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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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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 semester, I’m teaching a class I designed on Body Art. It’s cross-listed in anthropology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, but it’s really a folklore class (surprise, surprise). One concept that my students have really latched onto is the idea of audience, and the first audience for any expressive display being the self.

Photo by Curtis Claspell.

Me wearing a shawl from Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India. Photo by Walking Contradiction Photography.

The main text we’re reading is The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India, by Pravina Shukla, a professor of folklore at Indiana University (who was also one of my mentors while I was there for my PhD). I assigned this book for a few reasons: it’s well-written and is on the whole a beautiful book, it lays out the study of body art as a genre of material culture quite clearly, and it foregrounds the study of both daily dress and special occasion wear.

A lot of students came to my body art class expecting to spend the whole semester talking about tattoos and other permanent or extreme body mods. We will certainly discuss those things, but I’m also trying to give my students vocabulary and concepts for studying the daily clothing choices that surround them. I’m assigning a handful of fieldwork projects, for example, that could include looking at tattoos and piercings, but will mostly be about observing the clothing of people around them. I like to think that I’m giving them tools to critically interpret the visual culture of clothing, in order to perhaps be a bit more savvy about brands and advertising and the commodification of bodies.

Body image is one topic that I’m looking forward to discussing with my students. We’ve talked about the idea that when you get dressed in the morning, you’re the first audience for your stylistic choices. Your entire life history, your sense of body image, your self-esteem, your struggles with your weight… those all are foregrounded when you decide what to wear when dressing to go out. This is one area where my class design dovetails nicely with gender studies: women and men get radically different social messages about what’s appropriate to wear, and what’s considered “normal” for outfits and attractiveness.

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking about audience and body image in conjunction is that we are usually harder on ourselves than others are. If I’m trying on an outfit, I’ll probably notice imperfections and inconsistencies that no one else would see. I’m seeing the accumulation of my years of body image anxiety that no one else sees when they look at me, since I manage to appear outwardly confident (sometimes intimidatingly so). If I am my first audience, I am truly a harsh critic… and while I haven’t done the research on this yet (though now I really want to!) I’m guessing this trend is true of many other folks. It’s probably gendered, too, from what I gather based on informal conversations with friends and fellow dancers.

So if the self is the first audience, I wonder: do we owe it to ourselves to be kinder audiences? Do we seek fault with ourselves so that we can beat others to it? When do we allow ourselves to see the most beauty in our self image? Are there links between allowing ourselves creative freedom in body adornment (c’mon, who else still plays dress-up?) and feeling more satisfied with our body image?

The semester’s only just begun, so I hope to dig a bit deeper into these topics with my students. But I also hope to start some dialogue with the wider world, because we all could stand to be a little kinder to ourselves, and to see ourselves as beautiful.

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As readers of my blog know, I’m thoroughly in love with American Tribal Style® Belly Dance (ATS for short). I’ve written about why it’s interesting from a folklore studies perspective, how its unique fractal structure makes it distinct from other belly dance styles, and how it helps address cultural appropriation issues by veering sideways of the debate and not trying to be authentic. I’m also – cards on the table – a certified ATS instructor and a Sister Studio to FatChance BellyDance® (the creators of the style).

So if ATS was created in the 1980s as an improvisational belly dance format by FatChance, and has since become a standardized dance language worldwide, what’s ITS?

ITS stands for Improvisational Tribal Style, and it refers to the multiple dance languages and dialects that have emerged from ATS and evolved into their own improvisational dance cue systems. The language metaphor remains useful, since just like languages, we can look at tribal style improv as a series of historically interconnected communication systems. Some of them are mutually intelligible, and others are not.

