Brenna on Voguing, Neuroplasticity and Unstoppable NYC – 061
Brooklyn-born belly dancer and fusion artist Brenna Crowley tells us how she went from looking down at the ground to strutting sidewalks like a runway model and dancing like a superhero.
Alicia: Fiercely whipping her red locks around and sometimes shooting daggers out of her eyes between smiles, Brenna Crowley is a belly dance artist in NYC who is known for her commanding stage presence, intensity and one-of-a-kind performances. Spoiler alert: Brenna knows how to moonwalk.
She has been an instructor for over decade and has taught at Serena Studios, Solstice Studio, BellyQueen and Ailey Extension. Brenna has studied with some of the best instructors in the belly dance arena, and we will talk about that more after we dive on in.
Danceable Ritual: Neuroplasticity Exercises
I have been doing a lot of neuroplasticity exercises. And that’s something that was introduced to me through Mira Betts, who is brilliant. Mira bets is a treasure. We don’t deserve her. Take from her. Mira’s been delving into the study of neuroplasticity, which is your brain forming new connections and pathways through repetitive movement.
Basically calming down your fight or flight response. And she always pushes “Work smarter, not harder”. So you don’t necessarily have to drill a particular movement for two hours straight. You can break things down into small chunks and keep doing it. And eventually your brain learns, “Oh, this thing they keep doing, they want me to do it. So I’m going to form a neural pathway, then we’ll keep it in here.” So you can essentially learn to do it a lot faster.
Through workshops at Mira we discovered certain exercises that work really well for increasing body mobility and range of motion, big time, and also is calming for the mind.
Increasing mobility, range of motion, and calming the mind
And I started doing this before performances. Even though I’ve been performing since 2007, I still get very nervous before performing. Doing these exercises calms me down. I feel much more at ease going on stage or before teaching or making a speech.
Backstage there is only so much space, whether we are graced with an actual backstage room or we’re in a hallway or we’re next to a freezer. I always try to find a little place away from everybody before a show. And I start doing these neuroplasticity exercises.
You can always see who studied with Mira, because you’ll see people do these really weird things. Like they’re hopping up and down with their head tilted over to the side or pointing your legs in different directions of leaning over. Then you have a wrap around your arm.
One that’s good for me is I’ll focus on one point and constantly walking to figure eight while staring at one point over and over again.
And people look at me like I’m absolutely out of my mind. But I feel great and I feel ready to go with these neuroplasticity exercises.
Yes. Go study with Mira. I heard about neuroplasticity, but not so much in terms of bringing it into dance, let alone the belly dance scene. And it’s been so beneficial. I have some old injuries and this is really helping me.
If I’m drilling a complicated isolation pattern, doing certain neuroplastic exercises beforehand helps my body and my brain learn and retain it much faster.
Then drilling it over and over again.
In our studio, we kid around. When we study from Mira, like it’s like magic. This is witchcraft. What is this?
And you can see it happened on other people. You don’t believe it until you actually see it. You see someone in the struggle with say, a vertical figure rate. One side is stronger than the other, and they’ll do a couple of these different exercises and all of a sudden it’s so big and ooey gooey, and it’s like, they had all this extra mileage in their hips that they didn’t even know they had!
Alicia: You are an entertainer that entertainers really love to watch. I was talking to Joaquin Colon a couple years ago. He’s a fabulous drummer who toured with Raquy Danziger. Joaquin was telling me about a Michael Jackson song you performed at a party. I could see how it lit him up just remembering it. You are always innovating. Wrapping your arms in LED lights, dancing on chairs, moonwalking, shaking your cheeks, even the ones on your face :). I remember watching you perform years ago with clenched fists. Something I had not seen before. What inspires you to keep creating unique experiences for your audiences?
I’m inspired by everything.
I’m always observing and absorbing information from everywhere. Not just things through our own belly dance scene and fusion scene. I’m looking at dance all the time, looking at other artwork through paint and music, all these different mediums.
