One Night in Bangkok

Once we arrived in Suvanarbhumi Airport, I realized that three years had hardly seemed to have passed since I’d been in Thailand. The signs, sounds, and smells of Thailand all felt very familiar. Bangkok, however, is almost a separate culture of its own in Thailand. With a population of over fourteen million people wedged on about a 600 square mile space, Bangkok makesNew York City look like a mere pit of a big apple.

Time passed unusually quickly for our twenty eight hour trip to the other side of the planet. Once I set foot on land, however, time moved at a snail’s pace. It suddenly hit me that my body hadn’t laid horizontal for about two days. Somehow, for me, even six straight hours of sleep on a flight cannot replace a bed with big pillows. It was 7:10 am in Bangkok, and I couldn’t wait to sink my body onto a real bed. The process of waiting in line for customs and obtaining our thirty-day Visa on arrival seemed to take hours, although in reality, it was no more than about twenty-five minutes. Once I received my Visa, I picked up my luggage, went to the ‘hong-nam’ (toilet, but I must start using my Thai now!), and met up with the other women to walk together to ‘Gate B’ to meet our guide who would escort us to our driver to transport us to our hotel. As I lugged my big purple suitcase along with my black backpack and my yoga mat bag over my shoulders, I looked over at two of my former students who are traveling with me – Anne and Anna. They each had only one rather small bag! I had a moment of envy as I lugged my cumbersome luggage. No matter how many times or how far I’ve traveled, I still cannot seem to lighten my load that small. I always have numerous ‘what if’s’ when packing and end up not using half of what I brought. Still, I knew I’d be grateful for my yoga mat, insect bite remedies, vitamins, and excessive pairs of underwear when I’d be immersed in the tropical 95 degree (F) or higher temperatures. I was anxious, though, to unload my belongings. All I wanted was a bed.

As we looked for a sign with the travel agency’s name on it, we eventually found a woman with a sign that simply read ‘Amy Warcup.’ I figured it was a good guess that she was referring to me! We joined her, and she greeted us cheerfully as we made small talk and she asked us what our plans for our trip would be. After she directed us to our taxicab van, we excitedly hopped on board. We made it! This was not a fantasy anymore. We were really in Thailand!

Aside from the excessive traffic and large billboard signs written in both Thai and English, we knew we were in Thailand as soon as we looked at the sign above our seats.

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One of my favorite silly pleasures when I travel to Asia is reading the signage. I also find myself wondering what our signs in the U.S. would look like if we dared to attempt writing in Thai. So much must undoubtedly become lost in translation between a tonal language with characters and a Roman language with letters. No matter now humored I get, I always appreciate the effort the Thais make to accommodate the tourists in their country.

Each time I visited Bangkok in the past, I always stayed in the city’s Bangrak neighborhood, – a wild, exciting, bustling neighborhood that carries contradictions of tradition and unconventionality, purity and sin. On one corner one may find a temple lined with monks, statues of Buddha, and prayer offerings, and walk only one block up to find an array of strip clubs and bars with explicit names, awaiting to fulfill any foreigner’s naughty Bangkok fantasy. It is also home to the famous Patpong night market, which is large,crazy, and exciting, but also very crowded and overwhelming at times.

This time, however, we stayed in the Sukhumvit neighborhood, which is described as being one of Bangkok’s hottest strips of real estate with the widest choices of restaurants to dine at in the city. My first impression of the neighborhood was that it is most definitely designed for the foreign traveler. On our little side street (‘soi’) alone, one can find a Starbucks, German Restaurant, British Pub, and several Thai restaurants, with Thai massage businesses speckled in between. I noticed seeing just as many Western people as I did Thais strolling down the crowded, narrow street where our hotel was located.image

We stayed at the Salil Sukhumvit Soi 11 hotel; an unassuming little Bankok guesthouse tucked away on a small side street off of the famous Sukhumvit Road. The hotel had a very ‘homey’ atmosphere. We were greeted by a sweet young Thai woman, and also by a fun, friendly man named Mr. Wit who asked to be called ‘Wilson.’ The outside of the hotel had a small spirit house and Buddhist alter where the hotel workers prayed and gave offerings. Here is Marcie standing outside of the entryway.

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My second floor room looked just like a doll house, which was a big contrast from the fancy, modern room I was in during my last visit to Thailand in 2012. This room, however, suited me just fine. It was clean and had everything I needed – a comfortable mattress, a good shower, and air conditioning (it was 9am and already it was 95 degrees outside!). I couldn’t wait to sleep!

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Although I wanted to only sleep for about four hours so I could enjoy the day, I couldn’t pull my head from my pillow until about eight hours later. At this point, it was dark outside and dinner time in Bangkok.

I knocked on the doors of the others, but I didn’t get any answers. Assuming they were all either still sleeping or out exploring Bangkok, I meandered up the street solo to find a place to eat. On my way, I passed one of dozens of massage places and found Morgan, Natalie, and Marcie all seated in a row inside of one place receiving blissful Thai foot massages. They told me they were almost done. I planned to meet them back in a few minutes to find a place to eat together. Next, I saw Anne and Anna walking up the street. During the time I was sleeping off my jet lag, they had already visited the Grand Palace, the Wat Pho, taken a water taxi ride, and visited other temples. I was amazed! It turns out that I was the only one who needed eight hours of sleep upon arrival after our long flight.

Later, I went to dinner with Marcie, Morgan, and Natalie. The prices on the menu were quite a bit higher than the ones I recall in Chiang Mai, but they were still far cheaper than they are at home. The menu also looked delicious, so we stayed.image

I couldn’t resist ordering fresh coconut water, which is served in Thailand right out of a real coconut with a straw. I had been craving fresh coconut for a couple of years at his point. Natalie ordered one, too. Here we are drinking out of our coconuts.Yum!

