Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Binalakshmi Nepram

The snow on Columbia University’s campus is beginning to thaw as Binalakshmi Nepram, who goes by Bina, takes me on a tour. Bina has been living underground in the U.S. for seven months after fleeing her native India. She is from a state called Manipur in the northeast that borders Myanmar. Known for her work as a disarmament activist, humanitarian, and writer, she came to New York in May of last year with only a suitcase after armed commandos broke into her home. A longtime advocate for families wrecked by gun violence in Manipur, she had come to the aid of a family whose 19-year-old son was murdered by the Chief Minister of Manipur’s son, connecting them with a lawyer in India’s Supreme Court. No sooner were commandos at her door--but she was out at a wedding. She is just now able to talk about her experiences.

Bina grew up surrounded by gun violence in Manipur and only upon moving to New Delhi for college did she learn this was not normal. In 2002, she authored the book South Asia’s Fractured Frontier, about how political violence is fueled by arms and narcotics in India, which became a pioneering work in the field. In 2004, she founded Control Arms Foundation of India, the country’s first civil society focusing on disarmament. Then in 2007, she founded the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, aimed at helping women from the area who have experienced gun violence in their families rebuild their lives with entrepreneurship on a small scale so they can be self-sustaining. Bina has since been recognized internationally for her humanitarian work, by the Dalai Lama Foundation's WISCOMP Scholar of Peace Award, the Sean MacBride Peace Prize, and the CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award, among many other accolades. At Columbia, Bina is a visiting scholar in the Institute of Human Rights specializing in the rights of indigenous peoples.

When Bina first came to New York, she was very lonely, she says. So she decided to find the heart and soul of the city.

“Did you find it?” I ask, befuddled by what seems like a momentous task.
“I did,” she smiles. “The New York Public Library.”

We walk to a branch down the street from Columbia. Bina immerses herself in non-fiction about social issues in America. In India, she tells me, you can only take out three books from the library at once, but at the New York Public Library, you can take out 50 books at once. “It’s so wonderful!” she smiles.

Our next stop is Masala Club a few blocks down. Bina has never been, but spots the bright white sign as we’re walking on Broadway. “Oh, let’s go there!” she says, excited. She orders us first chai and pakora, which she describes with a chuckle as Indian tempura, and later dosas which we split with her friend Gilbert who joins us. Without noticing, it seems I’ve cleaned my plate. But I guess a good conversation will do that to you.
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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Sarah Eika Burke

“Tell me that you’ve still got the flame for me…”

In Studio G at Gibney Dance, Tinashe’s “Flame” pulses through the speakers. Sarah Eika Burke sings along, swirling her hands in her hair and stretching her arms into the choreography she just taught her students. They follow, learning Sarah’s moves as she says them aloud. Hands and arms twist upward in a motion Sarah calls “Britney!” Hands flick out sideways as if getting rid of excess moisture: “Water!" Hands swish through hair with attitude: “Dry shampoo!” Many of the students have taken her class before and are used to her sassy yet lighthearted teaching style--they understand what “Dry Shampoo!” means, while it makes me chuckle with delight.

Sarah is a full-time artist, teaching five hip-hop classes a week all over New York in addition to being a dancer, choreographer, movement director, and voice-over actor (“Why does it just have to be one thing?” she says later). She originally moved to New York to be a modern dancer, but as she started taking more and more hip-hop classes, opportunities to work in that genre grew so she stuck with it. Sarah still performs modern occasionally, but she has also since appeared in music videos for artists like Kings of Leon and Devvon Terrell, been featured in PeopleStyle, performed on Good Morning America, and more. She will also be choreographing the Brooklyn Nets pre-game show at Barclays Center in March. If that weren’t enough, you may have also heard her voice on Spotify Premium Ads and iHeart Radio. Always working, she already has gigs lined up through this coming September.

Sarah commands attention when she teaches, not in a militaristic way, but in a magnetic way: she’s charismatic and brimming with positive energy. She makes everyone feel welcome (even me, standing at the front of class with a camera), joking around to make students comfortable while still teaching a full class. If someone needs a step repeated, she stops immediately to help them and will always answer questions. I have memories of my own dance class days, feeling timid and nervous about needing a choreography reminder, but if my teachers were like Sarah it would have been a lot easier to speak up.

One of the things Sarah says she loves most, I’ll learn later, is storytelling. Sitting at a table having drinks after class, her friends hang on her every word. But this storytelling translates into her movement, too, where she is as fearless and colorful with her choreography as she is with her anecdotes. No matter how many times she and the class repeat the Tinashe combination that night, her story, her movement, is just as vibrant as the last time, if not more. She’s not afraid to get close to herself in the mirror, to roll around on the floor and throw her hair back into fabulous disarray, all the while encouraging others to do the same. So she’s not just telling a story, she’s teaching her language, too.

