Dance With Me

I got into some trouble once because of the way I was dancing.  I wasn’t thinking about anything except the music that night, and I just let the seductive beats hit my body and let go.

“I like your dance”, he said.  Not “I like the way you dance” or “I like your moves”.  I heard him, and I think I knew what he meant, but being in Africa where rules and structure are consistently challenged, I was somewhat unsure.

I am a middle age lady, have birthed three kids who are now in college, and my body is not as elastic as it once was.  But the more time I spend in Africa, the more I can’t stop myself from letting my rickety legs interpret the music I hear.

Rhythm. Even that word looks erotic at first glance. RRRRRRR, followed by hhh, a twist on the “I”, then a sexy th, followed by mmmmmmmm.

We are born through a series of contractions, intensity increasing until we break through barriers and scream ourselves silly, those screams also expressing a pattern of rhythm, back and forth and back and forth.  What happens between that entry into life and how many of us become so self-conscious about moving our booty to music is something I have pondered for years. In Africa, dancing occurs any time a semblance of a beat is heard, while driving, walking across a fancy hotel lobby or in the midst of a surgical process.

But that late night, I found out that dance has the potential to bring out the animal in a person.

And, perhaps, why should it not?  It was just a close call lesson to be more mindful of the power of dance.

Several weeks later I was sipping beers in a shady spot of an outdoor restaurant in Ethiopia’s deep south with the director of an NGO who was hosting me during an assignment. We started talking about courtship and procreation.  He told me about a tribe in Ethiopia that practices “evangandi”, a quest for procreation through the power of provocative dancing.

This is how it works:  under a full November moon, the boys and girls all come together in a big field and they dance erotically with each other. The kind of dancing where you look into each other’s eyes, then look away, then look again, knowing you hooked someone with they way you move.

If a boy and girl choose to have sex, they sneak away into the forest and exchange their passions under that incredible citylights-free African moonlight. If the girl gets pregnant, this is celebrated, as it means she is fertile.  The baby is given to the girl’s father’s family, and she is free to marry the boy she had sex with, or someone else.

Last summer, under a starlit night in my own backyard, conversation waned and the few remaining dinner party friends listened to the beat of a calypso band coming from our LP record player. Steve, a formidable friend I have known for years, asked each of us to dance with him. I am not one to sit on the sidelines when good music is playing, and when he came over to me, my heart did a quick start at the inquisition.

I was not prepared, at all, for what happened next.

Steve’s subtle moves, his directive hand and confident style made us all fall in love with him. After the swoon fest was over, he slipped away without much of a goodbye. I think he realized the power he had over each of us. We have been yearning to dance with him since.

Each year I return to the Pendleton Round-Up rodeo to watch the way dance turns girls’ hearts inside out when those strong cowboys take the reins of music’s influence. The streets are cleared, and under the dark sky night, boys tip their hats beckoning to show those girls a thing or two about how to move to a beat. Silly blond haired girls are flipped up and over their shoulders, brought down to ground where they beg to be lifted back up while the boy just teasingly stares at her plight, both of them laughing from the place where bliss resides. It makes me happy to know our conservative and dance shy culture has a segment who know what soulful pleasure that dancing can instill between two human beings.

When we dance, nothing else matters. It is a remedy for all ills. Try it!

It just might be what we were born to do.



Something, Anything

She walks up to me and extends a greeting, but all I see are her eyes and I miss the first attempt at shaking her hand. Those captivating and mesmerizing eyes she has; they will haunt me forever.

She is a camel milk producer, living in the small remote town of Bambas in Ethiopia near Jijiga, in close proximity to the Somalian border. Her days are spent milking camels at the break of dawn, collecting the milk in antique wooden containers, the interiors burned by fire to instill a nice smoky taste to the milk.  (Hear Fatumo milking her camels)

She pours the milk into larger containers and then carries the heavy load miles away to either sell the milk by road side, or give it to milk collectors who will then take the milk to market. Her work is assisted by programs developed by Mercy Corps.

And the next day is the same as today.

She tends to her children, she collects firewood in the distant fields, she prepares dinner for her family, she feeds the animals and cleans their spaces, she settles neighborhood disputes, she sweeps the hay from the floor of her hut. And she looks for water, desperately at times, a scarce resource in this drought-prone area of Ethiopia.

And the next day is the same as today.

She has a quiet yet bold demeanor and when she looks at me, she looks into me. Her eyes never leave mine, and with her chin slightly tucked in and eyes constantly seeking mine, I cannot help but think that she knows how the power and grace she exudes has an effect on others. I muster up something, anything, to break the spell she has on me, but it doesn’t work. I ask her how old she is, and her answer is I am woman.

