The Mystery of the Missing Hip Work

In my time attending “fusion” belly dance festivals, I’ve seen quite a few powerful, creative, and moving performances.  Many of them have taken inspiration from modern and contemporary dance, touching on emotional themes and other issues. Others have been inspired by grand stage productions with larger-than-life props and costumes, and great overall dance skill…  but sometimes I am left wondering, “Where’s the belly dance?”  If these performances are being presented at fusion “belly dance” festivals, then I am left expecting presentations with more belly dance in them.

Asking “Where’s the belly dance?”  is different from asking, “Is it belly dance?” That question has been asked over and over again about emerging stylizations within the belly dance genre, and it’s one that I’m not sure I can answer definitively for all of us.  Belly dance is often (arguably) in the eye of the beholder.  But here I ask a different question…

Asking “Where’s the belly dance?” prompts me, for the sake of this post, to define what I mean.  To me, for this post, it isn’t necessarily the imitation of movements done by dancers “over there” or that certain indescribable Middle Eastern quality that so many master dancers bring to their art.  No… I’m talking purely about movement.  Specifically hip work. Vertical hip work (glutes, in my world), twists, pelvic locks (front and back), figure 8s (vertical and horizontal), interior hip circles, interior hip squares, and all the other wonderful permutations thereof.  Belly dance is partially defined and distinguished from other dance forms by the sophistication by which we are able to isolate the pelvis and articulate the muscles around it as we travel around the stage, often separating these movements from the rest of our bodies.

Sometimes when I watch a performance, I do see hip work, but most of the time it is performed while the performer is stationary.  Other times, I’ll see articulations in the upper body, such as torso undulations and rib cage isolations, without much more hip work throughout the performance than a stiff shimmy or a “hip drop”.

A few “shimmies” there, a “hip drop” there, and an undulation over there do not a belly dance performance make.  It’s not even fusion.  Fusion would be taking the footwork of, say, a modern or a jazz routine, and putting the hip work on top of it.  Or, taking the upper body articulations and arms of another ethnic dance form and integrating in the distinct hip articulations of belly dance into those movements.  And yes, such endeavors are difficult.

This phenomenon of missing hip work is not new… Recently a video of the famous model Juliana, who graced the covers of George Abdo’s classic 1960s belly dance recordings, surfaced, and she strutted around the stage beautifully, posing with gorgeous body angles, and looking fabulous, and even playing finger cymbals… with barely a hip movement to be found.  From her photos, she looks like the quintessential belly dancer, with her chain maille costumes and her hourglass figure, but after watching her dance, I found little actual belly dance.  What a shame.

Today, “fusion” presentations continue to suffer from a deficiency in hip work.  But hip work is the great defining element of our dance.  Yes, other dance forms use pelvic articulations, but not with the same degree of definition that we do.  Why abandon that very element that sets us apart from other dance traditions?

Here’s where the sticky issue lies:  I’m not sure why the hip work is missing from so many otherwise accomplished “fusion” presentations.  It might be that people want to experiment with new movement vocabulary, or maybe it’s that more “traditional” hip movements within steps (such as, say, “Basic Egyptian” or “3/4 Shimmy”) doesn’t fit their vision for a contemporary choreography.  If a dancer is worried that putting hip work on their dance might be viewed as too “traditional” or “cabaret”, then maybe belly dance isn’t the genre in which she/he should be participating.

Or it might be that they just don’t have the skill or the training to put hip work on their contemporary traveling movements. And why work to do so when you can present a choreography with a few hip drops and undulations and still receive a standing ovation?  Because it’s hard. It’s damn hard. I’ve been training for thirteen years, and I still struggle with putting hip work on top of foot patterns.  I’m not sure I’ll ever stop struggling.

What I would love to see is the fusion community of dancers take this dance to the next level by integrating more belly dance movements into their choreographies.  It’s work, and it’s challenging, and it takes dedication and time.  And the resources are out there.  With the advent of online classes and touring workshop instructors, the training is easier to find and use than any time in the history of this dance.  It’s just up to us to take it.

 

Source: Bellydance Paladin


Thoughts on staying healthy this winter

Autumn and winter bring cold weather for many of us (unless, of course, you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, happy almost summer!), and this change can leave our bodies vulnerable to illness and injury.  You might notice your muscles tightening and your flexibility waning. If you have sensitive joints, they might be more achy than usual.  As dancers we must take extra care of our bodies, particularly those of us over 30.  Our muscles and joints just aren’t as resilient anymore, and old injuries from our teens and 20s start creeping back into our practice with a vengeance.  (I have scar tissue in my left hip—my landing leg—from over a decade of figure skating.  I stopped skating regularly when I was 18.  That stuff just doesn’t go away.)