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For dinner, I decided to order the pineapple coconut fried rice. I assumed (correctly) that the dish would be served in a real pineapple. Being a great lover of this fruit, this alone was a good reason for me to order it. Needless to say,it was absolutely delicious.image

This somewhat upscale Bangkok Thai restaurant also included live entertainment. The band consisted of a male and female singer, two keyboardists, a drummer, bassist, and a guitarist. They played all Western music, mostly from the 1970’s and 1980’s. The male singer sounded just like Joe Cocker. There was a large television screen that showed them up-close in case customers couldn’t see them from their seats. Marcie was clever enough to find the camera, and she took the opportunity to stand as close to it as she could get to it. For a moment, Marcie was a television star on our first night in Thailand! I have a feeling we’re going to have fun with Marcie here!

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After dinner, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the other ladies and get a foot massage myself. It was so relaxing that I fell right back asleep once I returned to our hotel. Ahhhh.

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We had the next day free until 2:30pm, when we would be picked up to return to the airport for our flight to Chiang Rai; a much smaller Thai city located in the North. While some of the others engaged in more tourist activities, I decided to search for a belly dance studio. I had the fortune to do many of the tourist activities in Bangkok during my previous visits. I knew I’d find plenty of yoga studios throughout Thailand, but I didn’t know if I’d find belly dance anywhere outside of Bangkok. To my great fortune, I did find one, and it was only two stops off of the sky train from where the hotel was located. I discovered on their website that they are affiliated with a well-known studio I’ve visited in New York City called Bellyqueen. That,to me, was a very good sign. The studio I went to is called Rumpuree.

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I attended a noon class with a teacher named Jody. When I arrived, I was greeted by a pleasant young Thai man. I registered, got dressed in one of the changing rooms, and entered the class.

The class was small, with two other students and the teacher. The entire class was taught in English, which I was not expecting since I was in Thailand. This certainly made it easier to follow along with the teacher. Most of the steps in the choreography that the teacher, Jody taught were the same as what I’ve learned at home, but the arrangement of her steps and the music was new. I was delighted that I could follow along and join the other ladies in their dance. It was so much fun that I didn’t even notice until the end that I was sweating so much that I looked like I just came out of a swimming pool (did I mention that it’s hot in Thailand in June?). At the end of class, I was lucky to get a photo with the Jody (far left) and the other students in class. It feels like a small and comfortable world to engage in a dance I love so much at home with women who live on the other side of the planet!

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When I returned to the hotel, it was time to gather my cumbersome luggage together to return to the airport for our short flight to Chiang Rai. Somehow, my luggage felt a little lighter being in Thailand. Perhaps the more relaxed, easy-going ways of the Thai people was rubbing off on me already, even in the huge city of Bangkok.

Before we left, we said goodbye to our fun and friendly host at the hotel, Wilson.

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It’s only been one night, and we’ve already made a new Thai friend. This is only the beginning of our journey through the Land of Smiles.

Natalie

As I continue to share adventures about our 2015 trip to Thailand, I will be inter-weaving interviews with my former students who are joining me on this journey. My first interview was with Natalie Olton.

Natalie close-up

“I’ve heard that Thailand is called the ‘Land of Smiles,’ Shared Natalie Olton, as she leaned over the table with a stick of her chicken satay in her hand and her clever eyes shining excitedly. “I’ve always been a very smiley, bubbly person, and I’m really looking forward to being around other people who love to smile as much as I do.”

Twenty-eight year old Natalie has been a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT) for almost six years, and she is a 2009 graduate of FLCC’s Therapeutic Massage and Integrated Health Care Program. A lifelong native of Palmyra, New York, Natalie grew up in a very lively household with five sisters and two brothers, one of which is a twin. She and her twin brother are the second youngest children in her family.

Natalie with sistersFor our interview, Natalie and I decided it would be fun (and fitting) to meet at a local Thai restaurant in Rochester, where we both currently reside.  As I watched Natalie enjoying her satay and her Thai fried rice, I could tell already that she will integrate into Thai culture with grace and ease. Natalie shared that when she first learned of the Thailand trip being offered that it seemed like the most exciting opportunity for her in to have in her life right now. “It seemed like such a unique opportunity to have a chance to learn a style of massage that so few massage therapists offer in Rochester,” said Natalie. “I literally decided the day I learned about the trip in Amy’s e-mail that I was going to Thailand. I completely just went with my gut, which rarely steers me wrong.” Natalie added in her interview how she felt strongly that visiting Thailand is just something she ‘needs to do’ in her life.

After practicing as an LMT for six years, Natalie has already gained her fair share of experience in the massage therapy field. She currently has her own part-time massage business in Palmyra, New York called ‘The Hara and the Heart.’ She primarily offers Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, pre-natal massage, and Shiatsu in her practice. Natalie is also certified in Reflexology, which she also offers. Soon, she’ll also be adding Thai massage to her menu of massage therapy services.

When reflecting on what originally sparked her interest to enter FLCC’s massage program eight years ago, Natalie shared that it was important for her to choose a career path in which she could help other people to feel good. “I’ve always been a nurturer, so bodywork seemed like a good fit for me.”  Once she began to start learning massage, Natalie found that the benefits she received reached far beyond just helping other people.  “I really feel like the massage program and being a massage therapist helps me to be a more centered and peaceful person in my life overall,” said Natalie.

Natalie’s nurturing nature led her to continue her training in Nursing after she finished massage school. “I went on to become an LPN after massage school as a way to supplement my massage career and income, and also continue to work to help people.” In addition to her massage practice, Natalie also works at Twelve Corners Pediatrics in Brighton, New York as a Lactation Counselor.

Prior to studying massage therapy, Natalie double-majored in Musical Theater and vocal performance at Westminster College in New Jersey. Although she decided that massage therapy is a better career path for her, Natalie continues to have a great love for singing, music, and theater.

For the past eighteen years, Natalie has been attending a children’s summer camp in Penn Yan, New York, first as a participant when she was a child, then later when she became a young adult, as a camp counselor. Natalie shared that the camp is an experiment in community. “The camp is a special place because it fosters a nurturing and accepting environment for kids who are ages ten through eighteen. They are taught about the importance of cooperation and to not to accept bullying or ever bully others.”

