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

Photo Courtesy of Kristina Koutsoudas

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.

Photo by J. "Jay" Thomas Ford

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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