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werk for peace, peaceful protest, dance rally
Culture, Peace

Podcast: WERK for Peace Founding Organizer Firas Nasr talks Peaceful Protesting

Introducing (maybe): a new platform for all the podcast lovers in here!

Last week I had the honor of speaking with WERK for Peace founding organizer (and my good friend) Firas Nasr about peaceful protesting.

Since the movement started, I’ve been inspired by how WERK for Peace harnesses the power of dance to shift narratives, send a rainbow-hued message and empower the LGBTQ community in Washington DC and beyond. While the interview was ostensibly part of a University for Peace project on nonviolent resistance, Firas’ message is simply too good to share with only a few people.

“With the Mike Pence event, lots of people assume that our primary goal was to send Mike Pence a message. And lots of people ask me, you know, do you think Mike Pence heard you? Do you think you were effective? But for me, the goals are really centering the queer and trans community, and allowing us to celebrate our bodies, to celebrate our community, and to come together for a shared cause. And that’s I think why our events are so effective. I measure efficacy on whether or not the queer/trans community had fun, was safe, showed up… our protests are really about centering our bodies and our voices, our experiences, the marginalized individuals within our community, uplifting those voices and creating community through our events.” — Firas Nasr

WERK for Peace is a queer-based grassroots organization that uses dance to promote peace. It was founded in response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in early 2016. Listen here:

“There’s a very clear underpinning as to why we use dance. Our bodies are ascribed political and social narratives, and so by moving our bodies we are actively shifting those political and social narratives. We’re redefining them, we’re reclaiming them, and we’re reclaiming our bodies in the process too. That is to me such a powerful means of both personal and social change happening at the same time. That encapsulates why dance is so powerful as a means for social change.” — Firas Nasr


Will podcasts become a regular menu item here? I’m not sure yet, but with this WERK for Peace spotlight I think I’m off to a good start! Watch my new Soundcloud page to see what’s next.

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stillness
Nomadism

If I Could Fly: Seeking Stillness in Movement

Vermont. Early August, 2017. Stillness.

It’s 1:04pm, and the August sun is hitting my laptop screen at just the right angle that I must squint to see what I write.

The bus rattles and sways on the two-lane Vermont highway. Pen and paper prove unusable.

I have music in my ears for a change, and it makes me think of caravan routes through the desert, the rolling gait of long-legged animals on sand, the scorching white heat of a cloudless sky at noon.

I look out the window to my left and witness another set of elements entirely—green mountains, gentle New England sky. Yet, the felt sense is the same. It is a tenuous impression I have tried and failed to describe so many times, I nearly believe it impossible.

It is the thing that calls me to move and whispers instructions to my intuition. It is the thing that taught me to dance, barefoot and alone. “Wanderlust” is an incomplete surrogate for the thing I mean.

I look outside again.

There is a story in the sky, like always; I could spend the whole ride watching the shapeshifting drama and chuckling to myself. Mountains undulate on the horizon, soft and green and melodic; I could spend the whole ride tapping out their rhythm against my thigh. Walls of trees enter and leave my sight, as varied yet indistinct as an ocean of faces in a crowded subway car. I could spend the whole ride absorbing their anonymous features.

I could spend the whole ride sitting here, doing nothing, too—and for someone who loves to do things that’s already remarkable.

Several weeks ago, I shared my favorite ways to pass a long train journey. Reading, writing, and snacking all featured on the list. So did “doing nothing.”

stillness

I wish I could remember the first time I experienced the peculiar, meditation-like (but not quite meditative) peace of being in motion, but I do remember the first time I wrote about it. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, frequently on endless bus rides through astonishing landscapes, I first tried to put words to an enigmatic sensation:

What are you looking for?
I am searching…
I am searching for—
I am searching because
it is only in movement
that I find stillness.
In running I am free;
In dancing I am liberated.
But if I could fly—
Ah if I could fly,
I would be truly
Boundless.

— “If I Could Fly,” 2013

********************************

I think it’s time to revisit this finding stillness in movement that has occupied my traveling thoughts for so long. I would like to try again to define the thing that calls me to move and calms me through action.

What is it about being in motion—in trains or on foot, by boat or in dance—that soothes my mind into a stillness I have never found in sitting meditation?

What is it about being in motion that, like an embodied lullaby, so entrances me—and, I suspect, many lovers of movement?

The answer is in the question.

Movement entrances. It occupies us—or at least it occupies me—so fully that there is absolutely no space for thoughts of elsewhere. Other times, other people, other places…these disappear in the all-pervading “this-ness” of moving. (Moving my body through space, or being moved through space, it hardly matters, so long as the coordinates change fast enough to pull my thoughts with them.)

Four years ago I started writing about the inner stillness that arises when all else is in flux. Years before that, I experienced the same outcome in yoga and ecstatic dance. Its hold on me hasn’t loosened. I think it’s safe to say that this magic stillness is my only addiction. A single taste has you seeking it again for the rest of your life.

A vagabond knows this. A dancer knows this. A meditator or a yogi knows this.

However you step outside the borders of your skin and embrace “this-ness,” you will never be satisfied to remain inside the lines again.

I hear two things more often than anything else:

“What are you looking for?”

and

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

But it’s not a “what.” It’s a who and a why and a how. It’s a voice that calls me to move and a sense of boundlessness that keeps me coming back. It is a way of moving through life and through space.

It is not a thing I can find and then be done with.

It is the searching that gives meaning and form to the sought.

And so we keep chasing shadows through the desert and melodies through the mountains. We keep seeking stillness in movement.

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path
Nomadism

As Long As You’re Moving, You’re On Your Path.

