8 Reasons This Dancer Chooses a Whole-Foods Plant-Based Diet

Over six years ago, my now partner invited me over for a casual, friendly dinner. He cooked. Dinner. With dessert. It was delicious, wholesome, and healthful. We talked and talked for nearly six hours.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

What I didn’t mention was that it was a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based meal.

Since moving back home to California and moving in with my partner, I have kept to a mostly plant-based diet. Yes, my partner still cooks the meals in our household, for which I am eternally grateful. Because I’m terrible at feeding myself. Before we moved in together, I was subsisting on microwavable Amy’s gluten-free mac and cheese, and other things that were ostensibly good for me because they were “organic.”

I’m not zealous about my diet, but I do try avoid straying too far for too long. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of imported Italian Parmesan with a Super Tuscan or Iberian Manchego with a Tempranillo. When I’m traveling, sometimes I have to choose between the meal with eggs and the meal with wheat (to which I am allergic). I also don’t judge my friends who order meat when we go out, nor am I offended by their meals.

plantbaseddiet

There are many reasons to go plant-based, both personal and global. Here are the reasons I stick to a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD).

1) Weight management. I’m no longer the spry teenager who could eat cheeseburgers and fries for lunch every day. Seriously, I look at what I ate 20 years ago, and I marvel at how skinny I was. Granted, I was also figure skating 10-15 hours a week, but even so, my metabolism was much faster then than it is now. Alas, as I approach my late-30s, I can no longer indulge in too many fatty treats without seeing or feeling the consequences soon after. The whole starches and protein-packed legumes in the WFPBD keep me energized and strong without the extra saturated fat of meats. But don’t take my word for it. Go check out Forks Over Knives for some dramatic and inspiring health transformations.

2) No calorie counting. I was never into calorie-counting to begin with, and I’m not detail-oriented or meticulous enough to do so. But I will say this: my partner cooks huge amounts of food. We don’t worry about calories, because there is almost no added fat in what he makes. It’s not a “no-fat” diet: we consume the naturally-occurring lipids in seeds, nuts, and avocados (because California)… just not a lot of them. The rest of our daily meals are bolstered with heaping piles of chickpeas, lentils, and other beans, as well as leafy greens, wild and brown rice, and whole-grain crackers.

3) Long-term disease prevention. A WFPBD can help prevent and even reverse heart disease and type-2 diabetes, and might even play a role in preventing some cancers (such as colo-rectal cancer). Several studies have shown even just reducing your consumption of meat can reduce your risk of these life-threatening illnesses. In addition, a WFPBD can also reduce inflammation and the pain of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (just go easy on the soy products!). As someone with a mild auto-immune condition, and whose family has a history of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, the WFPBD just makes sense.

4) Plants are cheap. The average cost of one of our home-cooked meals is about $4-5 a person. And we could probably make it cost even less so if we bought dried beans and more bulk foods. UC Davis Integrated Medicine has a great list of ways to save even more with your plant-based diet, and shows how a plant-based split-pea soup can potentially save you 1/3 the price of one made with ham. Darshana Thacker at Forks Over Knives created a delicious, yet austere, plant-based diet on $1.50 a day!

5) Reduced water consumption. I grew up in California in the 1980s, in the middle of one of our historic droughts. Water conservation has been ingrained into my psyche. I can’t even stand it when people run the water while they brush their teeth. (Seriously, why are you doing that? That water is literally just going down the drain.) National Geographic’s guide to reducing water consumption says that someone eating a plant-based diet will “indirectly consume nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.” The 10-20 gallons saved by not showering every day or not flushing every time you use the toilet hardly even comes close.

6) Smaller greenhouse gas footprint. Replacing my decent gasoline-powered vehicle with a hybrid or plug-in isn’t a priority for me right now. Why part with a car that works fine and gets decent gas mileage already? But because I do feel a bit guilty about not investing in a more energy-efficient car, I know that my WFPBD helps reduce my greenhouse gas emissions in other ways. In fact, in 2011 the USDA found that a single 10,000-cow dairy farm in Idaho produced 3,575 pounds of ammonia, 33,092 pounds of methane, and 409 pounds of nitrous oxide per day.

