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Iliev choreography connects USA and Bulgaria

Petre Iliev was a founding teacher of the Believe in Me program in Austin, Texas. From Austin, he led his first group tour of American dancers traveling to Bulgaria to explore the richness of the dance traditions there. The group visited dance schools for ballet that included traditional dance forms as well as studing with the major choreographers of Bulgaria’s traditional folk dance companies, and dancing in his family in the village where Iliev was born.

Petre Iliev has a important impact on the dancing of the United States by bringing the rhythm and passion of Bulgarian dancing to his ballet and modern choreography. Here is an update of his further exploration of connecting folk traditions with contemporary dancing.

Iliev Dance Art Foundation, DANCE BULGARIA 2009,

In April, 2008 through the initiative of Bulgaria-born dance teacher and choreographer, Petur Iliev, The National School of Dance Art in Bulgaria hosted a week-long intensive dance workshop, which gave aspiring young dancers from Bulgaria and the US the opportunity to study different dance styles with renowned master choreographers. The ambition was to give the students the opportunity to acquire fundamental knowledge of four extremely different dance forms: jazz, modern, Bulgarian folk dancing and classical ballet, and also for them to witness the creative process through which their teachers approach the creation of a complete choreography. 125 children from all the corners of Bulgaria, and 14 children from the US participated in the project. The six choreographers who devoted their time and expertise to the project were Daniel Duell (School of Ballet Chicago), Mariana Deneva (Bulgarian National School of Dance Art), Sonia Dawkins (Pacific Northwest Ballet-Seattle), Alex Bergeson (Pacific Northwest Ballet-Seattle), Hristo Ivanov (Bulgarian National School of Dance Art) and Petur Iliev (School of Ballet Chicago).

The first edition of this dance program enjoyed a tremendous success! Both students and teachers were very enthusiastic and worked really hard during the short time they had together. The students demonstrated talent, strong work ethic and a burning desire to learn and develop. During that intensive week they acquired new dance vocabulary and techniques, and participated in the short choreographies set by the teachers. The workshop ended with a concert, which showcased the new choreographies and demonstrated the students’ progress. It also included performances by the professional dance companies Pirin and Trakia from Bulgaria, and Prism from the US. The concert was held to a fully packed hall and the performances received long-lasting ovations. The workshop enjoyed tremendous interest from the media as well, and its participants were featured in several TV shows.

The whole endeavor became possible thanks to major grants from the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, Ballet Chicago, The Bulgarian National School of Dance Art, and many American and Bulgarian private benefactors, including generous in-kind donations.

In addition, the workshop became the springboard for yet another fruitful Bulgaria-USA dance collaboration. Ballet Chicago awarded 14 full and one partial tuition scholarships for Bulgarian students to participate in their prestigious summer program, held between June 23 and August 7, 2008. Thus, fifteen exceptionally gifted and diligent young Bulgarians had the opportunity to train for six weeks at a prestigious US ballet center. All of them were students of the Bulgarian National School of Dance Art but came from different parts of Bulgaria. They were selected by the teachers of the workshop. The students’ families and private sponsors covered only their airfare, while members of the Bulgarian community in Chicago and supporters of Ballet Chicago took care of their accommodations and meals.

The Bulgarian dancers made incredibly good impression in the US. They participated in all the choreographies set during the summer program and presented at the final concert held on July 25 at Columbia College – Chicago. Two of the dancers, Nikolina Karageorgieva and Eliza Kaltcheva, received full tuition scholarships, which enabled them to continue their training at Ballet Chicago’s year-long comprehensive program. They are currently continuing their studies there.

Upon their return back home, all of the Bulgarian students shared their enormous satisfaction with their participation in the project. They were hopeful that the project will continue to exist and will develop further, providing aspiring dancers with the opportunity to train in different dance forms on both sides of the ocean. With this goal in mind, in July 2008, in Sofia, the international Iliev Dance Art Foundation was created, an organization which took upon itself the task of guaranteeing the continuation of Dance Bulgaria. Its members are currently preparing the second edition of the program, which will be held between March 31 and April 6, 2009 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Excerpts from student responses received after the workshop and summer program

My trip to Bulgaria was an amazing experience. The cultural diversity between Bulgaria and the United States was an eye-opening experience for me. I loved learning Bulgarian folk dancing and found myself smiling at the end of every class. I felt I worked very hard and had a fantastic time. If given the chance, I would definitely go back.

