“A Star is Reborn”
I recently watched the remake of the movie “A Star is Born” starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. I was emotionally hit by how much I related to the story. Though I have never had any substance addictions, I have and still do have an addiction to the rush of touring, of high pressure performance, and of generally stressing about life. The last of which I’m sure most of us can relate to. Who among us has mastered the art of living their life from a sense of peace, well being, and flow? Maybe some! But for me I was always attracted to surmounting challenges. I think this is because, from an early age, the sheros and heros I connected with in my life, and in the movies, all grabbed me by the heart with their plights to fight for justice, to stand for change, and to defend the underdog. To me, living outside the status quo was the best way to accomplish this. To buck the common current had a delicious edge to it that reminded me of honoring my individuality versus squelching it. Living this way and even martyring it, felt like an empathetic, compassionate and brave choice. It occurs to me that many gypsies feel this way. Growing up a Bellydancer has feed my gypsy soul.
Cabaret Style Bellydance is, at its core, an improvisational dance that can act as an incredible platform for female empowerment and, happily for me, I am the daughter of an American Cabaret Bellydance pioneer. My mother, Jenaeni, was a star dancer at the famous nightclub The Fez in Hollywood (along with my other biggest influences, including Feiruz Aram and Antoinette Awayshak) during the 1960’s when California culture was leaning hard in the direction of feminism, sexual liberation, and exploration of eastern religions. This climate created a powerful pack of Bellydance role models, not a one of which would back down from a fight. From defending one’s self against chauvinistic customers, to demanding proper pay and working conditions, to expressing oneself without bounds, to defining one’s own spiritual path, to being tough as nails, and even to some being single moms, I often lovingly say I was “raised by wolves”. When my turn came to hit the stage in the 80’s, I felt the wash of the bright lights, the power of the screaming audience, and the vortex of amalgamated talent that had been seeded in me by my wolf mothers - it was a done deal. I first performed at four years old, with an already built in appetite for challenge, adventure, and the epic sweetness of dancing in the face of adversity. I felt built for Bellydance and built for Hollywood and built for the world. All of this proved to be true. What I didn’t count on was that like for very human being on this planet, challenge lay ahead. And since I started my career early, my midlife crisis came early. It came on the Bellydance Superstars Tour.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t offered drugs and alcohol. It was around me all the time. Given the challenges so many of us faced on tour, it almost seemed irresponsible to not use pain killers, anxiety pills, and alcohol to quell the pain, ignore the problems, and get the job done. I had a pinched vertebrae in my lower back from over exertion so my doctor offered me Vicodin and said “It’s so amazing that you are a famous Bellydancer. have a great tour!” I was suffering from severe anxiety attacks from over exhaustion so another doctor offered me Zanax and said “We love you so much. You are so amazing. have a great show”. A friend of mine said to me, “I drink wine only when I dance”. I mentioned that we were dancing every night. She ended up in AA. I remember trying to just get a massage and having the therapist ask me questions about my life as a star the entire time. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to relax, no one to cling to, no way to rest. No one to save me. There were bills to be paid and, coming from a rich in love but poor in pocketbook childhood, I felt I had no right to say, “no” to the momentum and current of my international career as a Bellydance Superstar. The day I stood in my bathroom ready to take anxiety pills, it hit me. I said a mental “thank you but no thank you” for the pills, set them down and had my first flicker of what would become the internal supernova that would strip me of my mental and emotional comfort zones and take away my identity as I had known it so far. Nervous breakdowns were easy. I had had many. This was different. This was an awakening. Not a comfortable one. More like birth.
Thank goddess for my mother. Time and again I would return to her from tour ravaged, sometimes literally crawling through the door sobbing. She’d put me back together with the most magical of things. She would create sacred space in our home. She filled it with exotic decor, aromatherapeutic oils, incense, candles, calming music, healthy food. Everything was clean and cared for. Our garden was an oasis. Our cats were purringly comforting. We had dance space in our home. I would lay in it and feel my nervous system recalibrating. Why could I not just teach Bellydance from my home studio? Why was it required that I hurt myself for money? I couldn’t answer these questions yet. Plus, I was still glorifying the path of struggle to gain triumph over suffering. I knew how to calm down and find empowerment within my sacred home space and take sustenance and inspiration there for my shows, but I still assumed that I owed the universe some kind of suffering for that kind of joy.
