Saturday, April 28, 2012

In the Words of Belly Dancer Arielle Juliette …


I reported in my April 19th blog about the joyous performance of the belly dance students of the Dance Life & Fitness Studio owned by dancer/instructor Arielle Juliette. 

Belly Dancer Arielle Juliette
Arielle takes great pride in her students and used the recital to showcase their accomplishments. But what I found most engaging was her obvious enthusiasm for her art.  She only took to the stage twice during the two hour program that night -- once in a dance with her students and once in a solo performance -- but when she soloed she used stomach muscles I didn’t know humans possessed. Her level of skill was eye-boggling. And she shook and shimmied and thrust her hips all the while engaging her audience with a smile and eye contact that openly invited us to join in the celebration.

What I didn’t know at the time, and what I was most curious about, was what brought Arielle to this particular dance form. As it turns out, she was made for dance from a very young age. But she found traditional dance – ballet, jazz, etc. – to be confining. Hip hop was fun for her, for a while. But it was belly dance that saved her life.

Arielle’s passion for dance – and her dream of being a professional dancer – helped her survive a dark period in her life. Like many young girls, she went through a period of severe depression and self-loathing. She experienced sexual abuse at a young age; and in a story she wrote for her Facebook page in 2009 she described being “disconnected from” her body. According to Arielle, “Discovering bellydance was about more than learning how to move to music in a new way; it was about reclaiming what I had lost.” She went on to say that for the first time since she was 5 years old, her body was her own again. “I found myself through this dance, and pulled myself from the darkest depths to become the person I am today. I do not like to think what would have become of me had I not started dancing.”

Arielle generously agreed to answer questions I posed to her in a recent email interview. Her personal energy and exuberance come through in her answers.  I think you will enjoy this interview!

MCW: Is teaching belly dancing your full time occupation?  Where did you study and for how long?

AJ: Yes, currently I am blessed enough to have my art be my full time profession. I run the studio business during the day, teach in the evenings, and perform on the weekends. Mona N'wal was my main instructor for belly dance, and she now teaches at my studio! I began with her in 2004, and knew that I wanted to be a professional by the time I graduated in 2006. Before Mona, I studied hip hop on my own watching music videos. I've loved to dance for as long as I can remember, but I could never stand Western dance classes as a kid!

MCW: What brought you to belly dancing? What is it about this art form that got you interested?

AJ:  It was actually my mom that got me started in belly dance. She saw a show that included belly dancers, and thought that we would really like it. I found Mona online, and we began together! She is now helping me teach my classes, and foraying into teaching classes of her own. I never would have stuck with it if it wasn't for my mom! And it's awesome to have something that we can do together. We have always been close, but we are closer now than we ever have been! I don't know where I would be without both of my parents.

Besides my mom, what helped me stick to dancing was how much healing I needed to do inside myself, and how belly dance allowed me to do that. By the time I was 17, I had been through much sexual abuse in my life. It left me disconnected from my body, and with very low self-esteem. Belly dance helped me to reclaim my body, and to have the confidence to become the independent business woman I am today!  

MCW: I noticed that the women in the class were of all ages and sizes. That surprised me. Does that surprise you? And why do you think they are willing to embrace this form of dance and be public about it?

AJ: When I first started belly dance, I was very surprised at how different all the women were- all shapes, sizes, ages, and walks of life, all united by a common passion. Now that I'm seasoned to the belly dance scene, it doesn't surprise me at all. All women at some point have felt uncomfortable in their skin, unable to feel attractive or graceful, and unfortunately most have suffered abuse of one kind or another. Belly dance gives women a way to relate to their bodies in a positive way, and to feel confident about themselves as they are right now. I have testimonials from women who credit belly dance with giving them the confidence to pursue things they wouldn't normally pursue- like a promotion at work- and get it! Not to mention that many women love sparklies, jinglies and pretty colors, and belly dance gives them a safe place to express that.

As for why they choose to be public about it, now there's a great question. Belly dance is an art form that almost everyone performs at some point or another. I'm not sure why that is! It's that way in every belly dance circle I can think of. My theory is that everyone likes to be the center of attention time to time, and there's nothing to boost the confidence like a room full of people clapping for you! 

MCW: What do you think is the biggest misconception about belly dancing?

