100 Creatives 2013: Kristina Koutsoudas, Middle Eastern, Persian and North African Folk Dance Artist

In Western culture, dance is the province of the theatrical stage. A dancer is understood to be a disciplined technician of a movement vocabulary that the non-dancer does not possess. But for the rest of the world, dance isn't so much a chosen vocation as it is an integral part of everyday life. Everyone dances, just as everyone participates in their culture's rituals and ceremonies. It is these traditional dance forms that Kristina Koutsoudas has devoted her life to performing and preserving.

Kristina has the distinction of teaching Middle Eastern dance at Rice University, making her the first dance artist to teach this particular form at a Texas university. She's also the first educator in the United States to develop arts-in-education programs with a specific focus on the Middle East. Her love of dance began at a young age and is a product of her Greek heritage. "Dance wasn't separate from our community. We didn't go to a theater to perform," she says as she recalls gatherings where immediate and extended family members would burst into song and dance as part of the festivities.

Middle Eastern dance, as well as North African and Persian dance, are her current focus of creative output. Being a working artist in the field of folk dance poses a different set of challenges than ballet and modern dancers, namely educating audiences on the cultural origins of the craft. "People know Middle Eastern dance as belly dancing, which has highly sexual connotations. Its true origins, however, are in fertility rituals dancers engaged in as part of worship of the divine." She points out that the work she does is not a commercialized form, or an objectification of the female body. "The dance is mystical, spiritual in healing and about cultural identity. It's about love of your people and family."

The traditional forms of the Middle East that Kristina teaches and performs also face social stigmas from the places they originate. "People associate folkloric art with lack of modernization and progress. It's a trend to abandon culture and tradition for what's modern and Western." But for Kristina, these dances are about identity, cultural solidarity and the very essence of the people who created them. When she performs, she isn't just dancing, but preserving distinct and valuable ways of life.

What she does: "I'm an independent performing/teaching artist of classical and contemporary cultural dance. Specifically, I always have to define Middle Eastern, Persian, Central Asian or whatever form it is that we're discussing. It's hard because I do an array. I've lately become interested in interpretive presentations of narrative forms of traditional dance, and making it contemporary for the stage."

Why she likes it: "I think with any of the folk arts or Eastern arts, it's not a concept when you dance, it's an actual experience. It's a great joy. Folk dance is about being able to move with others." When she was young, Kristina had a mystical experience through dance. "That drove me from that time on to continue with dance. I dance for the sheer joy of doing it."

What inspires her: Kristina has spent her life exploring movement forms from across the globe, including classical Indian dance and traditional Balinese dance. On one level, she's inspired by curiosity, of what it must feel like to move and transfer energy using the vocabulary of each form she stumbles across. But on a deeper level, her inspiration is love. "I think love is always the inspirational motivation. Whether it's love of the environment, or the elements, or another person, or just being alive. Every day is different when you dance, and it's that love, that sense of wonder, that sense of what am I going to find today that is inspiring."

If not this, then what: Even though she plans to always be an artist and a healer, Kristina has a dream of building her own sanctuary of cultural and spiritual revitalization. "I have a dream of owning a place, maybe even a bed and breakfast, in an exotic location like a Greek island or Bali or Morocco, a place of beauty, a place of retreat and renewal complete with vineyards or a distillery, gardens, a wildlife sanctuary and a temple, and to be known for revitalizing the local cultural economy and also for throwing fabulous parties." But her message would be the same as the one that she imparts in her dance work, "to be one's own pillar of light in this world." If not here, then where: Kristina's reply to this is befitting a true citizen of the world: "Everywhere. I love to be on the road, traveling, doing research, writing and performing. I have a secret dream to have my own travel show -- touring spiritual/cultural festivals around the world, even marriage ceremonies." But if she were forced to pinpoint one location on a map, it would be someplace "small and beautiful, like Austin, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego or the Catskills." What's next: Kristina will be one of six choreographers who will show work in Dance Month's Houston Choreographers X6 concert on January 25 and 26. The dance she will present has its basis in classical Persian dance. "The piece itself is about angels. I became fascinated with the Persian characterization of angels in Persian mythology. In their paintings, you see a lot of them. They're very flowing, and said to be mischievous. The music is so joyous, and I wanted to show something light and feminine. Angels are beings of light and illumination, and I wanted to give them a feminine face, and a beautiful face." We can't wait to be enchanted.

