PURE: Dance of power, dance of peace

By Jezibell

In mid-May 2004, when I responded to a notice in Bellydanceny.com that Kaeshi and Darshan were looking for dancers for an art project, I had no idea how much impetus this would generate in so short a time. Neither did anyone else, including the organizers. Kaeshi is the founder of Bellyqueen, a dance company that performs traditional raks sharqi as well as blends of other global dance styles within a Middle Eastern format. Because of their distinctive approach and exceptional technique, Bellyqueen became the first professional bellydance company to appear for a six-month engagement at Aladdin's Desert Passage in Las Vegas. Kaeshi has also toured extensively, performing at a World Peace concert in Bali and traveling around the United States with the Lollapalooza Music Festival in 2003. This year she was the dance captain for the Bellydance Superstars and Desert Roses troupes which performed in fifty-eight U.S. and Canadian cities.

Darshan (Cammi Vance) had come to New York to perform in Dalia Carelia's off-Broadway production In Search of a Goddess. Darshan is a principal dancer with the internationally renowned Gypsy Caravan, a modern tribal bellydance troupe based in Portland, Oregon. (For an in-depth look at tribal dance, see the Vol. 5, No. 2 issue of Bennu.) Darshan has danced with diverse groups around the country, as well as having extensive solo experience, and her credits include Peter Gabriel's WOMAD, New Orleans Lazarus Project and Halloween Parade, and Seattle's Bumbershoot and Folklife Festivals. Darshan believes firmly in the extraordinary power of dance, community, visualization, and intent.

Given the reputation of the organizers, I expected the first meeting on May 24 to be some kind of audition, since over thirty dancers turned up. Instead we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. Then Kaeshi and Darshan explained their ideas about what they sought to create. During her recent travels, Kaeshi had witnessed a diverse flourishing of dance in other parts of the country, especially the tribal phenomenon that is still relatively new to this area. Though New York benefits greatly from wonderful dancers and teachers in many disciplines, overall there is more fragmentation than fellowship. Studios can be very insular, and dance jobs tend to be solo shows with little opportunity for dancers to develop camaraderie. Kaeshi wanted to take advantage of Darshan's visit to develop something original for New York, not just in the dance itself but in the process and purpose behind it.

They envisioned this performance as a community event in which we would bring our dance outdoors and offer it to the people of our city. We would not be up on a stage, at a distance from the observers, but among them, on the sites and sidewalks and subways. Our purpose would not be entertainment or exhibition, but the embodiment of a powerful presence and a message of peace and healing. Kaeshi emphasized that this was not a place for soloists or egotists.

They had created the name PURE - Public Urban Ritual Experiment. Public emphasizes our community focus, for we would be sharing our art directly with the public, not the usual audience of nightclub patrons or aficionados, but with people of all ages, races, and incomes. Urban recognizes that we are living in or around New York City, and this metropolis is our environment. Though most of us are inspired by the fascinating history and variegated cultures of the Middle East, we live in twenty-first century New York, and our dance also reflects our contemporary society. Ritual engages people on a deep level, inviting them beyond the social facades into a communal spirit. Our dance would be a meditation, moving in geometric formations, sharing our serenity. Experiment allows us to take chances, perhaps to fall on our faces, but also to challenge ourselves and expand our scope. Nothing like PURE had ever been done in New York before, and no one knew what would happen or how it would manifest. PURE would not be a paid show or a prestigious venue. Kaeshi and Darshan told us that they wanted to video something over the summer, but had neither date nor location. We would also have to work quickly, because Darshan would only be in town for a few months.

I felt confused about some of the details but intrigued by all the possibilities. The question and answer session clarified a few points. Since we all had different backgrounds of dance styles and training, the group would work within a limited bellydance vocabulary. We would maintain the drama and precision of cabaret style, but emphasize unity of movement in a tribal context and include moves from other world dance forms. One woman asked what would be the benefit for dancers in this. Darshan answered that it would be the opportunity to share in a meaningful community experience and that each individual would be responsible for how powerful and real it could become. Joining PURE at the outset would be an act of trust, trust that an inchoate vision could manifest into an influential reality. As Kaeshi emphasized throughout, our thoughts and our actions matter. Then we started moving. Even with basic steps, the effect of so many dancers moving in unison was profound, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this.

