Culture Grinder of the Month: Sera Solstice
Table of contents for Grinder of the Month
Sera Solstice is an internationally renowned dancer based in New York. She is the founder of East Coast Tribal and owner of Solstice Studio. East Coast Tribal Bellydance sprouted from formal elements of Egyptian dance (Raqs Sharqi), with the styling of American Tribal Style Bellydance (ATS) and the artistic influences of New York City– theater, fashion, dance, and the lifestlyes of New Yorkers. Rejecting westernized conceptions of bellydance as a highly stylized, erotic spectacle, East Coast tribal bellydance focuses instead on communal, creative performance and adopts costumes employing a wider, more expressive range of fabrics and adornments. As such, it appeals to women seeking a more woman-focused dance experience with strong ties to current global folk culture.
Initially a professional sculptor, Sera first became immersed in tribal dance through week-long festivals, beginning with the Rainbow Gathering in 1998. As a sculptor she tended to focus on the relationship between the physical and non-physical worlds, particularly moments of passage between the two. As such, her work emphasized movement through space. She was inspired by the work of sculptor Michael Christian when she saw his massive sculptural project during her first trip to Burning Man in 2001. In 2005 and 2005, she returned to Burning Man and volunteered as one of Christian’s core assistants, learning to weld and shape metal and install sculptures of such monumental size. She began to see a connection between the power and presence of large-scale sculpture and the ability to express concepts of transition and transformation through her own body.
“When I worked only in sculpture, I could never make peace with the fact that I was making yet another object in the world, that was expected to be commodity…. I still feel a sense of loss for the sculptures I sold. I made many human-architectural organic forms that were in transition, and those transitions often looked like dance. I still dream of sculpting every night, not dancing, but through dance I become the sculpture itself, weightless and unbound by gravity. It’s exhilarating to experience my body as the medium and its transience demands much more active participation from the viewer. I want my audience to feel as if they are in my body as I dance. Not even video or memory can ever truly recapture that live, immediate experience.”
As Sera gained more experience dancing at festivals, she decided to take the next step and study dance formally. She wanted to learn a form that was disciplined but not too rigorous regarding formal technique so that the she could maintain her own soul in movement when dancing. After considering several forms, she decided on bellydance because it engaged so many different parts of the body and because it was also deeply rooted in the feminine.
She began her training as a belly dancer with Rachel Brookmire, Rachel Brice, Laurel Victoria Gray and Artemis Mourat. She eventually commited to study with Rachel Brookmire who hired Sera as one of the founding teachers of her new studio, Sahara Dance. Brookmire held high standards for technique while encouraging individuality in her students. “Rachel’s teaching provided an expansive tool kit for movement which I learned to utilize thanks to her gentle encouragement.”
At Sahara, Sera focused on the fundamentals of Egyptian cabaret-style Raqs Sharqi, the most widely known form of belly dancing. Sera also was a member of the Silk Road Dance Company run by Laurel Victoria Gray, where she began learning and performing traditional folk dances from the various cultures that existed along the historic Silk Road trade route and North Africa. The company explored Arab and Berber folk traditions along with the more esoteric dances of Persia and the Caucasus. Sera found she was particularly interested in dances that evoked underlying trance states, such as those found among Sufi dervishes.
After making the switch from full-time sculptor to full-time dancer, Sera began performing at Middle Eastern restaurants and nightclubs around Washington DC, including the famous Marrakech restaurant and Zaytinia, where she had the honor of dancing for such honorable guests as the Clintons, The Saudi Arabian Roayl Family, Fleetwood Mac and Angelina Jolie . She loved the community of people who taught and performed in the cabaret style but soon realized that she yearned to break free from the established rules and conventions of Raqs Sharqi; she also wanted to escape the myriad debates surrounding authenticity.
“Belly dance has a long history from many places but I wasn’t interested in participating in the debates over what is and isn’t considered traditional Middle Eastern dance. Oftentimes, what some dancers defend as traditional also lacks connection to what is currently happening in the Middle East. I was seeking a dance that welcomes evolution and change, including cultural change.”
