Monday, 23 December 2013

What a Week!

It's been a roller-coaster of a week, or more accurately, a week and a bit.

A week last Thursday, I had my second interview for the technical writer job which I have been pursuing for the past few months.  I thought it went reasonably well and had very high hopes. I zipped off afterwards and picked up my prescription, and a couple of balls of navy yarn with a metallic thread in it, having decided to start on some fingerless gloves which have been at the top of the project list. (No, the interminable Autumn Leaves thing is not yet completed. I'm gradually sewing the leaf motifs together.  It's a learning experience - do not do this sort of thing in this way ever again!)  I also have a throw or blanket in mind of blue and green waves, so the yarn would work in that, too.

I'd had to reschedule the interview from its original slot on Friday, because I was helping out at my friend Rose's classes' Christmas belly dance gathering. It's a chance to showcase what they've been working on, and as different classes go out to change, I run belly dance games for those left 'waiting'.  It's all pretty light-hearted, like musical statues, where you try not to move and to pose nicely when the music goes off.  The dancers also bring food to share (including the stuffed vine leaves and baklava, thanks, they were lovely!), and it's a warm, friendly, festive atmosphere.  Then Rose and I went back to her place to leave my car, repack hers and head off to my parents, who were kindly putting us up for our annual trip to the JWAAD Fantasia weekend of belly dance workshops and show.

We set off at our normal time on the Saturday morning, which would normally have seen us getting into Chiswick in plenty of time to park, register and get to our first workshop, but it turned out that the last three junctions of the M4 were closed and we joined increasingly heavy traffic to crawl along into West London, arriving over an hour later than we had planned and missing our first workshops.  Fortunately the rest of the weekend went to plan, and we came away inspired and enthused, ready to upload what we've learned into our teaching for next year, chatting almost the whole way about various plans to increase interest in belly dance in West Wales.

Another friend has been in hospital for a few weeks, so I went to see her on Monday, hoping to cheer her up. It was rather a tearful visit as she was feeling depressed and I could understand why.  Her condition leaves her feeling like her life has been completely derailed into something closer to torture, and she cannot see herself coming back to sufficient health to dance again.  I think she was doing rather better than I would under the same circumstances. I grabbed a hasty sandwich at a garage on my way home, because I hadn't really eaten that day.

Early the next morning, I awoke with terrible stomach cramps and an urgent need for the loo.  A couple of hours later, I knew I was going nowhere, so rang the garage to rearrange my car's service appointment and retired to bed, feeling extremely poorly, weak and useless.  Just to add to the misery, the power was off all morning, so I couldn't even listen to the radio. I was still dodgy the next day, when I should have been going to the last somatic movement workshop of the year. I couldn't even rouse myself to send an apologies message before the workshop started.

I was feeling a bit better on Thursday morning as I took the car in for a service.  I knew I wouldn't want to go into town while they worked, so I took my knitting bag and lurked in their warm and comfy waiting room, happily knitting away and periodically discussing the work needed on my poor car. I made a start on the fingerless gloves (the pattern is Evenstar Gloves by audreym on Ravelry).  I found myself wondering if I had every actually made anything on double pointed needles (dpns) or whether I had just read the technique somewhere.  I decided that because I didn't have any dpns until a successful raid on a charity shop in the past year or two, then I hadn't, so this was a first.  I found it quite challenging, wrestling with a set of four dpns and a cable needle, so the tension was a bit tighter than usual, but a glove started to grow and I was almost at the palm by the time they came to tell me the damage.  New back tyres and brake pads, new timing belt, removal of old rusty sump guard (but not replacement), major service with all the bits that entails, not to mention labour. Over £600. Ouch. I went off for a quick raid on a heaving supermarket and went home.