Tribal Belly Dance Family Tree

The tribal belly dance family tree pictured here reminds me of the charts we used in the historical linguistics class I took at Berkeley. There’s a clear sense of lineage, influence, and ancestry.*

So with ITS, you end up with this rather fascinating case study of interrelated dance forms that have become immensely popular worldwide. I could list my favorite examples of ITS sub-styles for days, but instead I’ll get to my main point:

ATS is to ITS as Impressionism is to Neo-Impressionism

What do I mean by that? If you’re an art history nerd like me, you’ll know that Impressionism started in the 1870s as an artistic movement that related to light and color differently than was then in vogue. About a decade after the start of Impressionism, a related movement called Neo-Impressionism took off, altering the aims of Impressionism but still definitely borrowing from the movement’s momentum and techniques. And then, depending on who you ask, there was the Post-Impressionist movement, which referred to a lot of the same artists as the Neo-Impressionist title, but also might’ve been more of a time period than a coherent movement.

Anyway, we could linger on the details, but the main part of the metaphor that I want to access is this: ATS is like the Impressionism of the contemporary belly dance scene, since its arrival shook things up and laid the groundwork for other types of innovation in the belly dance world. ITS built on the developments of ATS, pushing farther in some ways and recursing in others.

My problem is this: when I talk to someone who’s into ITS who doesn’t know a thing about ATS, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around. It’s like talking to someone who’s nuts about Seurat and is trying to paint in his style, but has never heard of Monet.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a nerd about history, but that makes me go WTF. Know your dance history, folks! Not only does it make performances more visually interesting when you can trace the evolution of movements over time, but it also helps us understand where we fit in the ever-changing dance world. How much are we bound by tradition, and where does creativity fit into the particular genre of dance we’ve chosen to explore? What kinds of artistry are most available to us? I’m not trying to be snotty about how ATS “came first” and thus is more legit; as I’ve blogged about, I don’t really care about the origins of cultural phenomena because there are so many other questions that are more interesting to me.

For me, understanding where things come from (as far back as we can feasibly determine, anyway) and how they’ve changed over time deepens my appreciation of them. And as someone who practices this art form, I think it’s an important way to show respect, sorta like a “know the rules before you break them” attitude when it comes to the act of creation (not that I’m advocating breaking any rules here).

As always, I love feedback and would enjoy hearing other dancers’ thoughts on this metaphor.


*Hungry for more tribal dance tidbits? Deep Roots Dance has collected an excellent sampling of links about the history of tribal belly dance.

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Indy Tribal (my ATS® group) at Middle Eastern Mayhem, 2013. Photo by Rachel Penticuff.

I’ve been belly dancing for half my life, so by this time I’ve had the opportunity to view a lot of belly dance performances. While I enjoy watching most of the styles out there, I’m particularly drawn to American Tribal Style® (or ATS) for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve detailed here.

But while at a local belly dance event recently, viewing the various other dance styles in an evening performance, I realized yet another reason why ATS appeals to me: the micro structure of the dance mirrors and facilitates the macro structure of the dance. It works a lot like a fractal, if we extend the concept metaphorically a bit. Specifically, in ATS, if you don’t understand how the individual dance moves work, you won’t be able to perform in the improvised group structure.

If you’ve ever seen a dance group perform, and not just belly dance, there’s a good chance it was choreographed. As in, someone mapped out the moves in advance and everyone had to memorize when precisely to do what (and then practice… and practice… and practice). The concept of choreography includes individual dance movements (what a person’s body is doing in space, and to what timing) as well as the individual’s place in the formation or larger group.

As you might imagine, generating, learning, and rehearsing a choreography is a lot of work. But one interesting feature of this performance strategy is that there are points in it wherein the individual dancer’s body movements don’t matter that much. If the entire formation is static (nobody’s moving to a new position in the group at that moment), then a single dancer’s mistake or bad posture doesn’t ruin the show or mess everyone up. It might look bad, or at the very least inconsistent, but it won’t throw everything to a grinding halt.

In contrast, in ATS, every dancer must know how to execute every move accurately. This is because our group improvisational structure features a rotating “leader” (the dancer in view of everyone else who is responsible for cuing the next move) with one, two, or three followers. It’s a common practice to have the most confident dancers lead the most, and to let the less confident dancers follow more than they lead (since as ATS dancers learn quickly, competently cuing moves while leading is a whole separate skill set than just following the moves someone else cues). The less confident leaders can gain practice and experience leading in class, where it’s a low-pressure environment, and slowly begin to lead more in performances (which are more high-stakes than classes or rehearsals).

