Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dancing the Dance: an Interview with Belldance Goddess, Amy Cottrill

Bellydancer, Amy Cottrill, can often be found shaking up Pittsburgh’s events with the art of Middle Eastern dance. Amy’s dance troupe, ElectroBelly, is known for combining the striking blend of traditional bellydance and electronic music. Although Amy, also known by the stage name, “Amethyst,” is best known as a performer and an inspiring teacher; Amy is also a passionate vegan.

photographer credit: Robin L. Houck
I met Amy five years ago; at the first belly dance class I had ever attended. I had a coupon for being in the Pittsburgh Vegan Meetup Group, so I had nothing to lose by showing up and attempting to dance! Unlike other dance classes I had endeavored, this class felt comfortable and safe. Alongside me, there were women who large and slender, tall and short. Body image issues flew out the window as we danced to the beat of a Middle Eastern rhythm. After an exhilarating class, all of the vegans and bellydancers went out to the Double Wide Grill and socialized. Amy and her partner, Bill, impressed me with their commitment to walk the talk when it comes to their compassion for animals.
Currently, Amy is pretty busy coordinating the Pittsburgh Vegan Festival that will take place on July 19th 2014 at the Allegheny UU church.

I am very pleased to release this interview with Amythest about her evolution toward veganism, impressive artistic endeavors and spirituality within dance. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Amy!

Bethany: How long have you been bellydancing?

Amy: Learning since 1997, teaching and performing professionally since 2001

Bethany: Why did you decide to teach?

Amy: Sometimes women do not have a positive dance experience.  I had friends who had asked me to teach them privately.  I wanted to help women have a positive dance experience, and help connect them with this beautiful artform, and with other women, in a positive space.

Bethany: What kind of journey has veganism taken you on?

Amy: Vegan living has improved my whole lifestyle, awareness and health.  Becoming vegan cleared up bad headaches, skin and digestive problems I had (but did not understand until they went away due to the change in my diet). 

Veganism has led me to connect with like-minded people who care about making a positive change for our planet and its inhabitants of all sorts.  Veganism has connected me to a very positive community of people; and has helped me feel more alive and awake.

Bethany: What was your first experience with veganism?

Amy: I became vegetarian at a very young age due to a near-death experience, and connecting the feeling of not wanting to die with the realization that other living beings also have a natural desire to live and do not want to die.

It has always a very spiritual belief of mine, not to murder.

When I was in kindergarten, I ate a fast food hamburger and spent 3 months in the hospital on dialysis, fearing my death.  My kidneys, liver and spleen all shut down, as I suffered from HUS.  Sometime before that date, I had a DPT shot, so there was a question about whether the illness was a reaction to the DPT shot or (e-coli) contaminated meat.  …

...Miraculously, I survived.  Then, one day, my family went to the country on a trip, and a farmer had left a gate open, and our car almost hit a cow who was in the middle of the road, around a bend.  He stared through the windshield and I stared into his eyes, and felt the fear I saw in his eyes.  I realized he must have felt how I had felt in the hospital - fear, and a natural desire to live and not die. 

I laughed at the "steak" sign on the farm, and asked why that was on a cow farm.  My parents explained what meat was, and I will never forget the terrifying and sad feeling that came over me, and the realization I had, that killing a living being, a being who has a life (which is sacred and beautiful), and making the decision of taking away his life (as if it should be anyone's decision) just to for the selfish reason to eat his dead body, is horribly wrong and disturbing....  

...My mom sympathized with my thoughts on the subject, but wasn't sure what she was supposed to do since she had always been taught and believed people need to eat meat to be healthy. 

It wasn't until years later when I was 10 years old, when my parents switched my care to an Indian doctor who understood vegetarianism, that my mom became educated on the subject and happily let me become vegetarian since the doctor helped her understand how healthy a choice it actually is to stop eating meat.  As soon as she knew it was healthy for me, [my mom] was okay with it.....

I spent my childhood as a lonely vegetarian, the only one I knew, often mocked and ridiculed for my decision and beliefs, mostly by adults outside of my household.

