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Indy Monumental Yoga

Me being choosy with my time, at an event that combines belly dance and yoga, two activities I fiercely carve room for in my schedule.

In my last Workaholic Missives post, I described how most social engagements pale in comparison to the thrill of saving the world through education and art. That leads to a question I’ll discuss here: how on earth do I figure out what’s worth doing when I’m not working?

The answer: to be calculating and strategic and self-serving, while being up front and honest and not mean about it. In other words, to be mercenary as fuck.

I’m going with the definition of mercenary as self-serving, or doing things only when they benefit oneself, not necessarily in the sense of only doing things for money. That’s more aptly communicated by, ya know, calling someone a capitalist. Apparently the Latin origin of the word refers to someone being for hire, and while money came to be important to the definition, the idea of being in something for personal gain remains central to my understanding of it.

Since deciding not to pursue a full-time career in academia anymore, I’ve had to be more mercenary with my time on a professional level. I love academic research, writing, and publishing… but it doesn’t pay like freelance writing does (or at all, really), so I can’t devote very much time to it. I love teaching, but adjunct wages make it so that teaching isn’t the best use of my time either, so I only teach one class a semester. And so on.

I’m not the only alt-ac scholar who’s had to disentangle herself from the lure of academic time sucks with an eye toward self-serving career goals. But I also apply this attitude toward my non-professional life, which is where things get sticky.

Invitation to hang with friends at a bar? Facebook event involving a signing/reading/viewing? Dinner party? Drum circle? Those all sound lovely, but what do they do for me? Since I am not, in fact, a machine (or an ice queen, as rumors might suggest), then an event’s “what it does for me” might be as simple as “helps me relax.” Also acceptable answers include “I get to reconnect with friends,” or “I get to practice dancing,” or “I get to interact with a topic I work with professionally but in a low-key environment where I don’t have to be the one presenting/leading/teaching it.”

Not everything I do is work-related (surprise, I know), but I consider almost everything I do through work-related lenses, applying the same mercenary filters to assess how an activity benefits me or helps me reach a goal. Spelling it out like this can make me sound calculating, but hopefully it also helps the people in my life understand why I do what I do. And maybe it helps others like me feel less alone and outside the norm.

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An illustration from a 1912 publication of the Grimms’ tales in English.

A conversation with speculative fiction authors Max Gladstone and Michael Underwood got me thinking about the importance of the “original” version of stories and other expressive culture to people. Gladstone wrote this blog post about how the Star Wars Expanded Universe is essentially a folkloric variation on a narrative, in the same way that the Greek classics displayed variation even when they were written up into plays and other literary (hence fixed) forms. Underwood, who also has folklore training, leapt in, and the discussion veered into intriguing territory, such as wondering how a version of a text becomes associated with concept of the “original” in someone’s mind.

However, as a folklore instructor, I’ve grown to loathe the concept of the “original” when it comes up in my college classes. This is due to two conflated meanings that I’ll unpack here.

The first – and incorrect – way that references to the “original” crop up in my classes is as an assertion of origin. As in, a student saying that the “original” Cinderella was dark and gory.

Um, no. First, that’s usually a reference to the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, in which the stepsisters cut off toes and/or heels to try to fit into the shoe, and get their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. But even then, are we talking about the 1812 version of Cinderella, from when the Grimms first published their collection of tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or from the 7th and final revision which appeared in 1857, or any of the intervening revisions? And then what about translations? We know from various folklore studies that Victorian-era English translators changed bunches based on social norms and ideas about acceptability for child audiences.

Between publication and translation issues, it’s difficult to talk about the “original” version of a fairy tale, even when someone has a specific version in mind. Then you throw in the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to determine when the first existing version of something from oral tradition came into being, and yeah… it’s hardly worth talking about. (for what it’s worth, though, the oldest written version of something resembling Cinderella comes from 9th century China, which means it was likely circulating in oral tradition well before that)

See, I’m not drawn to the pursuit of the origins of older folklore. It might be an intriguing research question, for some people, some of the time… but it’s not why I’m here. I’m in folklore studies because we have our scholarly fingers on the pulse of what people (consciously or not) find relevant enough to transmit, perform, and enact.