This winter, I’m making a concerted effort to keep my body happy and healthy.  Apart from the usual “remember to wash your hands” advice,  here are some little reminders as we head into the chilly holiday season.

  • Take more time to warm up before a show.  Performing cold is perhaps one of the most dangerous things a dancer can do. Bring extra socks, gloves, and sweaters (zip or button-up) to keep toasty in those cold back-stage areas.  I also always have a pair of “gig sandals” in my bag to keep my bare feet away from cold floors.  And remember that warming up does not mean just stretching.  Squats, Sun Salutations (A and B), alternating plies and releves in 1st and 2nd position, and good ol’ crunches and push-ups will help you generate heat from inside your body.  Bring a yoga mat with you if you suspect the floor will be dirty (I love my foldable Gaiam travel mat).
  • When you’re not dancing, stay warm on the outside.  Indulge in cozy robes and slippers at home, and hats and gloves for going out.  Keep your pulse points covered (throat, wrists, and ankles), as well as your head.  Break out those leg warmers for class and while running errands.  Own at least one wool sweater.
  • Stay warm on the inside.  What we eat has a dramatic effect on our health (understatement of the century, right?)  I’m an advocate for eating a plant-based diet, but I do crave a bit of meat in the winter, as it has warming properties (according to Chinese medicine).  If you’re a strict vegetarian, spicy foods can keep us warm internally.  My favorite winter foods include hearty lentil stews and Chinese-inspired noodle soups.  I also love vegetarian Indian dishes.  Our cabinet is also full of teas and herbal infusions that contain a healthy dose of ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and cardamom (think “chai” or “pumpkin” spice). I also prefer to have warm breakfasts; even instant oatmeal with cinnamon, ginger, and honey does the trick.   If you’re prone to getting cold, even in mild weather, pay extra attention to what you consume.  Personally, I avoid cold milk (which isn’t very good for you anyway), soy milk, and wheat.  (Personal aside: when I cut wheat out of my diet in 2007, I was the only woman in my office who didn’t complain about it being too cold.)
  • Find a good bodyworker.  And I don’t mean just massage.  Find someone who can identify the physical and anatomical imbalances in your body and work out old scar tissue.  An experienced bodyworker will help you avoid injury by keeping your body open and aligned.  Also, when your muscles are loose, you might see an improvement in your overall circulation, which will keep you warmer.
  • Bring clean clothes to change into after a sweaty dance class.  You might be hot in the studio, but when you step outside, those damp clothes will feel freezing!  This seems like a no-brainer, but even I forget.
  • Don’t force your stretches.  Even if you feel warm.   You might be able to get all the way into that forward fold during the summer, but when winter rolls around, your mobility might be more limited.  Acknowledge those changes, and be kind to yourself.
  • Allow yourself to rest.  This is also a bit of a no-brainer, but in our fast-paced culture, it’s easy to forget.  We feel guilty when we take time for ourselves, but we really shouldn’t.  All throughout the natural world, animals and plants are winding down for the winter, finding ways to conserve food, resources, and energy.  We humans need to remember that we are animals, too, and require a bit of winding down ourselves.

I hope you find this list useful, particularly if your body, like mine, tends to “run cold”.  Here’s to a healthy and happy autumn and winter!

Source: Bellydance Paladin


Are you truly listening? Musicality and movement.

Musicality has been on my mind lately.  I have been told by many people, including some who I admire more than I can say, that my dancing in incredibly musical.  Even my improvisations to live drum solos and taqasim, when I don’t know the music or what the musicians will play next.  My ice dancing coaches also remarked on my ability to connect with the music, and they would fiddle with the tempo knob on the tape deck (remember those?) to see if I could keep up or slow down with the song… and I always could, if I didn’t break into laughter first (because, really, who wants to do a reeeaaally sssssssllllooooooowwwwww foxtrot?).  Whether or not you think I’m musical, I do feel that musicality is an essential skill for any belly dancer, regardless of style.

When I watch a dancer, I watch for a few key elements: technique/posture, emotional expression, and musicality.  If a dancer naturally has great expression and musicality, her (or his, of course) teachers have an easy job; teaching technique is the easy part.  Teaching expression is a little more difficult, but through creativity and acting exercises, a dancer can make great progress.  Musicality, however, I think is one of the most difficult concepts not just to teach but to convey in a practical manner.  musicality is funny thing… the concept is a bit like a wriggly eel.  You know it exists, but it’s difficult to pin down.  How one dancer hears the music isn’t how another dancer will hear the music.  I don’t believe that a dancer must be a master at reading music on a staff or know how to play a melodic instrument to have a strong musical sense.  I tried to learn guitar and piano and never succeeded. However, here are some tips.

