Raising the bar (way above the clouds)- “Top” dancer audition in Lebanon

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I’m WAY behind on blog entries.

I’m writing now from Dubai, UAE.

Several friends have asked me how I got here….and wondered about what I’ve been up to for the last couple months.

Turkey?  Lebanon? Dubai?  Where’s Waldo?  I have in mind to sum it up in 3 blog entires:

Retropect Blog (Installment 1 of 3)

Rewind to July.   At last blogging, I had just arrived in Beirut, Lebanon.  Here’s what happened….

Visiting Lebanon for 3 weeks to network with my agent and his staff while training and preparing for a major “audition,” seemed, plainly enough, a “business trip” by definition, for a performing belly dancer.  But my time in Lebanon turned out to be a bit of a personal journey inward and I ended up unwrapping a few layers of a thin gauze to show me myself, …. little complicated versions of myself, as a dancer, as a person.  I also got to explore a place as complicated as I felt at this juncture.  Before going there, I never knew this country would impress me so much and in so many ways.

My best friend once told me:  Whatever unsettled, simmering, or buried emotional matters you may have, will be magnified when travelling alone to a new place.  I can only agree with her 100%.

On a personal level, my first impressions of Lebanon were clouded by uncertainty, restless anticipation, and a good dose of loneliness.  I had waited so long for the opportunity to meet this agent and open the door to my dreams of dancing in the Middle East, but when the moment arrived, I felt I had dropped myself in a place where my experience of time lingered in some in-between space between promise and failure, potential and disappointment, fascination and fear, peace and chaos.

Neither one nor the other, sometimes both, sometimes all at once.  I tried to put my emotions on hold, and get “down to business” before the fluctuations nauseated me.

Over the course of the 3 weeks, I quite literally, LIVED in the dance studio, surrounded by mirrors…both actual and metaphorical.  I saw myself through some exhaustion, frustration, and apprehension as well as some brighter moments of appreciation, confidence, and optimism. During the day, I trained with my performance coach, whose mission was to intentionally push me thru movements and styles which were not ‘natural’ to me.  His method was magical!  Our classes were like riding a rollercoaster.  Some moments I felt I was impressing him, while others, I felt ashamed and thought of myself as hopeless… on some level.   Then, like a lightbulb over my hair-whirling head, mid-turn, it occurred to me.

My realization: He was helping me impress myself!  I had never danced like that before, never thought I would, having imagined myself to feel unnatural, even odd, but never really doing it before… and here I was, and I liked it, and it looked good!  I watched, felt and listened, and eventually located that useless and judgmental voice coming from inside of me.  I know it wasn’t from him, sitting in the corner….but from me, glaring back at me in the mirror.

Overall, my time and energy with the Lebanese performance coach was worth every drop of sweat, tears and hair flips!

Outside the Studio -Lebanon

Outside the Studio -Lebanon

While other dancers trained in the studio, I mingled in the business office, (where all the magic happens for the dancers: contracts are signed, visas applications sent, schedules…scheduled).  From my first days of loneliness, each day the office would seem more crowded as I would meet other dancers arriving, following their dream and playing their hand in Lebanon, like me, in hopes of being a “top” dancer and securing these dream-contracts.  There we each got to absorb uncensored opinions, from the staff, commenting honestly on everything from our shape, size, hair and skin color, and the general marketability of our ‘look.’  I heard an imaginary voice in my head when I walked into the office:  “This is showbiz, kid!”

The loneliness disappeared.  And in the end, some of us made this Lebanon training and audition period a sisterhood of supporting and laughing with each other, and taking turns quelling our personal self-doubts.

The audition was a flurry of excitement, nervousness and impatience for all of the dancers, singers and also for the hungry (Ramadan-fasting) managers in the audience assessing our talents.  The managers, invited from all over the Arab-World’s high-end hotel night spots, tried to enjoy long days of entertainment marathons of countless singers and dancers applying for employment.   A showcase of non-stop talent, ready to be booked and contracts’ signed.

In such high-pressure situations, I never feel like I dance well.   But I did it, I got it over with, and, admittedly, there were a few moments while on stage, when the weight of the moment occurred to me… how significant this particular performance is, in terms of my dream, my goals, my future…..

And then….a frightening moment.  During a well-rehearsed segue where I should dramatically end on the floor, I hear a strange pop-snap of me knee!

