My journey began when I went to an African drumming class. One day in class when my hands got sore, I asked if people minded if I danced for a bit while I rested my hands, and they all said, “sure, go ahead”. It turned out that I loved dancing to the drumming so much that I ended up going to class and just dancing!
Later I was living in Maine and I felt like going out dancing. Dance clubs comes and go, and at the time there was a particular dearth of clubs in the area that weren’t playing loud boring music filled with drunk people.
So then I had an idea, what if I danced outside, in one the parks? This seemed like a weird and scary idea to me, but I couldn’t think of anything actually wrong with it. I tried to think of what could be the worse that could possibly happen. For example, maybe the police would tell me no dancing allowed. OK, then I wouldn’t do it. The worse thing I could think of was that maybe somebody would steal my boombox while I was dancing. So I got this super cheap boombox, so cheap that I wouldn’t care if it was stolen.
The dance I had developed from African drumming was a free-flowing interpretive dance, where I listened to the music and danced what I heard; there was no specific moves or choreography. People loved the dance, and I received many compliments such as “it was so beautiful that it almost brought tears to my eyes”.
On occasion some lowlife would insult me and call me names such as “weirdo” or “homo”. Now, as to the latter, of course to be called a homosexual isn’t an insult, unless it’s intended as an insult. I mean, I once had a guy ask me out, and I said, “sorry, I’m straight”, and I no more felt awkward or insulted than I am if I’m in a store and someone mistakes me for someone working there and asks me a question and I say “sorry, I don’t work here”. And hey, it’s nice when someone likes me enough to ask me out, even if I turn out to be the wrong orientation :)
But aside from “homo” supposedly being an insult, there’s another interesting implication here that being artistic and creative would imply that I’m gay. Which is to say, an assumption that to “really” be a straight man I can’t be artistic and creative. Now there’s a limiting belief! Imagine how sad it would be if I had internalized that belief and thought, “oh well, I’m straight, so I’ll just have to leave being fun and flamboyant to gay people”. xD
I had people ask me when I’d be dancing again, so I started an online blog on LiveJournal. I needed to come up with a screen name, and I picked “cat dancer” after the cat toy — it’s a feather on the end of a bouncy wire that cats love to play with.
I was watching a bellydance show and saw this most amazing, flowing, swirling, shimmering, cape-like accessory called Isis Wings... and I said, “wow! I want one!” Fortunately I felt secure enough in my masculinity or straightness or whatever that I didn’t mind that Isis Wings are traditionally worn by women :-). And when I danced with them, people found them as amazing as I did.
Still, when I danced, even though people really liked me and sometimes friends or other people would dance with me, I felt there was a gap where I was out dancing and most people were watching or going by, but just doing their ordinary downtown things and not being creative themselves. I wanted to be in an environment that was more social for me.
Many people in my situation would join a dance troupe, but as an free-form dance I wasn't looking to spend time in rehearsals, and even as part of a group giving performances on stage still had that same separation from other people which wasn’t what I was looking for.
Earlier in my life I had gone to science fiction conventions, and at the time I at the time I hadn’t gotten into costuming or the other artistic things that fans do. “Cosplay”, short for “costume play”, is when fans create costumes — sometimes quite elaborate and amazing — of their favorite characters from anime, manga, books, or shows.
There’s an amazing level of creativity and celebration of intellectual and geek culture that happens at science fiction and anime conventions, so I thought that might be the a good place where I could be with other people who also being creative.
I imagined “Cat Dancer” as an avatar, like something you’d find in anime It wouldn’t be cosplay as such, at least in the sense that it would be an original creation instead of modeling an existing character, but inspired by anime.
I had read in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics about how when comic characters were drawn very detailed and realisticly, that gave a sense of otherness, of being distinct from the reader; while simply drawn characters allowed the reader to identify more easily with the character. So I tried out a simple but striking costume of a black spandex dance suit, the red Isis Wings, and a mask of black and white feathers.
While not everyone at the conventions were into the avatar, it was popular and many people looked forward to seeing me again.
One year I was attending a workshop by Steve Pavlina on subjective reality, and Steve had mentioned that one time a workshop had fallen on Halloween, and people had come in costume that day. (Steve had dressed as a Jedi knight :). So I said I’d come in costume for the first morning, and Steve said that’d be cool. I showed up in my usual Cat Dancer outfit (wings, spandex, mask), and Steve said, “Andrew! You’re in costume!” And I said, “... yes, I said I’d come in costume”, and Steve said, “I didn’t believe you!” :D
People liked the costume and loved the wings (as usual), but I found that in the workshop that for me it was a little alienating to be wearing the mask, that it was like I was putting a barrier between me and the other participants. I had only said I’d wear the costume for the morning, so after lunch I came back in regular clothes. People said, “oh, where’s the cape? We miss the cape!”.
Oh, I thought, that’s interesting... I had been conceptualizing the wings as being part of the costume, or as part of the dance, but people liked the wings themselves.
One of the things we did at the workshop were courage exercises, where we’d go out and interact with random members of the public. (The workshop was in Las Vegas, and we went out to the Vegas strip where people were there on vacation and having fun, so people were more accepting than perhaps they might have been in other locations :)
So I tried out wearing the wings with just my regular street clothes, and random, regular people out in the street loved them. In fact, I had people come up to me and say, “oh my gosh, can I hug you? Please?”
Now, you understand, by this point I was accustomed to getting a positive reaction after putting out some great effort: an intense interpretive dance, or a dramatic costume. But here I was doing very little, just making myself available and wearing some wings that I liked. And people loved my emotional energy, they said they found it relaxed and calming. What I found fascinating was that after years of practicing being “Cat Dancer”, I could generate the same energy, the same positive reaction, very simply.
Hugs I had so many people ask me if they could hug me that I got a button that reads “Free Hugs” as a way to say, yes, it’s OK, you can hug me if you wish.
Now I can walk through a festival and all kinds of people will want hugs. Men, women, children with their parents, teenagers, punks on skateboards and bikers with spikes on their jackets, drunks and unwashed homeless guys all would like a hug.
So I needed to come up with some boundaries :)
First, no one would get a hug unless they themselves ask for a hug. I have people say, “He wants a hug!” or “She wants a hug!” or “My boyfriend / girlfriend is really sad, would you give him / her a hug?” Sorry, but most anyone can get a hug if they want one, but they have to want one for themselves.
No hugs for drunks, people who are unwashed, smoking, or abusive. (You’d be surprised, sometimes someone will get a little confused and yell, “oh, what a weirdo! Oh, hey, come here! I want a hug too!” Nope).
Children can have hugs only when accompanied by their parents, and as always only if they themselves want a hug. The rule is relaxed a bit for teenagers, a teenager doesn’t need to be accompanied by their own parent, but I only give out hugs in places and events where there are also parents and other adults participating and present.
And for the people wearing jackets covered in spikes... take the jacket off first, please! :D