Anyway, in folklore studies the question of the “original” is essentially a meaningless one, unless you’re working with a phenomenon that is so recent or so thoroughly documented that you can, in fact, point at the first instance of something. But usually it comes together from a swirl of existing cultural material that get remixed in just the right way to cohere and resonate with people.

The second meaning that the “original” can have in folklore studies (and one that bugs me far less, though I wish we had better language for it) is meaning the first version that stuck with you. So it’s a more subjective meaning, and therefore can’t really be debated in the same way as the first meaning. Which is fine – but people need to realize that the first version they were exposed to isn’t necessarily going to be the same for everyone.

In Fairy Tales and Feminism: New ApproachesDonald Haase covers reception and reader response approaches to fairy tales in his introductory essay. One of the scholars he mentions, Kay Stone, has done pioneering work with women’s and children’s memories of and responses to gender roles in fairy tales. Among Stone’s findings is the impressive insight that women selectively remembered the heroines of fairy tales, sometimes making them more active and heroic than passive, even when their roles in the text seem largely passive. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a ton of work in this area that I know of (at one point I was going to do a study, but the IRB permissions were complicated, given that I wanted to work with children).

For fairy tales specifically, yes, we can blame Disney and their aggressive copyright laws for a lot of the hype around the “original” version of something, down to the color and cut of a princess’s dress. But we should also take into account the intellectual fascination with morphologies and genealogies dating back to the Romantic era and the philological foundations of modern literary, historical, linguistic, and anthropological studies. I’ve got a rant about authenticity, and how every cultural tradition is invented, that I’ll get around to writing up eventually, which would tie in nicely here.

If we each have our own personal first-exposure version of a text – whether a tale type, or a custom, or a proper way of preparing a holiday food – then that can be a potentially interesting avenue of study. When was someone first exposed to the text? By whom? Which facets of it stuck with them (motifs and themes; structure; context) and which are more malleable? How does this color their interactions with other versions of the same plot, text, or tale type?

The personal-first-exposure meaning (we need to find a better term than your original version) is intriguing and grants that our unique life experiences shape our interactions with cultural materials. This is more empowering – and more accurate – than trying to determine which version of something came first, since that’s often a question that leads back to historically privileged individuals and groups (e.g. those with literacy, the power to record their lives, and so on).

So please remove the “original” from your vocabulary when in a folklore context. And check out my other folklore pet peeves, too, such as when people assume we write children’s books, or that all folklorists are obsessed with origins, or that everybody already knows everything there is to know about folklore.

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A selfie as I’m on my way to teach (while undoubtedly juggling a billion other tasks in my head).

For the second installation in my blog series on being a workaholic, I’d like to talk about my lack of social life.

If you know me IRL, you might be thinking, “What?! Jeana, you have a thriving social life, what on earth are you talking about?!”

And… to a degree you’d be right. When there’s an event or a group that I prioritize, I’m there. For example, I’m dedicated to promoting the belly dance community in Indianapolis, so I’m teaching classes two nights a week, spending other nights rehearsing or performing, and so on. I help run a local sex-positive meet-up group, so I’m visible in that community. And so on.

Except I don’t actually have that many personal social commitments. And I prefer to keep it that way.

Part of the way I experience being a workaholic is an intense commitment to, and inflation of the significance of, the causes which are important to me. So it’s not just that I’m an educator, it’s that I’m saving the world through education. I’m not just a sex educator, I’m saving the world through sex education. My research and writing and teaching and blogging and dancing and art are all part of my mission to bring progressive thought and acceptance of non-heteronormative sexuality/gender and bodies of all kinds to the rest of the world.

I have the fervor and zeal of a new convert, and in some ways that’s true: since turning away from academia and pursuing an alt-ac career, I’ve felt newly infused with a sense of purpose and a drive toward relevance. Getting a PhD was fun, but I wasn’t overly concerned with improving anyone’s life but my own for the majority of that process. Now that I’ve hopped on the alt-ac bandwagon, and become more of an activist in sexuality circles, though, I’ve become rather outspoken about the need for more education (sexuality and otherwise) in pretty much every aspect of life. And it fills me with a righteous sense of passion and indignation and must fix this now.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound naive, but I truly believe that educational opportunities and communication skills and tolerance for diversity can help save the world. So when someone asks if I have time to hang out, time during which I could be blogging or preparing a lesson plan or conducting research or networking at a sexuality professionals meetup – all converging toward this glorious end goal of saving the world – of course the answer is no, I don’t have time to hang out.

