Friday, July 16, 2010

Value of Workshops

Aida Nour.
I have just recently returned from the Winter Warm Up in Brisbane . This year’s guest teacher was Aida Nour. It was well worth the time and money – as it has been for each of the last 14 years I have attended.

Why I Attend Workshops

Every year I learn something new – which makes me smile at those who have learnt it all in a year or so. Am I just thick or did they really have better and more experienced teachers than Aida Nour, Denise Enan, Dr Mo Geddawi, Yousry Sharif, Mohamed Kazafy or Lubna Emam? I suspect it is a case of “unknown unknowns”. Seems many belly dance teachers today know only the surface of the dance. They don’t know its history, any folkloric styles, and have limited understanding of Arabic (or Turkish) music and how to interpret it. No surprise than that they soon run out of things to teach. Worse, when one of their students decides to start teaching …

I go partly as it is a chance to learn from the source of the dance unmediated by western bias. All the Winter Warm Up teachers (apart from Bobby Farrah) have been Egyptian born with a long history in professional belly dance. They can dance Orientale. They also know Egyptian folk styles – the movement vocabulary, the music and the costuming.

But also the format means you get a chance at depth you can never get with one or two short workshops. Over four (or even better eight) days you can begin to see patterns in the way a dancer works. Something you couldn’t get on day one, snaps into focus on the third day, for example. Some years we have worked on the same piece for two days. Ten hours concentrated work on a dance certainly helps cement it into your muscle memory.

There is also the sense of community. Once a year you get to met in person with those who share a passion for Egyptian belly dance. A rare breed. It’s great to be surrounded by people who can discuss the evolution of Egyptian dance or who understand that milaya lef was created by Mahmoud Reda and can compare different interpretations.

Finally, in New Zealand I have a very limited pool of teachers who I can gain much from. Either they are involved in styles I have no interest in or their own knowledge is less than my own. Attending workshops gives me something to stretch me and something I can work on for a few months.

Why Do So Few Attend (Challenging) Workshops?

So why don’t more teachers (especially) attend more challenging workshops? Access is an issue. The Winter Warm Up is in Australia which means a passport, time off work and family, money for workshops, accommodation and travel. There are few “grown-up” workshops for belly dance in New Zealand (with would be more accessible). Yes, we have had Cassandra’s Oasis Dance Camp – but only twice. Other international teachers do make it to New Zealand but invariably they tone their material down to reach as wide a catchment as possible. The problem would be that we are a small country and are unable to pull the numbers needed for a solid, extending workshop.

But wait a minute! We have thousands of belly dancers in New Zealand. I, alone, can think of 80 teachers here. True some of them would only be interested in Tribal workshops – but that is only a small proportion. If half of the teachers were willing to attend a workshop there would be the numbers to bring someone with a lot of experience to New Zealand. But you have to ask how many of those teachers would be capable of handling 4 or 5 hour days? I still remember my surprise at the Oasis Dance Camp when at least two teachers were buggered after about an hour’s dancing.

One must consider whether a desire not to be “shown up” is part of the reason some people don’t attend workshops. Personally, I rarely see anyone else in a workshop – I’m too busy working on my own stuff. With Aida I was surprised when she split the class in half so each could dance for the other and I discovered dancers I deeply admired had problems too. One had difficulty remembering the choreography. Another had a lousy shoulder shimmy. A third couldn’t modify her style to match the style we were meant to be performing. I don’t see them as any less a dancer, but it reinforces that we all have things we need to work on.

Another possible reason is that some dancers think they know all there is to know. They don’t attend workshops because they don’t think they need to. In some cases they may have a deeply flawed concept of what they do and do not know. For others they may have attended a workshop that was badly labelled – for instance a “professional workshop for advanced dancers” taught by someone with poor dance skills and no teaching ability. Correctly judging they could do better, they then avoid workshops in the future as a waste of time.

Meet the Challenge

To all of you, I say, you have to keep pushing the limits. It is extremely rare to improve without some outside stimulus. Talk to other dancers who have similar interests and find out what is worth going to. If you want to get out of the rut, start saving money and leave so you can do at least one challenging workshop every year or two.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bouncing Breasts as a Turn Off

All mammals have them. In many adult human females they are quite noticeable. So why are they ignored when it comes to physical exercise? Yes, yes, I know about sports bras – but honestly they are of limited use. In the short time I played soccer only binding with crepe bandages was really effective.

Two incidents have had me thinking about breasts again. One was a presentation I attended on introducing exercise to the community. One (male) presenter was extolling the virtues of jogging (as opposed to running or fast walking which causes a lot of leverage on the joints). Jogging was great. The feet stayed under the bulk of the body weight. The heart rate was raised because the body is lifted and moved slightly forward very rapidly.

Mmm, I thought, bouncing up and down for 30 minutes – do they really think this is going to take off with the under-exercised and over-weight in the community. Especially women? Even with a good bra, as an E-cup, I avoid anything that is going to lift and drop my torso for even a few minutes – let alone thirty.

I waited for someone to object. The only query was on the effect of jogging on the joints which let to a complex discussion on how fast walking can be more detrimental. Oddly enough most of the audience was female – but of the light lean variety. I am still unsure if the silence was due to a complete obliviousness to the issue or whether no-one wanted to mention “breasts”. However, as two of the other presentations by women were also the jump round turn around variety I suspect many in the industry have never lived with the reality of female breasts and vigorous exercise.

