from time to time, as she was planning on auditioning for the program as well, and Ben became a stalwart training buddy and drill instructor when he returned from his summer in Kansas.  With his gymnastics and cheerleading background, he was able to help with correcting my form.  He also refused to let me slack off, always pushing for more reps, one more try, one more pullup.  I got stronger.

With two weeks to go, my boss left for vacation, gave me a few things to work on and the key to his car to use while he was gone.  It was also time for the two-week Aerial Dance Festival that Frequent Flyers has produced for the last 16 years.  I could only afford to take two classes, so I decided to pick two technique classes that I thought would be beneficial in the long run: contortion and handstands.

I took contortion the first week: 1.5 hours every day for 5 days.  My back mobility was never great, diminished as I got older, and has been pretty much nonexistent since my episode last year, so I hoped to learn what I could do to reverse some of the damage and get more flexibility back in general.

Our instructor was Rebecca Starr, an amazing contortionist and pole dancer currently based in Florida.

Class consisted of a warm up, and then pretty much constant contortion stretching.  Psoas stretch, hamstring stretch, psoas stretch, hamstring stretch, psoas stretch, split, hold forever, bend forward, bend backward, bend forward, bend backward, now grab your back foot and bring it to your head.  Ok, now back bridges for the next 45 minutes.  I’m not making this up.

Now most of the class was made up of 16-year-old gymnasts from Chicago, but there were a few adults in there too: Annie from Frequent Flyers professional company, and Sonya who’s almost done with the MFA program.  While the kids were grabbing their feet and bringing them up behind them and to their chins like it was nothing, Annie and Sonya and I sat at the back of the class and giggled at the hopelessness of it all.  Also in the class was a woman named Adrienne, who later told me a story of being paralyzed in a snowboarding accident, and regaining feeling and the ability to walk by doing mini-yoga cobra poses on the floor for months.  She’s now ridiculously flexible and was incredible to watch, and she encouraged me to hope for my back flexibility even after my injury.  I also met two of the women who were going to audition with me for Pro Track: Linda, a sassy tattooed pole dancer who already lived in Boulder, and Jenna, a tiny, rose-pink-curly-haired dancer and aerialist who had just moved in from Kansas City, MO.  They were both amazing and both kicked my ass, and I would have been discouraged and intimidated except I immediately loved both of them so goddamned much, and fervently prayed we would all get in together.

By the end of the week, I did actually manage to get my back foot to my head in pigeon pose with the help of my fuzzy socks as a handhold, and even managed to get a little mini scorpion chin stand.  I was overjoyed.


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On Saturday I woke up and worked out at the playground with Ben, as I had every day that week, and then went to the Circus Center to take advantage of their open gym to work on my audition piece.  As soon as I was done, I zipped home and picked up the Brit.  Matthew absolutely adores camping, and since we had a car at our disposal we wandered out along Highway 72 to try to find a spot at one of the many open campgrounds.  After being turned away from 5 campgrounds, we finally followed a sign to Rainbow Lakes Park, bounced along a 7 mile dirt road, and found an amazing car camping spot in the woods by a stream.  On Sunday, I had the first day off for my body in six weeks.  And when I say day off, I mean we hiked 10 miles at 9,000 feet.

camping 1 camping 2 camping 3 ‘s camping 4


As I just passed 11 PM and 3,000 words, I’m making the executive decision to take a break here.  Tomorrow I’ll get you all caught up to the present with part 2, including the audition process, a Donna Mejia warmup, a cabaret show, and a Japanese woman named Yuki who was going to teach me handstands if it killed me.

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An ending. And a beginning.

It’s August 27th, 2013.  Eight years ago today, Toby and I checked the 4:30 AM hurricane forecast, packed our roommates’ menagerie of three cats and two dogs in their 4 Runner, and we evacuated New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina.  We drove all night and landed bleary-eyed and scared in Columbia with about $20 to spare.  I was 24, and though I didn’t know it that morning, all of my expectations for how my life would probably go and the direction I was headed were about to drown in fifteen feet of brackish water.

Today I am perched on a bus from Columbia to New Orleans.  I’m scheduled to ride through the night and arrive bleary-eyed in the middle of the French Quarter at dawn.  I’m 32, and the circus company that I built for the last seven years, that largely served as my lifeline and my identity, that until recently I thought would be my undying and devoted long-term life quest, quietly disbanded about two months ago.


Alternacirque is dead.  Long live Alternacirque.  When it comes to explaining how and why this happened, there are many answers, both business and personal, that intertwined to overturn a seemingly promising apple cart.  I could probably write a book on things I did right, and the things I screwed up.  Dreams and gut instinct got me further than I ever expected to go.  Inexperience, the economy, and the constant struggle of being in a small city in the South proved too much for my vision and ambitions this time.  It’s been magic, and a miracle, and if I had it to do all over again I would dive in headlong with a war cry and a healthy splash of glitter.  But it came at a price, and the price was me.  I worked myself to pieces until I felt like a wraith, wandering to production meetings in sweatpants and sandals and no makeup, little more than bones and marrow, my body breaking down continually in recent months.  My back went out in February, forcing me to cancel gigs and rest.  I talked to a massage therapist friend about it and described my spine as a rickety stack of Jenga blocks.  He asked, “Are you having problems with stress and survival?”  I started laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop.

My mentor, Armitage Shanks of Circus Contraption in Seattle, started texting, and then calling more often to check on me.  “I’m really getting worried about you,” he told me repeatedly.  “Are you ok?”

“Everything sucks,” I’d tell him, “but I’m hoping if I can just hold on, it’ll pay off.”

“Yeah,” he’d say.  “But are you ok?”

I didn’t have an answer, and I didn’t really look for one.  I didn’t want to.  I threw it to the back of the line, focusing on 20 hour work days and funding problems and production hell and the epic “so there I was” adventures that put a bandaid on it and helped me hold on.  My father died, and I threw myself into work.  Toby was killed by a drunk driver, and I threw myself into work.  I loved some really wrong people and went through some heartbreaking separations and I threw myself into work.  And the payoffs and the experiences were so sweet that I was ok with just hanging on all the time.  It was a bipolar existence of great highs and some pretty dark places.  Somewhere over the course of the last year, it became too much and the even highs started to get buried under the workload.

I started lighting incense on my altar and begging for help: not much, just stability, health enough to perform, enough money to live on, maybe love if I were lucky and a life better in balance.  And the universe responded, as it often does, in the way I didn’t expect (or really like).  It talked to me loudly.  It talked to me frequently.  I had blinders on and my head down just trying to make the circus work because we were so goddamned close and if we could just land this one big gig everything would be fine.  I almost got the gigs, but they fell through.  I almost got jobs that would help immensely, but they fell through.  I almost started relationships a couple times, but they fell through.  Suddenly, after years of flow and success, nothing stuck.  Every tarot reading given to me by friends ended in me pulling the Death card.  I ignored the signs because it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

Here is one of them.  I have a necklace that I bought in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.  Toby and I met up with our roommates in St. Augustine, camped out in a flea-bag hotel, sat on the beach in the sunshine and tried to find some semblance of normalcy and humanity after dealing with FEMA and insurance companies and the Red Cross.  As we walked around Old Town at twilight one evening, I felt a pull behind my belly button and glanced at a shop across the street.  There were hipscarves hanging on a rack on the sidewalk.  I saw the necklace through the window, hanging behind the cash register on the wall, and made a beeline across the street.  It was heavy, silver, with spikes, and the Indian man who owned the store told me it was 150 years old and from Nepal.  I asked him “how much?” and he replied “$1000.”  We talked some more.  He asked where we were from.  I told him.  He made a phone call to his wife, and in the end he sold it to me for pennies on the dollar.  He held my hand and gave me a blessing before I left.