Be right back, saving the world.

It’s cool to get coffee with you a couple times, but I have more important things to do.

Gotta cancel that lunch date… it’ll be my only time to blog today. And so on.

It’s a harsh reality of my world that most people aren’t as interesting to me as my work is. There are exceptions, of course, since I’m not a total hermit: the people I make an effort to stay in touch with, to include in my life, to see somewhat regularly. But the majority of the people I encounter, while lovely individuals, simply do not hold my attention in comparison with (or rather, in competition with) my work.

I do this mental math every time I receive an invitation to a social event, whether it’s a group thing or a one-on-one hangout. I hate to admit this publicly – or at all – but it’s what happens in my brain.

If this is the price I pay for helping to change the world through education, well, I’m kinda okay with that. I try to train the people in my life to not take it personally. Not sure how much success I’ve had, but ah well… since this is is Workaholic Missives post I can point people toward it in the future, right?!

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Me, in front of my bookshelf. Because my books are part of my workaholic lifestyle.

This post marks the beginning of a new blog series I’m writing, titled Workaholic Missives.

I’m writing this series because:

  • I’m a workaholic
  • I don’t think being a workaholic is necessarily a bad thing
  • I don’t have the time to explain to every individual in my life what this is all about
  • Hence it’s easier to blog my thoughts on being a workaholic, and send links to everyone I know

Granted, that last sentence is a bit flippant, but only in the sorry/not sorry sense that seems trendy these days.

Honestly, I love being a workaholic. I think it’s enriched my life, and made my time in academia as enjoyable and productive as it could be, given how exploitative an institution it is. I derive a profound sense of value from filling my days (and let’s be honest, nights, because I’m writing this at 11pm on a Sunday) with work.

But – and this is what I’ll explore in the series – being a workaholic takes its toll on other aspects of my life. I might feel personally fulfilled, but people who feel they have some right to my time feel shortchanged. My relationships (family, friends, romantic) have often suffered as a result of my workaholic attitude.

I have a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand, why would I waste time on someone who doesn’t get my values and doesn’t appreciate me for who I am? I’ve dated far too many people who’ve been initially attracted to my independence and drive, only later to condemn me for being too independent and too driven, hence threatening or not invested enough in the relationship or whatever. Those people clearly were not for me. On the other hand, I get that there’s more to life than work. The time I get to spend with loved ones is limited, since our lifespans are limited. I derive a different sort of pleasure from emotional and social interactions than intellectual/work ones, and I know that I have to get better at finding a balance.

It seems that ambivalence is my natural state, so I’m digging in and exploring it. If you’re a workaholic, or have a workaholic in your life – particularly of the academic flavor – then perhaps this blog series is for you. Stay tuned for the next installation, on why maintaining relationships is especially tough.

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What better metaphor for cultural transmission than a magic carpet? Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist and belly dancer, I deal with cultural appropriation on a daily basis. There are the accusations that wearing a bindi is disrespectful, and the queries I get about where certain narratives and body adornments first come from. I try to be aware of power imbalances, but I also think human creativity is multifaceted and flourishes regardless of restrictions.

I blog about how American Tribal Style® Belly Dance sidesteps some of the nastier cultural appropriation issues, for instance, by not attempting to imitate specific existing tribal dances but rather creating a new form for a new context. This dance style isn’t perfectly free of the bonds of colonialism and capitalism, but what is?

One concept that, in my mind, helps make the cultural appropriation questions a bit easier, is polygenesis. In folklore and anthropology, polygenesis means that a folklore text or piece of expressive culture – a given narrative, custom, or artifact – has multiple origins. This is in contrast to monogenesis, or a text having a single origin. In a monogenesis situation, once the item has been created, it spreads through diffusion and cultural contact.