She looks at my travel clothes and makes her first observation toward me: You will never attract anyone dressed like this. Try adding more color to your style.

And on it goes, one observation after the other, her to me, and me to her. I want to touch her face, but then I realize it is only because I don’t really believe that she exists. She must be a dream. As if she knows what I am thinking, she extends her hand and touches mine, eyes never wavering her intentions.

I cry.

I feel my belly turn upside down and I know this is so inappropriate. Crying in front of an Ethiopian beckons all kinds of feelings and it is highly disturbing to them. I swallow it all, turning away to say something, anything, about the beauty of her home.

We spend the day together, and she shows me what she does all day long, every day. We visit the other milk producers and initiate song and dance among them, pounding beats on the makeshift plastic milk containers as our drums, me singing the Somalian words that I did not know that I knew.  (Hear the milk producers singing)

I return the next day before the sun rises, and she shows me how to milk a camel and what camel milk tastes like right after it has been collected. We walk in silence over sandy fields strewn with beautiful pink sparkly rocks and I try to reason with my soul why I should return home. I want nothing more than to stay longer, learn from her, feel my body adjust to constant movement to obtain nourishment. She knows what I am thinking, and she asks me to stay, inviting me to live in her village with her. I can’t even answer her right away, walking in a stupor as I wonder how she truly is able to read my mind.

I dream of living a life of simplicity, making my own music and dancing when I feel like it, listening to birds awaken me each day and wearing colorful scarves and dresses and greeting visitors in the manner in which she does. And I know I will never be like her.

I know I will return home and acclimate back into my own culture and sit at my computer and write about her, longing for this kind of exchange, deep exchange, with people back home.

And I know that our manufactured distractions will prevent me from doing this, and I might feel happy but deep inside, if I am honest, I often desire a deeper human connection in my every day. Or I won’t long for this, and instead I will replace my longing with pleasure garnered from material goods and the next travel destination and a plate filled with some chef’s concoction.

I turn to her to say goodbye and this time I can’t hold back the tears. She gasps, and waves her hand back and forth in front of me.

No, no, NO! Don’t cry.  Saying goodbye is part of life.  Are you not a strong woman?

And with that, she turns and walks away.

(All images for Mercy Corps)


Ethiopia: Magic Village

My friend and driver, Danny, invites me to join him on a visit to his home village and I jump at the chance to go.  On Sunday, he arrives clad in bermuda shorts, t-shirt and his shades and off we go, driving through possibly the most beautiful landscape on Earth. Rolling hills give way to massive cliffs and rocky pointed mountain tops with wind blown trees dotting the fields like staccatos in a pulsating Led Zeppelin song. Yes, Led Zeppelin. Deep. Dark. Mysterious. Commanding.

We arrive in his village, Gulett, a few hours away, and my mind is so far elsewhere. How can I leave this enchanting land? Maybe I should strop right now and turn back. What if at some point I won’t be able to?

We enter his compound and are greeted by his 87 year old “Mama”, his great grandmother, followed by “Imiyea”, his grandmother who raised him after his mother died when he was ten years old. It is love at first sight. Words are not needed to hold someone’s face, look deeply into their eyes, your own eyes filled to the brim with tears, and communicate feelings of joy for this chance meeting.

We visit for awhile, eat some gonfo, they teach me how to catch a goat, and I try to say something each time Mama tells me to “just say something”.  I wish I knew more Amharic, but she settles for the few words I know. We decide to take a walk before dinner and Danny leads the way over unpaved roads filled with large rocks, gently watching my stance so he can quickly right my fall should that begin to occur.

We come to an area that looks like paradise decided to drop some magic. I find out that Danny’s friends decided to pool their resources about three years ago, taking a stretch of incredibly unattractive land and making it into a lovely garden with pathways lined with beautiful plants and flowers. Small tables are set up so people can enjoy coffee (best I have had in Ethiopia so far!) and conversation.

They show me one structure that is not yet complete and tell me they are building a “Couple’s House”.  Apparently, if two people spend time together and after much dialog decide to culminate their relationship, they can enter the Couple House. If they do enter this house, marriage plans will follow.

As I sit there marveling at the storybook feel to the day so far, a small boy around the age of seven comes up to our table and begins to dance the moon walk and many other dance moves that Michael Jackson so flawlessly perfected.  I clap my hands, excitement building as his moves get more complicated. Dear Mother Sky…am I in heaven?

One of Danny’s friends starts to move his hands wildly in front of Fetena’s face and I realize this little boy is deaf. How can he feel the rhythm to be able to dance like this? I ask where the men learned sign language and my question is met with a shy smile. It is “just natural sign language”, they relay to me. And they go on to talk with Fetena about trips to Addis, how his mother might feel, what they need him to do, how they feel.  I try to catch a glimpse of a gesture I can understand and it is impossible. I fall in love with both of them. Like real love, the kind that makes you feel a bit twisted inside, and safe, like there is no end of it in sight. Ever.

