By Ashley Walter
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Her long, dark hair has a hint of wave in it. Streaks of purple and pink frame her face. Her bangs are half purple, half raven black. Her dimples and milky-white clear skin give her face a cherub-like innocence that contrast with mysterious aqua eyes that seem to morph between green and blue (and back to green again). A steaming hot green tea rests in her hands as the mist envelopes her.
This is Amethyst.
Many people need just one qualifier to define themselves: athlete, dancer, doctor. Amethyst cannot be defined by just one word. She is equal parts belly dancer, vegan, teacher, community organizer, mystic and mother.
Amethyst, 40, of Mt. Lebanon, is the owner of both Amethyst Arts and the Pittsburgh Vegan Expo. An entrepreneur and community organizer, Amethyst, née Amy Marie Cottrill, started organizing cultural events when she was a sophomore in high school. She started a high school organization called Eco Club and hosted events where high school staff could sample vegan food. Then as a senior, she organized small multi-cultural festivals in the South Hills. She longed to bring vegan culture to her Carrick neighborhood. These events were small, but hosted local artists and food vendors.
Years later, her small multi-cultural festivals have morphed into something much larger. Over the years, the name of the event has changed, but the concept remains the same—to bring artists, performers and local vegan food together in Pittsburgh. An event eight years ago, Vegan Bazaar, hosted around 100 visitors. There were 1,000 attendees at her former event, the Pittsburgh Vegan Festival on the North Side, and then the North Hills. Now under the name Pittsburgh Vegan Expo, she expects a few thousand at the Monroeville Convention Center on Saturday, November 9.
A resounding theme throughout her festivals is belly dance, of which Amethyst is a certified performer and teacher. She was first introduced to the art of belly dance in 1997. In a high school acting class she performed a monologue in which she had to belly dance. Opting for no formal preparation, her first attempt missed the mark, much to the chagrin of her teacher. Following her failed attempt, she saw a belly dancer perform at a friend’s wedding. Intrigued, she enrolled in classes immediately.
Amethyst began taking classes around Carrick and then throughout Pittsburgh. She quickly started traveling with master instructors, such as Ansuya Rathor from the celebrated troupe Belly Dance Superstars. Her studies took her to San Francisco, Miami and Washington D.C. She studied traditional Egyptian and Turkish styles while also learning more contemporary dances.
Eventually, under Rathor’s instruction, Amethyst became certified in belly dance.
Often, she explains, those who practice belly dance choose a Middle Eastern name to perform under – something that suits how you feel when you dance. While Amethyst is not a Middle Eastern name, she chose the variety of quartz because its purple color represents the divine. “Amethyst has properties to turn negative energy into positive energy,” she says, “and that’s what belly dance has done for me. Belly dance isn’t a spiritual thing for everyone, but for me, it is.”
She says spirituality is not essential in the art of belly dance. “You can have any religion, or none, and belly dance. Belly dance is for everybody. I happen to be pagan. My version of paganism has lot of (Buddhism) in it.”
Amethyst ties her spirituality into belly dance through what she calls sacred dance. Sacred dance, she explains, is “belly dance mixed with spirituality for magical purposes and to transform things in your life – changing patterns into more positive ones, moving meditation and breathing techniques to reach a goal. If you do something healthy with your body and mind, it will help you reach other goals.”
Belly dance even without religion makes you stronger, she says. Historically, belly dance has helped in childbirth and works out your entire body, especially the core, she says. Many women come to her classes feeling uncomfortable at first. “But soon, they realize that everyone in the class once felt the same way and end up leaving with boosted confidence.”
“I’ve had students who, in the past, had negative experiences that have made them uncomfortable with their bodies. I’ve seen them work through it, not for other people, but for themselves. Some women go on to perform in front of people, and some just want to dance with other women.” However, she adds that men also belly dance. Not often, but occasionally, men attend her classes. She also offers female-only classes.
Belly dance isn’t always such a serious and sacred matter. While Amethyst is versed in traditional styles of the dance, she has a playful energy about her that is expressed through her own unique style of belly dance – what she calls “electro belly.” The ElectroBelly Troupe performs to electronic music and their events usually consist of deejays, break-dancers, live instruments and multimedia art.
“My style depends on the type of gig,” she says. “Traditional events call for traditional style. My own style mixes tribal-fusion with Americanized dance styles.”