This multi-talented young woman has a few other hobbies she is passionate about as well. In the recent past, she was a member of an all-women’s roller-derby team. Natalie is also very passionate about baking and cooking, too. “Culinary school is also on my future list of things to do!” said Natalie enthusiastically. “Melting chocolate is one of the most soothing and relaxing activities for me.” I have a feeling Natalie will be able to add cooking Thai cuisine to her list of many talents soon!

Natalie baking

Well, if you haven’t gotten the impression that Natalie is adventurous yet, maybe you will after you watch this video of her eating Durian, which, although revered in the far East as being ‘the king of fruits,’ is rarely eaten or even tolerated by westerners. This is mainly due to its very strong smell which is often regarded as being quite a foul aroma. (I didn’t even realize she was videoing this when she offered some to me!).

 

If you would like to book a massage appointment with Natalie, contact her at 315-573-0213, and also ‘like’ her massage business page, The Hara and the Heart, on Facebook.

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Our Long Flight To Thailand

After three years being planted in the Western hemisphere, I have finally taken the long eastward journey back once again to my beloved Thailand. This time, I’m visiting the Land of Smiles with five first-time Thailand travelers; Marcie, Natalie, Anne, Morgan, and Anna. All five of the women accompanying me on this trip are my former students from Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage Program, where I teach as full-time faculty. Many have spent the past year working very hard to save funds to make this trip possible for them. Two of the youngwomen, Natalie and Morgan, were signed up for last year’s canceled trip and have been waiting two years for this long-awaited journey! As you can imagine, we have all been very eager for our journey to Thailand to really happen! On Saturday, May 30th, we took our long awaited flight.

The duration of our flights and layovers collectively was about 29 hours in its entirety. We originated from our small local airport in Rochester, New York, and eventually arrived in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. After our short flight on Jet Blue from Rochester to New York City’s JFK International Airport, we took the air train to check into Etihad Airways. We had a five and a half hour layover while waiting to board our thirteen hour flight to Abu Dhabi. For me, this felt like the longest part of our trip. We did our best to kill time by eating overpriced American airport food, checking e-mails and Facebook, charging our cell phones, and calling our loved ones to say our final goodbyes.

Natalie and I made ourselves comfortable by sitting on the floor while we waited for our phones to charge. I was beginning to feel like I was back in travel mode at this point. image

Finally, we boarded our first flight. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a thirteen hour flight. It didn’t take long, however, for me to remember some of the most important things I need to remember about being on a flight for this long; dress in layers, bring a pair of warm socks, hope the airline will include at least one moderately good television show or movie, buy lots of tasty snacks from Trader Joe’s, bring a good book to get lost in, and cross my fingers that I’m not seated next to, in front of, or behind any nose-pickers, fingernail clippers, crying babies (don’t get me wrong – babies are adorable, but not while crying on a long flight), or un-showered travelers dressed in clothing so rank that even the lice have fled.

Fortunately for me, I had the pleasure of being seated in a row with Marcie, Natalie, and Morgan. We quickly got comfortable. Marcie was ready to sleep almost immediately.

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It was one of the most pleasant and seemingly shortest long flights I’ve ever had. I slept nearly the entire time. It helped that it was almost 11:00pm in our EST time zone before we took off.  

When we landed in Abu Dhabi to transfer to our next flight, it began to feel for me like this journey to Thailand is real. Up until that moment, it still felt like this Thailand trip was more of a dream than a reality. The Abu Dhabi Airport is definitely one of the cleanest and classiest airport I’ve ever been in. The gates were lined with very healthy and large live jade plants, and the pristine bathrooms included showers, which I have never seen in an airport before. Each toilet had a bidet. When I stopped at a little café to purchase a mocha latte, I received my first dirham in exchange for my American dollars when I paid. Indeed, we were not in America anymore!

Our layover in Abu Dhabi was less than two hours long, and time moved very quickly. We managed to find someone to take our first group photo right before we boarded our flight to Bangkok.

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The next flight was only about six hours long. Given that it was only half the length of time from our previous flight, this one went very quickly, even though I was wide awake the entire time from sleeping for several hours on our last flight. Perhaps some of it was also the adrenaline rush of knowing that the next step I take on planet earth will be on Thai soil….or perhaps more accurately, Thai concrete, since we spent our first night in Bangkok.

We had just one night in Bangkok to begin this exciting adventure. Of all of the cities in the world where one can find adventure, Bangkok must undoubtedly be listed in the world’s list of top ten.

We have now been in Thailand for five days already. Between recouping from my jetlag, limited internet access, and our very busy schedule of wonderful visits here, I haven’t begun blogging until now. I promise that I will be catching up quickly to share our adventures. Please come back to visit daily as I share the places we visit, some fun Thai cultural facts we’re learning, and also introduce each of the five amazing women who are accompanying me on this journey!

Until next time, Saw-at-dee-kaa from Thailand!

 

 

 

Departure for Thailand: Summer 2015

Elephant Nature Park 044 (1024x682)In just four hours I will be flying over the great North Pole to enter the wonderful Land of Smiles for the first time in three years! This time, I’ll be accompanied by five of my former students from Finger Lakes Community College’s Therapeutic Massage program: Marcie, Natalie, Anne, Morgan, and Anna. While on our trip, I’ll be blogging frequently about our Thailand adventures and also intermittently introduce my travel companions on my 2015 trip. We will spending much of our time studying traditional Thai massage at the wonderful SVG Thai Massage Training Center in Chiang Mai, but also embark on several side trips to Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Pai, and to hill tribe communities.

Please come back and visit often, as I’m sure this trip is bound to be packed with an array of exciting adventures. For now, I bid you farewell as we take our journey on Etihad Airways to this tropical and most friendly country!