I’m constantly inspired by everything around me. Obviously my own life experiences, nature. I’m a big fan of comic books and video game characters. So like the superhero poses. Always loved that.
In more recent years, I’ve been really inspired by dance challenges that you see a lot on social media. I did a lot of the 30 day ones at first. That’s a lot because you don’t realize how much work it is to post every single day and to make content for every single day until you start doing it. And you’re like, wow, this is a job in it.
I started doing these 30 day challenges and giving myself prompts. And it was the first time I was really paying attention to myself and committing to do something creative every day.
And I started to just look around in the apartment. This is when the led light things started, I have a decoration in a glass. Vase. And I put it down on the floor and I shut all the lights off and I just danced around it with my feet.
So it was just my feet around the light. And I got a lot of feedback from that. And that piece ended up becoming a solo a year later for something else.
So I think just trying to find something interesting. Not just that I thought that people would find interesting, but also something for me. And how creative can I be with things I literally had on hand around me. It led to a lot of really interesting discoveries for me.
A few of those ideas from these challenges became a future work later on. Whether it was a solo piece or was a group piece or just experimenting with everyday things. I feel like my childhood imagination game strong. I tend to go with my gut and it doesn’t matter. Silly or weird. I’m just going to go with it and it either works or it doesn’t.
And the worst thing that’ll happen is that it doesn’t work. But sometimes the really good discoveries are really good.
And I ended up being very surprised, like, wow. That challenge idea, that prompt turned out really pretty freaking cool.
Alicia: Nice. I did my first couple prompts in the I am a dancer challenge with Eshay Yildiz.
So one of them was the dance blindfolded. So yesterday I put myself in a hallway. This is a safe place. I can’t step on anything. I would just bounce off the walls.
And I was like, this is crazy. Because you just start to loosen up and see the potential of everyday objects and more everyday situations to be come something more.
When you have a sense of play, the judgment drops.
Like when you’re relaxing, you have a sense of play.
You just go for it. There’s no judgment. You’re not freaking out about anything you play for the sake of play. And that’s where a lot of really great discovery can happen because you’re not worried about what other people are going to say, because you’re just going for it. And, you know, luckily we’re at a time where most of us have at least access to some sort of.
Where you can capture it and you keep recording yourself and you can just see what interesting things might happen. And through social media, which is a double-edged sword, you can get some really great encouragement from it to do something. And, you know, you have your jerks also. Yeah. But it’s a great tool as well.
That’s what I literally love about the challenges.
Self discovery and experimentation.
And I love seeing things that are really kind of unattractive, but I’d love seeing it in these challenges, something that’s ugly, you know, they love the weird, freaky, ugly. I love it. I love it. Yeah.
Will Covid have a long term effect on New York City’s entertainment industry and culture?
I hope not, but the reality is, is probably. Just look at Broadway. It will be closed 1 and a half years. Broadway is the performers, the musicians, the people that work on stage, the make up, the costuming, the staff, everyone who works in the theaters. And the people that work in promotion.
And it’s so heartbreaking. So many performers had dreams of opening up a studio in New York city. They did, and they’ve had to close it down.
So they try with fundraisers. Rent in New York city is ridiculous. Places close down any way because of how expensive it is to be here and to live here and to run a business. So it was really heartbreaking for a lot of people that I know that finally got that opportunity to get a studio, to start running their business. They had it for a little while or they just got it. And then the pandemic happened and it’s like, oh my God. And a lot of them had to close up. They went back to their home state, if they weren’t from here or they go to another state to try to start somewhere else where it’s more financially feasible for them. It has been really heartbreaking.
I’m not just seeing in New York city, I’m seeing it all over the country. Studios that were open for years, they’ve had to shut down.
I’m thankful for the digital forum and the spaces that we have. Some people already teaching online before. And now we have everybody doing that. And I am thankful for that.