I wore that necklace every performance save a handful for the last 8 years.  I wore it at my first solo performance at the Art Bar.  I wore it when I founded Delirium.  I wore it when I founded Alternacirque.  I wore it in performances around the country for years.  I wore it all the way through 1001 Arabian Nights in the park, a run that stretched and pulled me to pieces, worse than usual.  Sponsors didn’t come through.  Neighborhood vandals tore our sets at night.  A tropical storm took out days of build and rehearsal time.  Rain washed out our audiences.  I worked and built and repaired and fixed and performed and dealt with the media coverage until I was on the verge of collapse.  I picked up my necklace for the final show, and the cord gave way, and it fell to pieces in my hands.

It turned out to be our final performance as a company.  I’ve not restrung it, and probably won’t.

The run in the park lost a significant amount of money.  Surmountable, but significant.  I couldn’t pay the kids, which put a lot of strain on all of us.  Shows do that all the fuckin’ time, Armitage told me over the phone one night during the run, when I was laying on the hood of my car in the dark after midnight and crying.  That made me feel both better and worse.  But this one just felt like a final brick wall.  I kept looking at the market, the city, the state, my career arc, and kept coming up with “I can’t get there from here.”  I also took a long look at myself and my life, and that was a really dark week or so.  I asked myself a lot of questions and didn’t like the answers, or lack of them, that I came up with.  Armitage asked if I was really sure I didn’t want to give it another go, to try and reap the rewards of all the investment of the last couple of years that bled me dry.  “David,” I said, “when was the last time you talked to me and I was happy?”  He was quiet on his side of the phone, and then told me I was right.  It was time to let go.

It wasn’t until I asked myself what I’d always wanted to do but couldn’t because of the circus that everything kind of clicked into place.  I did research.  I wrote a couple emails and made a couple of phone calls.  I bounced the idea off people close to me, who were all sad but extremely supportive.  And it felt correct, the same universal puzzle piece falling into place feeling I felt when I took my first bellydance class over nine years ago.

The circus kids and I sat down for a meeting.  They told me they wanted to restructure as a collective troupe.  I told them I would help them in any way I could, and that I had decided to move to Colorado.  There were a lot of tears, and a lot of hugs.  And then we all went out for yogurt, because that’s what we always do.


Donna Mejia is the only tenure-track professor of Tribal Bellydance in the world, and after getting her MFA in dance and winning a Fulbright award, she’s settled at Colorado University in Boulder.  I met her over three years ago, and she has been a major inspiration in my dancing.  Her classes and choreographies feel like church, and they make me explore my dancing, art, and spiritual center in ways I’ve only been able to occasionally excavate on my own.  She has always been generous in her encouragement and advice to me, especially regarding the art and experimental pieces I made years ago before everything I made was hijacked by the troupe, gigs, and corporate tap dancing.  I have been saying for years that if I could take a sabbatical and just study dance for a while, I would want it to be with Donna.  I even talked about it with her last year at Crossroads and Origins, but didn’t think I would be able to carve the space to be able to do it anytime soon.  Like a lot of things in my life—personal desires, ideas for pieces, creative things I didn’t have time, money or the right performers for—I put it away, high on a dusty mental shelf.

So as I contemplated my new and uncomfortable blank slate, wondering where I would go and what I would do, studying with Donna seemed to be the best fit, especially when I found out that the CU Boulder Dance MFA program not only specializes in tribal bellydance but also in aerial dance.  There’s pretty much nowhere else in the world I could study that and get the shiny piece of paper that opens career doors.  In talking with Donna, I also broached the idea of possibly combining an MFA in dance with an MBA, and though it hasn’t been done there yet, she thinks I could be a pioneer candidate.  There are a lot of logistics to work out yet on that end, but I’m excited about the prospects of digging deep into the stuff that makes me happy.  And so the current plan is to take the next few months to scrape enough money to move to the Denver/Boulder area, work for a while, rebuild my body and my art, get my residency established while I take prerequisites and prepare for applications and auditions, and then go after a dual MBA/MFA starting in 2015.  That’s a ways off, and things can always change or shift at any time (and often do on me, just as I’m getting comfortable and getting a handle on things).  I may end up barefoot and pregnant in a trailer in Poughkeepsie, for all I know (knock on wood please god no).  But so far, Colorado is The Plan.  It seems like a wise Plan.  It feels correct and true rumbling around in my tummy area, and I’ve been sitting with it for a couple months.  My biggest drawback and weakness as a performer has always been that I had a year of bellydance training and then ended up on my own, the one eyed woman leading the blind.  My biggest drawback as a businesswoman is that I was an accidental one with no training, and it’s felt like I was laying track down inches before a runaway train ran over it.  All the time.  The one eyed path through the Bible Belt ended up being a longer one than it probably had any right to be.  It is a relief to think of studying for a few years under amazing people and adding more tools to the toolbox and weapons in the arsenal.  I’m a bit terrified.  This is also a good sign, I think.

I don’t want anyone to think I am abandoning Columbia.  Even when I get frustrated with it and vent about it, I still love it.  I’ve poured a lot of sweat and heart into the scene, and I’ve enjoyed the gleefully subversive results.  And so another portion of The Plan is that I will continue to produce events and festivals here, an expanded Festival of Doom and maybe that Fringe Festival that’s been on the backburner included, with the assistance of my production team headed by Mark Plessinger of Frame of Mind and First Thursdays on Main Street.  Alternacirque will shift to Alternacirque Presents, and we’ll keep producing shows that push Columbia’s buttons and boundaries.  Even when I’m not here every day, I can still pay in to the soda city trenches.  Hopefully I’ll meet new misfits out west to send your way, and my art will be better.

The performers formerly of Alternacirque have been working on forming their own collective company.  There have been a lot of logistics to work out on both our ends, which is why we were under the radar for a while.  I will let them tell you about their plans, as it’s their show now.  Know that I love and respect them all as extraordinary people and as artists.  They have been my surrogate kids for most of my adult life.  It is hard to let it all go, but over the last year I’ve been blessed with a cast that works extraordinarily hard and loves circus and art and craziness as much as I do.  It has been a gift and an honor to work with them.  As I prepare to leave Columbia in the next few months, I am confident that circus urchins in Columbia will continue to run around and turn things upside-down.  And for that, and all of their hard work and dedication over the years, I thank them deeply and wish them joy and success.

I would also like to thank all of you in Columbia, SC.  It has been an honor to share my art and my weird imagination with you.  I’ve always been deeply touched that you supported, and believed, and were inspired to look at life in a different way and instigate shenanigans of your own.   Some of you have lent and given your time and talents, have bought me meals when I didn’t have anything to eat, would answer phone calls and try to help us through whatever problem we were having.  It’s all been a godsend.  What happened here was magic.  It would not have happened without you.  I hope that you won’t forget, and will still come out and visit and laugh and cheer when I’m back in town.  I love you all.  I will miss you all.  Thank you.

On the way to New Orleans, I had a four-hour layover in Atlanta.  My dear friend Christy Smith picked me up, fed me, and conducted a final interview for a project on artists and inspiration that she’s been working on (and I’ve been involved in) for the last two years.  She asked me what I would ask my 80-year-old self, and I replied “Was it all worth it?”  Christy laughed, and said it was funny, because everyone that she’s talked to about the project and who knew I was involved wanted to ask me the same question.  And it turns out, I know the answer already, without hesitation and without doubt.  It has been worth it.  Every single second.  I would not trade the experience, the ups and the downs, the starving, the tough parts, and the end, for anything.  I have found the wavelength and the frequency that makes me live, and it is dance and art and circus and directing and my local scene.  I have learned how to land in a strange town and how to immerse in it and find out what makes it tick.  I have learned how to make the things in my head come to life.  I’ve learned how to produce things.  I’ve learned the power of alternative art and what it can do to and for my community.  I’ve learned how to trust people, sometimes with my life.  I’ve learned that I can run pell-mell off the beaten path and get a good ways in before I trip.  I’ve learned I love politics and being an entrepreneur.  I got legislation passed.  I led movements.  I followed others.  I pissed off the governor.  I pushed my body to do elite things when a doctor told me ten years ago I would never dance again.  I’ve learned I can live through anything.  I’ve learned what it’s like to have long-term friends and put down roots.  I’ve learned my strengths and weaknesses, made mistakes, and done some brilliant things.  I’ve learned next time to start with more funding and to hire a fucking staff.  I learned I can do some things that most people deem impossible.  I’ve learned not to be afraid.  And I will bottle up this amazing and painful experience and all the love I’ve given and felt, and put it in my pocket, on the road to Colorado to take things to the next level.


