Friday, December 31, 2010

It's dark in the desert....(part 3)

Ok, so where was I? Oh yes, happy, happy, joy, joy!

Technically this part of the series is about two similar-sounding complaints with a world of difference between them: 

"One cannot express "dark" things through this dance" and "My dance is about joy, it's impossible to bring something "dark" to it."

To quickly address the first issue: Well, if the dancer is supposed to be the music made manifest - i.e., it's our job to be the music, and if the music expresses "dark" sentiments, one could follow the line of logic and say therefore, the dance itself would be "dark."  No? Yes? Of course.

The thing is, what the hell is "dark" anyway?  If you get obsessed about dividing everything into "light" and "dark", you miss the whole picture.  Our experience here on this planet is never simply one or the other, but a collection of mixed emotions and events.  To designate "dark" as all things negative, and "light" as all things positive is far too simplistic.  Not everything "dark" is about anger, angst, sadness, and pain. (And if you haven't noticed, I'm placing "dark" in quotes, because in the way it is referenced in our examples, it has been used to designate "the realm of the other", aka, the marginal. The intentional segregation of something that is not of the world or familiarity of the speaker.  Darkism if you will.  Woohoo! Congrats!  We have a whole new 'ism!) Essentially, what the dark really represents everything foreign to us, mysterious, not easily understood or addressed, things that are arcane, secreted, unclear, and not easily dealt with.

And with that, we'll move on to the second complaint. Look, I want to make it very clear, I'm not dissing anyone who wants to express only joy and happiness in their dance.  More power to you!  Because dance is about expression, and as the performer, you can choose to express whatever you wish.  For some, the dance is their only means of escape for daily life, a place of wonderful fantasy and positive creation - somewhere to get away from a stressful relationship or family situation, a tough job, to forget about pain and illness, a break from mundane troubles.  But if you also look at dance as a way not only to express, but to explore and to heal, to address issues and conquer them, then considering the whole spectrum of emotions and the possibilities they can bring, can be an amazing experience.  It's not easy, and frankly it can be downright scary unlocking those feelings and experiences on stage (performing can be already scary enough right), and I can definitely understand not wanting to go there.  It's not for everyone.  Or maybe it's just not for you right now in your life.  But that doesn't mean no else can do it either.  And it can be very very beautiful and powerful if you give it the chance.

On the flip side of this, there's also a danger in exploring deeper emotions on stage that you haven't had a real connection to, or are afraid to make that connection.  Not so much a personal danger, as a problem in being sincere on stage - it falls flat.  Anger or angsty dance for the sake of being "dark and spooky", rarely translates well, and often comes across as taking yourself way too seriously.  It dangers on audience abuse.  Please don't abuse your audience.  Similarly, not everything has to be performed.  Some things are best explored in the studio or living room, and not brought to the stage.  Dance can most certainly be therapy, but would you really want to make all your sessions with your psychiatrist public?  If you're unsure, ask a friend, your teacher, your partner. 

In the end, I believe that in order to be good dancers, we need to be able to express a wide range of emotions, a breadth of experiences - in order to truly be the music and share that with the audience.  And sometimes you'll be asked to do it just within a single song.  Don't be afraid of the dark. Don't be afraid of the light.  Don't be afraid to dance.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


there's a mini-interview with me over at The Belly Whisperer from her "Why Should I Care?" series! Enjoy! Thanks RetroKali!

It's dark in the desert (part 2)

I've heard the complete spectrum of opinions on Gothic Bellydance - from epic poems of love, passion, and personal transformation to editorial passages about how it is an abomination that will lead to the downfall of not only dance, but humanity as a whole.  (I kid you not.)

Somewhere in the middle, the statement arises that "Goth" has nothing to do with Middle Eastern culture/dance - usually with one of the following two angles: that Gothic culture is Western/alien in concept to the Eastern culture, and that bellydance is all about happiness/joy. 

Both of these views not only discredit and gloss over Arabic culture, but the very action and art of dance itself - not to mention, show a shallow understanding of what being Goth is about. And I'll tell you why.

In the past, as a tongue-in-cheek response to that sort of attitude, I have made the observation that you really can't get much more "Goth" than the Ancient Egyptians - can you really think of anyone more fascinated with death and obsessed the afterlife more than them?  (Have I mentioned that I was enthralled by Ancient Egypt from about age 7 onward? So much so I used to be able to read and write hieroglyphics.  My husband and I have a 4 foot tall by 10 foot long papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the our dining room.)

But being cheeky aside, that thought sequence came back to me when I recently attended the Arab Dance Seminar in NYC.  This particular session was about the depth of the Arabic language, especially concerning understanding the meaning of the lyrics in the context of the culture.  And as we talked about the poetry of the lyrics, the culture from which they were from, who wrote them, who sung them, and how they are expressed with the music, I couldn't help but think "how Goth!" From the frustration of being marginalized in a culture unlike (or that is) your own and the pain/longing of the diaspora condition, to beautiful pain of unrequited/unattainable/secret love.  Of course, we were just sampling a few songs from multiple Arab cultures, but you can't argue that these are happy/light topics, even though some of them sound downright peppy when you hear the music.  And if you study about the people who wrote the lyrics, you will find that most of them were moody, marginalized artists who led difficult lives.

Which brings to mind a passage from Chaim Potok's "Asher Lev" books, where there's a dialogue between two artists about making truly great art (summarized), "Can you think of any great artist who was truly happy?" "Well, Rubens was happy." "And he painted happy paintings. Anyone else besides Rubens?" "Nope." "Because most great art is made through pain and suffering."  The Asher Lev books are about the difficulty of being an artist in orthodox Jewish culture.  That it is not considered an acceptable or respectable occupation. And while I'm sure some people will get huffy about me making the comparison, there is a similar mentality found in Arabic culture (which is NOT surprising considering the similar backgrounds and thousands of years of co-existence, so get over it).  Any dancer who has done even a little bit of research will know that dancers, musicians, singers - while enjoyed by most of the community, they are still often looked down upon.  They are marginalized.

So you may be saying OK, but what does that have to do with Goths?  Well if you unburden yourself of the wrist-slashing, devil-worshippin', pastey white and dyed black stereotype for a few moments (or preferably forever), really what is at the heart of the Gothic culture is a love of the arts, the ability to see beauty in the tragic and the macabre, and a sense of being marginalized for not fitting within society's norms.  And you may also be surprised to find that although the movement may have started in "the West" the people who make up the Gothic subculture are not from one place or race, but they are found throughout the world, on every continent.  It is a microcosm that occurs within many macrocosms. What I am saying is that there is a mutual understanding here of the human condition from a dramatic perspective. 

Further proof of this understanding is that there are numerous Gothic musicians/bands who not only incorporate Arabic instruments, maqams, vocals - but are Arabic/Middle Eastern themselves.  If the roots behind these fusions were so discordant, it would not have been possible to successfully weave them together - as they have been, for decades.  And with the music, comes the dancing.

Next up, happy happy joy joy and dance...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's dark in the desert....(part 1?)

This is probably going to be an ongoing series and exploration....

I have a confession to make.  I am absolutely obsessed with North African dance and music.  I cannot get enough of it.  When I'm doing it, I feel like YES! THIS IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT! (And while I had been introduced to bits and pieces of it over the years from many different instructors, it was Amel who really helped me come to this realization, but that will be for another post...)

But inquiring minds ask, what does that have to do with Gothic or Dark Bellydance?  I think the inquiring are often so busy looking at the labels and the surface conditions that they rarely look below the surface and the stereotypes.  I don't work from the outside in, I work from the inside out. In all things.  Nor am I one to play the who's the darkest, ookiest, spookiest biatch on the block, because I just don't own that much make-up (nor do I give a rat's patootie).  ;)

But sometimes I forget that I'm weird - as in, I'm a bit odd, especially in how I think.  Recent case in point: I was selling my wares at the alumni holiday sale for RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and we all know that art students are pretty weird/out there kind of people. (And if you don't know this, you should.)  And I'm looking at my fellow alums' work, and I'm gauging customers' reactions, and I sort of slipped out of my head for a moment to see how other people view what was in my booth.