I grew up in a small town called Ojai in California. This was a very special place full of spiritualists, forward thinkers, and artists. It’s nestled in a valley between gorgeous mountains that were full of rivers and waterfalls. This is where I learned so much about how to tune into frequencies beyond just the business of life. But this was enjoyed as an indulgence on the weekends. During the week, mom and I struggled for the bills and lamented what was wrong with the world. We had not yet heard of the Law of Attraction and were still waiting for the “powers that be” to make it possible for us to be free. By the time I was 18, no one had yet come to save us, so we decided to take a more hard core level of responsibility for our finances, and turned to ambition.
When I got picked up for the Bellydance Superstars tour I was almost a decade into living in Los Angeles. I had been performing up to ten shows per weekend, putting in 18 hour days as an extra on set during the week, and teaching all week as well. Auditions came infrequently. When I got one, I did well. But the pounding of the payment that had started like the beat of a drum coinciding with my heart had dulled to an echo. I had already burnt out. On my last day in LA, I had an audition for the Bellydance Superstars and nailed it. I was in.
My mama and I had chosen to move to Florida. So now I had a tropical paradise to come home to in between grueling tours. But the contrast confused me. I couldn’t find balance. Physical abuse had become the norm for me. Not the kind we usually think of as perpetrated by an outside source. But the kind where the perpetrator was me. I had no way to trust myself to protect myself against being crammed into a too tiny seating situation on our small tour bus, to going without proper sleep, to having no rest days, to going without proper food. I just kept saying yes. I was my own worst nightmare. But I couldn’t figure out how to stop. No amount of petitioning, arguing, demanding, or banding together worked out to change working conditions. And the hardest issue of all: if I didn’t tour, I didn’t have the rent. I found myself shattered across a reflection in broken glass. So much was going right while so much was going wrong. So many of the dreams and goals of my sheroes were being played out through me while so much of what they warned against was playing out too. Not to mention the fact that each time I danced, I felt myself opening my heart and soul and receiving intuitive messages that I could not yet understand or honor. My star was exploding. It was supernova time.
It was on a plane with a blanket over my head, quietly weeping during one of my worst anxiety attacks ever, that I found something new. I had been counting backwards to try to go to sleep so I could escape myself but it wasn’t working. So I just kept counting. I believe it was by accident that I began to focus my eyes to the center of my forehead. It was an attempt to concentrate. Also by accident I seemed to be following my inhalations and exhalations. For the first time ever, I hacked the anxiety. Just for a few moments, but it was bliss. I escaped! I didn’t know how I did it and I didn’t even know where I had escaped to. I just knew that it felt like a “me” that was a deeper me than the me that was living my stressful conflicted life. I had stumbled onto meditation.
It would take me years to give this space more and more credit until I finally learned how to control whether or not I would fall into an anxiety attack. I came to the point where I could even get myself out of one, no matter how deep. This was the most extraordinary discovery. I began to make promises with myself. To organize my thoughts and build trust. I would ask myself: what is bothering you right now? Then I would answer honestly and agree to truly address the issue when off the plane or when done with the gig. It took me even longer to begin to truly and effectively address the requests my inner being was making of me! But when I began to honor this voice, it felt like I had become my own shero. That if I needed something I could ask ME! If I needed saving, I could save myself. This shit felt so much more in line with how I grew up than with what I was dealing with trying to work with Hollywood, the “mainstream” marketplace, and the touring industry. It felt so good that I allowed my voice to finally say, "I don’t want to do this! I want my life to match my message. If I teach a workshop on the weekend that empowers women, I can’t go back on the road during the week and feel like a victim”.
That’s when I had the idea to create the first online, membership based website for Bellydance classes at Ansuya.com. I felt I had an opportunity to pioneer an industry that could save women from some of the ills that some Bellydance opportunities presented and provide them instead with a training platform to become performers, teachers, and even their own empowered entrepreneurs at home in their own towns. From how to develop your own Bellydance style, to embracing your sensuality, to creating your own business, I was breaking the mold with how and what I was teaching. I created Bellyskypes for the live online experience and even opened my own studio and started retreats to fully immerse myself and my students in a study of a sacred Bellydance lifestyle. But my commitment was still subject to wavering. I still found myself saying yes when I meant no. Touring had faded to the back, but would still pop up in the form of occasional trips.
