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This file was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution image from Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to user Stefan-Xp for sharing it.

Over at my sex education blog, Sex Ed with Dr. Jeana, I have a post called Syphilis in the Social Sciences Classroom. In it, I describe the ways in which syphilis has proved to be a relevant STI for me to bring into my anthropology and gender studies classes.

For all the silence around STIs today in the U.S., you’d think STIs were a taboo topic – and for many they are. As I’ve already discussed, teaching sex education is not the same as encouraging sex, despite the claims of those who believe that teaching about something is the same thing as endorsing it. Add in the (unwarranted) shame and stigma of admitting that you’ve got an STI, or are even interested in learning more (“for a friend,” right?) and it becomes clear that simply talking about STIs is a revolutionary act in many contexts.

I’ve taught plenty of taboo topics (non-monogamy, BDSM, trauma, Freud, feminism) in my college classes, and while there’s no magic trick to getting it right, I’ve found a couple of things that tend to work well for me. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • Explicitly acknowledge that teaching about a topic is not the same as endorsing it. This is one example of how I’ll often use verbal communication to the point where it seems way too obvious to even bother saying, which is why I go ahead and say it anyway. I’d much rather sound a tad silly than risk misunderstanding.
  • When introducing the topic, ask students what their impression of the topic is. Perhaps we old fogies are clinging to taboos of our day, while our students might be pretty well over something. Or maybe they’ll shed some light on an aspect of the topic that hadn’t occurred to us.
  • Try to find that balance between acknowledging that a topic is controversial, and introducing it as just another thing people do, hence worthy of scholarly attention. Take, for instance, my approach to kink in the classroom in my blog post And Then I Brought Up Flesh Hooks. Normalizing human sexual behavior – especially when it’s been stigmatized – is a huge mission of mine as a sex educator and an educator in general, and thus I try to talk about things in a not-terribly sensationalistic way. Again, if people are doing it, it’s worthy of study (from the hybrid social sciences/humanities perspective that I’ve come to as an interdisciplinary folklorist and gender studies scholar).
  • Give students time to respond to the topic in a less-structured way, such as journaling, doing an in-class writing prompt, or talking in pairs. Allowing them to process their feelings in some forum other than talking in front of the whole group, or having to answer directed questions from you, can be beneficial.
  • Frame the conversation with a set of rules, boundaries, or guidelines for respectful discussion. I like to remind my students that it’s okay to disagree with me, with the reading/texts, and even with each other, so long as they do it politely. In certain conversations I’ll emphasize that no one’s required to share anything about their personal lives, but only to engage with the material as it’s handled in the class. The way I do this, it’s less about creating a “safe space” where everyone feels 100% comfortable and nurtured all the time, but rather creating a space where people feel supported in speaking up, and where it’s okay to challenge and be challenged.
  • Divide students into groups and have them debate different facets of the topic. Again, this might bring up ideas and issues that I haven’t even considered.
  • Give them an opportunity to make up classroom credit if a topic proves to be triggering or emotionally activating. This might be listening to a podcast, reviewing a blog post, watching a TED talk, or something along those lines. Since I deal with sexual topics a lot in my classroom, I tend to have a lot of these options floating around my brain at any given moment, in case somebody needs to pass on participating.

At risk of being snarky, I’m sure it helps that I have white, middle-class privilege and thus can bring up certain topics without being seen as too offensive. At the same time, being a woman means I probably come across as nurturing and supportive when I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, which may help students feel more comfortable during difficult discussions. I’m not thrilled about these areas of privilege, but I have to acknowledge them, and I might as well try to use my privilege to benefit others, by creating unique educational opportunities.

I’ve never had anyone tell me not to teach a topic, or that I was being too controversial, or that I would be penalized for anything I taught. But I’m sure there’s a first time for everything. In the end, I try to keep in mind that teaching is less about my experience (as much as I might feel like a bad-ass for handling touchy topics with grace) and more about the students’ experiences, and that helps me navigate some of these tricky subjects. In the end, if it doesn’t benefit them, why am I doing it?

What about you? How do you handle taboo topics in the classroom?

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Image from Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license. Originally uploaded by user Fry1989.

I thought about putting this post over at my sex education site, but decided to publish it here instead. Why? Because I’m increasingly convinced that activism needs to be a part of my scholarship as well as my daily life.

