An Interview with Myra Krien

By Lindsay Ahl In The Chronicles October, 2009

Myra Krien is an international performer, choreographer and teacher.  She is a highly sought after workshop instructor; known for her stylistic versatility and elegant and graceful presence.  She is the creator of SEEDs®, a program for young women that teaches Self-Esteem and Empowerment through Dance.

You began belly dancing as a child in San Francisco.  Many changes in the belly dance community have taken place in just the last 15 or 20 years.  Belly dancers discuss these changes, and strive to preserve the tradition from which various styles have emerged – but can you specifically address the values and philosophies that have changed recently, and what we might remember from those early years of Belly Dance?

This is an important question that needs to be addressed for so many reasons.  Actually, Princess Farhana just wrote an excellent article in a recent issue of the Chronicles discussing this very issue.  I will do my best to add to that dialogue.

Every artist must study “the language” of their form and its previous dialogue in order to speak it fluently and then be able to add anything new that can be of interest or value to the dialogue.  Picasso, for instance, was a brilliant artist, and devoted his life to his form.  His early drawings are beautifully rendered classic pieces, then he birthed his new vision.  To create something totally new in art, an entirely new technique must be created.  If it is a fusion of elements of other forms that is to be created, then those forms and elements must be studied.

I think that the early 1960’s and 70’s belly dance artists, in California especially, were coming up at a very special time.  This time was a cultural Renaissance in California, many artists in many genres were crystal breakers, our culture was changing on every level.  Art was explosive, revolutionary and spiritual.  All these influences had a profound effect on the way these artists interpreted the dance.  I remember these artists being obsessed.  Belly dance was their passion, and as such, it took over their lives; it changed them.  They devoted their lives to its pursuit and study on every level, from the cultures it came from, their customs and dress, to its music, food, language, etc.

I believe that the freedom of expression of that time is what has led to so much of the innovation we are experiencing today.  That, and the fact that America is a culture of innovators.  But when we do what every artist must and make this dance our own, we must know where it came from.  Today, I see interpretations or fusions that are successful, but sometimes, not so much.  At what point do we say this doesn’t look or feel like belly dance anymore, we’ve strayed too far?  I can’t speak for anyone, I’m not even sure how to “answer” this question, but I feel it is one we all must ask.

Perhaps, it is just a matter of respect for the dance – the dance does not come out of nowhere, there was a history, and a culture, that created it.  Perhaps, it is an impossible question, but I’m curious about, for you personally, what aspects of Belly Dance are essential to its essence?  What makes Belly Dance radically different from other forms of dance, historically, and today?

Whew!  I have often tried to articulate this and find it difficult.  There is a certain posture and root movement vocabulary that differentiates each dance form.  Belly dance centers itself on the movements of the torso primarily, the region of the body associated with emotion.  In belly dance, I would say that figure eights, shimmies, hip accents, hip circles, undulations (another figure eight) and articulate isolation and its layering are distinctive.  It is folkloric in origin.  It is a very old dance form that has grown through many cultures.  It can be performed on a postage stamp or on the big stage.  It is joyful, funny, sensuous, expressively poignant.

My experience of the dance is that when I do the movements “perfectly”, drawing  them in their geometric forms, uniting them perfectly to the music, a kind of frequency can be created that resonates.  This resonance creates a profound experience that is almost transcendent.  I remember Shareen el Safy shared an experience with me once about a famous Egyptian dancer she had gone to see perform.  This dancer did an extended shimmy taksim on a very large stage for almost four minutes in a single spotlight.  Shareen was very moved by this and when she asked the dancer after the show about this section of her performance, she replied, “That was between me and my God.”  Perhaps it is like the pyramids and cathedrals being built using sacred geometry to create an effect, there are certain geometric proportions and means in the body, and when we unite those with vibration and geometric shapes of a particular nature, something special occurs that transcends our ordinary state, a kind of conduit between the ordinary and the divine.  I remember reading a physics book on String Theory and coming to a description of these strings as tiny vibrating figure eights.  I thought, “WOW!”.

That is an awesome answer.  So, what about discipline, practice, art…what advice would you give to someone truly passionate about Belly Dancing?