  • Understand the tempo, rhythm, meter, and pulse of your music.  Tempo is the speed of the basic beat; we measure this in “Beats Per Minute” (BPM).  (Don’t know what BPM your song is in? Check out this awesome website).  Think of a metronome: the continuous, steady TICK tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick (this example is for a song in 4/4).  Rhythm is the underlying percussion (drums and similar instruments); in Middle Eastern music we must learn and recognize dozens of rhythms from the ubiquitous Saidi (in 4/4) to the flowing Samai (in 10/8) and to the tricky Sama Zarafat (in 13/8).  Time signature is how many beats per measure; basically this is how much you keep counting before you start over.  As dancers, we often count in 8, but some songs are counted in 9 (like in a lot of Turkish folk and Roman music) or, like the Samai and Sama Zarafat in 10 or in 13.  A song counted in 9 will, in its most basic form be counted like this: TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.  9 “ticks” with an emphasis on the first one, the “1″.  The pulse is a bit less technical; it is the “feel” of the song.  Saidi music with its heavy drums and wailing mizmars feels heavier than a delicate nay taqsim.
  • Listen to the melody.  The melody, in its most basic sense is a combination of rhythm and pitch. Higher pitch notes have a higher vibrational frequency; lower pitch notes have a lower vibrational frequency.  In general, we interpret higher pitch sounds higher in the body, and lower pitch sounds lower in the body; this is a great guide for beginners, however skilled dancers can break these rules by keeping the quality of the sound in their movement, regardless of what body parts they move.  Many songs have a structure, meaning that they have different repeating melodic sections.  We often refer to these by letters: the first section being “A”, the second “B”, the third as “C” and so on.  Basic songs will have A through C or A through D.  The melody is played by different instruments (naturally), and these instruments have different tonal qualities (known as timbre, pronounced “tahmber”).  A violin is continuous, yet has a tension (produced by the drawing of the horse hair bow over metal strings), the nay is also continuous, but has a more hollow, open feel.  An acoustic guitar has more attack, meaning that the sound made as the pick plucks the strings happens almost immediately, and drops off quickly; it is more percussive than the violin or nay.  The qanun and oud are similar, as they are plucked, however, the oud, with its pear-like shape, creates a slightly rounder sound than the qanun.  Different movements have different qualities as well: locks and isolations are hard-contraction movements that work better for sharper sounds, and soft-contraction movements such as figure 8s and circles are better for interpreting continuous sounds.  Don’t be afraid to play, but never stop listening.
  • When the music stops, you stop.  When the music goes, you go.  It’s the dance equivalent of Red Light / Green Light.  I have seen countless taqasim performed by fantastic and even famous dancers who keep moving when the musician takes a pause or a breath.  If the sound stops, your movement should stop.  When the musician continues, then you continue.  If you keep dancing, it shows that you’re not really listening to your music, and if you’re not really listening, then what are you dancing to?  Of course, a dancer can choose to dance over the sound for theatrical purposes; however, I feel that a dancer must be quite skilled to pull this off.  It takes more skill and presence to be in the music than it does to dance over it.
  • Listen to a lot of music. If you’re a belly dancer, you really should be listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music.  Arabic and Turkish music operates under different rules and (generally) evolved from different traditions than European music.  The tuning systems are sometimes unfamiliar (maqamat, singular maqam), containing microtones (think of a key between the white and black keys of the piano) and embellishments not found in most Western music traditions.  American jazz, however, comes close at times, with its long improvised sections and complex syncopations.  And speaking of jazz, a dancer should listen to lots of other music, preferably music that challenges your ear.  That pop station on the radio just isn’t going to do it.
  • Most importantly: the music should inform your dance; not the other way around.  What do I mean by this?  Your movements should be a reaction to the sounds, not a reaction to your internal dialog.  If you’re thinking “Am I doing enough?”, “Oh no! I forgot everything I know!”, “I feel like my movements are so boring!”, “What if the audience thinks I look dumb?”, “What should I do next?”…. then you’re not listening to the music, are you?  You’re listening to the voice in your head.  We all have it, but we must learn to ignore it.  (Not that ignoring that voice is easy; it’s a process that takes a lifetime.)

Of course, developing a sense of musical timing and interpretation takes longer for some dancers than for others, but I do think that with some true listening, a dancer can learn to be more musical.  And of course, there isn’t always one correct way to interpret a sound; if we all interpret an oud taqsim in the same manner, then we would be robbing ourselves of the creative experience.  Belly dance is unique in the realm of movement arts in that it is characterized by the dancer aiming to “become” a physical representation of the music.  With our sophisticated torso and hip isolations, combined with artful layers, one dancer can interpret an entire orchestra with her body.  Why dance over the music when you can become the music?