On Friday, I woke up with a tell-tale sore throat.  A volley of sneezes scared the cats and shook the rafters. Oh no, the start of cold! Surely not! I did a few chores, had another sneezing fit and was just dosing myself with vitamin C when I got a phone call. I didn't get the job.  It had been very close and they had deliberated for a long time, but had chosen the other candidate. They are planning to expand and there might still be a place for me in the future, as I had been a high calibre candidate.  Oh, rats! Back to the drawing board.  I still live in hope that an opening might appear again soon, but that job seemed ideal and I am so disappointed!

After discussions with my friend who was having a little get-together in the evening, it was decided that it was probably better I don't come and infect people just in time for Christmas.  I also missed another friend's solstice gathering on the Saturday night.  Why do I always get a cold at this time of year?

Furthermore it means I can't go back to visit my friend in hospital, who has just heard they are sending her home for Christmas anyway. The weather is vile, with gale force winds, heavy rain and hail.  Nothing for it but to sit with a shawl and a cuppa in front of the TV and knit.  I've just started the second glove.

The Case for Reading, Daydreaming and Libraries

I recently saw an article in the Guardian which made me feel good about my love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy, and guilty about not using my local library more often. In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman, (one of my favourite authors) talked about the enormous importance of libraries, reading and imagination. I hope the article stays up, I'm sure I shall want to read it again!

Earlier this year I gained a level 2 qualification in supporting the teaching of essential skills (mainly language and literacy) for people who are 'post compulsory education' (in other words, 16+). I've always loved reading and can't imagine not being able to, so I was shocked when I learned of the levels of functional illiteracy in the adult population, but not surprised that it is linked to poor health, unemployment and crime.

I find it rather sad that so many are still leaving school with poor literacy and little motivation to improve it until they realise how badly it can affect their job prospects and everyday lives. There seem to be enclaves of people who took to heart the jibe that 'nobody likes a smart-arse' and happily stay in their comfort zone.  This appears to have been born out by the latest PISA test results, with Wales lurking ignominiously about two thirds of the way down the table.

I was very lucky to have parents who value education.  My mother started me off with letters and numbers before I went to primary school, and I can remember at six or seven reading the labels on packets, tins and bottles. Branston Pickle had intriguing ingredients; what is rutabaga? (It's what I know as swede.) And then being handed the dictionary and told to look up words I didn't understand (very difficult, when you see that some of the definitions don't really explain the word at all). We used to go to the library on Saturday mornings where I devoured books on Mary Poppins, Wurzel Gummidge, anything by Enid Blyton and I can't remember what else. By the end of primary school I had read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and most of Oliver Twist and my 'reading age' was at the top of the chart. Once at grammar school I went through all of the science fiction in the school library.  The town library was irritating; I found that until I was 14, I could not borrow anything from the 'adult' section and that the children's library books couldn't fulfil my need to read. Then O and A level English literature killed it completely, despite a stint in the sixth form as a school librarian, and I didn't read fiction for pleasure again until my mid 20s.

This was mainly because reading fiction was supposed to involve analysis, otherwise it was just reading for the pleasure of escapism. At the time, I didn't have the confidence to do what I would do now, which is to shout very loudly: So What?  If reading fiction for pleasure is escapism, then by the same logic, so is anything that you do for pleasure, any leisure activity which takes your mind off other things that you could be thinking or worrying about, or takes your hands or person away from everyday chores. How can you relax and let go of any stress if you don't escape once in a while? Watching the TV or a film is escapism.  Dance can be escapism, and belly dance perhaps doubly so. You can pretend to be someone else, a different character, wear different clothing and jewellery, lose yourself in the music and movement.

Yet I still find that nothing fires my imagination like reading, where I'm free to create pictures in my mind's eye, read and re-read a phrase which amuses me or makes me think.  It exposes me to different situations and ways of thinking in a level of detail which films don't always have time to show.  Reading fiction is like installing a line directly from the author's imagination to yours.

Now I read before I go to sleep and love to lie with a book in a hot bath.  I should really try to go to my local library to get fresh input, but never seem to make it when they are open, for which I feel very guilty.  It is the start of a vicious circle.  If enough people don't make it, the library will eventually shut through lack of use.