I was in high school by the time I finally met another vegetarian, followed by meeting whole groups of vegans (outside of school)!  
I really started to think about the comment I'd sometimes hear, "But, you eat cheese, and that comes from an animal"; so I looked into it until I found out that supporting the dairy industry not only supports harm and eventual slaughter of the factory farmed dairy cows (which I had not yet known), but it also directly supports the veal industry, as their babies are taken from them, kept in horrible conditions and then killed while still very young.  I also learned that most cheese isn't even vegetarian, as it contains cow stomach lining. 

When I learned of this, there was no way I could pretend I didn't know and go on my selfish way supporting it.  I'd think of a mom and baby being separated and then murdered, since that is the reality of what happens to the animals.  So, I had to become vegan, although it was hard since I loved so many dairy foods.  I already abstained from eating eggs since I cracked open an egg full of blood while baking with my mom once (I guess a fertilized egg got in the batch some how).  So, giving up dairy was next, no matter how difficult a change it would be at first!

Then, one day soon after, someone randomly handed me a leaflet and there was information on it about a group in Pittsburgh (at the time) called Animal Passion, and I called them and was amazed to find out I wasn't the only vegan in Pittsburgh!  I met my first vegan friend through that group and finally, for the first time, felt like someone understood me!  From that point on, I met and made friends with many vegans!

Bethany: Have you had any mentors that have guided you along your journey?

Amy: Glenn Grodin of Animal Passion was my first vegan friend.  He introduced me to his friends, a whole group of wonderful vegans, who also became my friends and mentors. 

He took me to the East EndFood Co-Op for my first time, where I was shocked to find a whole grocery store full of options for me, and to see and try a raw fig for the first time (not squished into a processed cookie).  He corrected my embarrassing and hilarious mispronunciation of the word "vegan", since he was the first real, live vegan I had met after previously only having read about veganism at the time that I had decided to become vegan. 

Glenn was Pittsburgh's hardest-working and most dedicated animal rights activist.  He was the first person to help me realize, not only was I not the only vegan in Pittsburgh, but that I was part of a whole community of vegans, and I was understood in my shared beliefs, and certainly not alone!  Glenn helped me step onto an even healthier path, choosing natural foods over processed foods, organic over conventional. 

Glenn Grodin passed away, and Pittsburgh lost one of the most valuable animal rights activists, and I lost a really great friend.  He was a wonderful friend, mentor, and person. 

Bethany: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

Amy: The best piece of advice I've been given, in regards to veganism, is to cook home made meals with whole foods as often as possible, read labels and avoid artificial ingredients.

Bethany: Okay, back to the dancing! I noticed that you tie spirituality into some of your dance workshops and events. What is sacred dance?

Amy: Sacred dance is religious or spiritual dance, and can be found represented by people of various religions or paths.

My own style of sacred dance combines bellydance with Pagan spirituality, and incorporates the Elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water; Gods and Goddesses; Magic; meditation and guided visualization; story-telling; healing, positive intentions and goals, community, and more.

Photographer credit: J. Harrison
Bethany: How have you tied your passion for veganism, spirituality and bellydance together?

Amy: I have so many healthy interests which go hand-in-hand, such as bellydance, sacred dance, massage therapy (I graduated school as a massage therapist years ago), yoga, veganism, healing foods and environmentalism.  Everything is tied together.  Each of the mentioned ideas is a way to contribute to healing ourselves and the planet.

I often host events which include a mixture of healing and cultural arts, bellydance and sacred dance, and vegan food.  I believe in promoting all of those things, especially when they can be promoted together at one event.  Promoting cultural awareness and diversity connects us to other people.  Promoting a healthy diet for ourselves, animals and the planet connect us even more deeply with the world around us.

Humans are not totally separate from the earth, animals, and each other, as some may feel during a society-driven, rush around lifestyle; but each is connected to and has an effect on the others.  Humans often see mind, body and spirit as separate, when in fact the healthiest humans embrace rather than deny the connection between all three parts of the self.

Once you connect your mind, body and spirit, you connect with yourself.  Once you connect with yourself, it becomes easier to see your connection with others – people, the earth on which our lives depend; the animals who are all part of the same earth, environment and life.  Feeling the connection not only within parts of yourself, but between yourself and everything around you which makes up our world and our lives, makes it easier to want to live a good life full of connection, healing and love, rather than a life of blindly accepting murder of animals, illness from eating their dead bodies, and environmental destruction (and all while being disconnected from yourself and everything around you). 