Lang-gor-kaa,

Amy ♡

Sapphire: Rochester’s New Beginner Belly Dance Troupe

Sapphire Ellwanger outdoor shot #1

Photo by Robert Hill

In early February my belly dance teacher, Michelle Charles, announced in class that she would be forming a new beginner student belly dance troupe. By joining the troupe, we would learn performance techniques, refine the choreography taught in classes, and learn about belly dance costumes and make up. We would also have several opportunities to perform at social and public events in and around the greater Rochester area.Red belly dance art

 

Given my new passion for belly dance, I signed up as soon as the opportunity arose. In addition to my regular belly dance classes, I also started attending weekly rehearsals with Michelle and my new troupe mates. Michelle has a talent for ‘spicing up’ the regular choreography in rehearsals by creating lines, depth and texture with the dancers. I have learned that staying in synch with the music, knowing the dance steps, and trying to match the movements of my fellow troupe members is pertinent to the group performance. In fact, since I’ve joined the group I have been noticing while watching YouTube videos of various troupe performances that even the simplest steps can look amazing when a group is in sync. Complicated steps can look messy when a group isn’t connected or in rhythm.

Sapphire - Outdoor shot #2

Photo by Robert Hill

Once our group was formed and regular rehearsals began, we were fitted for our new costumes. As a new dancer, this was very exciting for me! Our costumes were hand made by another long time belly dancer, Deborah Robinson. The color of our new costumes, of course, is sapphire, with white trim. The costumes are rich and eye-catching, and look enchanting when worn together as a group. Our new jewelry was hand made as well by one of my troupe mates, Kristy Morris.

Sapphire - Eye Linda

Photo by Brenda Washington

Along with costuming, my new troupe mates and I also learned about makeup. The first time I applied my make up for a performance, I thought for sure I would be mistaken for a hooker, but I was assured by Michelle that we would wear far more make up for performance than many of us would ever wear on a daily basis. I soon realized that I actually didn’t even apply enough makeup for the stage and applied more eyeliner. My creative troupe mate, Corinne suggested we also draw our Sapphire logo under our right eye, which I feel distinguishes our troupe’s ‘look’ even more!

To date, Sapphire has had three performances. I was unable to join my troupe for the first show in March, but I did perform with them in our other two shows recently in May.Sapphires Linda and Nikki

On May 3rd we performed at the charming Ellwanger Estate Bed and Breakfast, a mansion located in the heart of Rochester’s Mount Hope Cultural District. The beautiful mansion is over one hundred fifty years old and is a landmark site. The estate is owned currently by Rosemary Janofsky, who graciously hosted our recent Sunday afternoon event. The event that was held at the estate is called a Hafla, which is a casual social gathering with music, food, and belly dance performances. The event drew in dancers from the local Rochester area, as well as some amazing talent from our neighboring cities, Buffalo and Syracuse.

The afternoon was filled with an array of talented belly dancers that performed various styles of Middle Eastern dance, ranging from traditional Egyptian style to fusion styles and Turkish belly dance. Several troupes performed as well as many soloists.

Since I have recently been studying solo veil dance choreography with Michelle, I thought the homey environment of the Ellwanger Estate would be a perfect environment to debut my first individually choreographed solo. This event was also my first performance with my Sapphire troupe mates. Needless to say, I was so nervous before I performed that day that I could feel my palms viscid with sweat. In addition, I had also been recently diagnosed with a stress fracture in my left foot. I knew my body wasn’t in peak condition for a debut performance, but I was so excited about performing that I was determined to at least try.

Amy Ellwanger close-up

Photos of Amy’s solo by Brenda Washington

 

Fortunately, my solo performance was the second number. As soon as I started dancing, I found myself lost in the music and choreography. Amy backbend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love the grace and flow of the veil. Although a prop like a veil may potentially cause angst because it is one more thing to keep track of and possibly flub, it can also provide security.

Amy Ellwanger Veil pose

Amy Ellwanger -necklace pose

   My veil gave me something to hide behind, wrap myself in, and invite as a partner in my performance.

I wasn’t dancing alone when I was out on the floor with my veil. It made me feel at home, as did the supportive audience of fellow dancers, friends, and family. I was also delighted that my Sapphire troupe mates were sitting close by.

Sapphire Ellwanger Drum Solo #2

Sapphire dance photos by Brenda Washington

Sapphire performed a few dances later. After performing solo with my veil, my nerves had calmed considerably for our performance as a troupe. The environment was fun and festive at the Ellwanger, and being out there dancing with the six other women in my troupe added even more merriment to the event.

 

Sapphire Ellwanger - Amy and Nikki

Sapphires -Greta Ellwanger

 

Sapphire Ellwanger drum solo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once our performance was finished, I had the pleasure to sit back and watch the other talented dancers and roam the breathtaking gardens at the estate.

Two weeks later, Sapphire performed at another belly dance event. This one was in a very different environment, but equally enjoyable. The event was titled Raq City Belly Dance Night, and was held at the Buta Pub in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester. Bethany Forsythe, a long-time Rochester belly dancer and teacher, organized this event. The event consisted of an ‘open dance’ segment, which was open to belly dancers and troupes to sign up and perform as time allowed. The second segment of the show was for the evening’s ‘featured’ performers, consisting of one featured troupe and one featured solo dancer. Our beginner troupe, Sapphire, was honored to be invited as the evening’s featured troupe performance. Once again, we were greeted with a warm, open, and friendly audience, many of whom were fellow dancers and their friends. Any fear or intimidation I felt as a new dancer performing nearly melted away when I saw the smiling faces of my fellow dancers and felt the festive energy of our audience.

Sapphire Amy - Buta Pub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our dances were followed by the evening’s featured performer; the amazing Ionah from Syracuse, who wowed the audience with a show-stopping finale to the evening!

Iona Buta Pub

Iona black and white

Photo by Brenda Washington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During these past four month, I have enjoyed every part of performing in Sapphire…the rehearsals, Michelle’s creative choreography, the costumes, and the performances. My favorite part of all, though, has been the opportunity to dance with the wonderful other women in the troupe: Corinne, Linda, Nikki, Sandy, Kristy, and Greta. I look forward to my next opportunity to shimmy the stage with these ladies this summer!Sapphire Ellwanger outdoor #3Amy and Corinne Sapphires

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the next three and a half weeks, I will be taking a brief hiatus from my Rochester troupe to return to Thailand for the first time in three years. Come back and visit soon, as I once again take this eastward journey. I depart in just a few days, this time with five new travel companions!

Elephant Kiss*A special thank you to Brenda Washington Vasickanin and Robert Hill for sharing photos from the Ellwanger Belly Dance Hafla.

