Reprinted from Yallah Magazine, 2014.
Going Deep into Understanding with Moria Chappell
By Madame Onça
With her roots in rural Tennessee, Moria Chapell is now an international tribal fusion superstar. With a distinct and cosmopolitan spirit in everything she does, from costuming to choreograph, her accessible demeanour and masterful skills have her working abroad and in the US as an instructor and performer. She’s also Artistic Director of the BellyDance SuperStars, and deeply engaged in projects in China, the US and India.
I’ve known Moria since about 2000. She has always had a down-to-earth personality and dedicated drive in the dance; coupled with her stunning natural looks, high physical intelligence and studious nature, it seems obvious now she should be the bright star she is.
Tribal Fusion has become a popular genre across the planet, and with her teaching travels, she nourishes that. With her current projects being truly global, Moria has a widely informed perspective to share on both the sacred and the practical aspects of the dance. Just off the plane from China, she was good enough to take precious time to talk with me for the benefit of the Yallah reader.
Going Deep With It
“Globally, women are waking up to this opportunity to recreate the world for themselves, and I am deeply honored to be a part of its growth and development.”
With her commitment to her art seeming to go down to the very fiber, I asked Moria to describe her unique creative voice and to shed light on to how she approaches not only her own work, but also the scope of her teaching. Quoth Moria, ”Artists do tend to struggle with this concept of what about them is unique within the greater sphere of their field… looking at it from that perspective tends to foster doubt, competition, resentment and ultimately isolation. In its highest purpose, art should lift us up!” She added, “I struggled early on to find creativity that didn’t rely on a desire to stand out, or to fit in.”
Taking an internal, muscular approach has allowed her body to speak its own truth, without falling in to the trap of comparison with others. Deep attentiveness to muscle contraction and release “generates a movement serving my particular physical ratio and dynamic. I am 5’4”, something between a pear and an hour-glass shape, with a strong back and soft belly. My execution of each move generates a shape unique unto itself, given my personal physical proportions.” Her results are thus authentic to her body, her person, her spirit.
Speaking of the traps of comparison, I asked her perspective on the prevalent imitation-as-flattery phenomenon in bellydance. What alternative method has she found of transforming inspiration into authentic and personal work? “Stylistically, there is a tendency to follow and become what we like, and that’s a good instinct,” she pointed out, “But if an artist resides there, she will stagnate, begin to simply copy what she sees, and inevitably slide into grasping mind and competition.” Her remedy is to again go deep and personal with it. “Take the images, textiles, colors that you love and then take them apart and put them back together in a meditative state… you’ll discover that your subconscious has inserted itself into your new creation.” And rather than to teaching signature choreography or combinations, she shares the tools to develop the individual. “I truly believe there is nothing new under the sun… therefore what we create will live briefly and then be forgotten – so we only do this by choice and by drive to express an inner voice.”
“ I left the books for the belly!“ ~Moria
No dancer springs intact from the liver of the Muse, and having known Moria when she was starting on the road to the temple she is building now, I asked her to share a bit about her earliest teachers and influences.
Having done ballet, tap, clogging and all the Western styles as a child, it wasn’t until she saw bellydance as an adult that she really fell in love with dance. She began her performance career in Atlanta, GA in 2001, inspired by a dancer at the Pennsic War, a historical re-enactment event in Pennsylvania. ”I was entranced and HAD to do THAT. So the next day I camped out at the Middle Eastern Dance tent and took every class offered!” Returning to California, she finished her English degree. While delivering the keynote speech to 7000 people at her graduation ceremony, she knew she had to be on stage. Returning to Atlanta, she began working with director Zi’ah Ali, producer of TribalCon, and joined Awalim Dance Company, possibly now the longest standing tribal bellydance company in the SouthEastern United States. “I wanted every day to be like Pennsic; full of dance classes and parties and costumes and performances peopled with gorgeous nerdy people who were obsessed with similar interests and share a ridiculous sense of humor and desire to perform!”
I recall in 2004 Zi’ah encouraging Moria to audition for BellyDance SuperStars. It seemed such an obvious fit, once suggested. “I flew out to LA and did as my director told me! I didn’t think I’d make it… But then I did, and feeling a little bit panicked… I quickly returned home, sold everything I owned and moved to San Francisco where I could take intensive dance classes every single day for months at a time. As a result, the Salimpour method and Carolina Nericcio’s input on posture and arms revolutionized my training. So when BDS finally called, I felt l was just barely ready. Luckily Rachel Brice, Mardi Love and Sharon Kihara took me under their collective wings and sat on me like momma chickens baking an egg. I grew like an awkward teenager in front of the audience each night. The travel and tour schedule was intense and I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole only to hit center a decade later, and start walking on my own two feet in a world I love.” It’s poetic. “So I guess I got my wish, everyday is now like Pennsic!”