In between an "upcycle" clothing booth and raku pottery is a rack of corseted items, a pile of darkly-colored lush ruffle things, dramatic looking hooded scarves on 20's looking heads, an array of jewelry featuring animal skulls and imagery, and flowers with eyeballs in them.  And owls.  Folks, this is some seriously weird shit going on.  MY seriously weird shit.  In a room full of artsy crazy people, I was still pretty far out there.  But I'm so immersed in what I consider normal for me, I never even think about "pushing buttons", "shock factor", or "edgey" - cause weird IS my mundane.  It's THAT intrinsic for me. 

So, what does that say?  That pretty much everything I do, comes through my own weird filter.  Whether that makes it "dark", "Gothic" or any other adjective, isn't really the point.  The point is, it comes sincerely from my heart and soul.  As it should!

So, there's the first (part 1) factor to consider.  What's going on inside the individual.  Part 2, I'd like to talk about culture and dark tendencies.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Spiral Journey

Contrary to quasi-popular belief, there is usually a method to my madness.  And my madness being how I chase/am chased by the muses.

Being the end of the year, I was thinking back about where this past year has brought me, and that progressed to much further back, well over a decade, and then something clicked...

I have long-considered dance a journey.  But up until last night, I never gave much thought to the shape of that path - it was clearly not a linear line of progression, but rather more circular.  To be exact, a spiral. 

Let me explain.  There is the short and sweet version of how Tempest became a bellydancer.  If you've ever read an interview with me, you probably know it.  But then there's the more complex version that speaks to the very beginning.

Before I found bellydance, back in the late 1990's, I was the leader of a college-based faith organization that somehow became the largest open-path Pagan group in Rhode Island, if not in New England - as well as the leader of a tradition.  Looking back, I'm not sure how I did it, because not only because was I finishing up getting my degree full-time, newly married, and working part-time, but I was also barely 20.

Anyway, members of the group and the tradition would often socialize together, and one night we all piled into the van, and attended a live concert with Libana - a woman's folk group.  What I remember most about that evening was that they performed a short Zar segment (complete with one of the ladies going through the movements).  I had no idea what it was, but it moved me to my very core.  I had never really considered dance as an outlet up until that point of my life, but something happened to me when I heard that rhythm.  It felt...familiar and right.  But the experience would pass and soon get covered over by the waves of life.

A year or so later, most of that group (the female members to be precise) would sign up together for bellydance classes at the local community college.  Not all of us stuck with it, but we eagerly brought the movements and the music we learned into our rituals immediately.  Some (mainly the guys) became interested in playing the music, so we had a terrific time jamming, moving, and dancing.  About 6 months down the line, Zingari (music and dance ensemble) was born, and we had our first performance at a local street/metaphysical faire.  I had a hard time picking a song to dance to, but in the end I chose "Solitude" by Solace.  If you're unfamiliar with that song, it's underlying rhythm is the ayyub, more well-known in dance circles as the Zar rhythm.  But I wouldn't come to realize this until some time later, after we had moved to California, and even further along when I connected it to my experience with Libana.

Also at the same time Zingari was experimenting, I had bought "Tarantata - Dance of the Ancient Spider" by Alessandra Belloni.  Little did I know then that one day I would experience Alessandra perform live as well, and get to study with her.

I spent those early years in California academically studying trance/ritual dances from around Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia and North Africa - but as my physical study in bellydance advanced, it got pushed aside.  It seemed to me that spiritually profound aspect that drew me to dance, wasn't found/present in what I was studying - that I would have to bring it myself, and even then I wasn't so sure about it.  Most of the teachers and dancers I met led me to believe that it really didn't exist/doesn't anymore/this is not the place for it/etc. The closest glimpses of that spiritual sense, happened when I performed improvised duets with Anaar - we performed (and still do) sacred fusion and ritual dance.  But the weight of everything else seemed to bear down on me when I performed solo. 

Then I moved back to the East Coast, and if you read further back in this blog, you can learn more about that transition time.  And I had series of experiences with amazing mentors that re-awakened that sense of spiritual in a more deeper, grounded way than I ever thought possible, and confirmed what I believed.  Most importantly, I found the roots that I had been looking for in those early years of the dance - that they weren't mythical or buried in dust, but alive and thriving today in the world.  A part of me too.

And this 30-something woman can smile and brush fingers with that 20 year old girl whose heart first began to beat to the Zar on a cold night in Rhode Island - as she dances past her in a spiraling path toward her next destination.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right

Remember the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Where every item Goldilocks encountered was an extreme or just right?  The porridge was too hot, too cold, or just right.  The beds were too soft, too hard, or just right.  The chairs were too big, too small, or just right.

Pretty much all of the performances I see fall into 3 Goldilocks-like categories.  There's Over-Dancing, Under-Dancing, and Just Right.

Over-Dancing is when the music says "the mouse is black" and the dancer is saying "the super-fast tiny mouse is most certainly black and is-hiding-in-the-corner!" There's far more movement going on than the music asks for.  Consistently throughout the entire performance.  And sometimes there's a prop integrated that doesn't make sense with the music. There's no sense of breath, no relief for the audience, and a sense of audio-visual incongruity. Often the dancer is trying to capture too much - the rhythm and the melody all at once, all the time.

Under-Dancing is when the music says "the small mouse is very black" and the dancer is saying "mouse" and "black". Again, and again.  Basically hitting only the bare minimum without acknowledging any of the language happening in between.  There's too much space, not enough movement, and it feels remedial and gets boring quickly, not matter how big and exciting those initial movements are.  It's like typing in ALL CAPS.  ALL CAPS.  ALL CAPS. ALL CAPS. The dancer here is catching only the accents or only the rhythm with no attention paid to the ornamentation. Dum. Dum. Dum. Dum. When the music says Dum Dum tekka tek, Dum tekka tek, Dum tekka tek tekka tek tekka tek.

Just Right is when the music and the dancer are saying the same exact thing, more or less, throughout the performance.  Sometimes the dancer works the melody, sometimes it's the rhythm, sometimes a balance of both, but without getting too busy.  There's a sense of breath, a place for both the dancer and the audience to rest and enjoy, and not feel like THERE'S TOO MUCH GOING ON!  The dancer works within the structure of the music without doing too much or too little, with a sense of variety.

All of this is part of Musicality means to me, and what I teach. It's so important to really learn how to listen to the music, and not just the rhythm and not just the melody.  Far too often dancers simply go "oh, I like this music!  I'm going to perform to it!" without really considering the music and what it is saying.  Just assigning choreography to a piece of music isn't it.  You really need to take the time to consider what it says, and visualize the movements it is asking for.  It's this philosophy that allows me to do improv without trepidation.  And the more you listen to the music and get in the moment of it, the less you will anticipate what's coming next too far in advance. And the more you will be able to really own those movements and express through them, versus just executing them. The more you listen, the closer you get to "Just Right."

(If you want to learn more, check out the workshop "Musicality & 'Motion" with Tempest at Tribal Fest 11!)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Opinion/Feedback Time!

I promise there's a deep, thought-provoking sort of post in the works (and has been for about a week, but alas, time has been short), but in the meantime, it's time for you to share your thoughts/opinions on a subject. 

So for about 2 years now, I've been brainstorming DVD projects - and I've got enough material for frankly several, but this a self-producing sort of project, so reality says, we're looking at one for now, and go from there.  Lining up all of the ducks to make this happen in 2011 (and sooner rather than later), but what I would love to hear from y'all is, what do YOU want to see more of from me, in a DVD format?  Don't be shy. :)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Challenged Much?