The state in which I currently reside, Indiana, has passed a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA, also known as SB101). As this Huffington Post blogger explains, it basically opens the door to discrimination against groups that are not currently protected from such – namely, LGBTQ folks and other sexual minorities, anyone to whose existence a religious group might object.

While I generally support protests and even certain boycotts, in part to raise consciousness and in part to display displeasure, I have to agree with friend and colleague Mike Underwood who states:

Rather than a blanket boycott of Indiana, I’d suggest a strategic and vocal boycott of businesses seen to use this law to discriminate against marginalized persons. Instead why not vocally patronize inclusive businesses?

And on top of that, fight to make sexual orientation a protected class for the entire state, and to get SB 101 overturned so a more reasonable protection for religious expression can be crafted and implemented.

Boycotts punish everyone, and tend to disproportionately hurt smaller business of those already marginalized.

That’s why I’ve started asking establishments that I go into what their policy on RFRA is. And you know what? It seems like a small act, but it has so much potential.

Already I’ve spoken with employees at my favorite cafe on the northside of Indy, and heard that they promote tolerance and inclusion. I cheekily replied that I’d be happy to give them more of my money. What I wasn’t expecting was for one of the employees to approach me as I was packing my things to leave, and to warmly thank me for bringing up the issue. That was really touching, and a good reminder that activism isn’t just about creating concrete change in economic patterns, but also about connecting with people.

On the scholarly side, we’ll see how much attention I can give this issue in my classroom. On the one hand, I may not need to mention it much, as my wonderful students this semester have already posted links to relevant news in our online discussion group. On the other hand, my status as a PhD-wielding college lecturer gives my words a certain amount of weight, and so speaking up might infuse some opinions with a bit more legitimacy, and give my students something to fall back on if they want to mention our hypothetical classroom discussions to their peers or family members.

As Kelly J. Baker points out, scholarship and activism have an uneasy relationship: “Activism appears to have merit when it can be neatly attached to one’s scholarship or a vision of a shared politics.” I’m already pretty “out there” as a scholar who does a lot of work on gender, sex, and sexuality, so it’s probably not surprising to anyone  that I hold the position that RFRA is thinly-disguised homophobic bigotry.

We’ll see how things go with this (abhorrent) piece of legislation. I’m going to try to speak up as much as I can, in both formal and informal settings, in part because I have a privileged position as an institutionally-recognized scholar, and in part because I get to vote with my wallet, and make human connections while doing so. I also get to lean on some personal privilege here, as I walk around wearing a wedding ring and am cisgendered. In my mind, one of the better things to do with privilege is use it to challenge the status quo and help others out, so hopefully I can do some of that here.

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Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

As most people who know me know by now, ICFA (the annual meeting of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts) is one of my all-time favorite conferences. I get to present on and learn about cutting-edge fairy-tale scholarship, as well as overlapping areas like fantasy literature, children’s literature, science fiction, fan culture, and so on. I get to see some of my favorite people, scholars and writers and artists alike. I get to regale people with stories and meet really amazing writers who have thoughtful things to say about folklore. And since it’s in Orlando, I get to enjoy some nice weather and also meet up with some of my family members who are in the area.

Last year, I came out as post-ac at ICFA, which went far better than I could’ve hoped. This year, I continued that trend of engaging people in conversations about adjunct activism and awareness, and being quite open about my new career as a sex educator. I even got to dispense some relationship advice, and talk about how ideas from the history of sex education are relevant to everything from Twilight to other vampire fiction to speculative fiction set in World War I! People flocked to see my paper (despite the early morning slot it was in) and requested a copy if they couldn’t make it, so that helped me feel validated as a scholar still, even if I’m not doing scholarship full-time or trying for a full-time academic job. I guess it helps that I’m researching the sexy TV show Lost Girl!

One of the other notable things that happened at ICFA was  the huge amount of scholarly compersion I experienced. I’ve written about compersion before – the feelings of happiness we can experience when our partners/lovers/loved ones are happy by someone else’s doing – and I think it applies here.

