Finding Sisterhood in the Belly Dance Community | By Marie Tollon
Next week, belly dance artist Jill Parker and flamenco choreographer Danica Sena are performing at Dance and Diaspora at ODC Theater. Beyond sharing the stage, both American artists share a passion for a dance form which roots are embedded in a culture foreign to theirs. Talking with Sena last week and Parker this week reminded me how we often find kinship, essential parts of ourselves and a sense of home in a community whose background is different from ours. How much of its cultural elements do we appropriate? And in doing so, how do we transform them? Parker talks further about finding sisterhood among the belly dance community and incorporating her own socio-political and artistic influences into this dance form which originated in the Middle East.
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Marie Tollon: What was the inspiration for the name of your company, Jill Parker and The Foxglove Sweethearts?
Jill Parker: It’s not anything specific to belly dance. I wanted to have a name for the company that can capture the imagination, with some colorful visuals and a kind of sentimental and nostalgic quality. There are a lot of dancers who are far more produced than I am but I am really interested in maintaining a rapport with audiences that is very heartfelt. That’s where the ‘sweetheart’ comes from. I was a florist for many years and I love flowers. Conceptually, I thought that foxglove is such an interesting word, with the fox on the one hand and the glove on the other. Foxgloves are also poisonous flowers: a beautiful, intriguing visual thing but there is a power behind it that you need to be careful of.
MT: How did you come to belly dance?
JP: When I moved to the Bay Area, I was quite young and extremely socially awkward. I had a difficult time finding a job and making friends because of that. I worked in a café and met a couple of girls working in retail in the same stretch in Noe Valley. They had just started attending a newly created belly dance class at a community church nearby and they convinced me to go with them. I found an amazing sisterhood: women of different ages, very unique and very beautiful in this fiercely, independent sort of way that resonated for me. It both tamed me and helped me come out of my shell because I felt I found a family. The teacher was Carolena Nericcio who founded the dance style ATS -American Tribal Style®- and the dance company FatChanceBellyDance. It was a huge movement in dance in the late 80s, throughout the nineties and it continues to thrive today. It has made a big mark on belly dance in the Bay Area and beyond. I was lucky to be on the ground level of this pivotal company. When I found that [community], belly dance quickly became the priority.
MT: So you trained with the desire to become a performer?
JP: FatChanceBellyDance has since become a very professionally run organization but at the time, things were just beginning to be established. Very early on, even if I wasn’t dancing, I was invited to play finger cymbals, to hand drums, etc. I didn’t have a lot of these skills but they were training me and bringing me up. Very soon, I was performing, for better or for worse!
MT: You are the founder of the modern Tribal Fusion belly dance movement. What styles does it incorporate?
JP: The ATS® swept the nation first, and then the world. It’s followed worldwide. When I made a departure from the company, it was not my intention to create an offshoot branch or a methodology. ATS® is extremely stylized and referencing folk forms from a time that they were not that accessible. It was incredibly difficult to get your hands on a VHS recording of something in Morocco or Egypt. We would have seen and watched a million times the very few that were out there. Often you would find images in old books or National Geographic magazines and create a dance out of static images. ATS® was the semi-fictionalized ethnic dance form that was stylized and codified to be an improvisational format with a lead and follow, and never choreography.
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When I moved away from ATS®, I thought about all my other influences, such as queer culture, arts culture, underground sub culture, and my deep love of things vintage, particularly the jazz and Victorian eras and art deco. So I started blending in much more these types of silhouettes, in the costuming and to some degree in the music. In my earlier experimentations, I was using everything from opera to experimental music, and performing with live experimental bands. After a lot of incubation, and really inspiring collaborations, I settled on some styles and techniques that were specific to me. As things became much more widely available through the Internet, I also became interested at classical Egyptian, specific folkloric styles and learning the actual dances. Some elements of these are also coming in too. Where ATS® is at the very strong and fierce feminist end of the spectrum, I was softening into a softer image of a woman still feminist but comfortable with embodying [her] femininity and sensuality. It doesn’t feel disempowering.
MT: Can you tell me a bit more about the work you are presenting at Dance and Diaspora?
JP: I’m doing some pieces that give a nod to classic belly dance with my own take and stylizations. I change the silhouette, the hands or the arms to reflect my love of vintage, the 20s, 40s and Victorian time. That’s closely linked into the traditional movement and the music. Then there’s the experimental part of the show where we are doing a woman zar trance ritual, with some modern liberties and theatricality.
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I’m also really excited about our group because there is diversity among us: one performer is Asian, one is Latina, there is a man… I really love showing audiences diversity as well as different body types than what the media always portray as the standard of beauty. I love it when I have bigger women, older women, taller women or a man. I am attached to having people question what they think.
MT: In 1999, Scholar Andrea Deagon wrote about the misperceptions that belly dancers still face: “The view of the general public has not kept pace with the feminist bent of dancers’ images of their art. Belly dance continues to be marginalized as an art form; a professional dancer may have a difficult time being taken seriously.” Would you say it is still true?
JP: Yes. It varies a lot from place to place because of people’s perceptions of the other and what is understood as foreign is different according to where they live. If you are from the South or the Midwest, you don’t have a lot of exposure to other cultures nearby and things may feel more threatening, particularly with the current political climate. I feel like a cultural ambassador. Giving insight of some beauty from [the Middle East] feels important to me. People with less exposure are thinking “exotic dance,” just as at the turn of the century when belly dance and other cultural dances were brought in the Victorian dances in world cultural fairs. People don’t know where these associations come from but they stick.
MT: In your journeys to Morocco or Turkey, what did you feel that you learn that you couldn’t learn here?
JP: Understanding that I may never understand how complex the relationship to the dance form and women’s role in the culture really is. No respectable Egyptian man would want his mother, sister, daughter, cousin, or wife to be a belly dancer, so it’s really complicated.