The name PURE appealed to me intuitively. Sometimes this word connotes sterility and vapid sentiment, but its actual meaning is absolute and unadulterated, free of extraneous elements. In too many instances, our dance experience has become clouded by ego, insecurity, and competitiveness. PURE felt like a return to the joy of creative expression, a healing that could be extended to others and enhance the reputation of our art, moving beyond the image of the bellydancer as a sequined, seductive cabaret soloist in a dim nightclub to present a group of strong women dancing together in the sunlight.

After that first meeting, I thought there would be some kind of notice of acceptance or rejection, as is the usual procedure after auditions. However, in this project those who felt drawn to it simply attended, and those who didn't dropped out. A few others joined us in the first couple of weeks, and then Kaeshi and Darshan closed the rehearsals to newcomers. As we continued to meet and practice every Monday night, I was surprised at how many dancers kept showing up regularly. I have been involved in professional projects where absences and lateness severely hampered progress, yet for this volunteer venture we had about thirty enthusiastic women at every meeting. When I told people about this, the usual response was "thirty bellydancers and no diva fits?" But there really weren't any.

Our costume, which Kaeshi had conceived, clearly denoted bellydancing but was neither cabaret nor of any specific ethnicity. Her design of a simple long-sleeved black top and full skirt.emphasized the belly and the face. As well as being practical, popular, and easy to match, black is a pigment of the earth. Furthermore, our garb was designed to be inexpensive. Many of the dancers constructed their tops by cutting the soles and crotch out of a pair of opaque stockings, though I had found it easier to make mine by cutting off a leotard and securing the edge with elastic. Black was also meaningful to me because it is the color of absorption, the ability to receive without detriment, and it is the color of the seeker in many spiritual practices.

To this clean-lined base we would add our own belts, scarves, and jewelry for an overall look would be more antique than glitzy. Women willingly loaned extra apparel to those who didn't have it. Footwear would be boots or Chinese slippers, something solid to support the feet. Our hair would be worn all or partly up, adorned with flowers to maintain an elevated focus as well as provide decoration and connect us with nature. Another dancer, Ava Meris, suggested that we add blue silk veils. Even better, she made them for us. She dyed them in various shades from pale to deep blue with a natural tint she had prepared herself from indigo. Blue, a traditional color of healing, is also associated with sky and water, the air and moisture that maintain life.

Those initial meetings continued the discussion about the meditative aspect of our work. PURE does not follow any particular creed or doctrine, and our ritual intent is to harness our collective abilities to help our world. Our spirituality is universal, and we invite all people to participate in our goals of healing, whether one follows a specific religion or a general philosophy of secular humanism. Though we support global peace, human rights, and other beneficial ideals, PURE does not engage in politics. We focus on creating art that inspires awareness and positive change.

I have facilitated many public and private rituals, some incorporating dance, and I have been eager to explore the realm of sacred movement even further. I realized that the PURE project would serve as a purification, not just for ourselves, or for the dance community, but for our city, which has suffered greatly in the past few years. Our dance would constitute a benediction, similar to the processions of musicians and dancers that formed an integral part of ancient religious festivals and still feature in indigenous practices. These musings inspired the following poem, which became our mission statement.

We move with reverence and mirth,
Dancing the rhythms of the earth, 
Seeking the balance between land and tribe,
Ever unfolding, ever alive.

With every breath, we purify,
With every step we sanctify,
Through the heart we consecrate,
Through the body, celebrate.

