By day, Katharyn Howd Machan is known as Tompkins County’s first Poet Laureate. A celebrated published poet, Katharyn is a perennial favorite amongst the students in her science fiction and fairy-tale-based creative writing classes at Ithaca College. Her most famous poem “Hazel Tells LaVerne” is reenacted every year in Katharyn’s first-year seminar and has been read around the world.
And in Katharyn’s world, poetry and performance are inextricably linked. Growing up, she recalls being drawn to the performance of poetry. During high school in 1967 in conservative Pleasantville, NY, she performed Rupert Brooke’s poetry before an enthralled crowd in an anti-war demonstration. At the College of Saint Rose she studied and performed literature as part of the forensics team. After early graduation, she coached undergraduates in presentation. On the faculty of TC3, after moving to Ithaca in 1975, Katharyn founded and coached a speech team, again noting how effective dramatic presentation captivated audiences.
Shortly after Katharyn was hired at Ithaca College in 1977, she joined colleague Frank Sharp for the forensic team, while she enthralled her students with poetry.
“The performance of literature makes the written word come to life, leaps beyond the page,” she said. “Listening to poetry aloud leads people to want to read poetry.”
But by night, Katharyn is an unusual dancer.
“I never planned to become a belly dancer,” Machan said. “The first time I ever saw one I was 15, with my mother in a restaurant that had an after-dinner show of cross-dressers. As the finale of her dance, a gorgeous “woman” unclasped her coin-hung top to show the stunned audience she was a he.”
In 1979, Katharyn was invited by fellow writer Sharon Yntema (author of “Vegetarian Baby,” edited by Katharyn for McBooks Press) to take a belly dancing class. Katharyn showed up; Sharon did not. “People find belly dancing or belly dancing finds them.”
And that was it! When Katharyn watched Ithaca’s “queen of belly dance,” Carol Stewart (now Openshaw) with her long red hair, sapphire-rainbow costume, and experienced the Middle Eastern music, Katharyn was hooked.
“The costume—adorned in glitzy jewels, jangling coins, and bright sequins—are transformative. Everyone becomes beautiful and everyone has so much fun.”
Over the 40 years Katharyn has performed with the troupe Carol created, “Mirage,” she has shared her love of the dance with large, lively crowds at Ithaca Festivals, Apple Harvest Festivals and elsewhere. “We embrace the music with our bodies and share that attitude with the audience: ‘Don’t suppress your life force; come dance with us!’[…] I connect with the audience and they feel the dance, feel like dancing.”
At first Katharyn adopted Virgo as her stage name. When later she learned of competitive oral poetry festivals in the Middle East where belly dance originated, she adopted the name Zajal, meaning “call and response,” describing the interplay of performer and audience in poetry and in dance.
For many years, Katharyn has taught belly dancing to people of all ages and physical capabilities, and few can resist responding to her call. Every Thursday for two decades she has offered a free class at Longview, where residents find that her lively, exuberant exercise enhances their vitality. “Belly dancing helps us embrace the deep Eros of life, the generative power of life, regardless of our age. It celebrates the body and the fullest reaches of life.”
Katharyn and fellow professor and writer husband Eric Machan Howd are the parents of two creative, grown children. CoraRose, a photographer (and currently home-schooler of eight-year-old Scarlett during social isolation in their home on Long Island), and Benjamin, a local artist. In 1994, when Benjamin was two years old, Katharyn invented StoryDance—“original story-making combined with dance, for and with children—wonderful fun.”
And now all these years later son Benjamin, as drag queen Dizzy DeScretion, is part of StoryDance with Zajal and Mirage at festivals, encouraging enthusiastic audiences to take on a role unlike those of daily life as they dance. Watching them, the “call and response” is irresistible. “Performing with my son as Dizzy DeScretion is a peak experience. He has to be the last performer wherever we perform. The audience loves his act so much that no one else wants to follow him.”
Over four decades the Mirage Belly Dancers have brought their art to many, and no one who has swayed to their music forgets their show. While sadly all spring engagements were cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions, troupe members are thrilled that before long they will again be performing for—and with—audiences.