Adrenaline has my body continuing in to the khaleegi section of my program, while the pragmatic thoughts of possibly limping off stage rush my mind into some sort of automatic prayer mode, all the while, my hair is flying with the rhythms of the drum and my heart.

My knee, which I nursed for the next few weeks, became later swollen and painful, but in the audition, it held up for me to complete my show.  Looking back at the video, I see something in me I didn’t know was there.  I’m sure it is unnoticeable to anyone else, even those who know me and my dance.   A kind of “fighting” energy began to pour out on that stage.  Not an aggressive opposition to anything….just a kind of power I hadn’t felt before.    I was determined.  Maybe my knee didn’t want to be, but I was…and my knee was just going to have to deal with it for the next few minutes, until my show was over, I took my bow, thanked my audience, and left the stage.

Downtown Beirut - Lebanon

Downtown Beirut – Lebanon

On a travelers note:

Lebanon, as a country, is captivating from every angle.  For a relatively small country, perhaps 3 weeks would have been enough to venture out to see many many sights, experience the richness, and soak in the environment, history and culture.   But I was there for work.   And my few spurts of tourism were brief, and usually rushed.

In addition to my dance prioritizing and time constraints always rushing me back to the studio for training and rehearsal, the social and political climate this summer had me stay within a small radius of the quiet suburb of Beirut where I was housed.  Two bombings occurred in Lebanon during my visit, although, not near my area.  And my quiet, posh neighborhood of nargile cafes and shopping malls seemed like a happy, albeit expensive retreat.  Residents, while seeming un-phased by such sudden frightening and explosive occurrences, are protective of tourists and visitors, and are committed to advising against exploring areas of questionable safety.   While not venturing off too far, I did manage to see some key sights around Beirut.

I visited the the beach and the old port in Byblos, the nightlife of Jouneih, the beautiful mountain town of Broumana, and several monestaries and shrines peering over cliffs and mountaintops high above the clouds!

Downtown Beirut

Church and Mosque Neighbors- Downtown Beirut

Downtown Beirut was relatively and surprisingly quiet, considering it is a central capital city.  Granted, I visited during Ramadan, in the heat of July, during a politically sensitive time (which Lebanon seems to have been experiencing on-and-off since the civil war starting in the 70′s.   The lack of swarms of tourists in such a historically important city, and the seemingly empty streets during the day is sadly understandable.  Maybe it was the serene vacancy and temperance, and especially its decency which I experienced in Beirut, that charmed and inspired me more than I ever expected, given its complex and turbulent past (and present).

Strolling through the city, I was entranced by the mixture of past and future.  It’s a city constantly renovating and rebuilding.  Construction and scaffolding was at every turn, and tiny independent interior/exterior design places popped up on every corner.   Wandering into modern alternative-looking cafes and reading the fresh graffiti on walls, I felt stirred by the energy of the new generation: the young Lebanese who will strive to shape this place from the roots of its rich history and the mounds of rubble.

The moment I felt enthralled by the bursts of innovation sprouting around the city, I was reduced to a reverent solemnness inside, encountering abandoned buildings and monuments standing wounded, by what I can imagine are bullets and various explosions…

Downtown Beirut

Statues surviving – Downtown Beirut

Although my Beirut exploring was limited and brief, the city left a very strong impression on me.  For me, Beirut strongly symbolizes a city with STRENGTH and DETERMINATION.

And, even in the studio, and on that stage, it helped me find mine.

remnants and memories Downtown Beirut

remnants and memories Downtown Beirut

Dream…and then see it.

 

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
Walt Disney 

Lebanon: Part 1

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As I entered Lebanon airport, I felt this new chapter opening, and I tried to tune-in to my gut feeling and intuition from its first page.

“Here I am, It’s finally starting.  This is what I wanted.”

Arriving in Beirut, I knew I was being ‘expected’ by an important person, and the expectation weighed on me, with an equal amount of excitement and nervousness.  The big-name agent I had been anticipating working with for over 2 years invited me to an important event where I, along with other dancers and singers in his artist list, would be presented to his international clients and potentially booked for dance contracts abroad.

I was stepping even closer toward my dream!  I have been hoping for this day to come since my first notion of considering myself a “professional bellydancer.”

“But Athena, you already work, and have worked ‘abroad’” you might say!

