Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Polkapocalyptic!

One of the cool perks of being a traveling belly dancer is meeting and performing with musicians from all over the world. When I was in Berlin, I performed at the Phoney Island Cabaret with the Benka Boradovsky Bordello Band- a gypsy punk band from New Zealand. One thing led to another (as these things usually do), and I was asked to dance in their music video.
The name of the song? Polkapocalyptic. The theme for the video? Drunken gypsy party. With that combination, I thought mayhem would ensue. Would we actually get drunk for the video? Would there really be a polkapocalypse? And how gypsy were we talking? Because I'm pretty much your standard white girl.
However, my wild imagination was calmed upon entering the studio/house. We were shooting on a green screen, and would be shot one at a time. And there was no alcohol available (much to my dismay), so the drunkenness would only be pretend (as it turns out, I make a pretty good fake drunk).
Shooting on a green screen is a little bizarre. Green screens are BRIGHT green and kind of cushy. Meaning that my complexion looked horrible and my feet stuck to the floor. Not so flattering for a belly dancer.
Dancing to the music was a little awkward, too. First, I had to dance to the music at half tempo. And then at double tempo. And finally, at normal tempo. I liked double tempo the best. Nothing like getting your shimmy on!
Despite the awkwardness of the glaring lights, the green screen, and having to pretend I was surrounded by drunken gypsies, I pulled the whole thing off quite well. Everyone did. There were four other dancers who also performed: modern, contemporary, and free-style. As a belly dancer, I ended up being the most gypsy of them all- go figure.
The video was shot and produced by Sumone Productions and they did a fantastic job. The drunken gypsy bit is just a small part of the finished product; who would have thought that thirty seconds took four hours to shoot?
Wanna see the video for yourself? Check it out: polkapocalyptic but be prepared for an acid trip down the rabbit hole.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


In San Francisco, Christmas is very much like Halloween; it’s an excuse to party and to indulge in varying levels of weirdness. Decorations are put up, parties are thrown, people hand out candy, and people dress up in costumes and run around the city in them. San Franciscans love pushing the envelope.
I was eating a vanilla éclair at Thorough Bread (if you haven’t yet been to this bakery, hurry up and go, before they take down the life-size Christmas tree that’s made entirely of bread) on Church St. the other day when I saw a group of Santas pass by the window. Ten minutes later and another group of Santas- this one all women and conveying more of a naughty Santa them- sauntered by. Later, I saw another Santa gang at Burger Meister (and keeping with the Christmas spirit, they let me pose with them for a picture), and throngs of Santas parading through the sidewalks, yelling “Merry Christmas!” and swaggering as if they were half in the bag (they probably were).
I finally asked a fishnet wearing Santa’s helper, “Why all the Santas?”
“Santarchy,” she replied. Of course. Makes perfect sense. This was San Francisco, after all.
“No force on Earth can stop one hundred Santas!” is the official slogan on the Santarchy (also known as “Santacon”) website. And it turns out that there are cities out there that are just as crazy as San Francisco when it comes to Christmas: over three dozen cities were listed as Santarchy hosts worldwide.
So, what is Santarchy exactly? It’s pretty simple- just a mob of Santas, creating some light Christmas mayhem, including mock Santa assassinations, snowball fights, bar hopping, and singing Christmas carols in a pitch no one wants to hear. The date for the event is listed on the website and anyone wanting to their city to be involved simply needs to plan on donning a Santa outfit and let the web coordinators know.
Santarchy seemed like a lot of fun. My only regret was no having heard about the event- or else I would have gladly paraded about in a Santa outfit myself. for more info

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Don't Call Me Blondie!