AJ: Absolutely, hands down, no questions about it the biggest misconception about belly dance is that belly dance = stripping. To many people, there's no difference at all. My extended family didn't approve of my choice in career for just that reason. Most people do not view belly dance as an art equal to ballet, modern, or jazz. Unfortunately, there are many dancers who are indeed strippers or close and call themselves belly dancers, so in some ways, I can't blame people for believing it. I present my art as just that, and I teach all of my students to elevate the art as well. We're changing the world and the common conception of belly dance one performance and class at a time!

Arielle said in her personal essay, “It is in my soul to dance; it is written in my destiny.” 

Perhaps that explains why she is able to imbue such a sense of joy and self-confidence in women we might stereotypically not associate with bellydance. It is her destiny. It is their good fortune! 


Sunday, April 22, 2012

What I’m Reading Now: People of the Book

As I said in an earlier post, I like a book that challenges me.  I am most entertained when I am taken to a place or time or into the life of someone that is new to me.  I also enjoy a book that employs extraordinary writing. 

Geraldine Brooks’ 2009 novel, People of the Book, does all of the above.  It is the story of Hannah Heath, a rare book expert, who is called upon to examine and restore a most unusual Jewish tome.  It is called a Haggadah—a Hebrew text that tells the ancient story of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt.  But this Jewish holy book is filled with illuminations—brightly colored miniature illustrations, generally in the borders and margins of books, hand painted and often gilded with gold and silver pigments—similar to those in classical Christian bibles.

The book itself represents a puzzle.  Who created it?  Who owned it?  How did it get into the hands of curators at a museum in Bosnia?

As Hannah examines the book and discovers in its binding clues to its history, the reader is taken back into time, chapter by chapter, generation by generation, and into the lives and cultures of those who had a hand in the production, passage, and safe keeping of the book.

Author Brooks weaves the modern day story of Hannah and her personal relationships with chapters told from the POV and, in some cases, the unique voices of each of the historical figures associated with the centuries old book.  As she takes us farther and farther back in time, Brooks crafts each character’s narrative with words, cadences, and even styles of thought unique to the period, class, and culture of the characters. 

Every once in a while I come across a book that I find myself not rushing to finish.  This was a book I deliberately chose to leave on my nightstand.  I resisted the temptation to pick it up for those five to ten minute downtimes when you want to read something, anything just to keep the wait from being boring.  I wanted to savor this book. It was my comfort-time reading.  The perfect book to take my mind off the mundane issues of my day, and allow me to focus on and marvel at characters, craft, and intrigue of a story well told. 

Australian-born Gerdine Brooks has written several other books, all historical fiction.  She garnered a Pultizer for fiction in 2006 for March, a novel based on a character from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Her most recent release is the historical novel Caleb’s Crossing,which takes the reader into the 1665 world of a young man from Martha's Vineyard who becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.   

At the end of People of the Book Brooks describes the research that went into this story, and it is phenomenal.  She is a true craftswoman, both in creating an intriguing and memorable story and in the way she uses words and language to take us to places that, for some of us readers, we could never have imagined going. 

People of the Book is so rich and delicious that I plan to start it over again and read it a second time. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Belly Dance: A Celebration of Womanhood

I had a fun, new, and most unusual—for me--experience this weekend. My daughter-in-law Hiroko invited me to a performance of her belly dance class. That’s right. Belly dance!  
The studio where she takes belly dance lessons is Dance Life Studio & Fitness, in Madison, owned and managed by Arielle Juliette. The performance—a sort of dance recital for adults—was a glorious celebration of music, movement and womanhood.

Photo: Ilyafarfell/Wikimedia Commons  
What I was first surprised about was the audience. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there was a full house/standing room only turnout of family and friends of the dancers. Ranging from families with babies and toddlers to seniors of all stripes, the audience was lively and appreciative of the novice dancers and their performances.

What I was even more surprised about were the belly dancers. These were not exclusively your stereotypically young, lithe, sexy women. The performers were women of all ages and all body shapes. And I mean all  One man in the audience urged his young son to “sit quiet and watch grandma dance.”

While some of the women had fit tummies, a significant number of them surprised me by their willingness to let the audience see them with their midriffs exposed. I found it a bit disconcerting at first. Why would they do that? Then as I watched their pride and enjoyment at showing what they had accomplished during their dance lessons, I got it. This wasn’t about showing off your body—or not showing—it was about celebrating a lifestyle that allowed them to work at being fit while have fun and being sensuous.

