All posts by jeana

I’m Blogging Over At Patheos Now!

Can you tell I’m excited about this? I totally am!

I now have a blog at Patheos, titled Foxy Folklorist (based on my tongue-in-cheek Twitter handle). You can check out my introduction post here. We’ve gone ahead and imported all my archives from here over to there, with a redirect for a good chunk of them (if not all…yes, I’m still figuring out how this all works).

I’m still deciding if I’m going to keep blogging here or not; maybe I’ll use my personal site as a way to write on topics that aren’t related to my career as a folklorist, since they want me for my folklore expertise. Then again, being a folklorist has irrevocably shaped how I think about and do things. I’ve already got my doctorjeana.com site for blogging that’s specifically related to sexuality studies and my sex education career so… yeah. Can I mix metaphors to ponder having too many blogs in the fire? Or in the kitchen?  Still mulling this one over.

Anyway, I just wanted to give readers a heads-up that the bulk of my folklore blogging will now take place at Patheos, and while I’m still retaining this site as a “find me on the internet” hub, I don’t expect to be blogging here as much.

Workaholic Missives: Work Hard, Play Hard

One of my “play hard” moments, on an aerial hoop at Cirque Indy.

Welcome to the next installment of my Workaholic Missives post series, wherein I talk about my philosophy behind work/life balance (or lack thereof, as some would have it).

I know it’s trite, but I try to live by the phrase “Work hard, play hard.” I like the website Get Bullish’s take on this: “If it isn’t extremely productive or extremely pleasurable, just stop. Either eat something healthy that takes five minutes, or have a huge decadent meal with friends for two hours. Either go to the gym and work every fucking muscle in your body like an Olympian, or stay home and find someone to make out with.”

Basically, the idea here is that if you’ve got limited time in which to be awesome, either spend it being as awesome as possible, or recharging as aggressively as possible. I know, the idea of recharging aggressively seems weird to some, but that’s how I’ve been exploring work/life balance in the last few years, and I’ve really enjoyed it. This blog post shares some of my strategies for making it work.

As a freelancer, I run the risk of always working. There’s always another proposal to write, a blog post to pitch, or a project to write, revise, etc. I know this is ingrained into me by academic culture to some degree (see my post on normalized weekend work at Conditionally Accepted), but I’ve also had to navigate the “you should be working more!” ethos of freelancing. Piling one on top of the other has not necessarily been that healthy for me.

Luckily, I’m all about the self-care interventions. And sometimes that means aggressive self-care: taking a weekend off to travel because I’m on the verge of burn-out, or scheduling a massage after a lunch date but right before a work date followed by rock climbing (a.k.a. last Tuesday). I take care to always meet my commitments to others, backing out only when it’s really dire, but I match that persistence with a commitment to myself as well: to engage in what is healthy and pleasurable as much as I can possibly fit in, justify, and/or afford.

The “work hard” part of the phrase means that I try not to waste time on things that are not-work, assuming that I have the energy and the mental focus to put in good work. Since I do a range of activities in my freelance life, it could mean deciding whether I have the attention span to do something related to a college class I’m teaching (lesson planning and grading papers tend to take the most focus, whereas small tasks like recording attendance are less strenuous) or whether I should do something on social media that’s less obviously related to a project I’m on, but could help promote my work in ways that might be fruitful later. It could be the difference between “work on my book proposal while I’ve got the brain power for it” and “send out inquiries about a performance opportunity for my dance troupe because those are halfway scripted already.”

The “play hard” hard of the phrase means that I take my relaxation seriously, and I try to fill it with activities that not only recharge me, but about which I’m passionate. That can be a tricky balance: for instance, I truly love dancing, but sometimes I’m just too tired from all my other stuff to really make a serious go of a night out dancing. So it might mean practicing at home a little bit, followed by watching performances by some of my favorite dancers, in order to get that creative charge going. When I’m totally worn out and can’t brain anymore, then I’ll do something low-key that I still really love, like reading a novel or spending time with someone I care about. Watching trashy TV tends to fall pretty low on the list… yes, even I have a few guilty pleasure TV shows, but I tend to combine them with social time (my life partner and I have a list of shows we’re working our way through) or with introvert time (like if I can write in my journal or knit while watching a show).

On the flip side, the “play hard” aspect means that if some relaxation or social activity doesn’t really appeal to me, and I don’t have a good reason to do it regardless, I’m probably going to turn it down. My free time is too limited for me to spend it in an activity that doesn’t serve me.

So, yes, I’m very mercenary in how I make my choices with my free time, in large part because of this need for balance that I perceive. On that note, time to make a shopping run for a dinner party, before working out, before a lunch date, before teaching a dance workshop, before spending the rest of the day working on grading and writing. Like ya do… if you’re me.

How Not To Be An Ass While Studying Fairy Tales

Painting by Edwin Henry Landseer, in public domain. You get the reference, I hope.