If we kill all the animals, destroy their homes (which is also our home, our earth), and don’t take care of our own bodies, minds and spirits, we live a sad life of destruction, which will not end well for ourselves or our planet.

Bellydance and sacred dance are a beautiful way to connect the mind, body and spirit, while also connecting one person to another, and people of the present to people of the ancient past.

The belly is a sacred space within the body, where life grows, breath flows, feelings and energy live.  Through bellydance, we connect with our center, our bellies; and by moving in this sacred way together, we connect with the other dancers and with dancers of the ancient past, from which this dance has it’s roots.  It is very spiritual and powerful to connect with our ancestors in this way, through moving our bodies and breath in a way which they once did when their bodies were alive, so many years ago, especially while expressing spirituality in our dancing, as our ancestors did during ritualistic dancing.

Dancing and connecting in such a way helps open the possibility of reaching even further outside of the self to connect with other parts and beings of the world around you, past, present and future.  If you combine sacred movement and connection with healthy and clean/murder-free eating, you have a cleaner and healthier body, mind and soul, and a more clear conscience.

Bethany: What have been some of your most profound experiences with bellydance?

Amy: Studying under master instructor Ansuya Rathor of Bellydance Superstars has been incredible.  Her mother/teacher was one of the innovators of the American Cabaret style of bellydance in the 60s and 70s.  Studying under Ansuya has been very freeing as a dancer, as she promotes freedom of self-expression and innovation within the ancient dance form.  Ansuya encourages her students to learn about the authentic history, culture and forms of the dance while also being true to yourself, your own creativity and expression, and the innovation and progression of dance.

Ansuya also appreciates the connection of spirituality, veganism and bellydance, and it’s nice to learn from someone who shares similar views about the dance we love so much.  She has lived a vegan lifestyle at times and has talked about the connection.

Bethany: What is the most amusing thing that has happened at a bellydance event?

Amy: My former dance partner Shanti (only “former” because she is busy with her family now) performed at a private event with me.  A server walked by, offering guests pizza from a large tray.  Shanti took a tray full of pizza from a server, balanced it on her head, and danced around the room kneeling down in front of guests, offering them a slice of pizza from the tray on top of her head.  Guests would remove a piece of pizza from the tray and Shanti would get up and dance off to the next guest.  It was unplanned, just something she did on a whim, and it was quite entertaining!

Bethany: Is there a project you are particularly proud of?

Artist, John Ross with dancer, Sarah Hall
ReModel Gala 2009
photographer credit: Marcel Walker
Amy: I started an event series called the ReModel Gala, which promotes recycling, bellydance and art.  Local artists are each paired up with a bellydancer.  The artist creates a bellydance costume using all recycled/recyclable and reused materials.  The dancers perform in the costumes at the Gala, and judges choose winning designers based on rules in relation to materials used, recycling and creativity.  Eco-friendly prizes from local businesses are awarded.  Each event serves as a fundraiser for an eco-friendly charity.  Vegan food is served at each event, to promote the most eco-friendly diet.

My favorite costume in the competitions so far was at the first Gala, and was designed by artist John Ross.  The costume was worn at the Gala by dancer Sarah Hall.  The costume was made with reused record albums and covers.  It was very unique and gorgeous, and fit the dancer beautifully as she performed bellydance.

Bethany: Are there other types of dance or art that you enjoy?

Amy: I am a huge fan of Indian dance.  I myself have only taken a few Indian dance classes, so I’m just an occasional student of the dance.  But, I love watching Indian dance so much!  So, I include Indian dancers in many of my shows and workshops.

I’m also a huge fan of crossing cultures and blending forms of expression.  One of my favorite past ElectroBelly shows, which I hosted some years ago, included bellydance and break dance on stage together during the same piece, electronic music DJs, a VJ with a visuals screen, and more.

Thank you so much for interviewing with me, Amy!

Join Amy at the upcoming Pittsburgh Vegan Festival on July 19th and stay tuned for details on a Sacred Dance Festival and Vegan Bazaar

You can find Amythest's class and workshop schedule or book her for an event at Pittsburgh Bellydance

Be sure to Like Amythest on Facebook, also!