7) Overall sustainability. In addition to conserving water and reducing my carbon footprint, a plant-based diet is just more environmentally sustainable. According to a report from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “the US livestock population consumes more than 7 times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population,” and “the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.” That’s a lot of land that could be used to feed humans or that could be returned to nature as open space.

8) I just feel better. After eating a plant-based diet for nearly six years, I just feel good. When I stray too far, eating too much cheese (which is nearly as addictive as opiates), consume too much oil or fatty foods, I feel sluggish and tired. When I return to my partner’s cooking, my body feels stronger, I have more energy, and I am (ahem) more regular. As a dance instructor and performer, I need to feel my best in the studio classroom and on the theater stage.

Of course, overhauling your diet is daunting and just not possible for everyone. But I do encourage my readers to reduce their meat consumption, and not just beef. Even just eschewing the meat once a week is great for your body and the planet. Do it for your heart, your health, and your environment.

Are you a plant-based dancer or athlete? What are your favorite recipes, tips, or tricks for eating well? Share in the comments!

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Beautiful items for sale!

 

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

(Psst… if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a special 10% off coupon for everything in my Etsy shop.)

I’m clearing out my stash of beautiful things. Lucky you!

Complete costume items, supplies, and prints of my art are all up for sale in my Etsy shop right now. Once these items sell, I will not be getting more of the same. Everything is from my personal collection, with the best intentions that they would end up on my costumes. There are a few items I inherited from my grandmother, including a gorgeous vintage Navaho silver and turquoise necklace.

Other items you’ll find:

  • Kuchi beaded tassels
  • Central Asian beaded medallions
  • Crystal and other assorted beads
  • Miao Chinese hair sticks
  • Reproductions of my own art
  • Two handmade costume bras
  • Costume skirts from Tombo Studio

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter and get your coupon!

Giclée print of my pen and ink art

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Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Movers

 A holiday listicle for you.

As a child, going to the airport filled me with wonder and excitement. The smell of jet fuel and the hustle and bustle of the airport still means, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “I’m going on an adventure!”

As an adult, I’ve spent a big part of my dancing career traveling to cities at odd hours to teach and perform in places I’ve never been before. It’s a fantastic job, and I am grateful for every moment of it.

With all my years of travel, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve also learned that as I get older, my body doesn’t recover from travel as quickly as it used to. I’ve come up with survival techniques to keep limber and agile, even after being on a plane for 10 hours straight.

So, even if you’re not a dancer, or if you don’t even travel all that often, but just don’t want your body to feel like crap when you arrive, these little tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

travel-tips

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

1) Rollers and other self-massage devices. This might sound dirty, but self-massage devices are the best thing for a weary traveler. No, not that kind of massager. I’m talking the kind that you roll out your cranky and sore muscles. My favorite is the TP Therapy GRID roller. It’s short, and hollow on the inside. I can fill it up with small clothing items so it takes up very little space in my luggage. Plus, if you happen to pick up a bottle of your favorite libation while on the road, the GRID roller doubles as a protective carrying case… Not that I’ve ever done that before. Other small, but effective, tools include lacrosse balls and stick rollers. I love this Gaiam spiky stick roller, but you’re best off packing it in your checked luggage.

2) 4-Wheel Spinner Luggage. Nothing frustrates me more than a bag that won’t stand up on its own, and worse if it’s difficult to maneuver through crowded airport and train terminals. After a trip to Europe when I had to manipulate two unwieldy, unbalanced suitcases full of costumes and products for sale, I resolved to replace my bags with upright spinners as soon as I got back to the US. Because I refuse to be stingy when it comes to luggage and shoes (see #5 in this post), I’m still using those bags, seven years later. A quality spinner will be nearly effortless to move, and your body will be grateful for not having to drag your stuff along behind you. If you’re on a budget, because luggage isn’t cheap, check out your local Ross, Marshall’s, or TJMaxx. There’s no reason to pay full price for name-brand luggage.