An Interview with Michelle Charles: Professional Belly Dancer, Teacher and Owner of Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle

m_charles_costumeAfter sharing in my last post about my newfound love for belly dance, I thought it would be fitting to learn more about the woman who introduced me to this art form, Michelle Charles. I had the great pleasure to interview her recently about her journey through the world of this dance.

Michelle Charles is a professional belly dancer, certified teacher, and long time student of belly dance. She is also the owner of Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle, where she teaches beginner and intermediate level belly dance classes and also directs her new student performance troupe, Sapphire.

Her voyage into belly dance began one day in 1997 while at her then full-time job in marketing communications. “One day while I was sitting at my desk, I just felt I needed to do something fun and new,” shared Michelle. “Belly dancing just kind of popped into my head that day, and then I started looking for places where I could learn it!” Since the Internet was not prevalent at the time, investigating where she could take classes took a little more digging. After discovering that there were no belly dance teachers in Rochester at the time, she looked to neighboring cities and found a teacher in Buffalo named Cathy Skora. “Cathy was a really great teacher, and I was so thankful I found her first,” said Michelle. Cathy studied under a man from Lebanon named Bobby Farrah, who was key to the formation and evolution of Middle Eastern dance in the 1970’s and 80’s. Cathy passed on to her students the knowledge she gained from Bobby Farrah about the history and various styles of belly dance. This had a profound influence on Michelle and positively affected her belly dancing and teaching style.

From her first class, Michelle fell in love with belly dance. After only three months of classes she was already performing. “I loved performing right away!” said Michelle enthusiastically. Over the years, Michelle went on to perform in several venues including local festivals in Rochester, international festivals at area colleges, nursing homes, and women’s groups. As her experience grew, she went on to perform dance solos at several venues, especially Turkish events. “I was often hired by Turkish people to dance at weddings and family events,” shared Michelle. Her experience dancing at Turkish venues also included her playing zills, or finger cymbals while she danced. “Turkish dancers almost always play finger cymbals while they dance, so I learned how to use them in my dancing pretty quickly when I performed for the Turkish events.” She stated that finger cymbals were also used frequently by belly dancers in America in the 1960’s.Michelle-Finger Cymbals

Over the years, Michelle continued to study with several influential teachers, including Fifi Abdo, Raquia Hassan, Liza L’Aziza, Sahra Kent, Yousry Sharif, and Mahmoud Reda. In time, she has become versed in many various styles of belly dance. When asked what her favorite styles are, she said that she especially loves American Cabaret style belly dance because “it is a mixture of 1960’s belly dance with traditional Egyptian and Turkish dance influences.” Michelle is also fond of Turkish Cabaret style belly dance. “Turkish cabaret is really fun. There are not a lot of rules and it is really lively and enjoyable to watch.”

After three years of intensive practice, studying and performing, Michelle started to teach belly dance to others. Her teaching journey began when her belly dancer friend, Connie, was teaching at a local church at the time. Her classes became so full that she asked Michelle to help her teach. Connie had studied belly dance all over the United States, Canada, and Egypt. Michelle proceeded to receive her Belly Dance Teacher Training Certification from Hadia of Montreal. She described Hadia as being “one of the most knowledgeable women I have ever studied with. I learned so much valuable information from her about belly dancing and teaching.”

With her marketing background, Michelle wrote up a business plan for Connie and her to teach together. As their business grew, Michelle proposed that they open their own place to teach belly dance and also include other forms of women’s fitness dance classes. In 2003 they opened the doors to ‘Goddess Hour Dance and Fitness,’ where they offered their belly dance classes, along with offering classes in Zumba and cardio pole dancing, which were taught by other area instructors. Michelle said the name ‘Goddess Hour’ came to her from a student who shared with her that for one hour every week she felt like a goddess when she came to belly dance class. Michelle thought “That’s it! That’s the perfect name for our business!” Goddess Hour Dance and Fitness Studio remained active for over a decade in the town of Brighton, New York. Two years ago, Michelle moved her classes to the Kinection’s Dance Studio, located at 718 University Avenue in Rochester. In the transition, she renamed her business ‘Goddess Hour Belly Dance with Michelle.’

michelle_v2Michelle has seen a great deal of growth in herself over the years as a teacher. “I think every year I get better as a teacher. I become more refined.” She stated that she’s also seen a shift in the demographics of her students as well. “When I was a new teacher, most of my students were in their 20s. Now, the average age of my students is around their mid-40s. The routines I’ve taught and the method of how I teach them has changed a bit because of that. Women in their mid-40s are more likely to have families with kids, jobs, and many other responsibilities. Belly dance class may be one of the few times during the week they have time to focus on doing something for just themselves.” Although mid-40s is the approximate median age of her students, any woman who attends Michelle’s classes will find women ranging in ages from their late teens to their 60s and 70s. One of the great benefits of belly dance is that it really is suitable for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes. “One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced teaching is having the opportunity to meet all of the incredible women who come to class.” said Michelle. “Women meet who may otherwise not have met and become friends. I’ve seen friendships develop between women who are 21 years old and women in their 50s. All of these different women come together to dance and they become friends.”

Belly dancing also has many physical and other health benefits. “Belly dancing is really beneficial for strengthening your core,” Michelle shared. “It has even been endorsed by Stott Pilates to benefit greatly in strengthening the core. It’s also a mild enough form of dance that it is suitable for women of all ages and sizes. Women of all walks of life can learn it.” It has also been shown to have positive effects on women emotionally, too. Michelle shared that belly dancing can be very emotionally freeing and also can help women to feel more beautiful and feminine.michellebella(1)

In 2009, Michelle founded “Unveil the Goddess,” a non-profit program to support women and teens in transition. “I’ve had the privilege to teach women who were battling breast cancer, domestic abuse, and teens at risk. I reached out to non-profit groups whose goal was for the advancement of women and I offered free classes to them.” Michelle has also been a speaker for the National Speaking of Women’s Health Conference, promoting belly dance as a beneficial fitness alternative. She also is co-director of Fire and Spice Belly Dancers, a professional troupe that has performed extensively around the greater Rochester area. Recently, Michelle also created a new belly dance troupe, Sapphire, designed for her beginner level students to learn performance techniques and refine choreography from the dances they learned in her classes.