Yes, I’m currently working in Istanbul, on two of the nicest stages I’ve ever danced, with the freedom and security to design my own show, a respectful work environment, with a consistent appreciative family-friendly audience of tourists that take my smiling souvenir photo home with them to all edges of the earth.

And my years in Greece, had me performing at some of the most popular Greek venues in Athens and travelling to the outskirts and islands for always interesting and fun adventures dancing on beautiful beaches, gorgeous resorts, and even in sweet, traditional Greek-villages.

But this kind of working ‘abroad’ is something else, isn’t it?  It is the ultimate experience for a professional belly dancer.  It is an adventure for the strong-willed.   I’ve heard stories from dancers being sent to the nicest places, on the best contracts, but also tales of uncomfortable situations and hard times in some places from those very same dancers.  They are the ones spending months of their lives fearlessly going contract-to-contract through the Arab world and building their careers with experiences only they can describe.

And though I’ve been persistently aiming at the work I am embarking on here in Lebanon, and I am 100% sure it is what I want…I am also not blind to the fact that the whole “international contract dancer” thing may not be for me.  In this dream, yes….there is a little fear.   But I love it, because that is what makes it REAL.

Above all, I know the experience is what I need…it’s the next step, the next challenge.

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The first day-or-so in Lebanon were very lonely and seemed to last forever.  I was welcomed at the airport by one assistant of my agent and was driven to the apartment where I would stay, located on the top floor above the agent’s office.  The driver-man was kind, but reserved.  After the obligatory chit-chat in the car, he dropped me off with the key, showed me how to lock the door, and bid me a good night.

I checked around the small windowless room with two beds, kitchenette, shower-room/bathroom and made a mental note on what I needed to buy on my first opportunity:

Toilet paper, ice cube trays, bottled water, shampoo etc.

In the bathroom, while trying to understand the workings of the water-heater, a large cockroach appeared to greet me and welcome me to Lebanon.

Exiting bathroom and swiftly shutting the door, added to list:  cockroach spray.

Sorry, cockroach.

The next morning I awoke and slept, awoke and slept.   I was told that my first day I would be on my own to explore the area’s cafes, find the supermarket and entertain myself.  The agent and his office staff would arrive on Monday morning, and all would begin from there.

I spent the day searching for the supermarket, wi-fi, drinking coffee, smoking nargile, walking.  I spoke to a few people, to ask simple questions, (locating the supermarket, where I might buy a sim card for my phone…) every person I talked to spoke a good amount of English and were more than friendly and kind.   I realized immediately, my foreigner-manners had somehow shifted.  While living in Istanbul, I had somehow negatively conditioned myself to expect people to not understand what I’m saying.

Later that evening, returning to my room I saw my agent’s business card lodged in the hinges of the front door.  I peaked with excitement.   I would finally meet this man in person!  I was disheveled and sweaty from my excursion of the day, but I called immediately.  Ha answered so happy and welcomed me…and invited me to meet him in his office downstairs.

We had a lovely talk.  He reminded me of an email I wrote to him describing my feelings about coming to Lebanon…both excited and nervous.   He recognized my emotion and assured me I would enjoy my time here.  We spoke about the prospects of work and the preparations I will accomplish in my weeks here.  Photos, video, personal professional dance coaching…  He was so welcoming and assuring, I quickly felt I had come to the right place.

So, here I begin my next steps in Lebanon.  Knowing in a few weeks, I will be back in Istanbul on my beautiful stage, but now I’m even more motivated for the future. If I manage to secure some contracts while I’m here, where else might Lebanon take me?

For now,

  • I wake up, make an instant iced coffee, warm up and stretch in the studio adjacent to my room.
  • I eat, chat with the two other dancers staying here, say hello to the office staff.
  • Back to the studio to practice.
  • My coach/teacher comes, we work on all my habits, and movements I avoid.
  • (I love the fact that he thinks I will start to hate him!   He’s an amazing teacher!)
  • Free time to explore some sights or relax with a shisha and fruit at a lovely café.
  • Stretch again, sleep.

Welcome to Chapter: Lebanon.

My first post…

Gezi Park, Istanbul

Gezi Park, Istanbul

I’m just getting started blogging…. bear with me, and thanks for reading!

I’m situated currently (for the past year), in Istanbul, Turkey.  This week has been very dynamic as country-wide demonstrators are standing up and speaking out against a government which does not democratically represent nor respect them.

