Thursday, September 17, 2009

Belly Dance for Mental Agility

Much is often made of Belly Dance being great for improving physically flexibility – but what about mental flexibility? It can give you a great mental workout as well.

Take last weekend. It seemed like a simple gig supporting the local International community. We’d come along and dance for their get together. First hurdle – did I have any Middle Eastern students? Ideally recent immigrants or children of immigrants? No, but I’m the child of Hungarian parents and some students are Dutch. So our support was declined – until 10 days before the event was to be held when they decided that my site included enough multicultural material for me to pass.

Next hurdle - no real timetable. Okay, I can adjust. I’m not totally anal about my schedule. But that meant some students who had firm commitments elsewhere were unable to take part. So, for a 10 minute performance we were on site almost two hours being part of the community. Probably good for us.

Then there was the choice of material. Nothing to alienate conservative Muslims. I bit my tongue as I knew we could do nothing right if any really conservatives turned up. However, we have a wide repertoire of folkloric items. Cane is always popular. Then I realised the venue was small with a low ceiling and people would be sitting up close. No cane. I suspected my beledi would be incomprehensible to non-Egyptians. No beledi. With those that I had available at short notice it would be ghawazee as a solo. Maybe. Ditto haggala – and as a woman well past the first flush of youth I’d not be a sensible choice.

Okay – khaleegi. Our stage piece is for 10 – but I could only get 4 at short notice. A good thing too. Did I tell you the stage was small? 3 by 10 – over here we think in metres – and that would have been small for the tableau. But the organizer was old school – this was feet. So, restage and reassign parts – this is a group framework with solos and duets not a choreography with everyone doing the same thing. Add two hours of rehearsal leading up to the show.

So, one student thought this would be a good time to refurbish her costume and she unpicks it and starts reassembling it by hand. (For those of you who have never made a khaleegi thobe there is over 6m of fabric – that’s 4m of sleeve hem to restitch with slippery sequinned fabric.) Three hours before we are due at the venue she rings to say she’ll never get it back together in time. Thank goodness for spare khaleegi thobes. Only, I made the class set out of cheap material and now it has to be ironed – by me. (Along with putting on make up and running a last minute rehearsal)

Our second item? I took the easy route and did a stock belly dance piece – covering as much skin as possible with body stockings, sleeves and gauntlets. The audience –Korean, Japanese, Indian, Welsh, Australian and Somali - were not at all offended.

Overall, it went down very well. The students got a kick out of not only pulling off a nice piece of dance performance but also realizing that what they learn in class is not definitive. They are being given tools. They can adapt. Now they don’t just know this in the abstract – they know they can do it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

So, Who’s Writing on the Net?

Recently a student discovered a YouTube clip of Ranya Renee doing a great beledi interpretation. This sparked an interest in beledi which she initially asked me about. I love beledi – it is my favourite style. But I was overwhelmed by catching up after a week at the Winter Warmup and had a huge pile of exams to mark. So my response was a little brief.

No problem. She then started an internet search and came up with a range of information. Some accurate, some suspect, some off. The email correspondence that followed really got me thinking. The first issue was simple – “why do you think your information is better than X or Y’s?” Because I got my information directly from Egyptian dance teachers who lived, worked, and studied in Egypt – such as Raqia Hassan, Yousry Sharif, Denise Enan, Dr Mo Geddawi, Aida Nour. Yasmina and Lubna Emam. Although one or two may have grasped the wrong end of the stick – I cannot believe all would have.

I should have anticipated the next question “then why can’t I find any information by them on the net?”. Maybe because they have better things to do with their time? Maybe because they are professional teachers and are not inclined to give away huge hunks of information for free? Maybe because neither English nor the internet is familiar to them? Maybe because they have difficulty in putting into words what they know through years of living in a culture? Maybe because when they hear a mawal they just know that this is how you move and this – but not that?

The third issue is a little harder. “Beledi” is a big concept. It has many levels of meaning. There are numerous associated music and dance styles which change over time, place and society. A good explanation isn’t a one liner. It isn’t even a whole webpage. It is a book. Yet, so often, it is expected that a couple of paragraphs will cover it. The ‘net encourages a very superficial gloss over of complex topics.

Finally there is the expectation that you can learn anything on the ‘net. You can learn a lot about some aspects of dance through the written word – if you share a common language – but not all. Video clips and DVDs also provide another tool. You can (usually) see what a dancer is doing. You can try and copy their movements. Many people have a gift of being able to do this. Many people struggle. Many people fail and don’t even realize it.