So while my list of things that I enjoyed at ICFA in the above paragraphs may sound very self-congratulatory, fear not, I was also very moved by the successes and joys of my colleagues. I got to witness and be a part of the inception of a new group devoted to Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives, which is a major step forward for our interdisciplinary bunch of scholars. I got to cheer on colleagues who are going to play a major role in next year’s ICFA specifically dedicated to Wonder Tales. I got to introduce people working on similar themes – say, disability studies – in disparate textual fields like science fiction and fairy tales. That connection might’ve happened without me, but I still felt great about having the social contacts to make sure that scholars who should know each other’s work will from now on.

I got to hear about the success of one colleague who’s working to unionize adjuncts on her campus. I got to hear about another colleague’s book coming together. I got to support another colleague as she prepares to start a family. I got to congratulate yet another on the formation of a new relationship.

These reminders of other people’s joys and successes that have nothing to do with me are always a pleasure. Even though academia is largely run on a limited-good model wherein we must compete for increasingly dwindling resources, it’s still possible to be happy for each other when these successes occur. Perhaps it’s even easier from a vantage point on the margins, when I’m less affected by the drama and politics of being invested at the full-time level. Another reminder as to the importance of context, eh?

While this may not be the most polished blog post ever, I wanted to make sure to get my thoughts written out and shared while I’m still feeling the post-conference glow. The addition of compersion to my normal maelstrom of conference feels – elation, intellectual stimulation, despondence when it’s over – is a welcome one, furthering the alchemy that makes ICFA the amazing experience that it is.

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Me walking on... onto a pier in Lithuania. Like ya do.

Me walking out… onto a frozen pier in Lithuania. Like ya do.

Before bursting into tears, I managed to shut the door to my office.

The shared computer I normally use to print my lesson plan wasn’t working, and I didn’t know if it was one of the other adjuncts who used the office who’d mucked it up, but I didn’t have the right permissions to print off any other nearby computer. One of the tenured faculty took pity on me and let me print my lesson plan from his office. Normally tech frustrations aren’t enough to make me cry, but there was also some stuff going on in my personal life that enhanced my feelings of helplessness, so out came the tears.

As I sobbed, I remembered thinking: At least I have an office to myself, unlike when I was teaching at ____ University.

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. I am not walking out, though I am recycling a (relevant) lesson plan and planning to talk to my students about what adjuncting is and how it fits into some of the power dynamics we’ve been discussing in related topics in our anthropology and gender studies curriculum.

Then again, I’m currently working as an adjunct in the way that I think it “should” be done: it’s not my main income stream. As I’ve written in the past, comparing academia to a very expensive hobby for those of us who aren’t full-time, trying to make it in academia can be very time-consuming and financially all-encompassing. Now that I’m more aware of this reality, I’m able to allot my time and resources better. I seek part-time work to fill in the gaps in my adjuncting schedule (and paycheck), and I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly (a process I document in my blog post series at Conditionally Accepted).

The system is very broken. My place in it is very unstable (especially since I teach about gender and sexuality, always touchy topics – though perennially popular ones!). Under different circumstances, I might’ve walked out (I’m already canceling a class this semester so I can attend a conference, and I want to reserve an emergency/sick cancellation possibility, etc.). As my anecdote above shows, many adjuncts lack the institutional support they need. The fact that I was so grateful to have an office to (temporarily) call my own, when I was having a break-down before class (which I don’t recommend, by the way), boggles the mind.

I definitely support other walkers-out… but I think, right now, it’s best for me to go in, and teach, and be generally awesome, and gently encourage my students to consider where their tuition money’s going.

Because if other tactics aren’t working – activism, unionizing, and so on – perhaps getting the people paying tuition (students and/or their parents) to start asking the hard questions might get us somewhere. Maybe it’ll take a combination of these things. I don’t know what’ll work, if anything’ll work. But I’m trying.

 

More resources:

Precaricorps.org

NAWD awareness-raising slideshow presentation

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s background facts on contingent faculty 

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Me doing hoopdance at Snow Flow Fest in 2011.

Sometimes my body reminds me that I inhabit it in ways that cut and sting. We’re all residents of our bodies, and while I reject mind-body dualism, sometimes I go far too long without encountering my own bodily limits. When I push and extend myself to the point of almost breaking, my body sharply reels me back, and occasionally this is a prompt for shame.

