Gilded Serpent presents...
"I know exactly what
I want to do for the ritual dance into the sea. I want to be Pele," I
told the sponsor . Only later did I realize how audacious was my
decision, a decision which launched me on an unusual adventure into
I was ecstatic when she asked me to be the guest teacher at her annual Maui
dance retreat. For years, ever since she first conceived of this event, I had
watched from the sidelines, observing all stages of the preparations. And after
each retreat, I would hear the magical stories of what everyone had done; I
enjoyed watching amazing video footage. But as much as I, too, wanted to be
part of this event, I realized that my particular specialities -- Persian,
Uzbek, Georgian, Russian Gypsy, Ancient Egyptian and such --seemed too esoteric
and out of the mainstream of the general "belly dance" current. Delilah
has long understood the connections between these forms and her beloved belly
dance; after all, she was part of my 1989 performing arts delegation that traveled
to Uzbekistan. But we both knew that many others had not yet arrived at that
consciousness. To finally receive an invitation to Maui suggested to me that
these non-Arabic forms had finally been embraced by the Middle Eastern dance
One of the reasons that this sponsor chose Maui for her belly dance retreat
is her devotion to dancing with nature and a yearly highlight is the ritual
dance into the sea. Participants prepared by creating "seafaring" costumes.
I had decided to portray the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, a deity near and
dear to my heart since she is a redhead and there are not that many redheads
in mythology. (As a child I despaired whenever the fairy tales spoken of maidens
with flaxen hair or raven tresses. Were there no copper tops?)
Over the months I had worked on the design and then began crafting the actual
costume for Pele. The skirt had flames appliqued on it, the top had glittering,
starlike sparks, as did the headdress. With Pele's special garments packed
away safely in my suitcase, I began the last leg of my journey -- the flight
from Los Angeles to Maui. It was then the magic began.
Shortly after I took my aisle seat, a striking couple took the two seats next
to me. The woman, tall with long, dark hair and sculpted features, reminded
me of an Uighur artist friend of mine. As it turned out, her resemblance was
more than physical, since this woman, too, was an artist. Soon after take off
she began reading something aloud to her husband -- in Hawaiian! As she translated
the words, it became clear that this was the text of a sacred prayer.
Ask her about Pele! This can't be a coincidence that she is sitting right next
to you. Ask her!
In spite of this inner prompting, I restrained myself. I have had my privacy
invaded too many times to be cavalier with the privacy of others. If we were
meant to speak to each other, the occasion would present itself
And it did. She soon struck up a conversation with me and I discovered that
my fellow traveler -- who I shall refer to as Kaia -- was a Hawaiian kahuna
or traditional healer. Her husband, who had native American blood, was a shaman
who had studied with descendants of the Incas in Peru. My new friend was also
a painter; she was traveling to Maui to exhibit her work. Her special themes
of late were goddesses, angels, and fairies. This revelation opened the door
for me to explain what I was doing. I began to ask questions about Pele.
"We love Pele" she explained. "Pele isn't about anger. It is more
like a parent putting limits on children when they misbehave. She is about creativity." In
this respect, Pele reminded me of her direct analog in the ancient Egyptian pantheon
-- Sekhmet. Both had their fiery, destructive aspects and an association with
the color red, but they also had positive features. Sekhmet, for example, had
the power to heal.
Knowing that Pele is still honored and revered by native Hawaiians, I explained
my trepidations about daring to represent her on her own soil. Of course, I
had heard the stories about Pele's curse on the unthinking tourists who were
foolish enough to take lava rocks home with them. What might she do to me for
attempting to take her identity? As our plane drew closer to Hawaii, the idea
I had nurtured for so many months began to lose its allure. Whatever had I
"You must ask her permission. You must express your intent very clearly.
Then you must wait for a sign." Kaia advised.
I also must be prepared to abandon this project entirely if I don't
get a sign," I ventured.
Kaia gave me a long hard look and said, "I don't think that will be your
problem. Your problem will be that she does grant your request."
"Why would that be a problem? ," I asked, with some concern.
"Because it will change your life. Because you will become a conduit for
all of her primal, creative energy."
I squirmed a bit in my seat. This was beginning to sound like electroshock
"Once she gives you a sign, you must give her a gift," Kaia explained. "It
can be something from nature, like a flower. Pele loves red. Red is her color,
so something like a red flower would be appropriate. You will know it when you
Kaia paused and thought some more. "Your hair," she added. "I
think in your case you could also give her some strands of your hair."
As our flight continued, we spoke of many things mysterious and esoteric, things
that strangers would rarely have discussed twenty years ago. The consciousness
of the planet was indeed changing. But as we began the approach over Maui,
all three of us fell into a reverential silence. We were coming to sacred land.
At the airport I was greeted
by Steve and Delilah with a lei, and immediately was caught up in
the excitement of the days to come. But before we left the airport,
I opened my bags and gave Kaia a video of Egypta, my choreographic
dance suite based on the myth and history of ancient Egypt. It seemed
an appropriate gift for her sage advice.
