Why I’m Glad Belly Dance in the US Is Declining

What a headline, right?

Class numbers are dwindling. Festivals are disappearing. Bellydance Superstars is long gone. And who even watches an actual instructional DVD anymore?

Well, that’s right. I’m glad that belly dance in the US is on the out and out.

But, wait, you say! How can someone who has invested some serious time and resources into being a belly dancer, and who earns a substantial part of her income from teaching belly dance, say such a thing? Why would I celebrate what Laura Tempest Zakroff calls “The Toilet”?

Hear me out…

Abigail Keyes: Why I'm Glad Belly Dance in the US is Declining

We’re Doing Some Much-Needed Soul Searching

Of the dancers I have contact with, both in and out of the Salimpour School, there is a sense that it’s long overdue that non-Middle Eastern dancers own up to the fact that the popularity of belly dance was built on the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.

For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.

But many dancers are realizing that using belly dance as an escape from the troubles and toils of daily life is just not appropriate, and is, for lack of a better word, appropriation.

Owning Up to Orientalism

And while I still believe that the term “cultural appropriation” doesn’t really address what it’s really about (that is, cultural imperialism, the systemic imbalance of social and political power, and outright racism), related discourse in mainstream media outlets has forced belly dancers to take a good hard look in the mirror and decide whether or not we still want to practice this dance form. I might not agree with Randa Jarrar that white women need to stop dancing, but her article stirred up some much-needed discussion in a dance form rife with white-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

Those of us who are sticking around—and who aren’t from the culture or origin—have to do the difficult work of owning up to wrongs we might have committed, and that kind of work isn’t for the casual hobbyist who just wants to shake it with her “sisters.” (Also, gender isn’t a binary. Using belly dance as an “all women” space is inherently exclusionary and historically inaccurate. But that’s a post for a different day, and oh, hey, Kamrah already wrote it.)

Finding Other Movement Arts

Many former belly dancers are realizing that doing this professionally takes a lot of effort, time, and unpaid labor to practice responsibly. Some of us are sticking around, and others are deciding it’s not for them.

I’ve noticed that quite a few dancers who started belly dance in the early 2000s have moved on to other alternative movement forms, such as aerial arts, hooping, flow arts, burlesque, and niche fitness practices. That’s awesome! Many of these movement forms don’t carry with them the same cultural legacy and responsibility that belly dance does. (Of course, movement arts such as poi and fire staff DO have cultural histories in the dances of Polynesian peoples, but I leave that to practitioners of those forms to discuss those connections.)

Figuring Out Why We’re Belly Dancing

As a traveling dance instructor, I have the opportunity to talk to many practitioners in diverse communities throughout the world. My most recent trips and interactions have revealed a sense of “Why are we doing this?” and dancers asking the question, “Why do I care?”

When we ask ourselves these questions, not just about dance, but about any activity in which we are involved—be it a hobby, a job, or a relationship—this introspection can reveal much about ourselves. It can also give us clues on what to do next. Do we keep dancing? If so, why?

Dancers are reevaluating what they really want to get out of belly dance. For some, it might just be a once-a-week class, and for others they have made it a career. Either way, many dancers I’ve talked to lately seem to be reflecting on their desires and goals for being involved in belly dance.

Some people have figured out that belly dance isn’t for them. And, yes, means fewer people at festivals, workshops, and classes, which also means less money circulating throughout the industry and community. But it can also means that those who are continuing their involvement are very invested in it.

We’re More Invested in Learning

With the (temporary) fading of belly dance from the public eye, that means fewer students who are looking to feed their egos by teaching and performing well before they are ready.

From my view, the dancers that I’m teaching on a weekly basis are more invested in learning than performing. They want to know more about their bodies, technique, and, of course, cultural context. They’re not taking class to look cute in a sparkly costume. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get people excited about performing.

The dancers that we’re attracting at the Salimpour School are more mature, either in actual age or in attitude towards their dance practice. They are more humble with regard to whether they want to take the stage. They carry far less drama and ego with them into the studio classroom than students who are eager to perform, which is a relief and a joy.

Fewer Performances, Smaller Egos

Now many restaurants have closed altogether, and there are fewer restaurants featuring dancers, attracting smaller audiences, and the pay sucks. While this is shitty for the professionals (especially the pay part), it’s also less attractive to the 6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.

And, at least where I am, there are fewer opportunities to perform. That might just be a Bay Area thing. But compared to Washington DC in the mid-2000s, when DCTribal was hosting events, and DC Tribal Cafe happened every month, and there were several Middle Eastern restaurants that featured performers, we were awash in performance opportunities. And audiences packed into those shows.

It seems like it has become far less likely for a young person to take up belly dance to become a “star.” Thank goodness.