Regan Bell, USA

This project changed my life completely. Meeting such an incredible group of teachers was a fantastic experience. They were highly professional teachers and incredible role models. Although we only worked with them for a short period of time, the memory will be forever with me and I am eagerly expecting the next opportunity to work with the incredible crew of Dance Bulgaria 2008.

Eliza Kalcheva, Bulgaria

It was a truly life-changing experience for me. It was amazing having the opportunity to work with such great teachers and choreographers. It has made me more aware of the world around me and the opportunities that may lie in store for me down the road. I know that I will never look at the world of dance or at myself in the same way again after this experience.

Kyle Johnson, USA

I know that this journey will be one of the most memorable events in my life. I loved it and I hope to be back soon. The part which I loved the most was holding hands with everyone in the circle as we danced, and we all laughed and enjoyed as much as we could.

Rina Shimizu, USA

Your country is beautiful and it was truly a pleasure getting to stay and perform there. It was also really great getting to know the people and learning about the culture of Bulgaria.

Madeline Koch, USA

This was undoubtedly a new and enriching experience for me. I got the incredible opportunity to get to know a new style of dance, such as jazz. It was a pleasure to try it out and understand why it is so popular and loved in the United States. The teachers also impressed me immensely. It was a true pleasure to work with everyone. The other incredible opportunity I received was immersing myself in the American culture – so completely different from the Bulgarian.

Nikolina Karageorgieva, Bulgaria


You were graciously helpful in meeting us at the airport, translating and taking us to delicious places to eat. Getting to meet the other students from Bulgaria was amazing. They were very welcoming, friendly and helpful.

Jessie Guerrero, USA

Although I loved the classes and felt the workshop was very beneficial, I think that the most valuable part about the week was meeting people and making friends with students our age who live in such a different culture. After the performance, I cannot believe how emotional all of us were. It was so difficult to leave all of the new friends that we had made. Saying Good-bye to them was the hardest part of the trip, but this also showed me how wonderful the experience was and how happy I was to be able to be there, even if only for a week.

Haley Holman, USA



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Canvas of Tapestry Teachers poem

VISIONS IN RHYTHM May 8, 2008, Canvas of Tapestry Teachers,  Tim Hurst May 2008

The care, the gift, the blessing freely given Strand, Grey, Tashia, Matt, all and all,

Teachers of the bog and the bonnie and the shanty and the African Queen, rattling every rafter and board walk, tantalizing the dice to play clacking the street away.

Here diamonds are polished, grit grinded down to sharpened glint of rainbow colored sound.  Personalities dare not stand in the way as the earth’s axis shifts, one side, other side, takes a dig into a roller coaster ride.

And teachers know their brew.  They patiently watch as the froth rises to the edge of the sometimes reluctant vessel.  Cured and formented clear as bubbling amber, each student sounds their life in tones bold and bright.

Like canoes pushed from forest into a dark river, each student catches their current, calling on well tuned navigator’s skills, eyes like birds intensely laughing with every rise and fall.

Protege, apprentice, student, or human, one purpose never forgotten, to be true to the wind and to the sound from where it came.

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Dance stamina secret

Dance stamina would not seem to be different from any other athletic activity.  Runners speak of visualizations that keep them going and totally engaged.  So the thought is, how is dance stamina different.

There is a difference and I am trying to put my finger on it.  Moving to music is definitely a help that everyone is aware of and readily uses in earjacks every day.  Dance is of course different in creating a new rendition of the music with circular motion.  But that does not account for basic difference in an approach to stamina.

Athletic activity is often used by some dancers to build heart rate and aerobic stamina.  This is not a need for some Contra Dancers whose feet barely touch the ground during long songs and over the course of an evening must run many marathons.  It is in this kind of social situation that harks back to earlier times when dancing was all night jigs, barn dances, and tribal ceremonies that gives a clue to the type of stamina I am searching for.

My own personal experience runs the gamut from basic Austin community boogies, improvisational marathons similiar to Body Choir, Sufi spinning, Contra dancing, International Folk Dancing in the United States, Israel and Bulgaria, and ceremonial dancing in Brazil as well as supporting Sun Dancers near Austin.

