Thursday, December 6, 2012

Characteristic of Belly Dance?

 Recently I heard an experience belly dance teacher describe belly dance as “characterized by sharp, isolated locks as well as sultry “snakelike” movements.”

Really? Characterized by? I went out and re-viewed some of the videos I have of top belly dancers that I admire – Fifi Abdou, Naima Akef, Aida Nour. Not a “sharp, isolated lock” to be seen. Not much snakes either. So, maybe she meant American belly dancers – Cassandra Shore? Nope. Morocco? Nope. Shareen el Safy? Nope.

So what did I see as characteristic among these dancers? Physical control and grace certainly – but that applies to any dance form. Isolation and control – but in a quite gentle and deceivingly “natural” manner. Shimmies and layering – often. Use of pelvic initiated movement. Use of curves and circles.

But to a certain extent all this can be seen in other dance forms. Jazz is often isolated. Shimmies can be found in island dance; hip movement in South American dance; Martha Graham and Gaga technique use pelvic initiation; Hula uses hip circles.

The two stand outs are the music used and how it is interpreted. A characteristic of belly dance is the use of (a subset of) Middle Eastern and North African music. If you do Highland dance you use Scottish music. If you do Bharatanatyam you use the appropriate music from the south of India. If you do hula you use Hawaiian. Same with belly dance.
Interpreting the music is the other side. You can take an appropriate piece of music and use the belly dance vocabulary and still come up with something that isn’t entirely “belly dance”. One aspect is that belly dancers make the music visible (but that doesn’t mean hitting every accent). This is different from a number of other dance forms – Contemporary is a case in point where our teacher complains if we lock into the music!

But there is more. Easy to spot when it doesn’t work. Hard to describe. To get a feel for how it should look watch lots of (good) native dancers. Watch their performances over and over. Try and follow along to see how they switch between rhythm, melody and lyrics. Because at its roots belly dance is a Middle Eastern dance form. You can adapt and change it – but if it drifts too far from its roots it becomes something else. Not necessarily bad dance or worthless dance – but different dance.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How to Shimmy

So now, we have a definition of a shimmy, the next question is how to do it. And, no, the answer is more than “move very fast”. There are a number of ways that you can move. Let’s take the two most common shimmies the “shoulder shimmy” and the “hip shimmy” – that isn’t two shimmies. It is at least seven!

Shoulder Shimmies

There are (at least) two moves known as a “shoulder shimmy”. One moves the shoulders horizontally and one twists the torso.

The horizontal shoulder shimmy is very isolated and used only in Orientale – it isn’t used in folk (unless you want to layer it with a shoulder roll). In its pure form you pull the shoulder back and push it forward without twisting the torso – or lifting or rotating the shoulder.

The more common form may include some horizontal shoulder movement but is mainly driven by twisting the torso. But it is more complex than that. You can generate the twist in different parts of your torso to give a different flavour.

Hip Shimmies

My own default hip shimmy is driven by the concentric contraction of lateral flexors - particularly the quadratus lumborum with the internal and external obliques (I had to analyse it for a ‘varsity paper but needed the help of a sports physio!). In layman's language, I use my waist muscles to drive the hips up and down - but the knees bend to accommodate the movement. (They have to.)

Most people learn to shimmy by initially bending and straightening alternate legs. This means the hips go up and down but the lateral flexors just go along for the ride. (This is sometimes referred to as a "knee shimmy")

Another common (older style?) shimmy involves twisting the hips back and forward. Again you can drive this with the obliques or the legs. (This is sometimes called a "Folk Shimmy")

The Modern Egyptian shimmy is really a refined version of this driven by the legs (the knees are not "straight" as in locked - but straighter to look good under a slim line skirt). You slightly flex one leg then straighten it using your quads. This drives the hip back rather than up.

A recent invention is the Salimpour glute driven shimmy. This looks to me as if it is almost getting away from a relaxed shimmy and moving more into a vibration. However, many people do use it.

As with the shoulder shimmy, people often don't do a "pure" version of a shimmy but mix and match - sometimes always but sometimes for a particular effect or layer. And few people know or care what muscles are doing what. What is important is how it looks; whether it fits the music.

Then there is a whole family of “three-quarter shimmies” where your hips move only three quarters of the time. How the hips move and which leg carries the weight make this a whole article in itself (maybe later).


No matter which shimmy you use, it needs practice to be smooth and controlled. It is important that the underlying technique is correct. So, start slow and build up the speed. If you lose it back off the speed – then bring it back up. Remember it should be in time with the music. Ideally it should be relaxed – even when small and fast.

Once you have the speed – go for endurance. Can you shimmy for a whole track? What about something longer?

Then you “just” add weight shifts and layers. Try shimmying on one leg. Which shimmies work best? How does shifting your weight change the feel of the shimmy? What about walking with a shimmy? Figure eights? Oriental circles? As you approach some layers you may have to go back to first principles and work out exactly why you lose your shimmy at the back of your circle or whatever.

