by Jezibell Anat
posted September 2, 2012
I moved from Manhattan to Augusta, Georgia to look after my aging mother at the end of 2007. Augusta is the second largest city in Georgia whose main claim to fame is the Masters’ Golf Tournament. Fortunately I found belly dance here, but I had to adjust to a very different mindset and environment. In New York I was part of a multicultural belly dance world that included internationally-renowned teachers, restaurants with Middle Eastern bands, theatrical shows, and an amazing quality and diversity of dancers.
In Augusta, options are much more limited, and dancers are more influenced by the Bellydance Superstars. My teaching experience at Serena Studios opened doors for me in Manhattan, but people in this area had never heard of Serena. I was trained to present a five-part cabaret show with live music, but here tribal improv prevailed.
In Manhattan dancers often disagreed on the definitions and boundaries of belly dance, but we had an ethnic context, with experts such as Morocco, Anahid Sofian and Gamila el-Masri, to keep our dance grounded in its Middle Eastern origins. Here the emphasis was on fusion and personal interpretation.
I was appalled at first by what appeared to be a lack of performance standards in the dance, especially in allowing student groups to perform at public events. I was taught with drills, corrections, and an attitude of scorn for the use of “cheats” such as putting wax on a sword to make balancing easier. At times I probably came across as a snob. I was also accustomed to show slots being filled on the basis of a dancer’s performing ability, not on a first-come, first-serve, or a need to include everyone without regard to dance level.
As I got to know the local scene, I have come to realize that even though there have been rivalries, misunderstandings, and bad feelings among different groups, dance here is more about community and friendship than professional entertainment. In fairness, the dancers here do not have the resources we had in NYC. There are some good local teachers, but a lot of people learned from DVD’s and Youtube, and the occasional workshop.
I certainly wanted to continue dancing, so I took whatever opportunities I could find to perform at local festivals, haflas, and stage shows. At one of my first events, the organizer asked me to wear a dress because she thought a cabaret costume was too revealing. Later she saw me perform in bedlah at another event, and she said “Wow, that’s a real costume, not lingerie. You can certainly wear that!” This made me wonder what people had been dancing in.
I had taught for many years in New York, but it was difficult to get a class going here, especially since I prefer to teach dance in terms of technique, not just for fitness and fun. Since I had been teaching for over ten years, I realized that I wanted to focus on performing, and I was also pursuing some acting projects. I also had to learn to juggle my creative pursuits with taking care of an elderly parent whose health was slowly declining.
Fortunately I met some other dancers who did want to take belly dance seriously and create top notch performances, and we formed a troupe, Eastern Star Dance Theatre. We have worked hard to build a diverse repertoire that includes both traditional cabaret and alternative fusion, incorporating props such as sword, wings, fan veils and cane.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen tremendous improvement and growth in the belly dance scene. I have come to appreciate Youtube for allowing us to view and be inspired by belly dancers throughout the world. A lot of the troupe and solo dancers have been working and studying diligently to improve their skills. Two years ago, a new studio, Hip2Hip opened that focuses on belly dance and fitness.
As of 2012 we now have a new networking group, CSRA Bellydance Monthly Get-Together founded by Evadne (Vany) Medina, that focuses on bringing the different groups of belly dancers together. We have had discussions, swap meets, mini-workshops, and haflas, and are connecting with dancers in other parts of Georgia and South Carolina, including Athens and Columbia.
We are facing local challenges. Augusta’s most interesting area is downtown, which features art galleries, restaurants, music venues and unique stores. Unfortunately, shopping malls and suburban sprawl have siphoned off the energy of this once-vibrant district.
One event designed to promote downtown is First Friday, a family-friendly celebration featuring art exhibitions, vendors, and street performances. About 11:30 pm on Friday, July 6, two hours after First Friday officially ended, a shooter opened fire in downtown Augusta, wounding six people. Many Augustans blamed the violence on First Friday and wanted to cancel it, but those of us who support our city and our arts were not going to let this happen. We decided to make August’s First Friday a very special event.
I had performed before at First Friday with Eastern Star, but all the other members were out of town. So I turned to the dancers from the CSRA Bellydance Monthly Get-Together group and asked for volunteers. I was a bit concerned about organizing a solid show from an open performer call, but fortunately some wonderful dancers came forth, including cabaret soloist Zondra, tribal soloist Taylor, and a lovely new troupe, Dancing with the Skirt. Kristin, who performs both traditional and tribal dance, came down from Columbia, South Carolina to support us, and a new dancer, Katie, brought her ribbon poi.
Even though I hadn’t performed with these ladies before, I felt it was important to do some dances together. I created a simple but effective choreography for the song “Downtown,” to express our support for our city, and some of the dancers learned it in one rehearsal. We opened with this number, and it drew the crowd in. Then we did presented our solo and troupe specialties, and closed with a group improv to live drumming.
So I am feeling a lot more positive about the progress of belly dance in this area. Part of if is that I have had to learn to adapt to the scene here, but I am also learning how I can contribute to its development. My own style has become more fusion. I now appreciate the beauty, joy and creativity here, and I look forward to continued growth and inspiration.
Author does sword
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