Tribal Art Festival in Barcelona is quickly becoming one of my favorite festivals for tribal dance! I was honored to be a teacher, choreographer and presenter this year where I taught alongside the epic talent of: Eva Chacon (SP), Jill Parker (US), Samantha Emanuel (FR), Anasma (FR), Philippa Moirai (UK), Hilde Cannoodt (UK) and Dominika Suchecka (PL).
As part of the lead-up to the festival, hostesses Eva Tallada Buisan and Noemí Castell conducted interviews with teachers and presenters. It was a pleasure to take part in this thoughtful interview, so I wanted to share it!
The following is a transcript of the English translation of the interview. Click here jump to the interview site with links to the Spanish version. You can also see interviews with other TAF instructors here.
Olivia Kissel Interview :: English Version
Tribal Art: Which are you origins / family heritage, from where are you?
Olivia Kissel: I am an example of true American-Fusion: Slovak, Italian, German, with a mix of Scot-Irish, and wee bit of Native American DNA thrown in.
Tribal Art: What are you origins in dance? And in Bellydance or/andTribal Fusion Dance?
Olivia Kissel: I’ve danced all my life, but I did not take an official dance class until college. Before that, I clocked thousands of hours dancing in teen dance clubs, punk rock shows (Bad Brains was a favorite), and I followed the Grateful Dead during school breaks for years. I would spend all my free time either at hardcore punk shows, drum circles or at tribal-ish jam band shows. I had mad love for dance and live music from the womb.
As soon as I started college, I began taking dance classes. I studied West African (Senagalese and Guinean) dance and drumming, and Dunham Technique. Dunham Technique was probably the biggest influence on my approach to dance.
DT is a fusion of ethnic, folk and presentational dance with the primary influences being Caribbean and Ballet. It evolved to include Russian Gypsy, Modern, Karate, Flamenco and incorporated elements of Yoga. Katherine Dunham (originator) was one of the first Dance Ethnologists and Fusion Dance Artists in the US. She approached folk dance with the attention and respect of “high art” and presented it as such. She performed “traditional” or “ethnic dances” where she strove to be as true as possible to the cultural presentation, but she also blended dance elements and principles into her own, original technique and fusion performances. Her process is in many ways similar to the interests and experiences of early Tribal Belly Dance and Tribal Fusion Dancers. Her format is a HUGE influence on my work. Google her.
Also during college, I began studying bellydance with Christine Andrews and Maria Hamer (co-founders of Zafira Dance Company). We did West African Dance together and Christine invited me to try her bellydance class. I fell in love with the movements, the cultural inquiry and THE MUSIC immediately. We danced to folk music recordings from all over: Master Drummers of Jajouka, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ethiopian, Afghani and Tunisian festival music. We also danced folk-fusion artists such as Sheila Chandra. One of our favorite albums was Passion Sources by Peter Gabriel which features a wide array of street, festival and sacred music from around the world.
After some time in classes, I was invited to join Ghawazee Music & Dance Ensemble in 1995, which was a huge honor and for me! I was drawn to Ghawazee because they shared my passion for music and dance, culture and historical contexts, and offered me loads of direction and support. Ghawazee was also where I started developing a passion for choreography.
For years Ghawazee danced, choreographed and performed at fringe music festivals and art events. We were passionate and devoted, but none of us saw this a profession. At least, not for many years. We practiced, choreographed, practiced, performed, practiced, and then practiced a bit before our practices- all for the love of it! We did this for YEARS before we started to get any paying gigs or recognition. After a few years, we began connecting with dancers in California, Kentucky, Florida and New York.
Around 1998-99, a few of us began to teach and perform out-of-town venues and some of this core group became Zafira Dance Company. We worked with incredible artists and presenters such as the band Turku, but these events were few and far between. There were NO Tribal Belly Dance festivals on our radar- nor much of a national scene. It was very regional. This was pre-internet, people.