Whether women have the desire to perform one day or just want to get together with other women for an hour a week to laugh, move their hips and have fun, Michelle’s class is truly suitable for every woman. It also may very well be one of the most fun hours of your week, as it has become for me. “Putting yourself out there can be really scary,” said Michelle, “but I encourage every woman to try it. It could change and enhance your life in very positive ways.” I can share first hand that this was definitely the case for me, as I bask in the joy that belly dance has recently brought into my life.

For more information about belly dance classes offered in Rochester, or about hiring belly dance performers, contact Michelle Charles at Michelle@goddesshour.com, or call her at 585-747- 3937.IMG_michelle5

*All photos borrowed courtesy of Michelle Charles.

 

 

 

 

Belly Dancing, Goddess Style

Belly dancer mysteriousAfter the Thailand trip was canceled last June, I fell into a sort of mild depression as I helplessly watched a year’s worth of my work and dreams dissipate before me. Additionally, some family struggles and other life changes caused me to lose my motivation. My typically healthy diet suffered as I became very close friends with my daily gelato. I lost interest in writing, and I was dreaming of moving somewhere warm and far away to practice my massage therapy and yoga…perhaps Costa Rica or a tropical island somewhere. In that moment, my life in Rochester felt stale and old.

When a few weeks had passed, however, I snapped out of these thoughts as I recalled how my health was still robust, and I then remembered all of the wonderful people that surrounded me in my life. I realized how fortunate I actually was. I promptly broke off my summer affair with gelato, stepped up my yoga practice, and shed the eight pounds I had gained over the summer. Autumn was coming, a new semester was about to begin and I needed to get busy. Still, there was this little nagging feeling inside of me that I had become a bit stagnant and bored. I needed something new…something new like belly dancing.BellydanceBlue

I had long been curious about belly dance. There have been several occurrences over the years when women I’ve known have told me how much they enjoyed belly dancing, and that I seemed like someone who would really resonate with it and love it. At the time, though, all I wanted to do was yoga. I’ve attempted many other forms of fitness activities over the years…zumba, aerobic pole dancing, cardio hip-hop, spinning classes, and the aerial arts. Each time I would enter the new class with enthusiasm, thinking I’d be hooked. However, Each time I left one of the classes, I felt they just weren’t the right activities for me. None of them came close to my love for yoga. The spinning classes felt too repetitive, and zumba, which I thought for sure I’d adore, felt a bit like Latin dance on steroids to me. After I took an arial arts silks class, my arms ached so much that I could barely reach forward to brush my teeth for days, not to mention that the average age in the class was about fourteen. My peers in that class were the moms who sat watching their daughters (and me) attempt to climb and swing from the silks that hung from the high vaulted ceiling. Seeing an aerial arts performance is a great love of mine, but I learned that I am better suited for the audience than the stage in that genre.

My expectations were fairly low when I signed up for my first belly dance class. After all of those failed attempts at finding a new activity that would capture me, I was once again testing the waters. In my search for a teacher, I had read several rave reviews about a belly dance business in Rochester named ‘Goddess Hour.’ So, on a whim one night in early September, I called the teacher, Michelle Charles, to sign up for a class that was beginning later that week. My plan was to just take one ‘drop-in’ class to try it out.

Belly dancersTwo days later, I shyly entered the building on University Avenue in Rochester for my first class. The reception area was lively as I saw women of various ages, sizes, and ethnicities gathering and chatting as they waited for class to begin. I peeked in the opened door of the classroom and saw some other students dancing. The women looked quite impressive as they shimmied and spun across the dance floor. They were in the intermediate level class. Having never shimmied before, I wasn’t sure I’d have any idea how to do it. My ballet and yoga background taught me how to keep my hips very still and controlled. I was now about to learn how to unleash them and move them. As I waited in the seating area with the other women in the beginner’s level class, I quietly observed. Many of the women wore colorful scarves with dangling coins around their hips and appeared to already know each other. When the intermediate classes ended, we were promptly greeted with a warm smile and enthusiastic “Welcome!” by our teacher, Michelle. I had a good feeling about the class already.

Belly dancers -artClass began with a few basic belly dance drills along to some upbeat rhythms of Egyptian pop belly dance music. We proceeded with a belly dance ‘warm up’ that included big hip circles, hip bumps, shoulder rolls, chest movements, and forward folds. I noticed how the teacher and some of her long-time students were hamming up their movements with big smiles and flirty hand and hip movements. As I followed along, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire class. I noticed that there were women at all different skill levels in the class, too. Some appeared to have been dancing for years, while others, like me, were clueless and just followed along. With all of the diversity of ages, body shapes, and levels of experience, though, there was one thing that all of us had in common. Every woman was smiling.Red belly dance art

Michelle coached us along the way about several basic principles of belly dance. The atmosphere of the class was non-judgmental and lively, but also very well organized and informative. I could easily tell that the teacher was highly proficient in belly dance and knew the art well. As we learned various movements, Michelle would often share the origins of where the different steps derived from. For example, we learned the difference between Turkish and Egyptian shimmies, and how the styles of dance vary in the different countries. Given my love for Asian culture and history, learning about the roots of belly dance was right up my alley…the geography is just moving a little further westward than Thailand and China. As class progressed, we were informed that we would also learn choreography in each class, which would eventually lead to a full dance to a particular piece of music. Although I’m used to stringing together sequences when I teach yoga, I hadn’t actually learned a choreographed dance since I was a teenager in my ballet classes. I was elated that I would be learning to dance to choreography once again, but this time I was allowed, and indeed encourage, to shake my hips, chest and shoulders. Class concluded with an upbeat ‘follow along’ belly dance to an Egyptian Shaabi song, which sounded a bit like Egyptian hip-hop to me. This was a very energetic, playful, coquettish dance that heated up the room. When the final dance concluded, I was exhilarated and covered in a delightfully detoxing sweat.Bellydance class