Shame is such a stealthy emotion: it often disguises itself as something else, and resists attempts at investigation. We all experience shame differently, too. It can feel like a vise squeezing my heart, or a fog dimming my vision and dampening my head. When I feel shame in my body, I know I’m onto something, something real, something that nestles in my heart and needs to be recognized.

I was at a hoopdance workshop recently, and came face-to-face with shame that I didn’t even realize I had. The workshop was definitely a safe space, not at all judgmental or competitive, and the instructor and fellow participants did a wonderful job of making sure everyone felt equally valued and competent. Perhaps that safe space contributed to my breakdown.

We were learning a trick that involved balancing the hoop on the back of the hands. I don’t normally have that kind of technique in my repertoire, but I thought I’d given it a shot.

I forgot about my recent eczema diagnosis. The skin on the backs of my hands, especially around my knuckles, is prone to cracking and bleeding. I’ve got a steroid cream and a barrier cream, and they’re both helping. I wear gloves to wash dishes and try to avoid labor that involves gripping things with enough intensity that it’s like making a fist. This seems to be a chronic condition, so I’m still making changes to accommodate it.

When I first tried the hoop trick, I sorta got it. When the surprise wore off, the pain crept in. My hands hurt. They weren’t bleeding yet, but the more I tossed and caught my hoop on the back of my hands, the more intense the pain became.

Now, I’m no stranger to pain. I’ve run a marathon. I rock climb. I have tattoos and piercings. I don’t really enjoy pain, but I can take it.

Still, this hurt. And the more it hurt, the more I became convinced that there was something wrong with me. After all, I was standing in a circle of two dozen other hoopers of varying levels and they were all getting it. Why couldn’t I?

Tears welled up. I did the responsible thing and excused myself to sit down and stretch a bit, since I didn’t want to cause a scene (though in all likelihood, any of these lovely folks would’ve been happy to take a few minutes to talk to me about how I was feeling). Tears kept coming. So I walked to the bathroom, and sobbed for about ten minutes straight.

While crying, I realized that the pain in my hands was fading, but the tears kept coming. That was my entry point into realizing that this was about more than pain: the pain was a gateway to shame.

I’ve always been competent at lots of things, especially in the dance world. If there’s something I don’t get, I’m usually pretty certain that I’ll learn it eventually. Especially in hooping – which is less of a priority for me than belly dancing – I tend to be pretty chill when it comes to learning new tricks. I know it’s fairly unlikely that I’ll go pro, so I’m in no rush to Master All The Things (if such were even possible!). This mentality – enjoying the process, lingering in the headspace of a beginner – has been very helpful for me in quelling my inner competitive side who is annoyingly perfectionistic.

But here, I ran into something ugly inside myself: shame that wells up from colliding with something that I physically cannot do. Shame at not being able to learn something, when I’ve made a lifelong vocation of being a dedicated learner and teacher. And there was really nothing I could do about it. I mean, I could keep trying to learn the move, and make myself bleed in the process. But that obviously wasn’t a good idea. Even in my pain-addled teary state I could tell that much.

So I sat with the pain, eventually stopped crying, dried off the tears (and mentally thanked myself for buying the high-end makeup that doesn’t smear or run as easily), and returned to the workshop. We moved on to working on other aspects of hoopdance, and I was able to continue participating.

Even though I didn’t learn what I set out to learn during that portion of the workshop, I still learned something: that I carry around this shame inside myself, like a poison seed or parasite. There’s no rational reason to feel like I’m a failure if there are things I can’t do, and I suppose this is something that many people learn in more immediate, raw ways. Bleeding hands ranks pretty low on the list of life-altering disabilities, after all.

And I should clarify: I’m not writing this to shame that workshop instructor for selecting things to teach that aren’t accessible to everyone. I’m pretty clearly an outlier in this regard, since most people’s hands don’t bleed upon contact. I’m not saying that anyone should’ve handled anything differently, or noticed my absence and immediately rushed to soothe me.

In one way, this post is me oversharing as a political and personal act. But it’s also me affirming that shame affects many, many people, and that shame can manifest in embodied ways, perhaps triggered by physical pain. My shame about inability is both unique to me and common in that many people experience shame for many reasons.

Shame can be isolating, and that’s a major cause for me to write about it publicly and acknowledge that experiencing it doesn’t make me a bad person, or an unworthy one, or a weak one. Hopefully other people can reach similar realizations about shame, pain, and their value as human beings.

