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On March 29, Northern Lights flamed orange and gold over the Keweenaw. The sky colors raged like solar flares. These were no gentle green and blue sheets of shimmering arctic lights, but full expressions of Copper Country fusion. It came as no coincidence that 47 North raised the roof of the Continental Fire Company earlier that night.
Awakening began at 8 p.m. to a full house. The dance performances have grown in popularity, and the management had to open the upstairs bar and create a theater in the round perspective from above. My son-in-law opens every show as a theatric MC, grabbing attention with his voice and humor. The dancers opened with a remix of Wicked Game, a slow smoldering beat-heavy song that begins, “The world is on fire, and no one can save me but you.”
Each beat, the dancers popped in unison.
Pops are an under-appreciated element of belly dance. When most people hear the style, they think Mediterranean restaurants and women in sheer costumes swiveling hips and smiling for men. Not this troupe. 47 North Belly Dance is raq sharqi, Egyptian-style cabaret, ballet, hip-hop, and modern. They are fusion. And pops come from the ability to isolate muscles and control movement. They include the shape-shifting choreography of modern dance where dancers meld in and out of shapes with contrast and flow. Balletic grace infuses fiery strength. 47 North is a warrior tribe of strong female dancers.
After Wicked Game, I stepped onto the stage and read:
Welcome to the dark side: The black loamy soil from which crocus bulbs must break the surface. Before there can be spring, there must be winter. Life germinates in the dark, undulating to a restless energy, the manifestation of what comes next, a stirring felt by birds and bees and rising maple sap. On the stage dancers cast long shadows in the bright lights. They embrace the ancient rhythms, become the crocus spears beneath the surface. This too is part of life. The dance with darkness, the dance within shadows, the pre-emergence, incubation, propagation of winter absorbed by spring.
Two stories of bar chatter, clanking glasses and shaking ice creates a buzz I project over the top of like some Beat Generation poet, hustling literary art on the crowd. It’s not a typical reading venue, nor is it friendly. People don’t listen politely. It’s Friday night, and the party is underway. But I love this fusion of art, this opportunity to attend dance rehearsals, discuss meanings with choreographers and share a bit of their stage to read 99-word stories. I retreat to the shadows in the wings and two succubi, one short, one tall, dominates the stage, filling the space between their differences with an energy of seductive strength. This is not come-hither-boys seduction; it’s the dance of women owning their own sexuality.
The crowd roars and the fires are lit.
Throughout the evening the troupe dances from dark, sultry pieces that include bats to the in between stage we know so well on the Keweenaw — before there is the daffodil spring we must endure the long melt of grit and snow-husks. We must crack the thinning ice. In Between, I read:
They chiseled their way into deep shafts, miners drilling through the basalt of a peninsula rich in copper. Men searching for copper. Women carve deep into the pits of their own souls to discover treasure within – the power to create, the power to renew. Spring awakens the miners. Tommy Knockers never stop searching in between dark and light. Fortune glistens in the returning light of spring to illuminate hidden veins held in the dark. Smell the musty earth and search for copper in your own blood. Plant a seed, pluck a stone. Spring has returned to Copper Country.
As MC, Solar Man entertains the crowd. He makes jokes: “Why did the belly dancer cross the road? She heard there were costumes on the other side.” We all laugh, but I’m not sure the crowd fully understands the troupe’s obsession with costumes which, like their dance style, is an eclectic mix to create vibrant visuals on stage. Hip belts are often the product of ripped leather coats resewn with cheap baubles and dime-store rhinestones. Tops are enhanced bras studded with costume jewelry, satin, and lace. Skirts are often scarves. Dancers use fans, veils, swords and golden canes to accent their costumes.
The light dawns. The dances and costumes become more golden and glittery, the dances more joyous. This performance has been a full awakening. Before the finale, I have a point to make. One I want every artist to understand. We can strive to do our best, but no one is ever “the best” at art. You can tell the dancers, like my daughter in her high-and-tight buzz cut, that have trained for years in ballet. Grace imbues the way they hold their arms and necks. You can spot the dancers that flow with the music. You can compare ages, heights, and other numbers that hold no real meaning but are easy descriptors.
But you ‘d be hard pressed to agree on who is best.