So maybe belly dance is the answer. If you avoid some folk styles such as sa`iidi and debke there isn’t a lot joggling up and down. Yet breast blindness appeared again recently on an internet forum.

The subject was shoulder shimmies. There are many ways to create a shoulder shimmy but the two main mechanisms is to articulate the shoulders back and forward very quickly or to twist the torso as a unit. (You can do a mix and you can also change how high the torso twists.) Personally I refer to the former as “shoulder shimmies” and the latter as “torso or bust shimmies”. The latter is more common in folk styles. The former is most often seen in Orientale.

The issue was many larger busted women found the bust shimmy uncomfortable, ugly, and made them feel self conscious. However a number of the other dancers and even teachers could not understand this. There was discussion on using well constructed bras and improving isolation – both valid comments – but few would be willing to change the technique to an (articulated) shoulder shimmy.

My point? When leading exercise for a group that includes women who are not (for what ever reason) washboard ribbed, consider the effect of the movement on the women’s body. Making your clients uncomfortable and unhappy is not going to encourage them to come back.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Challenging Yourself

In belly dance there is so much to learn - even within a single style. It is a chance of lifetime learning. The first challenge most people face is actually taming their body. Learning that hip figure eight that does what you want it to do - staying horizontal or vertical or doing a combination of both and keeping it smooth. Getting a shoulder shimmy that moves only the bits you want to shake.

What might surprise many beginners is that "getting you body under control" doesn't really stop. You just add more difficult moves to your repertoire. (Not that belly dance is about having to master more and more difficult moves - but you don't learn it all when you can execute a flawless set of isolations on each part of the body).

For many people the next step is learning movement combinations, layering and transitions. Some then start collecting choreographies. Some then challenge themselves with improvisation. Both are valid. What both are working towards is learning to interpret the music - within the belly dance genre.

This step requires some outside assistance. Although a dedicated and talented person might be able to learn the moves, it is much harder to learn to belly dance. For this you need a teacher - or even better a number of teachers. Some may be people you attend class with. Some may only drop in to take a workshop. Some you might learn from by watching their performances. Over a period of years by watching good examples of the dance and being corrected by knowledgeable teachers you extend your ability to be able to be a good belly dancer yourself.

A student of belly dance (and by that I also include the best teachers) also needs to understand the different styles within the dance. They don't need to be able to do them all well but they should be able to recognize obvious examples of (say) modern Egyptian style, Lebanese style, old style Turkish, AmCab etc. They should also have an idea of a couple of major folkloric styles from the area of interest - Egyptian folk for Egyptian dancer, Turkish or Rom folk for Turkish dancers etc.

Another aspect of the dance is a range of props. A basic set would include veil, zils and cane but there are many others – again depending on the style(s) you are interested in - sword for AmCab and Tribal, shamadan for Egyptian, spoons for Turkish. A belly dancer needs to know not only how to use them but when to use them. What music works. What movements go with them.

Then there are cultural factors. A dancer needs to know about what his or her music means. Not only what the lyrics say (and many instrumentals also have lyrics) but what it actually means and also what it means to the audience. For instance some very upbeat songs can be about loss. And some songs are metaphors – for example there is a song which appears to be about a man’s mother but is actually a political song about Egypt. For Egyptians songs by Oum Kalthoum have a particular significance and need to be treated with sensitivity.

So, some understanding of the language (whether Arabic, Turkish or Farsi) is useful. But an understanding of the people’s culture and history is also important.

One problem with self taught dancers – or those that do not have a good teacher – is that you often cannot know what you do not know. Experienced belly dancers are forever stumbling across people saying they have learnt it all (after a year, two months or whatever) so have had to branch out into fusion or burlesque or whatever. They shudder – but often it isn’t the dancer’s fault. They often truly don’t know they are missing 90% of belly dance.

So, if you are feeling a little too smug. Look around and find a new challenge within the dance. After 19 years I’m still learning new stuff – and I really only have a deep knowledge of Egyptian and generic belly dance.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Belly Dance Hen's Nights

After a particularly busy lot of Hens Nights, a friend commented how hard it must be. I pointed out belly dancing for three hours, while unusual for me is well below a full day at a workshop - and at a much lower technical level. But that wasn’t it. Rather, it was turning up at a stranger’s house and offering to belly dance for them. “You’re so shy. What if they think ‘Belly Dance – how silly. I’m not doing that!’”

Well, first up I’m not “shy”. True, I’m an introvert – which means interacting with groups of people drains rather than invigorates me – and I don’t do small talk. But give me a role or a task and I have no problem fronting up to any number of people – dancing, teaching, lecturing – even giving directions on the street.

But not needing the approval of other people, like my extroverted friend, means I don’t feel personally hurt if people don’t warm 100% to me and my interests. Yes, some times a few individuals at a Hens Night are too cool to belly dance. And there are people who are too shy, too tired, too sore, too pregnant, or too drunk. But even they often get something out of the entertainment.

And at a Hens Night – that’s what I am - an Entertainer. I’m not there to show them how well I can dance. I’m not there to be admired. I’m there to help people celebrate their friend or relative; I’m there to let them have a laugh, take some silly photos – and maybe, just maybe, pick up a few belly dance moves.

Hey, if you think some of your friends might like this – and they live in Christchurch, New Zealand – feel free to contact me!