So let’s say the leader cues into a basic eight-count move in an ATS performance. If a follower misses the cue and arrives into the move a few counts later than the leader, that’s fine, it happens. If the follower totally misses the cue and doesn’t do the move at all, it might look weird, but that happens too sometimes. But when the leader decides to create a more complex formation than having everyone simultaneously facing the audience (such as a fade, or an inward-facing circle), if the follower doesn’t understand the basic movement structure, then the whole formation will fall apart. And it won’t be a “recover in 2 counts” thing, it’ll fragment and it won’t be pretty.

This is part of the reason I love teaching, practicing, and performing ATS: like a hologram, or fractal, or a crystal, understanding the micro structure of the dance facilitates understanding the macro structure of the dance. While in another belly dance style, say, cabaret, you could stick an individual into a four-person choreography who doesn’t know how to shimmy or step on the beat and have it not ruin the whole dance, in ATS that wouldn’t fly.

For these reasons, pulling off an ATS performance of even the most basic moves is very impressive! I’ll watch beginner ATS groups all day with a dreamy smile on my face. I love the more complex moves and complicated formations too, of course, but I remain in awe of all the work that goes into learning the basic moves, the formations to move in, and the difficult-to-articulate process by which dancers sync up with each other and learn to move together.

If you’re curious what this looks like, here’s an example of an ATS dance I performed with my troupe. Yep, it’s all improvised. We’d run the piece a number of times and performed it already twice in different cities. We knew who would lead which section, but other than that, which moves would be cued when was up to each leader. Maybe I’m biased but I think this performance came out well in part due to all the practice we put in, and in part because we have good rapport with one another.

I’m curious: are there other dance forms, or art forms more generally, that are fractal in the same that ATS is? Where learning the smallest component of technique is essential to practicing or understanding the larger concepts that flow outward from it?

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“Something” illustrated by Oscar Klever

As both an academic and an artist (wow, how many blog posts have I written/will I write that start off like this?), I’ve noticed that having a fine-tuned critical gaze is very important and useful, but it also has its downsides.

On the academic side, my ability to critique works and ideas has been a great help. Having a critical gaze helps me sift through scholarship when I’m doing background research for a new project or syllabus. I’m a thorough editor, and I actually enjoy proof-reading papers (excepting my own). While I’m not a specialist in rhetoric, I’ve gotten better at identifying the various types of arguments that one can make in an academic paper or book, as well as the sorts of evidence that are appropriate and compelling to present.

In terms of the arts, I’ve become excellent at identifying technical flaws in dance performances. I suspect this is partly because I’ve taught dance for a number of years so I’m proficient at picking out typical beginner mistakes (such as not having proper posture, which is the foundation of everything we do in American Tribal Style® belly dance), and partly because I’ve simply watched a ton of dance performances. I mean, I’ve been dancing for almost half my life, and most of that at a semi-professional if not professional level. I’d be a little worried if my eyes weren’t catching mistakes and spotting places where a dancer could improve.

But being good at critiquing someone or something, and then actually implementing the critique, are two separate things. Few people like to be told that they’re doing something wrong, and those that do, tend to need to be in the right context to hear it. If someone sets foot in a dance classroom or a conference presentation, then yes, they’re probably open to hearing what could be improved. But even then, it’s a bit of a gamble as to how a critique will be received. Even well-intention critiques (and I like to think that mine always are) can feel devastating.

And then there’s this issue: critiquing something is not the same as creating something. The latter is frequently more involved and time-consuming, and one tends to put pieces of one’s heart or oneself into a creation, whether a choreography for a performance or an academic article.

I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen’s views on art here, and I’d like to return to Andersen to explore his views on critics. As you might guess about an egotistical artist who was also largely unhappy with his life, he wasn’t a fan of critics. He made his views known in his stories, including two that I’ll mention here.