3) Water water water. This one’s obvious, but flying can make us feel like human raisins. Muscles, fascia, and tendons need constant hydration to stay at tip top shape, so don’t be like me and make the mistake of not drinking enough water while traveling. Most of my injuries can probably be traced back to not staying sufficiently hydrated. Bring a refillable water bottle (empty, so you don’t get busted at the TSA checkpoint, or you’ll find yourself chugging 16+ ounces of water very, very quickly), and don’t be afraid to ask restaurants in the terminals to fill it up for you. Some terminals have filtered water stations (San Francisco International marks them on airport maps as “Hydration Stations.” How very Silicon Valley of them.) If you need extra hydration, pack along some Emergen-C or other electrolyte formulas. The ones that come in tablet form travel best, but individual packets of powders work well, too. Make sure your bottle is rugged enough to get beat up. I travel with an insulated bottle that I can fill with cold or hot drinks.

4) Snacks. Snacks on a plane! Haha… ha… nevermind. Anyhoo… Like many 21st-century Californians, I have dietary restrictions. I can’t eat wheat because it triggers my chronic inflammation, and I avoid dairy, eggs, and meat. Even if you can eat anything without feeling like someone is stabbing you in the large intestine, you might have noticed that plane food is expensive and unsatisfying. If you’re lucky to be flying out of an airport with decent restaurants (i.e., not Chicago O’Hare which has almost nothing for the gluten-free traveler), eat a large-ish meal in the terminal before you board… and be prepared for the rest of your trip with ample snacks. I bring nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and chocolate (of course!). I also bring along my favorite tea bags to keep some semblance of normalcy and comfort when I arrive at my destination. Remember that you can’t bring liquids or pastes on the plane, so leave that hummus at home, you fellow food weirdo.

Merrell discontinued these boots, so I bought an extra pair.

5) Shoes. I have a lot of feelings about shoes and travel. Our feet are our first line of defense against gravity, and a crappy pair of shoes will make your entire body ache. Dancers don’t have time for that. Heck, parents, businesspeople, and vacationers don’t have time for that either! I also don’t have time or packing space for bringing lots of different shoes with me when traveling. Personally, I get grumpy if I have to bring more than the shoes that I wear on the plane and maybe an extra pair of flip-flops for times I don’t need to go far, like from a hotel room to the breakfast buffet. My requirements for shoes? Easy to take off and put back on (because airport security), versatile for the purpose of my trip, flat soled, supportive, and comfortable like slippers. A good pair of shoes should last for over two years, minimum. I’m particular to the Merrell brand for my weird, narrow feet, but for the love of all that is holy, don’t be one of those people that wears flip-flops or 4-inch stiletto high heels. You don’t want to have to run to a connection with shoes like that, and both will likely make your joints very grumpy.

6) STRETCH. You know that weirdo in the back of the plane, near the galley and the lavatories, contorting themselves into some weird yoga poses as you try to get by? Don’t be afraid to be that person. Keep your blood flowing and stretch, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings, which inevitably are shorted when you sit in those tiny little airplane seats. In addition, those seats fit about 1% of the population. The rest of us are too short or too tall. Plus, if you get up and head to the back of the plane for a bit, you can ask the flight attendants for more water… or for the wonder that is tomato juice, which we all know you only drink when you’re on a plane.

How I want to dress on planes. (Randy from A Christmas Story.)

Bonus: 7) Stay Warm. If you’re one of those people who is always cold, you understand. And for dancers, the cold can be a formidable foe for our bodies. Bring a jacket on the plane that you can also use as a blanket, as well as a big scarf that can keep your neck and head warm if you get blasted by the plane ventilation system. If it’s too cold to stay seated, and it’s safe to move about the cabin, get up and go stretch out near the galley.

Traveling dancers: What are your favorite tips for keeping limber and ready to move when you travel?

