Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Alia Thabit: On Power, Improvisation, and the Kindness of Strangers

Photo by Dunya McPherson

Writer and dancer Alia Thabit says she trains treasure hunters. And she wants you to know that every beautiful, magical jewel you desire is waiting at your fingertips.

Forty years ago, she attended her first belly dance class near her home in Brooklyn and was hooked.  Love brought her to northern Vermont. She stayed, raised her children, and earned a degree in creative writing from Lyndon State College.  Through it all, she never stopped dancing.

Nor has she stopped pushing the limits of her talents or curiosity.  Thabit has studied with world-renounced dance instructors, and has traveled the globe performing and teaching.  A few years ago, a broken ankle taught her a lesson on the fragility of the body and urged her to focus her energies.

That focus, combined with the perspective gained through travel, has brought her to where she is today: a widely admired and sought after instructor and mentor with much to say. 

Known also as Oriental or Middle Eastern dance, or raqs sharqi, belly dance, Thabit argues, is at a “cultural crossroads.” A new book in the works explores what she calls the loss of the “mystical core” of the evolving, ancient tradition she so loves, one that offers “a magical key that unlocks artistic, physical, and spiritual transformation.”  Eschewing rote mechanical technique, she encourages “embracing the soul” of the dance through feeling and improvisation.  In doing so, she says, miracles and healing are within a dancer’s reach.

Beauty, magic, and power are words that pepper Thabit’s writing and teaching, and they come easily to mind upon meeting her.  Gracious and self-effacing, she’d like nothing more than for her students and readers see -- and to treasure  -- those qualities in themselves. 

As your thousands of friends and followers on Facebook know, you rarely sit still.  You've danced and taught in six countries and 15 states. How has travel enriched your life?

Travel has helped me feel more confident, competent, and grounded.  I'm from NYC anyway, so I have a lot of navigation skills. But flying into foreign countries, taking cabs with folks who don't speak English, and generally traipsing around expecting everything to work out, you realize the overall goodness of the people in the world.

Even when stranded in Egypt during the revolution, people were unfailingly kind and helpful. I've been lucky, yes, but I start from the belief that whatever happens is the exact right thing and go from there. So far, so good. 

Stranded during the revolution?

I had gone to Egypt with my friend Lisa for a dance camp on a Nile cruise boat. One day the Internet just went away. Our final night in Aswan, there was a curfew. Text messaging got shut down too. We had to hustle to get to our hotel. Then the government closed the trains to stop people traveling to Cairo for the demonstrations. Soldiers stood in formation in front of the train station. Demonstrations and tear gas rocked the marketplace. It was pretty dramatic.  

We were stranded in Aswan for several days--most of which was kind of fun. Finally airplanes started flying again, and we were able to go home--only one day past our original plans, so that was pretty good.  

Alia calling friends at the American embassy 
while Lisa shows off the sign she got at the protest.
Luxor Egypt Jan, 2011. Photo courtesy Lisa Talmadge.

I admire your solo drive across the country. Is there a journey that stands out as most memorable? And has your sense of "home" changed over the course of your travels?

Aw, thanks! That first cross-country jaunt was pretty epic. The whole trip was about 13,000 miles. My boyfriend William and I drove from Vermont via southern Florida all the way to Portland, Oregon, then back down to his home in Santa Barbara.

We stopped in a dozen places to visit friends and dance. We only stayed in motels I think three times the entire trip. One night we texted a friend in New York, "Who do you know in Iowa?" He texted back in 5 minutes and sent us to some great friends. We went to their daughter's dance recital.

The whole way, I was teaching two sections of English online for Lyndon State college. So I was constantly scanning for Wi-Fi, stopping at highway rest areas and checking in to the course forums. It was really fun. I drove back across the country by myself, visiting and dancing all the way.  It was a little weird to come back to Lyndonville and have everything be exactly the same when I was so different. 

How were you different after that trip?

At first I felt trapped by the sameness. But over time I’ve come to a place of understanding that I am now a global citizen. So it is okay that Lyndonville and my house are the same, because I am different. I am free. I can come and go.

You have careers in two worlds -- academia and dance -- and you don't stand still in either.  As a teenager, you fell in love with dance, but then studied creative writing at Lyndon State College, where you are a long-time instructor of writing and research.  Meanwhile, you've been teaching dance and writing plays and novels. In "Midnight at the Crossroads: Has Belly Dance Sold its Soul?" you've married your passions.  Tell us about this new book.

I've been a writer even longer than I have a dancer. I won honorable mention in a citywide writing contest at the age of 14. NY is a big city, so that is no mean accomplishment. I still have the certificate--signed by Amiri Baraka. I began dancing seriously at 16, though I remember tuning in on Monday nights for twist lessons with Chubby Checker.