Sera found a way to explore a communal, non-competitive dance environment in American Tribal Style but was disappointed to discover that ATS also established its own set of cookie-cutter rules in order to define itself as distinct from traditional belly dance. This barred creativity for Sera as well. Furthermore, the issues surrounding cultural appropriation were as present in the tribal community as in the Cabaret one, most evidenced by the costumes and jewlery of Tribal dancers. Sera began to incorporate some of the elements of Tribal but added her own independent artistic voice to the mix.
“Something about the costume element seemed like we were still girls playing dress-up, trying to transform ourselves into some exotic foreign other that doesn’t actually exist . I was seeking a truth in my expression that was also about a desire for this exotic otherness, but not one that is about a physical place or other people but about my own inner world. I worked with costume designers, Sefirah Fierce, and Wheylan Dean Ford, who helped to create a new style of costumes that did not feel like stealing from other cultures, but rather creating a new look and feel that was bellydance, but also true to my own style.
I think there is something within dance that transcends cultures. Something we don’t fully understand yet but that serves our existence in a powerful way. At some point, most bellydancers will need to confront how they will represent the cultural roots of the dance. And also learn how the dance serves them.
I enjoyed breaking free from tradition in belly dance, but I now see a new generation of dancers coming up who completely lack any connection to the lineage of the dance, which makes me value my personal background in cabaret and folk styles which I used to shrug off. I see now that belly dancers should pay their respect by learning some of the traditions and history of a dance but I don’t think anyone benefits from getting hung up on this or from studying under teachers who believe there is only one way. I think it is necessary to reject our human tendency to establish rules and traditions in general.” ~Sera Solstice
Artemis Mourat taught her how to incorporate spontaneity and improvisation in her dance; Rachel Brice gave her better musculature control and heightened body awareness; Jill Parker gave her strength and clarity while reinforcing the emphasis on technique. Brice in particular pushed the evolution of Tribal dance when she performed in Miles Copeland’s Belly Dance Superstarsin 2003: “Rachel’s performance gave all of us ‘alternative’ dancers permission to feel we could finally have our fusion the way we like it.”
Sera began dabbling in Kung Fu and Tai Chi and started to incorporate martial arts movements in her choreographies, one of the most distinguishing elements of her style, especially as it brings a more staccato “masculine” rhythm to the work, which contrasts sharply with the generally more fluid motions associated with a feminine dance form like belly dancing.
“The warrior archetype appears in much of my work because I feel it serves as the guard of the gateway between the physical and non-physical worlds. I envision the warrior keeping the gates clear so that personal ideas are protected in such a way that they can be fully manifested through dance.” ~Sera Solstice
Sera also added hip-hop to her repertoire, training under Eunice Kindred. As she puts it: “The hard-edge movements of hip-hop, the speed and agility, are all very empowering for a dancer.”
As she grew as a dancer, Sera began teaching individual classes around New York and developed a following among students who were drawn to her eclectic style. She decided to take the next step and open Solstice Studio in midtown Manhattan in 2008. The classes at Solstice emphasize technique and personal expression. Other instructors who teach at Solstice, with one exception, are personally trained by Sera and bring diverse dance backgrounds with them as well.
The studio also offers performance opportunitiesfor students in formal dance showcases and as well as during casual, in-studio parties.The classes at Solstice Studio begin with light yoga stretches and a guided meditation that welcomes the opposing lunar and solar energies into the dancer’s body. The instructors then drill the students in belly dance movements to a wide array of music – anything from current Arabic pop to industrial goth. Each session then ends with students forming a circle together, in which they bow and thank one another and the ancestors of the dance, while acknowledging the privilege of health and freedom to dance.