With all my love,


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About this rally thing…. (Instructions for Monday)

I’m going to try to avoid navel-gazing and rambling as much as possible.  Very difficult for me, especially while blogging.  But I’m getting a lot of questions and calls and emails and texts, and I’m watching the discussions on facebook, and I thought it might be nice to have as much info as I can give you in one, centralized, public post to point people to.

For those of you who’ve not heard about this, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley vetoed the SC Arts Commission’s entire budget last week, forcing the doors of the phenomenal agency to close until the state legislature can take up the vetoes early next week.  This is not a new thing; we’ve been through this over and over again with both Haley and Sanford.  It’s frustrating and saddening that one of the best and most productive state agencies, and one of the best arts commissions in the nation, has to halt work while politicians play football with their jobs and their mission.  In the interest of brevity, I won’t go into how important the SCAC is to culture, marketing, industry, economy and education.  There is plenty of information streaming through all of our facebook feeds as we speak.  Read up.  It’s pretty amazing.

So the rally: A week ago, Mark Plessinger–owner of Frame of Mind, swashbuckling creator of First Thursdays on Main Street in Columbia, and head of my tech crew in my circus–and I debuted a sneak peak of our Columbia Fringe Festival project.  We grabbed a dozen or so underground arts groups and turned them loose on two blocks of Main Street during First Thursday, street busking style.  Graffiti artists collaborated on a live painting project while across the street a heavy metal band played a raucous set, with songs acted out in a puppet show.  Two accordionists, one a British ex-pat in his 80’s, held down opposite street corners.  A very earnest 16-year-old juggler turned up wanting to participate.  I was happy to let him do so.  Established musicians and bands played accoustic sets.  Puppeteers took over the future home of the Nickelodeon.  A small, intrepid band of my circus kids set up in the street.  I did a couple aerial silks sets between bouts of wearing my producer hat.

And it was glorious.  The performers were giddy and grinning.  The audience members wandering by and through were giddy and grinning.  People broke out into spontaneous dancing in the street.  Definitely one of my top ten nights spent in Columbia.

I’ll get on my soapbox to say that it’s notable that this scene took place on Main Street.  Main Street is going through an intense and exciting revitalization effort right now, and it’s largely a grass-roots, arts-driven deal.  Mark Plessinger started the First Thursday gallery crawl.  Columbia Museum of Art has been knocking it out of the ballpark with shows, Arts and Draughts, music shows, Cola-Con, etc.  Tapp’s Art Center is going bonkers down the next block.  The new Nickelodeon is opening soon.  Street art is growing.  Galleries exist at the Free Times, S&S Art Supply and Wine Down.  Artists are taking over the historic arcade.  And most of these artists and organizations are either receiving funding, training or other programmatic help from the Arts Commission.  And this arts scene energy is city-wide.  The artists in this town are talented, scrappy and determined.  The arts scene has picked up so much steam and become such a solid, supportive and inspiring environment that you can feel it walking around downtown on a Friday night.  It is the main reason why I’ve opted to settle here and cast my chips as in.

I don’t think it’s just us in Columbia, either.  When I decided to make a facebook event to rally the forces to the Arts Commission’s defense at the state house next Monday, artists from all over the state enthusiastically joined in.  We’re sitting at about 1200 marked as attending after three days.  I think it’s a testament to the SCAC’s efforts to get us networked in to each other, and the strength and importance of the arts within South Carolina, that we’re seeing this sort of fervent attention.  This is a gift, and something to be cherished, protected and defended.

I don’t want to be any sort of figurehead or spokeswoman for the arts scene, though I’m happy to talk about my experience as an artist who has benefited so much from mentoring by the SCAC.  As the central organizer of what may become a Larger Event Than I Expected, I’ve decided to stick to my initial gut instinct, and that’s to take the amazing positive energy of the Fringe Festival antics of last week and move it a few blocks up to the statehouse lawn.  I’ve been contacted by a few people who would like to see this become a larger political offensive, with traditional speeches and crafty soundbites and political points scored for good measure.  I appreciate that there’s a lot of energy behind this, and that it’s a powerful thing that can be harnessed in a lot of different directions.  But despite the way the game is played, I feel like anything too manufactured would diminish the real story, which is the arts organizations and artists in South Carolina, and the 20 state employees who really, really care about nurturing us.

So no speeches.  And at the wise caution of SCAC director Ken May, no partisanship.  The legislators in the General Assembly, on both sides of the aisle, are pretty fiercely behind us, and have been for years.  They get it.  We get it.  Columbia gets it.  So acknowledge the respect and support we’ve already gotten from them, despite any differences we may have on other subjects, or in other playing levels of politics.  Anybody who doesn’t get it yet hopefully will soon, so we won’t have to keep stopping what we’re doing every year at this time to campaign again.  We’re going to throw a huge, joyous party on the statehouse lawn next Monday.  You are adults.  You are artists.  You have good instincts.  We’re going to do this street busker style.  Find a spot of grass where you feel comfortable doing your thing and do it.  Work things out with your neighbor.  In fact, if you can, collaborate with your neighbor.  Make new friends.  Have a blast.  And since there is an opportunity to educate your legislators, governor, and the public about what you do and what the Arts Commission does, DO make signs about how the Arts Commission has helped you and affected your career, and how you in turn contribute to your community.  If you haven’t had personal interaction with the SCAC yet, make signs explaining the economic impact of the arts in this state (and then make sure to get with them when we get their doors open again).  Make sure to talk to people wandering by, and if you feel comfortable, to journalists.  Be smart.  Be positive.  Hug any SCAC employees you come across; they’ve had a hard week.

Some church announcements: I’ll be there along with some volunteers if anyone gets confused or has any questions.  Permission for this rally has been acquired from the statehouse.  My name is down on this event application.  Please don’t get me in trouble.  You can have signs, but nothing can penetrate the ground, so no wires, stakes, etc.  No fire is allowed (sorry to my fire team), so no candles, etc.  If you’re going to do something messy, please put a drop cloth down first.  No nudity, and try to keep the tone respectful.  I love being subversive as much as the next tattooed weirdo, but let’s keep the reigns on this time.There will be electricity for anyone who needs it.  A heads up to me ( will be extra helpful in acquiring it for you.  You can’t interfere with legislators’ or the public’s access to the statehouse or the grounds.  You can’t sell anything.  You can’t take food or drinks inside the building.  No vehicles are allowed on the grounds.  And it would be really excellent if you guys could police your area and make sure everything is spic and span when you load out.  It will save us volunteers some time and get me back to rehearsal with my circus kids that evening sooner (and we have production deadlines coming up, so time is precious).

Thanks to all of you.  This is exciting.

Natalie Brown
Director, Delirium Tribal Bellydance Company and Alternacirque

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Busking is coming.