In folklore studies we’ve devised whole systems for tracking items that originate through monogenesis, such as the tale type index (which I explain here). We have the Finnish method, also called the historic-geographic method, which we use to trace narratives through time and space, assembling all the versions of a folktale or legend that have been recorded, and then trying to pinpoint their origin. As I’ve already said, I don’t particularly care for the quest for origins, but these methods are still useful because they help us get a better handle on the past.

But when is polygenesis interesting and useful? In my opinion, it’s when polygenesis helps us understand that a given cultural artifact probably has multiple origins, and thus can’t be claimed by any one culture. To give a narrative example, a very basic plot like star-crossed lovers, or a rags-to-riches story, might originate anywhere with enough class hierarchy to make those stories work. Once a narrative accrues enough recognizable motifs, tropes, symbols, and/or plot twists, though, it probably had a single distinct origin point, or it was synthesized from other narratives at a single point, and then spread out from there.

This is a fairly simple concept; I’d imagine most students get it in Cultural Anthropology 101 or some equivalent. However, I think if we apply it to the issues presented by cultural appropriation, it opens up another avenue for discussion. We can ask if the artifact, story, or custom at hand has other points of origin, and how much it’s changed in the process of transmission if in fact it’s a case of monogenesis. Thinking in terms of monogenesis and polygenesis might add some more nuance to our conversations, and might help us recognize that while cultural borrowing should not be a careless free-for-all when there are clearly oppressive forces at work, culture has always interacted with creativity in richly complex ways.

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Me dancing with fire fans.

If you haven’t already, go read my post on flow vs. tech to get a sense of the terms I’m using here to describe how my experience of the flow arts is evolving.

As much as I love to get technical with belly dancing, I have this weird relationship with tech in the flow arts world, and I recently figured out part of why that is.

See, I’m a slow learner sometimes, and I need certain learning environments to succeed. I aced AP Calculus in high school and got a 5 on the AP exam (the highest possible score), but stopped taking math and science classes in college, because I knew that I wouldn’t do well in a class of 600 cut-throat pre-med students. Give me texts, narratives, and theories thereon, and I will rock out learning by myself, in small groups, in big groups, in practically any context. But specific things – like Foucault – also just take me longer to learn, and I’m trying not to shame myself for that.

It turns out that technical movements that are far outside my realm of experience fall into the overlapping categories of “takes me a while to learn” and “need to learn in a hands-on, small, learner-focused setting.”

This was an interesting realization to come to, because by participating in the flow arts world through hoopdance, firedance, and fan dancing, I’ve had to navigate the flow vs. tech divide in order to discover what works for me. I’ve taken tech-oriented workshops and classes and been frustrated to the point of tears and quitting, and subsequently realized that I’ve had to give myself more space and compassion before approaching tech topics at all. It’s not because I’m too stupid to learn the concepts – like what makes an antispin flower or a triqueta – but rather, I have a learning process that’s unique to me, and doesn’t always mesh well with highly technical concepts in large, depersonalized learning environments.

I’m not interested in criticizing tech-oriented teachers for not doing a good enough job of teaching their material in a way that minimizes shame because that’s not what’s going on here; even in really supportive learning environments, I’ve experienced shame because of when my body has quit on me. Rather, I’d like to describe how I came to eventually value tech as a necessary component to my flow.

This is not a new idea: most dancers and movement artists acknowledge that you need a baseline layer of technique (regardless of how complicated or “techy” it is) in order to be able to construct a practice and, well, have something to practice in it. You need moves or techniques to string together and drill so that you can work on flowing smoothly between them.

But I’ve been resistant to tech in the flow arts in a way that’s been somewhat confounding. In belly dance, I’ll do tech all day if it means a chance to work on my American Tribal Style® skills and thus do improvisational dancing (as seen in this performance wherein I dance with my troupe), or if it means I can bust out some neat muscle isolations in layered combinations that are challenging and visually interesting (as here, in a solo that I really enjoyed putting together). While my ATS® dancing and my solo dancing each incorporate slightly different skills from the belly dance toolbox, both are quite technical in nature and requires lots of drilling to become competent.