(or perhaps better titled: how to avoid being in my blog...)

So, as of last week, I'm offering a second workshop now at Tribal Fest 11 - it's a brand new workshop debuting there called "Shimmies: Sassy to Sizzling!" - which was spawned from the fact that I have noticed a lot students, especially more Tribal/Tribal Fusion ones, having trouble getting a variety of shimmies, and rarely include them in their performances, or if they do, they don't incorporate them successfully in relation to their music. Anyway, upon announcing this new development, someone said to me, "oh, I wish it was another topic, I'm not very good at shimmies." (and yes, I did warn them where this conversation would end up, but I promised not to say who..)

So let me get this straight, you know you're bad at something, but you don't want to take a workshop that would help you get a better understanding of it? I wish I could say this was the first time I heard something like this in the dance community, but it's not. And it's not the same thing of saying, "Ok, I've studied X-style for a good amount of time, and it's not for me" or "I have an injury that prevents me from doing X.")  Instead, it's saying "I'm not good at doing X, and I'm afraid to do it for fear of looking bad."

Folks, the point of taking workshops isn't to do stuff you're really good at.  Rather the exact opposite. They're about finding your weak spots, engaging areas you don't know much about, expanding your horizons,deepening your knowledge, and making your weaknesses your strengths.  And you won't know what these things are unless you try, nor can you get better at them until you seek a solution.  And you're not going to look totally awesome doing it - rather the opposite.  This is one of those weird situations where, if you feel like a moron in class, chances are, you're on your way to becoming brilliant (eventually). After you continue to practice it, of course.  Some of my most favorite/best moves started off as moves I had a lot of problems with, and if you ask around, I'm sure you'll find many other professionals feel the same way.

And sometimes, you just need a new voice telling you how to do something.  Someone else may have a better way of explaining or breaking down a move or technique than what you've been exposed to before.  And don't assume that just because someone is "big name", that they know everything there is about all things, or are "the one true path."  If you only study from one group of people/knowledge area, you're closing yourself off to a wider range of knowledge and perspectives.  Or look at it this way - picture yourself as an elephant, walking trunk to tail in a line of elephants, the only perspective you're getting to get is the elephant butt in front of you.  Don't be a cenophobe - try something new!

I think part of the problem is that culturally, there's been a switch in mentality in the last 10-20 years in how we approach challenges - in that they should be removed/avoided, because they may cause people to feel bad about themselves. (and I'm generalizing here, but you get the idea, because if you're a parent or teacher now, you've experienced it.) When in fact, it's the challenges that make for stronger, quicker-thinking, problem-solving personalities.  And challenges make for better, more diverse dancers. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Star Quality? (Part Two)

Ok, so continuing on from Star Quality? (Part I), I want to focus on the 3 major factors I listed: Ability, Promotion, and Personality.  Someone who is an Established Star has worked hard on all of these factors (and most likely continue to). Out of these 3 things, I would say two of them can always be improved upon over time, with some hard work, dedication, and focus:

Ability: This refers to the individual's technique - not only in how well-versed they are in the dance and what they do, but how able they are as a teacher, as a performer.  Let's face it, no matter how naturally dance may come to some, there is always room for improvement and growth.  Some dancers let early praise get to their heads, and stop taking classes, workshops - and often start teaching themselves at the same time.  If you don't get a realistic picture of where you are at, nor do you ever get any more information in, you're going to plateau very quickly.  For those who it doesn't come so easily, or are more critical-thinkers, they're going to work harder, longer, and get farther in the big picture. (Hare vs. Tortoise if you will).  Those who rise fast, but don't grow nor continue to get accolades often vanish as quick as they came. Especially if they came on the scene with just one trick or gimmick in their bag. These would make up a fair amount of Shooting Stars. (Not all, because for some, life gets in the way - a major family change, career, move, health issues, etc - may quickly end the career of a Rising Star, making them appear to be short-lived.)

It is also important to note that someone who is a great dancer may not be a great teacher, and vice versa.  In the current economy, one really needs to be relatively strong at both to do it professionally.  And again, some people are natural teachers or performers, but most are not, and it takes time to acquire those skills and hone them.  And live experience makes a difference.  Heck, for example, it just makes sense that I would be a better teacher now in 2010, then I was in 2005, 200+ workshops later...and if I wasn't, then I wouldn't be getting the gigs and huge amount of return/repeat students that I am blessed with. 

So, when it comes to attaining "star quality" in regards to Ability - you need to be prepared to learn, study, practice, be critiqued, analyze, and share both in the classroom and on the stage.

Promotion: The individual's outlying presence - the image presented online via websites, videos, magazines, business cards, through events and other offerings. Ok, so you've got Ability down - what is your public presence in the world? How easily can potential customers/students/sponsors find out about you? Do you have a website? Business cards? Online video?  Back in the day, word of mouth and perhaps a good business card was all you needed, but this is the Information Age.  If someone can't google you, see you dance a timezone away, or take home a card, you can easily be forgotten. 

And I'm not saying you have to have a ton of money or graphic design talent to do it either, especially not in this day and age, where there's website builders a plenty, super-cheap hosting, and full color business cards for next to nothing.  And it doesn't have to be super fancy either - just clean and to the point.  Honestly, I built my first website back in the late 90's, and I really can't say my web skills have progressed greatly since the first part of this past decade, but I know good design, and I can do it all myself and update it.  So while I don't have the fanciest whistles and bells, I have an easy to navigate website that's updated regularly.  Where folks can read about you, where you've been, where you'll be at, how to contact you. That's all you really need.  Ok that and some good photos.  Which aren't that hard to come by for a small investment of time and/or money, no matter where you are located - and then can be used for all of your promo materials.

Also, don't be fooled into thinking that spending a lot of money on photoshoots and web design will get you there faster either (or expensive costumes), and it's got to be brand-new every 6 months.  I remember back-in-the-day snark from people who said I only got where I was because I had a pretty website and costuming.  Well, both the website and costuming I made from scratch, which was a major investment of my time, on top of everything else I was doing (college, dance classes, being married, working, and sleep somewhere in there..) - so really even if I had bought those things for a lot of money, it wouldn't change the fact that I'm still going strong many years later. So if you have the talent use it - if you don't, find some reliable friends/contacts who do.

It also helps to have an online presence in other ways too, via networking sites:, facebook, blogs, online forums, twitter, etc.  People nowadays have a shorter attention span, so you can't just expect to just sit back and be discovered. You have to be pro-active.

So, this would include the two factors that I think you can always be improving on.  The last one probably could too, but I'd argue otherwise, I think you either have it/get it, or you don't - and this factor plays the most important role of being an Established Star:

Personality: How they come across as a person - as a performer, as a teacher, as a community member. When I think about all of my dance heroes (and they all have been dancing for nearly as long as I have been alive, or longer), there are some incredibly similar traits that they all share.  They're all sincere, honest, grounded, minimal-drama people. They're also all relatively easy to work with - as performers, teachers, and as people. They have staying quality because they have proven themselves to be consistent and reliable over a long period of time. They're not afraid to express their opinion, but they also recognize when it is the best time to do so.  They are respected in their local communities as well as across the globe.  They have a serious work ethic, but also know how to have fun and don't take themselves too seriously either. And they're always open to learning something new.  And most importantly, they don't do it for fame, they do it because they truly love what they do and love sharing it.  

And I really stress that these things are proven again and again over time.  I can think of several Shooting Stars who had amazing charisma, but little real substance, and most people do catch on eventually that they really aren't all that and a bag of pita chips.  People also grow weary of Drama Queens who make too many demands but offer little else in return.  And it's important to be a part of your local community - even though I travel a lot, I still make time for local events, haflas, benefits, because it's important and I care about my community and growing opportunities for my students. 

