Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Belly Dance... my Religion and the Ultimate Drag Act

Let me just say from the start that I love belly dance. It is a deep part of who I am. Growing up Greek in New Jersey I saw a lot of belly dancers at our big events such as regional tri-state gatherings, christenings and weddings. There would be a Greek band leader announcing to the crowd, "The Belly Dancer is coming... The Belly Dancer is coming!" and out would appear this gorgeous, bombshell Goddess of a woman all bedecked and bejeweled. We, the kids, would be sitting on the floor in front of the front row and we were mesmerized and in love with her. She would swirl, twirl, shake and shimmy and above all, she was a glorious mystery. In a patriarchal world where the most powerful and revered woman was The Virgin Mary-- all sad and totally unsexy-- The Belly Dancer was a beautiful, refreshing and far more satisfying Goddess to believe in. Little did I know that I, the smart girl in school who was supposed to be a lawyer, doctor or psychologist, would turn out to be, amongst other things, a college belly dance teacher. I give grades for belly dance!

My career in the dance began way back in 1975 when I was in college. I was a drama major studying at the University of North Wales for my junior year and I was asked to play a dancing Bedouin princess in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. With no real belly dancers around to teach me, I bluffed my way through the performance by using my early memories of dancers. It was very exciting and everyone said I was a natural. The whole experience piqued my curiosity and so after returning to America for my senior year in Lancaster, PA., I started taking classes from a Lebanese woman who lived in town. After college-- armed with my drama degree and lots of waitressing experience-- I moved to Los Angeles and studied some more. It was then that I realized that belly dance wasn't just a passing fancy. I was hooked. Long story short, belly dance has become a way of life for me and an important part of my spirituality.

Goddess energy is something I actively call into myself when I dance. "The Temple of the Beautiful Dancer and Holy Drummer" is what I like to say at our monthly coffee house gigs. I even pass the tar (hand drum) around for people to donate. I tell them if they give $5 they're exonerated from a little sin. If they give a $20 they get off on a few more and $100 means forgiveness for a whole week! Only in this religion, instead of being preached at and being told that you are a sinner, we offer hope and absolution through a pulsing, driving beat and redemption through sexy female compassion and love. Sometimes I even burst into a spontaneous prose or rhyming "little sermon" meant to inspire the crowd. I dance while speaking and cover subjects like "perseverance" or "the changing moon." The crowd walks away with something deep to think about and a renewed sense of hope for their lives. And we get some nice tip money! Along with the belly dance teacher, I guess you can say that I am also a career belly dancing priestess.

When I dance I am bigger than my everyday self and here in lies my Drag Act. First off the name, I am not "Sophia" but rather "Agape" (love) when I dance. Sophia doesn't style her hair or wear a full face of stage make-up, Agape does. Sophia has small, perky nubile breasts, Agape's breasts range from A's to D's depending on the costume. Sophia's work-clothes are cotton pants and exercise tops, Agape goes for very expensive silks, brocades and rhinestones. When I am Agape, I am big, big, bigger! I am an exaggerated female and given my complex sexuality with my fantasy penis and all, I really feel like I'm in drag. After seeing RuPaul's Drag Race show on the LOGOS channel, I have to say that I feel a simpatico with these hermaphroditic transvestites competing to be #1. On this show you also get to see these female impersonators talking as their regular, normal selves without make-up, etc and it's fascinating (they're all femmy, but definitely guys). Like myself, the double persona is always there for them. When I'm in all my belly dance gear with sparkles, boobs, painted lips, glamorous eyes and hair, I feel just like one of them and totally understand where they are coming from.

Belly dance for me is a wonderful expression of many facets of life, sexuality, spirituality, passion and connection. So the next time you hear, "The Belly Dancer is coming! The Belly Dancer is coming!" stand up and salute the living Goddess in the Flesh-- and if you look under her skirt, you may just find a lovely penis.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Wonderful, Wacky, Weirdo World of Autism...Trip to Detachment

I had a dream for my life. I wanted to be a healer, vital artist and force for good in the world. I also wanted to be married with a family. To a large extent I have successfully achieved this vision, but like so many things in life, I also got a lot more than I bargained for. Specifically, I got a son, now 18, who has a full-blown case of autism. His name is Peter.

I hate it when people say, "God must have known you could handle it, that's why He gave you an autistic child." Please, don't say that to anyone. NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD CHOOSE TO HAVE AN AUTISTIC CHILD!!! However I must agree, if learning to be more patient, more compassionate and more DETACHED from prescribed expectations is something my cosmic soul had to get in this lifetime, then a child with autism was a brilliant gift. It has forced me to be way nicer than I was ever meant to be.

Life with an autistic person is akin to living with someone on acid 24/7. For them, everything is shifted to the left, right, center, up, down, nowhere, everywhere and the usual common agreed upon reality that we all trust to BE reality has no foundation, wall or roof. Just when we think we have a grip on his condition, Peter will manifest some new behavior ranging from wonderful to terrible to funny to downright heartbreaking. Parenting him is a trip that never ceases to amaze me.

Now I'm not talking high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome here, I'm talking the kind of autism where everything is going great and out-of-the-blue your adult-sized child shrieks like a banshee and violently smacks himself in the head as hard as he can with both hands; SIBS, or Self Injurious Behaviors, is what they are called. "Shriek! Crack! Crack! Shriek! Crack! Crack!" It's horrible. We feel like we are living in a mine field never knowing when a bomb will go off. Frustrated, we are still in the process of trying to figure out where this latest round of freakiness is coming from. It's pretty new, just manifesting this Fall.

Could it be the effects of puberty and testosterone? Or maybe it's sub-clinical seizures, the kind that happen quietly without the convulsions. Or it could be another disorder that's coupled with the autism, like Tourette's or Bipolar syndrome, because that scenario does happen with some frequency and there's Bipolar in my family. Or is it Exposure Anxiety? ...a chronic fight-or-flight response brought on by changes in the environment. And which neurotransmitter is out of balance? Is it norepinephrine, serotonin or dopamine? I feel like we are always guessing and the experts don't know much more and offer little guidance. Our son Peter is an ongoing experiment and the last thing my husband and I want to do is to cause more problems with ineffectual therapies and medications. I'll never forget several years ago when we gave him a dose of secretin, a pig hormone that was being lauded as the latest and greatest cure for autism. Several hours after the injection he had an obvious seizure (never happened before) and he was noticeably depressed and upset for six weeks. My desperation for a cure scared the hell out of me.

The Universe is a funny thing, however, and there is some light. As despondent as our situation with Peter seems to be, one evening on You-Tube set me straight. I viewed video clips of very severe, completely non-verbal autistic teenagers being tied down to chairs, wearing helmets and protective gloves to prevent them from inflicting permanent injuries on themselves. "Oh my God," I thought, "that's really bad." Everything was put in perspective. At least Peter is loving and can speak (short sentences). And when he's not having a SIBS attack he's got lots of skills- always helping with the grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning and food preparation. (His salads are awesome!) So for now, my Buddhist sense of detachment has kicked in and I am, for the most part, able to keep from freaking-out. I can stand back and observe our situation with intelligent compassion. It helps to have a strong, sturdy mate to lean on. I really depend on my husband Will's indomitable spirit.

I don't know what straight, rigid, right-wing religious families do with their autistic children who break all the rules of life. For myself, I am thankful for all those hits of acid I did in college that opened my mind up to viewing reality from a different angle. Little did I know that the hand of Destiny was preparing me for my future and the trip of my life.