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Become a fan of Sarah on Facebook. Check out Sarah’s choreography on YouTube.
Take Sarah’s classes:
Mondays 7-8:30 pm @ PMT Dance Studio
Tuesdays 8-9:30 pm @ Gibney Dance 280; 2:30-4 pm @ Steps On Broadway
Thursdays 7:30-9 pm @ Peridance Capezio Center
Fridays 6:15-7:45 pm @ Steps On Broadway

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Top Great Moments I Didn't Write About But Should Have: 2017 Edition

As ever, my list of my favorite moments I wanted to write about but didn't in 2017.

Work It
There was so much work I did that I was proud of this year, including but not limited to launching Miss Manhattan Hangs Out, which taught and continues to teach me how exciting and beautiful people are, whether you are watching them perform standup comedy in a park, rehearse on a piano, or play with their dogs.

I was excited to write for several dream publications like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Town & Country, and Billboard (one of which resulted in a tweet from RuPaul) as well as become a contributing writer at Cools; the Copy Editor and Staff Writer at Treats!; Copy Editor at The Unseasonal; to continue to work on stories I'm proud of for Vice like those I did on Peche DiJoel Kim BoosterCole EscolaVillage Grannies, and Brooklyn Drag. I was also ecstatic to write a story about airline La Compagnie for Men's Journal, which took me to Paris; to photograph the LGBTQ Anti-Prom at the New York Public Library for Racked, which taught me that the kids will be alright; interview legendary documentary director Errol Morris for Tablet; and write a story that took me to Green-Wood Cemetery for The Village Voice's print edition before it went fully digital.

I also appeared on my first radio show, Young Person's Radio with Colby Smith, on Radio Free Brooklyn; hosted a panel at the Miami Book Fair and attended their gorgeous after-party at The Standard Hotel in Miami; spoke to undergraduates at my university about careers in the humanities; was invited by a gallery to a dinner with its artists; and attended a cocktail party where I talked to Ted Allen for 20 minutes without fangirling.

If You Want to Destroy My Sweater...

SE and I went to see a Weezer cover band called The Sweater Songs at Mercury Lounge. Originally, we thought it would just be a kitschy, weird time, and it definitely was, but the band was also incredible and totally rockin' (especially their bassist Oscar Rodriguez, who we both later decided we had a crush on). Everyone got a free pair of Rivers Cuomo-style glasses, too.

Elliot Erwitt
I've loved Elliott Erwitt's photography since I first saw it in college, especially the way he found the humor in everything (which I think makes his work even more beautiful). A photographer with legendary agency Magnum, he was in attendance at the opening of the International Center of Photography's Magnum exhibition earlier last year. So was I. I went over to him to say hello and say thank you so much for his work. He said, "Okay." We took a selfie, which seems grotesque to ask of a photographer of his caliber, is what it is. 


The week of SD's bachelorette party, we decided to go get manicures--nail art, specifically. But the place we decided to go had an hour-long wait. The next place had no appointments available...nor did the next, or the next or the next. We Googled venues in our phones to see if there was someplace we could go, eventually just wandering all the way up from Canal Street to 14th Street in hopes of stumbling on one. We never found anything, but we laughed the whole way and settled instead to have a glass of wine at Feast, followed by ramen burgers at Yonekichi in the East Village, and dessert tapas at Spot on St. Marks Place. Things didn't go exactly as we planned, but it was one of those nights I'm happy to have shared with her before her big day. She got married in October in a beautiful wedding in Pennsylvania, and I wish her and her husband a lifetime of happiness. 

For some reason in the ferocious summer heat, SJT and I decided to cook. And not just cook, but spatchcock a chicken, roasting it in his apartment that had only a small fan in the kitchen. We were sweating while salting and spicing, and SJT taught me how to chiffonade herbs. While the chicken roasted, we sat in his heavily air-conditioned bedroom with SE and L sipping Georgian wine. He did a marvelous job seasoning the chicken, and it was juicy and wonderful. After dinner, we all went back to his room to eat rice pudding and jam. Spending time with friends is one thing, but cooking with them is somehow even better.

DiscoverHERE is a program developed by theatre artist Nate Bertone, who I had the pleasure of meeting this past summer. I instantly liked his genuine nature, his kindness, his belief in his work. DiscoverHERE is meant to remind what it means to be "here," to remember the present. I attended a version of one of these events at the beginning of fall, just cold enough to wear a jacket and wrap it tightly around you as it gets colder. I listened to people share about their lives with honesty and vulnerability I don't know that I've seen before or since, and I even shared something of myself. I listened more at first--I didn't know if I wanted to share, if I trusted the people sitting in a circle around me, but the more they talked, the more I understood they were coming from a genuine place, so I could too. While Nate is traveling for work for a while, the program had been run in Lululemon's Chelsea space and I hope will continue once he comes back. It takes a lot to make a person, let alone a New Yorker, feel comfortable in a group of strangers, but somehow Nate and co. have developed the formula to be able to do it.

