Conversations with Delilah and Julia Terr
D: First of all, I have no tattoos. You must have seen henna. Costuming is a form of celebrating and honoring the Mother. When you put on a costume, it's a way of setting a mystique. It's a fantasy. It's fun. I think if we explore the aspects of masks and makeup, youll find shamanistic associations. Its very powerful to put on a mask and dance. Makeup really isn't any different. I know that I go through a ritual when I put on a lot of makeup, much more than I normally wear putting on false eyelashes and exaggerating the eyes. I noticed a personality change, a heightened awareness of a part of my personality that came with this ritual. That was my mask for the priestess, that belly dance, that powerful place in my life, because it meant so much and was so powerful. It taught me how to have a voice, and take up my space. So, if I had an important phone call to make, I would put on my eyelashes. Its a joke, but when you're making phone calls, and asking for wages and money, and dealing with club owners, you need every advantage you can get. You know that these things make a difference, so you're putting on different makeup, different costumes, different attitudes, different music, different themes.
Many dances have themes. For the dance we did in the bamboo forest in Maui, the theme was a movement meditation to send healing energy to the worlds rain forests the lungs of the world. The dancers are all in prayer. Dance to the Great Mother presented a scenario of a womans life, with captions at different points in the dance, the flow of a maiden to a mother. The whole flow of life, giving birth, and releasing that soul into the world at the final stage of the dance. These themes are pathways for expression.
In bellydancing, there is basic costuming guidelines. I ask students to bring a hip belt with some weight or a delayed line (created by coins, fringe or beads). This helps students articulate their hips because they can feel their hips moving, and can sense the rhythm there. The belly dance costume is more a tool or an instrument of the dance then just a decoration. By accentuating the hips, or the belly, or the breasts, or the temple, the costume celebrates different parts of the body, each with its own meaning and personal association for each of us. It's about honoring our bodies.
Quite often youll see a belt and bra with a cascade of jingles, sparkles, and jewels surrounding the navel. Its like a parade around this sacred place, this temple. It just feels better to move in a costume. And there are so many different kinds. People who have a stereotypical view of bellydancers think there's only one costume, with the belly and navel exposed. Well, that's not true. Dancers wear lots of different things. Its difficult to explain without photos and pictures in books. With belly dance dresses, there can be several layers, contrary to the skimpy stereotypes. A bellydancer wears much more than a ballerina, yet she is the one that's got the questionable reputation. Much more so. She's out there dancing in pounds and yards of fabric, most often wearing much more than a ballerina.
One of the interesting facts that makes people start to see bellydancing in a different way, is there are publications devoted to bellydancing all across this country. Arabesque was out of New York, Habibi, out of Santa Barbara, Jareeda out of Seattle, Zagareet from North Carolina and several other publications in different cities, all dedicated to bellydancing. That's because there are a lot of women in the United States involved in bellydancing. It doesn't mean that they are all cabaret professional bellydancers in nightclubs. They are doing it because they love it, it's a therapy for them. I've received numerous letters from people expressing just that. It's what keeps them going. Its not just aerobic, it's a creative outlet. With these magazines, people sometimes think Oh, a belly dance magazine, that must be a magazine for men, a peep show magazine like Playboy. It couldn't be further from the truth, these magazines are supported by the women that enjoy the art form. Club owners, and most club owners are men, think bellydancing draws a male audience to their club. But I know from talking to the customers, in a restaurant or a nice club, the women are the ones dragging their families to these shows. They love the dance, they understand it. There are those who have so much prohibition in their bodies and in their minds that they cant even watch it. But most women get it, and they begin to teach their husbands and partners what the dance is about.
JT: What are some of the different interactive experiences with bellydancing. For instance, someone seeing it for the first time, is it therapeutic?
D: To experience the real benefit of bellydancing, you have to do it. Watching it is a wonderful experience, you want to see it again and again. Something in the dance touches in ways words dont. The magic comes from being in the moment. It's a right-brain experience to be fullly in the moment. You let all influence and inspiration hit you, and move with it not ahead of yourself planning the future, or behind yourself analyzing the past, just being in the moment. When you do that, you lose track of time. The audience is witnessing a creation like the act of the artist putting paint on a canvas. We rarely witness that process. We see the finished product. The bellydancer paints the canvas in front of us. Were witnessing the creative process. To me, that is exceptional. We want to, ideally, put the observer in the moment, too, so they lose track of time as well. In retrospect, after witnessing a really good performance, the audience will say, She's done already? She didnt dance very long. That's where you want people. To bring them into the moment with you. Thats magic. If people are thinking, God, will she ever stop? they obviously aren't in the moment. If theyre busy picking up their cocktail glasses, you can tell. If the dance is right on, the club gets quiet. When you're right on, you create a retrospect of timelessness. Its always a trip to look at the video footage later, because it never appears like it plays in your head. The time is off. That's probably a clue that you are really riding the crest of the present moment. But if you're not locked into that moment, you're very aware of time.
JT: What is the trance in belly dance?