So it’s not that I’m incapable of learning tech, since I’ve clearly managed it with belly dance. I think, instead, that with the flow arts, and hoopdance in particular, tech is rarely interesting in and of itself. I just don’t care about fancy, complex moves if they aren’t also visually appealing, dramatic, expressive, or otherwise a means to an end of dancing creatively, putting on a compelling performance, or getting into a flow state. Yes, I know that any technique, once learned well, can be an entrance to flowing. But it takes me longer to get there with the flow arts than with belly dance, for whatever reason.

What it boils down to for me is this: when you prioritize flow over tech, as I have with my flow arts, there is no prescribed route or path to success. The destination is you: your experiences, your satisfaction, your own unique learning process. When flow is your goal, your body and your creativity will tell you which paths to explore, and will guide you in getting there. Attuning to flow is an experience of deep listening to your body and your process, which can be difficult at first, since I doubt there are many things in contemporary American culture that encourage the same dance of movement and stillness that it takes to tune in. It’s really rewarding, though. I spent my first few years hooping focusing solely on flow, and only in the last year or two starting to learn tech and tricks. This runs counter to what you see a lot of other hoopers doing, but I’m accustomed to being the odd one out.

Focusing on flow rather than tech – or rather, letting flow guide my process, and help me figure out when to incorporate tech – has been a really fruitful approach for me. It helps me create performances like this one, to Unwoman’s cover of “Take Me to Church”, where I’m really focused on improvising and expressing, rather than fitting in techy tricks. I know my hooping style will continue to evolve, but I really love where I’m at, slowly dipping a toe into tech, but still letting flow be my teacher.

I love dissecting and discussing artistic processes in general, and I’m curious to hear what others think. How does flow help you find yourself? How do you decide when to focus on flow vs. tech? What’s your process?

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Me performing hoopdance at GenCon 2015. In this moment I’m more focused on flow than tech.

I’ve been struggling with finding my way in the flow arts since I began, roughly five years ago. This post is for both outsiders and insiders to this community, to explain two of the key concepts that permeate it, but are also found elsewhere in life and culture.

I define the flow arts as pursuits that are both creative and physical involving a combination of prop manipulation and dance. So, examples of the flow arts would be hula hooping, poi or staff spinning, juggling, and dancing with any of the above lit on fire. There are tons more props than I could list here, and there are about as many ways to engage with the flow arts as there are people who do it. Some folks use it as meditation, others as exercise. Some do it to perform, others teach, and still others do it at home for fun.

One of the concepts in the community that gets a lot of attention is the flow state. Richard Hartnell explains it beautifully in this video, but basically it’s a state of effortless engagement, where time melts away and you’re immersed in the experience. While practicing the flow arts provides an effective portal to the flow state, most people have experienced it while doing other things, such as cooking, playing an instrument, or any number of activities where you’re somewhat competent but also challenged.

We use “flow” to mean something else in the flow arts community: the experience of not only being in the flow state, but also engaging with your prop in a way that, well, flows. Flowing with your prop means dancing with it, playing with it, not pausing to redo a move you fumbled, because perfection isn’t the aim. Being in the flow is. Describing a flow artist as “flowy” or complimenting their “flow” is usually a positive thing. Flowy prop manipulation is beautiful to watch. I like this fire contact staff performance by Linda Farkas as an example of a flowy dance.

In contrast, we have the concept of “tech,” short for technique. Tech has connotations of endless drilling, trying to perfect a move or sequence or combo, going for things that incorporate ever-more-complicated planes and geometry. Describing someone’s prop manipulation as “techy” means that they’re at their top of their game when it comes to controlling their prop, or at least moving in that direction. It says little of their ability to dance or get in flow, though most well-rounded flow arts folks (or “flowks” as we’ll say colloquially) don’t just focus on tech in their training. As an example of a more tech-oriented performance, check out this fire contact staff routine by Aileen Lawlor.

I like to pair these performances when I teach about the flow arts in a college setting (as I did when teaching a class on Dance, Gender, and the Body a few semesters ago) because they involve the same exact prop, handled in very different ways. Both performers obviously incorporated both tech and flow; a performance that was all tech but no flow might be graceless and boring to watch, while a performance that was all flow but no tech would probably be based solely on the performer’s subjective experience, and maybe even clumsy.

