Review: DragonCon 2015 – The Silk Road Track – Ancient & Modern

*These are just my opinions as a random Nigerian-American who grew up with the cultures of the Silk Road in my international community.

DCon Gifts

Gifts from the director and my 5 year DragonCon volunteer pin! 🙂

This was the best DragonCon I’ve experienced since I started attending. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve finally figured it out after all of these years (i.e. how to attend all of the panels you like plus find time for sleep). But I want to credit it to amazing planning by Kira Lang (Silk Road Track Director), the comfort of the track and having great panelists who are fun and exciting to listen to each day.

Click here to see the Full DragonCon 2015 schedule. It was great! If you weren’t there I’m sorry. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the panels I sat in on. I enjoy volunteering on this track because it’s my track of choice. Sure, I can appreciate Dr. Who and tons of other areas of interest but this is where I can get some history that is close to home. As a homesick person so to speak, I rather rely on this track to further connect with my friends in the modern pop-culture world of the regions and ethnic groups with which I grew up (African, Asian and Mideast).

Highlights of the Weekend – IMO
Asian Ball Jointed Dolls
Japanese Pop Music
Iron Chef
Feminisim in Lolita (Japanese Street Fashion)
Trance Dance and Altered States of Consciousness
Silk Road Expo
Kawaii Culture
K-Pop Music Videos (Beyond Gangnam Style)
Shoujou Rock Heaven
Jason Lang’s Panels

Phoenicia is a popular teacher at DragonCon - providing low impact instruction on the art of Raqs Sharqi (bellydance)

Phoenicia’s class is popular at DragonCon – providing low impact instruction on the art of Raqs Sharqi (bellydance)

Day One
I got there Thursday evening and immediately went to bed because we had an early morning. I woke up Friday and immersed myself into the Silk Road starting with the Asian Ball Jointed Dolls panel. The lady that teaches this is a DC veteran. She has a fan following and they all bring their dolls and display them for all to see and shake hands. The dolls literally come to life for this panel as she talks about what they are made of, their history, where to buy and takes in comments and animated excitment from doll owners in the audience. I always told myself I would not buy a doll but after this panel and all these years of being around them I think I need one. I’m seriously frightened that it will become an addiction. Much like a tattoo, I’ve heard once you get one BJD, you are never done. It sucks you in and before long you and your dolls have matching wardrobes.

There are Lolita-JFashion BJDs, Anime based BJDs and specialty ones from major brands. Much like JFashion, dolls have brands. What’s even more surreal is Baby the Stars Shine Bright and other brands have clothes for BJDs I was told. I’ve actually seen some of these well-dressed babies at BJD meetups. Myself and my porcelain dolls are highly impressed. But I really do not want to become one of those people who suffers from the urge to buy a new doll every few years. I do not need another doll in my life but I already know I’m going to get one. G-d help me keep it under control.

If you’ve never been to this panel, just check it out one year or go to one of the many BJD events around the nation to better understand this fascinating world. Ball Jointed Dolls are beyond exquisite!

The Japanese pop music panel was hosted by Kurt Yoder who is known for his music panels. He did an amazing job twice this year. Notably, he filled in for one panelist who couldn’t make it. He was awesome for showing a series of diverse Japanese music genres for an entire hour. I’ll certainly look for him and his co-host at future J-Pop, J-Music and Japanese Culture conferences/events.

One of my main reasons for even going to DragonCon is for Japanese Street Fashion panels. This year Brittany-Anne, the town JFashion Library and Guru, spoke about Feminism in Lolita. I really enjoyed listening to her discuss the history and go deeper into the subject. For those that haven’t heard or attended this panel I will not spoil it for you by going into great detail. However, I will say that it is not a panel filled with 101 or where to buy Lolita. It’s best one already have a bit of background on the fashion to fully appreciate how thorough it is. I could listen to Brittany-Anne and team discuss this all day long. It was just that good.

Day Two

Saturday was awesome, starting with the parade. We were so high up in the Hyatt that looking down at the amazing crowds made me dizzy. But oh how beautiful was. I Periscoped a lot of it. Great seeing dancer Josh leading the Silk Road and the few Japanese Street Fashion society members not far behind. Thanks to all who joined in on Persicope to watch from Egypt and beyond. It was great having you alongside for the virtual chat.