We are whole, we are here,
We are powerful and clear,
We are centered, we are sure,
We are open, we are PURE -
PURE in focus, PURE in essence,
PURE in pattern, PURE in presence,

In lines of rippling symmetry, 
Then circling 'round in unity,
Encompassing duality,
Embodying community.

Across the sky our blue veils swirl -
We bring our blessings to the world!

Our dance would consist of following the leaders through movement sequences, cued by resounding zaghareets. Sarah Johansson Locke, a former member of Gypsy Caravan, showed us some of the elements of tribal style, which was new for many of us. We practiced cascading movement, in which the leader starts something like a turn or undulation, and it ripples sequentially down an entire row of dancers. We moved in single and double lines, diagonals, circles, and chevrons and found transitions between them. We moved in different directions, looking inwards and outwards, making sure to maintain contact with each other.

Some of our work was experimental. One night we divided into three teams to brainstorm methods for dancing on the subway. Everyone had a chance to contribute her suggestions for ways of entering, waiting on the platform, and riding the car. Then each team presented their results to the others, and some of these ideas became part of our presentation. We also did the mirror exercise, which is very helpful for centering and connecting. Two partners face each other, one dancer initiates movement, and the other mirrors, then eventually they switch. The important thing is to move slowly and maintain eye contact, and it appears that the two dancers are moving in unison.

By mid-June we had set the date of Saturday, July 17 for our first performance, and from then on we became less exploratory and more focused on getting something ready to go. Our presentation would be guerrilla bellydance at eight sites in lower Manhattan - we'd arrive, perform for 5-10 minutes, then move on. "We had many places in mind," said Darshan, "and we pared it down considering time, the purpose of each and the feasibility of the route as a whole. We settled on places that represented areas we thought could most benefit from our healing energy and honoring presence." Kaeshi arranged with city authorities to obtain the appropriate permissions.

To keep ourselves organized, we arranged ourselves into three sections by height, with Darshan leading the tall group, Sarah the medium group, and Kaeshi the short group. Brad MacDonald, Kaeshi's husband, was the first of the drummers to start working with us, and soon percussionists Pete List, Andrew Potenza and Anoush joined in. The drums energized our rehearsals. Brad had begun with a couple of basic rhythmic ideas, and, by watching us, the drummers developed an organic flow of patterns and cues for our movements.

Darshan described the process as she and Kaeshi "brainstormed for hours about the project, trying to find and keep sight of the purpose and effective ways of getting it across. We put together combinations by trying stuff in the mirror, various ideas that we wanted to try in groups, keeping it on a meditative level." Our show incorporated elements of other world dance form, such as the heel-to-toe Chinese walk to cover ground quickly and gracefully. Darshan led us in purposeful processions, alternating arm patterns, snake arms, hand circles, all basic moves which continued much longer than in cabaret because we'd use them to travel from site to site.

Our two main choreographies took the form of the circle and the double line. The circle combination was a flowing sequence that included grapevines, undulations and hip rolls, and some of its movement patterns derived from Israeli folk dance. For the double line formation, Susan Frankovich created a lively hip combination, and Darshan brought in flamenco turns. Kaeshi taught us the Diagonal Reflection, a very sharp and sustained segment from Asian dance that involved oblique arms and horse stance. I showed this one to my blackbelt boyfriend, and he said it could also be a kata, a martial arts form. Andrew described this as the "don't mess with us" step, and I loved its warrior aspect. I had been concerned that our intent might come across as saccharine or mawkish. Instead, our formations had a military feel, not in a belligerent sense, but in the feeling of focus, of gathering communal power and using it honorably. The final pose for both the circle and linear choreographies was a mudra, a hand position from classical Indian dance.

I was extremely pleased with the overall structure of this project. A common problem in volunteer groups is lack of organization and quality control. This was not the case with PURE. Though supportive, the environment was very work-focused, with an emphasis on technique and timing. Kaeshi and Darshan provided us with detailed practice notes of the choreographies.

