How Can We Belly Dance with a Clearer Conscience?

Author’s note: The purpose of this post is to encourage self-reflection and caution against reactionary responses to accusations of “cultural appropriation” in belly dance. It seems that when this issue is brought up in popular online forums, white-passing dancers react in questionable ways that fail to acknowledge the issues at stake. I do believe that belly dance as a practice is at a tipping point in North America, one where we should make some very important decisions on how we continue to engage or disengage from this dance and the culture from which is comes. There are so many more facets to this phenomenon than I can address in a single blog post. I encourage responses to be civil, recognizing that there are people with feelings on the other side of the screen.


 

One of the greatest questions I think facing the practice of belly dance in the diaspora right now is…

Is it possible to practice belly dance with a clear conscience?

The answer: Maybe…

Your Fave (And Mine) is Problematic

I’ve heard of multiple instances where students of belly dance have either left the dance entirely or felt discouraged from continuing after they had learned about this dance form’s problematic issues: Racism. Colonialism. Cultural imperialism. Orientalism. “Arab-face.” Gender Essentialism. De-ethnicization. Exoticism. Cultural appropriation (may I recommend this philosophical essay and this article?). And that’s heavy stuff if you are a hobbyist who was only looking for something to do after work, have fun, get some exercise, and maybe meet a few new friends. It might feel even heavier if you perform this dance form, and heavier still if you teach it. If you continually ask yourself and others the right questions, you can bear the weight and continue to belly dance.

Can we belly dance with a clear conscience?
The first time you encounter an article or blog post or discussion that suggests that belly dance—and by extension, you, particularly if you are white-passing—might be engaging in an oppressive dance practice that takes power and visibility away from already marginalized/colonized/oppressed peoples, it’s easy to be shocked. It’s easy to be angry when someone accuses you of thinly-veiled (see what I did there?) racism. It’s easy to get defensive. It’s easy to respond with “But… I’m not a racist!” and to make it all about you. It’s easy to say that you love this dance because it’s beautiful, it makes you feel empowered, you love the way the movements make you feel, it’s brought you “community” (or “sisterhood,” but I encourage you to re-examine the use of that word), that “it’s all dance” (yes it is, but don’t then turn around and explain how you love belly dance over ballet because you think ballet is all about body-shaming or isn’t meant for the “curves of a real woman’s body”), or that “it’s all fusion” (yes it is, but that doesn’t absolve some decisions from being questionable).

…and note how “I love Arab culture and music” isn’t in that list. (Spoiler alert: It should be.)

Many an academic article, blog post, and social media discussion has tried tackling theses issues. The authors of these materials range from the life-long scholars and practitioners with deep knowledge, understanding, and experience to those who are only looking to ruffle feathers, make themselves look like like they have the moral high ground, and use activism as performance. These expositions of belly dance often highlight the most egregious and offensive examples of the above issues, but rarely do they ever offer practitioners advice for how to engage in belly dance while avoiding perpetuating problematic issues.

Big Questions, Small Ego

In the 21st century, as the academic post-colonial discourse of Orientalism, critical theory, and race theory enters the common vernacular, practitioners of belly dance in North America need to ask themselves some big questions. (I speak to North America only because that is my personal perspective, and I don’t feel like I can address the issues that dancers in Western or Eastern Europe might face, although there is certainly some cross-over). These questions require humility and a big, scary ego check, and go far beyond doing this dance “correctly” or “incorrectly”:

  • When I feel under fire for my artistic decisions, how can I step back and reflect before reacting?
  • If I wish to continue, how can I adjust my practice to be as non-oppressive as possible?
  • How can I find a mentor who maintains and promotes a culturally-responsible practice?
  • If I am an instructor, should I continue to teach, or should I further educate myself before teaching again?
  • How will I listen to and make space for practitioners from the culture of origin?
  • When I see someone else making questionable artistic decisions within the context of belly dance, how can I call them in, as opposed to calling them out?
  • How can I continue to educate myself about these issues without burning out?

Asking yourself questions requires being deferential and humble. It requires that you set aside your ego and (possible) aspirations for constant performance and self-adornment for the sake of respecting and honoring the culture from which this dance comes, and more importantly, the people from that culture (these people who are not a monolith, who each have their own differing opinions about what’s offensive and what’s not). These are treacherous psychological and sociological waters, and there are no right answers.

No Clear Answers, aka Hybridity Is Messy

Being a dancer of any genre requires constant self-reflection, asking questions, research, and of course, conversing with dancers who have come before you. In our case, that means professionals who are from, have worked in, and lived in the Middle East,* as well as the many scholars whose life work has been the study of Middle Eastern dance. There are many instructors and professors who have a lifetime of experience in this dance form who will gladly mentor you, answer your questions, and give you guidance. We are practicing and performing a dance with an incredibly complex and tangled history and relationship with the embodiment of power, race, sexuality, gender, and self. You owe it to yourself to learn from those who have paved the way before you, even if their own artistic choices were problematic. It is a learning process, not a learning end-point.