My field is oriental dance, often known as belly dance. It is an ancient dance of joy with a deep, deep core and a focus on improvisation, sensual experience, and emotional expression. In the last decades, it has been pushed towards a focus on choreography, spectacle, and stylization. I found this disturbing. It's been exciting to write the book because of all the discoveries and connections that continue to appear--from chaos theory and the Platonic ideal, to snowflakes and blues music.


There are some dramatic differences between Western dance and music and that of the East (and by East, I mean to the lands of this dance—primarily the Near East and North Africa). In the West, we value the Platonic Ideal--that there is a perfect form to which we aspire. In Ballet, for example, moves are stylized and must be repeated exactly. Classical music must be played as written.

However in Eastern dance and music, everything is improvised. Dancers dance what they feel from the music--and musicians play what they feel. Technique is the servant of expression. Musicians pride themselves on never playing a song the same way twice. This is a radical difference. Like the strange attractors of chaos theory, any two moves will be similar, but not the same. In nature, nothing is exactly the same--look at snowflakes. Our own Snowflake Bentley never found two snowflakes the same.

Our American Blues masters are an exception, as they also pride themselves on never playing a song the same way twice. The Blues came from enslaved African musicians’ attempts to play notes that didn’t exist on Western instruments--and there is more and more evidence to show that many of the Africans here were Muslim, and this same music was their music. So we are maybe more connected to belly dance than we might think.

I’m curious what your teenage self wrote to win that contest.

It was a play. I think it was a playwriting contest. I don’t remember the story, except that the main character’s brothers were attempting to build explosives.

When and where can readers get their hands on a copy of Midnight at the Crossroads?

I expected to have the book published by December, but it is taking longer than I expected. This is disappointing. However, allowing the material to gestate longer has brought me to a deeper understanding, so the book will be even richer when it is done.  

What's next for Alia Thabit?

Once the book is out, I'm gearing up for a tour! It's going to be quite an exciting time. 

To follow the progress Midnight at the Crossroads, please join the waiting list (and get some great sneak peeks and treats),   For more about Alia, check out her site:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bryce Towsley: The Wild Places Are Still the Best

 Leave it to Bryce Towsley to turn social and economic collapse into what he calls “a rollicking good read.”
     Set partly in Vermont, THE 14th REINSTATED, the award-winning author and photographer’s first novel, unveils a dark, frightening vision of a world devastated by war, hardship, and unrest, in what one reviewer calls, “a very gritty look at a future that seems more likely every day.”
     As Towsley’s hero battles to protect his family and save the world from ultimate destruction, he faces his share of knife fights, shoot outs, desperate chases, and encounters with pretty girls in an action-packed novel that’s part prophecy, part commentary, and part post-apocalyptic survival manual.
     In fact, the avowed “gun nut,” who’s published thousands of articles and six books of non-fiction, most on hunting and firearms, has just signed a contract for a book tentatively titled, “Survival Guns for Preppers.”  You could say he’s something of a spokesman for self-reliance.
       He’s also an industry expert. Towsley brings almost 50 years of hunting experience to his writing, having taken his first whitetail in Vermont in 1966 at the age of 11 (check out his website for a dozen tips on rattling them, or for advice on how to make an old rifle “look sexy”). Since then, he has hunted extensively throughout the United States and Canada, and around the world, for a wide variety of game. 

     A Life Member of the National Rifle Association and a firearms consultant, Towsley has competed in several shooting disciplines and is active in 3-gun shooting as well as IDPA and USPSA, organizations offering opportunities to engage in “practical” sporting uses of handguns that incorporate simulated self-defense and real life scenarios.
     When he’s not traveling the globe, Towsley, the father of two grown children, lives in the Clarendon, VT, with his wife, Robin, and several well-fed dogs.

You’ve made a life’s work of out of your love of hunting, and have published many books and thousands of articles about the sport. How did you get your start?

It’s more than a love of hunting. It’s a love of writing as well. A lot of my contemporaries got into this business because they loved hunting, shooting or guns, but they hate the writing. To be truly successful as a writer you must enjoy writing. I don’t just write about hunting, I cover a wide range of topics and genres. The key to writing well is to love writing and to love what you are writing about.
How did I get started? I owe it all to my wife, Robin. Before we were married I was working and living in Manchester while she was staying in my place in Clarendon. I didn’t want to hit the bars at night and get into trouble, so I took her old manual typewriter to my little cabin on the Battenkill River and worked most of the winter on my first article. That one sold and I never looked back.
I have always been a reader and interested in guns and hunting. Like a lot of people, I thought I could do a better job than a lot of the writers I was reading. That gave me a topic. Once I discovered I liked to write, I branched out into other areas.
I get bored writing on just one thing, so I like to reinvent myself often. I never abandon anything, but I keep adding to the list. I write product reviews, adventure travel, technical articles, do it yourself articles, humor, fiction, mood pieces, whatever is interesting at the time and will sell.