Kaeshi is also a graphic artist, and she designed a beautiful postcard to be handed out prior to the event and to passers-by along the way. We had planned to chip in the money ourselves to cover printing costs, but Toni, owner of the Moroccan restaurant Tagine, was so impressed with our mission that she offered to sponsor us. Not only did she pay for the postcards, but she also hosted an after-party at the restaurant, providing a free buffet to PURE dancers and musicians. She even allowed us to gather at Tagine's before the event to prepare.

The dancers also contributed their skills and efforts. Darshan described our group as "an amazing bunch of people with a wide array of strengths, all ready to pull together in community and use their powerful intention to stir things up in a very personal and beautiful way." Jill Lenz, a public relations professional, wrote our press release and sent it to local publications and news organizations, and Takisha Young assisted her with phone calls and faxes. Claudia Mantilla suggested that we have a raffle at the after-party to raise money to split between PURE's future projects and charity. She and several others secured donations of jewelry, DVD's, CD's, veils and hip scarves as prizes. Our chosen beneficiary was We The World, an organization whose goal "is to awaken a spirit of caring and involvement in the public so that millions of people begin to see themselves as part of one global interdependent community - and actively take part in creating a world that works for everyone!"

July 17 was a glorious day, clear and bright, warm but not too hot. At noon we gathered at Tagine's, and saw ourselves together in costume for the first time. I'd never danced with flowers in my hair before and had been afraid that they would look dopey. I'm used to wearing my hair long and loose, but putting half of it up into a bun and placing flowers around it turned out to be very centering (perhaps that's why Samurai training included flower arranging). Belts ranged from elaborate Afghan kuchi to simple coins, and Paige Stevenson had created a contemporary urban belt out of keys and peep show coins. Bright makeup, body glitter, henna, multihued blue veils, and all the flowers in a profusion of colors, sizes, shapes and arrangements - we were goddesses! A great group of volunteers joined us to carry bottles of water and distribute our postcards along the way. Before departure, we stood in a circle, holding hands and focussing ourselves on our intent. Susan spoke a blessing and passed rose water for us to spritz ourselves, and I read my poem. We were ready.

From Tagine's Darshan led us in a long line to the Times Square subway, drummers beside us, video cameras rolling. Everywhere we walked, and as we walked, we followed Darshan's arm and hand movements. People along the streets paused to watch and take pictures. Except during the subway ride, the drummers played continuously, and their rhythms kept us focused. We arrived promptly at 2 pm at our first stop, Astor Place in the East Village, home to artists and creative thinkers for decades. Here Peter Cooper had established Cooper Union as the country's only private, full-scholarship art, architecture and engineering college. At the cube, we performed our first dance, with the middle group doing the circle sequence and the others moving in an improvisational line.

We finished to resounding applause. Followed by some of the crowd, we walked over to Union Square, a national landmark and site of political gatherings from nineteenth century protests to recent 9/11 memorials. We circled around Gandhi's statue and formed three lines to dance before the square. Then we took the train downtown to Fulton Street, and walked slowly and reverently through St. Paul's cemetery, hands held in front of us. In homage to the September 11 tragedy, we danced in three circular formations at the World Trade Center and in one long line at Liberty Square. We continued down Broadway to the New York Stock Exchange, which manages much of the wealth of our nation. Here our concentric circle dance offered the hope that these resources could benefit the many, not just the few. Then we came to the National Museum of the American Indian, dedicated to Native American cultures, and to honor them we danced in our three circles. (This area was the most challenging for us because of the uneven cobblestones!) Our next site was the Sphere, a bronze sculpture created by Fritz Koenig to symbolize world peace. It had been pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center and is now in Battery Park as a temporary memorial. Here we formed one long rectangular shape facing the Sphere and followed Darshan in a series of cascading movements.