This dance form is inherently hybrid, transcultural, and transnational. To essentialize it as only “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” or “Egyptian” denies it its cross-continental influences and history as a living, changing dance form. But we also must recognize that hybridity doesn’t allow us the privilege of turning a blind eye to aspects of our practice that, once identified, make us uncomfortable or that, frankly, are a little bit racist (and of course there are the people who will always think that a white-passing body performing belly dance—regardless of aesthetic, artistic, or emotional quality or cultural knowledge—is always racist). We must also accept that its 100+ years long hybrid history in North America does not absolve us from cultural responsibility, because so much of that history—from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, to the Little Egypt phenomenon, to the Hootchy Cootchy; to the self-Orientalizing American Middle Eastern nightclubs of the 1970s; to adoption of belly dance by second-wave feminists as an expression of independence, sexuality, and empowerment—has been an embodied fantasy of an exoticized (and often eroticized) Middle East. That is the legacy we have inherited. How will we continue forward?

Multiple Paths in the Name of Non-Oppressive Practice

A mindful and non-oppressive practice isn’t easy. I struggle with it every day. Admitting you might have been wrong, offensive, inappropriately appropriative, or oppressive isn’t easy. To hear someone tell you that you should perhaps cease practicing and performing a dance form that has brought you so much joy isn’t easy. Reflecting on your artistic and creative decisions isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you that this dance form is easy is trying to separate you from your money.

Cultivating a culturally-respectful practice is much like hiking a winding, muddy, sometimes treacherous path. Sometimes we will follow along another’s trail, using their knowledge and asking them questions along the way. Sometimes we are on our own, hacking through the proverbial foliage in our quests for personal authenticity and truth.

We will disagree with each other on how to navigate these potentially confusing directions. But we all have our own moral compass (except if you’re a sociopath, in which case, nothin’ but a therapist is gonna help you), but we must choose to use that compass to help us find our way. When we read articles or post on social media about how belly dance is problematic, we can not ignore our compass, turn away, and say that we are not part of the problem.

How have I oriented (haha) myself in all of this discourse? I accept that that I am in a constant state of inquiry, and that my approach to a culturally-responsible practice will be in constant flux. I also believe that if you wish to study belly dance, and call it “belly dance,” (and especially “fusion belly dance”) then you must absolutely study Arabic music (as well as the Turko-Armenian American nightclub classics). This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever dance to non-Middle Eastern music or experiment; I’d be a flaming hypocrite to even suggest an absolute like that. But if you are a “belly dancer,” especially one who sees themselves as a “professional,” knowing Arabic rhythms and instruments should be a given. Understanding maqamat, knowing the great singers and composers, a familiarity with pop stars, is not optional. Physicalizing different stylizations, from sai’di to khaliji to Turkish Orientale, while understanding their origins, is part of being a well-rounded performer. Embodying Arabic music in its historical and political contexts is at the heart of understanding and embodying this dance form. In addition, if you are worried about being “appropriative” and wish to continue studying and performing belly dance, then you must accept that your practice will include continuous inquiry and engagement with the culture from which this dance comes. To divorce the culture from the dance (and all of its messiness), and take from it only what appeals to you for the sake of your own performance and self-promotion is the very definition of an imperial practice.

And no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend someone.** If that happens—and if you are white-passing it probably will—it will be up to you to examine your practice and ask yourself the hard questions: how can I reflect on and adjust my practice? At least acknowledge their point of view before writing off that someone as too “politically-correct” or “too sensitive.” Acknowledgement doesn’t always mean full agreement, and that’s all right.

You can always ask yourself more questions and question your assumptions. You can always look deeper into your artistic choices. You can always know more about the music, the poetry, the language, the aesthetic values, the history, the politics, and the people who have shaped belly dance and our perceptions of it. By admitting that you can always learn more is to ignore your ego, admit your faults, and foster a more culturally-responsible practice.

*Even the term “Middle East” presents Euro-centric view of the world. For this, a blog post, I will use it because it is the most common and easily recognized term for the region to which I refer: the Arabic-speaking world, North Africa, the Anatolian peninsula, and surrounding regions where solo, improvised, pelvic-articulated dancers are performed. Sometimes this region is referred to as the Eastern Mediterranean or West Asia/North Africa; however, these terms are far less common in popular discourse.