Your work has taken you all over the world.

I have been in all 50 states. Most of them many times. Also, every province in Canada except PEI. I’ve made multiple trips to Mexico, including the jungles of the Yucatan. I have been to Argentina and made nine trips to Africa including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia and short visits to Mozambique and Zambia. I have been to Russia and much of Europe. Great Britain, Germany many times, Austria, Belgium, Greece, and others including some offbeat places like Hungary and Lithuania. I have visited Norway and Sweden. This fall I go to Poland.  I have also been to Turkey and United Arab Emirates.
I have backpacked in Yukon, where we landed the Super Cub and walked for many miles to our location, carrying our gear. I have camped out with the Eskimos in the winter in a tiny, unheated tent above the Arctic Circle. I have stayed in a very remote cabin in Russia and among the Aztec ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. I have weathered killer storms in Alaska, I have been chased by elephants, explored a jaguar den and been stranded in Zimbabwe by an airline strike. I have seen seventy below zero wind chills and have chased armed poachers in Africa. Lots of adventure.
Recently? I was in Zimbabwe last fall where I’ve had a few exciting adventures with elephants and while tracking a wounded cape buffalo. This spring, I stayed on a boat off the coast of Alaska for a brown bear hunt, which was one of my most enjoyable trips.

Tell us about your work with the Benoit brothers.

The Benoits are a Vermont family of hunters who are famous for tracking big whitetail bucks in the snow. Larry Benoit was the first “hunting celebrity” and he pioneered the entire industry.
I was asked to write an article about them by the editor of Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine back in the eighties. That turned into a book, “Big Bucks the Benoit Way” which is the best-selling whitetail deer hunting book in history. That led to a second, very successful book, “Benoit Bucks.” Then we republished an updated version of the first book called, “Big Bucks the Benoit Way Volume 2.”

You are a regular contributor to American Hunter and Shooting Illustrated and American Rifleman . . .

They are the top publications in their fields. They are all NRA publications. American Hunter and American Rifleman are membership magazines and Shooting Illustrated is a subscription and newsstand driven magazine. American Rifleman is now one of the top 25 magazines in the world in terms of circulation. They represent the pinnacle of my markets, the best of the best and I worked very hard to become a field editor for these prestigious magazines.

 . . . and a consultant for firearms companies. What does that work involve?

I am hired to consult on firearms, ammo and accessories design. It is a sideline that has resulted from my recognition as one of the leading experts in the field, a recognition that is driven by my writing for the top magazines and publishing several books.
You’re also s a field editor for the National Rifle Association. Tell me something about the NRA that will soothe my progressive, left leaning, save-the-wolves soul.

     The way the NRA has been represented by the press and in today's society is unfair and inaccurate. Politically, the NRA is a one-issue organization that is dedicated to preserving our constitutionally guaranteed right to keep and bear arms.
     That said, they do have a wide range of programs.  The Eddie Eagle program has taught millions of kids about gun safety.  The NRA promotes competitive shooting and has training programs for just about all aspects of gun ownership. The list goes on.
     The people who run the NRA and the vast majority of the membership are some of the finest people I know. They have high moral values and are American patriots who believe strongly in the rights of the American people as detailed in our constitution. 

 What advice do you have for parents of young hunters?

The days you spend hunting with your kids will be some of the best memories you will make with them. I have written several 4,000 word articles on how to do it right, but the key is just do it. Make it your “thing;” take the hunter safety course with them. Help them pick out their gear and teach them how to use it safely. Butcher the deer, cook the meat and eat the meal as a family. Make them part of the process, not an addendum.

Tell us about your novel, THE 14th REINSTATED.

