Posted on February 10 2017
Matan Schecter: writer, style guru, fearless belly dance pioneer. And also a loyal D.Webb Designs customer. Recently, Matan went above and beyond when he surprised us with a video project titled "30 Ways to Wear the Empire from D.Webb Designs." We were thrilled! (Half of them were styles the D.Webb team hadn't even thought of...)
We immediately wondered "What made him decide to do that? What is he all about? What makes an artist like Matan tick?" So, we asked him...
Check out his insanely cool video below, followed by Matan's story in his own words. And then go check out his other writings at mizraq.com!!!
1. You probably get this one a lot, but as one of the few men in belly dance, what drew you to it? What is it that you love about it?
I grew up learning Israeli dance from a young age, as well as listening to and eventually playing Middle Eastern music. Israeli dance is an exciting modern folk dance form, which draws from Jewish diaspora dance traditions like those from Yemen, Morocco, and Eastern Europe, and fuses these traditions with other influences like the Arabic debka, Latin dance, and even ballroom and ballet (and yes, sometimes belly dancing as well). Beginning in the 1920s, these styles grew together to create a dance form that Israelis and Jews around the world could see as representative of both their diaspora heritage and the new melting-pot style culture of Israel. It's a living art form which is reflective of the many facets of Jewish and Israeli culture.
I discovered my passion for belly dance through this cultural lense. The first male belly dancer I ever saw (via YouTube) was a Turkish dancer named Diva, when I was 14. I was fascinated and instantly addicted, and I knew that someday I would learn to dance like that. But it wasn't until I discovered Rachel Brice and the concepts of tribal and fusion that I really fell in love. Israeli dance is such a syncretic style, and so is the tribal/fusion family, from the folkloric tribal styles of Bal Anat and Hahbi' Ru, to group improv languages like ATS© and ITS, to the fusion style choreographies and solos performed by dancers like Rachel Brice, Zoe Jakes, and Sharon Kihara. I think that's a big part of why tribal speaks to me so much. When I went to my first tribal class, it instantly felt like home.
As a male belly dancer, I don't feel any different than my sister dancers, and I'm lucky not to be treated any differently by my peers or teachers. Of course sometimes people have negative things to say, especially the "masculinity police." It's not only those who say men shouldn't dance either: quite often I see people judging male belly dancers because they "aren't manly enough" or "should pursue a traditional masculine style like saidi." On the flip side of things, sometimes I feel certain people put male dancers on a pedestal, and there's a kind of hero worship where their gender is suddenly more important than their technique. I don't really have time for either of those extremes. I just want to be seen as a good dancer, not as a male dancer, and that's why I put in lots of hard work and personal research. As for what I get out of it, I love belly dance because it's given me a medium for expression, a supportive community, and another syncretic dance style through which I can touch something greater than myself.
(Troupe Bella'Trix, in their teal Debbaloon based costumes for a preparty performance at Ravens Night 2016. Photo by our very own Debbie.)
2. What have been your favorite performances so far and what do you have coming up next?
Being a part of the Bohemian Belly Dance family and a member of Belladonna's troupes Bella'Trix and DashKhaleen has been amazing. Performing an hour long set of improv only (both organic improv and ITS) with Bella'Trix at the preshow carnival for Ravens Night last year was an amazing experience, and definitely a highlight. In addition to local shows and performing last year at Spring Caravan, I would say another of my favorite performances was a goblin inspired sword choreography for a Labyrinth themed show produced by Bella in 2016. I won't speak for what the troupes have coming up (other than to say I'm very excited), but I am hoping to get more experience studying and performing oriental dance. Middle Eastern music is a passion of mine (and I maintain a blog/website about the subject at mizraq.com), and more classic oriental styles like Turkish and Egyptian dance really speak to me. I'd also love to learn more debka and folkloric dance; I had the opportunity to learn and perform a Turkish Romani inspired choreography from Berna when I was just starting out, and I'd love to learn more about belly dance's folkloric cousins.
(Goblin-themed sword dance from Belladonna's Labyrinth Student Show 2016. Wearing a custom bleached D.Webb wrap top (backwards). Photo by Andrew Mills.)