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Legends & Fear

As we all know, I’m a fairy-tale expert. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like other forms of folk narrative! In particular, I’ve always loved legends. There’s something about them that captures my imagination, though I’ve not done much original research on them.

In the classroom, however, I bring in legends at every opportunity. I’ve done enough coursework in them that I feel pretty competent explaining what they are as a genre and how we can productively study them (note the “productively” part: spending time debating whether they actually happened is a waste of time, in my opinion, because as students of culture, we’re far more interested in why these stories are compelling enough to tell and retell).

Legends are almost always about fear. Different folklore genres tend to cluster around certain themes and messages, and as I’ve written in regard to sex positivity and folklore, when legends deal with sex, it’s almost always in a negative light.

Having sex outside marriage? You should be afraid that something bad will happen to you. Having sex with a same-sex partner? Likeliness of bad things increases. Performing non-procreative acts like oral sex or anal sex? Be very afraid. Having an affair? More bad news. Masturbating? Uh oh!

The list of sex acts that get demonized in legends goes on and on, and they all link back to one thing: fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the abnormal. Fear of social stigma. Fear of disease. Fear of having your privacy violated. Fear of being mocked.

I love that by studying these stories, we can tap into very basic human fears that take particular expression in this day and age. However, I don’t love the fears that are being normalized here. I want to see sexual diversity being celebrated, not stigmatized. I want to see sexual exploration being done safely and consensually regardless of whether it happens inside or outside marriage, heterosexuality, and vanilla life.

Hopefully by studying the fears transmitted in legends, we can counter these broadly conservative social and sexual messages with other messages and narratives that are more broadly inclusive. In other words, let’s learn from these narratives, and learn from these fears, but not let them define our reality.

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An early illustration of the Grimms’ “The Frog Prince.” Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

If you’re a fairy-tale scholar/nerd like me, you’re probably making your way through (or at least aware of) Jack Zipes’s new translation of the first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales. While reading the introduction, which details how the brothers collected and edited their tales, I came across a fascinating quote about how they view censorship, which I wanted to share here.

To briefly give some context, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were scholars whose interest in German folklore began as a combination of art and science: they were gathering tales to help some friends in the literary scene achieve enough material to publish, and they were also interested in the historical evolution of language and genre. Documenting the oral traditions (Naturpoesie) of the German people was also a political means to an end, as Germany was not yet united and was suffering under Napoleon’s wartime rule.

So in 1812 and 1815, the Grimms published volumes 1 and 2 of their fairy tales… which also contained a bunch of scholarly annotations. This first edition wasn’t that well received by the public; many readers thought the stories were too crude, violent, and sexually explicit. The annotations didn’t really resonate with the general public, either, and the topic seemed trivial to some. For the next 40 years, the Grimms continually revised their tales, putting out new editions, until the final (and for many, definitive) edition of 1857 was published. The stories from that edition are probably the ones you’ve read, unless you also read German.

Are the tales meant for kids? Yes and no. As scholars have extrapolated from their writings, the Grimms were writing for fellow scholars, but also believing that young and old readers alike could derive both wisdom and entertainment from these tales. They vehemently rejected the idea that the tales should be withheld from children on the basis of their being unsuitable for them, and here’s where things get interesting.

The Grimms weigh in on the subject:

“In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of Poesie. We intended at the same time to enable Poesie itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention, and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the reference to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil or anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.” (Zipes xxix-xxx)

Although the Grimms did increasingly edit their tales for certain kinds of content (changing wicked mothers into wicked stepmothers; removing mentions of pregnancy; removing overt incest), this assertion is still a fascinating one. Why, indeed, should artists and content creators/curators be beholden to the complaints of a few? If people can be expected to overlook things that don’t serve them in nature, why can’t they do so with art?

I very much think that the Grimms are correct, and that people can and should be responsible for their own content intake much of the time. Concerned parents can try to monitor what their children are reading, or better yet, raise the kids with values congruent with their own, so that if kids encounter “objectionable” material then hopefully they won’t be too vulnerable to it.

It also amazes me that almost the exact same argument for censorship we hear so often today – “but think of the children!” – was being made TWO centuries ago. It’s clearly a powerful rhetoric that resonates with a lot of people, though I think it’s overused and misused in many cases.