I bring this up because writers often compare themselves to perceptions of best. Discipline doesn’t shape art, but play does. You can’t draft from the editor’s chair. You have to write first. After you write you can certainly improve. The trick is, you have to keep writing. When you’ve amassed, then you can take a scalpel and practice precision. But keep writing. It becomes a dance. Pay too much attention to the other birds, and you can lose your will to chirp. Sing alongside the birds and add your unique voice, practicing the best you can do, not concerned about being the best bird.
Before the dancers took to the stage where they would flow and merge as small groups into one big group with each dancer creating different movements, I read:
The Greatest Show on Earth returns in spring with birdsong. It has been said by ornithologists wiser than me that if only the best birds sang, the woods would be silent. How can we possibly define the best bird song anyhow? How can we say that the golden-wing warblers out-sing the piping plovers? How can we deny the soul-stirring refrains of our favorite songs on the radio though yours and mine will differ? How can we not leave a live performance unchanged? The light has returned, and the birds have brought you out of the dark. Own your transformation.
47 North took to the stage and owned the transformation. The first time I saw them rehearse The Greatest Show, I cried. This troupe expressed how each dancer was different, but together they were stronger in their expression of art. They danced the way I feel when I arrange the collection of 99-word stories each week. I say this over an over, but it is true — art requires interaction. I might feel awesome writing my best, but it’s nothing if I don’t connect with others who read or hear it. Connecting when I’ve not written my best still feels more awesome than unacknowledged work. Unread, that’s what it is — my work. Shared, it becomes art.
The Continental Fire Company likes flash fiction. It’s because of my small readings they sponsored our Rodeo. The club manager always comes over to my chair in the shadows and explains how he likes the dances better with my stories, he feels drawn in to better understand what the performance means. Several people listen. Most talk. I don’t mind because the few who plug in, connect like a spark to fuel the flames.
But that night — March 29, 2019, those dancers took to the stage knowing one of their members was retiring to take a job out of town, and they all danced for her, with her, and for the mutual love of their shared art. The fire roared! The crowd caught it, ignited, and they roared back, feet pounding, hands clapping, hoots and hollers, whistles and trills. When the audience gave back the energy to the dancers, it was like a vortex opened up. It was a rock-star moment, and the performance ended with a thundering standing ovation.
I don’t want to be “the best” writer. I just want to write the way those women danced!
Sunday followed the performance, and I had my first To Cultivate a Book retreat at the Ripley Falls Home of Hygge (or Healing). It’s a safe space to explore the creative life. I’m not here to tell someone the magic way to get published, the traditional way, the indie way. I’m here to listen. I meet writers where they are at, and I help them see what the terrain looks like. I help them plant and grow the book they envision. That’s the retreat part. Interspersed, I offered practical knowledge. Each attendee is working on an Author Action Plan that is cultivated to fit their book on their terms, knowing their options in the greater industry.
This is something I’ve felt called to do for a long time. Like all writers who face doubt, I wondered if it would be of value. Sunday I had my answer. Six women came together. Three had previously unshared works. Three felt called but had not figured out what their books were. I listened. I let my story-catcher out, and I caught nuggets to reveal as gems to each person. Seeing the fire light up in their eyes made my day!
Three of the women have serious books that each blew me away. I couldn’t believe they had not shared them, but then I understood. Our seedlings are fragile, and we must share with care lest someone stomp out the flames too soon. I felt like a book farmer, helping people grow the books they want, not necessarily the books they “should” write (unless of course, what they want is a book dictated by markets and readership).
Literary art is meant to be accessible, not put on a top shelf for “the best.” Literary art has the power to move people just as dance can.
Keep your flame burning.
April 4, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about fire. It can be a flame that burns or a light that inspires. Follow the flames and go where the prompt leads!
Respond by April 9, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Hard to Take a Break (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Fire spun a halo in the night sky. Danni’s stomach churned. Nothing more she could do tonight. She leaned against her Forest Service truck, away from the camp chatter. Some recruits buzzed from the adrenaline, fighting wildland fires for the first time. Nearby, the Canadian Bombardier pilot regaled his earlier flight to the crew of Australians newly arrived. Danni scanned the distant flames, feeling impatient. In 1910 they didn’t luxuriate in rest and strategy in shifts. Is this what Ike felt before he left –restless while others fought a war he had to watch burn from the sidelines?