**It happened to me. And while I still disagree with the arguments and tactics taken by the accuser, I acknowledge their point of view. This person accused me of racist practice without ever engaging me in a conversation, asking me any questions, or even observing the work that I do. They used inflammatory language and protest methods to make my work look insensitive, ill-informed, and oppressive. You will encounter people like this, who will lump you and your work into the pile of Orientalist and exoticized belly dance that has become the dance’s main image in popular media.




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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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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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What are we seeing, anyway?

Many times I see fellow dancers commenting that they “Loved!” a performance that they saw, or that a performance was “Amazing!” without really qualifying or identifying why. Of course, it’s awesome if someone loves a performance, but if they can’t identify why, then I question whether or not they know what they’re looking at (ending a sentence with a preposition eek). Read More


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


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


Live! On Stage! (Or, why don’t you stop recording and just watch the show?)

Ahh, the smartphone.  It allows us to be in touch with everyone all the time.  An extravert’s dream, I’m sure (as an introvert, I have a complicated relationship with social media).  On our smartphone we have access to email, chat, games, camera, and video recording capabilities at our fingertips.  Such a gadget is invaluable for capturing those moments we want to remember for years to come… but sometimes, using that capability is, in my opinion, inappropriate and distracting. (And don’t even get me started on audience members who forget to turn off their ringers or silence their phones. It’s rude, inappropriate, and tacky.  If you are on call or need to be accessible at all times, switch your phone to vibrate, and keep it near you so you can feel it.)

I’ve noticed throughout my years of performing how pervasive and ubiquitous the cell phone camera has become at live events.  And as an audience member, it is so frustrating to see the sea of tiny glowing screens pop up before me as an artist takes the stage.  As a performer, it’s doubly frustrating, because I know that no matter what happens, someone will have record of my performance without my permission.

As both a performer and an audience member, I wonder, “Why can’t you just enjoy live art? In the moment? Right here… right now?”

You won’t be able to capture that feeling you get when you watch a dancer or musician live, in front of you. You just can’t.  And that’s the point.  It’s fleeting, ephemeral, and yet a strong performance will live on forever in our memories.  Live art is so extraordinary because a camera can’t capture the magic of that moment.  Why would you want to record a performance for later when that performances is happening right in front of you, in person?  The magic is temporal, impermanent.  This is why we buy a ticket to attend a live performance.

Additionally, when you use your phone to record someone’s performance, you’re not actually watching her.  You’re thinking about yourself.  You’re thinking about how you’re recording that few minutes of movement for your own creation, to watch later, so that you can learn from it or use it for your own art. It’s selfish. In front of you is someone on stage, giving their heart and their body to you, the audience, and you’re there with your camera taking it all for your own devices.  And when you’re focusing on keeping a dancer in the frame of your iPhone’s screen, you’re distracting yourself from the immersive experience of being an audience member.

Another aspect of this issue is that most of the time, this recording is not consensual. I’ve performed at shows in which I have not given explicit permission to the audience to record my performance, and yet there are the inevitable cameras popping up like weeds over people’s heads.  Unless the MC has said, “The artist has given the audience permission to record her performance,” then the recording of that performance is a violation of her artistic space.  Some artists are not so particular about having their shows filmed by non-official videographers, but I can tell you first hand that there are some whom it absolutely infuriates…. and they feel as though there is so little they can do about it.  It’s a shame.

If you want to watch a performer on screen, buy a DVD or watch the performances that the artist has put up on their own YouTube channel for viewing.

When you’re at a performance, put away your phone and be present in that space and in those precious moments that will never happen again.  What you can take home with you is that feeling of connecting with a performance.  A camera, no matter how sophisticated or high-definition, will never be able to capture the essence of live art.  Accept that fact, turn off your electronic devices, and enjoy the show.

Source: Bellydance Paladin


Cabaret Creep: Have we blown our fuse?

Three years ago I made a prediction in this post, titled “The New Face of Tribaret“.  I saw the “big name” dancers in the fusion belly dance scene starting to dance to more Arabic music, embracing cabaret aesthetics such as mermaid skirts and bedla, but in distinctly contemporary interpretations.  I’m not sure how much attention it garnered when I first wrote it, but I do believe that I was right on the money.

Last year at Tribal Fest 12, Rachel Brice and her Datura students, dripping in antique jewelry and assuit, performed (one of my favorite pieces of the weekend) to music from this album (along with other music)—Nadia Gamal: Music for an Oriental Dance—which is not at all music for Tribal Style belly dance… like, at all.  With Zoe Jakes’ Bhoomi Project, we have performed straight-up belly dance pieces, including one with finger cymbals, but with Zoe’s signature contemporary stylization and to music by her world-fusion electronica band Beats Antique.  The photos filtering in from TribalCon 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia, show a host of “tribaret” fusion costuming, with dancers in sequins, rhinestones, color, and (gasp!) showing lots of leg.  Even self-proclaimed dance “dinosaur” Yasmin Henkesh attended and performed Egyptian oriental style at 3rd Coast Tribal this year in Texas, indicating a blurring of the lines between “Cabaret” and “Tribal”.

