Morgana's Interview with Melina
of Daughters of Rhea aka Melinda
Published in Jareeda,
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
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
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
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.