Preparing for the Next Generations

This current downturn seems to be much like the one we’ve already seen in the 80s. At that time, dancers who stuck around were more likely to invest time and money into digging deeper into the history and culture of belly dance than the ones who started dancing in the 1970s to get in touch with their sexuality and to shock their “Leave It to Beaver” parents.

Belly dance will, I’m sure, see another resurgence, but it might be in another 30 years. In the meantime, I believe that in the diaspora, the dance will be in good hands.

Passing the Torch to the Millennial and Homeland Generations

Millennials (a label I am loathe to use but it’s what we’ve got) have far less time and disposable income than younger Generation X dancers like myself, or the Generation X and Baby Boomer-generation dancers who taught me. They’re far less likely to take a dance class just because it looks fun or different. They want to put their money where their values are.

Of the Millennial dancers that I see involved in belly dance today, they are far more aware of the social justice issues inherent in a contemporary belly dance practice. They want to talk about issues of cultural appropriation. They want to know how they can be more responsible when they dance. They actually come to lectures about history and culture. Those who pass as white are less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin.

The even-younger Homeland Generation will be even better equipped to discuss and embody these complex topics, as they have grown up with social media that brings these issues directly to their personal profiles every day.

So just as fads come and go, so does belly dance. But before it returns to the popular spotlight, those of us who are still dancing must create the resources and foundations to empower the next generation.

Isn’t that a wonderful reason to stick around?

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Why Don’t Belly Dancers Warm Up Before a Performance?

Greetings, dear readers! Please enjoy this GUEST POST by Parya, fellow instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and member of the Suhaila Dance Company.


Ballet and modern dancers do it. Athletes do it. Actors do it. But why don’t belly dancers warm up before a performance?

Parya Guest Post: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before Performance

A Proper Warm Up Is Essential

This is a bit of a generalization, of course, as I’m sure there are some belly dancers who do stretch and warm up before a performance. However, in my years of performing belly dance in festivals, fundraisers, restaurants, and other gigs, I’ve seldom seen a belly dancer warm up.

I often feel alone in the middle of the changing room or the hallway of the gig, inhaling and exhaling before a show as I lunge from side to side, roll my shoulders, loosen and tense glutes and hamstrings, and sometimes start with jumping jacks or a brief high-kneed jog.

For me, warming up is a vital part of a performance. In order for me to be able to physically express my emotional state and physicalize the music, I need not to be concerned about my muscles functioning properly. Warming up before a performance is not only about my body, it also prepares my mind.

The warmup is like a meditation to center myself and calm my nerves, to think about the story I’m about to tell, and why anyone should care. It’s a time for me to reflect on the state of my body and wake up the muscles I’ll need in my performance.

A proper warmup helps me to increase the elasticity of my muscles, improve efficiency of the signals along my nervous system, enhance my range of motion, and minimize the chance of any potential injuries (knock on wood).

Creating Your Own Warm-up

It can be difficult to know what to do when you’re warming up before a performance. I’ve had dancers ask me about the movements I do or even follow me in a group warm-up prior to a performance. Having to figure something out right before a performance can be frustrating, distracting, and time-consuming.

So I highly recommend having an active routine that engages all major muscles and even minor muscles that you may be calling on during a specific performance. By active, I mean warm-ups that include movement and that contract and release the muscles sequentially as opposed to a static hold. Essentially, you want to elevate your heart rate by moving your body through a range of motions.

Different performances might need slightly different warm ups. For example, if you’ll be performing a khaliji piece with a lot of hair tosses and head rolls, activate and warm up your smaller neck muscles before you go on stage.

My Basic Pre-Performance Warm-up

It’s evident that no amount of warming up will ever take the place of years of technique and drilling; however, it will help to maximize your capacity when you set foot on the stage.

Give yourself a minimum of 10-15 minutes before each performance to warm up. Begin with 5 minutes of aerobic movements to increase your body temperature, such as jumping jacks, marching in place, or skipping (Abigail and I run back and forth in the hallway and high-five each other before an Enta Omri performance). Then, add movements such as side to side lunges, alternating runner’s lunges, and arm swings along the various planes of the body. After that, warm up your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves with quick tendus, dégagés, and battements to the front, side, and back, or calf raises. Follow these movements with head, shoulder, ribcage, pelvis, ankle and wrist circles (especially if you’re playing finger cymbals).

Finally, round off the circuit with some deep breathing to focus on your kick-ass performance.

I hope this routine helps you stay healthy and give your all every time you take the stage. Break an eyelash!

How do you warm up before a show? Share in the comments!


Parya Saberi: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before PerformanceAbout the Author

Parya has a Doctorate in Clinical Pharmacy with a specialty in HIV care and a Masters in Clinical Research. She is an Assistant Professor at a top ranking Bay Area university where she conducts clinical and behavioral research. Parya began her love affair with dance at the age of 7 studying Persian dance and later trained in New York Style Salsa and belly dance. She is currently an instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and has been a member of the Suhaila Dance Company (SDC) since 2014. She is currently Suhaila and Jamila Level 3 certified and is working toward her Suhaila Level 4 certification in July 2017. Read more at www.parya.dance.

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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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The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

Let’s talk about the Ego.

I admit that I don’t have a background in psychology or even a strong background in philosophy… so if I get little nuances in definitions wrong, I suspect someone with more knowledge than I will call me out, and that’s ok.

Ego, Ethics, and Dance blog post by Abigail Keyes

The Ego Separates You from Me

Ego, in the strictest sense of the word means “I” in Latin. It is our sense of self. I am not you, and you are not me. It delineates each of us from one another.

In a contemporary context, however, Ego has taken on a larger and often more pejorative meaning. When we talk about someone having a “big Ego,” we mean that they are full of themselves, that they are self-centered, and that they are willing to make self-centered decisions at the expense of others. This contemporary interpretation is slightly different than the Freudian original, which included the psychological counterparts of the Id (primal drives) and the Superego (internalization of cultural and societal norms). For this blog post, I wish to use the more contemporary idea of Ego as a force that drives our need for recognition, praise, and attention.

Using Our Ego for Better Performance

In a performance context, the Ego can get the better of us. Dancers are notorious for wanting to please, to get the praise and approval of our teachers and peers, and to be on stage. We want to be seen and recognized. A friend of mine who is studying childhood development and dance said that we dancers are “Praise Junkies.”

The Ego, the self-driven aspect of each of us, is not entirely bad. The Ego allows us the confidence to take the stage without fear. It allows us to feel good about what we’re doing. It drives that dopamine rush to the head, that the Id then laps up like a thirsty dog. But the Ego is a trickster, a nasty beast that we must keep on a very short leash.

And I don’t think there are many other dance forms out there that placate and pander to practitioners’ Egos as much as American belly dance.

Focus on Performance and Appearance

So many of our festivals have been based on wanting to perform. Performance is an essential part of being a belly dancer; it is a performing art. But I think we must ask ourselves why we want to perform. Because we want our audience to tell us that we’re good? To show off our skills? Are we seeking validation? Are we hoping to be hired as an instructor at next year’s festival? To perform means, roughly, to do something with the intent of it being seen by others. We might seek validation from our peers that we are Enough, because, perhaps we are not Enough in other aspects of our lives.

So much of the business of belly dance is based on wanting to look good, whatever that means. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costuming, photography, jewelry, and the costs required to attend the festivals that give us opportunities to perform, including lodging, transportation, and food. Even our workshop attendance fees feed our Ego. We take workshops that offer us quick and easy tricks that we can instantly incorporate into our own performances so that an audience will ooh and aah over us during that short 3-5 minutes that we are allowed on stage. Our performance times get shorter and shorter as festivals want to give more opportunities for dancers to perform… because the demand is there.

The Ego Influences Our Decisions

Our Ego, as it feeds our Id, blurs our vision. We are willing to make decisions that contradict our own ethics, because we want to look good and we want people to praise us. Maybe we don’t even examine how our Ego is affecting our choices.

This is why some belly dancers want to perform professionally and teach well before they’re ready. This is why many belly dancers often spend more time and money on costuming, travel to/from events in which they are performing, and one-off workshops than they do on deep and consistent training. This is why some belly dancers wish to take workshops with famous instructors, hoping that somehow that fame will rub off on them, that that famous instructor will ask them on stage with them, and somehow transform the student into a superstar.

The Ego drives these decisions. Every decision is a choice. Every choice we make determines our personal code of Ethics. Philosopher and psychologist William James aptly called this the “ethics of choice”: “What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.” (James, Consciousness and Freedom, 41.) Basically everything we do today affects our tomorrow.

But what if we let our Ethics drive our choices, rather than our Ego?

Self-Reflection as Antidote to Big Egos

Self-reflection is paramount in the realm of Ethics. And self-reflection requires humility, and humility requires that the Ego take a back seat.

Take a moment and write out your answers to these questions: What do you stand for? What do you believe in?  To whom will you give your money? What are you willing to put up with as a student, a practitioner, a customer, a consumer? (A recent blogger wrote “What’s your Shit Sandwich,” i.e., what are you just not willing to put up with?) What are the values of the people, businesses, entities to which you give your time and money? What is your limit? Do you have one?

Are you going along with a crowd to look good, or because you truly believe in their cause? Are you defending someone only because they have something to offer your Ego? Are your decisions hurting others? How could you minimize that pain? Are you asking questions not only of others but of yourself?

Everything you do is a choice. Make those choices worth it.





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


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