They say that blondes have more fun. (Who is this “they” anyway?). I’ve decided to find out for myself. After bleaching my hair three times, I’m finally passable as a blonde (albeit a fake one). I couldn’t go all the way, though, so the under layer of my hair is black. But no one notices that; it’s all about the blonde!
Have I noticed any differences? Am I having more fun? I am getting hit on more lately. But I’ve also recently become obsessed with cute knee-high and thigh-high socks. So, it could be either the socks or the hair. A guy walked by the other day and said, “Rockin’ socks!” with lust in his eyes. Guys really love girls in cute socks. I get it; I like girls in cute socks, too.
However, I do feel more like a porn star in bed now- but that’s because there are so many images of blonde porn stars in my head. Yes, I associate blondes with porn, just like the rest of you! Shame on me, I know, but now I’m in the blonde club, so I can get away with it.
Really, I was just getting tired of having brown hair. It took me years to grow out the black that was in my hair, and after only two months of being my natural color, I got bored. I tend to get bored easily, as you can see. I usually dye my hair black- so much that it’s way too predictable now.
So, blonde it is. And I like it. I feel a little edgier now, as if a part of my personality is represented by my hair. I felt the same way when I had dreads. No need to explain who I was- the dreads said it all! (Unfortunately, they said “hippy”, but we don’t need to go there.)
I think my blonde/black combo says “edgy, adventurous, flirty, fun, daring“. It might also say “easy”, but I’m hoping my hair keeps its mouth shut on that one.
The only downside to being a blonde? Getting called “blondie”. So many creepy, dirty, filthy guys have called me “blondie” since I dyed my hair. Shudder. I really don’t want to know what’s going through their minds, but since I associate blondes with porn stars, I can only guess.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Snow in the Grapevine

There is a pass in the mountains between Bakersfield and Santa Barbara called the “Grapevine”; the pass is twisted and curvy like a grapevine. And it snows there in the wintertime, much to the delight of Wilson’s niece and nephew. We were driving back from Bakersfield last weekend when the kids saw the snow. I remembered how exciting the first snowfall was when I was a kid, but these kids were getting really excited. They wanted us to pull over on the freeway just so they could touch the snow! I mean, snow was a big deal when I was a kid, but not that big of a deal. Well, it turns out that they had never touched snow before. I guess that’s growing up in Southern California for you (but don’t get me wrong, I love Southern California).
When I was a child, growing up in Canada, we would always make a snowman right after the first snowfall. It was a tradition. Even if we had to scrape all of the snow off the yard just to make a snowball. This resulted in some dirty looking snowmen- all covered in dirt and with sticks and grass poking out.
We decided to pull over on the Grapevine. There was an off-ramp and a little side road, so it was okay. And once again, the snow was scraped off the ground, right down to the dirt, to make a snowman. Only, there really wasn’t that much snow, and the snowman ended up being only six inches high. But hey, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.
The ride home was spent singing and listening to Christmas carols, and eating peppermint chews. I never thought that Southern California could remind me so much of home.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Cauliflower by any other Name....

Ever wonder how troupes come up with their names? Well, let me tell you, it is quite the process. My first troupe changed its name three times before it disbanded. What can I say? We were just students at the time; none of us had been in a professional belly dance troupe. There were so many names we admired, like “The Indigo”, “Ultra Gypsy”, “Zafira”, and “Red Lotus”. The names all had a certain ring to them.
We needed a name like that; one that would just roll off the tongue. After much debate (my suggestion was “Terciopelo", but it was vetoed) we came up with “Obsidian”. And all was great, until we realized that there was a group called “Obsidian Butterfly”. Too close for comfort. Plus, their name sounded better than ours.
I was riding the bus one day with my boyfriend, and with fellow troupe member, Tuana, and we were on quite the roll with ideas for a new troupe name. We liked “Kali”, because she’s a kick ass goddess, but thought the name would need something more. Kali Dancers? Kali’s Goddesses? Kali Serpents? That’s when I blurted out, “What about the Kali Flowers?”
I meant it as a joke, I swear, but Wilson and Tuana liked it. And so did the other troupe members. Kali Flowers. It’s funny, all right, but only if you read it. No one quite understood when someone announced the group. Cauliflowers? What does belly dance have to do with a vegetable?
So, “Kali Flowers” got ditched. The next name was voted in while I was on vacation, so I can’t take any credit. One of the members lived on Fell St., so the troupe became “Rue de Fell”. It sounds nice, unless you translate it to English. Which just proves that French is a nicer sounding language.
Obsidian/Kali Flowers/Rue de Fell eventually disbanded, and the troupe members have sinced moved on to bigger and better troupes (such as Jill Parker’s Foxglove Sweethearts, Miel, and Zadiraks).
It’s nice being under a troupe director. That way, if someone doesn’t like the name of the troupe, I don’t have to claim responsibility. Because when everyone asked us why we had named ourselves after a vegetable, all fingers had pointed at me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Drinking from a Saucer

