Read also
The Body is the Music
An excellent article about our dance scene by
Barbejoy A. Ponzio

Read a profile on Z-Helene
written by Bobby Farrah in
Arabesque Magazine
in 1989

Putting the Z in Z-Helene

appearing in the July/August issue 1999

   Ah, what's the "Z" for? Well, the “Z” is interesting. But first, the second half of my name has a pretty good story. Before I was born, my Greek-American father who was sick and in the army wanted to marry my Greek-American mother. She wouldn't, so he wrote her a letter telling her a phony tale about this beautiful Greek-American officer's daughter who was nursing him back to health. Her name was Helene. My mother didn't like that at all and went rushing to him. The phantom nurse story was the start of a romantic, juicy love affair which brought them together. So, when I was born, I was given the name Helene as a reminder of their beginning.

   I like my name and the feeling surrounding it. I didn't want to change it, but when I dance, I feel like I am something more. The clue to what that is and what it should be called came about one evening in 1982. My husband (then boyfriend) Rick and I were out on 6th Street in Austin,TX. This is a lively street with lots of clubs, restaurants and night life. I was doing this sort of street fusion belly dance thing in which I recorded myself on dumbek and then would immediately dance to my recording. Sometimes I’d attract a big crowd. People would often dance with me and we'd have a good time. Rick was hanging around as my bodyguard (one time my tape recorder broke and Rick had to learn how to drum on the spot....thus began his drumming career). We were on the corner of 6th and Sabine in the area of a hot tub place and a gay bar. This particular night a couple of the gay guys began barking out business for me, "Come and see a sight never to be seen. Yes! Z-HELENE on 6th and Sabine!!!" It was just a slip of the tongue. It was meant to be, "See Helene...", but I recognized it as soon as I heard it... "Z-Helene."

   It took me a while to embrace the “Z”, however. Finally, once at a workshop someone asked me, "Z-Helene, are you going to dance tonight?" I thought, "If she believes I am Z-Helene, why don't I believe it?" And that is when I truly became Z-Helene. Since then the “Z” has come to mean several things. The "Z" is for zills (my passion), my Greekness (as in Zorba the Greek and the movie “Z”), a sword or lightning bolt (like Zorro) and the “Z” has also come to represent my masculine side (with Helene being the feminine). Z-Helene is my archetype, my highest aspirations as a human spirit. I am not always Z-Helene, usually just when I’m performing, teaching or writing. The “Z” takes a lot of energy to maintain.

   The road to becoming a belly dancer actually began when I was still a kid. Once or twice a year there'd be a big Greek-American function at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC (we lived in NJ) and the highlight of the night would be the belly dancer. There would be a buzz, “The belly dancer is coming! The belly dancer is coming!!” Though some people didn't approve of it, my mother said she'd love it if her daughter danced. That stuck with me. In retrospect, I see that the dancer at these events was the Goddess. She was beautiful, luscious and really got the crowd focused and connected to each other. In a totally patriarchal world, here was a place to worship Goddess. Little did I know how important the dancer as a Goddess representative would become to me years later.

   My actual start in performing belly dance began in 1976 when I studied theater at the College of North Wales, Bangor in which I was cast in the role of Anitra, a dancing Bedouin princess in Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt.” I drew on my early memories to do the part, but yearned to know more. 1978 brought me to Los Angeles where I performed comedy improvisation and took my first real Middle Eastern dance classes with Maria Silva at her Habu studio on Hollywood Blvd. I took 6-8 classes a week for 8 months and still have tape recordings in my mind of the things I learned at her studio. It was a great foundation. A year later I studied in NYC with Bobby Farrah, Anahid Sofian, Carla Lopez, Serena and the great Elena Lentini. These teachers had the finesse and styling of true professionals that helped give my dancing a lot of clarity and expression.

   Then in 1980, I moved to Austin,TX (an artistic mecca) and got heavily into modern dance. I also started learning East Indian and African. I began incorporating elements of these in with the Middle Eastern. My dance partner Kathy Mattia and I called this fusion style Blue Wave. We were touring as the dance and drum opening act for a band that did Blue Wave rock and roll and we also sometimes danced on 6th street under a blue neon light. Plus we liked the poetic image of a cool, blue undulating wave of water. Hence, the term Blue Wave Belly Dance was originated. I still sometimes use it to describe my fusion style. Though I have extensively studied various forms of ethnic dance in their purest forms and have an appreciation for them, most of the time I'm not trying to replicate another culture's dance. I'm into creating my own unique artistic expression that comes from my own culture here and now. My dance approach is definitely one of fusion: mainly Middle Eastern, incorporating elements of modern, East Indian, African, flamenco, yoga and the spoken word.

   Each form added new spices to my movement vocabulary and gave me a wider palette to paint from. For example, my study of East Indian Bharatanatyam (with an excellent teacher named Gina Lalli) was extremely helpful because of the extreme focus on the eyes, hands and feet, all with a very centered torso. I was encouraged to be in an elevated state, dancing for the gods and goddesses on a platform out in the universe. This dance is part of the Hindu religion. It's very lofty. The dancer tells stories, does pure intricate movement and invokes divine spirits. I can't say that it’s much fun for me to perform because it is so exacting. I feel like I’ve survived performances. But I know I’m a better dancer for having learned this dance form.

