Reprinted from Zaghareet, 2013.
An Interview with Karolina Lux: ‘I understand the wildness’
by Madame Onça
There’s a rising wave of serious fusion in the Tribal Genre, and it’s slightly scandalous! It’s the place where bellydance, a folkloric yet sensual art from the Middle East, rubs against burlesque, a sexy and campy art with a uniquely American cultural context. The most fertile places in nature are always found where ecosystems collide, and I find these messy, exhilarating regions in the arts to be hotbeds of creativity. I’ve dedicated the past eight years of my career to expanding and discoursing on these boundaries, and promoting these fearless artists. In light of her upcoming tour of the East Coast, an interview with Karolina Lux seemed in order. She’s a bellydancer, burlesque artist, horn player and clown who tours with West Coast operatic accordion icons Vagabond Opera and Sepiatonic. She is also teaching at TribalFest, Fusion Faire, and my new event for 2013, Richmond, VA’s first annual Virginia Burlesque & Sideshow Festival, May 31-June 2.
Onça: As a rising star of the ‘make your own way’ fusion movement, you enjoy a wide open field in the performing arts. Are there any artists in Tribal, burlesque, or elsewhere that you credit for trailblazing a new, more liberated, sex-positive paradigm for bellydancers?
Karolina: There are acts in the history of women’s performance art where the spotlight has shone particularly brightly on the strength of feminine power and grace. My inspiration has been in looking back to those scenes, whatever timeframe they fall, and drawing their wisdom into my work today. Josephine Baker, Mae West, and hundreds of others, all were innovative ‘fusion’ artists of their time, setting a new standard for how sassy, witty, and wild a woman could be.
In today’s world of fusion, my earliest memories of feeling the tingling sensation of ‘I can push the boundaries to wherever my dreams take me’ were of seeing Zoe Jakes in Extra Action Marching Band back in the day. Though actually she has never (to my knowledge) claimed to be a burlesque fusion artist, her capacity to integrate the rowdiness of vaudeville into the glamour of belly dance has broken a lot of dancers free from the normal ideas of delicate femininity. Her work definitely set my foundation for fearless fusion!
Other burlesque-belly dance fusion artists in the scene today that have encouraged dancers to go wherever their sassiest fusion dreams dare, are Fuchsia Foxx of Seattle, Princess Farhana, and friends I have met in the Portland scene like Nina Nightshade. And now that I know you, Onça, you are in that list!
Onça: Shucks. Well, I have done what I can to advocate for broads of a different feather in the BellyVerse. For you, working in both the burlesque and variety fields and the bellydance genre, do you still encounter any old-school prejudice regarding your work?
Karolina: I still receive some wayward glances at shows now and then. For the most part, however, people seem to understand what I am trying to accomplish. I stirred things up at Ya Halla Y’all in Texas a couple years ago. I competed in the fusion category with a belly-esque piece, where I ripped my skirt off to reveal little ruffled shorts underneath. The shorts were pretty ‘PG’, but after the competition I was taken aside and warned that my piece might have had a negative impact on the audience. When I won the People’s Choice Award an hour later, I was allowed to perform in the gala, but only if I switched to knee-length bloomers!
Generally, I find bellydancers have the most issues around burlesque fusion. Obviously burlesque dancers don’t care, but belly dancers don’t want to be associated with “Strippers”. I understand that perspective….some of the older dancers have worked their whole lives to combat stereotypes and negative imagery associated with belly dancers in society, but I view my work as a throwback to an older era, and an homage to the diversity and power of female sensuality. Families are usually the last to mind. I had a father come up to me after a show on tour in a rural midwest town. He said ‘Thank you for giving my 11-year old son the opportunity to experience the power of the female body in a positive, community-supported context.’ I never forgot that!
Onça: I LOVE that anecdote; that’s one you tuck away to warm your heart on a rainy day, to breathe courage into you when your life’s work is in question! You bring much varied experience to your work. What is the unifying theme or philosophy of all of your performance work, from trumpet to bellydance and beyond?
Karolina: I would say the unifying theme of all of my fusion is ‘authentic innovation’, done theatrically. Authentic in this case implies a number of things.