Tattoos. Once you get one, you're hooked for life. Lucky for me, I haven't had the money to get one in a while. I already have four, so I can only imagine what my body would look like if I was richer.
And speaking of richer, I've decided what I want my next tattoo to be. It's part of a poem. Written by an old man. Who was blind. And had leprosy. This is one of those travel memories that makes me cry, but in a good way- in a "grateful for my life" kind of way.
For over a decade, a man named Fintan Kilbride organized a trip to Jamaica with a group of volunteers. I had the fortune of going on two of these trips. People usually picture the resort version of Jamaica: white beaches, aqua waters, palm trees, commercial reggae. But outside the resort walls, there are layers upon layers of poverty. Abandonment seems to be a big issue in Jamaica. Pets, kids, the elderly- their only hope are facilities run by volunteers and non-profits.
There was a home for the abandoned elderly that Fintan's groups visited every summer. It was the highlight of the residents' year. We would read to the residents, play dominoes, hear their stories, and listen to them play music. And we would celebrate one man's birthday. The first time I met George McFee (he liked to go by his pen name), he was 80 years old and started a music jam for us with a few of the other residents. The second time I met him, he was 81, and told us that he was dying. But that we were not to worry, because he had lived a full life and felt blessed by god. This coming from a man who had been blind for 60 years, who had had leprosy since he was 40, and who had been abandoned by his family. No ears, no nose. Stubs for toes and fingers, but he sure could jam on a harmonica.
He also thanked us for celebrating his birthday with him every year. He told us that it gave him something to look forward to, that it made him feel loved, and that it proved that he had never truly been abandoned.
He then recited a poem for us. I wish I could remember whether he wrote it or whether he was simply reciting a favorite poem. Either way, it was the most beautiful thing I've heard, coming from a man in his condition.
So, this is the part of the poem that I am going to have tattooed on the top of my foot, right next to the flower that's already there:

"I'm drinking from a saucer, because my cup has overflowed. In this life I feel, I have reaped more than I have sowed".

That way, whenever I am feeling ungrateful, all I have to do is look down and remind myself that if an old blind man with leprosy could feel like his life was overflowing with blessings, than I certainly can, too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why the elephant?

I’ve been a big fan of Rupa and the April Fishes for years, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago- right before Halloween- that I finally got to seem them perform live. For the release of their new CD, Este Mundo, the band played a short set at Amoeba Records in San Francisco’s famed Haight Ashbury neighborhood.
Rupa and the April Fishes were everything I thought they would be and then some. Rupa was beautiful, soulful, and performed with such passion that she seemed larger than life. Quite the feat for a woman who’s barely bigger than her guitar- and I mean that in a positive way!
Rupa has a great band to back her up, too. Instruments ranged from accordion to trumpet, and the musicians had the audience captivated and dancing between the aisles. A mix of gypsy, jazz, cumbia, and other musical elements, the songs were inspired by music from several countries. Rupa herself sings in French, English, and Spanish- and I may be forgetting a language or two.
During her set, Rupa told the audience that if we could explain why the new CD had an elephant on the cover, we would get a free copy. I didn’t know about the elephant. I tried to guess. Was it because Rupa spent part of her childhood in India? Nope. Luckily, my friend Mei was with me and treated me to a copy of the CD as an early birthday present. Now that’s what friend’s are for!
At least I know the story behind the April fishes. When a French king changed the pagan calendar to the Roman calendar, some people still wanted to celebrate the new year in April, and they would give out fishes to celebrate. Or so the story goes. The story is metaphorical. It’s about not wanting to accept a reality that’s handed to you, about not giving into the higher order. Rupa and the April Fishes definitely convey that message in their music, which is nothing short of worldly and not even close to being mainstream.
I love performing to songs by Rupa and the April Fishes for that very reason. When I dance to their music, my body feels pulled in several directions at once, and it yet retains a fluidity that ties everything together.
I talked to Rupa before her set and asked her if she would be interested in doing a belly dance/Rupa and the April Fishes show. Wouldn’t that be grand? Belly dancers performing live to Rupa and the April Fishes. Rupa said she was interested. I have yet to hear back from her, but seeing as how the band is currently on an international tour, I don’t mind waiting for an email. Besides, while I’m waiting, maybe I can finally figure out the story behind that elephant.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