   African I learned from Kathy Mattia, Chuck Davis and others. I also absorbed it by watching a lot of African dancers and taking classes over 4-5 years. I love the exuberance, joy and earthiness of the arch and contraction movement. African dance makes my endorphins go wild!

   Modern dance (I consider it an American ethnic dance) opened me up to balancing, stretching, level changes and a good use of space. It helped me get connected to my body as a whole as opposed to separate isolations. It taught me how to become comfortable with more athletic movements such as leaps and drops to the floor. I studied modern with at least 10 teachers, some for several years very intensely.

   Yoga has been a huge development in my dancing because it is so centered. It's about going to this perfect place and holding it. I’ve mostly studied the Iyengar style and really appreciate its constant persistence in pushing my physical boundaries. I haven’t performed it yet, but I'm developing a dance that fuses yoga poses with belly dancing. It’s a natural.

   If I had more time, I'd like to study more Flamenco. I crave it. It's like craving pizza after a year of abstinence. I love flamenco counter time and syncopation. I love the “snap” it gives a dance that completely draws you into the performer. The power of the individual is paramount in this dance form.

   Just like I’ve drawn upon various dance forms for movement perspective and vocabulary, I’ve drawn upon Goddess thealogy to empower my dancing with meaning and purpose. I presented a paper at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 entitled “Middle Eastern Dance: The Emergence of the New Sacred Temple Priestess.” In it I proclaim the importance of the belly dancer in reconnecting spirituality and sexuality. I say that we are sexy and holy conduits that connect the observers (audience) to the Divine. Researching this paper gave my dancing more meaning, commitment and a real feeling like, yes, my dancing is truly as important as a minister doing a service for a congregation. It gave me a spiritual side that I had aspired to but hadn’t fully embraced. It's neat. It all makes sense now.

   My present day shows consist mostly of Rick and I in an intensive duet in which Rick plays dumbek, djembe and tar and I use zills, veils and sometimes castanets. We also often perform the spoken word: ancient and contemporary poems, monologues, dream telling. Sometimes I may use a tape, usually American belly dance music as opposed to Egyptian, Turkish, etc. I find I can relate to our fusion blend music more. In fact, my need for suitable music to dance to led us to create new music. This resulted in our producing two music cassettes, “Ode to the Elements” and “Red Roses.” We’re really into bringing more men into the scene. A natural way to bring men in is through music. Rick and I have found it wonderful to share our art together. We are presently performing and teaching seminars nationally and wish to do so even more. We want to spread the word!

   When I do a live show with Rick, we'll have aspects of it that are totally scripted and choreographed, and then we have whole other sections in which we do complete improvisations. We often have a theme, or what we call a “consciousness wave,” that colors the whole show. It's an overlay that we put into our performance that makes each show different. Examples of consciousness waves are: ecstasy, male-female dynamics, death, healing, sweetness, sexual/spiritual union, etc. These are usually themes from Goddess thealogy that happen to be relevant in our lives at the time. The same piece of choreography will be different each performance because the quality of the movement and the expression will change with the given theme. In my monologues, the consciousness wave often has a spoken expression. I sometimes start out with "Life is..." This week it might be "Life is a mystery.” Next week it might be "Life is sweet.”

   Our improvisations allow us even more free rein to explore our consciousness wave. For example, one time we did a benefit for a friend with breast cancer. It was a show about “healing.” We did our prepared schtick, then something came over me. All of a sudden I asked audience members who wanted a healing to come forward. About 15 people came up (including my friend with breast cancer). Rick and I rocked and rolled and focused the audience’s energy on the huddle of people in the middle. You could feel the electric energy coursing through them, a climax was reached and the show ended. That was the only time we did a show like that. It was the direct result of our focus on healing.

   When I do something new some people will get it right away, some people will think on it and some people don't want to move from where they are in their minds of what a belly dancer should be. I really have no choice in the matter. I am driven to create original material. Why be a copy when you can be the original? I always encourage my students to dig deep down inside themselves and find what makes them unique and what incredibly turns them on and then to go and do it.

   Besides our two audio cassettes, Rick and I have produced three performance videos. These are videos of live shows performed in theaters with grant funding from the city of Austin. The first video, “Ode to the Elements,” (the same name as our music cassette) was inspired by the elements. Many years earlier, I realized that I could dance this dance as the elements. The drum solos are fiery, the chiftitelli has a water quality, the veil embodies air, the heavy beledies are earth and spins are center. The Ode performance explored this theme of the elements with a heavy emphasis on veils and with lots of original music. We also developed a suite of dances and music that drew upon the ancient myth of Persephone and her descent and ascent to and from the underworld. As the whole Ode performance was coming together, I could only feel the flaws in it. The show really didn't really click until a few days before performing. I look at the video now and I have to say I am impressed with my own work. I am not meaning to be cocky because some things could have been done even better, but many of the ideas in it are great. I'm always looking back at it to refresh my mind on what we did. Some of that show came out of me doing improvisations with four dancers several hours a session three days a week. It’s the closest I've been to having a dance company.