Disclaimer: I just like the products mentioned here. I’m not getting any kickback from the companies who sell them.

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Dance is a radical act

furious_dancing2One of my colleagues at Mills College wore a tank top emblazoned in bold letters: “Dance is a Radical Act.” I admit that at first, I did not understand what she or the shirt meant. Dance is art. Why should it be radical?

As I continued my study of dance history and theory, I realized… of course dance is radical. Dance expresses independence of body, thought, and expression. Dance has been a vehicle for protest and dissent (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Exodus”). Dance critiques warmongerers (Kurt Jooss: The Green Table). Dance exposes the heartbreak of marginalized communities (Kyle Abraham: Pavement). Dance challenges preconceived notions of itself (Yvonne Rainer: Trio A). Dance can satirize itself and critique the fetishization of marginalized peoples (Keith Hennessy: Bear/Skin). Dance can bring together disparate cultures and celebrate beauty and love (Mark Morris: Layla and Majnun). Dance allows the disenfranchised a physical and corporeal voice.

And within each of our bodies is incontrovertible truth. Even if we are denied truth through biased news outlets, corrupt politicians, and even from members of our own families, we still have our bodies. When deprived of political and social power, we still have our bodies. Oppressive governments, regimes, and political climates have tried to suppress dance for centuries. Look to the exile of the ghawazi by Pasha Muhammad Ali, the outlawing of hula under missionary rule in Hawai’i, the banning of the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance by both the United States and Canada, and many more. Dance is, indeed, a radical act.

For me, my worldview and dance are intrinsically linked. When I dance, I am expressing my physical and personal power. We make art that reflects what we value. I value truth, justice, kindness, compassion, cross-cultural understanding, inquiry, self-reflection, corporeal independence, and the pursuit of embodied knowledge. I believe that there are facts, and that the existence of facts is not and should not be controversial. Indeed, when I wrote the Salimpour Compendium, I sought to dispel many of the myths that surround belly dance, hoping to nip them in the bud, and provide a sound foundation for those new to the dance form who also wish to dig beyond the “wishtory.”

In these troubling times that might pit you against your fellow countrymen, neighbors, or family members, I hope that you reflect on what you truly value. Does your dancing embody those values? Do your everyday actions? What about who you vote for? Does your art align with your politics? If it doesn’t, how can these defining aspects of yourself be reconciled?

Dances need not always be political. But for those of us who are afforded the freedom to move, to take studio classes, to perform for each other or on stages, we must remember that dance is a fundamental act that has phenomenal power to both express and shape humanity.

I hope that you dance not only for yourself, but for all humankind.

 

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Adult Dancers: You Are Making Progress

getting-betterAdult students are often quite hard on themselves. We take all of our adult baggage into the studio classroom with us (and I use “we” because I do it too!), and expect to be able to do anything the teacher asks of us perfectly the first time.

Well, when put that way, it sounds a bit ridiculous. No one can do anything perfectly the first time. So why do we pressure ourselves like this when learning a new skill, particularly one as challenging as dance?

We adults should be kinder to our beginner selves. Being a beginner is an exhilarating and inspiring experience if we allow it to be. Not only does allowing ourselves to learn and make mistakes make the whole “learning new things” thing easier and less stressful, but our adult brains just don’t take in information as quickly and in as large amounts as they did when we were younger. In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus notes that adults, with their limited time to practice and diminished brain plasticity, have to learn new information in smaller chunks than children. He also says that kids learn new things so quickly because their brains are growing and developing so quickly, they often have more time to devote to learning a new thing—unfettered by jobs, raising kids, household chores, and other “adult” responsibilities—and they are, of course, often way less self-conscious than adults are when learning something new. Being a child means learning new things every day.

Adults, however… we think people are judging us, and we have egos to feed, and we want to feel accomplished because we’re all grown up and that’s what grown up people do: they accomplish things and do them well, and we can’t possibly take up something new and look like a beginner again. That would be… embarrassing.