Finally we passed by the water to reach the East Coast Memorial, which commemorates armed forces personnel who lost their lives in World War II. For me, this site was the most emotional, perhaps because my father and uncles served in the military, and tears pricked my eyes as I saw the names of those who had been killed in action carved onto the concrete slabs. For our dance we faced the ocean, looking out towards the Statue of Liberty, and we performed our combinations in a scattered group formation to a crowd that included the passengers on the Circle Line boat. At the end, we took out our veils and moved forward slowly, blue silk billowing behind us. We peeled off behind the columns, re-tucked our veils, and came back to invite the people into a huge spiral dance.

The spiral dance, a common feature in pagan ritual, follows a path of progression from the outer to the inner, then back out again. Starting from a large circle holding hands, the leader lets go of the person on her left and begins to spiral inwards in a clockwise direction, guiding the group in with her right hand. When she reaches the center, she turns and spirals outwards counterclockwise, and as the group follows her, the people pass face to face. At the outside of the circle, the leader turns once more to move clockwise, bringing the circle back to its original formation. This dance represented our connection to our community and our country. As Darshan shared with us later, "the feeling I had when we were facing the Statue of Liberty from our final site was never having been so specifically proud to be an American. Lately it has been difficult, because of the climate that the administration has created, and just a year ago I was in Morocco thinking, okay, now what shall I say when they ask where I'm from? Canada? But now I feel like we just gave America a nice therapeutic massage and in the giving I received the gift of remembering what it's really all about."

PURE had done it! As described by Nancy Coradin, "people were drawn in - many followed us to the next location, and some took the train with us. In spite of the postcards that were handed out many spectators didn't know what we were about nor did it matter. They accepted our gift and I spotted a few who mimicked our moves. Perhaps the best accolade was when I saw a middle-aged woman mirror our hand and arm movements. Our message of peace and beauty was reflected on the smiling faces of men, women, and children alike. PURE became one body of strength in bringing New Yorkers love and the beauty of dance and music to places that are on the mend and can rise again in solidarity."

I was not able to attend the party at Tagine because I had to do a handfasting that evening. I was astounded when I returned to the East Village around 6 pm, still in my PURE attire, and several people came up to tell me how much they'd enjoyed our dance at Astor Place. We had been there four hours ago for less than ten minutes. Later that night, because it seemed so appropriate, I wore the PURE costume to perform the handfasting. Meanwhile at Tagine, PURE and friends enjoyed delicious Moroccan cuisine while Rick Ulfik, founder of We the World, spoke about the work of his organization.

I have to admit to some embarrassment because some of those sites had been new to me. PURE's route had reminded me of the importance of appreciating the history and variety of our city, or wherever else we live. We are American dancers, and, though we honor the Middle Eastern roots of our dance, we are interpreting it for ourselves and the inhabitants of this country in the present moment. Instead of some vague projection into the astral, the spiritual intent of PURE is rooted in our own time and place, just as ancient religions based their beliefs and practices upon their regional geography, climate and resources.

Dancer Kim Sonsky described PURE as "one of the most enlightening and spiritual performances I've done. I've performed in groups and on my own, and never did I feel the heartbeat of all transition into the soul of one, as was on this day as we moved through the city." Takisha explained that, "As a student for the past two years, I have experienced a couple of divas and some politics. I just want to dance and that's what PURE has allowed me to do. The reward is far greater than money. We learned to work and depend on one another as well as trust our leaders to guide us through, and we all came together for a common cause. I look at the more advanced dancers as big sisters and mentors. When preparing to leave for the event at Tagine, I was able to count on my sisters to help me with makeup and flowers. While dancing through the streets of the city and at all of the landmarks visited I experienced a spiritual awaking. It was amazing to see and hear people's reaction to us."

Sarah added, "Because of my background in tribal, the experience of coming together as a group to create and perform together wasn't as new or different to me as it was to some members of PURE. Nonetheless, every time I witness this process it amazes me, and the commitment and energy of this group were really outstanding. From day one, the dancers and musicians were all active collaborators and participants, and we worked very well together even though we came from different backgrounds and working styles. Most fulfilling is the fact that we all have had such a positive experience of the project, and feel like we are receiving so much from it along with all we give."

