Belly Dancing, the Blue Mountains and Bad-Assery: An Interview with Devi Mamak by Rachael Lundy
While attending the 26th annual Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival, The Ruby Lady caught up with one of the most rock and roll Tribal Fusion Dancers in Australasia, Devi Mamak, to talk Heavy Metal, creative collaborations and what it means to be a dedicated artist.
Words by Rachael Lundy (The Ruby Lady)
In early May, during Las Vegas’s The Tribal Massive, a festival that boasts some of the biggest names in Tribal Fusion, including Zoe Jakes, Amy Sigil, Kami Liddel and formerly Rachel Brice, the San Francisco born and Sydney raised Devi Mamak’s name popped up. Her hand in continuing to shape the ATS format, as well as her frequent performances in prominent American festivals such as Tribal Fest, has made her a household name in the American Tribal Fusion scene. To hear her casually name dropped a full 7,000 miles away from home filled me with an Australasian pride (New Zealand and Australia are pretty much the same country, right?) matched only be my feeling of coolness-by-association. Needless to say, my week long immersion in ITS, my first cued improve experience, was a humbling one to say the least, and I needed as much additional street cred as I could get my hands on.
But even suggest for a moment to the Blue Mountains based mother of two that she may be belly-dance-famous and she will be quick to modestly scoff at such accusations. In fact, belly dance was not an art form that Mamak had much interest in even starting, let alone excelling in. As a self-confessed “party girl” in her younger days, her youthful existence of heavy drinking and clubbing eventually caught up with her (rocking through the RSA club to our interview with no shoes on and finishing it up with a quick vodka show her health scare hasn’t managed to completely slow her down even today), Mamak looked to dance to fill the gap. “Because I was so ill I started seeing a naturopath…and her other job was that she was a belly dance teacher. I had become comfortable with her and I really missed going out clubbing and dancing all night so I thought well, I’d just do a dance class instead. I didn’t particularly want to do belly dancing, I would have preferred something else”. As her consistently sold out workshops in Australian and global festivals, including this year’s Sydney Middle Easter Dance Festival can attest to, the belly dance community is mighty lucky she didn’t end up doing “something else”.
But how can a dancer achieve so much in a form that didn’t instantly ignite an all-encompassing passion? Mamak puts it down to one simple, ingrained trait of hers- unwavering dedication. “I’m the kind of person” she says “that when I do something I do it fully”. With a long history of training in classical piano composition, she is no stranger to the work hard play hard mantra. No wonder then, that she was more than surprised when the majority of her fellow students at the time were just looking for a bit of fun and sparkly costumes. Shocked and disturbed when she returned to her second belly dance class to find that “no one had practiced” she found herself in a “whole new world” of hobbyist mentality. “So I progressed a lot quicker, not because I was better but because I practiced”. When asked about how she copes with a seeming lack of dedication within the belly dance community, she says; “I find it frustrating because I’m like ‘even if it’s a hobby, don’t you want to be really really awesome at it? And they are just like, ‘we are happy being semi-awesome’. I just have to let that go and realise that my thing doesn’t have to be everyone else’s thing”.
This frustration has also led Mamak into one of the most important creative elements of her dance and life- collaboration. As Mamak quickly outgrew the belly dance community at large, she started to seek out like-minded people to work with, and she says there is no better place in the world to do this than her small but arty Blue Mountain community.
“The Mountains, specifically the mid and upper mountains, are quite arty so there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate”. Working with local artists, fusing her love of piano and belly dance, and working alongside eccentric local venues is what not only makes her art great, but her life fulfilled. “There was a place up in the Mountains called “The Workshop” that belonged to a friend of mine, this old eccentric guy that used to make our costumes, and he lived in a big warehouse that was really just a dirty old shed, but he had turned it into this beautiful art. He would have these big parties and fundraisers for local events and causes, and he would ask us to dance and I was always happy to do those gigs for free”. Sadly, this landmark of the Blue Mountains creative community has been pulled down to make room for apartment buildings.
And Mamak’s collaborative tendencies don’t escape her family ties, either; her son’s Dark Metal garage band is one of her favourites in the Mountains and she often plays keyboard with them. When asked how living in the Blue Mountains influences her work, she replies “in order for me to produce good work I have to work with people who are really good at what they do and that I get along with. It’s the people there [in the Mountains]. A lot of great people. A lot of crazy nut job people too, but I don’t deal with them”. If a reluctant belly dance star, mother-son Dark Metal band member whose favourite hang-out space is an old, re-appropriated shed thinks you are crazy, then you must be quite a colourful character indeed.
From teaching to performing, collaborating, creating, music making, travelling, gardening, being a mother (and leading a colourful social life), Mamak approaches all areas with her life with an unwavering sense of dedication that many strive for but rarely achieve. But the likes of Devi Mamak show us that dedication doesn’t have to be an anxious, nose-to-the-grind-stone journey. “Because of my age, and just because of the person I am, it really has to be fun for me”. It’s people like Mamak that show us the dedication doesn’t have to come at the expense of friends, family and fun, but actually enriches it. And she firmly believes that individual belly dances, and the community at large, could benefit exponentially from a little dedication: “We [dedicated people] never feel satisfied with where we are because we are always lifting the bar. Ultimate success is a Greek myth! But without it you never get better. People say “don’t beat yourself up” but I think it’s ok [to do that] sometimes”. Some true pearls of wisdom from a true rock and roll belly dance hero.