I’ve been sitting around in a lot of meetings lately: lunch meetings with Larry Hembree, pow wow sessions with Mark Plessinger at Frame of Mind, meetings at CCP, meetings with other artists, meetings with OneColumbia, elbow tugging with the mayor which lead to meetings in his office…. I think I spend more time in meetings than I do in the studio these days.  There are a lot of ideas on the table at the meetings, some of them mine, but the one that seems to have the quickest chance of turnaround is the busking ordinance.  A limited street performer ordinance, in fact, is on the agenda for City Council discussion this evening, which was sooner than I expected or hoped.

I didn’t even know it was on the agenda until a WISTV reporter called me in a flurry at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, asking me questions about it and wanting an interview for the 11:00 news.  So I obliged, and gave a discussion of the ordinance as I know it, pros, cons, some cautions and misgivings, and hopes for an expansion. All of that ended on the cutting room floor, and I ended up being portrayed as a token busker on stilts who would benefit from the ordinance passing.  And that was about it.

So I decided to dust off the blog (I’ve been meaning to anyway) to fill everyone in on what’s currently happening.  And so: here are my knowledge dumps, experiences, strategies, thoughts and hopes.  In that order, I think.

“Busking,” for those of you who aren’t familiar, is autonomous artists performing on city streets for tips from passersby.  If you’ve wandered through Europe, Asheville, New Orleans, New York subways, or many other metropolitan or culturally rich areas, you’ve probably seen buskers: chalk artists, painters on streetcorners, tarot card readers, breakdancers, tapdancers, musicians, stiltwalkers, characters, fire breathers, mimes, aerialists, jugglers, any number of creative things people can come up with to do to entice tourists to part with their cash.  The practice is so old nobody knows just how old it is, but it has been traced backwards in time, from buskers harassed in Victorian England, back to Henry VIII enforcing busking permits, back to medieval shopkeepers paying minstrels to play in the town plaza to drive business, back through Roman times where performers were showered with coins.  It’s old.  And it’s global.  But for it to be busking, you have to keep in mind two words: “autonomous” and “tips.”

I’ve busked in other cities.  I’ve Lindy Hopped in Leicester Square in London.  I’ve jammed with Brizeus Pipe Band by the iron in Asheville.  I didn’t busk in New Orleans the five years I lived there, but I did have one really sweet experience playing for tips on a subsequent visit back.  And last summer I spent two weeks busking and jamming at Pennsic with members of Cantiga and Istanpitta (medieval music ensembles, the latter of which I sometimes have the joy of subbing for gigs), often for tips in the lanes, sometimes for dinner in the camps, usually for tea and change at the Moroccan Tea Shop I spent all of my afternoons in making up estampies with Albert Cofrin.  There is something very ancient, gratifying and primal about literally singing for your supper, a satisfaction in reaching back through the ages to all the wandering gypsies, strolling minstrels and circus urchins and feeling like all of those guys are giving you a nod.

But I’ve never busked in Columbia, and there are a couple reasons for that.

First, it’s technically illegal.  Cops have given various degrees of fudge about buskers, and enforcement has been spotty, but it’s illegal to perform on the street without a parade permit, and it’s illegal to perform for tips in public spaces.  The City and the Fire Marshals went on a crackdown spree a couple years ago where local businesses and performance spaces got dinged on everything from capacity to obscure fire codes, the storage sheds where bands had practiced forever were shut down, a 2 AM bar closing was instated, and several venue owners were threatened with jail time for various infractions.  As the cautious owner of a fire performance permit that took lots of hoop-jumping to obtain, I decided to keep my head down for a while and protect that piece of paper and our ability to do business.

Second, for a long time I didn’t know if Columbia would know what to DO with busking, so with limited time, an overwhelming schedule and multiple projects on my hands I focused my attention instead on our street theater performances in the Art Bar parking lot, which exploded, grew, waned a bit last season, and have picked up again.  It’ll take some training and getting the populace used to the busking thing, but I do think it’s time to pull the trigger.

Third, I have a growing circus with budding professional performers and ever increasing number of circus mouths to feed (including my own).  With my sights set on eventual corporate work and respectable payouts, I’ve had to increasingly say no to low-paying or non-paying gigs to get this town to treat us seriously and to train our rates up.  It’s a small town.  People call me up and quote me rates I gave to someone else three weeks ago.  They know when I cut a deal, or donate that one time, or do that thing on the street, and they’ll whine and haggle like hell to avoid paying my circus kids and me to swallow flames, dance with fire, and hang upside down 20 feet in the air by a strip of fabric.  It’s taken me five years, and I’m still training those rates up.  So I’ve busked with side projects safely out of town.  I did perform at the earliest outdoor First Thursdays at Frame of Mind because I thought the idea, and Mark Plessinger, were (and still are) really cool and I wanted to help build momentum.  But I’ve been conscious of not overexposing the circus, and to only drag the circus kids out to work the street a couple of times a year, when either CCP or Anastasia and Friends Gallery could come up with room for us in the budget and I could pay the kids for their time.  Strategy and business decisions and stuff, which are largely paying off these days.  I regret nothing.  This becomes important in a bit.

Meanwhile, other performers started coming out on their own or at the behest of local merchants, and did a lot to further the street performance idea: Kendal Turner brought out poets to First Thursdays; Palmetto Swing lindy bombed Main Street; Fire and Motion performed most months for the better part of a year; Hoop Troop and then the Hoop Hounds have been at the statehouse grounds for jams and a part of just about every parade in the city; a drum circle sprang up on the river; Jenny Mae started doing living statues at events; Tribe SK threw down around the Five Points fountain; Tim Mc jammed throughout the city on his accordion; I started coming across random kids I didn’t know with guitars in the Vista on Friday nights.  Some of these things were actual busking, many were not, but all signs pointed to the steady rise of the Bohemian Arts Class in Columbia.  It’s been a really exciting thing to watch, and to participate in.

And the city, and the City, has also noticed.  Some of us crazy punks have received grants, opportunities to perform for wider audiences, and a lot of help and support from high places.  The Mayor, Engenuity SC and a lot of people with power keep holding up Richard Florida’s The Rise of The Creative Class and quoting from it like it’s the Bible.  I’ve heard the mantra, “Columbia is going to be the next Austin” several times and from several sources in the past year.  Support the arts, and the Google  will come.  I like this plan.  I hope it comes true in some form, and I would like to help to make it happen.  And so I go to meetings.


Forget Mast General; Frame of Mind on Main Street is my own personal, old timey general store.  I sit in there for hours at least once a week, catching up on news and gossip with Mark Plessinger, throwing out ideas and plotting ways to increase the arts scene and therefore our own entertainment, going on diatribes that make each other laugh, visiting with the parade of artists and patrons that also stop in, and getting the inevitable parking ticket.  Over a year ago, during my stays at FOM, I started hearing about CCP’s elite busking pilot program idea.  The way it was first explained to me, CCP wanted to get buskers on certain street corners at certain times to perform for tips.  The idea was to drive traffic and shoppers to the CBD and get the city behind the idea of busking being a positive thing.  To sweeten the deal, CCP would pay the performers $15 an hour on top of the standard tips they’d make through busking.  There was one obvious problem to me with the plan: that if this were the only game in town, it had the potential to be exclusionary, especially to newcomers and unknowns.  I was also curious to see who would pick the performers and how they would run that process.  But as a stepping stone, and a pilot program for a wider busking ordinance, I could sort of see the logic.  So I opened my big mouth and told Mark to keep me in the loop and let me know what I could do, as an alternative performer with moderate success and some resources and connections to buskers far and wide, to help.

A year passed.  CCP took their proposal to City of Columbia, where it bounced around the legal department and a couple other officials.  By the time I was brought into a meeting and saw a heavily notated back and forth version of the ordinance, it was…well…a barely-functioning mess.  Among other things, officials at the city were claiming every busker would require a business license, which is costly and would put busking out of reach of pretty much everyone who would be interested in it.  CCP would control who was able to perform.  Tipping was illegal and completely off the table.