It’s set in Vermont after total social and economic collapse. But, that’s a tool for the story. It’s an adventure story. It’s a commentary on the folly of modern American society. It’s a prepper’s manual. It’s a story that explores the value of family, friends, values, morals, loyalty and most of the other important things that make us human and shape our souls. It’s a story of betrayal and redemption. My gun guy friends love it because I am one of the few authors who gets the technical gun stuff right. Mostly, I just wanted it to be an entertaining story that will suck you in and keep you up late at night because you have to find out what happens next.
I was competing in the World Championships of Shooting in West Virginia recently and I was sitting at a table before the awards ceremony started when a woman came up and started talking about the book. She told me how much she loved the book and then gave me hell for not getting the next one out yet. She said that she had always read the best books out loud to her husband because it was something they started when they were dating and continue now, decades later. She said that this was the book they both have enjoyed the most.
Then she told me a funny story about reading the passage in which the character Mickey thinks he can hear a cow in the woods, out loud in the Denver airport and about the stares and laughter it caused. (It’s a funny passage, but the language is a bit blue.) She doesn’t understand it, but that conversation was the best paycheck I have ever gotten from any book.
I had more fun writing that book than anything I have ever written. It’s been years since I woke up in the morning with the feeling that I couldn’t wait to get to work. I felt that in the early years and decades as a magazine writer, but after a while you have pretty much written everything you needed to get on paper. This book brought that all back. I really didn’t have a clue what was going to happen when I wrote that first line and I had to get to the keyboard every day to find out what was going to happen next.
I have studied a lot of writers and everybody has a different approach to the craft. But the best novelists, those who I gravitate to and love to read, all take this same approach. They don’t outline, they don’t plan ahead other than in the most general terms, they just sit down at the keyboard and let the novel buried in their lizard brains flow out through their fingers. They often talk about being in the zone or in almost a fugue state when writing and that’s what I experienced with much of that book. For a writer, it’s the best high there is. 

Do you consider yourself a prepper? Should we all be prepping?

It depends on how you define “prepper.” I believe in being self-sufficient and in having the ability to manage your own life. I can fix a truck, build a house or butcher a deer. I have the ability to protect my family and my property from evil. I have studied history, human nature and I keep an eye on what is happening in the world. Knowing what is possible, I have made sure that we have the tools and the knowledge to survive no matter what happens. I suppose some will call that prepping, but I call it being smart about life. If you depend on others to solve all your problems you leave yourself and those who depend on you vulnerable if those “others” are suddenly gone for any reason. I think that is a foolish way to live your life.
I do believe that we are at a very dangerous time in history. The odds still say that America will survive, although I think it will look different in the years ahead. But if the worst case scenario does happen, those who are prepared have the best chance of survival.
We Americans have our heads buried in the sand and we think it can’t happen here, but we are wrong. We have enemies who wish us evil. Hurricane Katrina has shown how poorly prepared we are for a major natural disaster. I have seen the results of economic collapse in places like Zimbabwe and if you know anything at all about economics, you understand that while we are taking a different road, we are heading to that same destination. There are a lot of bad things lining up to change our way of life.
Those who can’t make it past next week without a government check or a fully stocked grocery store are not going to do well. Those who have learned to deal with life and have made some preparations will be in a better position to survive.
Am I a prepper? Not in the sense that the foolish and exploitive television shows define the word. But I am taking steps to make sure we can survive if the world changes. But mostly it’s not much different than how I have always lived my life. Prepping is a lifelong process of learning how to do what needs to be done without turning to somebody else to solve the problem.
Should you all be prepping? I think that anybody who is not is a foolish person who does not understand reality. 
Am I being too subtle here?

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Hemingway. I discovered him in my twenties, I re-read him every decade. I come away with a much different understanding each time.
Robert Ruark. He is famous with hunters for a few books and a column he did for Field and Stream called the Old Man and the Boy, but he did some great novels and was a famous newspaper writer back when newspapers meant something. He is one of the best wordsmiths I have read and it drives me crazy to read him and realize I can never be that good. 
     I read everything from junk to classic literature. On a bet a few years ago, I kept track and I read 112 books that year. I appreciate any good writing. Some of the best-selling authors are horrible and there are some unknown, self-published writers who are brilliant. My favorite at any given time is the writer who has my attention and is holding on to it tightly.

What’s next for you, in your writing life and travels?

Who knows for sure? That’s part of the adventure. I just finalized a contract for a prepper’s gun book. I am working on a collection of hunting adventure stories and on an outdoor humor book. Of course, I am also writing a sequel to “The 14th Reinstated.” I have a few other novels I want to write and several short stories, but the money making part of this business, the magazine articles and the contracted books, take up too much time.
 For the travels? I have not been to Australia and hope to address that flaw this year. Any trip that can take me into wild places is always welcome. I love seeing the parts of the world most tourists never see. Hunting has taken me into remote and wild lands, which I love. The thrill of straddling a mountain top and realizing that you are on the top or the world, or watching a hunting lion walk through the twilight just a few feet from you are the moments that make life interesting.
I am traveling a lot now to national and international shooting competitions, which are always fun, but the wild places are still the best.
To answer your question, I don’t really know what’s next in writing or travel. Life would be boring without surprises.