El Dia de los Muertos- San Francisco Style

The Day of the Dead. A time of reverence, a time to remember loved ones who have passed. The festival is widely celebrated throughout Latin America, but the festivities in San Francisco rival most others. Not only does San Francisco have a large Hispanic population, but the city is also home to many worldly people and out-of-the-box thinkers. The result? A massive procession for El Dia de los Muertos of costumed, chanting, singing, sage waving, and music playing people that winds its way to a giant public altar. The altar is in fact several small altars, intertwined throughout a public park.
Rushing to the festivities after belly dance class with my dance partner, Alodiah Lunar, I didn’t have time to paint my face in the ghoulish white and black make-up that is common to wear during the festival. My friends, Mei and Coby, however, more than compensated for us, with their painted like skulls. Lots of people donned elaborate costumes, as well- ranging from black capes, to feathers, to head-dresses, to masks. One woman wore a metal frame with a larger than life skeleton attached to it. The woman was able to maneuver the skeletons limbs, and the result was a giant, moving skeleton, towering above the crowd.
Decorative floats, dance groups, and marching bands gave the procession a parade-like quality. One float was particularly interesting, as it was an antique, mobile puppet theater, complete with a shadow puppet show.
The altars themselves were beautiful, haunting, and mesmerizing, as if they emulated the souls of those we’ve loved and mourned. There was entire shrine dedicated to Michael Jackson, with a boom box playing his greatest hits. Another altar was a tangle of blood-red wires, holding up a white sculptured heart. Every tree in the park had pictures and notes stuck into its crevices. Flowers, feathers, candles, and mementos adorned the ground.
I had only gone to watch the festivities, but once I arrived at the altar, I found myself wishing I had made one myself. Luckily for me, someone had wrapped a sheet of paper around a building and markers had been left out so that everyone could write the names of their deceased on the wall.
The altars were a feast for my eyes, but the music was a feast for my ears. People were playing everything from Klezmer to Samba, and throngs of people were dancing and swaying to the music. The effect was thousands of people coming together to make-up a giant, pulsing crowd. Very much like the blood cells and energy that create a beating heart.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Real Life Game of Clue

Of all the bars I’ve visited in San Francisco, none left quite an impression on me as Bourbon and Branch. The Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco does not usually conjure up images of elegant bars and high-class society. However, Bourbon and Branch delivers just that. Without being overly pretentious, the bar offers a range of high quality cocktails, a classy atmosphere, and top service. Bourbon and Branch is located on a regular street in the Tenderloin, and can be hard to find considering that the entrance is an unmarked metal door on an inconspicuous wall. A Bourbon and Branch bouncer stands nonchalantly a few feet away from the door. Unless you had the inside scoop, you'd think he was just a regular person, waiting around with all the other interesting folk for which the Tendorloin is infamous.
What lays beyond the metal door, however, is nothing close to what one usually finds in the rundown Tendorloin. The decor in Bourbon and Branch is reminiscent of 1930s swank and glam, with a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, blood red walls, and a bar made from soft, dark wood. Bourbon and Branch looks like something straight out of a mystery novel. Indeed, when I discovered that the large bookcase looming against the back wall actually revolved around to reveal a hidden library, containing another bar, I felt like I was in a real-life game of "Clue"- It was the man with the top hat, in the library, with the knife! Or was it the woman in the red dress in the study with the gun?
Luckily for the patrons, the only real danger at Bourbon and Branch would be drinking too many of the delicious drinks. While priced a little higher than average, one sip of any drink from Bourbon and Branch makes you forget about the few extra dollars. Mixed expertly well, and with only the finest ingredients, Bourbon and Branch can boast some of the best drinks in San Francisco. A scotch on the rocks? How about a Glenmorangie Margaux Finish scotch(one of 1,200 bottles in the U.S.), or the Balvenie 1971? Just a couple examples of the quality you can expect and why Bourbon and Branch is worth the visit.
Originally, the location of Bourbon and Branch served as a real speakeasy from 1921-1933, during the time of alcohol prohibition. The current bar seeks to recreate the setting of an era when serving alcohol became a mysterious business. There is even a set of "house rules" that patrons are expected to follow, which include no cell phone use, no standing at the bar, and "don't even of asking for a Cosmo!". Unfortunately, taking pictures is also prohibited, so if you want to relay your experience of Bourbon and Branch to your friends, you'll have to take them there so they can see for themselves.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Naked Brunch