Sloppy snow pools like white slush and I realize this so-called return to winter barks but doesn’t bite. It can’t hide the push of life from the exposed patches of earth. In fact, the heavy moisture feeds the burgeoning life. Yellow-green shoots of new grass blades poke up like stubble from the grit the city snowplows left behind on curbside lawns. Most yards still house sagging snow drifts, pocked and dirty. At least the spring snow adds a dash of freshness.
This week, I have two new friends — one a neighbor and the other a long-lost cousin.
I’ll call my neighbor Cranky as long as you realize that’s not her disposition. Cranky is delightful. She’s an antique Singer Sewing Machine shop owner and seamstress who specializes in the same era for which I write historical fiction. How is that for neighborhood serendipity? We met right before winter when a stray cat turned up at her house. She stopped by to see if the cat belonged to us. Then, last week she stopped by to see if I’d go walking with her.
It’s thrilling to get asked to walk with a neighbor. Except for the walking part! Since winter closed off the rock beaches to me, I’ve not walked much or far. My glutes and calves are feeling the burn from the hilly roads we live on, but it feels good to get outside and observe spring. We spotted two red robins on our walk last night and located the neighborhood murder of crows. We even saw two nuthatches and heard a few unidentified birds.
Along one house where the southern exposure to sun melted the snow, we marveled over the spears of daffodils. We plan to walk three days a week and even talked about field trips. Cranky is a real birder, meaning she has expertise in identifying birds whereas I have lots of curiosity. As you can imagine, we have much to discuss about 1860 as we walk.
My second friend found me through Ancestry. We connected when he sent a message regarding errors in my tree. It’s a working tree, thus I appreciate any corrections from others. Then he asked about a lost cousin who had red hair and disappeared when she was seven. I realized he was asking about me. It’s stunning that we have found each other all these decades later. I feel more like I’ve found a long-lost brother. Already, he knows me too well which has made me laugh. He’s got a great sense of humor and a big heart. He’s creative and witty and I’m so pleased to get to know him again.
With ongoing VA appointments, I’m feeling batty this week. How we can be back to square one with the Hub’s knee is mind-boggling, but here we are asking for yet another orthopedic referral. His primary care doctor is lighting fires, but the system is practiced at snuffing them out. While we don’t have complete answers to the memory tests, we did conclude the Hub has an extraordinary memory. It’s his focus and attention that is suffering. With the onset, we are not ruling out traumatic brain injury. At least we have some validation that there is indeed something screwy with his brain.
Considering the ignorance of the military 30 years back, the way Rangers train is similar to American football players. Tough blows made the young man. We are learning more about TBI as these men age. The Hub’s unit never had medical physicals after combat. Instead, they deployed to another hot spot. Today, or at least beginning with the Iraq War, soldiers are examined, and they deploy with psychiatric units. Let me tell you, that makes a difference. Hopefully, the Hub will get what he needs for a better quality of life.
With all these scattered thoughts beneath sloppy white stuff, I have one more to add — white-nose syndrome. This deadly disease impacts bats and often they become unseasonably active and die in winter instead of hibernating. In Iron Mountain, where we frequently travel to go to the VA hospital, scientists study the bats at Bat Mine, which is considered one of the most significant hibernating and breeding concentrations in the world. They begin to emerge in late April.
Last fall, 47 North Belly Dance Troupe, dedicated a dance to the bats. Before the dance began, they played this creative video as a public service announcement. It includes several of the dancers, and my SIL lends his voice to the narration. The second video shows part of the bat dance.
As we move through life, we become aware of those around us — neighbors, environment, family. Awareness opens us up to curiosity and possibility. The more we learn, the more we grow. We are all part of the web of life, a fitting idea as we connect through the playful activity of literary art in constrained form. Each week, I appreciate how diverse the individual stories are, and how they express a deeper meaning in a collection.
Yes, we are going to get batty this week.
April 12, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a bat. You can use an association to the winged, cave-dwelling critter, or you can explore the word for other meanings. Bonus points for including a bat cave. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by April 17, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
If you want your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.
Lullaby of Bats (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Logs of cottonwood crackled and threw flames toward the night-sky. Most of the travelers had left the bonfire to bed down beneath their wagons. The baby Sarah heard crying earlier had stopped. Night insects chirped, and somewhere near the wagons a horse stomped. Night sounds of camp. Sarah relaxed on a log stool while Cobb played a slow fiddle tune. Back and forth he rubbed the bow. Bats darted in and out of the visible light, bobbing to the gentle lullaby with wings spread. Sarah sighed, looked toward the stars and watched the last of the evening’s dancers fly.