A little personal aside: When I performed at TribalCon in 2010, I wore a “tribaret” costume, and danced to Arabic music: a qanun taqsim and a drum solo. At the time, I, too, was returning to my American Cabaret roots, but I also wanted my performance to reflect the workshop I taught at TribalCon that year which focused on the Salimpour legacy in tribal style belly dance, including the seminal Jamila Salimpour belly dance format.  I distinctly remember being a bit, well, misunderstood.  People said I was too sparkly, and thought it was odd that I would do a “cabaret” performance, especially at a tribal event.  Personally, I don’t think that performance was straight up “cabaret”; if it were, I would have danced to different music, such as, say, “Aziza” or “Habibi Ya ‘Aini”. But, as we all are, I was immediately labeled, and I believe that many of my followers felt I was betraying my “dark fusion” self for a happier, sparklier dancer (who was always there, but most people had not seen me dance in my earlier, more oriental days).

So, what does it mean that fusion and tribal-associated dancers are integrating more oriental elements into their dance and costuming?  Did the fusion trend burn itself out?  Did we stray so far from the roots of the dance that we felt so disconnected that we decided to pull back just a bit?

I have a theory that I haven’t really tested, and it’s two-fold:

1) Yes, tribal fusion as a whole went as far as it could, and that return is what we are witnessing, and will continue to witness for several years.  When we run out of glitchy electronica, wear holes in our Melodia pants, and pop and lock until we drop, we will either decide that Middle Eastern belly dance isn’t really what we were attracted to in the first place (we sought other things from the dance, such as an extended sisterhood or family, wearing beautiful costumes, or feeling secure in our bodies, all of which are valid reasons for seeking out any activity, but all miss the point that belly dance must be learned within a certain cultural framework) or we will seek out the roots and history of this dance form, cultural baggage and all. Which leads me to the second part…

2) I remember when tribal fusion really hit the national scene. The year was 2003. The United States had just invaded Iraq, and we still reeled from the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Our national relationship with the Middle East shifted in a huge way over the course of only a few years, affecting the Western world.  I believe that tribal fusion allowed many of us to have a limited emotional engagement with belly dance, an art so quintessentially Middle Eastern and yet so terribly misunderstood (dare I say like the region itself), on our own artistic terms.  Tribal in its essence is Western, and evolved from Western belly dancers, beginning in California, and eventually expanding within and beyond the fantasy-folkloric contexts of Renaissance faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism.  We, as a community, could take the elements of belly dance we wanted—the movement, the costuming, the community, and some of the music, while eschewing the elements we didn’t—the sexualization of the dance by non-dancers, the oxymoronic role of the belly dancer in Middle Eastern society, and the responsibility of representing a culture not our own.  Tribal fusion allowed us to belly dance on our own Western feminist terms: we wore a lot of black, didn’t show our legs, performed to lots of non-Arabic music (Indian and Balkan music, however, was acceptable, but Arabic music was “too cabaret”, and if we did dance to Arabic music, we would in a distinctly tribal fusion style) and called ourselves “dance fusion artists.”

Ten years later, September 11th has become a chapter in history books, and US troops have returned from Iraq.  The United States, no longer the hegemony it was, our economy a wreck, and the dollar weak, is not so intimately involved in the affairs of the Arab world (although, as I write this, President Obama is visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories, harkening back to the Clinton-era days of Camp David diplomacy).  And I believe that because of this geo-political shift, we belly dancers feel that we can step into the pool of Middle Eastern music and aesthetics, wearing bedla and cabaret-inspired costuming, performing to Arabic music, and learning Arabic oriental and folkloric stylizations.

Ultimately, we still want to express ourselves artistically and emotionally, and the proliferation of stage presence and theatrical skills workshops reflects that need, but I believe we can do so within the context of Middle Eastern music and movement.  I also don’t believe that this new trend is any way a step backwards, but rather a new branch in the evolution of the dance.  Those of us who associate with the fusion belly dance community don’t necessarily want to dance like they do “over there”; however, in order to express ourselves as belly dancers (as opposed to contemporary or interpretive dancers), we must train in various indigenous stylizations and understand Arabic music (which, in turn, means having an understanding of the culture and politics of the region).  I see the return to “tribaret” and the fascination with pre-Tribal belly dance as an exciting development, encouraging dancers to learn more about the origins of the dance so that we can continue to innovate and inspire future generations.

Source: Bellydance Paladin