Amethyst strongly integrates belly dance with veganism. “Veganism, belly dance and spirituality all connect to me. They are all healthy. Belly dance works out your body and is emotionally healthy by connecting to other women and your body. It’s a mind, body, spirit connection. If you’re doing something that connects all those things, veganism fits in. Veganism physically makes me better.” Knowing that she is not causing harm to any living creatures also makes her emotionally healthy, she says.
She is a veteran vegan – despite her parents’ initial hope that it would just be a phase. She became a vegetarian at age five after a traumatic life experience. After eating fast-food hamburgers, she became very sick and was hospitalized for three months. Her kidneys stopped working, and her body went into complete renal failure. She believes the contaminated meat from the fast-food hamburger is what gave her E. coli. During her hospitalization, she overheard a doctor telling someone she was going to die. “I heard that, and I was five. I knew what it was like to think I was going to die and want to live.” After dialysis and transplants, she survived.
Then, just months later, her family nearly avoided a car accident. Her dad sped around a bend and the car spun. He hit the brakes and stopped just inches away from a cow. “I looked into the cow’s eyes and felt a connection. The cow knew what it was like to almost die, just like I did.” While her parents went to alert the farmer that cows were roaming free on the road, Amethyst saw a sign that read, “meat for sale.” She was horrified. It was the first time she learned that meat came from animals.
Her parents were not initially receptive to her vegetarianism. From years 5 to 10, she would have to sit at the dinner table and fight off her parents’ attempts at trying to get her to eat meat at the suggestion of their family doctor. Then, around the age of 10, her family tried a new doctor who happened to be from India – a country where 42 percent of its citizens are vegetarian, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations. The doctor was more than familiar with vegetarianism and educated her parents on alternative ways to get protein.
In Amethyst’s early teens, her vegetarianism morphed into veganism. It took her a week to give up dairy, and she immediately noticed positive changes. Her acne went away, along with stomach and female reproductive issues. She says these things made it easy to stay vegan.
“I was the only vegan I knew. Everyone thought I was strange and tried to feed me lettuce all the time. In high school, all my friends were 30-something vegetarians.”
Amethyst takes solace in knowing that her young daughter, also a vegan, won’t experience the kind of isolation that she went through. Annikah is 8 years old. She has dark hair and likes to add streaks of pink, purple and blue, just like her mother. She is Amethyst’s shadow, never far from her mother.
Amethyst refers to Annikah as her “mini-belly dancer.” They belly dance every day together. “She’s been belly dancing since she could walk,” Amethyst says.
To combat the isolation she experienced as a child, Amethyst started a private Facebook group with other vegan parents. The group’s members often get together with their children. Also, the Pittsburgh Vegan Expo hosts children-friendly activities. For example, because Halloween can be a difficult time for vegan children, the Pittsburgh Vegan Expo will host trick-or-treating, where kids can collect vegan-friendly snacks from vendors.
A typical day in the life of Amethyst consists of balancing motherly duties, working on her businesses and taking Annikah to see cultural activities. “My day has a good balance between work and my kid,” Amethyst says.
She is a true optimist and says she wouldn’t change a thing about the city of Pittsburgh. Truly delighted, she says, “So many good changes happened here. Before, I would have asked for more vegan food, and now, there is. In the past, I would have asked for more cultural performances, and now, they’re everywhere! All the changes I wanted are happening.”
Tubaiste, a student at Amethyst Arts, says that belly dance has improved her confidence, helped her at her job and even improved her posture (which was noted by her chiropractor, she says). Amaya, another student, says that Amethyst “brings a very open feeling to the classes. It’s not intimidating, and it’s just fun.”
Those interested in taking belly dance classes under Amethyst can choose from a variety of walk-in classes, regular classes and workshops. Details can be found at pittsburghbellydance.com.
If vegan food sounds more appealing than taking dance classes, the next Pittsburgh Vegan Expo is November 9. The festival hosts food of different ethnicities, local desserts, raw juice, cruelty-free products, and artists at the Monroeville Convention Center. There are free yoga and belly dance demos throughout the day along with belly dance performances and live music. “It’s a nice way to promote veganism and local artists of every genre,” Amethyst says.
Over the years, Amethyst’s life goals have changed. She originally thought she would like to open her own wellness center. While she isn’t completely setting that aside, she would like to focus on her current projects. “One of my goals is to keep working with more and more people, like Zen Den Pittsburgh (a wellness center on Mount Washington that focuses on relaxation, bodywork and energy medicine) — expand into bigger projects with more artists, make the Pittsburgh Vegan Expo bigger, keep doing what I am doing.”