So if you'd like to be a Rising Star (or are one already!), and would like to see yourself one day as an Established Star - carefully consider all of these factors, and take a good step back and look at yourself.  Don't be afraid to grow, to change, and to expand, and be sure you know you're doing it for the right reasons.

And for the record, I would consider myself Rising to Aspiring Established Star.  Maybe in another 10 years, ok?

Star Quality?

Another question that comes up often is "how does one get to be well-known/considered to be a "star" in the bellydance community?"

In order to answer that, we need to look at what makes a star and what IS a star anyway? There are several different factors at stake, as well as several different "tiers" of stardom if you will. If I was going to narrow the factors down into 3 sections, it would be Ability, Promotion, and Personality:

Ability: This refers to the individual's technique - not only in how well-versed they are in the dance and what they do, but how able they are as a teacher, as a performer.

Promotion: The individual's outlying presence - the image presented online via websites, videos, magazines, business cards, through events and other offerings.

Personality: How they come across as a person - as a performer, as a teacher, as a community member.

The combination of these 3 factors determine which level of stardom one may achieve. Here I have also narrowed the levels down to the 3 most common, which I have dubbed: Rising Stars, Shooting Stars, and Established Stars.

Rising Stars: Rising Stars are typically dancers who may be well-known in their local community, but are starting to break out on their national or international scene.  It can also refer to a younger dancer who exhibits a lot of potential to develop into much more.

Shooting Stars: Dancers who come fast on the scene, and seem to vanish the same way they arrived, for any number of reasons.

Established Stars: Dancers who are tried and true names in the business, who continue to grow and develop, and maintain their staying power.  They are generally among the most respected members of their local communities as well as far beyond. 10, 20, 30, 40 years, they're still around, going strong.

So how is it done?  More importantly, how is it done WELL? Well, we'll cover that in Part II!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Age & Dance - Revisiting Old Thoughts

It's been about 5 years since I wrote THE AGE OF STORYTELLING for the Hip Circle.  A LOT has happened in that relatively short period of time, especially in my dancing - particularly performances and how I approach them, and consider the end result - but as well in my larger life as well - another cross-country move, then a move back to New England, another nationwide tour, and design positions.  And as I work my way towards the mid-30's, I wondered if my perspective on what I wrote has changed much.

In short: no - I still sincerely believe that every woman has something to say through her dancing. But what I would add is that what we say changes.  And how you say it will change as well if you continue to grow in your dance (taking classes, workshops, trying new things, re-discovering basics). 

I would say that my dancing still maintains a dark edge that is naturally part of my aesthetic and personality, but it permeates my work in new ways. Looking back at the pieces of my 20's (from early 20's through to late 20's), it was a lot more confrontational, a lot more angry and hard-edged in a "in-your-face" sort of way. I created pieces dedicated to Kali Ma and the Rusalka, explored gender roles and my frustrations with the dance community. I played with the Noir/20's aesthetic, but kept running back to more Industrial/Cyber kind of Gothic themes, feeling that there was more power there.  There were a lot of good ideas, but at that point in time, my brain was far ahead of my dancing - meaning the concept was there, but I wasn't fully capable of physically executing the pieces consistently. There were points of breakthrough, but not every time - and I was moving too fast through everything (physically, mentally, spiritually).  Few people realize that I had only started dancing in 2000, so when the Gothic Bellydance DVDs came out, I had only been doing dance for 5-6 years - so a lot of things happened at/to me very fast in a short amount of time.  And I think that reflected in my dancing, for better and for worse, and in my relationships with others.

Midway through 2007, my husband and I (and The Mischief) moved back to the East Coast, and while I don't think things magically changed overnight, it was this move that started a new direction in my dancing, which started to emerge the following year on stage.  I started teaching weekly classes (never was the logical thing to do in the overcrowded Bay Area), and while I had always loved teaching, my skills and understanding grew even more - and I focused more on instruction than creating new performances.  And the pace of everything just seemed to slow down as my focus shifted.  I re-visited old performance sets and found new life in them.  I began to create a smaller amount of new performances, and worked with them longer, more intimately, allowing myself time to fully explore them, rather than worrying about presenting something new to "keep up."  And most importantly, my body caught up with my brain. 

As we end the near of 2010, I feel like I have journeyed far more in the last 3 years than I did in the first 8.  I grew into my own technique and claimed it more wholly, with my entire being.  I developed a new perspective on dance, and with that forged new relationships with dancers - both as a mentor and being mentored.  My dance has become more about satisfying my own muses than worrying about what others may think/perceive, and I want to share that focus with others.

So you could say sure, this is all related to growing older, but I don't think it's so much about physical age, as it is about learning to slow down, to shed what's not needed, and give time where it's most important - instead of racing to what's next.  "Next" will arrive when it's good and ready - or at least, when I am.   

(I also recommend checking out Artemis Mourat's article on the Gilded Serpent "Journey Into Womanhood" if you would like to read more about this subject - Artemis is a fabulous dancer, teacher, and friend who I admire greatly. )

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Defying Definition Part II: Unburdening

Labels are heavy things upon our shoulders - let them slide to the floor and go down the drain, and prepare to dance liberated and free.  (a passage from the book of Tempest..)

In my last post, I talked about the time before the style-obsession/wars and previously I talked about the Tree of Style - and today I would like to talk about moving past that and focusing on the dance itself, which is something I believe that all students of the dance can learn from, whether you have been doing this 10 months, 10 years, etc.

On one hand, let it be clear that I am obsessed with information.  I love gathering it: finding out about history, culture, tradition vs. innovation, what causes changes, the effects of those changes, etc.  I love finding out what makes X "X" and Y "Y".  And I love sharing that information.  That is the main reason I created the Gothic Bellydance Resource - to document the developments, gather information, share it and explain it with others.   (And back in 2003-2006 I had the time to really grow it, now not so much, and it's in severe need of an update....but I digress...)  The result of its creation was the building of a definition of that genre/style in ways I could not possibly have imagined when I first conceived it.

That being said, I've never been one to color inside the lines and follow dependable paths and be true to stereotypes.  Not because of some sense of rebellion, desire to shock, or purposely be iconoclastic, but simply that's how my brain is wired.  I have always find the "weird" way to do things very natural, and I track my muses not unlike the errant knights of old - meandering, wandering, yet passionate.

Which translated means: I follow my creative/instinctive whims in all things, especially in dance and art.  Which probably has caused some confusion on the receiving end of things along the way for others.  In order to help others (particularly my students, but anyone who may be in a style predicament), I will share with you some of the hazards of labels I've experienced, and hopefully help you to avoid falling prey to defining others/yourself by them.

Here are just SOME of these confusions that have been shared with me (and that I expect other dancers have experienced in their own ways):

-That I do/teach/perform Tribal/Tribal Fusion dance. Nope, I have studied ATS/Tribal, but nowhere as much as I have studied cabaret/oriental/folkloric, and that has always been my main vehicle in my instruction and my performances.  I have been very much welcomed at Tribal events (Tribal Fest, Tribal Fusion Faire, etc) because I present non-traditional material that is applicable to all styles of dance, and for many years, that was the only kind of venue it was considered acceptable.  Things are starting to change, and that's great, because it opens up more people to what I offer, which really can be applied to all styles across the board.

-That people are afraid that I will judge their performances for not being "Goth enough." I don't own a goth-o-meter.  If you want me to critique your piece, I will in the context you present it to me in, and since Goth is such a large genre with so many subcultures, that there's a lot of room to play with.  But first and foremost thought is, what do you have to say with your dance? That is what is most important to me and can help me give you the best feedback if you want my opinion. Which brings us to the exact opposite of the same confusion:

-I don't fit your expectations/stereotypes of what is Goth. One of the most laughable reviews I have read criticized my appearance, citing I wasn't "freaky" enough because I'm not covered in piercings and tattoos (I have two tattoos, and I have my ears pierced, that's about it.) Anyone who has been a Goth through the last 10-20-30 years can tell you, it's not a look, it's a mindset, a way of thinking and perceiving the world.  I find beauty in dark and unusual things that most people don't see/care for/fear.  I'm not here to play who's the darkiest dark, ooky-spooky, stereotypical-looking dancer - I'm on a dance journey, and that doesn't involve satisfying anyone else's expectations but my own. I don't construct my performances seeking to satisfy the status quo.  Which pretty much means you never know what will show up, but it will be different and yet distinctly me.