In other words, it was no longer anywhere close to a busking ordinance.

And so at that meeting with CCP, two more meetings with Larry Hembree, and a brief discussion followed by a meeting with Mayor Benjamin, I laid out my misgivings with the CCP program:

The way I saw it, from my position as an arts entrepreneur and a member of the street urchin class, there were two ways that I could be satisfied: either we got a blanket busking ordinance that was affordable, reasonable and allowed everyone a chance to play, or CCP stayed with what was developing into a paid performance program, but paid everyone their going rates as specialized performers.

I was, and still am, much more interested in option 1.  Do I personally need to busk to get by?  No.  To market myself and my company?  Not really.  To grow artistic chops?  No.  My circus company already has a pretty firm footing, a increasing level of quality, and enough clout to secure our own venues and work up the funds to pay for them.  I have ideas that I would love to try in the busking lanes (mostly involving my sorely-neglected music habits and a few odd fortune-telling creature characters), that wouldn’t fit quite in my circus empire.  But I’ve built a framework to support my alternative arts work in other ways.  What I would like to see, though, is my city get funkier, grow more vibrant and express the personality I’ve discovered is already here.  I would like to see newcomers, kids and unknowns get a shot at exposure and experience, but as independent artists in control of their own destiny.  I’d like to see inspiration, innovation and knowledge bounce from street corner to street corner and back again, as performers grow chops and push each other to get better.  I’d like to sit outdoors on Main Street with my Paradise Ice custard and discover artists I had no idea existed.  And for me to be entertained as much as I work to entertain others.  I would like to feel that my city is as cool as I suspect it is.  And I’d like to know that if every member of Alternacirque collective gets hit by a bus and dies, that our work to celebrate the weird in this town continues on.  I’m thinking of the weirdo kids coming along behind us, and creating the system to let them flourish and experiment and build something amazing.  That free-flow of ideas, that chance to be surprised, only happens if everyone gets an equal shot.  That means reasonable boundaries.  That means affordable permits for students and starving artists.  That also means no gatekeepers to tag a lucky few tattooed hippies deemed acceptable to sit at the adult table for a few hours, before being patted on the head and sent back under our rocks out of sight of the decent folk.

If a full-on busking ordinance isn’t an option, then the paid street performance program needs to pay the hand-picked, elite performers what they’re worth.  For example, Alternacirque members are currently commanding around $150-200 an hour to provide atmospheric walk arounds at corporate events, or $150-200 for a 20 minute skilled performance set.  The last figures I heard from CCP was $15 an hour, or a tenth of our normal rates.  That as an added incentive on top of busking tips makes sense, but I can’t imagine any skilled and seasoned performer worth a salt who would be happy with those rates as a flat fee.  I realize there’s no way CCP can budget for paying six performers those rates on a regular basis.  But in the end, it’s not fair to pay paltry busking rates to performers while withholding the benefits of busking–independence and the chance to hustle for extra tips–at the same time.

Imagine if the city told all the ballet dancers in town that only six of them, all hand-chosen by CCP, could perform at a time, and at 10% of their normal salaries.  Ho boy.

Larry Hembree and CCP were able to work out some of the kinks in a final run, mostly in regards to the permit prices.  From my last conversation with Larry, tips are still out, as is autonomy for the performers.  You can view the current CCP ordinance that’s going up for discussion here:

In the end, this ordinance squeezes the performers on both ends: no busking ordinance for the good of the Bohemian class, and no chance at being paid the going rate.  The city wins on both ends: they can get the flavor of street performing without having to deal with counterculture.  My biggest fear is that the city will stop here without doing the work to push a true busking ban forward.  I’ve heard that the Vista and Five Points are lining up to obtain similar ordinances for their districts, which is great, but compounding the problems with the current ordinance.  The CCP ordinance and similar programs in other areas could be beneficial and healthy to jumpstart street art and to get high-quality performers on preferred street corners quickly, but only in conjunction with an honest-to-god busking allowance that gives us the space and the freedom to do what we do under our own steam power.  Larry Hembree and Mayor Benjamin have both assured me that a real busking ordinance is coming and soon.  Larry’s assured me that CCP and the officials they’ve talked to at City Hall also know that a real busking ordinance is inevitable.  There’s debate as to whether the CCP ordinance is a necessary stepping stone to get to the real deal, a trial period to allay fears.  Politics means concessions.  And though as a crazy tattooed bellydancer with circus urchins in tow I’ve been treated marvelously well beyond any expectations I had when I landed here six years ago, we all still have those moments where we have to patiently advocate and educate.  There might have to be a probation time to convince City Council that busking wouldn’t attract hoards of “drunk, dirty hippies with guitars,” as one person in one meeting I sat in on put it.  It’s that kind of unfortunate and discriminating comment that we have to deal with down here in the underground art trenches, a specter, shadow and prejudice we’re going to have to dispell if we’re going to get busking legalized here.

What’s funny, and interesting, though, is that in all of my talking about the busking idea, I’ve yet to find anyone actually afraid of the idea.  I’ve found people are afraid that other people are going to be afraid of the idea, but not a single person who’s actually said “nay.”  Meanwhile, Alternacirque’s Festival of Doom sold out four shows in three nights.  The theater staging of Plan 9 from Outer Space did the same.  Colacon had a great first year.  Indiegrits is now 10 days long.  Burlesque is coming.  Interest in and access to alternative art is climbing in this town.  I suspect Columbia is more ready, and hungry, to let its hair down than many people realize.  I think the fight may not be as difficult.  And so I go to the city council meeting tonight at 7 and hope this town gets a little cooler.

Natalie Brown is the director and a principle performer with Delirium Tribal and Alternacirque, and she’s a writer, bellydancer, fire performer, stilt walker, aerialist, costume designer and musician.

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House of Healing

I had a few daydreams about coming up with a nickname for the duplex that Asharah and I share, something really clever and catchy.  Unfortunately, I have a terrible time naming things (it took us months to come up with a name for Delirium, and I’d had to resort to reading poetry every night before bed to find it).  It seems like my circle of friends and visitors have already taken to calling our home “The Circus House,” so I guess it’s named.

When Asharah and I were apartment hunting back in March, the both of us tired, worn out and drained from life and from sleeping in spaces that weren’t our own, we both expressed to each other a need for the house to “feel right.”  There’s this feeling of a puzzle piece falling into place, a key fitting into a lock, that happens deep in your gut when you come across something you’re meant to have, a place you’re supposed to be, a match for you.  I find it with jewelry sometimes, furniture, artwork.  Most of the jewelry I wear in fact, from the nepalese spiked necklace I’ve worn every performance for five years, to the labradorite pendant that cried at me from across the store until I took it home, to the Mira Betz pocket watch necklace my dad’s spirit told me to buy, has felt like I was supposed to have them.  I need to feel that from a house.  I have to bond with the place where I live, or I’ll be restless, unhappy and planning to move out as soon as I’ve moved the last box in.  Asharah felt much the same way.  And so we went house shopping.  We saw several houses that were shoulder-shruggingly cute, or would work fine.  One adorable cottage whose windows we peeked into in the middle of the night made our stomachs do some preliminary flip flops, but turned out to be already rented.  We were tired and dejected when we pulled in front of Circus House, which was sixth or seventh on our tour.  As soon as the house came into sight, we both looked at each other and said, “This is it.  This is the one.”  We started moving in three days later.


Somebody called me an ice queen the other day.  I think this was supposed to be complimentary, as it was in the middle of a long, poetic courtship email sent over facebook.  But it stung a little.