And yes, the women were sensuous, regardless of their age or body shape. Regardless of how little or much they wore. In fact, some of the costumes showed very little skin. But they all sparkled and bangled.

According to ethnomusicologist Lucy Pappas in her article, “The Forbidden Dance,” belly dance—which in Arabic is called Raks Sharqi, meaning "Oriental Dance"—was a form of Goddess worship in ancient days, and began as a ritual for childbirth preparation. Ms. Pappas says that before Islam and Christianity came into existence, sex and childbirth was a sacred part of Middle Eastern worship of the Mother Goddess. In ancient matriarchal societies bellydancing was performed by women for women.

I would like to say to all the women who put on the gauzy costumes and bangles and put themselves out in front of a live audience to shimmy and show off their moves, “You go, girl!”  I love that they have embraced their passion, worked hard to accomplish something that is most difficult, and then put on a show and invited the rest of us to come and join in the celebration.

You go, girl! 

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Day with Longfellow

Sometimes research for a book can take an author on a most interesting journey.  Last week when I was in Boston my daughter, a librarian, told me about a series of brown bag poetry readings happening at the Longfellow House in Cambridge in honor of NationalPoetry Month (April) . She knew that I would be interested because the next installment of the M. J. Williams On the Road... series of mysteries takes place in Boston and the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has a role it in. The focus for this year’s weekly readings was on the Fireside poets, contemporaries of Longfellow. 
Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA


So off I went to Cambridge with my lunch in a sack (kudos to Au Bon Pain) and an eager ear for poetry. The session was to be held in the Carriage House, as the main house was closed during the off season. But having the opportunity to see the inside of an 18th century carriage house that is bigger than the first home my hubby and I ever bought is something that strikes my fancy as being a good time (they actually had office cubbies set up in the reconditioned horse stalls).

About twenty people attended the poetry session this day, hosted by Park Ranger Rob Velella. Why would a National Park Ranger be hosting a poetry reading session at the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts?  Well, it turns out that the house, before Longfellow owned it, was the headquarters of General George Washington during the time of the Revolutionary War. And so besides being an icon of the literary set, it is also a National Park. 

It also turns out that Ranger Rob is a literary historian.  Besides having an excellent voice for the reading of mid-19th century poetry, he really knows his stuff when it comes to anything Longfellow.  What I think I enjoyed most about the session was how, after reading the work of the featured poet, Rob opened it up to discussion.  And being Cambridge, people really got into talking about the meaning of the poems, the beauty of words, and even the history behind it all.

The session opened with one of Longfellow’s poems, “Carillon” (from the Belfry of Burges and Other Poems, 1845).  But the featured poet was actually William Cullen Bryant.  Rob explained that the Fireside poets are not generally considered to have produced highly sophisticated works, but rather they wrote in a style intended for families to sit around the fireplace and read and enjoy. They were hugely popular and wrote about family life, nature, and populist politics.

The poems by Bryant that he chose for us were: “To a Waterfowl” (1821), “The Death of the Flowers” (1832), “The Future Life” (1842), “The Gladness of Nature” (1853), and “Dante” (1865).  

The highlight of my afternoon however was when I had a chance to talk with Rob after the session was over and as the others were leaving. I told him I was from Wisconsin and that I’d never been inside the main house; I tend to make my trips to Boston in the off season. Rob immediately offered to give me private tour. And of course I accepted.

The house is amazing. It has been totally preserved with the very furnishings and possessions that belonged to Longfellow and his second wife Frances Appleton (who died tragically from burns sustained after her dress caught on fire melting wax to seal an envelope).  Each room is set up exactly the way it was when the Longfellow lived there. 

A corner of Longfellow's den
Rob, who was a veritable font of stories about Longfellow as he ushered me through the various rooms, called Longfellow’s den his “man cave.”  And that was a pretty apt description.  The poet’s den was the only room in the house that his wife left alone.  He furnished it himself, and it is filled with personal memorabilia commemorating the “Dante Club,” the group of literati, who met with Longfellow on a weekly basis and critiqued his translation of the Dante’s Divine Comedy.  (For a fun if rather violently graphic  read, try Matthew Pearl’s period mystery TheDante Club; it’s fiction but based on historical research).  