-That because I do fusion, I don't care about tradition/culture/etc. Quite the opposite, I care very much about roots, tradition, and sacred concepts - and deepening my understanding of them.  Much of my art (dance and visual) is about my exploration of history, traditions, folklore, myth, and how that relates to myself, society, and everything else.  Frankly, I'm genetically engineered to fuse - I come from a very, very long line of people who married outside of their culture/faith/nationality.  I really believe I am hard-wired this way because I have approached everything in life with this perspective.  Ask my parents ;)

* * *

There are lots more (and if you have some you want to ask/want me to clear up, please feel free to comment!), but I think many dancers can relate to these points if you just exchange out some of the style names.

And it's not like I went out there and made any of these statements to lead people to believe these confusions. Quite the opposite, as I'm rather vocal in what I believe and practice. But it happened anyway.

Part (most) of the problem lays in preconceived notions, misinformation, and personal baggage.  People bring to labels what they know (or lack there of), and unfortunately a lot of people are quick to judge/dismiss, instead than saying "You know what? I don't know, let's ask or do some research?" I think it's out of fear - being afraid to ask, being fearful of showing you don't know what you're talking about.  But the thing is, you'll never know if you don't try or ask. You can't grow that way.  Don't be afraid to ask questions.

And if you hold yourself to your own labels (or those that are applied to you), you limit your experience.  It's one thing to ask yourself is a certain piece venue/audience/event appropriate, have you done your research and practice, does it all go together cohesively- and another thing to be afraid to move out what you've already done because of fear.  Fear of what other people may think, fear of misunderstanding, fear of being perceived as something else.  You can't control what other people think.  What you can do is to present the best you can to your ability and to frame it properly (does it have a write-up/introduction, are you presenting it in the best situation, etc), and let it be.  The first stitch in creating a pattern has to start with change - otherwise, it would be a straight line. 

And trying something different is not a lifelong commitment by any means.  Whether I paint in acrylic, oil, or watercolor, I'm still painting, and I'm free to use whatever resources I wish, given I take the time to learn the technique to use them. The same is true for dance. And it's totally ok afterward to say to yourself,"You know what? that style doesn't work for me."  But at least you tried it and expanded your experience and know more because of it. 

So don't let labels define you and your dance.  If you hold them too closely, you risk getting the most out of your dance and who you are, who you can be. Dare to defy them, let go of the baggage, and just dance.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Defying Definition Part I: The Time Before the Style Wars

The topic of this post has been wandering my brain for quite some time, and I think it's time it gets out from between my ears and to your eyes.  (Aren't you lucky!)

One of the most prevalent issues my students bring to me is identity and definition:  "What style should I be? If I do X here, but Y there, what does that mean? How will people perceive me? What should I do? OMG STYLE!"

When I first started bellydancing, there was very little talk of "style" in the sense of "what kind of bellydance do you do?"  Sometimes it meant what specific culture (Egyptian? Turkish? One of my instructors just called it "Arabic"...), or it referred to what a specific performer/instructor brought to the dance (that's so Dalia Carella, so Shareen El Safy, so Nourhan Sharif, etc).  That was pretty much it.  Bellydance was bellydance.  Sometimes it was folkloric (this is a scarf dance, this is Khaleegy), sometimes it had a Gypsy flair (big skirts! fans!), but it was all definitely bellydance.  Pretty much in the early days of the internet and prior to that, whatever your teacher told you was the word as you knew it - if she told you about any particular kind of style or difference at all.

And then there was Tribal.  More specifically, there was American Tribal Style brought to us by Fat Chance Belly Dance in the mid 1990's a la video tape.  My very first bellydance VHS actually was "Tattooed One" - carefully chosen from so many options in Artemis Import's huge, extensive, and very photo-copied/cut-and-paste physical catalog.  Back in Rhode Island, in 2000, there was no such thing as Tribal anything in terms of classes, just a good 30-40 years experience of bellydance passed on by a few local legends.  I spent hours researching it online, reading the many articles and interviews on Kajira Djoumahna's website (back when BlackSheep BellyDance was "United W Dance"), reading the archives on the med-dance list trying to figure out the differences and similarities, and just learning about as much about bellydance in general as I could. When I asked locally about Tribal, I got a mixed bag of answers, but the best advice was to "go to the source".  (Not able to quite do that at that moment in time, I was able to bring someone to Rhode Island who had at least done so - a Boston dancer who had gone out to SF to study it a bit -  and so we had the first Tribal workshop in RI.  I can't say that I fell in love with it in the format it was presented, but it didn't dissuade me either.)

In 2001 we moved to the Bay Area of California, and the Tribal vs. Cabaret War was kicking off - at festivals and haflas, in online forums and discussion groups, in organizations and across communities.  While there were still arguments discussions about what was more "authentic" - Egyptian or Turkish, modern or classic, American Cabaret a la 1970's, 80's, 90's - the main rage across the internet was Is Tribal bellydance? (And really, keep in mind, back then, Tribal meant Tribal as in American Tribal Style - it hadn't yet been a catch-all term or attached to the word "fusion.") And Tribal-only events began to spring up all over (Tribal Fest in Sebastopol, California was the first to be dedicated to Tribal-style in 2000).  And then more experimental/alternative forms of bellydance began developing and also making an appearance at those events. 

Now is probably a good time to mention that part of the initial appeal of Tribal for me (besides the costuming and earthy movement) was that dancers I saw on "Tattooed One" (and the few Tribal websites of the time) were mainly from the alternative crowd.  They were covered in tattoos, they had piercings and oddly colored hair peeping out from their turbans, and they were all different sizes and ages.  They were definitely not the kind of woman that sprung to mind when one thought of a stereotypical bellydancer.  Having been raised as an artist from a mixed household and pretty much an outsider all the way through school, that acceptance of being different but still beautiful really spoke to me.  And I know a lot of other women felt the same way.  It wasn't so much about it being a different style of bellydance as it was about being open to a different lifestyle/identity.

And that infusion of more "marginal" folks helped push definitions, boundaries, and bring new creative thought to the dance.  In 2003, I launched the Gothic Bellydance Resource ( to document the development and growth of that mode of thinking (in both cabaret and tribal forms).  Tribal Fusion birthed in California and began to grow and change.  Other dance forms like Ballet, Modern, and Jazz found their way more prevalently into bellydance.  East Coast! West Coast! Southern! Euro! Asian! More alternative bellydance events took flight, more workshops on fusion took place, new names charged onto the scene.

(I guess at this point you could say Tribal is like a gateway drug, because the relative acceptance of the original Tribal (ATS), made way for all sorts of fusion to come running in the through the bellydance door (for better, for worse.) Ahem.)

Whatever it was (or all that it was), Tribal became hugely popular as we moved further along into the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, and most of the events where Tribal had felt a cold shoulder open up and expanded to include it - on stage, in workshops, in the vending room.  And somewhere along the line, the question of "Is Tribal Bellydance (and should we allow it)?" changed to "What IS Bellydance?"  And with that came a lot of navel gazing.  And it's from this deeper examination of the dance, what makes it what is, where it comes from, and where it's going has made us a lot more focused on what we are doing, what style are we?  This is both a good thing and a bad thing. 

Next Up: Part II: Unburdening

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Accepting the Unscience of Performing Dance

Carrying on with some of the ideas in my previous entry about performing, I want to talk about the unscience of performance. 