D: Thats a loaded word for some people. It can push a lot of different buttons. Some people are ok with it and others conjure thoughts of black magic! Trance is really hypnosis. And that's a loaded word for some people, too. We all experience it. What happens when we drive is a good example of trance. People go into a trance all the time and don't even know it. When you draw a picture, and really lose yourself in that creative process, thats trance. There are different levels. Some people refuse to go very far, and others allow it. Its about giving ourselves permission to explore the inner realm, going further and further with our thoughts, our imagination, our minds.
JT: Do you have to have the technical skill to achieve this, or could a beginning dancer do this?
D: I have witnessed dancers who knew very few steps, and it was a very moving performance. They knew very little but they were able to be in the moment. For some people it takes a lot longer to get there. They really need the guidance of a teacher to point them in the right direction.
JT: So, is trance part of the magic, part of the goal? Or is it something that just happens?
D: Belly dance, in its form of being in the moment, is a trance. Approaching it from a choreographed, blocked, and rehearsed objective is not a trance. To be free enough to dance in the moment and handle the unexpected, I would say, is a trance.
JT: So, the most ultimate form of the dance, from what you teach, is to be in the moment.
D: Exactly. You spend hours rehearsing and learning the techniques, but when you dance, forget it! Express yourself. What you know will come through. What you need to work on you'll save for another day. You can't look around worrying about whether you're doing it right, you have to express yourself. You're not in your right brain if you're analyzing. Be in yourself. Give yourself autonomy to move. That's what we're learning.
JT: There's two parts to it. One part is learning the language of the dance and practicing technique, and that's the busywork. On the other hand, you say, Forget that other stuff, now we're dancing, now we're expressing.
D: Yeah, that's where the therapy is. I've learned a lot of things over the years and Ill come up with new moves in the middle of a performance and think, Wow, I'm going to have to remember that. I didn't set out to do it. I didn't set out to remember it. I love that Isadora Duncan line, No movement is owned, they are only rediscovered. All movements have already been done. No movement is owned or unique. Get over that right away and just have fun with it. This idea of the ethnic police... what is this? It's just our nature to tag everything, to categorize. Its linked to academic achievement and that's fine for a lot of things. But sometimes you just have to learn to let go of it.
JT: What is frenzy? I saw it on the back of one of your catalogs. I think it referred to reaching a point in the dance, a crescendo, a heightened point of freedom.
D: The Fire at the Iao performance (video and DVD) is a trance belly dance.Through trance experience, people do extraordinary things. The more you sustain your trance, and the more warmed up your movements are, and if you're really riding that hypnosis, that's when these innovations and breakthroughs emerge. Also, sometimes the music, the heightened energy, can drive a person into a frenzied situation. I do not believe Ive ever been out of control in the dance but I have been willing to experience excellerated states. We work with many textures of energy. Gabriel Roth developed a wonderful philosophy called the Wave. She uses movement patterns. Flowing movements, chaotic movements, staccato movements, lyrical movements, and stillness. She uses this as a trance dance and flows through all these movements like a wave. When you finish you start over again. Stillness, staccato, then chaos, which is neither flowing or staccato, it's allowing yourself to be okay in chaos. That is such a lesson. If you can be okay in chaos, you've got a tool for life. That's a lesson we're all working on.
JT: Chaos in belly dance?
D: Oh, yes. I think so. I'm not locked into any cultural thing. I study with Gabriel Roth, and I think her principles are universal. If women are the common denominator, then bellydancing is a universal dance.
JT: What about ritual?
D: We all do ritual, every day of our lives. We get up in the morning, brush our teeth, drink our coffee. That's ritual. The process of dancing six nights a week for 15 years, for me, became a ritual putting on my makeup and walking out the door with my suitcase and going and doing my first set. The most fascinating ritual is the process of the routine in the cabaret. It began with a fast section, the introduction, then a veil section, then a fast section. The dancer is a little more warmed up then, she's a little more invested, she's a little more in the trance. She goes to the next section of the dance, which is the floor section. People have been praying for centuries, it's a sacred place, it's a place of reverence for the earth, to go down, and go within. That cheftitelli is a very mysterious and exotic place. Its the nature of the music, it's the nature of the dance, and the dancers body becomes very supple and in tune. Then the music starts again, it becomes another fast section, it starts heating up again. She comes up to meet the drum solo, and there we have real staccato energy, and you have the heightened warmth of the dancer meeting the musicians, and usually the musicians are male. The drum represents the masculine principle, and the body of the dancer the feminine. When those two energies come together, it's very exciting. Then, the finale is a wrap up, a promise that you'll be back. You take your bow. This is a cyclic ritual that I would do three times a night. Many dancers did, all over the country. Nobody ever analyzed what that format was, and I think it has much more power than we realize. There was a sense of completion, in a metaphysical sense. For peoples lives, the seasons, the cycles. Its very intuitive, it's very basic. But, it's a ritual.
JT: Can you express in words what elements of nature might connect to different elements of the dance?