In my home dance form, belly dance, we don’t use this terminology as much, but the ideas are there: some dancers focus more on technique and nailing individual moves, while others are more emotionally involved and expressive. As always, it’s about finding a balance, which is something I’m constantly working on.

There are a lot of ways to discuss flow and tech: as opposites, as the end points on a spectrum, as complementary aspects of the practice and drilling we all should be doing. I’ll wrap up this blog post here, as I wanted to lay the ground work for what I’ll discuss in my next post, about how this impacts my personal dance and performance practice.

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F is for Folklore! (not really; this is an illustration from an 1899 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, now in public domain)

Despite the distance I’ve created between myself and institutional academia (explained in my I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore series), I’m still glad that my academic background is in folklore studies. Yeah, it’d be nice if my many professors and the disciplinary leaders in academic folklore studies had been more realistic about the utter lack of jobs, since 2-3 tenure-track positions a year does not a robust job market make. However, I don’t regret going into folklore studies, since it’s shaped my worldview in a number of beneficial ways.

First, studying folklore gives us a unique vantage point upon the world. IU folklorist Warren Roberts once said, “Ninety-five percent of the population has been left out of the history books.” By this, he meant that the historical record skews heavily toward people who make up a small portion of the population: royalty, nobles, war leaders, and religious leaders (mostly cis-gendered heterosexual Christian white men, imagine that). In studying folklore, however, we lift our eyes from written records to peer out into the vast human landscape that exists in oral tradition, in customs, and in material culture.

Next, studying folklore connects me with everyone. Every single human interacts with folklore, whether you think of it in those terms or not. Everybody uses dialect and proverbs; everybody recognizes jokes and legends, even if you don’t perform them. Everyone has been exposed to holiday customs, folk music, and family or occupational folklore. Everyone makes body art and adornment choices, and partakes in traditional foods. Now, this also leads to the problem wherein people think that because they know folklore, that also means they know about folklore in an analytical sense. That’s annoying, but the commonality of folklore remains: in any brief conversation with anyone, I can draw out a connection with folklore, and thereby have something to talk about with them. This is awesome in its own right, plus it saves me from having to make small talk. I loathe small talk.

Related to that last point, folklore gives us insights into group identity that are unique. Because folklore is traditional, informal culture, it thrives in group atmospheres. One person doing something in isolation isn’t necessarily interesting to a folklorist, though it might be interesting to someone who studies literature, fine arts, or music. But because we’re studying communally-practiced traditions, we’re automatically latching onto group dynamics. Folklore exists at the tension where innovation and tradition meet, and is thus responsive both to social change (dynamism) and the tendency to cling to the status quo (conservatism). Every group experiences these opposing forces, and every group deals with it differently. For this reason, studying folklore helps me understand my favorite dance form, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, with greater nuance.

Folklore also gives us direct insight into what is relevant to people. This is why I’m not that excited about studying the origins of folklore; origins only tell us about when folklore started, not necessarily why it remains relevant. As my colleague Lynne McNeill writes in her book Folklore Rules, “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original). Discerning why a piece of folklore is relevant enough to be transmitted takes a bit of interpretation, but once you know how to do that kind of analysis, it means you can look at folklore in its cultural context and learn about what people care about. It’s pretty neat.

The final point I’d like to make is that in studying folklore, we’re attuned to people’s life experiences and expressive forms on their own terms. When we go into a community to do fieldwork, we don’t arrogantly presume that we know The Truth about everything, and act like we’re just there to document some quaint traditions. That would be the height of arrogance. Instead, we’re trained to listen, respect, and respond with validation. This is not something I see a lot of in the academy. I see scholars filtering their subjects’ experiences through a lens that distorts those people’s experiences, implying that they couldn’t possibly know what’s going on in their own lives.* I find that tacky at best, and violent at worst. I’m much happier taking the view that people are rational, wise, and knowledgeable about their own lives, and that the role of the scholar is not necessarily to disprove what people think about themselves, but rather to listen and learn.

Okay, here’s the actual final point: it’s fun. Y’all, I get to study fairy tales! We have our own rigorous methods, and being a good folklorist (and specifically a good fairy-tale scholar) involves a LOT of reading and study. So it’s not all fun and games, nor is all folklore based on happiness, rainbows, and puppy dogs. But at the end of the day, I love the subject matter, and that makes it feel less like work.

