by Cayte Lawton
So what could persuade someone who’s managed very well without a passport for over fifty years to leap on a plane and embark upon a journey of several thousand miles? The answer was in the words of the pilot as we touched down on a sunny day in late July …. “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the City of Roses – Portland, Oregon!”
The tribalistas among you will know that Portland is home to the Gypsy Caravan Dance Company, and to its founder, Paulette Rees-Denis. Paulette is widely considered to be one of the mammas of tribal bellydance; having studied and danced in San Francisco with Carolena Nericcio during the formative days of Fat Chance Belly Dance, she and her husband Jeff moved out to Portland where she continued to develop her own distinctive style of tribal and to form her company. Paulette is very clear that her format, although maintaining those essential tribal elements of group improvisation, is not American Tribal Style bellydance, but rather has drawn upon it and upon other cultural influences to become a dance of today, for today’s dancers. This was why we had made our pilgrimage to Oregon – to study intensively with Paulette through one of her Collective Soul training programmes and to start to become, in her words, the best dancers we could be,
And so, after a couple of days exploring Portland (and more than one visit to the amazing Saturday Market) we (my dancing daughter, Sarah, and myself) found ourselves, together with our beautiful new dancing friend Tracy, heading north west to the little town of Clatskanie – home to Paulette! A good night’s sleep at our delightfully quirky accommodation and we were on our way out to start our training with breakfast at Paulette and Jeff’s farm. How very welcome they made us – delicious home cooking, a tour of the farm and a chance to meet our remaining fellow dancers, Brandy and Kat. Introductions done, we curled up on Paulette’s large, comfortable couches to ‘talk tribal, an essential aspect of her training programmes. We were encouraged to share our own dance journeys and dreams for the future, as Paulette in turn shared both her own journey and her dance philosophy with us. Time seemed to fly by, and in no time at all we were heading back to Clatskanie – to dance, zill, learn rhythms …..Paulette pays such attention to detail and because her intensives deliberately only involve small numbers of students we all got very personal and individual attention, but in such a constructive and supportive way that it could not help but move us forward as dancers. A day of hard dancing certainly left us tired – but not too tired to enjoy a road trip out to Astoria (Goonies fans may well recognise this town!) and the Pacific Ocean!
Day Two saw us meet for a delicious and wholesome breakfast at the Cultivator Store, Paulette’s amazing little shop/cafe just a minute’s walk from our accommodation. Having already spent copious amounts on journals, waterbottles and chocolate inside the shop (just to balance out the healthy breakfast, you understand!) Paulette then tempted us further with a sneak preview of some tribal goodies that were on their way down to a studio sale in Portland. Well, I didn’t have a red shawl, did I? And that Tuareg ring is SO pretty and won’t take up ANY room in my suitcase …….
Shopping completed (for the time being!) it was off for another day of non-stop dancing and zilling. Paulette’s musical background means that she can explain key concepts, including rhythm recognition, really clearly. She truly is an excellent teacher! There was no time to even think about being worn out today, as straight after our training we jumped into the cars and headed back down to Portland for lessons with some of the Gypsy Caravan ladies, an important part of the Collective Soul experience in Portland. With just enough time to fortify ourselves with chips and limoncellos in the rooftop ‘Noble Rot’ bar, we were in the Om Traditional Arts Studio and were ready to dance again! We were made so very, very welcome, and it felt more than a little surreal to be dancing with all those faces we knew from dvds! We started with a beginners lesson with Darby and couldn’t help but wonder if all the students who dance there every week, actually realise how lucky they are to have these wonderful experiences right on their doorstep! Although we would have been very welcome we did chicken out of joining in with Carol’s advanced class – just watching the warm up had us shattered! And we needed all our strength for ….
Day Three – TEST DAY!!! Yes, in order to be certified in any of Paulette’s programmes there is an assessment. Paulette has high standards and takes no prisoners so everyone took full advantage of her knowledge and experience in order to learn as much as possible from her during the morning’s dancing. Even so, there was still time for some fun improv before a Cultivator lunch (which had to fight its way past the butterflies in everybody’s stomach!) Testing started with zilling – yes, said Paulette, we would be happy to know we had all reached the required standard there. Then it was the practical stuff – the dancing. No immediate feedback on that – how had we done? A written tribal test followed, together with an assessment of our rhythm recognition. And then we gathered around the table with Paulette, to find out how we’d done. My heart was pounding – I had come down with a flu type lurgy earlier in the week and had been dancing through a mist of painkillers, Vitamin C and Echinacea so really felt I hadn’t been dancing to the best of my ability. One by one, slowly, tantalisingly, Paulette slid the certificates across the table ….. and then, there it was! Cayte Lawton – certified in Collective Soul Level 1! We had all passed!
Jeff had the organic champagne on ice back in the Cultivator, and there was lots of excited tribal chatter and photo-posing before we headed back to Portland for our last two lessons – beginner and intermediate – with the Caravan girls and their students. I felt as though I was dancing on air that night, and was really feeling that tribal connection – there was luuuuurve in that room! The improv was just fabulous – even watching other dancers , the connection between them was tangible and as a watcher, you felt drawn in too. What a fabulous, fabulous style!
All too soon it was time for goodbye hugs, promises to return (yes, we will!) and farewell meals at the Farm (a delightful restaurant recommended by Paulette – veggie burgers to die for!). After a last night in Clatskanie and a final breakfast at the Cultivator we said our goodbyes to Paulette and set off back to Portland and the airport… with lots of time to reflect on the way..
And so – was it worth it? Was it worth all the months of scrimping and saving, and a journey of several thousand miles?
Yes, yes and a million times yes!
The Collective Soul experience in itself is dance-changing. All of the different aspects of it work so well together to provide a holistic perspective on the dance, and to help you to divine your own place within it. The small group tuition, coupled with Paulette’s outstanding teaching and support mean that you come away from the training with a real insight into your strengths and areas for development – I know now exactly what I need to do to improve! Whilst studying in Oregon was an added bonus, it added an unforgettable dimension to the whole experience. We made such beautiful new friends there – tribal arms reach out across the globe! Paulette was so open and generous in sharing her home and life with us and we really feel we got to know a little of her as a person and of the things that are important to her. She is our ‘Tribal Mamma’ and, as she said to us in the Cultivator, we are her girls!
I think too, through her training, chats and the lessons in Portland we also re-discovered the joy in dancing – it doesn’t have to be all about performance, but is about those moments when leading with your heart, you make that tribal connection and are suddenly just dancing for the love of it. It does seem to have rubbed off in my performing too – notorious for having a bit of a grumpy dance face, on the couple of occasions on which I have performed since America someone has always commented on how I looked to be enjoying myself!
There is so much more I could tell you – about our adventures in Portland, the fabulous people we met, the amazing food in the Cultivator. As the plane took off and we watched Portland becoming smaller and smaller behind us our sadness was tinged with happy memories. And with more than a little excitement about the next stage of our dance journey – we were off to San Francisco !
But that’s another story …..
Many thanks, Cayte, for your thoughtful rememberances, and for writing and sharing your experiences!