The Parade by DragonConTV

The Iron Chef panel took place on Saturday as well. Kurt Yoder also leads that and has so much history and backstory on this Food Network favourite show. It’s really a shame that the Japanese versions are so hard to get these days. Though he has done the Iron Chef panel before, he makes it feel like a “new” experience. There are more tidbits of info and the latest in the fandom and where to buy Iron Chef souvenirs. It’s a full hour of information for mega Iron Chef fans! Hope he comes back next year and I hope we can get Chef Marimoto to visit and discuss traditional Japanese food and more. #TeamIronChef #TeamMarimoto

Trance Dance and Altered States of Consciousness – This panel was hosted by the SCA’s Jadi Fatima who recently received her MBA and congrats to her on that. This course was perhaps too short for the amount of material and visuals covered. I feel they needed a lot more explanation than time allotted. The hour long talk discussed dances of my region and those of surrounding nations and areas…particularly those that are considered “trance” to some (i.e. by both westerners and easterners). While I appreaciate her appreciation of the culture and the dances (not to mention she and I grew up in similar environments where international community life ruled the day), I feel like the types of dances in the videos were too complex of a subject to show to people who may not have the background to see this as a scholar or dance community member may see it.

There were videos of regional people trancing out and so caught up in a moment of ta’arab that I worried if it even made sense to anyone not deeply involved in the eastern dance industry or those who are not approaching this as a scholar. Too many times the west is fed the “exotic” of a culture’s dance. I’m not sure how the video labeled “African Voo-doo” was relevant in this presentation. Too often sweeping titles are thrown on African culture when particular pieces really should be labled by their exact nation not the entire continent.

Jadi’s work and studies are excellent and her presentation is beyond valuable. However, I just wonder if it can be better understood in a different setting where we can guarantee that everyone has enough background on a complex subject before layering something as serious and personal as trance dancing on top of it. I will certainly consider inviting her to future lectures in the Raqs and Regional Dance World where audiences are more likely to have a deeper understanding of the cultural background from which these trance dances are taking place.

Ayla_EileenMorrissey

Ayla – photo by E. Morrissey

The Silk Road Expo
This extravaganza was filled with several top artists from the southeast…mostly mideast dance enthusiasts who have taken the time to learn beyond “the stereotypes of bellydance.” Names such as Masati Jahan were present. Phonecia of Florida (the con’s resident bellydancer) and Ayla (a new person to our cirlce) performed exquisite pieces that were not only upbeat but very beautiful and fantastic salutes to the culture…namely the Khaleegi piece. Khaleegi is more than just slinging one’s hair, there are intricate steps and shoulder movements and interplay that complete the dance. Masati’s troupe made a great effort to demonstrate that. Nice job!

I particularly loved Ayla’s Asian Fusion piece and would like to know more about it so that I can credit it appropriately. Her clothing, make-up and movements were absolutely stunning, making her my favourite performer of the entire show. Hands down, this is what I love to see at an event that focuses on Silk Road culture.

I also enjoyed the Martial Arts team’s piece. Please consult the video on the Silk Road Facebook page and reach out to them with any questions. Best presentation of marital arts I’ve seen outside a dojo.

And please allow me to praise the darling Fashion portion of the show. This year I wanted to not only showcase dance but also fashion of the modern day Silk Road. Members of the Atlanta Japanese Fashion and Lolita Society did a quick “desfile de moda” during intermission. Please enjoy the video further below to see the various brands and Jfashion street styles worn by the models. I look forward to expanding this to be more inclusive of the various genres of the movement. This is a very important part of the culture that has influenced not just Asia but the entire world. These ladies made me very proud!

Andrea Nicole in Haenuli (Japanese Street Fashion)

Andrea Nicole in Haenuli (Japanese Street Fashion)

The Kawaii Culture panel rounded out my night and it too was hosted by several very knowledgable JFashion Society team members. I was highly impressed with the number of people who attended and see that this is an area that needs dedicated attention to the many needs and wishes of Kawaii fans at the con. Brittany-Anne and her team went above and beyond in their information and gave some great insight into what Kawaii truly means in terms of Japanese culture. She showed how it has spread and gave information on what Japan is doing to promote it worldwide. Their dedication to this subject is stellar and I hope to expand on that with deeper subjects in the coming year.