In addition to parties and performances, Sera hosts healing circles that correspond to the summer and winter solstices and moon cycles. While the studio itself isn’t exclusive to women, these healing circles are for women only. They were inspired by the shamanic trance elements she discovered during fire-circles at various festivals, studying trance-work with Imani White, and during her time with Laurel Victoria Gray. Many of the attendees in these circles end up in tears as they struggle to help one another overcome personal obstacles. After each member is given an opportunity to speak about a particular problem, the group participates in a guided meditation followed by trance-like dancing. The participants often feel cleansed and nourished from the circles.
“Humans grasp onto meaning everywhere and what we absorb becomes our reality. We are so vulnerable in this way. Our current world is filled with negative influences that can deeply transform the way that we see and feel about ourselves. It is not something that the internet, an adrenaline-fueled movie or newscast will fix. Even a still meditation won’t cure it alone. But entering altered states like trance-dance is one powerful route of clearing out these influences and observing our authentic selves. The opportunity then expands and we are better able to connect with the truth in others, human and non-human alike. I believe dance is a powerful way to clarify, seek truth and connect with others.
There is a reason why all cultures have used dance in rituals since ancient times. There is a mystery in the movements and an attraction in the energy that is healing, balancing and activating for all women. I know this all sounds very New Age and I try to control the hippie-speak because many shut down when they hear it, but the language of movement speaks for itself. Dancers use muscles that aren’t used in daily life. Their bodies becomes their canvas and it begins with the lifted posture, which is hard to achieve because you have to remove the built up tension in your neck and shoulders. We spend so much time sitting by computers: The dancer’s lift is the first life-changing event in dance class.Dance especially resonates with contemporary women because our body image is often diminished by a culture that makes us feel we need to live up to some Photoshopped ideal of perfection. The dancer has to confront this and surrender this perspective of herself in order to replace it with freedom and movement. To achieve this grounding, our instructors focus primarily on steps and technique. Through proper encouragement, the dancer’s energy will eventually drop from her head into her heart; and then it will move into the torso and pelvis and some take it further into their feet until they are ultimately going into the earth.” ~ Sera Solstice
The non-traditional music and unconventional costume choices of East Coast Tribal Belly Dancing may confuse some casual observers. Outfits run the gamut from simple black pants and belly shirts to fabrics and accessories that light up in the dark. But the seasoned observer will clearly recognized the stomach undulations, snake arms, hip circles and shimmies that epitomize the better known Raqs Sharqi style of dancing; and the moves are executed with the precision and deftness of classically trained dancers.
It’s the anomalies, however, that mark the East Coast Tribal style: classical moves are often paired with unorthodox combinations. These can include ‘pop and lock’ moves inspired by funk, kicking and punching fighter motions, tai chi stretches and balancing, miming, and more. Arm movements that are traditionally used to frame the body or draw attention to specific moves become the center of attention themselves; tribal dancers often break the fluidity of the traditional serpentine waves by stopping the flow at each point (shoulders, elbows, wrists) and accentuating each point with sharp thrusts along with the beat. This move is carried out both forwards and backwards and often extends to involve the chest and head as well. The technique also brings attention to the individual breakdown of movements that are normally not noticed by the audience, much in the way modern abstract paintings focus the viewer’s attention on the individual strokes of paint.
Many of Sera’s choreographies also incorporate gestures and poses that represent pushing and pulling from invisible sources or from the other dancers on the stage. The push and pull of Sera’s style references the oppositional forces within us as well as in the universe surrounding us. The warrior and goddess archetypes are both present in Sera’s work, sometimes aiding one another while at other times at odds with one another. The tension that ensues from this battle is freed through the dancers’ bodies as they make the transition between the physical and non-physical elements. They make these transitions by following the music, taking the audience along with them on a journey of emotional and physical exploration. The acknowledgment of competing internal forces in collision on stage creates a dynamic fusion that is very in tune with the complexities of contemporary culture and urban, cosmopolitan women. Sera brought tribal bellydance into New York City and then brought New York City into tribal bellydance.
Read more in our follow-up interview with Sera here.