No Small Stories and Deep Down Wild Roots
So often it appears that every big dancer hails from a big city; LA, SF, or NYC, but Moria is originally from a very small town. Her family had been in that area since “Before America was America! My parents were bohemians and raised my sister and I in the forest near Cosby, TN. My Dad built our house in the shape of a castle and I grew up believing my story books to be real because he built everything in them—a gypsy wagon from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the facade of the back of the castle was based on illustrations in my Mother Goose fairytale books, a circle house with sacred geometry designs laid in to the floor, and a kitchen window built in the shape of a spider’s web. So beautiful and so strange.
I staged my first performances in our living room that was built to house a plush oriental rug with the softest weave and intricate designs. My mother has excellent interior decorating skills and a refined taste. Even as we lived in the middle of the forest, our belongings were quality, quirky, and aesthetically beautiful. My journey out of the forest and up onto the world’s stage is long and actually full of heartbreak, but I believe the energy I feel on stage is the same energy I felt as a child with my feet in the cool mud, a sky full of stars overhead, and frogs crickets and cicadas filling the breezy mountain air.”
Is it any wonder that she has wanted to roam the world and keep the joyous levity and transcendance of a Pennsic drum-circle going every day in her heart?
BellyDance SuperStars and Show Business
“Moria? When I knew I was relaunching the East Coast Classic Bellydance Competition Festival, the two qualities I most needed in my headliners were real passion as teachers, and a willingness to be festive and social with the students and fans. With Moria being so accessible and fun, I knew I could just add advertising and stir. Success!” – Nadira, East Coast Classic
Moria is now integral to BellyDance SuperStars and has diversified into a vast personal career as well, teaching, performing, directing, judging at competitions, research and so much more. I asked Moria how her time with the artists and administration of BDSS shaped her career. “It opened my eyes to the world. I do think it has energized the base and given exposure to many people who hadn’t seen Tribal Fusion bellydance in such a light before. It gave me my stage legs and a platform from which to have a voice. I realized what hunger there is globally for women to have an outlet for their creative needs. I learned that it’s very important for us all to feed a message of love and inclusiveness to each other.”
This theme of positivity as a choice comes up frequently in conversations with Moria. As she explained in more depth about the arc of her career and path of learning, “Show business opens many doors, but also reveals some ugly truths. There is an inordinate amount of jealousy, competitiveness, hurt feelings, and treachery. I’ve seen the ways people have risen quickly to the top and the inevitable fall-out as a result. I insist that my cycle be slow and steady. I insist on my message being pure and inclusive. I know the methods that bring quick fame and money, but what if honesty, slow research, and an open book policy could also succeed? I’ve learned that it’s at least worth the effort.”
As for the craftsmanship aspect of being a working artist, she described the good habits that a structured company gave her. “Be patient, put out good solid work quickly, and then move on, rehearse A LOT, only talk about the things that can move a production forward, be ON TIME and open and committed to all the suggestions moving around you, utilize the best of the talent in those around you, swallow your pride, or better still spit it out and stomp on it.”
And for more brass tacks advice, “Lighting is crucial to a beautiful show, costumes must look full and rich yet be easy to get in and out of… I’ve learned that one performance equals 1,000 rehearsals, and exact placement on the stage is crucial.”
Sacred Work and Risky Travel
“She has immersed herself in the culture of any dance form that she has studied, and this kind of global understanding always translates in her performances – it’s stunning.“ -Bagoas
Her studies in yoga and temple dance have significantly shaped her art. These disciplines call to other dancers too, so I asked her advice on travel for the hungry artist. “There are a lot of pitfalls out there, dangers and false prophets. It’s safest to stay home and learn,” she joked, “but not sharing my methods and journey is equally dangerous, because most of the times I ran in to real physical danger was a result of naivete.” She recommended online classes to anyone without access to a true mentor, and will offer them herself as her online work develops. “Right now, I just advise people on a case-by-case basis. Students are welcome to email me via my website at www.moriachappell.com or via facebook.moriachappell2.0 and I can advise on specific countries and people.”