I count my blessings every day for my day job. That I’ve been able to still have my day job. And I have decent security with this job. And I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to also to keep teaching during this time at the Bellyqueen School. And that’s provided a sense of normal for me.
My students have been a lifeline for me during this time.
They really have. Because there’s a lot of times I have a hard time creating anything for myself. But for them, I go the extra 10 miles for them.
But it’s scary. The fear is real. The reality is tough for many artists who are not eligible for assistance during this time. But I have a hope because I’ve seen it time and time again.
I’m born and raised here in Brooklyn. I’ve lived, been educated, and worked in New York my entire life. We have grit and resilience in our veins.
After 9/11, I remember a week after that happened, people already cursing at each other in the middle of the street. Again, just had this horrible thing happened and already as like, eh, you, you know. They’re already back to cussing each other out.
So I’m like, okay, we’re back. It’s all right.
Artists here in New York and everywhere, we adapt and reinvent. Artists are going to art. Nothing is going to stop artists from making art.
And maybe I’m biased because I’m from here, but there’s something about New York city that is unlike anywhere. Is that hackneyed expression. If you can make it here, you can make it everywhere. But I definitely believe that to be true. I do believe we will come out of this.
And we’ll have a lot of material to work with. My hope is that we’ll have venues to go back to. There are a lot of venues we’ve grown very fond of, and we love working with. We just hope they’re still around.
I mean, listen. We’ll make a stage where we have to make a stage.
We were already losing venues and this is not a great thing for that. It will affect us. Yes. Are we going to make great art out of it? Oh, hell yeah. I can’t believe Broadway is going to be closed for over a year. It’s unfathomable. I can’t even think about the stress of being in that situation.
It’s horrible. I mean, this pandemic.
People have been pushing out dance films. I’m like, I didn’t know you were all independent filmmakers.
They’ve been using New York as the stage. Whether it’s Coney island, Central Park, Prospect Park, whatever block that you live on. They’re still making art.
The city has become our stage now. Our apartments have become the stage. Our stairwells. Our basements. Our attics. Our roofs. Like I said, artists are going to art.
We got something to say, we got to exercise it. We got to get it out.
Alicia: Oh my God. It’s kind of limiting how we’ve been thinking about entertainment in some ways. It is obviously limited by technology, but at the same time…
Technology, like I said, it’s a double-edged sword is negative things to it. Like when you fall into that spiral of judgment and worrying about what people think of you and what you look like and what your age is and your color and all of that.
But at the same time, you have a stage, you have a chance to put your work out there. Even when I have filmed something from my living room and it gets like 25 views, there weren’t 25 people in my apartment! I’m glad for that. We have the potential to reach so much more.
And there are so many other dance forms that have utilized the internet and social media as way to get their work out. And they have professional filmmakers and they have this equipment, you know. It happens a lot in the hip hop scene, and there’s no reason why our dance scene can’t also be represented in that same light.
We are good enough. We have stuff to say.
Belly Dance – in all of its styles and variations from the people of origins to the fusion artists – is damn well awesome. And we have things to say.
What was it like to study with the legendary Serena Wilson?
I still can hear her giggles. She had such cute girlish giggle. And after awhile, I started to take classes from Serena Wilson. I became dedicated to the dance and I was going there as much as I could, about three or four times a week, two hours at the time of Serena offered me a scholarship.
Being a staff person, you know, to sign people in. So when I became a staff person, I got to also be there for the classes that were advanced professional. Like I got to sign people in, I wasn’t anywhere ready to take the class, but I got to watch it. And I got to watch Serena teach those classes. And the dancers that were in that room that advanced professional level were like superstars in New York city.
And a lot of them are still going strong now. So amazing performers and teachers in their own. And I would just watch these mega gorgeous dance stars totally get shot down by Serena when she was correcting them because she meant business. And when she said she didn’t like something, she told you and she didn’t pull back.
And I was fortunate to have the year and a half taking her class. But it was always unnerving because I would dance and she always looked through you.
I felt like she has x-ray eyes. She could see through my skeleton. She could see down to my bones how crappy I am.