We live in an age of information.  There is a huge amount of it freely available. To make your way easily, you need to be able to find the valuable information from the huge amount freely available, understand, and use it. If knowledge is power, then libraries as a collection of knowledge are very powerful things indeed.
To be illiterate is to be disempowered. We have relative freedom of thought and expression, ideas and communication. We are free to read pretty much whatever we like. Libraries are free and we should use them, rather than lose them, but I fear that they are fighting against the availability of so much information from the internet. At least most of them nowadays also have computers.  And there are also talking books, for those whose eyes are tired from all that reading!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sex and Sensuality in Belly Dance (Again)

A while ago, I found that I had inadvertently offended someone at a belly dance taster.  I was saying that for belly dance, tilting hip circles should be done with the legs quite close together and certainly no more than shoulder-width apart, and that 'burlesque dancers might do it with their legs open'. Okay, it's a generalisation, trying to make a distinction between belly dance and burlesque dance styles. I certainly have seen burlesque dance which included tilting hip circles done with wide legs, albeit still tastefully keeping the front arc of the circle very shallow so that the movement was downwards rather than thrusting forwards. I was upset to have caused offence and I commented about this to another dancer I know who is also an accomplished burlesque artiste. She said that she wouldn't do wide-legged hip circles and that there was burlesque and 'burlesque'. Essentially, burlesque artists have their own battle to distinguish their work as a performance art, with its teasing, erotic sensuality, story-telling or theme and humour which appeals to a wide audience of genders and ages, from the sort of harder-edged, more sexually-oriented 'strip and prance around in your knickers' approach to the genre. Yes, burlesque artists may (or, indeed, may not!) remove some clothing, bare their buttocks and twirl their nipple tassels, but they want to keep it from being seen as tawdry, lewd and dirty. I can understand that.

The same seems to be happening in pole dance. Some pole dancers are strong gymnasts who essentially use the pole as a vertical dance floor, working with their music and changing dynamics to dance, and want to distance what they do from the sort of strut-around, bump-and-grind-against-the-pole, buttocks-to-the-audience moves seen whenever an insalubrious lap dancing joint is shown in TV crime serials.  Others take the view that, whether a viewer finds it sexy or not, they are dancing primarily for themselves, increasing their strength and flexibility, feeling and displaying sensuality, and it's nobody's business to tell them what moves they should or should not do. The pernicious media view that pole dancing is inextricably linked to lap dancing and therefore to the objectification and exploitation of women with accompanying violence led to the banning of Swansea University's pole fitness club. Swansea University Students' Union's attempt at upholding political correctness was challenged by the pole fitness dance community. The wider dance and fitness community piled in when the issues were shared and discussed on social media.  There was a lot of interest from the mainstream media on the ban; rather less interest after a referendum result was 94% in favour of the club and it was reinstated. Oh dear, seems it is based on dance fitness after all and not worthy of reporting once the contentious issue is resolved.

As with so many other issues, there is evidently a fine line in place here as well, but the discussions made me think about our love-hate relationship with the idea of being thought sexy.  If you perform, you are the object of your audiences' views, opinions and prejudices. You can choose not to be an object, to dance for yourself  rather than perform, but you may still be subjected to the content of others' misinformed and fertile imaginations. I have known a couple of women who keep their belly dancing a secret, and a few who gave up after pressure (bullying!) from family and friends who found out. I find it sad that these women have to compromise in order to avoid what is tantamount to emotional abuse from the narrow-minded and ignorant people who theoretically love them.

As discussions picked up on Facebook, I looked back at my previous post on 'sexy' belly dance. Then someone posted a link to Ananke's well-written, thought-provoking article Is Belly Dance Sexy which prompted a response from Nicole Beckerman.