I capture Fetena’s dance on video, and he commands the camera with intensity. My heart stretches to the moon, and I look up to see everyone watching my joy. I cry. I cry for Danny’s life without a mother.  I cry for this little boy who has not let his deafness keep him from feeling and expressing rhythm. I cry because this marvelous little boy is very poor and has to beg others for food. I cry for anyone who has never felt love like this. I cry because I feel so deeply.

Danny tells me it is time to walk a bit more, and a short way down the road I see a woman looking out of her window, head perched comfortably as though she spends much time watching the activities surrounding her house on a daily basis. Danny relays to me that indeed she is there all day, and she is blind.  Yet she looks like she is watching every move passing by.

I call this village “Magic Village” and I truly feel like I have dropped into my childhood’s most desirable dream village. And oh how I love it. When Mama says she will adopt me into her family, I feel a sense of peace rush over me, knowing I will never leave this village.


Ethiopia: And The Beat Goes On

Many people ask me why I travel so much to developing nations, continuously witnessing such dire human circumstances. Do I come back depressed because I could not help the people as much as I want? Do I lie in bed at night sleepless because I am thinking about what I saw? Do I ever feel joy again after living for a period of time in the bush of Africa?

Yes, there are difficult situations and living conditions where I work. I do see things that haunt me for life, wishing I could somehow eradicate the problems. But in Africa, there is a fuel that exists that blasts into my soul and spills out into my body as I dance, sing, play…and share the feeling hope found in the most trying conditions. That fuel is called “Joy” and it is found in Africa in the most pure sense. Over and over again, during the many visits to Africa and Madagascar, I see a sense of joy that is never, and I do mean never, experienced in my own home country.

I often think about this, and wonder: is it because we are so removed from the Earth that we don’t sing and dance with each other every day? Are we so individualistic that we don’t feel a tribal village sense of community? Sure, we occasionally dance and sing. Some people drum, or play instruments. But when we are most depressed, when the world seems to be ending, do we often reach inside and experience joy at these times?

Often in Africa, when I least expect it, people will break out in shouts, dance, song. Drums appear, sticks are tapped together, voices surge. And little can be done to not get completely swept up in the festive feeling. Even the most staid of people are drawn into the happy frenzy that arises. You simply can’t help but join in, even get swept away to the next village. It is, simply put, our human nature to do so.

Ethiopia is a special country, indeed. Music and dance play a large part in elating the human spirit here. Priests chant, women sing, men dance. I find myself often letting caution go to the wayside, and along with that a sense of play emerges. Camera equipment? Be gone! Shoes? Get them off of me! Hey…I did not know my body could twist like that!

And when I look into the eyes of someone I am dancing and singing with, I did not know my soul could be loved like this.

When I return home, I try to replicate this same feeling. Hip Hop lessons, shower singing, dancing with my dog. But when I play this feeling out with another human friend, my gesture is usually met with a side look and a mumbled comment such as “you are so wacky”. And right there begins my plan to return to Africa as quickly as I can.

It does not take much to instill within an African village the desire to break out in song and dance. In these images, happiness was expressed for a range of reasons, from sharing an engaged smile with a person, to excitement at a wedding ceremony, to villagers appreciating a new water system put in place by Mercy Corps donors.

And as I sit here now in my warm and comfortable home, my heart is back in Africa because I know in various places (right now!) many people are expressing pure and unadulterated elation.

And so it is, in Africa, the beat goes on.

White Bird Dance Assignment: Wally and Paul

White Bird Dance rocks my world. I relish each performance and it is exciting to see how the world is brought to Portland via dance through this program series. Yesterday I had the pleasure of walking through the Rose Garden with the founders, Walter Jaffe and Paul King, so that we could create a series of images for their program and promotions.

And yes, Barney was there also, and created quite the frenzy as people greeted him!

Oregon Ballet Theatre Approves Ad

I am very excited about some great news today! While creating the headshots of all ballet dancers who dance at Oregon Ballet Theatre, I kept thinking about a potential ad for them that would enable the general public to get to know the dancers a bit more intimately.  I contacted my ad agency friend and told him what I was thinking. He created some quick concepts, we met with the marketing team at OBT, and they liked the ad.

I than contacted the editor at 1859 Magazine, asked about potentially running the ad, and today they told me that they will be the first to run the ad.  A full page ad will run in their Winter 2010 issue.

Here is the ad.  I would like this campaign to run as a series using all of the dancers’ photos and words.  We are also looking at changing the font type to be each dancer’s handwriting instead of text.


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