Dance isn’t easy. We do things in the studio that we often don’t do in daily life. That’s the appeal, isn’t it? We don’t do plies, 6-steps, or upper back curves while walking down the grocery aisle (well, I know some of you do, and keep on with your bad selves). So why do we expect to be able to do a new move or technique in the studio classroom the first time the teacher asks it of us?

Then if you do stick with dancing, you might not think that you’re getting better at all. There’s that phenomenon that happens that when you are involved in something regularly, it’s so difficult to see your progress in that activity. Or when you have children, you might not see on a daily basis how quickly they’re growing, but a relative who hasn’t seen them in a year will blurt out the inevitable, “Wow! They’ve gotten so BIG!” You look down at your kids and think, “Well, yes, but I see them everyday…”

That’s my job as an instructor, though: To see my students every week (or more), and also recognize the overall, long-term progress that they are making. I’ve had students for over a few years now who might not think that they have improved at all, but I can see how their technique is stronger, their timing more accurate, and their posture lengthened. And part of my job is to tell them that I do see it, even if they don’t see it themselves.

As students of anything, we must find instructors (and I suspect most teachers of anything) who can see the micro-level of the day-to-day—giving subtle technical and timing reminders and, of course, encouragements—as well as the macro, month-to-month, year-to-year progress that each student makes in their own time.

All of us will improve at our own pace. Some of us will progress very quickly, and others will have to take their time in a particular level or class for months, maybe years. It’s so easy for us as adults to compare ourselves to the other students in class, but we have to recognize that each of us is going to learn and progress in different ways. Each of us has our gifts and each of us has our challenges. And if you look back a year, you’ll see how much you’ve gotten better.

I guarantee that if you’re going to class regularly, you are getting better. There’s almost no other option but to improve!

 

 

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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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The Orientalism of Beyoncé

“Enta Omri” Meets “Naughty Girl”…

The footage of Beyoncé bumpin’ and grindin’ to a sample of Umm Kulthum’s classic and unparalleled classic song “Enta Omri” has surfaced again after its initial appearance two years ago. Personally, I think the idea and its execution is a bit lazy. It shows a lack of interest in the context of the original song and a disregard for its meaning and cultural significance. The sample used is purely fodder for another Orientalist fantasy marketed at pop music consumers. As one with a background in Arab studies, I find her exotification and erotification of Middle Eastern tropes cliché at best. The red lighting, the pseudo Middle Eastern musical riff in the original “Naughty Girl” song… This again? Really? It’s something I’d expect from an artist with more institutional privilege than Bey (remember Britney Spears and her albino snake performing “Slave 4 U” at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards?), but I guess money and fame buy privilege, too.

But…. Then there’s the ugly reaction of so many belly dancers against the sexual nature of Beyoncé’s short performance. Much of the outrage includes an unhealthy dose of slut shaming. We can argue against Beyoncé’s use of “Enta Omri” without calling the performance “disgusting,” “vulgar,” or commenting on how her “ass cheeks” are “hanging out” of her costume. (Sure, those costumes certainly offer no coverage for the rear at all.) These comments appear to come from the point of view that belly dance is not sexual (when, in fact, it is often perceived as akin to sex work, and we shouldn’t be shaming that either), or that it’s up to Western women to “sanitize” it as a form of family-friendly entertainment for all occasions.

Beyonce and Orientalism

Not Shown: Booty-revealing leotards. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Sampling is Essential to Hip Hop Culture… and to Beyoncé’s Music

This instance also showcases a key and essential part of hip hop culture: sampling. Without sampling—of recordings, ideas, dance movements, and clothing—hip hop culture would be drastically different. It might not even exist at all. In fact, a recent decline in sales and overall quality of hip hop albums is attributed to the increasing expense of licensing music samples with which to make records. Beyoncé’s music, which some might argue is not textbook hip hop, certainly draws influence from hip hop’s lineage… and it is full of “sampled” sound clips. (Some argue that she “rips off” other artists, but I’m not here to claim one way or another.) For example, “Run the World” is built around a drumbeat from “Pon Da Floor” originally by Major Lazer. This website lists some of the songs her music has sampled… as well as who has sampled her.