The consensus still seems to be that the perception of whether the dance is 'sexy' (or even dirty) is still very much a subjective opinion. Recently, I met a rather strict Christian who was horrified that I offered to dance as part of a charity fundraiser, as she considered belly dance to be pornographic (and would not talk about it to be persuaded otherwise. I bet she thought I would finish my piece naked and rewarded by a severed head on a platter). Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, I found her reaction quite extreme. Most belly dancers will, however, agree that overtly sexual body language has no place in belly dance. This means no bump-and-grind moves, twerking (good grief!), hip thrusting, touching and stroking yourself, pouting and pulling sex faces. From what I've seen of good burlesque and pole dancing, the same applies. As dancers, we have a responsibility to set and maintain some quality standards in the dance, so that our audiences appreciate and value what we do. They may well find the humour, passion, strength and sensuality that we put into the dance sexy, but it's still all about the dance, not about sex.

So Excited About This ...

... that I just had to blog about it!
A little while ago, I had an urge to look on the government jobs portal.  As I am 'underemployed', I am registered on it in the vain hope of something interesting and flexible being available, and every so often it automatically sends me a mail with a list of jobs which theoretically match my skills and CV. (The type of jobs it comes up with makes me doubt their software.)

Browsing through, I found a job for a technical author at a local firm which manufactures and supplies medical equipment. Despite the key words in my profile, it hadn't matched me to the job.  I read and re-read the job specification and felt really excited.  I was a pretty good match!  It was some stupid o'clock, so I slept on it, then woke early the following day to make sure my summary CV was okay, and sent off my application. Crossed fingers, I waited.

I read the job spec out to my Dad, who said 'Oh, that's YOU!' Yes, I think so too. A couple of weeks after the application had been sent and I still hadn't heard anything, I started to worry, so I sent an email to check that they had received it.  They had, all was well and I would hear in due course if I had been shortlisted for interview.

Waiting to find out was a curious form of torture.  I found myself obsessively checking one of my email accounts and lying in wait for the postman. After a month, I got a letter inviting me for an interview. The next morning, they called to rearrange it.  That afternoon, it was rearranged again. No problem!

In recent years, my wardrobe has evolved to match my lifestyle. It contains lots of yoga and harem pants for teaching in, loads of T-shirts ditto, velour and sparkly evening-type things for haflas, belly dance costumes, grotty clothes for dirty jobs and some summer skirts and dresses (which all got an airing this year, disproving the idea that if you haven't worn something for a year, you should get rid of it.  What a waste!)

I hurriedly ordered a jersey dress which I liked the look of and which would go with an existing jacket and boots (luckily the toe has healed and become flexible enough to get shoes on, even though it's not really any better than it was pre-op).  As it still hadn't arrived after a couple of days, I also found and bought another jacket, trousers and pair of ankle boots.  The latter all arrived, and became my interview clothes.  (The dress arrived the day after the interview and is a lighter jersey than I expected, but will be lovely as a dress for Christmas.)

On interview day, I arrived early, chatted happily to the interview panel, made a hash of the grammar and writing tests (which then kept me awake and I'm still kicking myself!) and learnt that I have been shortlisted for a second interview.  I'm so happy, but also thrilled and terrified in equal measure; excited and stressed.

For the past ten days or so, all this has been accompanied by an earworm since a friend reminded me about the Moody Blues. I used to have several of their albums on tape, and played them over and again on long-distance solo drives while I sang along at the top of my voice, until they were eaten by the tape player or otherwise destroyed. For some reason, I haven't replaced any of them, perhaps because they reminded me of the groove I left in the M4 from all the driving, which I hated. Now this song, 'Question', won't go away, and I keep singing bits. By 3 minutes 30, Justin Hayward's lovely voice has turned me into a gooey mess. Everyone sing now '... I'm looking for a miracle in my life ...'

I've had wonderful support from my Facebook friends, all rooting for me, wishing me well and praying for me. Now I need to calm down, get some sleep, do some exercises to get rid of the almighty tension headache brought on by all this stress excitement and try to prepare for whatever might be thrown at me on second interview, whenever that will be.