After that first one-hour class, I already knew I had discovered a new passion of mine that would remain with me for life just as yoga will. The class gave me the most liberating feeling I had experienced in my body since I began practicing vinyasa style yoga over fifteen years ago. They fulfill different parts of me, too, in many ways. Yoga has always felt primarily like an internal journey for me, delving deeply into my body while finding peace within my mind. Even in the most crowded of classes, yoga brings me to my quiet place. Belly dance, in contrast, feels like more of an external journey for me. The movements of belly dance are exquisitely feminine, playful, and even slightly mischievous, yet there are concise techniques involved in learning these freeing movements. When I belly dance with a group of other women, it feels as if we are dancing at a party together. I feel completely unbounded and free. Also, have I mentioned yet how exotic and alluring the belly dance outfits are? Being a lover of both fashion and dressing up in costumes, this is another perfect match for me. Although it has mostly been web browsing at this point, I’ll refrain from mentioning how many belly dance costumes I’ve bookmarked on my computer in the past four months.

 Since eaBellydance veil #4rly September, I’ve continued to study the art of belly dance with Michelle and I take classes weekly at Goddess Hour. My collection of belly dance DVDs is growing steadily. Michelle also periodically organizes recitals and events, and she invites her students to participate if they desire. In my four months, I’ve already had the pleasure to perform one of the dances we learned in a recital with some of my classmates. I also recently performed a veil dance (my favorite type of belly dance so far) at a ‘Hafla,’ which is a social gathering centered around belly dancing and food. My journey into the world of belly dance is just beginning, and I excitedly await all of the new adventures I will discover along the way. Of course, traveling to some of the countries where belly dance derives from is one of my many aspirations on this adventure!

Before I conclude this post, I thought it might be helpful to give a very brief overview about belly dance, although I am new and just beginning to learn about the history of this beautiful dance.Belly Dancers - vintage

The term ‘belly dance’ is a Western-coined name that stems from a French term ‘danse du ventre,’ which means ‘dance of the belly.’ Although the term itself became popular after entertainer Sol Bloom first used it in 1893 to describe the dancers at the Chicago World Fair, the origins of the dance itself are believed to be thousands of years old. Belly dance can take on many forms depending on the country and region the dance derives from. The earliest roots can be traced back to the Middle East. European travelers have extensive documentation of the dancers they saw in this part of the world, especially in Egypt. Classical Egyptian style dance is often called ‘Raqs Sharqi,’ which means ‘Oriental Dance.’ Historically, belly dance, or Oriental dance, has primarily been performed either as a social dance or as a performance art. In the social dance context, it is usually part of a celebration in a social gathering of people in every day society in various parts of the Middle East and surrounding countries. Women, in particular, would belly dance together, often as single-sexed gatherings as a way to celebrate and have fun. This ritual is still prevalent in many communities in the Middle East today.

Vintage Belly dancerAs a performance art, belly dance gathers its foundations from the social dances, but is danced with more refinement and emphasis on the use of space and stage-crafting performances. Focus is also on facial expressions and more dramatic movements. Costuming is also an important aspect to belly dance in the performance art realm. Belly dance has been performed extensively throughout the Middle East, but also in the West in both the U.S. and in Europe. It has becoming popular in many East Asian countries such as China and Japan. The dances can be performed either as solo acts or as group performances.

 

Most modern day belly dance movements stem from Egypt and Turkey, but many varieties of styles exist today. Some of these include classical Egyptian style, Turkish style, American Cabaret style, Gypsy (Romani) style, American Tribal style, and Tribal Fusion style. Certain types of belly dance include the use of props, such as finger symbols (zills), veils, fans, canes, candles, and swords. Musicians also play a very important role in many belly dance traditions, particularly in classical Egyptian and Turkish style belly dance.

In conclusion, never discount the power of newness in your life. When boredom or stagnation begins to set in your mind and body, listen to your little voi

ce. An unfamiliar hobby can develop at any stage of your life, whether you are sixteen years old or ninety. The timing to start is always the right time. If a thought or idea pops in your mind to try something, don’t think about it too much. Just try it. The worst that can happen is discovering that you don’t like it or aren’t interested (or get sore arms). At best, you may find a life-changing avocation that stays with you for life. Never fear curiosity, and don’t ever be afraid to dance!Veil dance twirl“Dance is the Hidden Language of the Soul.” – Martha Graham

 

*Next Post: An interview with Michelle Charles, Belly Dance teacher, performer, and owner of Goddess Hour. Come back to visit soon!

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A New Blog Post For A New Year

Amy at the METAs the New Year begins, I have set a goal for myself to revive my blog, which has been lying dormant for the past six months. I purposely am choosing the term ‘goal’ over the typical New Year ‘resolution,’ since a resolution may imply a decision that has already been made. After all, it has never been my intention to stop writing for six months. Often times, a resolution can be a template for potential failure when the moment of faltering arises. A goal, on the other hand, carries an element of potential, and it can always be revisited. There is an aim to which effort can always be applied. It has the ability to continue and grow, and allows room for infinite possibilities, even if the timeline is not clear.

So, here I am, beginning a new chapter of my journey on my wayfaring path. I haven’t traveled much these past six months, but I have recently been reminded that a new road can be paved anywhere. I don’t need to run to distant and exotic places to find newness. With that said, my nomadic tendencies haven’t left me, either. Indeed, I intend to travel to unfamiliar and far away places again. Until I do, however, I’m exploring many new adventures right here in my home city of Rochester, NY, which is currently a very glacial place to be. After yesterday’s heat wave of 32 degrees (F), today it climaxed to 13 degrees. As I sit here in my wool socks and fleece hoodie, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of spiced Indian herbal tea, I’m getting ready to begin writing again. New topics as well as familiar ones are going to be shared very soon. Until then, I can be found snuggling beneath five layers of blankets with my books, cats, and tea.

Kitts grooming

Namaste,

Amy

Changes

LiliesinGardenWhen life throws a roadblock in the way, sometimes we must find another route to reach our destination. Perhaps we find new scenery along the way that piques curiosities that we couldn’t fathom beforehand. I have reminded myself of this numerous times over the past few weeks.

