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Morgana's Interview with Melina of Daughters of Rhea aka Melinda Heywood
Published in Jareeda, December 2002

 1) There's been a lot of debate in our culture about how divorce affects children; in your writing, you express that although you felt a lot of heart ache, you feel blessed that you had such an adventurous childhood, traveling around and experiencing so many different cultures.

 

My parents separated before I was out of diapers.  To this day I canít imagine them as a couple and never wished they were.  Like most children, I was amazingly resilient and accepting of the way things were.  I benefited greatly from their personal and professional life choices, their unconditional love and their commitment to involving me in all aspects of their lives.  Because of them I was exposed from birth to a vibrant and diverse slew of countries, cultural settings, ways of life, and artistic and intellectual milieux. I was equally comfortable in Greek tavernas, communes in Berkeley, circus tents, Aegean islands, New York subways, bohemian intellectual gatherings, folk music jams and feminist belly dance circles.  By the age of 10 I knew how to perform for live audiences, turn cartwheels in a circus ring, belly dance with a tray of lit candles on my head before hundreds of tourists, converse with adults, and change planes by myself in Amsterdam. In the midst of all the changes and transitions, I would plant myself in the pages of a book to find my center - books were where I anchored myself. But the ultimate truth is that I am lucky to have such humorous, creative & spiritual people for my mother and father.

 

2) Since you also had a rich experience as a circus performer, do you feel that has influenced you as a Middle Eastern artist and vice versa? Do you feel that performers benefit by "cross-training" this way in different disciplines?

 

No matter what the context, an audience can feel it when you are expressing your fullest, most confident and expansive self.  The more tools and skills you can summon for a performance, the better. Of course, context plays an important role, as you want to tailor the way you perform to fit the setting. As a circus performer you have to play to an audience of up to 1600 people.  You have to project your energy, your skill and your joy beyond the ringside VIPs all the way up to the kid sitting with her popcorn in the highest bleacher. You need to win them all over and rivet their gaze from the moment you step into the ring, and so you learn to be larger than life, dramatic and unrestrained. You also have to be completely spontaneous and ready for anything as there is a lot going on in the circus ring that you have no control over. You have to be ready to reinvent the ďscriptĒ if someone gets hurt doing a trick, or if the clown you are dancing with misses his cue, or if the elephant accidentally pees in the ring, or if your juggling act falls apart because people keep dropping clubs. You must dance on, dance on, and dance on with a smile, a wink and supreme confidence. The audience needs to see that everything is all right, that you are in charge. 

 

I also learned a lot about costuming, make-up and self-presentation from watching the Flying Wallenda family both on the tightrope and behind the scenes. Their example caused my belly dance costumes to get more sparkly and theatrical, my make-up more exaggerated, and my stage presence stronger. I also learned to use my voice and cymbals to maximum effect in the ring. The circus teaches you to use whatever means are at your disposal to create transformative energy and to draw the audienceís eye to the show. The circus is also a great place to combine skills, which for me has resulted in interesting new dance ideas.  I sometimes like to integrate juggling, acrobatics, tambourines, & balancing into my regular belly dance performances and troupe choreographies.  Yes, performers of all kinds benefit from ďcross-trainingĒ.

 

3) Living and performing in Greece as you and your mom and Piper have, how does actually living and working in an eastern culture affect what you bring to the stage as a dancer?

 

No matter what corner of the globe they hail from, human beings respond well to dancers who project professionalism, confidence, their authentic selves & good dance technique.  Growing up in Greece and understanding Greeks and how they interact means that I do know what Greeks like, however, and has helped me connect with and please Greek audiences.

 

 

4) You describe education such as your PhD in French medieval literature "as a stabilizing influence" in your life. Please explain more about that.

 

No matter how many changes and displacements I experienced as a kid, I could always depend on books and on the structure of academic life to bring a comforting and predictable rhythm to my otherwise itinerant life.  As a nomadic child, books were my anchors, narrative constants as I chartered back and forth between the wildly disparate worlds of my mother and father. My natural love of learning, of books, of foreign languages, of literary history and criticism, and of writing led me to pursue a PhD in French Literature. The Ivory Tower has always been a refuge when I needed it, but I wouldnít want to be stuck there forever: I also like to descend the tower and shimmy.