But I remember there was one girl who couldn’t get a particular travel step. And I think because her arms were a little messy, she kept saying, you look like one of my hamsters. And I’m like, oh my God.
We’re always trying to emulate her. And there’s a lot of things that she taught me that I still perform and carry to this day, like the way she would do shoulder shimmies.
She was 73 when she passed. Her shoulders were starting to turn forward a little bit because of her spine was starting to bend forward a little bit. So her shoulder shimmies were kind of rounding over and down a little bit.
And we started doing that. It wasn’t because she was doing it on purpose. That’s how her body was at that time.
I still do shoulder shimmies in that way. Our bodies change that way. And I still will do shoulder shimmy sometimes with that slight difference that I’m rounding my shoulders over because that’s how her posture was at the time.
And I do regret that she never got to see me debut. She offered it to me. She gave me the opportunity, but she died before. I remember that very explicitly I was working the desk and she started to say, Brenna, you’re getting really, really good. And I’m like about to crap my pants that she said, “I want to put you in the next show.”
And I’m like, no, no, no. Cause there was one coming up. She was like, I’m going to put you in. So I was like, oh my God. Yes. And that was on a Friday. And I remember going home and was so excited and I was like, freaking. Yeah. And I’m like Serena Wilson thinks I’m getting good. She thinks I’m getting good.
And then that Sunday, she passed. And I went from feeling so high to absolutely crashing and I didn’t even care at that point for debuting. I was so upset that she had passed.
I just hope to this day that she’s proud of me. She gave me the blessing to perform.
I do hope that she’s looking at me from the other side and is pleased. When I started doing thriller, I’m hoping she wasn’t like, “What is this person doing? Zombie dances in my studio?”
Alicia: It’s cool how you captured a life stage of her body with the shoulder rolls.
Another thing I appreciate about her so much was that she was a big proponent of telling your own story and dancing with your own voice. She would always say, and this was like the philosophy of the studio
Go and take from as many teachers as you can from this studio. From any studio. See the moves that you like imitate them. But then make them your own go and tell your own story.
She was always pushing to say, go and learn from whoever so you can find yourself. Some teachers aren’t happy when you go and you learn from somebody else.
Some teachers can get possessive and they don’t want you to learn or study or dance with other people. But I never had that experience with Serena Wilson or at Serena Studios. They were always saying, you have to do what you have to do so you can tell your own story and be your own dancer, whether that’s here or somewhere else.
Each movement is like a letter of the alphabet that become little words that become little sentences, but then you have to tell your own story.
And that’s something that I’ve always been really appreciative for at my formative stages that I had that safe space. To not have anxiety from anything.
Alicia: And I’m so grateful that we’re in a dance form that is so focused on self-expression. Sometimes I forget how many dance forms are not about that.
Danceable Song: So Good by Tuxedo
Is there any music genre that you think is just not possible to belly dance to?
If you train your body, there’s really not much. I mean, maybe there’s some weird choices. Like, I don’t know if I would dance to Gregorian chant, but I would say there’s definitely certain things that not so much that you can’t, but maybe more like you shouldn’t.
I wouldn’t dance to anything that has discriminatory lyrics or hate speech or hate rhetoric, or is just hateful.
You shouldn’t do that.
And the same thing for dancing to music that’s sacred or religious to a culture and a people that you do not belong to. Stay away from that out of respect.
I often get compliment or sometimes the backhanded compliment, “Is there any music that you can’t dance to?” I’ve done Zydeco, done polka, done Irish music. Maybe for performance I wouldn’t do that.
But if the music makes sense with the character that you’re doing, if you’re doing a character piece, then do it. I mean, I started off making connections with non-belief dance music.
I love dancing to rock music. Like there’s just something about belly dancing to electric guitar solos which is just heavenly.