In this moment of deep transition, a few brief thoughts on “following our path,” and what that really means.

A well-intentioned friend recently cautioned me about falling too far from my path as I meander, in my peculiar way, through experience and discovery.

I had to laugh. Such words of caution beg the question.

If we do not believe there is One True Path, how can we fall from it?

pathKinetic Freedom

I am on my path.

It twists and curves riotously, joyously. It is sheer movement.

Angels dance on wingtips overhead, and devils on their tails below. They sing together of freedom.

I am not lost, my dear. Or, if I am, I do not wish to be found.

Because there is wilding here, on my path. There is witching, here on my path. There is wonder and meaning and laughter and growth—here on my path.

And on yours too, I have no doubt. I never claimed to walk the One True Path.

I know only a little about kinetic freedom, and it is enough to keep me spinning, spinning, spinning recklessly through parabolas and whorls—along this path that is unfailingly mine. Always changing. Always growing with me.

I choose it for myself.

No one is “falling” here. Only dancing.

As long as you’re dancing, you are on your path. As long as you’re moving, you are on your path. As long as you can read your footprints in the sand, you are on your path.

Choose it.


Next Stop: Costa Rica. Home for the next 12 months. Hasta luego!

 

Photo Credit: A Different Story

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dance
Africa, Culture, Poetry & Fiction

When the World is in Chaos: Dance

“Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don’teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you’restuck. Sodon’tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’re tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

7:00 p.m. Table Mountain summit, Cape Town, South Africa. 

The sun is setting, and we are dancing.

Two hundred participants, most dressed in white, headphones on—we are praising the earth, this mountain, the clouds streaming across the rocks and bathing the world in dreamlike mist.

It’s my first time at a “Secret Sunrise” (or, in this case, Secret Sunset) event.

I’ve taken the hard way up, along with one friend and two strangers picked up along the way, and my endorphins are already surging after a two-and-a-half-hour hike.

But the world is in chaos.

I can’t glance at Facebook, work a shift at elephant journal, or even have a casual conversation without this truth becoming painfully apparent.

I, like many, feel compelled to do something say something change something—but, paralyzed by the overwhelming madness of it, I do little, say little, change little. And yet, and yet, and yet—every day I work to promote mindfulness. Every day I write to nurture cross-cultural understanding. Soon, I will return to school to study the art of peacebuilding.

And yet, and yet, and yet—more importantly, in my humble opinion—every day I seek joy.

The world is full of fear. So I fight my own demons. The world is full of chaos, and so I strive for inner balance. The world is full of uncertainty, so I dance with it.*

And here we are. Dancing.

Piano keys draw clouds through the sky. Eighties rock compels bodies—eight years old to eighty-eight—to move to the same beat. House music lifts feet up, gravity-defying, and down, solid and real.

Each of us in our own headphone-cordoned world, we dance. Alone and together. And hell, if that’s not an apt metaphor, I don’t know what is.

Alone and wrapped up in our own worlds, we are all nonetheless connected to one another by the same melodies in our ears, the same rhythm in our blood, the same music in our bones. We are all dancing, whether we realize it or not, on the same sacred ground.

So, is this an odd time to be turning to joy, music, community?

I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say that moments of chaos, uncertainty, fear are very much the right time to dance. To connect, however we do that. To create. To keep pushing for meaning.

Because if we lose that now, then we’ve lost.

So dance—not in spite of the chaos, but for it, with it, and through it.

Dance—”as long as the music plays.”

Dance—and don’t stop, because the world, chaos and all, is still spinning.

*This is a poetic response to turmoil; none of it is meant to underplay the value of activism in our current global climate. Act. Protest. Make change, by all means. But don’t forget the value of personal growth. I genuinely believe in “the power that living a good life can have,” as a friend once put it. Ideally, do both!

 

Photo Credit: Juliette Bisset Photography

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Nomadism, Poetry & Fiction

Ah, The Life Of A Vagabond (Poetry)

It’s rare that I share poetry here (if you want more of that, check out my column on elephant journal). But I would like to share this piece with you, as I think it gets at the heart of something bittersweet and utterly beautiful, which I and my vagabonding friends sometimes struggle to express.

I hope it will speak to you.

***
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We all say it with the same
self-mocking irony
and laughing-sad eyes.
The same funny mix
of melancholy
and mad joy.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We choose to be the mad ones,
don’t you think?
Must keep choosing it,
lest the madness
Slip
through our twirling hands
and leave us with
mundanity.
 
So we love
madly—
and leave
And dance
wildly—
and believe
Seek ceaselessly—
and receive,
Maybe.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Do you ever wonder
why we don’t
just
stay?
I do, but then I remember
we are all following the same
piper,
dancing a rhythm only some can hear—
The call doesn’t stop,
and neither
can
we.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Keep choosing it,
lest the madness
Slip
out of reach
like tears,
lest passion
settle back down
to the silt
at the depths of our eyes,
lest love become
a rarity.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
They intone,
and I echo their prayer.
Call
and response.
A psalm
for swirling, wandering
souls,
A litany so powerful
we must believe it,
An incantation writ on the horizon—
we go to it dancing.
we go to it dancing.
***
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July 11, 2018
Culture, Europe

La Notte della Taranta—or, Where I was on Saturday

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on


On the road to Melpignano

Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.

Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.

It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.

The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.

The History:

In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.

According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.

Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.

La Notte della Taranta Today:

I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.

But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.

Worth the trip? Absolutely.

Some outcomes of this excursion:

  1. I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
  2. I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
  3. I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.

Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.

Skip to minute 4:00 if ten minutes of Italian folk music isn’t your thing.

 

Skip to minute 5:00 to see a bit of traditional dancing.

 

***
 
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