Studying folklore has brought immense benefits to my life. Ruth Benedict, who was active in folklore and anthropology in the mid-20th century, once said, “We cannot see the lens through which we look.” Benedict was referring to culture, and how we have trouble identifying the worldview with which we’ve been socialized, since it conditions everything we see. But we all have many lenses, since we participate in many cultures and groups. Academic culture also counts here, and while I have many problems with the academic enculturation I received in grad school, I’m pretty happy with the lens folklore has given me.

 

*I’ve got another blog post or two brewing about this, but I see it quite often in medical and psychological scholarship on people who “deviate” from the norm, such as sex workers, transgender people, and, in the past, people who experienced same-sex or bisexual attraction. Why is it impossible to trust these folks’ perspectives on their own lives?

Me performing at Tribal Revolution, June 2015. Photo by Carrie Meyer.

I attended the Woodhull Summit on Sexual Freedom last weekend, and while there, took part in an excellent workshop on shame led by sex educator Charlie Glickman. As I was taking notes and live-tweeting as much of Glickman’s fantastic content as I could, I began to notice some points of overlap between shame resilience techniques and the way I teach dance.

The first point of overlap is that when we’re talking about shame, we can discuss not only what it is and how it feels, but also how it looks on the physical body. Glickman defines shame as the sense that one is a bad person, and that shaming oneself or others is often destructive, but it can also lead to positive outcomes, such as giving one an incentive to not do certain unhealthy things again. Yet the discussion of shame can go much deeper than emotion & reaction; we can also talk about the physical behaviors that embody shame.

This is where it gets really interesting to me, since I’m a huge fan of discussing embodiment. According to Glickman’s research, shame gets embodied through:

  • Looking away or breaking eye contact
  • Physical disconnection
  • Closing off one’s heart or slouching
  • Silence

If anyone has seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about posture, you’ll know that she basically substantiated through research a correlative relationship between posture and performance. People who hold confident “power postures” perform better on all sorts of tests and by all kinds of measures, and people who do the opposite do worse. The lower-confidence, less-powerful postures all align with shame embodied states.

This is where teaching belly dance comes in. Specifically, I teach American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, wherein posture is supremely important. We borrow a lot from flamenco, which accounts for some of our uplifted posture, and ultimately, much of the dance form’s overall aesthetic emphasizes lifted lines, which you can see in the photo of me performing that’s at the top of this blog post. By merely teaching this dance form, and by constantly reminding my students to maintain their posture, I’m helping them with a small mental hack to improve their emotional states. It might be a tiny thing in the context of their lives, and I don’t have peer-reviewed research to back this up, but I believe that I’m doing something to combat shame-induced posture and thereby contributing a little bit of positivity to my dance students’ lives.

The second point of overlap has to do with my teaching practices. There are a number of things that feed shame, such as unspoken rules, bigotry, and unhealthy hierarchy. Guess which things I don’t allow in my dance classes? I make all of my classroom rules explicit, and I do so with gentle humor, like when I correct someone’s “I can’t!”speech to a phrase of “I can’t…yet.” (example: “I can’t shimmy!” “If you’re going to say ‘I can’t’ remember to throw a ‘yet’ in there, so you can’t shimmy yet, but you will.”) I don’t let my students get away with body-shaming statements, even when they sound completely innocuous because they’re so dang common in our culture. I encourage an open learning environment by constantly asking if they have questions, and always making it safe to ask, or to take time for self-care, or really, anything they need.

It might sound like I run a loosey-goosey dance class but believe me, my dance students learn. They drill. They achieve really wonderful things. I try to tell them how proud I am of them, in blog posts like this one and in person.

I’ve felt shame in the dance classroom before, and it’s no fun. I try to structure my dance classes in such a way that my students will rarely go to that place, and if they do, hopefully we can work through it together to get somewhere useful. As Glickman noted in his presentation, not all shame is bad; it can be an adaptive response, depending on how you handle it and what you draw from the experience of it. It’s my hope that if shame ever surfaces in my dance classroom, we’ll work with it and through it together.