Day Three Sunday
My Sunday at DragonCon was saturated by music from the new Silk Road. While Japan and Korea were not originally listed on the Silk Road early on, they certainly have made their way onto the list of countries trading, working and meshing together beyond food and finance. The music of Japan has inspired other areas as has Korea. Both JPop and KPop are major in the global music industry. We had two panels, K-Pop beyond Gangnam Style and Shoujou Rock which showed us how these two music genres have evolved. It’s really impressive, eye-opening and thought provoking. So much can be discussed on the race, class, gender scale here and perhap next year we’ll talk about that because we can’t ignore what has influenced K-pop nor the evolution of Japanese music from western artists…again, this is a subject where we can spend days diving into the intricateness of it. But instead, I’ll leave you with this video of Shonen Knife, an 80s Japanese staple in many of our lives. These ladies are still performing, were at AWA 2014 and can be found touring from time to time.

Day Four – Monday
This day is dedicated to Godzilla, let’s face it. The Piedmont room fills up and not only are there movies about Godzilla but discussions, trivia and so much more. If you love Godzilla, you will appreciate Mondays at DragonCon. Big thanks to all who make that possible! Some epic prizes are given during those trivia games.

A Con’s Favourite Panelist – History of Japanese Wrestling, Godzilla, Mechanical Toy and TV Culture
Jason Lang is one of the many outstanding people who dedicate their time to DragonCon. While I have no true background on any of the topics he covers, he is the MOST entertaining panelist of all the tracks I’ve ever attended. He’s so funny, engaging and down right all around awesome I can barely stand it. I HAVE to sit in on his panels because he is just so much fun.

To his credit, he does give a lot of information and backstory so those who are not mech fan followers aren’t completely lost. But this is truly for the fanatics. Attendees are shouting out, standing up, going wild over his material. He lures in the true die-hards of his craft. Be sure to look out for him on the DragonCon schedule to see when he’s presenting. You won’t want to miss it! He’s VERY cute too!

Extras
Loved my stay at the Hyatt. Courtney at the Valet is always greeting everyone with a smile. The concierge and security voluntarily came to my rescue as I waited for check-in. How awesome is that of them to be so concerned as to why I was standing alongside the wall with my bags.

For the first time ever I got some real sleep at DragonCon. It’s a miracle. This was partly because I stayed on task and didn’t do any partying, late night consumption or tomfoolery. I literally went to my panels and like a responsible adult went to bed afterwards and got up early to be downstairs and ready for them each day.

I took advantage of Uber and their convenience by leaving my car off the property and being driven in. With garage rates at $20-$40 a day in some areas and hotels I just think it’s an expense I can avoid. I brought enough snacks to not lean on fast food or fighting crowds in the foodcourt too often. I actually “felt” really good which is very important at such a big event.

Regrets
Not seeing Evah Destruction beyond con photos on Facebook and not going to the dealer’s room. But hopefully there’s next year! See you around the con!

All credit goes to Kira Lang who spent a lot of her year putting the schedule together, reaching out to guests and continuing to work hard at bringing the best to the track. Her contributions to the organisation are priceless and should be noted. Huge thanks to all who posted videos and photos from this year’s event. What a great show!

Thanks for reading!

AA

Bellydance Evolution – The Biggest Game Changer in the Raqs World

Alice in Wonderland Cast

Alice in Wonderland Cast

Bellydance Evolution’s Alice in Wonderland was a major game changer in the Raqs World. This was the perfect marriage of a storyline and Middle Eastern art. What made this stand out as a pillar of perfection was this team’s ability to mesh classic Mideast art and music in the context of a timeless classic tale. It. Was. Everything!!!