I’ve always had this strange dual personality of being incredibly strong, outspoken and thrilled to be at the head of everything, but also very introverted and cautious.  I can get overwhelmed by people, especially crowds.  I will often hit brick walls where I have to go home, close the door of my room and not deal with anyone for a day.  It’s seemingly random, and depends on a combination of who I’m around, how much “me” time I’ve had and how much stress I’ve been dealing with.  When my father got sick, my social meter bottomed out at zero.  I stopped teaching classes.  I stopped going out to Art Bar.  I pulled myself inside an armored shell and grieved there alone for three years.  But old coping habits die hard, and as I slip sometimes into silence, social awkwardness and disengagement in public, I give off the impression that I’m an ice queen, haughty, snobby, or a bitch.  I think it’s hard for many people to realize and accept that many of the circus kids, onstage, larger than life, manipulating fire and looking at ease in twenty yards of costuming and bulk quantities of liquid eyeliner, were the same kids who were ostracized and stuffed into trash cans as children.  We are the island of misfit toys.  Our armor is well-worn and dented.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I’m incredibly sensitive and empathetic to other people’s moods.  I figured this out when I briefly dated a man who was incredibly charming, handsome, talented, and, as I found out, an alcoholic.  I became uncontrollably neurotic in the few weeks we dated.  I yelled more and cried more in two months than I did in some relationships that spanned years.  I would go home and huddle in a ball at my desk and wonder if I was going crazy.  Eventually, young as I was, I realized I had to get out for the sake of my sanity.  The next boyfriend I had was chosen carefully for his calmness.  A relief.  I leeched and fed off his stability while my father wasted away and died.  I bled him dry and he left me two weeks after the funeral.  I’ve tried hard since then to try to ground my energy out on my own terms, mostly through yoga, dance and a lot of tea drinking.  If I ever get a handle on whether or not it’s working, I’ll let you all know.  I’m hoping that better awareness counts for something.

Empathy is both a gift and a curse.  I can read certain people truthfully like a book, head to toe.  Not everyone, but some.  When they come to me for instruction, or advice, I can give them a nudge, or sometimes a shove, in a direction they need to fix something within themselves.  But to open myself to be able to read the subtleties of someone also leaves wide open the door for people to drag their baggage into my head and set the suitcases down.  I lived with a previous boyfriend who threw a lot of parties.  Many of the party goers were wonderful people.  Quite a few also drank everything in the house, broke things, and got into messy entanglements with each other.  I couldn’t handle it.  I’d be in a great mood throughout the day, and as the hour of the party approached, I’d feel this terrible storm cloud seep into my brain and I’d get more and more sullen.  I spent a lot of our doomed relationship locked upstairs in a bedroom with a book, listening to the party rage downstairs and wondering if I would ever stop feeling so depressed.  In another instance, I once woke up in the middle of the night and lay awake for a while.  My half asleep brain asked why I was awake, and it occurred to me that a friend’s father, who’d had a stroke, must have died.  When I talked to him the next day, I found out he’d gotten the phone call right at the instant I’d woken up.

There are a couple empaths in the circus.  The ones in Delirium especially, because we train so hard on minuscule muscle control, and being able to read each other’s body language to a huge degree in our ATS improv format, have locked into each other pretty hard.  We’ve been tired lately, and some of us have been having the same injuries, muscle aches and fatigue in the exact same spots at the same time.  Sometimes we can figure out who’s actually having problems and who’s just echoing, but we can’t tell this go round.  When Asharah goes to California to do Suhaila Level III training, I know I’m in for a terrible week.  As she breaks down and cries during emotional prep exercises, I start sobbing 3,000 miles away.  My psoas will lock up and hurt like a motherfucker, and a phone call to Asharah will reveal they’d been working on pelvic V’s.  I take on other people’s chronic muscle fuckups, and I’ve had both of my favorite massage therapists tell me “I know you care about these people, but stop carrying their shit.  That’s their job.”

I try.  I really do.  I think the ice queen behavior I’ve been attributed as having has been there long before I figured this out as a defense shield.  I have to disengage sometimes, whether I’m one-on-one in a coffee shop or surrounded by people at a bar, to close the door.  If it seems like I’m callous, or I don’t care, I probably actually care too much.


Living situations for me become very important, then, as I need a refuge and the energy in the house needs to be stable or I start alternating between pulling my head sulkily inside the turtle shell or bouncing off the walls.  Mostly the former.  Five years ago, Toby and I came here from New Orleans following hurricane Katrina.  We moved into a house owned by my uncle that was nice, but neither of us could bond with it.  We were also both very empathetic, and as we both struggled with PTSD and depression, we both fed and amplified each other’s despair until it became a complete downward spiral.  Though I didn’t understand fully at the time what was going on, instinctually I knew I had to get out if I had any chance at recovering.  I’ve spent the past two years in that situation again.  When my life fell apart after my father’s death and the economy started collapsing, I stayed off and on at my mother’s house.  Mom’s incredibly supportive and generous, and she kept me alive, eating and warm through a nasty phase of homelessness with no complaints, guilt tripping or demands.  I am so lucky and so grateful.  But I am very much my mother’s daughter, very much alike in many ways, and living in a house with my mother’s devastating grief at losing her soul mate put me on the edge of breaking.  She’s also empathetic, and we got stuck.  I went to some really, really terrible places in my head that I don’t ever want to get close to again.  The balance was tipped in the wrong direction and everything slid off.  I looked at Asharah during a visit during the snowstorm last February, said “I can’t live like this anymore,” and we talked about the possibility of picking up and moving to New Orleans.  Maybe the west coast.  I let the idea slip to a couple of the circus kids, which caused freak outs, some long conversations over tea, and in a roundabout way, much strengthened friendships.  The empathy link seemed to send out distress signals, and I suddenly had friends I hadn’t talked to in months calling me up to go to lunch.  Three of them responded with the same advice: that I could move if I wanted, but the same problems would follow me there if I didn’t address my own issues.  About a week later, I had a really vivid dream that Toby and I moved back to New Orleans.  It’s rare that my dreams are vivid or that I remember them, so when it happens, I tend to pay attention as it’s probably pretty important.  In the dream, I spent the entire time miserable, on the phone to South Carolina and trying to figure out if I could make it back to Columbia in time for circus practice.  Toby got up and wandered away to another room, and after a while I looked up and couldn’t find him.  So I went back to the circus phone calls.

I closed the New Orleans craigslist searches and switched back to Columbia.  Asharah started making calls.  I would stay in Columbia with my circus and work on my self-imposed isolation instead.  Two weeks later, Toby died after a motorcycle accident.  My circus was there to catch me, figuratively in the weeks and work that followed, and literally, as I sunk to the floor crying in the middle of the vending area at Tribal Con, cellphone in hand.


Asharah and I are not super woo-woo, new age people, but we called up Chris, my massage therapist and snarktastic medicine man, to smudge and saltwater the house before we moved in.  I have no idea if burning sage, carrying stones, figuring out astrology, reading tarot, spinning in circles or praying to God in a church have direct power in themselves, but I have become a great believer in the power of intention and focusing intent.  And so we followed our friend through our house as the sage burned on half a conch shell, gathering up wishes in my head and my heart and my gut and pushing them into every corner of every room: Dear God, Universe, Self, whatever is out there, please make this a house of healing and love and friends.  It took about two minutes, and then Chris, his task done, lit and smoked a cigarette on our back porch.  Asharah had to go back to DC for almost a month, and so I was left alone to move my things in and unpack.  I unpacked much of my life and things that had been boxed up and hidden in a storage unit for two years.  I created a bedroom that felt like me and my style, and put a lot of love and care into it.  I remember spending my first night alone in my old bed with the dog curled up at my feet.  I didn’t have electricity yet, but I stayed there anyway.  I opened my eyes, and for the first time in many, many years, felt calm, safe and happy.  My brain was amazingly clear of emotional sludge and gunk.  I felt immense relief.  I was finally home.