The “art is like nature; take it or leave it” argument might be flawed, though. Goodness knows that some folks take what is natural – say, sex and sexuality – and try to obscure it, making it seem like it doesn’t exist. But it seems to me that the Grimms have, two centuries ago, articulated a very important anti-censorship argument: that we inhabit a world that is not always to our liking, and we must make our peace with this fact.

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This won’t be as citation-laden as many of my posts on academia are, so please feel free to ask if you’d like references. Mostly, though, I encourage you to sit back and enjoy the rant.

As a scholar, I engage in a lot of qualitative research, ranging from fairy-tale interpretation to studying the numinous in dance. I love me some qualitative research – but even then, I’d like to note that there are methods, theories, and disciplinary frameworks to keep us from wandering off too far into hyper-subjective la-la land.

I really loathe bad scholarship (view one of my rants on the topic here), but obviously that’s a somewhat subjective judgment. I get annoyed when people make erroneous assumptions, such as that everyone is equally knowledgeable about folklore (you’re not), or that all folklorists are good for is writing children’s books (we’re not). Ungrounded assumptions have no place in the academy, in my view.

So, with those two admissions up front, I have to say: I really hate it when stuff that is not empirically, well, anything gets discussed as though it’s valid in an academic context. I am all for personal exploration when it comes to spirituality, religion, and Jungian-type analysis. Hell, I’ve published on Tarot (though I’ll note that it was a historical overview of Tarot iconography in light of feminist spirituality, so, something that can be examined in terms of evidence and theories). I’m not saying that all inward-looking work is useless, or irrelevant, just that I dislike seeing it in a university setting.

Two examples come to mind: the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the practice of Tantra. My folklore mentor, Alan Dundes, had a lot to say about Jung Campbell, but what I’ll point out here is what Jung himself has said: that archetypes are essentially unknowable. I’m sorry, but if something is unknowable, then it cannot be empirically investigated and thus is has no place in academic discourse. Use it all you want in your personal life, but keep it out of my peer-reviewed journals and accredited schools, please. In terms of Tantra, I just. don’t. get. it. I’m not sure if I’m more dumbfounded that anyone believes that there could be an unbroken chain of cultural transmission that’s thousands of years old, or that it’s being promoted within academic settings as something that can be empirically conceptualized and used. I’m all for reaping the benefits of mindfulness, deep breathing, and connecting with people via eye gazing… but why not just call it those things?

Again, I like qualitative research. I think it adds a necessary complement to quantitative research. I love working in the humanities as well as the social sciences. I think art is incredibly important. I recognize that there are subjective components in the classroom, and those are often incredibly important to the student’s overall learning experience. But if there’s not some empirical aspect to what you’re doing, if there’s not some way to replicate the study or teach it or even to use language accurately to define or discuss it, then I don’t want it in official academic discourse.

It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, or overlooking some important function that “woo” stuff serves as a complement to the rest of what happens in the university. But mostly I’m annoyed that this stuff gets airtime when it doesn’t really stand up to the same rigor that the rest of what we’re supposed to engage with does.

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Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).

Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).

One of the things I’m learning about teaching dance is that while it’s usually full of delightful challenges, there are rougher times too – such as the time when a dance student moves on to another location.

While in the middle of one of these situations, I started reflecting on what I’d like to tell my past and present dance students. I decided to write an open letter to them and post it here, in part so that I don’t have to reiterate it each time this happens, and in part so I don’t tear up by having to say these things in person.

***

To my dance students –

In the time you’ve studied with me, whether it’s been a handful of classes or a couple of years, I’ve hopefully shown you some of the wonders of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance. You’ve studied hard and learned a number of dance movements as well as the improvisational structure of the dance (which reflect one another like fractals do). You’ve experienced how practicing the moves is a fun activity in and of itself, but the movement vocabulary is also an end to a means: the ability to collectively improvise with your dance partners.

Collective improvisation is a unique experience, and one that I hope you’ve gotten to enjoy. It’s one way to get into a flow state, thereby becoming absorbed in the moment rather than being stuck in your head. Most ATS dancers I know describe the flow state in desirable terms, as something that happens when everything clicks and you’re able to let go of conscious thought and just be in the moment. (In case you’re curious about these flow experiences in belly dancing, I explore them in an academic article on the numinous in belly dance, which also includes experiences like trance dancing and spiritual dancing.)