The other day I was sitting in my friend’s kitchen in Berlin, flipping through her copy of “The Return of the Naked Chef”. Have you read that book? So yummy- and I’m not just talking about the recipes. The Naked Chef (Jamie Oliver) is smoking hot, and has some great views on food to boot.
However, as I was reading his rant about why breakfast should be elevated to a more important meal status- “Instead of meetings over lunch or dinner, why not meetings over breakfast?”- and how hard it was to find a good breakfast buffet, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been to Berlin. And if he had, then did he ever miss out.
The Naked Chef’s cookbooks promote recipes using the bare essentials and that strip down restaurant food. Sounds like a Berlin buffet to me- the simplest of foods, but oh so delicious. Berlin’s restaurants are all about the breakfast/brunch crowd. And we’re not talking about the scrambled eggs with some bacon and hash browns type breakfasts that are the standard in so many countries. No, we’re talking about the kind of breakfast the Naked Chef had in mind: fresh juices, self-composed mueslis, and homemade breads. Add to the list a variety of fresh cheeses, a dozen kinds of meat, rolls, jam, fruit, and eggs, and you’ve got the typical Berlin breakfast buffet.
Some restaurants even take breakfast a step further than the food. One restaurant in the Neukolln neighborhood has a small stage and offers a “jazz brunch” every Sunday. How nice to eat breakfast while listening to live jazz. Plus, a buffet in Berlin won’t break your budget. The “jazz brunch” is only 7.50 euros. And other restaurants offer buffets for as low as 3 euros. There may be a lot of artists in Berlin, but you can bet that none of them are starving.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Iraq/Afghanistan- Some Inside Stories