D: In the flow of the dance, you're working with energy flowing through your body. Youre moving it around through your arms, you let it flow from one arm to the other, and it moves through your hands, it drops into your belly and moves up into your head. All these areas in your body have symbolic representation. That's a big part of bellydancing. The liquid flow of the dance, it's like water. When were working with the veil, and pushing it through space, we're working with air, we're working with wind. The gravity, the grounding, the centering of the energy, of the environment, that's the earth. The fire is the heat when you dance, the sweat that builds, the energy that builds. Sometimes dancers dance for 45 minutes straight, without a break. They're totally locked in the moment . Sweat is flying off them, everything is wet. That is powerful, That is heat. Fire. Passion. Its an amazing experience, and you work with those energies in the dance, it's all about nature. You work with light, feeling the sun when you work outside, you become very intuitively aware.
When my dancers practice dancing in nature, I have them do awareness exercises. In addition to the dance movements, they have to be aware of what they smell, what they feel, the sense of light, the sense of color, and also to extend their awareness outside their physical confines. Most of the time, if people don't dance, their kinetic awareness is pulled in. They don't know where the outside of their body is. By dancing, we begin to extend the awareness of our bodies. Our awareness of space increases, and pretty soon we know what's going on around us in a small sphere and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. The dancer works with the line of design, of floor patterns, the delayed line of her skirt and her belt, all these things are going on at the same time, while she is breathing. Its how the body works. We breathe and our heart pumps, and all these things are going on, and we don't have to work at it. Its through awareness that our body begins to respond to inspiration and know what to do with it. A gust of wind comes and it starts to blow through her hair and she lifts her veil. The wind inspired her. Or, she's dancing in the water and a big wave comes over, and she flows with it and pulls back as the water recedes, that's inspiration from the water. Is she listening? Can she respond? Can she be fearless? Can she trust herself? These are all incredibly therapeutic issues drawn out by experience.
We danced around a fire in Costa Rica that was just incredible. To feel the heat of the fire, to work with the light and the darkness. It was a big bonfire, so we we're working with the darkness all around us, the heat of the fire in front of us, what was illuminated, the reflections on the sand. It was so powerful. This intense heat, the intense blackness, affected our vision. When we looked up in the sky there were so many stars. We were right by the water, so the sound of the surf was around us. There was this back rhythm of the surf . . . the whoosh, the fire flickering in front of us, the heat, and the smoke. It was incredible being immersed in such inspiration. The medium is the world, and that's what dance is moving through time and space, working with your environment, working with space. To me, we all need to know this, and it's funny that we don't. I find it constantly amazing, I'm constantly learning more. My kids did an amazing dance on the shore of Puget Sound. This happens a lot. Well be out on a picnic or well be in the woods and suddenly, without a word, Laura and Victoria and I will just fall into a dance. Well pick up whatever is available, rocks, or sticks to incorporate into our dance. My husband might start playing the ney or start banging on something adding percussion, or just observing. One day we did this dance with sticks. We started sticking them in the sand, so they created a pathway from the driftwood on the beach to the waters edge. We just got lost in this dance, and the wind, and finally the dance ended. Laura and I both knew it was over, and we looked at the sticks that we had placed in the sand. The tide had come in, and our dance was measured by the tide coming in. The farthest stick was completely in the water and you could see the tips sticking out of the water. It was incredible. We were all just blown away. Thats magic, Those are the gifts. Nature gives them to you.
JT: It makes a lot of sense, it really does. I really understand what youre doing, and your goals. Do you have anything to add?
D: This world is more than a bunch of little countries anymore, were moving toward a united planet. You can see it in world music and the exchanges happening all over the world. I think we need to drop a lot of our nationalism and people being so invested in their culture. It's beautiful to preserve some of the artistic elements in culture, but if were going to go to war over it, there's got to be a better way. We all have to realize that we live on this earth together and weve got to take care of her. Our technology is a juggernaut. Were all racing into technology with our answering machines and our computers and we are kind of powerless to stop it. It seems to be going on without us, and leaving our spirituality in the dust. But I don't believe it has to be that way. I believe that everything is connected, and when that juggernaut of technology is going crazy, it's pulling us along with it. Im glad to see the combining of art forms. I'm not a purist. The freedom to taste and explore combinations of food, music, traditions, everything, is to our benefit, not our detriment. I like to see people stepping out to take some artistic risks. Nothing is achieved without risk.
JT: Do you have anything you want to add about the spiritual aspects, or using the dance as a tool for prayer?
D: I believe strongly that the prohibition against the body has been a tool to control people by way of religious actions and motivation, for centuries. I believe that the prohibition against the body is a way of disconnecting people from God.When people are really in their bodies, they don't need the function of a religious thesis. Youve already got your main line to God, you don't need the church. Then the church becomes unemployed, unnecessary. The powers that be are invested in keeping you away from that direct connection so they stay in business. I'm very spiritual, but I have a problem with organized religions. I study them all, but I wouldn't belong wholeheartedly to any one of them. I have my connection with my spiritual identity, and with God, and with Mother Nature. The spiritual aspect of bellydancing is about being in your body and nurturing that connection to God. There are a lot of pathways to it, but for me, it's through dancing.
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