I hope that when you go on to another dance studio, teacher, or style, you’ve absorbed some of the lessons I try to convey in my teaching, such as practicing self-care at all times, and being compassionate with yourself when trying to learn a difficult concept. I also try to teach that simplicity is often best, that form and intention can go a long way in dance.

As you should know from studying the history of ATS, there’s a lot of variation in our dance. A LOT. It’s just like a language that naturally develops dialects over time and space. I hope that when you go on to study ATS under another teacher, you are respectful and willing to learn that troupe’s flavor. There might be more dialect than you’re used to. They angle their Triangle Step differently, or include one more or less floreo in their Strong Arm. Be graceful and roll with it. You might like some ways that I taught things better, or you might prefer your new instructor’s way of doing things. Be okay with these things. While you’re still a student, you’ll accept that teacher’s stylistic decisions and guidance, and if you decide to go on to become a teacher yourself, you can make those calls yourself.

But in my experience, dancing ATS is less about the details and more about the connection with your fellow dancers. It’s about how the movement vocabulary lets you communicate using hand signals and your gaze, and in doing so, create a novel dance experience for all participants.

To wrap this up, I’m honored that you trusted me enough to let me be your teacher. I know that it can be difficult to trust a dance teacher when our culture’s so wrapped up in body image and confidence issues. Indeed, I think ATS is subversive in large part because it lets us access a flow state and thus not be concerned in the moment about how we look, but rather how we feel. And if I’ve helped you achieve that transcendence at all, then I’m thrilled to have had a part in it.

(also, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen ATS before, watching a performance might help all this make more sense! so feel free to check out this video of me performing with my students and troupemates, many of whom first started to study this dance form under me…and again, this was all improvised!)

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Mini hoop portrait by Hannah Root.

Mini hoop portrait by Hannah Root.

I know I write a lot about belly dancing, but I also do hoopdance. Yes, that means dancing with a hula hoop, though we don’t really call tend to them that in the hoop community (since modern hoopdance has nothing to do with hula dancing).

Mostly I dance with a “normal” sized hoop, which is one that you can feasibly spin around your body and keep there using momentum and your body’s natural movements. Here’s a representative example of one of my hoopdances, in case you’ve not seen much hoopdance before.

Hooping is fun, and great exercise, and a welcome break from my oh-so-serious belly dance career. I find it very expressive, and challenging too. But since I can’t ever seem to sit still and focus on just one thing, I’ve decided to also start working with mini hoops. In the picture to the right, you can see me posing with one mini hoop, which is just a smaller hoop that would be tough to keep up on your body. Instead, we tend to use mini hoops more on our hands and maybe arms, spinning them and making shapes and patterns in the air.

I’ll readily confess that I’m pretty terrible with mini hoops. When I took my first ever minis/doubles workshop with local hoop guru Lynn Spencer-Nelson, I gave myself a bloody lip. Yep. It took me a few years to decide to pick up minis again, and I’ve definitely knocked myself in the head a few times while practicing.

The nice thing, though, is that hooping with minis is bringing me out of my comfort zone, in much the same way that yoga does. Maybe I’ll perform with them someday, and maybe not, but for now, it’s nice to have a new prop to play around with and just explore creative movement with.

The other thing I’ve been doing to challenge myself with hoopdance is attempting weekly challenges that one of my hoop mentors (Caroleeena) generates for the online hooping community. Each week we focus on a different aspect of the dance, such as using our hands more, or our hips, or, as in this video I just made, using traveling steps and footwork. It turns out that these weekly challenges are making me think about hoopdance in ways that I hadn’t before, and additionally, watching myself on film at least once a week – while it used to be a cringe-worthy pursuit – is helping me spot areas I can work on improving.

So between picking up mini hoops to play (a.k.a. flail) with, and between doing weekly challenges on incorporating different facets of dance into my hooping, I’m feeling pretty creatively stimulated right now. This has been great fun, and it also makes me wonder if I can apply these two ideas (1. try a new prop/technique/whatever that feels TOTALLY unattainable and 2. do weekly challenges) to writing, teaching, belly dancing, cooking, and other areas of my life. If nothing else, it’ll keep things fresh, right?

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