What do I mean by "unscience" - when all of the necessary items seem to be present to make a great performance, but it doesn't happen, and vice versa.  You're prepared, the music is right, the stage is lovely, costume fits perfectly, the lighting is awesome, the house is full, and yet, it just doesn't happen the way you thought it would.

Science says that if you have all of the ingredients in the right amounts, at the right temperature, put together in the correct way, you should get a predictable end product.  That's the beauty of the Scientific Method - it helps us prove cause and effect, order and logic.  That the recipe for mice isn't throw some food in a pile of straw in the corner of the barn and you will magically get mice out of thin air.  (For the non-geeks, this was an actual theory under the concept of "Spontaneous Generation.")

Logically, if you're prepared (you practiced, you did your work, the music is done well, your costume is finished and fits, you've worked with that prop 100's of times, you've done this show before, etc), then everything should be good, but not everything is black and white. There's the other variables: the space made you feel weird, the audience was unusually supportive or dead, the stage felt funny, the lights were not bright/too bright, your costume did something weird it never did before, your earring got stuck on your veil...all of these things can happen at any time.  But these things are small variables that rarely can be helped.

The truth is, there are far too many variables in the arts to provide the same exact results every time - and most specifically, WE ourselves are the greatest, most unstable variable.  I have done performances severely jetlagged and half-starved and under-prepared that have been the most incredible, and then at the other end, happy stomach, 8 hours of sleep, totally prepared - and the result was meh.  I don't mean to imply that one must be tortured to get amazing results but rather I am citing ironic examples of when you would expect a good vs. bad performance and got the opposite effect.  All of the elements said it should have been predictably one way or the other, but it wasn't. 

Maybe part of it is level of expectation - if you don't expect a lot, you leave a lot of room for potential satisfaction  If you set your sights too high, it seems impossible to reach that goal, so you're setting yourself up for failure.  If you've done that performance before, you're comparing it to that last experience, which also creates a type of expectation.

So what can you do about it? 

Well, you should still try and take care of all of the constants you are responsible for.  Plan your piece out, practice it with your intended props/costumes, check out the stage ahead of time, eat/drink/sleep accordingly.  In other words: be prepared.  But once you've got those logical components out the way, be open to a little magic and mystery.  Don't over-anticipate what's going to happen, what people may think, how it may compare to last time - instead, allow yourself to be in that moment, and that moment only.  Enjoy it for being NOW.  Accept that anything can happen, and it's not the end of the world, but you will do your best that you can possible do for this moment.  And don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out exactly as planned.  Sometimes, that makes it even better.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Hecate" Performance at Rakkasah East


(click on the video for details about the performance, music, etc)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Stage In Your Head

At this past weekend at Rakkasah East, the question I was asked most on Sunday (about a dozen times or so) was "Do you get nervous before performing? Do you get stage-fright?"  I was scheduled to perform near the end of the day, so I had some time to think about it.

And generally, my answer is no. I don't get stage-fright, and I rarely get nervous before performing.  Nowadays anyway.  I actually don't think I have ever really had stage-fright in the classic sense, going all the way back to grade school plays.  This is probably not surprising to people who encounter me in the classroom or on the stage, at events - as I tend to appear very extroverted.  But I'm a true Gemini, and my normal state of being is Introvert.  Something clicks over when I need to teach or perform, but I'm not a social butterfly and I prefer sincere interactions. 

But I have in the past gotten nervous before a performance for both good and bad reasons.  The "good" - there are people in the audience I greatly respect and value their opinion/feedback, and I want to do well for them.  In this situation, it's not a matter so much of whether or not I will make them happy, but realizing because I respect them for very valid, solid reasons (and generally the feeling is mutual), then they will understand me, they want to see me do well, and they want to help make suggestions to improve the dance where I can.  I still get the occasional butterfly when I dance before my dance heroes, but it helps lend energy to the moment rather than stifle it.

The "bad":  psyching myself into thinking that a performance at a certain event can make or break my career.  And I think I did my less-than-best performances in the latter category.  For years, I considered myself a better teacher than a performer, and that's what I had to live with.  But as soon as I stopped setting myself up against a large mainly-imaginary goal and worrying about what people I didn't even know/care for/respect thought of me - everything changed.  Being immersed in the design world these last couple of years (aka "real world") 40+ hours a week helped too - it helped put everything into perspective.  There will be other performances, this one performance in this one spot is not the end-all be-all, and you can't please everyone - because everyone has their own baggage that they bring to the table.  Some people will like it, some won't, some will love and some will hate, and all are exposed to the same piece.  It's their experience to your experience and you can't control it.

It is not a matter of "not caring" as so much it is giving respect to yourself and your dance.  While you are on stage, exist for that moment in time, that point in your journey of dance.  What came before and what will come after doesn't matter in that moment.  There will be things that happen that are out of your control (costume malfunctions, bad lighting, music skipping, slipping, missed choreography), but these things do not define who you are as dancer.  And most of all, don't forget: breathe and HAVE FUN!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Art & Bellydance

The following is actually a post I wrote on bhuz in 2007 - I just came across it reading a current thread on a similar topic (those "related topic" links are handy!), and I thought I'd share it here:

One of my greatest pet peeves is the misuse of the title of art when it comes to bellydance. Nothing grates on my nerves more than a hodge-podge collection of random costuming, music bits, and BD moves being displayed and then defended as art.

It's another one of those umbrella terms that gets sullied in overuse without support.

I do believe that bellydance is an art in's a performing art, just like the other forms of dance - it takes skill to achieve and serves to express the human condition - our soul, our hearts, what and where the rhythm brings us.

But I'm also very aware that my position comes from a life-long study of visual art. I started attending formal art school when I was in first grade, and continued on all the way through college, and may eventually go back for a masters (when I have time lol), but my main purpose for that is to learn another art-form (like weaving/fabrics/apparel), which I can do without getting a masters degree ;)

I graduated from RISD - one of the best and toughest art schools in the nation. The criticism I receive over my dancing is nothing compared to the brutality of the crit wall in foundation and major classes, and lasting upwards of 4-8 hours long each time. My parents were not and are not easy-going, praise-giving type of people, and I have and do work professionally in the I would say I have a very thick skin, nor do I seek praise for what I do. I don't think I would be where I am without these traits.

I'm telling you this because I mean to say, when I call what I do art, it's not an excuse. Whether I'm creating visual art or dance, I approach it the same way. First, what is it that I wish to say? How can I best say it? What media will best accomplish my intent (for dance this would be music/costume/moves), and how will this possibly affect my audience? (I say possibly because you just never know until it's done how it is seen through others eyes, and generate ideas and concepts you may have never considered...which is all part of the artistic process.)

And I teach these qualities in my workshops and emphasize to my students to THINK before they dance. Again, if you're going to do fusion, you should know 1. why you're doing it 2. what you're fusing 3. where and how is it going to work?

If you can't answer those questions before doing a performance, I don't think you should be doing it. And you'd best not call the sorry result art. Art is NOT an excuse, it's a language---and you either speak it well, or you don't.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is Your Performance an Appetizer or a Buffet?!  My students know how much I love to use food-based metaphors to help our understanding of the dance, and now you will too!

I think one of the key defining elements between determining whether a dancer really is a "professional"  (seasoned, experienced, confident, etc) or an "amateur" (still developing, maturing, growing into their dance, something to prove), is how they approach and structure their performances.*  I've spent countless hours watching dancers perform, from newbies to old timers all over the world, and I've come to this conclusion: the best performances are presented like appetizers, while others are like a trip to an all-you-can-eat-buffet on the mind, and we're not talking a champagne brunch.

The Buffet: Most often, a less-experienced dancer will look at the time-slot they are given, and try to mastermind how to utilize every single one of those minutes and how many different kinds of things they squeeze into that performance.  Or if there is no time-limit, will present as much and as long as they can get away with.  "OK, it says the time-slot is '5-10 minutes' - so I've got 10 minutes to work with, so I can do at least 3 songs, and I think I'll do sword, veil, wings, fans, and mix that with some Bollywood and some hip-hop too!  It will be awesome!!" 