Jill Parker was one of our first muses and supporters. She would host workshops with us when we came out to San Francisco, and from there we met, trained with, and befriended many of the pioneers of this dance form. A brake came for us when Maja of the Nile hired us for her festival – Spirit of the Tribes, in Florida in 2001, where we met some of the FatChance dancers. They saw our work and encouraged us to come out to the first TribalFest (2001). With their encouragement and Jill Parker’s love and support, we took the risk to go cross-country (with children in tow), to this little festival that was just getting started (Tribal Fest 1). We got a standing ovation, and made sweet, dance-love with the likes of Ultra Gypsy and Habbi Ru. We realized that our take on Tribal Belly Dance was unique and appreciated, while also complementing what was happening in California, where there was a bigger regional scene. Our spirits were buoyed after that, and we started working more with presenters and dancers in California, Nationally and then in Internationally in 2005 (thanks Internet~and Eva!).
Tribal Art: How do you think your origins and roots have influenced you as person, artist and performer?
Olivia Kissel: I keep coming back to my roots in my creative evolution! My time spent dancing with Ghawazee and Zafira are like a touchstone for me. The dancers and musicians of these groups have left a huge impression on me and I am still learning from my experiences with them.
- a deep love for Central Asian, Persian, Tunisian and Saidi dance.
- the importance of studying both the context and the structure of the music, and cultural contexts.
- never, never never put your hand on the blade of a sword, even if it isn’t sharp… it takes away the mystique. (~Neefa)
- its awesome when musicians also dance… and dancers play music.
- know the cultural rules so you know when you are breaking them.
- BUT when you get on stage… forget everything you know! Be in the moment-completely.
- when you dance deeply, for a long time w/ your partners- you can feel them in the space around you and you don’t have to use your eyes to know where they are, or what they are doing.
- traveling with babies is hard.
From Dunham Technique:
- how to access a wide range of movement qualities (from juicy to dry, sharp to soft…)
- the importance of using the entire body at all times- even when doing a small isolation.
- how to interact and work with the space around you… interact with it as you would interact with music.
- a love an passion for gliding through space.
- know your lines, work your lines.
- know the difference between presenting “traditional” dances and fusion or original work and present it as such.
Tribal Art: How do you think all these heritage, knoweledge and origins have influenced in your dance, teaching?
Olivia Kissel: Training with Christine and Maria of Zafira gave me a strong foundation to work from as a belly dance teacher. I am thankful that I had that great experience. I don’t think I would be doing this now if they didn’t inspire me so!
Over the years, my teaching has evolved– in a big way from from my graduate school work in Education, and my Yoga Training which made me redefine my goals and practices as a teacher. My teaching is also hugely influenced by my time as a student. I use my travel as a performer to study from masters around the world~ Russian Gypsy teachers in Moscow, Kalabash Gypsy dance in the Czech Repbublic, Hilal Dance in Europe… Each time I am a student, I learn more about teaching.
Today in my workshops, I focus more on dance and movement theory- using bellydance moves and combinations as an entry point. These days, I don’t focus on teaching “moves” or “combinations” per se, but instead I use the moves as a springboard to dig deeper into the full range of movement and expressive potential with those moves through improvisational cues. I give a great deal of attention to alignment and feeling the moves from the inside-out before first, then guide students into the composing process and performance presentation.
At a certain point in my teaching career I realized that there are already teachers who do a fabulous job teaching combinations, I want to offer something different- something that can compliment what students are learning from their teachers and structured opportunities for the dancer to find her own creative voice in the process.
Tribal Art: You will be the choreographher of the Pro Track? How do you feel about it? Have you heard about the festival before?
Olivia Kissel: I am thrilled to work with the Tribal Arts Festival and the Pro Track dancers! I know that when I come to Spain, I can always count on committed and experienced dancers that aren’t afraid to train hard! I have a “method” approach to choreography in which I start with a skeleton structure choreography, and then develop it on the dancers themselves. With this approach, I can focus on the strengths and unique features of the dancers to create something that is authentic and alive. It is this living, experience-in-the-moment that separates dance from other movement disciplines like gymnastics or aerobics. I can’t wait to get into the studio with these professionals!