I love that belly dancing can be taken on so many different levels.  If we are passionate about it then we must devote ourselves with utter focus and discipline, we must surrender ourselves, we must be hungry for knowledge on every level.  We must know the music, the culture, the past.  We must let it take us over and remake us.  And we must never let go of the joy.

I also think on a practical level that to set a routine is important.  I am sure to teach or take a beginning class every week to keep up my foundational technique.  I dance every day and I workout every day to support my dancing.  I am always trying to read, watch or listen to something related.  I take workshops whenever I can. I perform regularly and in many different venues.  I sew and design many of my costumes and I feel that sewing is a must in our style of dance.  I am always looking at DVDs or YouTube, but not just of belly dance, but anything that I like.  It’s important to stay inspired.

You do some very important work with your SEEDs® Program.  Instead of talking about SEEDs itself, can you tell us what inspired you to start SEEDs and how it has changed your life and mission in relation to dance?

Many things in my life contributed to birthing SEEDs (SEEDs – Self-Esteem, Empowerment and Education through Dance – is a youth mentorship program for teen girls).  I had a difficult time growing up and even more difficulty during my teens.  I made a promise to myself then to try to make a difference.

I come from a family of mavericks, intellectual artists, writers, and musicians, and they believe in and practice social change and the raising of spiritual consciousness.  These imperatives were “bred in the bone”.  Later, I attended a great books college, St. John’s College, here in Santa Fe.  The curriculum and the methods of instruction changed the way I thought and how I wanted to be in the world.  Many of the ways I have structured SEEDs came out of the Seminar and dialectic platforms employed as teaching tools there.

SEEDs has changed my life, the lives of these young women, the Santa Fe community and the face of belly dance itself in ways that are profound and far reaching.  Now that it is on a national level I hope that it will do the same for the communities all over the United States, potentially even further!  Personally, I could fill the pages of a book.  It has been my Odyssey, sometimes joyful, successful, brilliant, sometimes painful, tragic, wrong.  Always GREAT, it has been my greatest teacher.  Oh!  It’s almost too big a question to answer here!

Your show this year, Invaders of the Heart: One Love, was really spectacular.  Can you talk a little about your process of choreography, how you incorporate non-professional dancers into your shows, what inspires you, and how your choreography changed once you went to a much larger stage (and much larger audience) four years ago?

Thank you!  It is a challenge each year to make the show better and to still engage my local audience after so many years.  Actually Invaders ’08 was my 11th “big show” (as we fondly refer to it).  Since we perform in so many different venues all year round, Invaders is our one big presentation every year of new work.  Yes, four years ago we graduated to a large stage and an audience of approximately 900 people.  It was a challenge at first, but I think it has done a great deal to move me forward as a choreographer.  It takes about 14 months now to build the show, so I usually begin it while I am finishing the one from the year before.  Last year we had 24 dancers on stage in 63 costumes and there were maybe 19 pieces of original choreography – it’s crazy!  But I love it!  I call it climbing Everest.  I never know when I begin where we will end up.  I usually start with large sketches of ideas, pick the music carefully, start on the solos first, then the larger works.  Then I design the costumes and even make many of them myself, and oversee the stage design and props.  One of the best things ever to happen to me was meeting and collaborating with my lighting designer; he is amazing!  This last year I really wanted to show the versatility of the dance and our studio by showcasing all the different styles.  I took a lot of risks, but I think they turned out.  We did classical Indian, Asian fusion, modern Egyptian, Tribal fusion, a belly dance ballet, a huge fan piece, Flamenco fusion and a finale to an American pop icon.  Excerpts are up on YouTube and you can get DVDs from our site.  It’s so hard to put visual language to the page.  Working with my dancers is a wonderful challenge because of the huge diversity in age, ability and experience.  I can have a fourteen year old next to a fifty year old, a dancer of one year next to a dancer of five.  It’s unbelievable to me how there is ALWAYS a solution, a way to make it work.  It’s beautiful, really – magnificent!

Lindsay Ahl writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Her novel, Desire, was said by Booklist to be “nothing less than a tour de force.”  Her work can be found in BOMB Magazine, Fiction Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and others, and online at Fishouse and Drunken