And I'm sure some folks are going, "So what's wrong with that? Variety is the spice of life! Look at all of the things I can do!  Why shouldn't I show off all that I know!?"  Well, let us consider an all-you-can-eat buffet at your typical American buffet-style restaurant.  There tends to be a wide variety of choices: salad bar, taco bar, dessert bar, meat station, pasta station, pizza station, soup station, etc.  A LOT of food, and particularly a lot of different kinds of food you wouldn't typically find paired together --and because there's so much of it, there's often a couple of really high points, a large amount of mediocre, and some really dismal.  And those really good things tend to get taken down by the experience of the rest, and particularly the tendency to overload.

So what does that mean in terms of a dance performance?  Well, let's say you are a really awesome sword dancer, but your veilwork needs some work, and you really just started learning Bollywood fusion a few weeks ago (and are REALLY excited about it!).  Well, while your sword dance is a like a really nice cut of steak, you're pairing it with limp salad and watery mashed potatoes.  The audience may be wowed by the steak, but the limp salad and potato slush are going to take away from that great impact.  Likewise, performing very different unrelated dances (like Bollywood fusion, Egyptian, and Gothic)  in the same set is like having a Thai course followed by an Italian course followed by Japanese- you could, but should you?

How To Avoid the Buffet:

  • Edit, Edit, Edit! Rather than showing off everything you think you can do, pick one or two things that you know you do REALLY well and focus your attention on presenting those things very well, to the best of your ability  Or if it's an experiment or a new thing for you to perform, then just do that one thing and plan your introduction accordingly. 
  • Less is more! Just because you are given the option to use UP TO a certain amount of time, doesn't mean you need to fill every minute.  You don't need to dance every minute, just use the amount of time you need to present a solid dance.  
  • Think cohesively.  What do your different elements have to do with each other?  If the only thing in common is that they're a prop, a fusion, or that you're involved, that's not good enough.  Also, if you like 6 different songs, use those songs when you can give them the best presentation - don't make a schizo-mix.  Love them individually, not parts of them together unless it makes sense. 
  • Be kind to your audience by not overloading them.  Especially when the event features a lot of performers, less time and more focus makes a more satisfied audience.

The Appetizer - Appetizers give us a taste of delicious food, without making us feel stuffed.  The experienced dancer/performer knows that it's important to give the audience a tasty morsel of them without giving away too much all at once.  Rather than using the maximum time allotted or monopolizing the stage, they carefully select and structure their performances to make the most of their music and the concept they want to get across.  In that projected time-slot of 5-10 minutes, you will find them using the lower end (5-7 minutes), not because they don't have more ideas, props, or the stamina, but because they want to present the very best they can do.  Their musical choices make sense with their costuming, props, and movement vocabulary.  If they do more than one song, it provides contrast to the first piece without being disconnected, and flow without feeling like it's going to be 3 more minutes of the first 5.  The Appetizer performance leaves the audience feeling satisfied without being bombarded or bored.  They leave the audience wanting more.

How To Make An Appetizer:
  • Consider what you want to say with your dance, and what's the most efficient way of saying it.
  • Learn how to edit your music so that it flows while fitting within your time.
  • Make sure your whole presentation is cohesive: costuming, music, make-up, movements.
  • Choose your best talents and make it work.  If you don't feel confident about something, don't do it. 
  • Take your time to practice the piece and trial-run your costuming.  The morning-of is not the time to figure out a new prop or costume.
So when you're planning your next performance, consider what sort of audio-visual meal you are making for your audience.  Consider the hafla or show as a potluck, and everyone should be bringing tapas to the stage!

(*there always exceptions to this....for better or for worse, so really it's not such a clear distinction of "pro" and "non-pro", but really part of what makes a dancer an excellent performer who exercises good judgment consistently....)

(And yes, I probably have been watching too many cooking competition shows...)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Make It Purple!

Recently I was explaining depth and variety to my performance prep students, and out came this metaphor/analogy that really turned on the light bulb for them, so I thought I would share:

A common thing a lot of dancers do, especially those new to performing (or strangers to performance technique) is the dance equivalent of doing a painting in entirely blue - and I'm not talking monochromatic (different tints and shades and variations of blue) - I'm talking about using the same tube of blue paint for the whole painting.  Translated to dance: using the same exact pace and movements/movement quality throughout an entire performance.  There may be a movement she/he does really well, but they do it throughout the whole piece again and again, or the movements are all done with the same exact force, same exact meter, throughout. 

You don't have to have a whole arsenal of paint at your disposal to make a good painting that's interesting to look at.  So yes, you love that blue, but what if you had a tube of red paint?  What if instead of blue the whole time, you added some red?  And then what if you mixed the blue and the red together? You get purple!  That's 3 colors (and the many increments of variation found with the spectrum between blue and red when they're mixed together)! 

Back to dance - let's say the blue is your favorite dance combination.  And the red allows you to do that combination slower or faster, or add a new development on top of it that changes the look (purple!).  What are the basic moves that make up that combination, and where you can you go with them? Level changes? Floor geometry? Different arm positions? Suddenly that all blue painting becomes a lot more interesting, and that blue looks even better because you've started to bring in other elements that help make it special.

So make some purple with your dance!

Monday, September 6, 2010

May you forever thirst......for knowledge.

In the land between emerging dancer and professional dancer, the question often comes up, when does one stop take classes? Ideally, never.

There seems to be this myth in some communities that if you're still regularly attending classes or workshops, then you're not a professional dancer.  There are many things that define a professional dancer, and this myth is NOT one of them. (In that same realm of thought, teaching classes or performing at a restaurant doesn't make you a professional dancer either, but we'll save that for another post.)

We'll tackle this topic by common statements:
"But I've gotten as far as my teacher can teach me."
That may be true, but one teacher does not hold all that there is about bellydance, as wise as she (or he) may seem to be.  Every teacher has their own style and preferences, as well as strengths and weaknesses.  For example, I had one fabulous teacher who just didn't care for reverse undulations, so we never did them in class or performances.  It wasn't until I took classes with another instructor that I really understood them and got them down.  Different teachers will unlock different doors, so if you've gone as far as you think you can with one, and there's more teachers in your area, keep going, even if that means starting off in their beginning class.  This is a common and sensible practice, because there are so many approaches, styles, and vocabularies, that it's important to get a feeling for what that teacher does.  Even if you feel you're "beyond" taking a beginner class, it make for excellent practice as well as being great for jogging the memory - as we often get obsessed with complicated moves, and forget the beauty simplicity of the basic core moves. 

Also, have a solid idea of where your teacher is coming from.  Who did she/he study with? How long have they've been dancing? Look into their dance family tree and take a critical eye.  If your teacher has only been dancing for several years and studied with X who's only been dancing for a few years prior to teaching, you could be missing out on a lot of important information.  It's like the telephone game with bellydance.  Sure, "X" studied with the great "Z", but if she only studied with her for 1-2 years, and then started teaching to your teacher, who also only took classes for a few sessions, then a lot of vital information could have been lost. 

"But there's no one else in my area..."
Really? Not everyone is on facebook, tribe, or bhuz - have you done your research? Could there be old school teachers in your neck of the woods who just don't do much online? How about the next town over? 1/2 hour away?  How far are you willing to go for a good teacher? (I have students who commute up to an hour each way to take my classes, my hat's off to them!)