PURE continues to celebrate the healing power of dance, exemplified in what happened to Jill, who had been in front of me in the middle group. I had already been impressed with her PR work for us, and her diligence in attending rehearsals even though she lives in New Jersey and has a six year old son. During our performance she had looked dazed for a few moments, and I had helped her re-focus. At the time I had thought she was simply trancing from the extended drumming. From my ritual work, I know how rhythms can put someone into a hypnotic state, and luckily I've had experience in keeping people grounded. As we learned later, Jill had had instances of feeling foggy and uncoordinated for several weeks, but thought it was due to stress and overwork. However, on July 23 she discovered that she had a mass on her brain and that her stupors had actually been partial complex seizures. Her doctors scheduled her for surgery on July 30 to remove the lump, but the prognosis was grim. Jill faced the possibility of death, or, at best, a life of limited motor function. Kaeshi relayed this information to us at the PURE rehearsal on July 26, and we were stunned. I was doing a meditation that night, and added a focus of healing and support for her. We all signed a get well card which was delivered prior to the operation, and Kaeshi set up an online prayer circle for her on beliefnet.com where people could write prayers and encouraging messages for her recovery.

During surgery, the doctors unexpectedly discovered that she had a very rare but treatable form of lymphoma, not the expected cancer or tumor. They removed 80% of it and were able to preserve her motor function so that she would still be able to dance. The rest will be treated with chemo and medication, which the doctors said would not cause excessive pain or hair loss. A few days afterwards, Jill emailed us, "today is a beautiful day. I am home and feeling great. I sat outside for hours and just enjoyed the sun and my family and friends. Thank you all for the notes on beliefnet. When I was alone at night in the hospital and trying to work through physical pain, I found great comfort in the postings. Thank you for giving me a big fat day of joy before one of the hardest weeks of my life. I used the memories of PURE when I felt discouraged and I actually danced in my room, doing the Cammi torture arms as I sat in bed. It took me out of the room and the pain for a while. Thoughts of dancing went a long way toward reminding me that this thing is not my life. It’s just a quick detour. Your positive meditations, prayers and thoughts are enabling me to fight for my life. The ongoing contact and support help me stay energetic when I am exhausted emotionally and physically. My doctors are both stunned by my physical condition and attitude. I can keep giving it hell if you’ll keep helping me."

Jill has reminded us to appreciate what we have around us, especially our ability to move and communicate and heal with the beautiful art of Middle Eastern dance. PURE will continue supporting her as she adjusts to her medications and begins her treatments, and she in particular has affirmed that our dance and our mission are worthwhile and potent. Takisha adds that, "Jill's experience has definitely taught me and hopefully others that we should not take things for granted. I am so amazed and inspired by her strength and positive attitude!" As I was writing this article, Jill was emailing us photos of her dancing in her living room. Sister, you raqs!

PURE will be performing through the streets of Manhattan again on Saturday, September 11. Kaeshi has received emails from dancers in Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Cape Cod asking how to do something similar in their areas. We've begun to develop guidelines for sharing our strategies, and we hope that PURE can spread across the country. Wouldn't it be awesome to see a whole line of dancers cascading movements from coast to coast?

A column crowned in flowers,
We traveled through the streets,
Skirts swirling in the breeze.

The pulsing drums guided our steps.
Rhythm surged through our breath and bones,
Signaling our intention,
Gathering our tribe
Into a pageant of grace.

We greeted the city,
Eyes and minds wide open.
Jeweled arms reached from the heart
To embrace the day.

We walked across asphalt
In focused formation,
A procession of power.
We offered tribute in movement,
Homage in stillness
At sites of tribulation and triumph.

We danced upon concrete,
Circled over cobblestones.
Our feet connected to the deep earth.
Our spirits soared
Into the eternal sky.

For more information about PURE: 
About our beneficiary charity We the World: