Mashaal: A Dancer’s Choreography Journey

Once upon a time, a young dancer came to a Suhaila Format Level 3 weeklong.

Back then, the Level 3 workshops were legendary, maybe notorious, for being more technically, emotionally, and mentally challenging than any other belly dance workshop available.

For homework, she created a combination to a non-belly dance song. The combo began with chasses and turns in a large circle. An opening promenade. Suhaila saw through the music and recognized the composition for what it was: an entrance.

She said to the dancer, “This is belly dance music?” (Yeah, Secret Chiefs 3 isn’t really belly dance music.) “Set this combination to belly dance music. To an entrance piece. And do it again tomorrow to the belly dance music, with a veil.”

So, the dancer dug into her belly dance music collection and chose one of her favorite belly dance entrance pieces: “Mashaal,” from Jalilah’s Raks Sharki Vol. 1.

Belly Dance Choreography Journey

The dancer set her existing combination to the malfuf rhythm opening of Mashaal, complete with veil. After creating a short combo to the beginning of “Mashaal” as a homework assignment, Suhaila told the dancer, “You need to finish this. Choreograph the whole thing.”

But, the dancer had such a difficult time choreographing anything. She couldn’t remember her own work, and it gave her immense anxiety.

The dancer didn’t feel ready to set a 9-minute piece, so she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

But as she waited, she honed her technique, creativity, and composition skills.

Mashaal: Seven Years Later

Seven years later, the dancer had since moved to the SF Bay Area, and taken thousands of hours of classes at the Salimpour School. She learned how to set and create combinations for teaching. She choreographed shorter works for herself.

She returned to graduate school, earning an MA in Dance Studies, building her knowledge of choreography, composition, and dance-making.

She also earned the official teaching certification in both Salimpour School formats.

Finally, her schedule allowed her to finally attend a Choreography Development 5-day workshop at the Salimpour School. And when she did, she made a promise to herself:

If I can choreograph “Mashaal,” I can pretty much choreograph anything.

It was time.

So, she did. And with Suhaila’s guidance, she polished the dance, made it stronger, more dynamic, and way more fun.

You Can Overcome Choreography Anxiety

If you haven’t guessed already, that dancer is me. I used to have major choreography anxiety. I had a hard time setting anything and committing it to mental and muscle memory, including simple combinations.

When I started teaching weekly classes at the Salimpour School in 2014, I had to create at least one combination every week. By starting there, I was able to train my body and brain to remember short phrases. I let the music drive me, whether it was a combo for Level 1 or Level 3.

What’s the secret? The same secret as always: Doing the work.

Just as with any art, in order to get good at it, you have to be consistent. You have to make lots of art. If you’re a dancer, you have to make lots of dances. If you’re a painter, you need to cover a lot of canvasses. If you’re a musician, you need to compose a lot of songs.

A Sneak Preview

Here’s a little peek at the choreography, which will be available for you all to learn soon on the Salimpour School Online website. Big thanks to Parya and Patti for dancing it with me!

I hope that this story inspires you and helps you be a little kinder to yourself if you’re feeling any kind of creative block, or feeling overwhelmed by creative work. You can get through it, and sometimes it just takes time.


Don’t Go to a Belly Dance Festival or Workshop Without These Essentials

I write a lot about essential knowledge for belly dancers, but what about the practical items? All the book smarts about belly dance history aren’t going to save you from injuring yourself during a long weekend or week of dancing.

After attending many festivals and intense workshops for over 17 years, here are the essential items I think every dancer shouldn’t be without.

Belly Dance Festival Essentials

(This post contains affiliate links.)

1. A versatile water bottle.

If you’re not hydrating enough, you’ll make yourself more prone to injury, illness, and burn-out. Always have your own water bottle with you, and keep it full. It’s better to drink more water before you realize you’re thirsty. If you’re thirsty, it’s too late!

Personally, I really love insulated, stainless steel bottles. They’re durable, won’t break, and suitable for drinks of all temperatures. Klean Kanteen’s 16-ounce insulated bottle holds just enough coffee for starting off the morning right. And Hydro Flask’s 18-ounce wide-mouth cap is easy to carry or strap to your dance bag. And while we’re talking about hydration, don’t forget that you’re going to get hungry, too. Bring your favorite snacks to keep your brain and body going during those full days.