And lest you think being a 19th century poet could not have been a very lucrative occupation back then, think again.  Oh yes, Longfellow did have a day job. He was a professor at Harvard. But that salary could hardly have afforded him a house in the style of this one, much less the two next door that he had built and gifted to his daughters and the several across the street that he gave to various extended family members. It turns out that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ( “Paul Revere’s Ride,” The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline) was pretty much the James Patterson of his day.

Garden at Longfellow House
If you get out to Boston, I recommend taking the time to visit the Longfellow House. The neighborhood alone is worth walking through. The houses are old and grand. And stepping inside the big yellow edifice at 105 Brattle Street is definitely like taking a step back in time. Even if you’re not really into poetry.

My sincere gratitude and thanks to Rob Velella for taking the time to show me around the house, entertain me with stories of this eminent poet, and introduce me to some most wonderful poetry.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My New Best Friends...

Note: As I sat with my mother, waiting out the last days of her long life I was introduced to her daytime friends: Rachael, Giada, Melissa, Anne, Guy, Sandra, and Sunny. If you recognize their names it’s because you watch daytime cooking shows on the Food Network.

My mother passed away on March 15. I wrote this blog entry while watching her favorite Food Channel cooking shows with her. This entry is dedicated to the woman who was the best cook in the world.


My mother has always been a wonderful cook. Not a fancy cook, but the kind of cook who put together a hearty meal that was always delicious. Growing up, each of us kids  had a favorite dish that Mom would always make on special occasions, and continued to make when we would come to visit. Mine was pot roast with those little baby carrots simmering in the juices. Somehow, when I cook pot roast, it never tastes the same as Mom’s.

Mom is 92.  She stopped cooking years ago. Well, not entirely. Up to about a year ago she was still making the stuffing for our family Thanksgiving feasts.  And six months ago she could still throw together a mean fruit salad.  Her secret ingredient?  Triple sec.

She was diagnosed five months ago with an aggressive form of lung cancer and congestive heart failure.  As the disease has inserted itself into her life, her social life and her world have both shrunk. Too tired for visitors, she spends most of her day in her recliner either looking out the window to keep track of who is coming and going, sleeping...or watching tv.  And in the afternoon she has taken to watching the Food Network.  

Her favorite chef?  Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I think she likes Ina’s quiet approach to teaching us how to cook her favorite dishes, and she enjoys watching her prepare meals for and feed all those guys who own the local shops, plant her garden, do odd jobs for her, and of course for her loving hubby Jeffrey.  And Ina seems to appreciate her own cooking more than the other celebrities do; she has a physique my mother can relate to.   

Now Mom is dependent on my poor excuse for a cooking skill.  Mostly we order from the dining room in her senior living complex. But sometimes I whip up some scrambled eggs with shrooms and cheese, cook a batch of Pillsbury chocolate chip cookies just to fill the apartment with good smells. Mom has never in my entire life criticized my cooking.  I think it puzzles her that something that comes so naturally to her can be such a challenge for me. She thinks it's funny that my hubby is a better cook--and cooks more often--than me. 

But the truth is, it doesn't matter how well I can or cannot cook because, due to the crazy way the cancer has grown, Mom cannot eat, except for a few spoonsful of creamy soup or a bite of egg or cheese now and again.  A sad way for a good cook to have to spend her final days.

But even though she can no longer eat, we watch the daytime chefs create glorious dishes. From noon until dinner time we watch the Food Channel on her 42inch screen TV with the volume up loud. So it feels like we are right in the kitchen with Ina and her perky cohorts.

I'm learning a lot I didn't know about meal preparation from Mom’s “friends,” like how to cook bacon in the oven (thank you, Ina) and how to make a fruit tart (grazie, Giada!) or how to feed my family an entire meal for ten dollars (I’m still skeptical, Melissa; you have no idea how hearty our appetites are). By the grace of Anne Burrell, I now know how to shock arugula and other green vegetables so they keep their color. 


But it's Rachael Ray who I identify with. Watching her juggle and balance cartons and veggies all that stuff from her fridge to carry to the cooking island is priceless. I've decided that if I just had a cooking island, I could cook like my mother. Of course she never had one. But that's another story.