 

5) Please also tell about your desire to study French medieval literature, and if you think the sentiments of that literature have had their own impact on you as a performer.

 

I think it would take a book to fully explore my response to this question!  As I said, from early childhood I immersed myself in literature, from the mythic poems of Homer to the weird and magical worlds of Madeleine LíEngle, Raoul Dahl and Frank L. Baum. I also liked stories of how words and a discovery of writing could change lives from the inside out.  As a literature major at Wellesley College I wanted to explore the power of words and the various transformative modes of female self-expression. I wrote my undergraduate honorís thesis on Marguerite Duras and the intertwined themes of female subjectivity, self-expression and writing.  Later in graduate school at UPenn I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the interplay of old age, female authority and the representation of the female body in late medieval French literature.  Being a scholar and writer has only enriched my life as a dancer and performer.  I am very attuned to the ways society constructs and limits human beings by gender and age stereotyping and I enjoy resisting convention and (artfully!) innovating as much as possible with belly dance.  I am always conscious of the story I am telling with my dance, and I like my performance to transform or energize the viewer in some way. Bottom line is I want the audience to go home feeling inspired and positive.

 

 

6)  Some people do seem surprised when they learn that an Oriental dancer has an advanced degree of study, despite the fact that there are doctors, professors, anthropologists, journalists and all sorts of professionals doing Oriental dance.

 

Do you think there is pressure for dancers on the professional dance track to downplay their intelligence or education?

 

I hope not.  No one should ever have to deny the full spectrum of their experience to serve the needs of narrow-minded people and their misguided notions about Oriental dancers.

 

 

6) Coming from a family of dancers, how does one balance the fact that dance runs in the family with creating ones' own identity as a dancer?

 

I never consciously created my own Ďdance identityí, it just came about naturally. In our family it was the norm to dance for fun and profit. Piper and I grew up in the Land of Belly Dance Art & Biz, and we navigated that land easily from a young age.  Mom encouraged our maximal self-expression as dancers and celebrated our strengths and differences.  In both life and dance Mom, Piper and I have learned from each other in immeasurable ways Ė we are stronger as individuals and as dancers because we have each other. 

 

7) A recent Boston Globe article reported that you refuse to dance in situations that would cheapen your performance such as a bachelors' party. ((Firstly, please tell me if that was an extrapolation. I recently had a rather egregious extrapolation introduced by an editor into a story I wrote -- not a common occurrence, but not outside the realm of human error, either.))

 

Since it wasn't a direct quote but a paraphrase, what do you think is most important in order for dancers to dance safely and with dignity and integrity?

 

For example, some dancers say they would never dance a belly gram, or at a bachelor's party, but many do as part of their livelihood and they could never afford to live on what clubs pay.

 

Is it the gig that matters, or the way the dancer conducts herself at the gig? Or her ability to keep her own counsel in deciding which gigs are appropriate for her?

 

When I was 18, putting myself through college, desirous of lucre and hadnít thought much about how I wanted to present the dance, I did my last belly gram.  It was for a bachelorís party, and at one point the men chanted ďTake it Off! Take it Off!Ē  Being my motherís daughter I wasnít threatened, I just smiled at them and yelled back Ė ďDonít worry guys, the stripper will be here in 15 minutes!Ē  They stop chanting; I ended my show and went to collect my money.  ďThere is no stripper coming, is there,Ē said the guy, sheepishly.  ďNo,Ē I said kindly, ďIím a belly dancer, not a stripper. Thereís a difference, see.  Next time, if you want a stripper, you should hire one!Ē  From that moment I determined that I would never again do a belly gram. I went back to my dorm and wrote a paper for my Radical Feminist Theory class on being a feminist belly dancer. I would never again take eyeliner and write on my stomach ďTake a Last Look, Bob!Ē  Itís demeaning, itís objectifying, and itís crass. Itís just not how I want to spend my time, earn my keep, live my life.  So yes, having done it myself I do think that dancing at contexts such as bachelorís parties cheapens the dance and fuels popular misconceptions and stereotypes about belly dancing as a purely sexual dance designed to titillate a male-dominated audience.  Yuck!

 

But look, do what works for you.  Just think it through first. If you are so desperate to perform that you take a gig that drags the dance through the mud, thatís your choice. Be ready to defend it. But instead, why not create your own venue for the dance? Rent a dance space, invite other dancers to perform, sell tickets in the community, write up an explanatory program and put on a show yourself!  A much more empowering way to present the dance and earn money.