Three weeks after Asharah turned up with her moving van, we held a housewarming party.  We probably had fifty people wander through the house all night long, bringing us teacups and bean plants, meditation beads and puja kits.  Asharah and I, formerly unpopular introverts that we are, were amazed at how many amazing people turned up, but also how positive it was.  Wonderful people spreading joy and good vibes, even when it got crowded.  At 1 AM, I heard squeals from the front room, and figures leaping to give hugs to a tall man in a fedora.  August from the Mezmer Society drove 3 hours from a gig in Atlanta and turned up with accordion in hand.  We played music until dawn.

The meditation beads and puja kits ended up on the dance altar.  We light candles and incense when we dance, practice or have people over.  People keep sneaking jars of nutella into our spice cabinet.

The beans have outgrown their stakes in the back yard vegetable patch, where the tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, melons and cucumbers are really happy with all the downpours we’ve been getting.  One of our circus minions gave us a hammock.  Jaia, when she was in town, started our compost pile.

When I need introvert reset time, I often go thrifting.  For whatever reason, trolling down aisles by myself, letting my fingers run across fabrics, with my ipod blasting in my ears, is one of my favorite ways to reset right now.  I love having quests, or scoring amazing things for $2.  One day I heard something calling to me from across Goodwill and unearthed an arched wooden hutch.  I knew immediately that this should house an altar in my bedroom.  I sat on the front porch in the rain after a show one morning, surrounded by friends who came over for breakfast and ended up staying all day, and I took the doors off the hutch with a mini screw driver.  Kendal took a bunch of dried flowers off our fuchsia plants and put them in a coffee mug for me.  I gathered up my statue of Tara, a Nepalese goddess, that had been given to me for volunteering a performance at a benefit for the Ganden Buddhist Meditation Center years and years ago.  It was Delirium’s second performance ever.  She’s been traveling with me from place to place, house to house, situation to situation, mostly ignored and put up on a shelf somewhere.  She’d ended up on the dance room altar when we moved in, but I stole her back and put her in the wooden hutch.  I surrounded her with the flowers, added an old lotus-shaped incense burner, and housed her in my room.  Like I said, I’m not sure how I feel about the more literal interpretations of faith, but I’ve become a huge proponent of intent.  So I burn incense to her?   The universe?  My subconscious? every night as I’m getting into bed, and sometimes pray for things.  Often times she answers.  Sometimes she kicks my ass.  I’ve learned to be careful what I wish for.  We’ve started taking her to Art Bar with us, though.  When horrible thunderstorms threatened “Midsummer” last month, I burned incense and asked her for clear skies for the show before I put my makeup on.  Turns out, several of the visiting dancers made the same supplication throughout the evening.  We brought her with us and she lived in the changing tent during the show.  Seems to have worked.  It rained cats and dogs in a perfect circle around the Art Bar, but the show stayed dry.

The healing and love and friends wish has come back to me in spades that sometimes threaten to overwhelm me.  Circus kids camp out here for hours several times a week, often hanging out and laughing, sometimes dancing by themselves in the dance room with the lights turned low.  Sometimes I can’t get them out of here.  The tea cabinet is three shelves and overflowing, and the teapot sings constantly.  The front porch is covered in lanterns, and I’ve spent countless nights in the last few months sitting out there by candlelight, drinking tea–wine and cognac in some cases but mostly tea–laughing, sharing, listening and counseling.  Especially listening and counseling.  When we asked to have a healing house, it turned out to be healing to a lot of our friends, too, and it’s not uncommon to get phone calls from friends in crisis asking to come over for tea.  “Coming over for tea” has become code word for “Please help me, I’m in shambles and need refuge.”  When we have guests over or throw parties, a lot of people end up hanging out in my room.  A few dancers who are much more spiritually enlightened than I am have pinpointed my altar and made a wish.  “She’s really powerful,” one of them told me.  I just nodded and sipped my tea.  It’s all about intent.  And this is a house of healing.

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Emotional prep

There is this absence of breath that happens, when fingers close around wrists for the first time, when you’re standing way too close, when you know that you have a plane ticket out of the country in four months, or that the dynamics are too complicated to be sustainable, or that he won’t choose you over her in the end, when there’s no way out except through what no doubt will end up being pretty wretched heartbreak, where you’re suspended between walking away to save yourself and the curiosity and anticipation of going through with it anyway, just to see, just to feel, and when the wrestling in your mind is done, there’s a small breath in, a signal, a turn of the head and a glance downcast at his shoulder, an assent.


Asharah and I often sit at the kitchen table with our laptops going through our music libraries and trolling Itunes, Emusic, Amazon, blogs, youtube for new songs to dance to.  We’ve been rather excited about the new Itunes network sharing feature, which allows anyone on our wifi to have access to each other’s libraries for listening purposes.  Music is very important to us, and we always have music on in the house.

2 AM seems to be my golden hour lately.  There was one late night a couple weeks ago when I started listening to a couple of Anouar Brahem Trio tracks I’d randomly downloaded, and when I realized the tracks were extraordinarily magical, I went online and downloaded a few full albums.  On one of them, I found this gem:

I know a song is a good one if I start sighing with longing or appreciation while I’m listening.  Also, potential moves and choreography sequences should be pretty regularly springing into my head for certain sections.  The music and score have to be danceable, not just pretty.  If I become obsessed with a song, and start listening to it on repeat for days, weeks or months, there’s a good chance it will end up in my repertoire at some point.  Some go to work immediately.  A couple I’ve tried but aren’t done percolating in my brain yet.  A couple solos have been waiting upwards of five years for my chops and technique to catch up, and may end up sitting for a couple more years.

“Leila” is one of those songs.  The above is a live recording, which is brilliant, but there’s something about the first studio version on the album (there are two) that gels in an intangible way that makes you think there was something trancey and electric and cosmic going on in that studio.  Asharah and I have a hand signal for music and middle eastern dancing that has this quality, like you’re gripping an invisible orange in your hand and shaking it back and forth a few times, usually with your eyes tightly closed.  Asharah and I were both letting out gasps of appreciation when we heard this song for the first time, especially when that eighth note section on the accordion starts halfway through.  Instant magic layering section of choreography!

After driving everyone nuts with it on repeat for a few weeks, I went to work this week on the emotional prep for “Leila.”  Asharah is big on emotional prep and having an emotional anchor to all of her pieces, and she’s heavily influenced a lot of my solo dancing and Delirium’s big piece at Tribalcon last year (I’ll post about that when we get closer to our fall “Ghosts” show, where it’s going to get resurrected, pun unintentional but I’m leaving it there).  Bellydance, especially tribal bellydance seems to be going through the same growing pains that ballet did at the turn of the 20th century.  Doris Humphrey wrote a wonderful book on choreography called The Art of Making Dances that if the world were mine, I’d make required reading for anyone trying to put a piece together.  In it, Humphrey writes about the transition that ballet made from pretty displays of technique to tackling meatier subject matter:

“The dance has been, until recently, entirely ingenue, a sweet obedient child brought up in the theater and the court, and told to be young, pretty and amusing… Plot, when needed, was patterned after drama, but only the lighter and more whimsical forms were used.  The drama was interrupted by display pieces of technique, thought to be much more important than the story… There is not to say that the ballet form was bad, but only that it was limited and suffered from arrested development–a permanent sixteen, like the Sleeping Beauty herself.  So well established was the formula over so many hundreds of years that, as the twentieth century dawned with its flood of new ideas, there was considerable resistance to any change from the light love story and the fairy tale, and there still is.”

