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Robyn dances at the Grapeleaf

Dance Emotion

Part 1

by Najia Marlyz
posted November 1999

"The place of dance is within the heart."
--Tom Robbins

After a few years into my dance career, perhaps about 1984 or so, I found Tom Robbins' quotation and embraced its meaning because it struck a note of truth within me and expressed it tersely. Until then, I had been telling my students many, many words with which I tried to explain that dancing was a communications art and that it had to have content as well as form.

While I am certain that Tom Robbins was not speaking about belly dance at all, none-the-less, the quotation expressed then, and expresses now, the way I approach the teaching of dance.

My own teacher, Bert Balladine, often stated in class (circa late 1970) that dancers generally had very little life experience to dance ABOUT until they were in their mid-thirties, but, until then, they could apply themselves to the tools of presentation and the refinement of their dance technique.

That sounded reasonable to me because at that time I had just become thirty. I had seen myself survive the 1960's with only the remnants of a twenty-year marriage and no concrete aspirations of ever having a family or much of a life outside the arts in which I was then indulged.

I became a "Renaissance Woman" and studied a little in the graphic arts and design, a little harpsichord playing, a little poetry writing, a little tapestry weaving, a little antique repair with beadwork, and a little dance. I was busy and unfocused until I began to live mainly for the dancing. I was a thirty-year-old teenager with a shattered dream and self-image.

My emotions came pouring from my heart into the dance, and I found great power in performing as often as possible so that I could express the emotion so denied to me by my then husband.

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I had a dream about this time--well, two important dreams actually. The first of the two dreams was of me sitting on a huge chunk of ice silently sliding downhill slowly, watching the world--all of life--pass me by. Later, when I began to learn belly dance from Bert Balladine, a magazine reporter came to class and interviewed him and he sent her over to talk with me. While answering her questions, I related the second dream, my apparent response to the first dream. It was reported in the PAGEANT Magazine October 1973.

I told the reporter about my second dream: an archeologist had made an important discovery while on a dig in the dessert, and that emerging from the sands of time was a portrait of myself, looking very much like a Vermeer painting, revealing myself as a beautiful woman.

It sounds like so much contrived poppycock now, but it was the truth of my being at the time. Vermeer's women, though lovely, still were far from the passion, sorrow, and terror I was to experience as my marriage completely disintegrated. With each step toward personality growth and maturity, the chasm between us grew as he sought out women who were weak and who "needed him". My emotions roiled and I healed my heart a little with each dance. It's easy to admit that I did not really understand what I was doing to my audiences, nor how I did it. I can only tell you that it was not unusual for women to tell me, in whispered tones, that my dance had brought tears welling up within them. I greatly liked that response because I was, at last, able to get an emotional response out of somebody--anybody--whereas my husband, seemed to me, had an impervious heart of stone.

As I grew more and more defiant in my personal life, my dancing became ever more subtle as my understanding of the content of the music developed. Since I had been teaching Yoga, and various forms of physical fitness, my body was, at that time, extremely flexible and it was easy to extend my knowledge of the other arts into dancing much as I previously had created drawings on paper and compositions with words. My husband, who hated my dancing, encouraged me to open a dance studio and teach dance so that I would "stay out of [his] hair".

Zara dances at the GrapeleafWhen the final dissolution papers arrived in the mail from the county, after a two-year wait, I celebrated the sadness of the death of that marriage with a new love who presented a huge white orchid. He told me that I now had to make my own world through dance, and for a good many years I did just that.

"Dancing is not taught as an art in any university. There it is still in the gymnasium."
--Agnes De Mille

"Dancing is not an academic pursuit; it is an emotional pursuit."
--Bert Balladine

Meanwhile, back at the dance studio, I had hundreds of students over the nearly ten years it was open and running successfully. Yet, I remained puzzled by my inability to transfer the quality of my dance passion to others. I had been led, by my professors in the school of education at the University of Washington, to believe that if the instructor just "broke down the subject into palatable segments, then anyone with intelligence could teach anything to anybody." It was about then that my frustration found a bit of relief in the Zen idea that one had to be a (fill in the blank) to learn how to (blank). In other words, you had to have the heart of a dancer to be taught how to dance. That did, and still does, assuage my guilt at not being able to reach everyone who expresses a wish to learn belly dance.

However, one morning I awoke to the realization that the college professors were not totally wrong and that there had to be a method which I could devise which would help put dancers in touch with their emotional treasure-hold and to convey it to others. What follows is a brief explanation of the method I then devised.

I noted that most belly dance students had not devoted very much time or effort to their own instruction before "going professional". It was also apparent that they generally placed a very high value upon proving that Belly Dance, or Danse Orientale, was as good as other forms of dance such as Ballet, Flamenco, Tap, or Ballroom, by attempting to codify, and "break down" the movements. They stretched to define, yet not refine technique as if it had somehow been a formal study on its own turf in the Middle East.

What had formerly been accessible to all as a spiritual dance of the feminine psyche as well as a celebration of the female form in the Berkeley 60's, began to take on the plastic glasses, nose, and mustache disguise as an academic art form.

One that ought to have stringent certification of teachers, and be based on set choreographies similar to "the real [read western] dance forms". Inevitably, the dancer then felt herself becoming responsible for educating her public about her fascinating, if obscure, art form.

It almost seemed that western thinking was hell-bent on diminishing the very strength and soul of the Danse Orientale by piling upon it the weight of academia.

It occurred to me that both Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille had the essence of dance in mind when they separately repeated at various times in their careers, "The body doesn't lie". Agnes de Mille reported in her biography of Martha Graham that early in Graham's formation as a dancer, she was given the notion by her psychologist father that one could read the feelings of others by the motions they made with their hands and other positioning of their bodies. I became aware, from reading a book titled "The Arab Mind", that Arabs believe that truth (or lack thereof) is revealed in the eyes. It was then that I devised my scheme of presenting student dancers with a set of ways to approach the communication of emotion though dance.

In Part Two of this essay I will explain how I have utilized and taught the technique I have devised.

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Ready for more?

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