My usual reviews detail from start to finish the highlights of the programs, the costumes, the presentation, any shared backstories where applicable and so much more. But I understand that not every city has had the chance to see it yet and spoilers are not popular. While I always love to know in advance what I’m going to view I respect others’ wishes to walk in fresh and unassuming. However, I am going to express my grand emotion and excitement regarding several cultural aspects of the show from an Alice in Wonderland superfanatic (I love the White Rabbit & Alice as is known by all linked to my social media accounts) and my appreciation for Raqs Sharqi began long before I was born being one from a Nigerian family with Middle Eastern extended relatives. So, as always, these comments are from my cultural perspective and are my opinion – not representing any of the media organisations, businesses and associations with which I am affiliated. I celebrate 16 years as a fan of this art having travelled to numerous cities just to see top Raqs Stars. I live for this! This is ‘what I do.’

The show began with an incredible opener featuring what, at first, were unfamiliar faces to me. It wasn’t until about 2 minutes into the piece that I realised these incredibly skilled raissat were actually Heidi of Jahara Phoenix, Samora, Aziza Nawal, Nawar and a slew of others. This immediate change and transformation from award winning dancers, popular international community raqs artists and teachers to exquisite, top notch professionals on a level I had not ever seen before made it VERY clear this show was a game changer. We were immediately warned with every move that we’d need to hold on, the industry as we knew it…was no more. ‘Bellydance in the USA’ 24 hours ago, is gone. Jillina’s vision is the new now!

The costuming, the moves, the physical presentation from their eye shadow to their hair was an indication that thought had not only gone into this but also blood, sweat, tears and CULTURAL RESEARCH (and maybe a little soul-selling because some of those moves and intricacies are not revealed outside the deepest parts of the region). These were not the women we knew before, they underwent a re-birth like nothing I’ve ever seen. Compare it to butterflies taking flight after a long process in the cocoon aka rehearsal and refinement. That Jillina is a genius. I have no idea what she did to them but she has got to be the plastic surgeon of Mideast dance skills. I can not stress this enough. She is also very culturally conscious beyond the surface. Some choreographers, show producers and artistic directors are keen to change their cast into one aesthetic. If Jillina is the sole person responsible for the way those ladies looked then she deserves an award for ‘Cultural Excellence’ and perhaps recognition from specific groups that award the preservation of beauty for people of colour. I’m the child of non-Americans and ethnic minorities. I have lived in the west and know the pressures many are put under to change oneself to one particular aesthetic. I’ve seen this hurt our art. But this is no more, this stage was void of all stereotypes and cookie-cutter images or imagery. THIS WAS INCREDIBLY REFRESHING. Going forward, no one will EVER be able to get away with hiding ethnicity in dance in exchange for pleasing the beast of western commercialization. This is the new now…be real, be you. Jillina allowed the dancers to shine and represent the true ‘Raqs World’ as we African, Arabs and Eastern ex-pats and families know it. For me, I feel we have regained a sense of pride and respect in that we can be allowed to love ourselves again without prejudice and conforming to a mere percentage of our natural selves. THIS is a historic moment not just in our industry but in the grand scheme of the way beauty is marketed. Lay down the gauntlet of ethnic shaming and the tyranny of colonialism in modern day. This show has paved a new path, alhumdulillah!

So many scenes included incredible costuming!

So many scenes included incredible costuming!

Alice in Wonderland: The Show
You didn’t have to be familiar with the story to understand it but it sure helped. Otherwise it may have been this incredibly fashioned kaleidescope of absolute wonder. For those of us who read this story once a year at annual Japanese Tea Parties, well…haha, you can imagine we were all over this production like a little child in a doll store.

Fast Learners: I have no idea how these dancers managed to learn so much so fast. This was a crock pot of cultural dance that was polished and presented beyond perfection. I love the interaction between Alice and that Bunny. OMG, the Alice in Wonderland superfan in me came bursting into zaghareets and screams. They way in which the symbols of the tale, the key, the “drink me” and “eat me” sign were all so well-presented it turned us into 3 year olds. We were ecstatic!

Issam as a tabla playing chef: Issam’s appearance drove us to bits. He is such an extraordinary musician whose talent and kindness are leaps and bounds above a plethora of celebrated artists. It was a brilliant idea to have him alongside, playing the chef of all things, he turns the tabla upside down, it becomes a cooking pot…see, it’s things like this woven into the show that make it so incredible and enjoyable for all who love this tale.