 

Source: Bellydance Paladin


Combinations, Choreography, and Beyond “Dance by Numbers”

Choreography is more than combinations…

Both Tempest and Princess Farhana have posted excellent blogs about learning, remembering, or eschewing choreography in belly dance.  We often use the word “choreography” in belly dance to mean “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music,” but I’m here to argue differently.  True choreography is much deeper, with greater gravity and meaning.  To me, “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music” means a combination or routine.  And there is nothing wrong with combinations or routines.  They are essential learning and teaching tools for all dancers, but they lack the emotional and artistic depth that true choreography contains.

Choreography exists on a richer artistic plane.

Within the world of belly dance, there are very few true choreographers.  I’d even venture to say that there are very few true choreographers in general.  You know… the Twyla Tharp or Alvin Ailey types who have that gift to push the creative boundaries of movement, emotion, and staging.  The ones that hear a piece of music and can somehow tease out the expressive nuances, challenging dancers’ bodies in ways we never thought possible.  These are the people who don’t “paint by numbers,” and not all of them are even very well-known.   (For the record, I am certainly not a gifted choreographer; I’m a natural improviser, and have one heck of a time remembering my own combinations and routines, and I must work very hard to create them.)

The prospects and perils of “dance by numbers”

Most belly dance routines, regardless of stylization, are like that childhood art project “Paint by Numbers.”  Use the brown paint to fill in all the areas labeled “1″, the red paint for “2″, the green for “3″ and so on… and when you’re done, you have a nice tidy image… that lacks creativity or personality. You wouldn’t call these pieces “art”, would you?

The same thing happens in belly dance.  If it’s an oriental or raqs sharqi routine, the promenade begins, and the dancer glides out with her veil, chasse-ing and turning her way around the stage until she takes center stage, flings her veil away, and boom-boom rakatak boom rakatak the baladi rhythm kicks in for some crowd-pleasing hip-drops.  Add in a melodic section, a folkloric section (Sa’idi kicks or a Khaliji-inspired hair tosses), and an exciting malfouf ending, and you have a typical oriental routine.  In Tribal Fusion, dancers use a different formula, but it’s still a formula (which I have greatly simplified here): slow, slinky melodic intro song to highlight a dancer’s backbends, muscular arm waves, and other slow fluid movements, and then an electronica song (dubstep has been popular lately, however, mash-ups of classical orchestral elements with electronic percussion have been quite favored, too) or a drum solo to show off locks, isolations, and hard-contraction movements.

There are certainly merits to the formulaic approach to dance composition, and, of course, not all dancers perform this way.  As students of the dance we must learn what the guidelines and rules are to creating dances so that we can then fashion performances that reach beyond them.  We spend much of our time learning how movements connect so that we can participate in festivals and recitals as part of our performance training.  I’ve started adding 30 minutes of combinations at the end of several of my own workshops so that dancers can have a more “hands-on” experience with how I approach different stylizations and concepts.

As we continue our studies, many of us learn or get the idea that these formulas are what define our dance, and that we must follow these “rules” in order to either be respectful of the dance itself (in the case of raqs sharqi) or to be considered relevant in the Tribal and Fusion scenes (ironic considering that Tribal Fusion has become as formulaic as the raqs sharqi it was rebelling against).  I’ve even heard Middle Eastern musicians tell dancers that they must “shimmy to the qanun” and perform “snake arms to the nay”, because that’s what’s expected of us.  (Because, apparently, the musicians know more about how to do our work than we do.)

Beyond the numbers

If you watch a performance by a great choreographer, (like Mia Michaels or Wade Robeson from the world of contemporary dance) these pieces are far from formulaic.  They blend familiar steps with strange, whimsical, challenging movements to convey the emotional and theatrical perspective of the piece.  The choreography itself might only be a minute and a half long, as is the case with “Fix You” by Travis Wall, and yet fills the stage with innovation, sentiment, and absolutely stunning dance technique on the part of the dancers themselves.  When you watch their compositions, you’re watching far more than combinations of movement set to music… you’re watching living, breathing, moving art.

What does that mean for those of us who just aren’t naturally gifted choreographers, relegated to creating decent combinations and routines for our students, never really breaking through that artistic wall?  We have to keep creating, regardless, and we have to be aware that there are formulas in our own dance world… formulas that must be broken responsibly.  The more routines we make, the more combinations the teach, and the more we improvise (yes), the greater our skill as creative dancers becomes.  And we must seek out those in our field (and outside our field) who create innovative work, learn from them, and then… make more dances of our own.

Source: Bellydance Paladin