   The second show, “From East to West,” came from a desire to explore cultural dance forms. The first half was traditional: East Indian, African, Middle Eastern and modern all to tape music from these cultures. In the second half we had live music consisting of a percussion orchestra, cello, psaltier, and vocals. I wanted to say, "This is my culture and these are my family and friends making music for me to dance to.” I was trying to bring to life who are we in this culture now. In this part of the show I also did a zill/tap duet called “bellytap” with my old dance partner Kathy Mattia. It was a blast!

   Our third video is “Rhythms from The Great Heart.” This is actually a documentary- demo type video which consists of a compilation of splices from several dances (some are from the second video), so you don’t see the whole “Rhythms”show in its entirety. In the actual entire performance we were looking for the common heartbeat of all our cultures. Again, we did some traditional dances with a few very interesting fusions such as a yoga/healing post- modern dance and a rock and roll belly dance. I also did a spoken dream piece and we developed the music “Red Roses” for this performance. The trend in my work is to keep defining my own culture using all my faculties: dance, voice, acting, knowledge of myths. It needs to be relevant to me first and then, hopefully, to others.

   Recently, Rick and I shot our first instructional video, “Finger Cymbals for the Intermediate-Advanced Dancer.” We're still editing it and plan to release it this summer. I have my own technique for playing zills based on my Middle Eastern studies, but also drawing upon rhythmic concepts from tap dance and flamenco. I really love zills and want them to be known as a virtuoso instrument like the guitar, dumbek or violin. In performance I excel at finger cymbal solos and at home actually play them to relax and meditate.

   Can you tell I have fun with this? The only time I think about quitting being an artist is when my body hurts. That scares me a little bit because I wonder, “Will I always have the ability to express myself?” Every dancer will eventually have to deal with this. It's not that I am so old, but as we age we have to become more economical and focused with our energy and cut to the heart of things. Getting older means having to figure out how I can have the affect of doing that big athletic move in another way. We get smarter, get right to the point, using other parts of ourselves that we might not have had to use or known to use. I think a deepening happens.

   I see the threefold aspects of Goddess represented in our dance form so poignantly. The Maiden is the young and beautiful one. I see her come out and dance and think "God, she is so lovely...... .and so thin!" Some do really athletic, beautiful movements that only a young body can do. Some don't have to do anything at all, it is a gift just to look at them. The Maiden often gets the job at the nightclub. That is part of it. Part of the imagery is that she has fertile potential. Look at our country and all the marketing, people will pay to see her.

   Then there is the Mother. She has a more mature beauty. She is often plumper and deeper. Her dance has a sense of responsibility and , to a certain extent, a more defined persona than the Maiden. She is a nurturer and you can feel the warmth of her compassion.

   Then there is the Crone. This aspect of the goddess is the wise woman. Her beauty is more of an inward thing that she has developed from her knowledge of life. She used to be honored, but in our culture she is disdained because she is misunderstood. She's not necessarily old and ugly like the warted witch she’s portrayed as, but she is frightening. She presides over birth, death, and sex too. She embodies those ecstatic moments of life in which we feel out of control. She is a transformation midwife and her power is unequivocal.

   In my dance, I endeavor to embody all three aspects of Goddess simultaneously. A particular dance may concentrate on one aspect over the other, but I aspire to attain that timeless, ageless quality of Woman that I’ve seen in other dancers I admire.

I believe our dance form is rooted in honoring Goddess. There is a lot of controversy surrounding this theory. I’ve openly listened to both sides and realize that there is always a need for more research. However, intuitively there is no question in my mind that belly dance is ancient and is an expression of the feminine as Divine. If you look at paleolithic and neolithic art you see the figure eights, the spirals, the circles, dots , undulating waves and straight lines that are integral to our movement vocabulary. It is there! You can see it if you really look. The snake is the totem animal of belly dance and they are all over depictions of goddesses from many ancient cultures. The downward pointing triangle, so integral to our costuming, is an ancient symbol of the eternal feminine. I believe our dance evolved from a visual movement tradition in honor of the Eternal Feminine and the cycles of nature.

In actuality, I don’t believe that any higher power has a gender, but as humans we tend personify things. It seems clear to me that as women these last few thousands of years our view of ourselves as spiritual beings has been denigrated......and, as no surprise, so has our social status. In my dance I do my best to reclaim myself as a sensual and holy priestess, a Love Goddess. As I study, think about, and let live inside me qualities of the Goddess archetype my dance has more meaning for me. And if it has more meaning for me, it has more meaning for others.

   The magic happens for me when the movement, music, costume, theme and inner meaning all come together into a finely beveled performance gem and the audience is transformed. They leave thinking “Life is good! Let’s live!


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