I am not in Thailand, nor are my six former students who had expected to accompany me. We were not in Thailand at all this past month, in fact. Less than forty-eight hours prior to our departure, I received the devastating news from the administration of FLCC that the travel course will be canceled this time. As I stood in my bedroom in shock for a moment with the phone in my hand, I looked over at my already packed brand new suitcase I had purchased just for this trip. Laying outside of my new bag were several little items I always bring with me on my travels…little mini-packages of toilet paper, my natural sleeping remedies, first aid items, phrase books and small gifts for my friends in Thailand. In my backpack I had my organized three-ring binder I had created for this trip with the word ‘THAILAND’ written in capital letters along the spine. I had it meticulously organized with the trip’s itinerary, receipts, traveler information, and potential places to visit. I had weeded through my summer closet and had packed only my most comfortable (and fast-drying) sundresses and yoga pants in my bag. An open notebook laid on my bedroom floor next to my bag with all of my “to do” lists… one for before I depart, one for when I arrive at the airport, one a list of reminders for when I arrive with the group, and yet another section dedicated just for tracking all the expenses that I would have incurred along the journey. In that one moment, my nearly nine months of planning for this trip to return to Thailand had been wiped away.

Anyone who has ever organized a travel class understands that about ninety percent of the work that is involved to make the trip happen occurs before departure…the recruiting, planning, budgeting, making contacts, and assuring that all of the necessary details are attended to. But, perhaps most importantly, perhaps, is assuring that those who decide to embark on the adventure have a positive, life –altering experience that enriches their lives in a way that only entering a new culture can; to step outside of the confines of the world as it is lived daily in one’s life at home and allow in new perspectives and possibilities. Though we all one day move past our youth in life, our finances may alter, and our personal relationships may change, no one can rob us of our knowledge and life experiences. Once we cross the border and enter that new world, it paves an opportunity to change our lives forever, if we choose to invite it in. My passion for taking others to far away places that are dramatically different than the world we experience here in the United States is primarily for this reason. I thought of what this journey might have meant to those who had planned to take this trip for months. I suddenly felt a tightening knot of dread in my stomach as I realized I would need to be the bearer of the regrettable news that the trip was canceled. Perhaps even harder, though, I was realizing I would need to share this news with my friends in Thailand who had put so much effort into assuring that we were welcomed when we arrived. I thought of my friends at the SVG Thai Massage School… all of the teachers who had blocked out this time for us and had made extensive plans for our arrival. I thought of how those from the outside couldn’t truly understand the level of kindness and hospitality that the Thai people give to make us feel at home when we visit. Their generosity extends far beyond what most people would comprehend unless they are familiar with Thai culture.

On May 22nd, the Royal Thai Armed Forces declared a coup d’état following more than six months of recent political tension related to the country’s current Prime Minister. The Thai military had formed a junta, which means that the country established a government led by military leaders. A countrywide curfew was established from 10:00pm to 5:00pm. Although I felt confident that we would be safe in our secure destination at the SVG Thai Massage Training Center in Chiang Mai, from the outside world (understandably), the coup appeared to make Thailand seem like an unstable and unsafe place to visit. I had planned for our trip to take place exclusively in Northern Thailand this year and avoid Bangkok should concerns about the political situation surface before we left. Still, I could not salvage the travel course or prevent the cancellation. The United States had declared a travel alert, and the decision had been made by the college to cancel the trip.

I am not here to analyze Thai politics, nor do I intend to write here about the history of what built to the current situation. I am far from being a scholar of Thai politics, and it is not my place to judge the unrest on either end of the spectrum. What I do know of Thailand, however, is that it primarily a gentle culture. The vast majority of the people that live there only wish for peace. To my knowledge, tourists have never been treated with anything short of kindness, regardless of what has occurred politically in the country. During my previous visits, I have been welcomed into the country without judgment by my Thai friends and have been treated as if I am family. Although I feel in my heart that this would have been our experience this time as well, regardless of the curfew or the pending unrest, I have also had to learn to let it go. This seems to have been my greatest lesson as I’ve entered the mid years of my life; to learn to let go with acceptance and not become jaded or broken by it. It is easy to grow bitter and fall under a spell of hopelessness when loss rudely falls before us and attempts to block our path to our dreams. It is often easier to just give up and become complacent than to remain impassioned about seeking another pathway to be closer to an unremitting dream. As many have discovered, however, obstacles can often lead to unforeseen opportunities, and this is the voice I will choose to follow.

I’m not sure when, or even where, I will travel again, but I know I will, and I know there will be many times that others will join me. It has taken some time for me to feel motivated to come back here when my path is so unclear. I even contemplated leaving my blog and abandoning my writing altogether, or at least for a long while. But those who share my sentiment for writing know that we do it just as much as a need to feed our own souls as an instrument to reach out and share. So, I leave here not sure of what I will write about next…perhaps I’ll continue to share about my new discoveries as I study at the Thai Institute of the Healing Arts in Arlington this summer, or revisit some of my long-abandoned yoga philosophy books, or just ponder about the value of bodywork in a culture that is becoming more alienated from touch as we increasingly becoming more dependent on technology as a means for communicating. The options are boundless. One thing I know for certain, though, is that I will be back when I am inspired again, and I will have new memoirs to write about when I am wayfaring once again.

Amy in garden2014

Three and a Half Days…

…And I will be departing for Thailand once again, but this time, I will have six new companions joining me. It has been two years since I set foot in the Land of Smiles, but the memories of my life while I was there always linger close to the surface of my mind and heart. Despite the mild anxiety of preparing for that deplorably long twenty-six hour flight we will soon be on, knowing the cultural treasure that awaits us on the other side of the planet makes it more than worthwhile.

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As I make preparations to travel once again, I’d like to take the next few days to introduce my 2014 travel companions to you. So, please come back and visit me here often, as you are about to meet some intelligent, interesting, and spirited people who are very excited to experience Thai culture for their first time:

Samantha, Natalie, Morgan, Adam, Julie, and Keenan.

Arriving in Chiang Mai 016 (768x1024)

Until next time,

 

La-Gorn-Ka