The final point I’d like to make is that shame is about disconnection, and its opposites (love, growth, healing, and community) are about connection, emotional and otherwise. My teaching style encourages a sense of trust in the dance classroom: in fellow students, in me, and in the wonderful improvisational dance language we practice together. In a broad sense, my hope is that by teaching a style of dance that gently pushes students into connecting with one another through eye contact and trust (because as a follower you have to trust the leader giving the cues for the next move, and when you lead, you have to trust the followers to be synced up with you), I’m paving the way for connection rather than disconnection, for empathy and love rather than shame.

I know that the sense of connection I found through tribal dance has benefited me in innumerable ways, including saving my life during a rough patch. This discussion of shame vs. connection is still a little abstract, and again, I don’t have empirical studies to back me up here. But when I see my dance students returning session after session and sticking with the style, I see them blossoming and incrementally becoming more trusting of each other when they dance, and more confident in general.

Sometimes people remark on how I do such disparate things in my life – writing, folklore, sex education, dance – and this is one example of how everything ties together. I went to a sexual freedom conference, attended a fantastic panel on shame, and realized that my dance teaching style is implicitly geared toward removing shame from the dance classroom in order to foster connection, confidence, and caring. How cool is that?!

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Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby.

Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby, with my fantastic troupemates at the time.

I had a couple of rough patches in grad school.

There were a few semesters during which I was in a relationship that’d gone bad, and a living situation that’d gone bad, and my coursework wasn’t doing so great either. I’d hold my act together during the week, and once a day on weekends, drive to dance practice, where I would sit, clutching a coffee mug, sobbing, until it was time to dance.

I’m naturally prone to anxiety, and in certain circumstances that can develop into depression. This chunk of grad school was one of those times, and aside from being in and out of therapy, I wasn’t sure what would help. Dance did.

Aside from the physiological benefits of exercise, which help reduce stress and all that, I found in dancing a solace that ushered me through that difficult time. Simply knowing that I would spend a few hours with people who cared about me (the sentiment went both ways) went a long way toward helping my mental and emotional health. The creative and expressive aspects of the dance certainly helped, too; I could utilize muscle isolations and arm undulations and spins and turns to dance out what I was feeling, to emote and in turn process my emotions.

Being able to spend time with the group of women in that dance troupe, doing the strange but fun dancing we favored, did tons for my mental health. And I don’t know that it would’ve been the same if I’d done another style of dance.

If I’d been doing ballet, the body image issues that’ve plagued me my whole life probably would’ve been prominent enough to pile onto my existing problems (yes, I feel good about my body now, but you try growing up in Los Angeles as a girl with some curves and see how you do). I don’t know that modern dance would’ve offered the cohesiveness of style that drew me to belly dance, and kept me interested for half my life. And so on with the other dance styles that are out there – none of them speak to me, resonate with me, as much as belly dance does. The main style I do, American Tribal Style®, focuses on group improvisation and is intellectually fascinating as well as creatively engaging. How could I not love it?

To borrow a concept, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi explains the concept of the flow state as that perfect balance of being competent and being challenged at a given task. You’re not bored, but you’re also not frustrated. Due to what makes me “me” as well as inherent aspects of the dance itself, belly dance has been able to help me transcend into a flow state for the better part of a decade. And when you’re in a flow state (or when I am, at least), I know that I am blissfully, mindlessly absorbed in that given activity. Minutes or hours spent in that carefree state can make me feel ecstatic, perfect, loved, wonderful, wondrous.

My depression during that time was bad; it could’ve been worse, but it was bad. Having access to this particular dance, and this particular dance community, improved my life immeasurably. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without it.

Saying that belly dance saved my life might sound hyperbolic, but that’s how it felt at the time. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without belly dancing. And I’m okay with that – it’s been an undoubtedly positive influence in my life where other influences (relationships, academia, anxiety) have been ambivalent if not outright toxic. As such, I’m glad that I get to teach it, perform it, and immerse myself in it.

So, shout-out to the ladies of Different Drummer Belly Dancers who were my troupemates then, and the wonderful women of Indy Tribal, who are my troupemates now. My life is richer because of you all.

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