I hope that this blog will serve as a place I can record and share my experiences and thoughts on life….here, there, wherever.

I’ll re-cap a little , from what I’ve learned, being here, what has developed in Turkey, in case you are unaware (because of less-than-competent media coverage), but my info is general.   You can research and read, see videos, chat with activists about the developments in this to get the full picture.

In short: last week the conflict was sparked in the center of Istanbul just adjacent from Taksim Square over the destruction of Gezi Park.   The government was spearheading a project to demolish one of the few green spaces in the city to develop a shopping mall.   A sit-in demonstration (demonstrators camping, reading books, holding signs chanting resistance slogans) began and was shortly thereafter received with an attack from police which started and remained for the next few days, inhumane, brutal and abusive.  There are reports and graphic evidence of police using huge water cannons, gaz bombs and guns with plastic bullets.   The gasses used were not used in a safe manner to deter demonstrators from the area, but in a violent manner, shot from launchers directly at individuals heads and bodies.  Some examples of the police behavior has been videotaped.   When viewing these accounts, I’m in shock….

Shortly after the initial clashes, demonstrations and police violence spread to other neighborhoods of Istanbul in what seemed to be possibly a strategic move by the police to attack more demonstrators in a more confined space.  Taksim is a hub, and has many small streets where demonstrators could go to take refuge to avoid the attacks.  The police were ruthless, cornering people, beating them, throwing gas bombs into buildings… eventually helicopters were brought in to douse the areas in unknown gasses.

The demonstrations began in other cities across Turkey with similar, if not more brutal response from the police.   In local neighborhoods, there are marches and demonstrations daily recognizable by people banging on pots and pans, chanting ‘Tayyip Istifa” (Tayyip Resign) among other revolutionary statements.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the current Prime Minister of Turkey and the leader of the AKP ruling party in the government for the past 10 years.   He has been accused by many Turkish people of leading the country in a particularly authoritarian manner…installing restrictions and laws to further his aim toward making Turkey an Islamic state.   His interests are also seen to be extremely capitalistic and one-sided.  Turkey is a very diverse country, and in his statements and actions, he has been seen to exclude and in some ways demonize anyone who opposes his views.

His response to all this has been insane.  First and foremost, he has influence over all major media in the country.  Therefore, as these demonstrations developed, the media was silenced.   People in Turkey were made to remain ignorant of what was going on in Istanbul.  When the media did finally report something on the topic, the truth was construed out of lies….claiming the peaceful demonstrators and activists were terrorists and vandals.  Erdogan took a trip to Northern Africa the last few days and his wing-men issued some indifferent statements, continuing to hide truths and avert blame for the brutal police attacks.

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(I’m sorry, because my description of events is so general and I am not able to describe the many many aspects in which this conflict has developed, and its depth in the political, economical, social aspects of life….here and internationally.  I just wish to outline a little, for anyone reading this, from the direction where I stand, how this all looks to me.)

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While demonstrations continue all over the city and the country, Taksim square and Gezi Park have evolved into a kind of central station for this protest.  Joining in the “occupy” flavor of protest, which, when not attacked by police forces, is a space for collective support and meeting.   The atmosphere in Gezi park the last couple of days has been festive, with music, dancing, chanting, chatting….  Various NGOs, student groups, cultural organizations have representation there.   Supplies of food, pharmaceuticals, bedding, etc is being donated and distributed to those who need.  Garbage is being collected by volunteers constantly, and the park is being kept clean and safe.    From my personal experience, the overall vibe there is inspiring, generous, mature and unifying.

However, from social media reports, the violence continues in other cities and neighborhoods.   There have been reports of this tactic being used intentionally to stop resistance while the police and the government not being under the constant surveillance of the people.   The attacks are more directed to areas where people are not holding iPhones and tweeting, unable to gather proof of the events taking place.

As with many of my friends I’ve spoken with over the course of these events, (Turkish and foreigners here), I am so proud of the Turkish people for standing strong against this crazy dictator of a leader.   I’m learning more about him and of course, developing my own opinion on his methods and aims.  And, like so many people here, I am restless.  While there is a sense of calm in the park and a sense of accomplishment for existing and gathering there….the violence continues.  Erdogan continues his rhetoric of denial and minimizing blame….he is not taking ANY responsibility in any of this, and he is demonizing his critics which seems to be a push in the direction in warring with a large group of the Turkish people.

The future is not clear.

It never is…

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