An "Oriental" dancer wearing markers of both the belly dancer and Bollywood dancer.

An “Oriental” dancer in Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me” music video wearing markers of both the belly dancer and Bollywood dancer.

In the “Enta Omri” sampling, we see a clash of theoretical and historical frameworks. Sampling culture meets Orientalism. And this is nothing new (the linked article is pretty fantastic and worth your time). Hip hop music is full of the exotification of Middle Eastern culture, especially Middle Eastern women. Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z, sampled Hossam Ramzy’s recording of “Khusara Khusara” (originally sung by Abdel Halim Hafez) over a decade ago in his song “Big Pimpin’.” Wyclef Jean, too, sampled “Enta Omri” for a song called “Hollywood Meets Bollywood,” as though India and the Arab world were one and the same, with musical traditions there for the taking. Jason Derulo asks women from around the world to “Talk Dirty” to him, complete with female dancers representing the usual exotified cultures: Indian, Polynesian, and Arabic (backed by a sample of Balkan Beat Box’s song “Hermetico”). And who could forget Akon’s “Bananza (Belly Dancer)”, complete with dancers in hip scarves and anklets, “Pharaonic” arm shapes, a woman playing a doumbek incorrectly, and, of course, snakes. R. Kelly went ahead and released this song and music video, aptly called “Snake,” full of many of the Reel Bad Arabs tropes. But sampling culture is all about taking and making something new out of it. Is this cultural appropriation as the media has so often described it, or something else? Why are we not as angry about the more blatant sexualization of belly dancers and Middle Eastern women in the above examples than we are about Beyoncé? Are we more outraged by Beyoncé’s Orientalism because she is a woman, and not a man like in the examples mentioned above? Is it really about the sampling of Umm Kulthum, who really does hold a unique and elevated place in the history of Arabic music?

Celebrities and the Nirvana Fallacy

We laud Beyoncé for being at the forefront of visibility and success for black women in music. Her recent visual album Lemonade has been regarded by music critics and people of color as being a masterpiece that highlights the plights and issues that directly affect black women in the United States. (Even Lemonade received jeers from the mostly white critics who “didn’t get it,” as though everything Beyoncé makes must be palatable to the White ear.) So, I think for some, the outrage (two years ago and today) many are experiencing over the “Enta Omri” sample in Beyoncé’s On The Run tour is actually a cognitive dissonance: How could a woman so invested in the promotion and power of women of color sexualize one of the greatest and magnificent songs of one of the most influential and celebrated singers from the Middle East? On one hand, we can’t celebrate Beyoncé for flaunting her body so confidently and unapologetically and then on the other, shame her for not doing it on “our terms.” Belly dancers who enjoy her work and who are outraged by her use of “Enta Omri” are probably wondering: Is it still safe to celebrate “Queen Bey”?

Here’s the thing: Even your most favorite celebrities (and politicians) will do things you won’t like. That doesn’t mean you must abandon listening to or supporting them. That doesn’t mean you have to hate everything else they do. It’s immature to think that a public figure you admire is always going to make decisions that you love. And when they don’t, it doesn’t make you a hypocrite to love some of their work or the things they do and find other things they do unsettling. Humans are not infallible. To believe otherwise is called the “Nirvana Fallacy,” and is an increasingly common mindset.

Should I Be Offended?

If I am to be offended by Beyoncé’s sampling of “Enta Omri,” I am more “offended” by the lack of research or curiosity demonstrated by her and her creative team. If they had done some investigation, inquired about the song that they sampled, the woman who originally sang it, the composer who wrote it, the song’s meaning and significance to the Egyptian people, its place in the history of Arabic music, its political and social context, and maybe even some inquiry into Orientalism itself, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen to use it in this performance.

Or, maybe they would… because here we are, two years after the tour, still talking about it. There’s no way of knowing for sure.