Upcoming Projects – Moria Worldwide
Having so much experience and so many skilled and creative contacts across the world, Moria has some large projects in the works. I asked her to describe some of them. The span of projects is dazzling.
DVDS in the Works
She has a DVD series in production, currently being filmed in Beijing. The first DVD addresses anatomy of muscular bellydance technique, with a detailed, multi-genre approach, including “animation of each muscle contracting and its affect on the skeletal system to produce the desired shape for all root muscular isolation movements.” The releases will present the sum of Moria’s knowledge. Ultimately she plans to make them available online via a virtual dance university that focuses on bellydance in its myriad manifestations (Balkan, Egyptian, Tunisian, Turkish, etc.), as well as the temple dances she loves (Odissi, Dai and Peacock dance, Apsara Cambodian dance, Javanese dance, Hula and Yoga).
“After such a positive response to our debut performance as Wild Saffron at Tribal Fest 14, we are all very excited to keep the energy rolling!” ~Bagoas
Mark your calendar, as March brings Moria a three-month intensive residency at Saffron Dance School in Washington D.C. “Saphira has asked me to develop the tribal leg of her very successful business model,” Moria recounted, “and I’m honored to be teaming up with Bagoas and Victoria Teel, a BDS Oriental dancer, to develop a methodology that will arm each student with full body muscular awareness and creative support to develop their own individual expression.” Wild Saffron is the name and she intends it to hatch the touring show called Footprints In Spice, to be launched at the end of the residency.
Footprints Across the Globe
Footprints will go on the road, and the reasons why are compelling and should be read in their entirety. Moria explained, “The ultimate plan is to tour this show in Asia, in particular China, because they have this tradition of turning caves into amphitheatres for stage performances and I want to plant the seed of this dance message deep in the earth’s belly. Footprints In Spice… will physicalize sacred dance as it began in the worlds first major civilizations: Mesopotamia and The Saraswati Indus Valley, and then trace its path around the globe with the ancient spice route. It’s a history that answers many dancer’s questions about where bellydance came from, and why it feels so potent. Once you peek over the edge of this vast cauldron of knowledge, the realizations are incredible—ultimately life and woman affirming, worship of sacred union, womb, earth. It’s a magnificent study that has been silenced and neglected far too long. There is a lot of bias against what I’ve discovered, particularly from academics who insist on reading it from a book to believe it, but books are written by the conquerors, and in the last 500 years at least, most conquerors have not been dancers, so there goes the truth of dance history. I believe one can trace root movement as a linguist traces language, and thus via muscular use, particularly in its isolation, you can plainly see the connections between sacred dance throughout South Asia, the Middle East, Asia Minor and the Polynesian Islands.”
“This one has been a long time in the making and I’m really excited to unveil it globally.“ ~Moria
The excitement of ‘The Yogini Project’ is tangible. It’s a photobook she is creating in collaboration with her mother Dahna Koth and photographer Scott Belding. “The 64 yoginis of Hirapur is located about 30 minutes outside of Bhubaneswar, India. In a circle within an open-ceilinged temple stand 64 statues of yoginis facing inwards towards each other. They are not large, but the detail is exquisite. Some have animal faces. My mother and I performed homage there and in our meditative dream state, the yoginis asked to be adorned again, whole and in the flesh. We’ve been collecting information ever since and creating costumes for each one, finding masks, weapons, ornaments and various other adornments that each holds or might have held based on what’s left of their carvings.” She added that live dancers are posing as the Yoginis made flesh, and that the photographs are nearly done. The modern images will be presented alongside their corresponding yogigi, with art and writing elaborating upon the history and meaning.
Documentaries and More
Beyond that, there are a few documentaries to be produced by Belly Dance China, including one called “Bellydance Around The World”, featuring Footprints In Spice as a component. Another for the BDC is in the works in conjunction with Jaydee Amrita (the classical Indian dance/fusion bellydancer from the UK). And there’s academia too. “I’ve contemplated returning to school to get an advanced degree in dance and anthropology to give more weight to my discoveries but I’d have to stop these projects to have time to do that, so maybe later.”
Bagoas, one of her collaborating artists in Wild Saffron, is also a bright and shining talent and a charming person. I asked him for a closing remark for this article, a bit of Secret Clubhouse wisdom on the subject of Moria Chapell that the Yallah reader can take away. He replied, “Working with her inspires you to work hard, not sleep, and have fun doing both. Trust me when I say you should bring some wheatgrass shooters and/or caffeine…whatever keeps you energized, you’ll need it!”