On her feet, off the cuff

Amy Sigil

Photo By lisa baetz

For more information, visit www.unmata.com.

Amy Sigil is, on paper anyway, far removed from the image of a stereotypical dancer. An athlete in high school, Sigil planned to play and coach basketball before an addiction to methamphetamine derailed her life. At age 21, Sigil started on a journey to recovery, and along the way she discovered dance and eventually developed her own take on the art form. Improvisational tribal style, usually performed to a soundtrack of bass-heavy electronic music, fuses Bharatanatyam, belly dance, hula, hip-hop, flamenco and African-styled dance. Now, as owner of the Sacramento-based Hot Pot Studios (1614 K Street, Studio 1) and founder of the Unmata troupe, Sigil choreographs and coaches dancers and other instructors in town and abroad. Sigil talked to SN&R about life after meth, putting on a game face and why her performers are the freaks of the dance world.

Who’s a good fit for improvisational tribal style dance?

A lot of time in most genres of dance, you need to be young and extremely flexible and extremely thin to be able to [dance]. I’m proud because [improvisational tribal style] is really a backdoor to dance. I was not born in a studio. I spent all my life doing sports. I didn’t find dance until after I was quitting methamphetamines at 21. I was looking for new hobbies that were going to enrich my life a little bit, so I started dancing and painting and [making] pottery and anything I could get my hands on. Dance was the only thing that stuck after meth—that and motorcycles, to tell the truth. I’m really proud of my clientele, because [they’re] really the freaks of the dance world—people who were not necessarily born in the dance studio: people who have body hair, people who are tattooed, and mothers who have six kids and have never taken a dance class in their lives.

How can everyday people take on ITS?

You may have to adapt the movements because your knees are different … or you’re super flexible. My particular style of ITS, it doesn’t have feats of strength in it. It’s definitely high cardio, and it definitely has a lot of information-from-memory sequences, but I’m almost 40 years old, I have two kids, I went in and out of a million jobs, I’ve been in and out of addiction, I’ve been in and out of jail before—any experience you got, I pretty much got an experience to follow up with.

Why did you gravitate toward improvisational dance?

I played sports throughout my whole high-school career. I thought I was going to play basketball for a living and become a basketball coach. ITS and [American tribal style] are both dances that you have to have a team to [perform], otherwise you would be cueing yourself, and it just doesn’t make any sense. I think I gravitate toward it because it is a team-spirited dance. It’s tribal. It’s about a group—a lifestyle and community.

How important are the costumes?

It needs to look like we put effort into [the costumes] because it is a part of aesthetic art, but at the same time, I’m really afraid to make costuming the most important part of my art, mostly because I’m not a costumer but a choreographer, a dancer and a dance coach.

When you’re dancing, do you ever feel like it’s another person who is performing?

I have what I call an authentic game face. It’s a double-edged sword for me. It is very authentic to me … but it’s authentic to the me I want to be. Sometimes [I] have to [have a] game face because sometimes I’ll feel like shit and try to be a badass, [but] it’s still [an] authentic game face. It’s really me but a higher me.

What are your influences?

My main influences [are] belly dance, hula and hip-hop. Because it’s an American format, and because I’m American, I’m allowed to bastardize anything. It is a made-up format, but, as you know, there are no new ideas. It’s based on everything I’ve come in contact with before, and that ranges from … Fox40 News to Walmart, to classical Egyptian belly dance.

Is it a very high-energy dance to perform?

It can be high energy. I think it’s interpreted by the music that you use. At the same time, it’s not important at all. … It’s very important if you’re interpreting, but [at the same time], I don’t need any music at all.

Do you feel empowered by ITS?

I definitely do. We can go for a long time without knowing our bodies, and this is the instrument that we’re born with and die with. It’s kind of like your best friend, and I’m kind of getting to know it more and more by working with it as my tool of the day. It’s empowering to know that if everything was stripped away, I would still have my art.