2. High fidelity earplugs.

A lot of us still kicking around the belly dance scene are getting older, and that means protecting our hearing. Even Dance Magazine recently published an article about how dancers often neglect their hearing, and yet find themselves in pretty loud situations.

Essential for dancers: ear plugs

Protect your ears before it’s too late.

Any earplug made for musicians or concerts will help protect your ears without sacrificing being able to hear the music or the instructor. I suggest that you get a pair that has a cord, so that you can keep them around your neck and so they’re easier to find in your dance bag, purse, or finger cymbal pouch. I’ve lost so many earplugs, but my corded ones are still hanging around (pun alert!).

These earplugs by Reverbs have two different filters depending on your ear sensitivity. LiveMusic sells these in large and regular (regular is fine for my small ears) as well as two different filters.

3. Proper dance shoes.

I’ve attended and taught at festivals that have had less-than-ideal surfaces for hours and hours of dancing. Many festivals are still held in hotel ballrooms, which have the worst possible combination for dancing joints: industrial carpet over concrete.

Investing in a pair of shoes will save you from questionable dance surfaces. Some people love jazz sneakers, while I prefer jazz shoes with plastic on the ball of the foot. This will help protect your knees from turns, still allow you to feel the floor, and the plastic is far more sturdy than suede-soled ballet shoes on those rough carpets. I love the Bloch Flow slip-on jazz shoe, and they really do stand the test of time. I also add in a foam insole for extra cushion.

Come prepared with a variety of shoes, from ball-of-foot covers to jazz sneakers, just in case!

4. A great notebook.

I’m not a huge fan of taking notes during workshops (it feels like different headspace for me), but I always have a notebook. Even if it’s a tiny, purse-sized one, like these softcover Moleskine notebooks. Not only will a notebook come in handy to jot down new tips and tricks you’ve learned throughout the event, but it’s also fantastic for collecting names of new contacts… the old-fashioned way. And don’t forget a pen!

And, as an instructor, I would like to ask that you not take notes on your phone. First of all, handwriting will commit the information to memory better, but it also looks like you’re not paying attention if you’re on your phone.

5. Foam roller.

Essential: Foam Roller

Vibrating. Foam. Roller.

Using a foam roller essential for any dancer who’s working intensely at a festival or workshop. I love the TP Therapy roller: it’s durable, textured, and hollow, which means that it’s great for travel. I can stuff it full of clothes, and it doesn’t take up a lot of room in my luggage.

If you really want to treat yourself (and you’re driving to a workshop instead of flying), check out this bad boy: The Hyperice Vyper. It vibrates. With three settings and a rechargeable battery, your muscles will have no choice but to be relaxed. TP Therapy has a more reasonably-priced vibrating roller, and it weighs just a little over 2 pounds.

6. Kinesiology tape.

The scientific verdict is still out on whether the stretchy therapeutic tape actually helps, but I’m a big believer. And a recent study suggested that application of the stretchy adhesive tape increased reaction time in non-dominant hands.

There are many brands of tape, but I’ve found KT Tape—available at most drug stores—to work just fine. KT Tape makes two kinds: cotton and nylon. The nylon tends to stay on longer, and yes, you can wear either one in the shower. Other dancers and athletes like Rock Tape or Kinesiotex. If you have sensitive skin, you might need to try to a few different brands to see what works for you.

Learn how to use and apply the tape before trying to stick it to yourself. KT Tape has lots of very helpful videos online, but consult with a physical therapist if you have a specific injury you’re trying to protect.

7. A small first aid kit.

You can make your own, but having a small supply of adhesive bandages, alcohol wipes, tweezers, pain killers, and other items can make or break your festival or workshop experience.

This little first aid kit has every thing you need for minor injuries. As a former (and current) Girl Scout, I always make sure to have these items on hand, because you never know when you’re going to need them or help out a fellow dancer.

8. Baby wipes.

So, maybe the dance floor wasn’t so terrible, and you danced barefoot… but now your feet are filthy! Be prepared with a pack of baby wipes, so you don’t put your dirty feet into your clean socks or shoes.

Plus, if you get sweaty, baby wipes are a great way to refresh if you don’t have time for a shower. These travel-size packs by Babyganics will fit right into your dance bag.

What essentials do you bring to every festival or workshop? Share in the comments!