There are some times when I have a challenge. I’m like, where’s the belly dance going to fit in this? I don’t know. I would say maybe the most challenging thing for me I got commissioned to do at one time is to dance, to like Anthem songs. “Don’t Stop Believing”, “Living on a Prayer”, stuff like that. I’ve been asked to perform to songs like that. I find it a little bit difficult to dance to because you just want to jump up and down with your friends and scream and shout out the lyrics.
Older Women on Stage
And what I love about this art form is women who are older have stage time. There is no aging out on that. Getting older doesn’t mean your time is up on that stage. A lot of those ladies in that group that were 70 and over, they have presence that you could only wish to attain in your life. They have attitude. They have sass that you could only pray one day you get a quarter of.
So what I loved about that whole experience was that it was celebrating all of these women of all different ages.
Old Way Vogue
I am not an expert in any of this. I am a student still of this, and I am not a member of the ballroom scene or community.
I’ve been learning this for three years now with my primary teacher, Cesar Valentino, he’s a teacher at Ailey Extension.
Vogue started off in the eighties. And also referred to as pop dip and spin it’s the originating voguing style, which was the foundation for the subsequent voguing styles that came after it called new way, invoke femme. And this is a dance where it was created by the black and Latino gay and trans community.
It was a place, an outlet for them and a safe haven for them to feel that they could celebrate themselves. There was an article online called a brief history of voguing by Tsione Wolde-Michael, who is the writer editor for the office of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian national museum of African American history and culture.
I feel like they summed this up pretty well with Vogue in general.
“Vogue offers a sense of identity, belonging and dignity in a world that does not fully value their lives.”- Tsione Wolde-Michael
This dance is part of ballroom culture. This is very much a general definition of it, but a lot of gay and trans black and Latino, not just ostracized by society, which is still happening to this day, the alarming rates of violence, especially it gets black trans women is a parent, and we still got to keep bringing attention to this.
Maybe it’s a little bit different now, but especially years ago, not just being ostracized by society, but being ostracized by their own family. Being kicked out, having nowhere to go out on the streets and the AIDS epidemic rampaging back at that time. So many of the pioneers of the art form and of ballroom culture had passed away.
During that time. My teacher Cesar talks about this. He’s lived, this he’s been voguing since 1983.
Vogue is a dance of survival.
This was a place where that community can come together and celebrate who they were authentically and to celebrate who they were.
Cesar often says that voguing is an expression of self appreciation.
And they were doing these competitions to win prizes and trophies from a panel of judges. I think back then you can get a zero to 10 and nowadays you get a 10 or your chops. Like you either you get, or you don’t, but it was a place for them to come together and to celebrate who they were. Because otherwise out on the streets, they’re getting beat up, they’re getting killed, getting arrested.
They had their own families, what they called houses, because we would say you have a house of this and house did that. That was like their chosen family. It’s a family that came together and it wasn’t just about the competition. The houses would come together and they’d go to things called functions like balls, which came from the Harlem ballroom scene.
And at these functions, you had categories where you walk face, you walk body. Like I said, someone from the actual scene can describe as far better. There are documentaries out there. “Paris is Burning” is obviously an introduction, but there’s so many other things out there as documentary called Kiki. I’m reading a book right now called “Butch Queens up in Pumps”.
You have a TV show on HBO, max called “Legendary”, which is like a Vogue style competition show, which I highly recommend because it shows visibility. It shows the human. Of everyone that everyone needs to acknowledge and see. But specifically old way style, which I’m learning from Caesar. That style differs from the subsequent forms of Vogue Fem, where you’re doing these like staccato formations of lines.
You’re being very precise. And you have influences from martial arts, break dance, popping what they call hieroglyphics, I guess we’ve been called maybe Pheronic dance. Like you’re trying to emulate hieroglyphic looking type movement.
You’re doing a pose on a beat of the music. And every pose is if you were taking a photograph in a photo shoot.
And you’re doing this as a battle with somebody else.
You’re trying to outdo that other person with your fabulousness, with your confidence.
You can look up Cesar Valentino on YouTube, and he explains things are better.