More Creatives for 2013 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page). Bruce Small, artist Greg Dean, actor Bruce Foster, paper engineer Valentina Kisseleva, painter Michael Wooten, painter Shawn Hamilton, actor Matt Adams, digital artist and independent curator Gilbert Ruiz, artist Dionne Sparkman Noble, choreographer and professor Lee Wright, artist Vic Shuttee, comedy writer and performer Robin Davidson, poet and translator Jessica Wilbanks, essayist and Pushcart Prize winner David DeHoyos, astronaut photographer Sophie Jordan, bestselling book author Jessi Jordan, comic artist, beekeeper and yeti enthusiast Patrick Peters, architect and professor Jamie Kinosian, visual artist Paris F. Jomadiao, mixed-media artist and stop motion animator Shanon Adams, dancer James Glassman, Houstorian historian and artist Lou Vest, photographer Sara Gaston, stage and screen star Rachael Pavlik, a writer mom Ana Villaronga-Roman, Katy Contemporary Arts Museum director Erin Wasmund, actor, singer and dancer Karim Al-Zand, composer Jan Burandt, paper conservator for The Menil Collection Deke Anderson, actor Craig Cohen, hockey fan and host of Houston Matters Mauro Luna, Poe-Inspired photographer Trond Saeverud, Galveston Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Khrystyna Balushka, paper flower child Christina Carfora, visual artist and world traveler Sara Kumar, artistic director for Shunya Theatre Kiki Maroon, burlesque clown Gin Martini, fashion designer Lacey Crawford, painter and sculptor Homer Starkey, novelist Jenn Fox, mixed media Shohei Iwahama, dancer Erica DelGardo, metalsmith Bob Clark, executive director Houston Family Arts Center Kerrelyn Sparks, bestselling romance author Lindsay Halpin, punk rock mad hatter Drake Simpson, actor Shelby Carter, Playboy model turned photographer David Matranga, actor Crystal Belcher, pole dancer Daniel Kramer, photographer Blue 130, pin-up explosion art Nina Godiwalla, author and TED speaker David Wilhem, light painter Tom Abrahams, author and newscaster Browncoat, pin-up pop artist Kris Becker, Nu-Classical composer and pianist Vincent Fink, science fashion Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Senorita Cinema founder Ned Gayle, thrift store painting defacer Sameera Faridi, fashion designer Greg Ruhe, The Human Puppet Sophia L. Torres, founder and co-artistic director of Psophonia Dance Company Maggie Lasher, dance professor and artistic director Jordan Jaffe, founder of Black Lab Theatre Outspoken Bean, performance poet Barry Moore, architect Josh Montoute, mobile gaming specialist Ty Doran, young actor Gwen Zepeda, Houston's first Poet Laureate Joseph Walsh, principal dancer at Houston Ballet Justin Garcia, artist Buck Ross, dilettante and director of Moores Opera Center Patrick Renner, sculptor of the abstract and the esoteric Tomas Glass, abstract artist and True Blood musician Ashley Stoker, painter, photographer and Tumblr muse Amy Llanes, artistic airector of Rednerrus Feil Dance Company Bevin Bering Dubrowski, executive director at the Houston Center for Photography Lydia Hance, founder and director of Frame Dance Productions Piyali Sen Dasgupta, mixed media artist and nature lover Dean James, New York Times bestselling mystery novelist Nicola Parente, abstract painter and photographer Cheryl Schulke, handmade leather pursemaker Anthony Rathbun, Alternative Lifestyle Photographer David Salinas, computer-less analog photographer Danielle Burns, art curator Alicia DiRago, Whimseybox founder Katia Zavistovski, contemporary art curator Ashley Horn, choreographer, filmmaker Amanda Stevens, scary book author Peter Lucas, film and video curator, music lover and self-described culture-slinger Ana María Otamendi, collaborative pianist and vocal coach Billy D. Washington, comedian Michele Brangwen, choreographer and dancer Kristin Warren, actress and choreographer Kelly Sears, animator and film maker Colton Berry, Bayou City Theatrics' artistic director jhon r. stronks,dance-maker Joe Grisaffi, actor, director, writer, cinematographer

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