 

As intelligent dancers and practitioners of an ancient art form, we should be thoughtful and wise in our self-presentation, dance choices and performance contexts.  Be true to yourself: create your own mission statement for how you would like to present and perform the art of oriental dance, think about the message you would like to spread about the dance, and then stick to your guns and let your actions speak for themselves.

 

8) Now that you're a mom, to ZoŽ, how (if at all) has that affected your feelings about your own mom, and everything that goes with being a mom? Do you see some of your upbringing with a different perspective now?

 

I appreciate my upbringing and my motherís choices even more now that I am a mom. My childhood was so enriching and wild! I was given such incredible gifts Ė a love of dance, bravery, the knowledge that if a door closes a window opens somewhere else, an open mind and heart Ė this is the legacy I want to pass on to ZoŽ.    

 

9) Even though she's still a toddler, ZoŽ seems quite comfortable already in the atmosphere of Middle Eastern music and dance. Is it your hope that she will follow in your and your mom's and sister's footsteps?

 

Yes, dance is already an integrated part of ZoŽís life, as natural a function as breathing!  Every morning she heads to the dance room of her own accord for a little free style twirling.  Her father makes her little costumes and we cart her around to my early-night gigs and belly dance festivals.  But like my mom did with me, I will never force the dance on ZoŽ.  It will however always be there for her if she wants it. 

 

What if she decides when she's older that this is not for her and chooses a different path?

 

ZoŽ Isadora is free to choose her own path in life. ZoŽ means life in Greek, and life is unpredictable, wild, exciting, fulfilling and in the best case filled with love.  Her middle name, Isadora, is from the dancer Isadora Duncan, a brave and independent free spirit and innovator who reminds me of my mother.  I have a feeling that no matter what path she chooses ZoŽ will be original and determined, because this is the DNA that runs in her blood! So ZoŽ could be a librarian, the president, a CEO, an engineer, a writer, a dancer, a therapist, a slacker.  Who knows.  I had no restrictions put on me growing up in terms of future professions or life paths. I was given opportunities, my intuitions were honored, and my natural inclinations were nurtured. And this is all I wish for ZoŽ: a sense of many possibilities, a cushion of unconditional love, many avenues of self-expression to choose from, confidence in herself and an ability to access and honor her inner voice.

 

10) Some people, even people who've had adventurous lives, say they feel a lot more conservative once kids come along -- or that they wouldn't feel comfortable if their children took the same risks they did.  When you think about the adventurous life that you have and have had, does that have an effect on your feelings as a mom?

 

I am not more conservative now that Iím a mother. In fact Iím probably less conventional now than ever before.  But I have always been a responsible soul.  Its not like my adventurous upbringing was full of life-threatening risk or anything, it was just artistic and weird, and I still like things that are artistic and weird.  I canít say exactly how Iíll feel every step of the way as a mother to ZoŽ, but I do believe that she is her own person and will be taking responsibility for her own life choices. 

 

 

Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share about dance, about motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood, and about your rich and full life? Any thoughts you'd like to pass on to other dancers in pursuit of their dreams?

 

Besides saying that my daughter, my sister and my mother rock! And that for me some of the keys to life and dance are thinking through your choices, maintaining a sense of humor in the face of disagreement, taking risks, flouting convention, and never putting others down, I would like to share excerpts from my Daughters of Rhea mission statement.  I see Oriental Dance as one way to reach toward and perpetuate the beauty of the world.  My goal is to encourage womenís unique expression of their wild, most ecstatic selves through the ancient art of belly dance.  With this dance I want to celebrate life, creativity and community.  I want us to be in our bodies with pride, awareness and open hearts.  I want us to couple technique and precision with enthusiasm and passion, to be industrious in practice so we can be Dionysian in performance, and to be open to transformation and revelation at every stage of our dance career.  I also want to say this: My 33-year old brother-in-law has Lou Gehrigís disease and is confined to a wheelchair.  His prognosis is not good.  He can no longer dance, and so I dance for him. I use this dance to raise money for a cure and to spread awareness about the disease.  I exhort everyone to dance because you can, to dance because your body wants to dance, to dance because life is short and it is one of the best ways to spend your time. And stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. Dance your dreams no matter what.