It takes time. 10 000 repetitions to bed in a new movement pattern - but it has to be 10 000 correct repetitions. Go for it!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Shimmies Defined

Questions about what are shimmies, how they are generated and what are they called frequently comes up in various belly dance fora. So, here is a quick summary of the first question (I’ll leave the others for another blog).
Although the shimmy is a defining movement in belly dance, not everyone agrees what it is. For me, a shimmy is a repeated, smooth, relaxed, driven movement in time with the music – usually double time.
There are some related moves – which are fast shaking movements – but are not shimmies. For instance:
  • A vibration - which is tense – not relaxed
  • A freeze - which generated by muscle fatigue/tension rather than driven
  • A reverb(eration) – a driven movement followed by a loose, gravity generated shake (in my classes the Denise Walk is a classic example)
  • A mess – just jiggling around – not timed often tight and lumpy with no connection to the music at all
Although terminology does vary between teachers but I find this breakdown useful – and many experience belly dance teachers would agree with most of this.

One bone of contention is the three-quarter shimmy. In this, the shake only happens three quarters of the time – and there is a short rest. So instead of a chukka chukka – it becomes chukka chuck. For me, if the movement part is smooth, relaxed and driven I would class it as a special type of shimmy. However, there are teachers who have banished it into Not-Shimmy-Land.

So what can be shimmied? Actually anything – although most common in belly dance are the hips/pelvis, shoulders or torso. The whole body can get involved with the movement travelling from the hips the te belly and up to the bust. But I have also seen hands (especially in Khaleegi), eyebrows (Persian) and nostrils! (Greek).

But whatever you move it should match the music in speed and texture. Don’t shimmy just because you can; shimmy because the music asks it of you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dance Teachers and Knowledge of Anatomy

I admit I don’t know as much as I want to. In moments of insomnia I still get out my text books (such as Fitt and Calais-Germain) and read a chapter. Even run my hands over my model pelvis sometimes trying to make the terminology stick. But I’ve never really knuckled down to learning the flashcards.

Yet for dance teachers, a working knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology and safe dance practice really are not optional. With belly dance the safe dance practice is especially relevant as many of our students are not what traditional dance schools would normally deal with. They are often older, heavier and come with a range of injuries and problems linked to living.

This came to the fore when considering two things. One was a student who trumped my 6 months tertiary study and hundred plus hours with Michael with a full degree in Phys.Ed. Yet, her knowledge of physical safety was limited and she was often dismissive of real issues faced by other students. This could partly be because she herself was a formidable athlete – who was unwilling to see that not everyone was capable of her physical feats. But also her learning was some time in the past. Possibly she had forgotten some of what she had learnt – or more likely the science had improved over the years.

The second was doing a class with a teacher who considered rubbing your skin as a “warm-up”, who did not understand that standing hamstring “stretches” cannot lengthen the hamstrings – but might (if you are unlucky) lengthen lumbar ligaments that should never be lengthened and “helped” another student by missing the alignment needed for the hip flexor stretch she said we were doing.

This latter experience really did send me back to my books – burning with the knowledge that I needed to keep my own understanding and skills sharp. But I’m also aware that scientific understanding of best practices also change – and I hope I do not miss something important.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reaching the Belly Dance Market

I’ve just finished doing yet another poster run for my next beginner course. All up for Term 1 I have clocked up over150km. Why? Because I’m trying to reach those who are not already in the loop. All my students’ friends and colleagues have been informed of how much fun belly dance is. Yes, I have a web presence (and have since before I started teaching on my own). Yes, I do Facebook – and to a lesser extent Twitter. I pay for advertising in print media and on the web – and it is more expensive than the numbers responding.

The number of belly dance classes are growing in Christchurch. When I started belly dance in 1991 there was only one teacher – Farida. There was one – then two – classes held in her back shed. I think we could fit four people in there if we were not doing veil.

A couple of years later Gendi started teaching; first from home then hiring a studio and talking on another teacher (me) and finally buying her own hall. Now she’s gone – but there are over 10 other teachers in six groupings – there were more but the earthquake took its toll of teachers as well as venues and students. We have been pretty fortunate so far in that most of the teachers are experienced in both belly dance and have had some training in teaching. Not all cities are so lucky.

Each teacher has her own niche and generally the classes are spread by time and space – but Christchurch has less than 400 000 people. Many people like to give it a flutter then move on to other interesting tasters. Literally thousands of people have tried belly dance and the pool of new beginners (with the interest, time and discretionary spending) is becoming more difficult to fish every year.

Many years ago there were many places for people to put up notices for classes. Many of these were independent small retailers who were a part of the community. Now, many of these have been replaced by international consortiums whose image does not include a noticeboard. Some malls forbid tenants from displaying posters.

For a brief moment, the Christchurch City Council came to the rescue providing bollards for community notices but these were soon taken over by a commercial poster company who put up lots of the same very large posters on commission and instructed their staff to remove any poster not paid for through their company.

The there was Google Ads. When I started teaching, this was an economic way to reach interested people. Then another teacher in the area joined the program. Then another. Next thing you know we were in a bidding war. The only winners were the Google shareholders. I am now paying 20-40 times the amount for a click than I was initially. In addition to local competition, international retailers with deep pockets and big margins can pay highly to get the attention of New Zealanders.

Now, the best I can hope for is someone will spot a small poster for a belly dance class and be inspired enough to sign up. Nothing so far.