Other outstanding elements are the inclusion of every. single. cultural dance in the region. From the new(er) sha’abi (think of Yael Zarca’s version) to the Tanoura Masri featuring spinning and “derviche tournement” (think Sal Maktoob Vanegas and Mohamed Shahin); it was there! And borrowing a phrase from Issam’s earlier work, “Let me show you…”

The marvelous moves of the Caterpillar were a highlight  for Atlanta's Internationals

The marvelous moves of the Caterpillar were a highlight for Atlanta’s Internationals

For one thing, signature regional moves and level changes (think Tito Seif mn Al Msr) were brought forward in solos. Tweedle Dee and Tweetle Dum, complete with spinning propeller hats danced around with a traditional tahtib scene. I’m not talking some little walking around with canes in pretty dresses, this was well-thought out, regionally researched and again, here’s that term…another example of “perfecting perfection.” Then, there was the beautiful green caterpillar played by the ever-loved Sharon Kihara who we in Atlanta met in person several times before, and up-close and personal at BOD 2011. This caterpillar exquisitely segued into a khaleegi routine that meshed into Iranian Bandari with a bit of bedouin dance as well. Now, let me tell you how fierce this was…she went beyond hair tosses. She had several Iraqi Bedouin dances down to a science…the very intricate moves that are extremely hard to teach in that you don’t just learn to move your head a certain way, the spirit has to take over for that to be executed correctly. She was steeped in ta’arab grandeur if that makes any sense. This was my favourite part of the whole performance. She then went into a very vibrant set of hair tosses with her team using modern fusion style costumes incorporated with ethnic cuts from the region. Those of us who see this daily will know what I mean, from the hair stylings to the garments, this was all so intricate that not only would I have invited my baba and mum, I’d have asked for several tourism boards in the region to please come and see this. It was unreal. I failed to keep quiet, my zaghareets rang out so loud, people near me began to do their own versions, so soon it was a myriad of cultural calls coming not only from the 19th row where I was sitting but also from the 20th and back. Even kids were bursting from emotion. We just lost it…there was so much cultural pride at that moment I could barely stand it. I was certain if it got any more intense I’d be escorted out. Again, had I been on the front row I may have been disruptive so I suppose it was a blessing that I was in the back.

The scene with the parasols meshes and morphes into the Cheshire Cat...you gotta see it...it puts the T in Talent!

The scene with the parasols meshes and morphes into the Cheshire Cat…you gotta see it…it puts the T in Talent!

The Spinning Mushrooms & the Cheshire Cat: At this point, my soul has floated away and is in a type of midst in the theatre. All I had left was a little bit of my voice and my eyes. Enter the stage, several women with parasols and EurAsian attire. Very serene, very beautiful and culturally accurate costuming. Remember the part in the book where the Cheshire cat appears and disappears…well, let me tell you how these perfectionists perfectly executed this piece. They form an incredible circle and the parasols are lowered, coming together to form the face of the cat. Petite Jamila, the spinning kitty, who spun a minimum of 6 veils, catching several from Alice, appears and reappears as the face/parasols float on the stage. It was majestic and supernatural even. I was just as afraid and exhilarated as I was reading the book and seeing the movie. My heart is weak so I have to be careful getting too emotional but I was seriously covered in goosebumps, my skin and hair were bristling, I got cold chills watching this play out. And if that wasn’t enough, here come these textured masses on either side of the stage. They have covered tops and as they begin to spin I see them form mushrooms. These are the Tanoura Masri mushrooms, faces covered! Just like you see on several presenters from Egypt. They were completely blinded in this set from start to finish, spinning in brown and beige textured Tanoura suits with the mushroom tops floating up, forming actual human Tanoura Masri mushrooms. This was one of those ‘mic drop’ moments…but not just mic drop on the stage with a hard thud. This was mic drop into a swimming pool…complete with electric shock and sparks flying all over the place. I was done at this point, this show was now the greatest raqs show on earth. THE GREATEST!! It had surpassed every wedding I’d ever been to, it was on par with the IBCC, BOD and all that inbetween. Nothing…nothing compares.