But belly dance is more than a string of movements. You need a context. You often need to ask someone about something which is obvious to them but a total mystery to you. “Why do so many beledi improvisations sound familiar?”, “Why do you wear that crochet thing on your face?”, “Who is this Fifi you keep talking about?” Often the student is unaware they even are missing something, which is where a live teacher comes in.

Experienced dancers and teachers know this. Less experienced dancers may take longer to learn – and in the meantime they are reading websites by those often with more confidence than knowledge. Then horror or horrors, they get their own website and repeat all the crap.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What are the “Basics”?

When designing any course of study a teacher needs to consider what are the basics that their students need to master. The basics will form the foundation of future learning. A poor foundation will mean that a student could be unable to reach their full potential.
So, with belly dance what are those basics?

There are several areas that need to be addressed:
  • Physical skills
  • Dance skills
  • Performance skills
  • Cultural and historical context

Physical skills

A basic requirement for a dancer is co-ordination and control. Without this they are unable to use their body to express movement. Tied to this is automatic abdominal control to enable many of the standard moves to be performed safely. This is the automatic response of the body to protect the back and use the deep abdominal muscles.

In belly dance flexibility is a lesser requirement. Most belly dance does not require extreme range of motion. However, balanced flexibility is advantageous. This will allow a student to maintain good posture with minimal effort. Reasonable range of motion in the hips and lower back is also beneficial.

Unlike many other dance forms raw strength is not an issue. Apart from some folk styles there is little jumping required and no lifting. However, physical endurance is useful to enable a dancer to train over long periods and maintain good quality movement.

Only once the body is in a fit state can the teacher focus on “moves”. A belly dancer needs to be able to move parts of their body independently from each other. They need a basic vocabulary which includes moving the hips up and down and in circles and moving the shoulders and torso in typical movement patterns.

The initial – or basic moves – need to be physically safe for the new dancer. Moves such as mayas which are standard in many belly dancer’s vocabulary are not safe for many new dancers with insufficient abdominal control to perform them safely.

Dance skills

Building from moves, a dancer can learn combinations and travelling sequences. These need to be more than just exercises in movement but also be an expression of musicality. With a new dance style many students will need to be taught how to interpret the music by their teacher.
Many teachers include the ability to remember and perform choreography in their basics. Others do not. For some it is the ability to improvise to the music that is important.

Some teachers consider prop use (eg veils, zills, and cane) to be basic. Personally, I’d rather see a dancer secure in their body before adding an extra layer such as playing zills.

Performance skills

Although in the long term, stage presence, emotional communication, costuming and make-up are important in the dance, I would not count them in the initial basics.

Cultural and historical context

I would however include an introduction to belly dance’s cultural and historical context as “basic”. Why? Because without that the students might be learning dance – but they are not learning “belly dance”. A lack of context leads to poorly informed students believing anything with an undulation in it is belly dance. It leads to people who are unable to distinguish belly dance from hula. It helps many of the inaccurate myths bred. Shining a bright light on the background of the dance and distinguishing between belly dance and creative movement is an essential part of a belly dance teacher’s core job specification.

Teaching this while keeping the learning fun and extending the student’s dance ability is really what it is all about.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is this "Belly Raqs" thing?

My (stage) name is Kashmir and most people would call me a belly dancer. I teach belly dance. I entertain using belly dance. I even belly dance. Most of my free time is sucked up with belly dance and most of my holidays are belly dance related.

So, why do I use "belly raqs"? It is not because I am one of the belly dancers who find the name "belly dance" demeaning and inaccurate, but rather that "belly dance" has too often become a sloppy label attached to any movement that includes undulations and bare bellies. Belly dance, real belly dance, may include undulations and it may be danced with a bare belly - but often is not. Belly dance can include these elements but far more importantly it is based on a social dance from (North Africa and) the Middle East. The movement vocab is torso centered; the belly often powering the moves rather than being the point of them. And it links back to the Middle East - in its music, in its approach, in its feel.

To make that link explicit I use the Arabic term for dance - "raqs" and place it after the Western term for our dance genre - "belly". This acknowledges for me that both cultures have given me my belly dance.

To those who wonder why I don't just use the term "raqs sharqi" - it is because that is actually a small sub-set of belly dance. Raqs sharqi (aka danse orientale) is a style that came out of Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. Many people still dance in this style and even more dance in a style directly derived from it. But it isn't my preferred belly dance style. I tend to be a bit more beledi; a bit more folkloric.