All of Hawaii is Pele's creation, since the islands were the result of volcanic
activity. This profound truth gradually unfolded itself as I explored Maui
the next day. The other retreat participants had yet to arrive. On my first
morning there, Delilah -- wise woman that she is -- awoke me with a cup of
coffee. She then showed me the grounds. (Not the coffee grounds, but rather
the setting of our retreat.) Mana Le'a Gardens, set on 55 acres of land, is
far removed from mainstream tourism. We walked through the lush vegetation,
admiring the huge, colorful blossoms, and the postcard perfect settings on
every side. Was all of this Pele's work?
That afternoon and evening, the students began to arrive, all greeted at the
airport, as I had been, with the traditional Hawaiian lei. When we first formally
met and introduced ourselves, I found everyone to be openhearted and excited
about the adventure to come. I have had the honor of teaching at all of the
other major Middle Eastern dance theme camps: Mendocino, Oasis, and of course,
the Central Asian camp. While each has its own wonderful ambiance, all share
a comforting sense of comraderie. Perhaps by "going to camp" we abandon
all pretense and posing; our inner child comes out to play.
With participants ranging in age from 18 to 70, we were a cross-section of
women at all stages of life. Some of us were accomplished professionals, while
others were novices with only a few lessons. How wonderfully affirming this
was about the role of dance in our lives! For this Middle Eastern/Oriental/Arabic/Turkish/Persian/Belly
dance/ Gypsy/Silk Road amalgam that we call "our dance" is about
being alive, moving in our bodies, expressing ourselves, to the best of our
individual abilities. Our dance is nothing less than a path to personal enlightenment.
It should be open to all.
Most of the women had never had a Persian or Russian Gypsy dance class but
they were game for it. And this was not only a physical challenge but a mental
one too, since these two forms not only differ in movement vocabulary but also
demeanor. One day students were expected to be coy yet demure, concentrating
on light delicate steps and refined, precise gestures. Then, in the next class,
they had to run and lunge and whirl, like proud and tempestuous beauties. Enough
to cause a case of cultural whiplash!
Threaded among all the dance classes were excursions around Maui, some of them
to magical, little known places. One of these treks required hiking down a
steep cliff, a tremendous challenge to someone afflicted with acrophobia. Although
I purposely try to force myself to overcome this by doing things like climbing
up to roofs of cathedrals, the dizziness, the physical reaction to the heights
is almost overpowering and takes me to the edge of panic. Somehow I fought
back my animal fear and made it down the cliff. The tide pools were shallow
and warm, even though it was barely dawn. Suddenly, as if a reward for passing
a test, a rainbow appeared over the cliff. Could this be a sign from Pele?
Later that day I wandered up to the fabulous pool, complete with a waterfall
and water slide. There, I spotted something red on one of the white lounge
chairs. It appeared to be a piece of fungus, colored like flames. A gift of
Nature for a goddess of Nature. I took it back to my room and wrapped several
long strands of my hair around it.
In addition to Delilah's classes and mine, Armando taught percussion and local
Hula teacher Nona Kaluiokalani -- a precious cultural treasure -- instructed
us in her native dance. For years I have heard wonderful things about Nona
and was excited to study with her. As a child, my older sister had studied
Polynesian dance and had practiced the steps with me. Since then, I had attended
many concerts and always enjoyed this art, especially the ancient hula.
As Nona began to demonstrate the first dance, I noticed many gestures in common
with Central Asian dance. I felt as if another piece of our giant dance puzzle
had fallen into place when Nona gestured to her heart and said, "the real
hula comes from here."
Those who know me well know that when I am most excited, most awestruck, I
become silent. In Nona's presence I was speechless. She was a teacher with
many important lessons to impart and as Nona herself said, "Sometimes
we need to just be quiet and listen."
After she went through her first dance, Nona paused "Does anyone here
Ask her about Pele!
But I couldn't ask. I couldn't even speak for fear of breaking the magical
spell of the moment.
But Nona heard my thoughts. "Somebody here wants to hear about Tutu Pele, " Nona
said. "That's what we call her, Tutu Pele. I have seen her. I have seen
her walking along with her walking stick."
If I had been unsure about the rainbow, then this surely was a confirmation
for my unspoken request had been heard and voiced by a native Hawaiian. Short
of an engraved invitation, this was as clear a sign as I could wish for.
Nona spoke to us about Pele, about the magical things she had witnessed, and
perhaps most importantly, about the meaning of aloha. More than just a greeting,
aloha is love. What kind of people were these, who said hello and goodbye with
the word love? And what kind of beauty and wisdom had we destroyed? Nona explained
that one can "show aloha" to others through simple loving gestures. "When
you make a lei for someone, you should think about some happy incident, some
good memory of that person with every flower. That's aloha."