Bushwig, the independent Brooklyn drag festival hosted by Horrorchata, just completed its fifth year and despite my love of all things drag, I only attended for the first time this year while working on the aforementioned article. It was a weekend of extraordinary indoor and outdoor performances with a punk rock sensibility, massive heels, impossibly high wigs, glitter on top of glitter on top of glitter and gender-bending gorgeousness I will not soon forget...and I will definitely be back next year.

"Bougie, but nice"
Mag, AR, M, and I left a gallery opening crowded with people in search of hamburgers. But not just any hamburgers, ones that were like, you know, a little more interesting. Ones that, I made the mistake of saying, were "bougie. but nice." I meant "bougie. but cheap," because none of us felt like paying our rent for an interesting hamburger. But just like a strange cheese, maybe a weird bread, some unusual know the deal. So we wandered over to Whitmans in the East Village for our inexpensive treats, and I do not remember a second where we weren't laughing, telling jokes and weird stories, then hopping down to another restaurant for wine and tiramisu. It was cold out, but the company was warm.

Lobster on a Budget
I've written before about this thing that HanOre and I do called a high-low evening, where we do something like go eat borscht then have a fancy cocktail. But then I spotted $14 lobsters at Fairway. I texted her a picture of these mythical creatures and suggested our next evening was in order. Her home would be the venue, with pan-roasted cauliflower, sushi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Prosecco, and Frank Sinatra. We cracked our lobsters and dipped their innards in butter, later cracking open New York magazine's 50th Anniversary book and dipping our fingers into a black and white cookie from Agata & Valentina. We may have outdone ourselves.

The Pink Spiders
Back when I was a young aspiring punk who occasionally shopped at Hot Topic (oh man, I can't believe I just started a sentence that way), my favorite band was a band called The Pink Spiders. They were like if the Ramones and the early Beatles had a love child that was raised in Nashville, and I loved them. I physically own every CD (yes, CD!) every album they ever made, and I know all of their songs by heart. But I only had the opportunity to see them one time, many moons ago in college, and I accidentally only saw part of their set because they started earlier than I thought. But this time, after years apart, they had gotten back together--or rather, the lead singer reassembled the band with new members--and they would be playing in Brooklyn. So I topped all of my pleases with whipped cream and a cherry on top for SE to please come with me to this show late on a "school night" and he did. And it was amazing. There are so few concerts I go to where I know every word to every song a band plays, but I did that night (except for their two new ones) and I shook and shook and shook my body to the shredding of their guitars, the beating of their drums in a way that the me of 15 years ago always wanted to.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

There’s not enough good Korean food in Miami for Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s taste. There are some places, she tells me, but they’re mostly sushi joints that also serve Korean food. None of them are as good as Gabose, which is near my parents’ house in Lauderhill, nearly an hour and a half from where she lives in Coral Gables. Normally I would never ask someone to make a trek like that, but Marci tells me it’s a pleasure--she only gets to eat there once every four to six months, and she loves how much it really feels like Korea.

A Korean adoptee, Marci was raised in upstate New York but lived in Korea on and off for a year after graduating high school early. Her experiences became the background of her award-winning poetry collection Hour of the Ox, about an immigrant family’s struggle with displacement and wanderlust. The collection was honored with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ 2015 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, which led to Hour of the Ox’s publication with University of Pittsburgh Press. Marci has also been a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellow and a two-time prizewinner from the Academy of American Poets. She occasionally teaches as an adjunct faculty member in the creative writing department at Florida International University. Last year, her poetry was published in The New York Times.

For someone who has numerous accolades as a poet--a descriptor that still often brings to mind the “tortured artist” persona--Marci is a sunny ball of giggles and positive energy when we meet. We hug and make our way to the table, immediately deciding that soju, the distilled Korean beverage that’s 20-24 percent alcohol by volume, is in our sights. But not too much, because we both have to drive home. Next, Marci opens the menu and wants to know what flavors I like, what meats I like. Am I interested in trying blood sausage? Indeed, I am. Soon dae, as it’s called, is made with intestines, noodles, rice, and pork blood, among other flavorings. We also select Ojingo Bokum, a stir-fried squid and vegetable dish, and Jajangmyeon, a noodle dish made with a bean sauce that’s black in color. The latter is good for the winter, Marci tells me, because it’s so thick and hearty.

The food arrives and Marci folds her chopstick wrapper into a tiny paper shelf where she will rest them when she’s not eating. We dive in and everything is extraordinary, especially the blood sausage, which is my favorite. Marci discusses where her work is going next. She is working on poetry translations and a collection of lyric essays but is also taking time off from teaching this coming semester to focus on writing more of her own poetry. She has enough poems for a book right now, she tells me, but they’re not quite a collection yet. “I’m a slow writer,” she laughs. But sometimes slow is good: soon four hours have passed and we’re still laughing, chitchatting, drinking soju.

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