Tuesday, August 25, 2009
INTO THE WILD
One of my favorite things about being a professional dancer is that my jobs bring me all over the world. I not only get to earn my living doing something I love, but I also have the opportunity to visit exotic locales meet a huge number of creative, talented, dynamic, intelligent and FUN women, who usually turn into great friends. My recent trip to Alaska to teach and perform, which I had been looking forward to for over a year, was a stellar example of why I love my life. It exceeded anything in my wildest dreams, from the shows and the workshops to what I did in my off time. My sponsors Shadiyah in Juneau and Kamala in Anchorage went above and beyond in the events they organized and their hospitality. There is a very active dance scene up there and the women are dedicated to continuing their dance educations, as well as putting on a number of events open to the communities. My visit was preceded by an Alaskan tour by Canadian dancer Hadia, and everyone was already buzzing about Eva Cernik’s up-coming dates.
I even had a student fly in to Anchorage for private lessons. At first, I thought this was odd or that she must have been rich, but locals assured me that not only are visits from touring dancers so rare up there that many dancers learn solely from DVD’s, but also that some towns in Alaska are so remote they can only be accessed from ferry boats or planes.
Across the bottom of the license plates in Alaska, it reads “The Last Frontier” but Alaska was so different than “The Lower 48” that I often thought I was in a different country! To begin with, the whole place looked like a picture postcard. There were panoramic views with snow-capped mountains, vast expanses of silvery ocean bays, evergreen woods with fairytale sized mushrooms, blooming wildflowers, awe-inspiring cloud formations, and abundant wildlife. The scenery was so stunning, I joked that it seemed like there were glaciers just “laying around” everywhere you turned! The sun stayed bright until almost midnight, which was thrilling and exotic-if a little disorienting- to a California girl like me.
Then there was the “every day” stuff that was so different, too. I saw more taxidermy (in stores, restaurants, public buildings and private homes) than I have ever seen in my entire life. Every park or hiking trail had signs warning of bears, elk, or wolves. There were dog sled trucks and pick-ups with gun-racks or kayaks bound to the roof parked at convenience marts; the parking spaces had electric plug-ins for engine heaters- a necessary item in a place where winter temperatures can reach forty below zero.
It seemed as though everybody was wearing camouflage or polar fleece, and backpacks. In the airports going to and from Alaska, the TSA security checks included special “survival weapons” checks (yeah, it seemed like I was practically the only person not packing a gun) and instead of the usual items discarded in the security line, like bottled water or hand lotion, there were items like buck knives and bear spray left behind.
I visited Juneau first, and began a whirlwind with my sponsor Shadiyah, who is a criminal investigator, a pilot, a mom and a belly dancer. From the moment she picked me up, things never stopped. On the way home from the airport, she took me to see Mendenhall Glacier, which looked like a movie backdrop. Imagine turquoise blue icebergs floating around in a polar lake- it was stunning. We began my first morning in Alaska with a “typical” domestic chore: picking a 2 ½ inch porcupine quill out of her Irish Setter’s muzzle with a pliers…before we’d even had coffee! Courtesy of dancer Kat, we went whale watching on Auke Bay, with many belly dancers. The trip was gorgeous on calm seas, and we saw pods of Orca and Gray Humpback whales. The mature whales are roughly 30-60 feet long- like the size of three or four Cadillac’s laid end-to-end, or about three quarters of the size of the boat we were onboard! We saw a “bubble net feed” (a pod of whales diving in succession to churn up schools of fish to eat) and three of the magnificent beasts breeched the surface, spinning and turning in the air about 40 feet from our boat-deck. I was screaming in delight and wonder the whole time, and so were the other whale-watchers. Being a greenhorn, I thought this was normal for a whale-watching expedition, but t my fellow passengers, the crew and the captain assured me it was not. After that, it was time for an afternoon radio interview to promote our show that evening.