Nona spoke with love of her own teacher, who was now aged and frail. She told
us of her desire to pass down the hula to her students since the hula embodied
so much that was central to Hawaiian culture, a culture that was fading. Nona
became quite serious, even somber. "I have seen the prophecies come true," she
said and I noticed that her voice quivered. What were these prophecies?
Later I was able to find the prophecies Nola had mentioned. They were haunting
and unsettling in their accuracy. The Hawaiians had traditionally revered seers;
rulers often kept prophets among their court advisors. One of the greatest
of these was Keaulumoko. He foresaw the coming of the white man and the demise
of the Hawaiian people. His prophecies were uncanny. By the 1880s, a hundred
years after their first major contact with Western civilization, the native
Hawaiian population had been reduced to 44,000 -- about one tenth their pre-contact
The next day, we arose early to prepare for our expedition to a secluded beach,
probably the first time in my life that I had put on false eyelashes before
6 a.m. We were now challenged to put Delilah's theory of "dancing with
Nature" into practice. Here was the ultimate experience in performance
improvisation. The sand, the surf, and the wind all presented unexpected elements
which changed our movements. Try to fight them and one becomes awkward and
off-balance. But Nature becomes an exciting unseen partner for those who embrace
Each group of women created a unique dance as they improvised together. Some
were lyrical and sensuous, others humorous and playful. We watched enchanted
as each group took their turn. At last it was my chance. I carefully placed
my gift on the beach were the tide would soon claim it. The image of Pele walking
along the beach, surveying her creation, came to mind. I began to dance.
A sudden wind lifted up my
veil, turning the orange, red, and yellow silk into dancing flames.
My feet sank into the wet sand and I could not move as I had planned.
Instead, the motions of the hula class surprisingly flowed throw
me, taking command. This was the dance that this land had created.
This was the dance that Pele now demanded. The gestures showing
the land, the waves, the flowers, the rain, even the paddling of
a canoe -- all made perfect sense. Only later did I discover that
this particular beach is famous in Hawaiian lore. No doubt others
had danced here before us.
experience of dancing with Nature -- of dancing with Pele herself
-- gave me a precious gift of fresh insight into Persian and Russian
Gypsy dance. With all of my determination to document the history
of these forms, to completely understand and breakdown the technique
in a systematic fashion, to analyze and name the basic steps and
positions, I had distanced myself from the actual source of the
dance. This came to me with resounding clarity one morning in Maui
when I decided to warm-up on the deck by one of the hot tubs. The
railing was the perfect height for a ballet barre. After stretching,
I started to practice some of the Russian Gypsy steps. I opened
my arms, threw back my head, began to spin, and stared straight
into the celestial blue sky. Of course, the sky! All the times
I had practiced or performed this movement had been indoors. But
these steps were originally created out of doors, in Nature. The
significance of this spin shifted my perceptions; I felt as if
I were opening myself up to the heavens. It was exhilarating.
Even my approach to Persian dance changed. When I first began to seriously
study Persian dance twenty years ago, my teacher Shamiran Urshan, was also
a singer and approached the dance with great musicality. Her dance unfolded
according to her response to the music and her mood. She taught by having me
follow her improvisations, not by breaking things down. While this system works
fine for me, I later realized that for adult non-Persians, a more structured
approach was required.
Taking inspiration from the system used in ballet and Uzbek dance, I created
a series of position and molded them into my Classical Persian etude. Drawn
from typical dance movements, poetic images, miniature paintings and even Persian
architecture, these positions draw greatly from Nature. But I can honestly
say that while I knew this intellectually, I did not know it on a truly cellular
level until I came to Maui.
It began as an experiment. Inspired by the incredible natural beauty of our
surroundings as well as the enthusiasm of the students, I suggested we schedule
an additional class, an outdoor review session in the basic Persian positions
In order to enhance the experience, we would practice in costume and videotape
the event for at-home review. Several students agreed to participate. They
agreed to bring skirts, veils, and jewelry from which we could improvise Persian-looking
garments. I contributed numerous hats and costume pieces.
The transformation was remarkable. I had to look twice to recognize some of
the women. Draped in flowing silks, their limbs became more eloquent. The kohl-rimmed
eyes flirted more coquettishly. Instead of Americans on a Hawaiian vacation,
they became aristocratic Saffavid ladies, out for a frolic in the private gardens
of their estate.
Suliman joined us, pulling out his nay and sitting on a rock to play music
for us. We moved slowly and graciously, each gesture flowing seamlessly into
the next. Soon I abandoned the framework of the etude and began to improvise
a dance. Magically, the women followed, enraptured by that precious moment
in which the dancer and the music fuse into one.
This then was Pele's gift -- a new understanding of the inextricable link between
Nature and the dance, a clear vision into the archaic origins of movement.
Every gesture was suddenly imbued with new meaning. We were truly dancing with
Nature, as our arms described the trees, the flowers, the vault of heaven,
and the gentle breeze. We were not ourselves, but the houris of paradise, lured
down to earth by the
irrevocable command of Nature herself.
Thank you, Tutu Pele.
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