In a story titled “‘Something,'” five brothers set out to do something useful in the world. One becomes a builder, another an architect, and so on. However, the fifth brother declares: “I see that none of you will ever become something, even though you all think you will….I want to stand apart. I will contemplate and criticize what you do. There is always something wrong with anything man makes. I shall point it out so all can see it. That is something!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 540).

And indeed, people began to praise the fifth brother: “He is really something. He has got a good head on his shoulders and can make something into nothing.” (ibid 540). However, when the fifth brother tries to get into heaven, he can’t produce evidence that he’s done a single good deed in his lifetime. In fact, the best thing he can do is keep his mouth shut instead of offering his opinion – and that, we’re told, is “something.”

In another story, “A Question of Imagination,” a young man who wants to be a writer goes to ask an old woman for help coming up with ideas for what to write about (because everything has already been written about – and goodness, if people were thinking that in the 1800s, imagine how dire the situation must be now!). However, no matter how much inspiration the old woman tries to feed the boy, he remains oblivious to the wonders of the world around him. Finally, the woman tells him to become a critic. He “followed her advice. He became an expert at looking down his nose at poets because he couldn’t become one himself.” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 974).

There’s something tragic, Andersen implies, about the person who cannot create but can only critique. However, I’d argue instead that critique doesn’t in and of itself signal a lack; instead, I think it’s critique without compassion that’s the problem. If the critic is also a creator, then hopefully she will have some understanding what goes on in the artistic process, and won’t be snide or cruel in her critique. I’d hope that critics who aren’t also creators, but are simply quite good at what they do, would also have some compassion for artists and not be unduly destructive or negative.

I’m not implying that we’d suddenly live in a utopian world without hurtful negative feedback if everyone made an effort to be a little more compassionate. Haters gonna hate, and all that. I do think, however, the critics should evaluate their relationships with the materials they critique, and be honest with themselves (and the world) about their reasons for doing so. That’d be a start, anyway.

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I frequently fall prey to an all-or-nothing mindset in both my creative and my academic pursuits, and I doubt that I’m the only one with this problem. Those of us who are academics are often driven to achieve perfection by both internal and external motivations, and thus we hold ourselves to incredibly high standards, leading to a lot of self-criticism about works-in-process that we don’t think are “good enough” to show other people. This Chronicle article about getting feedback on your writing, even when it’s incomplete or in rough shape, describes precisely this phenomenon (and it’s what inspired me to make this blog post, though this topic’s on my mind fairly often).

Those of us who are artists face many of the same obstacles: the pressure to have polished pieces to perform or sell can be enormous. These pieces help us attract students, pay rent, and exhibit our styles to our communities, involving us in dialogue about our creative and critical choices.

In both communities, it can be difficult to ask for guidance or help in the creative process. I tend to assume that most of my colleagues (in both dance and academia) are at least as busy as I am, and why would I ask them to give up their precious time? Further, it can be difficult to find someone who’s enough within my specialty to offer useful advice, unless of course I’m just out for the “lend this another set of eyes to make sure this makes sense” sort of critique.

I’ve noticed this brand of perfectionism spilling into other areas of my life, too. If I can’t find a whole hour to devote to yoga and stretching in order to further my dance, I feel myself getting stressed and wondering why I bother at all and how I’m ever going to improve. Recently, I’ve been reminding myself that 15-20 minutes of yoga will always be better than no yoga. If I can start to identify when an “all or nothing” mindset has gotten a hold of me, hopefully I can do a better job of combating it in order to grow as a scholar and artist. If I can work on, for example, taking advantages of those tiny cracks and crevices in my schedule to accomplish a few things here and there, rather than fretting about not having “enough” time to really make a dent in a given task, that’d probably be helpful overall.

With any luck, I can leave the all-or-nothing mentality to occasions where it doesn’t hinder me. I’m curious to hear about other people’s strategies for dealing with this issue.