Essay by Allison Mills, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers, and the Darling Daughter of the Lead Buckaroo
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Deep down—way deep down where words melt into heartbeats and cation exchanges—I know I am a dancer. In that regard, I consider myself a writer second. Or perhaps I’m an editor second because I play the role of choreographer as I craft the words of a first draft. In my mother’s words, these stories in the rough are raw literature.
Yes, Carrot Ranch blog extraordinaire Charli Mills is my Mumsy Darling; it’s a nickname my sister and I gave her in high school and the one I still use in my mobile contacts. No surprise, my earliest memories are of her, living room leaps, and Shakespeare. I can appreciate Norah Colvin’s recent post on teaching children the process of writing and the value of a portfolio as Mumsy Darling was my first instructor in storytelling.
The specific memory I can recall is filtered through a home video. Her long auburn hair swaying, Mumsy leads us three children in a wild, dance-run circle to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. We spin, leap, throw our arms as only children and their mother can. The suite transitions, we fall to the floor, and ever the writer, Mumsy hears her musical cue for words, “Romeo, oh, Romeo! Where art thou, oh, Romeo?”
Before she can finish the monologue, my logger of father—wearing a cowboy hat and Elmer Fudd t-shirt—walks through the door, swinging his arms as only a man with bull shoulders and cantaloupe biceps can. “Right here, babe!”
The whole scene is improvised. There is an ease to the phrases and pirouettes. It’s raw. It’s a feeling I now chase as an adult writer working in science communication for a university. It’s a memory I use to spark choreography as a dance instructor and performer. To embrace raw literature, I approach my writing as a dance piece.
I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much rough drafting done, but headphones and music are an important part of my writing process. No lyrics—words don’t beget words for me. I have to tap into a mental and emotional space where I feel the shape and rhythm of words as movement before my conscious mind taps them out on the keyboard. Caught up in the steps, my hands will rise and flick out; at times, deep in concentration and imagination, my whole body steps away from the screen and I’m snapped back to reality by my headphones. Many of my coworkers have walked in on this desk dance; lit happens, people.
For all the touchy-feeling sound of this process, I’m terribly precise. Before my writing flows, I have to soak up so much information—just imagine all the facts a top-tier researcher with new paper can lay out in an hour-long interview—and I sort it first into messy notes and recordings, then weave the highlights into a tight and detailed outline. I work best with templates and a plan, even a rough one, helps me breathe life into a raw story. Sometimes I jump into the petit allegro of the body copy; often I bend the beginning into place and follow through like a traditional barre from plies to grand battements, kickers are endings after all.
Dance improvisation is the closest thing to writing for me. Improv appears extraneous; non-dancers may be surprised to learn how much structure is needed, much as non-writers may not realize how much research and thought goes into raw literature. A dancer builds up muscle memory, so that as she choreographs on the fly, her moves come smoothly and with practiced grace. Sometimes the steps are repetitive or off-beat, but you can’t rework what you don’t practice. A writer pens words every day and sometimes coughs up a phlegmy first draft for the same reason.
Practice does not make perfect; practice just opens up more opportunity and makes it easier to clear out the crud. Cutting and polishing are the precise tools of editing; raw literature is the material, crafted from intuition.
While rawness comes with some roughness, genuine expressions beat rote and memorized masks. I channeled this recently in a fusion improv I dedicated to my family and where we’ve all come since our living room ballets. I planned out the structure and agonized for months on what story to tell. On the night of the show, though, I realized it’s only a dance. It’s only a rough draft. Let go.
(See Allison’s solo at 4:55 and you’ll understand what comes of her raw choreography in a piece she dedicated to her family.)
Allison Mills is a Science and Technology Writer at Michigan Tech. A through and through geek, Allison writes university research stories. She studied geoscience as an undergrad at Northland College before getting a master’s in environmental science and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana. She moonlights as a dance instructor, radio fiend, and occasional rock licker. She writes features from fruit flies to sulfurous volcanic emissions. Read her published articles at Michigan Tech, and for all you sci-fi geeks and writers, follow her at Unscripted where science rolls off the tongue in discussions about campus research. Allison wrote, Welcome to Superfund, a multi-media masters project, including podcast journalism, environmental writing and map-making. She dances with the troupe, 47 North Belly Dance, and tweets at @aw_mills.
Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.