The show itself was held at The Rendezvous, a club in downtown Juneau and featured all sorts of entertainment. Aside from my two sets, local belly dancers performed, including Shadiyah herself, Majida (a massage therapist who worked her wonders on me the next day) and the Tribal troupe Patshiva, who were all related: sisters, daughters and mothers-in-law! How wonderful to see an extended family that has been dancing together for years. The band Noodle Of Doum played a couple of sets of Arabic/Pirate/ ethnic stuff infused with a good deal of comedy and showmanship: at one point they did a number called “Redneck Beledy” which featured Majida dancing in a plaid woodsman’s top tied up at the waist, balancing a rifle on her head! The stage manager also performed. A Juneau native who’d been living in Seattle, he performs under the name of The Luminous Pariah. "Lumi", as he is known, danced twice: once as an Alaskan fisherman in a number called “The Biggest Catch” and once in drag in an incredible Scarlett O’Hara-type hoopskirt made entirely of recycled materials (like plastic dry-cleaning bags) with a corset made entirely of duct-tape.
Workshops took place the whole next day at the creative hotbed of the city, The Juneau Arts And Cultural Center, where I taught four classes in total.The next day, Kathleen, who has been a leading proponent of the Juneau belly dance scene for years and leads the troupe Daughters Of The Moon, held a hafla at her beautifully appointed dance studio, followed by a potluck feast. The following day, Kathleen graciously allowed me to give private classes in stage make-up and sword technique at her studio, and also let us peruse her collection of hand-made costumes and belly dance scrapbooks.
Shadiyah and I left for Anchorage the next morning. Though our plane was delayed for a few hours, it didn’t matter once we touched down in Anchorage: our hostesses Kamala Stiner and Vivavoom Brrr-lesque met us at the airport in a white stretch Hummer limo, with a freshly-popped bottle of French champagne! Shadiyah and I settled into our cozy wood cabin, where Chilikoot Charlie’s put us up, the club we were appearing the next three nights. That evening, Kamala and her husband Frank took us up to Arctic Valley to watch the Perseids Meteor Shower. Though we arrived well after 11pm, we had to wait over an hour until it was dark enough to see the shooting stars, but the delay was worth it.
The next day was consumed with tech-checks for our show, “Through The Veil” plus the opening night of the show itself. Kamala and Frank have run Vivavoom Brrr-Lesque together for years, and though the troupe usually performs at Anchorage’s Snowgoose Theater, the Chilikoot Charlie’s shows were the opening of their fifth season. The troupe consists of a live jazz band, comedians, dancers and circus performers, plus special guests. Many local belly dancers participated, including Gypsy Underground Tribal duo, poi-spinning belly dance by Kimber, and an AmCab drum solo by Corliss.
A nurse by day and a dancer by night, Kamala runs a tight ship with a sense of ease and fun and the troupe has a large following in Anchorage, a city with a thriving entertainment scene: there are diverse communities of belly dancers, circus performers, alternative musicians emerging artists and burlesque dancers. The shows, held in the club’s baroque “Russian Room” theater, were a resounding success. The club also graciously lended day-time space on all three days for my workshops, which included belly dance arms, abdominal technique, fan dancing, Oriental combinations and burlesque.
On my last day in Alaska, Kamala and Frank took us on a sightseeing trip down the coast to the Alaskan Wildlife Conservancy, where we saw bear, moose, caribou, a bald eagle, and elk, buffalo and yaks. The Conservancy takes care of orphaned wild animals and endangered species. We saw the Ghost Forest, another glacier, and capped it all off with a gourmet organic dinner in the resort town of Girdwood.
Arriving the next night in LA, I knew I was definitely home: nobody in the whole airport had on Polar Fleece… I also spotted a thirty-something woman with pink hair and Anime clothes clutching an over-sized stuffed toy, and then I literally bumped into Keanu Reeves at the baggage claim.
Thanks to all the wonderful dancers I met in Alaska, and an extra special shout-out to Deb at The Rendezvous and Doran at Koots... I hope I can return soon!
Pix: Gastineau Channel from Mt. Roberts, Majida performing "Redneck Beledy", the cast of Vivavoom Brrr-lesque in The Russian Room