3. What or who have been your belly dance inspirations?
There are so many great dancers, I could never list them all. I'm definitely inspired by great male belly dancers: Diva, Zadiel, the late John Compton, and so many more. They've paved a path that I'm lucky to walk on, and I look up to their technique as well as their spirit and bravery. Even though male belly dancing is historically valid and traditional to several time periods and cultures, I think I owe a lot to today's great male dancers for bringing that history to life for the public, who often come to the table with their own preconceived notions and prejudices. My biggest male belly dance inspiration is definitely Illan Rivière. The way he uses tribal fusion to tell stories and break molds is so powerful, and his technique is clean and beautiful. If I could take a class with any dancer in the world, he would definitely be my first choice.
I'm also inspired by tribal greats like the Salimpours, Carolina Nericcio-Bohlman, Jill Parker, Rachel Brice, Amy Sigil, and so many others. The work they've done in creating not just tribal and fusion styles and group improv languages, but in changing the way we see belly dancing, is really inspirational to me. I think these and other great tribal dancers have really helped make it about the dance, fighting clichés and oversexualization to create sacred spaces where we can dance, create, and express our most authentic selves. These women have added a great value to the belly dance community, not just in terms of technique but of ideology, and I'm very grateful for that.
The inspirations I most cherish are the dancers and troupemates I'm lucky enough to see every week. Belladonna brings clarity and logic to dance through her teaching style, and she makes her troupes and classes a safe and supportive place to be: a place where everyone's body, talent, skill level, and personal experience (and gender) is valued. I'm so lucky to have taken my first classes with her, so that by the time I faced any discrimination, doubt, or different treatment because I was a male dancer, I felt grounded and empowered. Another of my teachers (and also my troupemate), Lily, is a huge inspiration to me. As a Scadian, she has a passion for dance research, and the way she tears into subject matter and just keeps learning, pushing, doing, and creating is infectious. Not just her skill but her tenacity and passion inspire me to push harder. Another great inspiration I'm lucky enough to dance with is Berna, who's very dedicated to passing on and sharing her gift with Turkish Dans Oryantal and Romani dance. She also has a keen historical mind, and conversations with her about music, culture, and dance history always make me thirsty for more, and show me just how much I still have to learn.
4. That 30 Ways to Wear an Empire video was amazing, and flattering! What made you think of doing that?
I really like the versatility of the Empire, and from the moment I purchased my first one (a petite Liquid Metal Empire) I was coming up with my own ways to style it. I loved the versatility of the larger Empires and knew that with a little creativity, my little one could be just as versatile. That's when I created looks like "the bedouin." I decided to give Empires to some family members as a holiday gift, and wanted to include a style guide. I also thought Debbie would enjoy watching it, so in a way I was also doing it to thank her for her amazing customer service. If you look on YouTube there's hundreds of scarf styling videos, and I thought it was time for an Empire one. I had a lot of fun making it, and I hope it inspires people to make bold fashion choices, in their dance costuming and their everyday outfits.
(One of his creations, "the Bedouin", in D.Webb Designs' Liquid Metal Petite Empire, in a selfie taken en route to the Maryland Renaissance Festival 2016)
5. What do you like about D.Webb? (Forgive us, this is our ego boost for the day, heh...)
I really love the whole D.Webb operation, for so many reasons. Each piece is obviously carefully designed and exquisitely crafted, making the quality much higher than an average piece of activewear clothing or costuming. Many of the pieces are also designed to be versatile: Debbie makes so many things reversible, and lots of the clothing can be worn in different styles or with complementing pieces to make it versatile in your wardrobe as well. Maybe even more important than quality and versatility is the customer service. As a big and tall guy at 6'4", it's always been hard for me to find clothing that fits my frame. Custom orders are often expensive, and when using other merchants they sometimes take ages to be completed. My height and other special needs can sometimes be an inconvenience or a limitation, but never at D.Webb. Debbie and D.Webb Designs have always treated me with so much care and kindness, making sure every piece fits me perfectly, is affordable, and is finished and shipped off quickly. Everyone at D.Webb is always so kind and effervescent, shopping either online or at an event or festival booth is always a fun experience.
"Effervescent"? That may be my new favorite word! Thank you, Matan, for being so generous with your time and energy. It is you, and those like you, that keep Debbie and the rest of us at D.Webb doing what we do. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
Until next time, D.Webbers.
Your intrepid D.Webb blogger,