Lamma Bada: The next scene is very important to ATL’s community. Many know of the band Allah Yustur who revived the importance of this song in our town. To see it included last night with such finesse; the white garments, the Spanish style and Flamenco movements to start and then to burst into the Rroma material which is the other half of that great Rrom lineage was incredible. What was also nice was to hear the beginings of the song and the low hum in the audience of people singing along (at least in my section). Now that proves this town “gets it.” Atlanta has once again allowed its cultural side to manifest and perch. Kudos ATL!!! Mabrook, be you!! Thank you BDE for bringing it out of us.

Other notable scenes that meshed cultural dance with great significance were the ‘Queen of Hearts’ scenes and the tea party…where I have to say Louchia and Heidi shined beyond comparison. The way in which the skirt became a table and watching Alice run between characters to try and get her place at the table…I mean, good heavens, this was incredible! You have to see it. From the Mad Hatter to the court and croquet, all of this show was everything. It was again, perfection perfected complete with an international cast dotted with ex-pats and first generationers like myself (i.e. Heidi, Constance). It redefined raqs theatre and reminded us of what we should be doing in this industry. THIS is real fusion, it’s identifiable, it’s real, it’s relative…it’s raqs!

The tango of the Mad Hatter and the Hare ( #DanieloTheBestBunnyEver ) is fantastic!

The tango of the Mad Hatter and the Hare ( #DanieloTheBestBunnyEver ) is fantastic!

Too Soon?: Surely something was wrong, nothing is perfect! Well, in this case it was. BDE’s AIW was perfect! I think the only thing that worried me was the “off with their head” scene. Given the news of the day, beheadings of western journalists with the executors’ “supposed” ties to the region and earlier this week, an aid worker given the same fate (?), this scene was a little bit of a trigger for me. Fortunately, the humour brought into the scene, which included Heidi’s dad coincidentally being brought to the stage with Jillina removed the memories of what we’re dealing with in the real world. It was so well put together, including the hair colour of the little cut heads matching the garments of each principal character that I didn’t think of the incidents for long. I have no idea how in the world the team could have rearranged the piece this late in the game with respect to the news. But, at the end of the day, the tales’ gruesome section was somehow made gorgeous and perhaps no one even thought about it from any other perspective.

I can’t think of any other theatre production in this industry that has been as moving and grand. I’m overwhelmed and I can’t wait to see what they do next! Even if it doesn’t make it to Atlanta I’d like to travel and see it. At this point, I’m simply speechless and steeped in gratitude for the intense work and over the top effort put into the entire show.

Hugs & Hallway Tears
After the show, I had to go sit down because I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I first spoke to the members of Turkish MissBellydance.com to get their reaction. They were speechless much like I was. I really couldn’t talk for about 30 minutes. It was so intense that when Aziza came over to say hello I couldn’t get any words out. I just started crying. I’m fighting back tears writing this.

Wrapping Up EOB 2014: -Back at the Twelve- Issam has just come in and again, emotions are high. One thing I’ve managed to do is leave the stars alone. I haven’t taken any photos, no pictures, nothing with anyone. I didn’t dress up in my cultural attire, I simply took a back seat and have kept quiet. I’ll let my fingers and social posts speak for me. I thank Danielo for sending a friend request, happy to be friends with Issam already. Seeing him in person is very difficult. I really want to get up and go sit next to him right now but I know I’d throw my arms around him and hug him as long as he let me. #TeeHee

Big thanks to Faaridah for going through with this massive endeavor. This was too much in every aspect. It’s just too much work for one person but again it somehow turned into this incredibly beautiful event that has left the entire city and surrounding communities speechless and in awe. I’d write more, but I’m verklempt, talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic, -incredible dance communities with a passion to keep the countless cultural connections alive and well in creative ways… discuss!

Thanks for reading!
-Andye
*Full Weekend review coming to Raqs Atlanta inclusive of Friday’s show featuring the Amazing Amani Jabril, Aziza Nawal and Jenny Nichols (who stole that show hands down)! Enjoy!

*Pictures are from Google images and public files as we weren’t allowed to take any photos or videos of the performance – if there are any issues with the above usage contact me at @andyeisthenews