In the end, though, it’s not my place to be “offended” for the sampling of “Enta Omri,” nor Beyoncé’s interpretation of it through sexually suggestive dance movements. I am neither black nor Arab. Yes, I am a belly dancer, but I consider myself a “guest” in this complicated phenomenon of Arabic culture, not a resident. To be offended on behalf of Egyptians is its own kind of colonialism, patronizing and silencing. It’s not my job to “save” Arabic culture or even belly dance. As a white-passing dancer born and raised in California, I have neither been steeped in hip hop culture, nor have I been raised in Arab culture. I can learn about both intellectually, but I am not fully immersed in either. For those interested, here’s an English-language article from an Arab magazine about Orientalism in Western pop culture.

You Can Still Love Beyoncé and Umm Kulthum

Personally, I can still admire Beyoncé for being one of today’s hardest working female pop stars, for owning her body and her sexuality, and for bringing greater visibility to women of color in pop music (although I understand that she comes under fire for her methods in this as well). I can also question her artistic decisions when it comes to fields of study that I know quite a bit about, such as Orientalism and the perpetuation of Arab stereotypes.

We can hold these two ideas in mind without slut shaming, resorting to mindless insults, or playing White savior.

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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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How Dance Instructors Can Keep a Beginner’s Mind

BeginnersMindOne of the classes I teach at the Salimpour School of Dance is Level 1 technique. Our students often have no prior dance training or experience. They’re often looking for a new way to get exercise and have fun, and many of them are apprehensive… because trying something new as an adult can take a lot of courage. Especially in a room with a wall of mirrors at the front!

When I teach Level 1, I often think back to when I was first learning belly dance, particularly the Suhaila Format. I remember how hard it was for me to separate my hipwork from my footwork. I remember being frustrated with myself when I couldn’t do a drill right away. I remember how I sometimes struggled to learn a combination or a chunk of choreography. Of course, I became a beginner again when I started my Master’s degree in dance, where I was taking four modern dance classes a week.

It’s important for instructors who teach beginners to reflect on what it was like to be new to a dance form. This act of self-reflection helps us become more compassionate instructors, and also allows us to create more positive learning environments.

When we forget what it’s like to be new at something, it’s easy to get frustrated with those who are new. We let our egos interfere. We think we know something, so we use that knowledge to look down on those who don’t instead of allowing those who have less experience process and figure out how they need to approach the new information. There’s a phenomenon of human thought where we think that everyone thinks like us, but as an instructor, I need to be able to understand that everyone’s experience in the classroom is unique.

Personally, I love teaching new students. I love the excitement I see on their faces when they start to assimilate a movement into their bodies. I love their questions about anatomy and the body. I love seeing those imaginary “thought bubbles” over their heads when they’re figuring out a drill or exercise. I love seeing the sense of satisfaction they exude after they’ve danced a combination several times. I love seeing our regular students progress and improve, even when that improvement might be small. New students are absorbing so much information, and as an instructor, I can so often see students integrate and physicalize that knowledge from week to week. It’s exciting, and it keeps me excited about my own practice. When I’m excited, they’re excited. And from a business standpoint: when students are excited to come to class, they’ll keep coming back.

When the teacher expresses enthusiasm, the students feel it, and it becomes a positive feedback loop of awesome.

And here’s the thing. We’re always beginning at something. No matter how long we have danced, there is always a new choreography to learn, a new stylization, an advancement of technique, the constant polishing and cleaning up of work that we think we know. There is always more, be it physical (such as layering or finger cymbals) or theoretical (such as learning to recognize different Arabic musical maqamat or historical/cultural context).

Even if you’re not an instructor, remembering your beginner’s mind and allowing yourself to be a beginner might help reinvigorate your practice and allow yourself to try something new.

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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.When you’re a dancer, you want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, we were required to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. We were not allowed to leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way. It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

Here’s what I learned…

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class… and then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure, that you are weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class. Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up. If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything. That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.