I started taking Vogue with Caesar and it changed my life.
One of my hip hop teachers, Antonio Jefferson, he said that east coast calls it Street Jazz and west coast calls it Jazz. But it’s the same thing.
It’s when you take jazz movement and you make a hybrid of it with hip hop styles. It’s often the stuff you’ve seen in the pop music dance industry. One of the big dance music videos to get that movement going was “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson.
That is a great example of how dance choreography changed with music videos. It was co choreographed by Anthony Thomas. And that’s when you really started to see elements of jazz movement being combined with things like hip hop. And you see it a lot in music videos going forward from that point, like Rhythm Nation really influenced and a lot of Michael Jackson videos as well like, “Remember the Time”.
And now I think there’s even a dance style called “Commercial” where it’s a dance style that’s exclusively used for things like music, videos or touring jobs.
Street jazz generally is a mix between jazz and other styles of hip hop. Because hip hop is a very broad term, like with any form of dance.
So you can’t just say belly dance and expect that it means the same thing all over. We know that there are different styles based on regions and the countries of origin and the evolution of that. It’s the same with any dance form.
I didn’t realize it was street jazz. I was like, I like music videos. I’m going to teach myself Thriller and Rhythm Nation. And I didn’t realize what it was.
And it was something that I was naturally drawn to because I love the choreography from music videos. I’m heavily influenced by the choreography in music videos.
What Have you Learned from Zoe Jakes, Rachel Brice, and Sera Solstice?
Rachel Brice: Cross train dance and yoga
Zoe Jakes: Vocalize! Scream. This relaxes your body and reminds you to breathe.
Sera Solstice: Meditate. Movement is healing and spiritual and not just for performance. It is also for the internal self.
Vegan Whole Food to Love: Figs
Try caramelized figs on pizza or flatbread. Add dried figs to sautéd mushrooms and roasted cauliflower and lentils. There’s a recipe in the works here!
Costume Tip: Don’t be Afraid to Design Something Yourself
Make sketches of the costume you want and work with a local designer. (Brenna loves D. Webb Designs)
And make sure your costume is connected to your character for a piece.
Feel Good Habit: Do Your Runway Walk
It can be really difficult to do your runway walk. There’s a technique to it. It’s a whole artform.
Hips forward. Shoulders rolled back. Standing up nice and tall. Making eye contact with the mirror or whatever is ahead of you.
I’m always looking down. Trying to get to from point A to point B. And you have everything on your mind. You try to block out all the stupid crap that’s being screamed at you from people out on the street. And you’re stressed out about things. And I don’t know about you, but I’m always carrying at least two bags on me all the time. So I have a literal physical weight on me on top of all the emotional baggage.
And I am always looking down. So the physical act of standing up straight with my chin held up high with pride was a lot more emotional work than I thought it was going to be. I started training in that every week.
Owning my space. Owning my body, how it is now at my age, at my weight. I’m short. I’ve gained weight, whatever. I’m still amazing. I’m still fabulous. And you all can’t handle it.
That is the feeling that you have to have. And when I started doing that, it changed my life. It changed the way I danced. It changed the way I was walking down the street.
It changed my interactions with people. I had more confidence in my decisions.
I felt more grounded and I felt more comfortable in my body.
It came from lifting my head up and doing that runway walk every week and having those stilettos on to that music.
I know a lot of people have a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror, keeping prolonged eye contact with themselves.
So facing myself every time when I do that runway walk and I’m looking at myself and I’m looking at my reflection, I’m like, I look good.
It doesn’t happen overnight. Self-love and self-acceptance is a process. It’s a lifelong process.
Even if I’m walking around my block, the sidewalk is my runway.
One of my favorite songs comes on. Watch out because now this is my runway.
I didn’t realize how difficult it is for me to walk with my head held up high. I didn’t realize how I’ve been walking with my face down for so long. It was so foreign to me to walk with my chin up. Held up with confidence.