Welcome to another tongue-in-cheek post about folklore studies pet peeves. This one is about how to approach the study of fairy tales from a perspective that is, well, not dick-ish.

First, we have to clear up the misconception that just because something is in public domain, or has been widely experienced, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s qualified to talk about it in a scholarly fashion. I’ve found this phenomenon occurring about folklore in general (see my blog post on the topic) and also about fairy tales specifically. So, even if you’ve seen every Disney movie and even started to poke around the scholarly web a bit (not that there’s anything wrong with, say, SurLaLune and Dr. Ashliman’s folk-texts, but they’re starting points for further research the same way Wikipedia is), please consider taking some of the suggestions in this blog post.

Next, please be aware of existing folklore scholarship on fairy tales. As my colleague Will Pooley points out, “folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales.” We’ve “developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.” So I guess it’s not a big surprise, given this reporting trend, that a lot of folks come away with the impression that you can blithely say whatever you want about fairy tales and folklore.

For example, I wrote about hearing a conference paper on “Cinderella” that ignored all existing folklore scholarship on the tale type. This exemplifies my two previous points – someone thinking they’re qualified to present scholarship on fairy tales because I don’t even know why, and ignoring existing folklore scholarship – but in addition, the author got defensive when I politely pointed out that maaaaybe their methodology needed some work.

Snark aside, here are some ideas for how to not draw the ire of folklorists and fairy-tale scholars if you want to come play in our sandbox.

  • Cull the phrase “the original” from your language. Just do it. In a handful of instances, we can identify the first time a fairy-tale plot or motif appeared, as is the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s literary tales (because his “The Little Mermaid” was the first text with its particular synthesis of mermaid motifs from legend, fairy-tale elements like the quest for love, and so on, and it went on to inspire future versions). But mostly, because of the dense interconnection between fairy tales and folklore/oral tradition, it’s impossible to say when a given tale was the ACTUAL first time something appeared, and not just the first time somebody happened to write it down.
  • Be aware of some of the main methods and theories for studying fairy tales. If you are absolutely undeterred from studying origins, for example, make sure you’re familiar with the historic-geographic/Finnish method. If you’re into structuralism, read Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (bonus points for chasing down Bengt Holbek’s simplification of Propp’s 31 narrative functions into 5 moves). Learn what a tale type is. For psychological approaches, get your hands on some of Alan Dundes’s work, because while he’s biased toward the Freudian side of things, he’ll at least mention some of the Jungian stuff out there (I summarize some of the symbolic approaches to fairy tales in my master’s thesis). Max Lüthi’s work does a great job explaining the literary and stylistic qualities of fairy tales. For Marxist approaches you’ve GOT to read Jack Zipes, and for feminist approaches, Donald Haase’s edited volume is a fine start. Heck, we even have digital approaches to fairy tales these days!
  • Make sure you cite existing fairy-tale scholars and scholarship. That includes those of us still alive and kicking, not just references to the greats of the last century. Pick a handful from this list, and acquire their books and articles (many are available in the journal Marvels & Tales, which you can buy issues of or read online from a university computer): Jack Zipes, Donald Haase, Maria Tatar, Cristina Bacchilega, and Marina Warner. Some of my colleagues are doing great work editing and making accessible the work of others, like Pauline Greenhill, Jill Terry Rudy, and Kay Turner, with their own work appearing too in excellent volumes like Transgressive Tales and Channeling Wonder. There are some folks in my cohort of younger scholars doing great work as well. Not all of us have books out yet, but look for our blog posts and journal articles: Claudia Schwabe, Christy Williams, Veronica Schanoes, Linda Lee, Adam Zolkover, Brittany Warman, Sara Cleto, and, of course, myself. Most of these are my American colleagues; I could go on about fairy-tale scholars and folklorists in other countries!

These are just the suggestions off the top of my head; I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks who should be included. The field of fairy-tale studies has a centuries-long history, with its own internal vocabulary, paradigms, and debates. If you plan to play in our sandbox, please familiarize yourself with our history. It’s only polite… and it makes you that much more likely to be taken seriously by us.

Fairy-tale scholarship is a thriving, complex, wondrous field. It is at once highly intellectual and confoundingly creative. We’re working at the intersections of folklore, pop culture, and literature, and with theoretical concerns ranging from psychological symbolism to feminism to aesthetics. If you want to come play with us, please do – but tread as respectfully as you would if interacting with actual fairies. I’m not saying we’re quite that temperamental, but, well, we also get cranky when people come uninvited into our territory and starting flinging their uninformed selves around.

Workaholic Missives: Mercenary As F*ck

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.

Folklore and “The Original” Version

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.

Workaholic Missives: brb, saving the world

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?!

Workaholic Missives: A Love Letter

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.

In Praise of Polygenesis

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.

In Flow, The Destination Is You

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?

Thoughts on Flow vs. Tech

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.