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Mayken González Backlund’s illustration for “The Nightingale”

I’ve been doing some reading on Hans Christian Andersen lately, and it’s really spurred me to think about my own interactions with art. In addition to reading Andersen’s tales, I’ve been reading Jack Zipes’s book Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, which (in my opinion) does a great job of using contextual information from Andersen’s life to illuminate his fairy tales and stories.

Fun fact: Andersen never married, and is believed to have never had sex (despite apparently visiting brothels a couple of times in his life). Contemporary scholars debate whether he was gay, bisexual, or “spiritually androgynous” yet asexual in practice. Based on the fact that he proposed to two women, and yet in numerous letters and diary entries described his passionate feelings for men, it seems likely that he wasn’t 100% heterosexual (as much as that category existed in 19th century Denmark or anywhere else for that matter). Either way you slice it, he felt like he didn’t fit in and was thus lonely and misunderstood.

Perhaps related to his loneliness was his drive to create. He was amazingly prolific, penning not just the tales we know and love him for, but also poetry, essays, novels, plays, travel books, and memoirs. Zipes gives us a quote from one of his diaries:

What could become of me, and what will become of me? My powerful fantasy will drive me into the insane asylum, my violent temper will make a suicide of me! Before, the two of these together would have made a great writer. (7)

Other quotes reveal that Andersen believed he was guided by God to become a great artist, that he had a gift to share with the world. In Andersen’s tales, too, we see notions of inner nobility (such as in “The Ugly Duckling”) and ruminations on the nature of art (“The Nightingale”)… and those are just from some of his better-known works! There are tons more.

All this has me thinking, as an artist, about what makes me similar to and different from Andersen. I also feel driven, perhaps to the point of narcissism and solitude. I don’t, however, believe that I have a God-given destiny to become an artist… though I do feel like I have talents and skills that I ought to use, if only because I have them and don’t want them to get rusty. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between the two? If I believe I have a gift and ought to use it to create art, does it really matter whether I believe it came from God or is just a part of my personality and makeup?

One of Andersen’s tales, “The Pen and the Inkwell,” shows the two titular objects arguing over which of them has agency and is thus responsible for creating the masterpieces they write. The poet who wields them ends up writing a parable about how the bow and violin that create marvelous music are not, however, the creators of their art:

“How absurd it would seem if the bow and the violin should be proud and haughty about their accomplishments. Yet we, human beings, often are: the poets, the artists, the scientists, and even the generals often boast in vain pride. Yet they are all but instruments that God plays upon. To Him alone belongs all honor. We have nothing to pride ourselves upon!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 640)

I believe that artistic inspiration comes from somewhere, but that “somewhere” doesn’t need to have a religious explanation tacked on to it in order to be meaningful. The important thing about art is that it moves us, not where it comes from. To be sure, many artists use art therapeutically, to resolve feelings and address struggles – so in that sense, yes, it matters where art comes from. But I don’t think that the only rational or valid origin for art lies in religion.

To me, a more powerful account of art can be seen in “The Nightingale.” A nightingale that sings miraculously beautiful songs agrees to come and sing for the emperor, but it’s banished after a mechanical bird arrives and sings flawless, perfect (but ultimately boring and unchanging) music. After all this, the nightingale returns and sings for Death before Death can claim the emperor’s life. Art is so moving that is can persuade Death to leave – and it almost teaches the emperor a valuable lesson about de-commodifying art. Almost. The emperor still wants art on his terms, but relents and agrees to let the nightingale come and go as it pleases.

Perhaps there are people who will never understand how artists and art work, but as long they’re able to enjoy its beauty from time to time, this tale suggests, then our worlds will intersect and enlighten one another. Perhaps art doesn’t always provoke lasting social change, but moments of reflection are still worthwhile.

One of the enduring gifts that Andersen gave the world was his meta-art, or his art that reflects on art. I appreciate this as both an artist and a scholar, and I continue to seek it out in my engagements with others. If nothing else, connecting with others (such as collaborating) prevents me from going to the extreme of hermiting myself up all the time or becoming too proud. Encounters with others always have the potential to be humbling, and if we read into and across Andersen’s tales, we find the encouragement to engage, encounter, and transform.