One teaching that I received from Deborah Hay summed up what this experience of dance stamina means to me.  This was at Deborah’s first workshop in Austin called Circle Dances.  There were about 18 of us in Studio D at an upstairs loft downtown Austin across the street from the original Stubbs BarBQue.  I will never forget that entire experience and I have used this particular piece of learning many times.

We were divided into two groups facing each other from the ends of the long rectangular studio.  Luckily the floor was wood and floating as a second floor.  Otherwise we would not have made it through the extended length of time of full out dancing.

Deborah asked us to imagine that we were running down a mountain into a valley and at the center of the valley we were going to meet a person in an embrace like we have never imagined.  We could use a person or persons from the other end as the one we were meeting or we could imagine in our minds eye a person that would inspire us.

We needed the inspiration because she asked us to run in place with all the energy we had, inching forward slowly toward the center of the room.  We were to continue as long as the music was going and not arrive at the center until the music stopped.

She played Marvin Gaye singing like only he can sing.  And she repeated the song in a loop for an eternity.  When we were beyond all hope of having any energy left, she played it again and again.

While we were running as best we could, she gave us the secret to dance stamina.  Yes, we had the music and that helped for a while.  Yes, we had the image of running toward someone dear to us, forever running toward them, what an image, what an inspiring image.

Now she gave us the secret.  “Open the space between your eye brows.  Look up, look out.”  That is dance: OPEN.

That was not all.  “Open the area around your heart.  Let streams of energy burst out.”  The heart, of course dance comes from the heart.

These are two key areas of openness in dance- between the eyes is the seat of the pineal gland and at the center of the chest is the heart.  Both are opened when dancing.

These key centers can be called upon when we need extra energy.  Whether it is because of the image itself or a physical connection that is activated in the brain, I do not know.  I do know that it works.  When I could not dance any more and I called on these two areas to open, a rush of energy came to my aid, more than I could ever use.

Runners call this a second wind.  With dance, you can begin the workout with this openness without having to wait for the body to give it up for a second time around.  Of course the training comes in discovering how to reach this level of openness.  This is what the Samurai spend a life time learning.

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Dance energy does not get stuck

Can you guess why dance is the best therapy?  Dance energy flows through.  It is like riding the roller coaster that goes down the curve, through the bottom, and to the next up swing.  This is the flow of energy that accupuncturists, chiropracters and massage therapist work toward.  This is the energy that came from primal dance and came to us in the disciplines of not only dance but also yoga and Tai Chi.

That is why dancers rush to the floor bursting with energy at the latest hour and when it would seem there was no energy left.

It is this brightness of energy that I am looking for in every movement I make.  What is keeping me from that brightness is the thoughts and actions that keep me at the bottom curve of the roller coaster.  Stuck is what it is called.  These are the stuck thoughts about how I can move and how I can feel.

So how is it that dance energy is so powerful.  The proof is in the pudding.  When asked why dance is so much a part of people’s life, a familiar response is “I can forget all my troubles and just be in the moment,” and the response that covers all the bases is, “It’s fun.”

What is it about dance that overrides emotional hangups even extreme shyness and even challenges the  perfectionist’s attempts to shut out emotion from their lives.  I believe that it is the primal brain that responds to circular motion and to the elements of musical rhythm, phrasing, and tonality.

Children give us the best clues.  They love to spin and turn and explore movement.  Often I see a child humming while exploring a movement.  And of course the passed down childhood chants while jumping rope and playing are very powerful.

Dancer’s connection to music and circular motion is captivating.  In fact, dancers build within themselves an internal music, another version of the music they are hearing.  It is their own type of melody and phrasing that connects their memory, their feelings, and the intricate coordinations that are required to perform the dance.  It is this inner music that adds to the captivating nature of dance.

Learning dance requires this multi-layered inner sense because so many different parts of the body are involved at once demanding subtle use of inner muscles, feeling and personality attitudes, not to mention the circular crossing of several body parts moving in different directions.

Evidence of this inner music is seen not only in children but also in modern dancers who dance without external music and create lines and phrases that can almost be heard.  Watching a ballet dancer rehearsing without music, it becomes obvious that a real music is internalized and recreated by the dancer.