Facing another gig abroad, my old friend anxiety pop up again. I knew what to do as I had become adept at controlling this reaction. This time, however, my inner voice was pushing through with a new question. The question was “Why must I suffer at all to achieve my goals?” I decided to get up and get out of the house and head for a Yoga class - just to distract myself. That’s where I not only remembered to breathe, but was suddenly in an environment where everyone and everything was speaking to my questions. Not only was I able to get help for the injuries I had incurred from travel, but now I found myself receiving epic support on internal exploration, journaling and self discovery. I had stepped into a Yoga studio that was taking an ancient art form and bringing into a modern practicality and context that I had never been exposed to before in other Yoga classes. Much like I have my own way of imparting the ancient art form of Bellydance to the modern woman, Michael Schaefer, owner of Yoga Lab, was imparting his discoveries with Yoga to the modern everybody. I felt I was home. Here is where I could heal, practice, strengthen, and find the tools I need to balance my sacred relationship to Bellydance, my home and family life, with a real understanding, empowerment, and all new level of control. When Teacher Training for 2019 was announced, I was IN! So much of what I have been referring to in my Bellydance classes regarding postures, breath, chakras, intuition, and self discovery was in line with what I was learning at Yoga Lab. I began to realize that not only was I home, but that my art of Bellydance was home. That blending these worlds would be a brand new way of restoring Bellydance to its sacred expression and delivering it to the hands of goddesses who are ready and waiting to give it their personal love and individual twist. I told Michael Schafer I was going to enter his certification program and he said, of all things, “welcome home”.
During my very first weeks at Yoga Lab I learned about my “comfort zone” and my “edge” and began to define for myself my own new term of “inspiration zone”. For me this meant that I could move outside my comfort zone and find inspiration that would carry
me into growth, without falling over my edge into damage. I was able to admit that travel causes me damage and that if I am strong enough and secure enough to say no that I will be able to stand in my truth, live authentically, and grow healthily. This is allowing me to be empowered in my own life as I help students become empowered in theirs.
So, as I re-watch scenes from “A Star is Born”, I see it for all its glamour, guts, and glory. And, like an interesting therapy session, scene by scene I see the choices that could be made. I see the forks in the road not taken, I see the balancers, the healers, the opportunities to be in control. So, as it turns out, my movie would not be “A Star is Born” after all. It would be “A Star is Reborn”.
I can’t wait to keep sharing my Bellydance and Yoga discoveries, the fusion of which I have named Sacred Sinuosity-TM prerecorded online at Ansuya.com, live by private, group, and full workshop Bellyskypes, through certifications, and in my Bellydance and Yoga classes and retreats in Naples, Florida!
When studying Bellydance techniques, remember that they are meant to be tools for us to connect with our music and our inner being so that through authentic, exalted expression we can hook ourselves and our audiences to a higher vibration.
When we get "in the zone" during an inspired improvisational performance we, and our audience, forget which techniques were used to put us into this elevated state. What is remembered is what was felt by us and what was felt by the audience as a result of being bonded together during this creative process.
To me this does not mean that we shouldn't be excited about collecting and honing techniques. But it could mean that we need not be held back or held prisoner by overly focussing on collecting more and more techniques, without ever finding and sharing the depth of our potential expression.
As women in our Bellydance industry, we have an opportunity to treat our art and each other with ever increasing love and respect. Let's try not to fall prey to or propagate a purely superficial approach that can trap us and our goddess sisters in a box. Rather than being part of that game, let's keep breaking that cycle and direct our energy toward truth and healing and creativity.
Once we find an empowered track, our feelings of competition with regard to technique fall away and we find that when we dance in our truth, we spontaneously create brand new techniques during our improvs. Discovering that there is a well spring within us that allows abundant and endless creativity helps us to confidently celebrate and be inspired by others when they tap into the same. Let's remember, it's not what the dancer is dancing, it's how she is making us feel as she is dancing.
The highest levels of expression and inspiration await us within our fundamental techniques. The rest is there for us to call into our improvs when it's what we need to continue our expression, versus what we feel we must do to compete. I hope these thoughts continue to free each of you who come to Bellydance to find, nurture, and unleash the goddess within.