One of the great things about dating a talented musician is that he occasionally gets noticed and gets commissioned to do some interesting gig. Wilson Gil’s most interesting gigs by far were the two week music tours he did with his band, the Willful Sinners, in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007.
Now, I’ve heard my fill of crazy war stories from Wilson, but after a visit last weekend from a friend of his whom he met in Iraq, I’ve got some more bizarre things to add to the list. I’m going to refer to this friend as Miss X, just so that I don’t step on anyone’s toes.
First off, Miss X was so nice and down to earth. She looks more like a cute housewife than a woman who spends much of her time working in war zones (I think Demi Moore ruined it for all the normal girls working in the military. Seriously, women in the military related fields are just normal people). And Miss X is bad-ass. She’s a communications consultant and specializes in solving problems related to suicide bombings. How’s that for intense?
Miss X, Wilson, and I wondered through Alexander Platz and looked at the historical buildings- all lit up because of the Festival of Lights- and chatted about cheerful topics such as searching for body parts, army bases being rocketed, people blowing themselves up, and so forth. We really are happy people, I swear. It’s not all doom and gloom.
So, want the inside scoop on some things the media doesn’t really cover? Just a couple tidbits for you: Fingerprinting is new in Iraq, and a friend of Miss X has the job of updating files with fingerprints- which means that she is often sent the fingers of dead people. Yup, just the finger. Imagine getting that package in the mail. Everyday.
Did you know that Saddam Hussein had a thing for the Flintstones? He had the whole town of Bed Rock constructed for his enjoyment. He also bred these giant fish with scales that looked like diamonds. Wilson was trying to feed the fish pieces of bread and it wasn’t really working. Then a soldier threw the fish a chicken bone- that did the trick.
Apparently, the United States has claimed all of the sites of archeological importance for themselves- Wilson got taken on one field trip after another to see pyramids, the foundation of the house of the prophet Abraham, palaces, you name it. The oldest pyramid structure known to man is just languishing in the desert. It's too bad archeology isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Iraq these days!
Wilson Gil, Miss X, and I also touched on how there are certain ways being in a war affects you, things you wouldn’t have thought of before you signed up for the job. Dealing with suicide bombing has given Miss X a large crowd complex. She said that one day her friend called her and asked what she was up to and Miss X replied that she was hiding in a supermarket aisle. She couldn’t quite recall why she was hiding, just that the crowds of shoppers had started to freak her out.
What I appreciated most about our visit with Miss X was how we could sip hot chocolate in a café in Berlin while discussing topics that are changing the world. It made me appreciate Berlin for what it is- an international city. Berlin feels safe, it feels comfortable, it feels peaceful, and yet Berlin itself carries the scars of war. Maybe one day it will be the same for Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe one day Wilson and I will visit Miss X in Baghdad and we’ll sip some hot chocolate in a café and talk about lighter things. One can only hope.
For more pics, check out Wilson Gil on Facebook.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Good-Bye Zadiraks

An interesting thing has come to my attention. While belly dance is popular in Berlin, the scene lacks a sense of community. In San Francisco, almost everyone supports one another. Teachers encourage you to study with other teachers, company directors are fine with their members being in more than one company, and dancers come to each other’s shows, even if they are not affiliated with the same people.
In Berlin, belly dance (or oriental dance as it is called here), is highly competitive. Teachers vie for students and discourage dancers from taking classes from anyone but them, dancers refuse to help one another get gigs because they don’t want to risk being outdone, and company directors want dancers to only be in one company. Within dance companies and classes themselves, there is a sense of family and camaraderie, but straying outside your circle can result in exile.
The company I am in, however, is a gem. Zadiraks is led by Zadiel Sasmaz and he wants his students to train with other teachers, dance with other dancers, and support shows from other companies. He understands that it only harms the belly dance community as a whole if we work against one another. I know there are other belly dancers in Berlin who follow Zadiel’s ethics and I applaud them for it, but there are too many dancers who take a cut-throat approach to the business.
A fellow Zadiraks dancer told me how she was in a company for several years and got kicked out when her instructor heard that she wanted to audition for Zadiraks. I’ve witnessed one teacher yelling at another teacher because he was ending his rent contract with her in order to rent a larger studio space. She basically gave him an ultimatum, saying that if he rented with another studio, then he would be her competition. Yikes.
All of this makes me thankful to be in Zadiraks, and sad to say good-bye. Zadiel performed at Maroosh restaurant last Friday and he organized a little farewell party there for me with his two companies, Zadiraks and Velvet Snake. Maroosh has quite the Oriental vibe with images of hieroglyphics on the walls, a giant cat statue, and Middle-Eastern clientele. It was awesome to see Zadiel perform in a restaurant atmosphere. The reactions from the diners were hilarious. The women looked like they were getting their jollies while the men looked mortified, avoiding eye contact with Zadiel at all costs. I wanted to tell them that it was okay to look- watching a guy dance does not make you a homosexual!
At least my boyfriend appreciated Zadiel’s performance. He’s open-minded that way. Plus, Zadiel redefines belly dance by taking the stereotype of the “sexy woman” out of the equation, which allows you to focus on the technique of the dance. Zadiel is graceful, innovative, and a perfectionist when it comes to technique. He truly makes the art form high class.
I’m glad I got to see Zadiel perform one last time before I leave for California, and it was so nice of my fellow dancers to come out to say good-bye. I’ll be returning to Berlin in the late spring, and looking forward to dancing with all the wonderful Zadiraks dancers once again.