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There are times when I think I’m a workaholic, and other times when I think that no, I’m just different than other people, and my preference for spending a lot of time alone working is simply a reflection of that difference.

Maybe I’m just one of those people who’s really driven to accomplish stuff. I tend to be happiest when I have goals – and when I’m on my way to meeting them. I’ve run a marathon, finished a PhD, traveled to Europe and India, organized conferences and dance events… I’ve accomplished a lot, and I think those accomplishments are generally linked with my self-esteem and contentment. While that may set me apart from a lot of other people, that’s not too terribly weird… or is it?

I know a lot of introverts who prefer curling up with a book to social interactions. The difference is that for me, that book is for pleasure reading only part of the time. The rest of the time, I’m reading something that’s goal-directed: an academic book to write a book review of for publication, or the latest in a series on fairy-tale scholarship, or a new issue of a folklore journal that I subscribe to. For me, though, the goal-directed reading often is pleasurable. I mean, I wouldn’t have picked life goals that I didn’t also enjoy pursuing (some people apparently do this; it makes no sense to me. I don’t doubt that I could’ve been a kick-ass lawyer or doctor if I’d put my mind to it, but I would’ve hated almost every part of getting there).

So, most of the time I just try to accept that I’m a little strange and that I spend a little too much time working. I only start to worry when nothing feels like fun anymore, or when friends invite me to something that should be fun but only registers as “ugh, something that takes me away from my work.” Or when I think to myself, “hm, I should take a break,” and then nothing sounds appealing. That’s probably a bad sign… or is it? Usually these periods of apathy-toward-everything-but-work only last a short time. I know that different people have different working habits, which is one of the reasons I like to write about my own process and read about other people’s processes.

This issue is very much on my mind lately because as the weather gets nicer, various friends of mine are inviting me to take weekend trips hither and yon. Among the other factors in my decision (such as the fact that camping and I do not get along), I find myself thinking that I don’t want to give up a weekend when I could be working. Which strikes me as a little strange… but it’s not like I intend to do nothing but work the whole weekend. I mean, surely I won’t work for more than 8 hours per day. It’s normal – or at least not unhealthy – to want to do that, right? Kinda? I hope?

I know that the people close to me worry about me working too much, but I always assure them that I make time for the other things that are important to me, such as cooking, dancing, exercising, and spending time with loved ones. I’m curious, though: how do other over-achievers find a balance? Or how do you get people who are less driven to understand that, yes, we actually like working this much?

As an introvert and an intellectual, I spend a lot of time in my head. I mean, A LOT. My friends gently mock me by calling me a hermit (when they can get a hold of me, that is).

As an artist, I figure that solitude is just part of the package: in order to create, you need to establish your vision by spending time working on projects, ideas, and so on.

However, as a folklorist, I’m keenly aware that artists are always in dialogue with their cultures. The artists we tend to be interested in are tethered to culture even as they innovate within it, whereas in other disciplines, like musicology or art history, you might find a greater emphasis on the lone genius.

So while a lot of the art I make requires me to be alone to refine my technique and assemble ideas into whole pieces and performances, I relish the time I get to spend with other artists. Whether it’s teaching a dance class or attending a jam session, or simply talking about artistic concepts with people who work in different media, I’m glad for every opportunity to compare notes and hang out. This is also a major reason why I do a group improvisational form of dance (American Tribal Style®) in addition to performing as a soloist.

I know that some of this impulse is selfish, since, as noted above, I spend a lot of time working alone. Connecting with other people is sometimes difficult for me. Having art to facilitate the connection makes it easier; it’s less about me talking about my feelings than dancing them, and having someone to dance with and thus share in the conversation.

Part of it, doubtless, also has to do with how American society doesn’t generally value the arts these days. So simply being around other artists is affirming. It reinforces the existence of other people like me, who believe that it’s important to interpret human experience through creative media.

I’m curious about why other people choose to collaborate, too. Feel free to share your perspectives in the comments!