Asharah and I have had many, many conversations over the years, between ourselves and with others, about tribal bellydance, especially the many strands of tribal fusion out there, and how so many dancers tend to get trapped in the physical portion of it.  There are many technically proficient and flashy dancers out there who aren’t saying anything in their dance.  That’s not to say that every dance needs to be a fully fleshed out narrative, autobiographical, heavy and/or depressing.  I realize that my dancing tends to be rather on the down side, but that’s because I’ve been through some shit and I’m still working out those personal demons.  There are dancers out there who say “Dance is glorious and it makes my life rich and happy” while they dance that make me fall out of my chair watching them.  But too often, in tribal fusion especially,  I travel to perform and work, or fire up youtube searches from the latest events, and end up watching a lot of technical displays with vacant expressions.  I have hope, especially from hanging out with the Southern Fried Tribal crew (a moniker for a sort of family clan of dancers and musicians from across the southeast U.S. that shares information, advice, thoughts, performances, gigs and a decent amount of alcohol) that eventually the artform as a whole will generally pull out of this phase into something a little more mature and developed.  And I say this as a still fairly young and emerging dancer that’s still working through a lot of growth and processes and experiments, much of it bad and painful.  I just hope we’re all moving.

In the meantime, living in a house with Asharah, and with Megan Hartmann from Missouri crashing on our couch and training with us the last few weeks, we’ve been taking the month to start developing new pieces for ourselves.  There’s been a lot of quizzing each other on the emotional aspects of the piece before we really get to dig in on the choreography, and we often end up giving each other homework: journal entries, timelines of events vs. timelines of the music we’ve picked, collaging, etc.

Asharah teaches an amazing workshop called “Dancing Your Demons” that takes you through a lot of emotional exercises and then marries them to simple dance drills.  The workshop borrows some from Suhaila Salimpour’s level III emotional prep work training and owes a lot to Carl Jung.  If you’re a dancer and get the opportunity to take this workshop, do it.  It will change your whole approach to dancing.  It did mine by helping me find a process to prepare offstage for this sort of emotional bloodletting that sometimes happens onstage.  My personal process looks something like this: at some point before the show I put together an itunes playlist of songs that speak to me about whatever I’m dancing about–kick ass and shitkicker songs if I need to portray a lot of power, sad breakup songs for broken hearts, quietly devastating songs for a piece I did with Delirium on death–and as I warm up and stretch in a quiet corner of a dressing room or a hallway or in the wings I pipe this stuff directly into my brain via ipod headphones.  I do a lot of repetitive drills and start sending my headspace back to whatever moment in my life I’m drawing from to portray whatever it is I’m dancing onstage.  I take that emotional energy and bathe in it, until my muscles and sinews remember what it felt like physically to go through that moment.  When my arms buzz with the energy, or feel heavy with the emotion, I go onstage and I relive the moment through the choreography or improvisation I’ve mapped out.  If I’m dealing with something heavy, I usually come straight offstage and have to go cry in a bathroom stall somewhere.  Then I go and meet and greet and network or party feeling like I’ve been hit by a mack truck, but hey, part of being a professional performer is having to do all the administration and schmoozing, whether you feel like it or not.

I should note that this is the process I usually go through in smaller, one-off performance events, regional bellydance galas or shows that I don’t have to produce.  Art Bar performances get short shrift because I also produce the event, and usually am backstage calming the fire marshal, handing out set lists and dealing with all the last minute goof ups, so I can’t take an hour to warm up and play around in my psyche.  It ends up being kind of like a mom with young children who tries to take a bubble bath while the kids beat on the door every five minutes.  Things have gotten better this year since we’ve assembled a crew of volunteer stage and tech ninjas and I don’t have to spend hours putting PVC pipes and extension cords in order anymore.  But if you ever see me come on the Art Bar stage touching the stage, then my ears, forehead and heart, it’s because I’m trying to clear my head and ground myself in the performance a little better.

But when I’m not in charge, I usually take a long and luxurious time to dive emotionally into a piece and my past, muck around in there, get my hands really dirty.  I find that as I dance through issues a couple times, the effect they have on my life tends to lessen.  I had a long and fascinating conversation with Fred, my hypnotherapist friend, over lunch one day.  He was really intrigued with my description of this process and said it sounded very similar to hypnotherapy regression techniques that he uses to help people process traumatic experiences in their lives.  Through emotional prep, I end up processing a lot of what bothers me through these dance experiences, and eventually it can even become difficult to pull up the raw emotion again.  There have been a couple pieces, like “Nannou,” the infamous bird costume piece, or “The Chairman’s Waltz,” that have shifted emotional anchors as I’ve performed them over two years.  That’s actually kind of a cool thing because I can explore the same music and choreography with different emotional perspectives, and that keeps a piece fresh for me, even as I perform it again and again.  And I hope it keeps it fresh for my audience, too.  Sometimes, though.  I use the piece up.  I mine it until it goes dry.  And then I have to retire it.  Asharah’s done the same with several of her pieces, including “Grist,” which was one of her big hits that propelled her into the A-list on the teaching circuit.  Years later, people are still requesting she dance to it, but she’s done with that piece and  just can’t go there anymore.

The other night, after being incredibly studious and in my head about analyzing this piece musically and trying to put an emotional anchor to it, Aaron from Tribe SK stole Asharah’s ipod and set it up in our living-room-turned-dedicated-dance studio (we made our dining room the living room).  This was Sunday night, I think, after music rehearsal for “Midsummer,” and it was probably around 1 in the morning.  The music had beats and stuff to work with, but was mostly low key and a little dark.  Aaron grabbed Megan away from her laptop on the couch where she’s been sleeping, and they both started freestyling by themselves.  By 1:30, I decided to join them.  And even Asharah, as in her head as she declares herself to be, joined us around 2 when we hit a long and sweet section of Portishead songs.  We weren’t really dancing with each other, and we weren’t being formal about it, or even paying much attention to the mirrors or what was happening.  We were just dancing.  I mentioned in my last post how I’m realizing that I’m incredibly attached to my body, and that I process a lot of things that way.  I can trance out during active yoga, but meditating during savasana is a hideous challenge.  I can’t quiet my mind during meditation, but I can lose time and go blank during Suhaila drills.  And so we turned the lights down low, lit a couple candles and incense on the altar and had this amazing and quiet little emotional trance dance session that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

We paid for it the next day by overshooting our planned wake up and start training time by a few hours, but I think it opened me up enough that when I put on “Leila” the next afternoon and started an exercise where I only did arm movement improv, the emotional focus for the piece fell into place fairly fully formed.  The piece is about sex.  It’s not going to be overtly depicting sex; I won’t be humping the floor or grabbing my boob onstage or anything.  It’s going to be another one of my really pretty choreographies with probably a good deal of my signature extension.  The music, though, is incredibly quiet and stark but just crackles with intensity, and I think my emotional perspective needs to reflect that.  So the opening passages of the song are about that breathless moment at the beginning of a love affair when you’re still weighing whether or not you should do this when you know there’s no future in it no matter how much you want it but it’s too late and you’re already in.  It winds down into a sort of sad wistfullness, drinking tea alone in the house when he’s gone.  I’ve got a few past experiences to draw on that I’m kind of smooshing together in my head, and I draw the line at sharing details because it’s not just my past I’m publishing for public consumption.  Also, there are certain people that I don’t want to encourage.  Also, my mom reads this blog.  At any rate, I have a week and a half before Asharah and I headline an intensive and gala show in Atlanta, and I’d like to have the piece in working order there, even if it’s still somewhat experimental.  I’ve analyzed the music and divided it into pieces.  I’ve made a list on my igoogle page, right next to the grocery list, my accounting notes list and the cleaning schedule list, that spells out the emotional perspective for all of those musical sections, so the internal story is pretty straight in my head at this point.  I have certain sections choreographed in my head and I’ve started working through some of them in the studio to see if they’re viable in reality (sometimes they’re not, or take a lot of tweaking).

The countdown is on.  Let’s see where this goes.

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