First, I strive to be true to myself, my artistic drive, and passion as a human being on this Earth. I don’t innovate for the purpose of “trying to shock people”. I do it from love of the female form, for support of the female struggle, for the joy and bizarre wildness of vaudeville, for the love of movement and expression. This, I assume, is why I do not get as much negative response in a sometimes controversial area. My work is a risqué gift from the heart, not, at this time, a political argument.
Authentic also means: Researched! I do my homework. I dig deep, and try to understand the source. I don’t just ‘learn the Charleston’, I understand the wildness of the context of that dance that was so fresh at the time. Growing up, I studied and emulated the expressions on old musical actresses faces, I watched old cartoons, I memorized old 1950s commercial jingles, I read old LIFE magazines and poured over the ads with glamorous vintage models, emulating their poses, their demeanor. Authentic means sometimes being obsessed. Good fusion means understanding a whole cultural context, not just throwing on some fashion accessories. The theatricality of my work is also a theme, usually manifested in the variety arts: I add as many interesting props and elements as possible, from musical instruments, to umbrellas, to audience volunteers. To me this also pushes the idea of what it mean to be a bellydancer: Why can’t we also sing, act, be comedians, if we feel inspired? It also brings the authenticity of old vaudeville in, where dancers were part of variety shows.
Onça: This resonates for me so much. I began the truly interactive aspect of my performance career upon realizing the power we hold as entertainers, to not just make suggestions to an audience as a dancer, but to actually manage their experience! From my lectern in the limelight, I can ‘take them there’ with the power of my full commitment, be that by climbing over the audience, addressing them from the mic, or rolling on the floor. How are those values of multitalented authenticity reflected in your upcoming projects and appearances?
Karolina: This summer is full of shows and tours that will be full of all of the ideas and elements discussed above. I’ll be bringing my new group, Sepiatonic, to Tribal Fest to showcase our singing, belly dancing, musical-instrument playing variety act, then heading to the VA Sideshow Festival, where I will be joining Madame Onca O’leary in her quest for bettering variety and belly dance arts in Richmond, VA. There, I’ll be teaching basic elements of burlesque, and a lecture course on the history of American Vaudeville. Then its off to tour with the NorthWest’s own Vagabond Opera, where we will be touring an original show of quirky characters, belly dance, physical theater, music, and mayhem! Later I’ll be out at the Fusion Festival in Boise, ID and in the Fusion Faire in San Louis Obispo, CA teaching burlesque and theatrical expression for belly dancers. My goal is to just bring belly dance to a level of theatricality that other dance forms often enjoy; modern dancers usually get lighting options, ballerinas would never be asked to dance on concrete, etc. Belly dance is originally not intended for large theaters, as it was an intimate-space performance, but I strive to be part of the movement for getting it up on the stage. For belly dancers in this transition time, switching from performing in a small space to a large one with a spotlight in your face is a skill in itself that needs to be honed. I hope, with my background in theater and dance, to be able to help others bridge that gap!
Onça: In this time of flux, when for some of us, anything is possible in the name of making good art, is there anything you’d like to add on valuing, perpetuating and protecting the integrity of both artforms?
Karolina: Belly dance and burlesque are both sensual art forms that rejoice in the power of the divine feminine. We must not forget that humor, fun, sassiness, and comedy all contain wisdom as inherent to female strength as elegance, and grace. In our quest to make the world “not think we are strippers and treat us respectfully” we must not forget that belly dance is sensual, is sometimes, believe it or not, sexy, and that we are those divine sensual, sexy humans performing it! Sensuality is not something to hide from, and sexuality not something to be ashamed of, unless we allow ourselves to fall for the ideas in society that it is a negative thing. And of course, as in all art, context is everything. I would never do burlesque at the Saiidi Festival, etc., and consider the nature of the show when I perform.
Onça: Context is everything! And… Courage is everything!
Karolina: I also suggest that, be it in burlesque, flute playing, pancake-making, juggling, sacred arts, and beyond. that others find their own innovation in fearless fusion!