If there really is no one else local to you or your schedule/budget doesn't allow for weekly travel, then there are other options:
1. Workshops - if you can't get to a weekly class, then you should budget for a workshop regularly.  Workshops are great for learning new material, skills, styles, and giving yourself something to think about outside of your familiar range.  Bellydance has blossomed in such a way that there tends to be something going on in most big cities at least once a month, if not every weekend.  (Here where I am in New England, I can get to most places Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hamphire in under 2-3 hours. And there is ALWAYS something going on.)
2. Private Lessons - private lessons are a great way to really fine tune yourself.  It's definitely worth the travel and money, because often just one hour of a private lesson will yield weeks (if not months) of serious focus on things to perfect in your dance.  So maybe if you're not getting enough from a weekly class, ask your teacher about private lessons, or talk to teachers further away that you admire.  It's worth it. Some teachers now offer private lessons via the internet.
3. DVDs & Online Classes- I list these last, because while the material can be great, you're not going to get personal instruction and most importantly CORRECTION if you're doing it wrong.  But DVDs and online classes are a great and often affordable way to learn new materials and styles.

"Why do I need to learn more? My teacher never corrected me and always told me how great I am! I am fabulous!"
Don't laugh - if I put it here, I've heard it and seen it. First off, if your weekly class has more than a handful of people, your teacher is far less likely to be able to offer individual corrections.  Especially on basic things like posture and footwork, if the focus is getting a choreography down - or there's 30 people in the room, it's very hard to see that your posture goes out of whack when you start moving or that your transitions aren't smooth.  Next up, a lot of teachers are fearful of giving critique.  They don't want to hurt your feelings/don't want to chance losing your business/don't believe in it/don't know how to give it. Yes, it's a beautiful dance, and everyone should do it, but when students start moving into professional arenas, teachers need to be realistic with them.  Just because you got some praise doesn't mean you know it all.

"But MS SUPERSTAH DANCER said I was the best thing she's ever seen since sliced bread!"
Get out more and don't get a big head.  I've seen some "big name" dancers deliver the same line to numerous dancers of varying caliber.  Which means they either have a goldfish memory "oh look a castle!" (swim, swim) "oh look a castle!" or they know how to milk sycophants because it's good business for them.  Trust the people who have seen you develop, ask for real feedback, what can you improve on - because there's always something to work on.

"I just don't have the time."
If you say this, AND you're teaching AND you can't make room for one thing a month to improve your dancing, then maybe you shouldn't be doing it.  It's hard to hear, but some folks should be taking classes instead of teaching them.  If you have the time to teach every week, then you have the time to learn more.

"But if I'm still taking classes, won't other professional dancers look down on me?"
If they do, they're not much in the way of professional. Every single dancer that I have studied with in the past and continue to work with now, still works to expand their knowledge, regardless of whether they've been doing this for 10, 20, 30, or 50 years.  And they always have something new and interesting to share - and sometimes they discover it conflicts with something else they had learned, and it makes them think/grow.

So, what does it all mean?  If you're serious about bellydancing - whether you want to perform it or teach it (or both), never stop learning, never stop being a student.  And you will continue to grow and improve in your dance - which is really the best way to be the dancer you want to be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guest Post by M'chelle

M'chelle (of Kansas City, MO) posted this piece today, and in the spirit of "Dancing is for everyone, performing is not", I wanted to share this with you.  The title link will take you directly to her blog, her name link will take you to her website.  The bullet list at the end is especially critical for both teachers and students. 


A Plea to my Dance Community - by M'chelle

With the rising popularity of bellydance, and the rising fame of dancers like Ansuya, Rachel Brice, and Sharon Kihara (amongst so many others), there are more and more aspiring dancers fighting for the same jobs.
On one hand, this is awesome - more competition, in theory, should raise the general quality level of performers. The more commonplace bellydance becomes, potentially the more understanding there will be that we are not strippers. The more the public sees bellydancers, especially at venues like Cultural Fairs and Outdoor Child-Friendly Festivals, I feel, potentially, the less we we be associated with sexually explicit nonsense.

However, all that theory and conjecture is just theory and conjecture, and is totally dependant on the very individuals who are undertaking these performances. Baby beginner dancers (and I have been guilty of this myself) have an unerring tendency to get so excited about the prospect of performing or teaching, they rarely take the time to consider whether or not they should be performing or teaching, or for that matter what is in fact a fair price for any performance or class. On top of that, most people hiring bellydancers have no idea what the difference between a quality performance and amatuerish jiggling really is. The idea of mentorship between teacher and student is sadly lacking, at least in my dance community. There is very little interference when it comes to advising young dancers not to perform or teach.

Once again, I'm guilty of this myself - I've had students come up to me, thrilled because so and so heard they were bellydancing and asked them to come and teach a workshop at a wine bar or private lessons out a garage or living room - and invariably these lessons are free or so cheap as to be painful. The idea of appropriateness also seems to be completely lacking. Yes, you can bellydancer is burlesque inspired costuming - but doing so to sexysexy music at a street fair is not the best idea when so many of us are trying to elevate this dance form from the level of cheap entertainment to high art to be regarded with the same amount of respect garnered (to my perception) as ballet dancers and aerialists.

I am, of this moment, making a vow to be honest with my students when they ask about the possibilities of performing and teaching, and to be truthful when informed about already accepted gigs and classes. And I think it would be really excellent if other bellydancer teachers would vow to do that same.
I don't fee like I'm ready to be a mentor yet - there's still so much that I'm trying to figure out, not only about the business of bellydance, but about my place in it - and I have a really excellent mentor helping me to do that.

If you are a beginning dancer, hoping to be a professional one day, take the following, put it in your practice journal, and anytime some friend or neighbor or coworker asks you to come perform at a party or teach a little class, re-read it, and answer yourself honestly.
  • If I take this job, will I be representing this art form at a level and in a manner that shows respect not only to my teachers, but to every other dancer that has come before me?
  • Am I willing to charge the going rate for this job, so as not to be taking money out of the mouths of other dancers in my area?
  • Will taking this dance job elevate the dance form?
  • Do I have the appropriate costuming/music/style/skill level for this performance?
  • Have I talked to my teacher about whether or not this is a good idea for me at this point in my dance-life?

Monday, August 30, 2010

In a nutshell...

"Dancing is for everyone, performing is not."  (quoteth me)

Meaning that everyone can dance (and should), regardless of age, gender, size, ability.  When we say the dance is accessible to all, that's really what it is - dance is an amazing part of the human experience.  But taking it to a performance level, particularly in a professional capacity,  is not for everyone and we shouldn't expect it to be.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  You don't have to professionally perform dance in order to enjoy it and share it.

Dance to love to live.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Masking a Master vs. Making One

My "Elvis Impersonator" metaphor sparked much discussion on facebook, as well as off, and sparked several good questions/comments from friends and students.

One good point that was brought up is that we learn by copying.  This is very true.  We start out mimicking our teachers, often trying to get the look of the moves down, their expression, their costuming. We learn by doing what they're doing. We see great bellydancers and we wish to also capture that essence of them, to look and be like them.  This is not an uncommon desire in the least. But we'll come back to this.

It is not unusual in the visual and performing arts for students to copy the works of masters.  Several times throughout my training as a visual artist there were assignments we had to try and copy the work of a master.   Some of them involved copying the work as closely as possible, in the same medium.  Some involved making a copy and then an interpretation.  One of my favorites was for Freshman Foundation at RISD where we copied only a section of a master (mine was Van Gogh's "Cafe Terrace at Night"), but we had to do it entirely in gouache (a type of opaque watercolor paint that is designed for the masochistic), and crop the section in such a way that it was still interesting and meaningful.  What these exercises teach us is not to paint or draw exactly like the masters, but to teach us about the technique used, how color was applied and balance, how texture was created, how a focal point was achieved.  Essentially, it teaches us the skills involved in how to put together a viable work of art.  But once the skills are established, the artist is expected to use them to develop their own work, their own voice - not to use those skills to turn out more copies of another artist's work. And it's important to note, the copied "practice" artwork is NOT exhibited at a professional level.*

So what does that have to do with bellydance? Simply put, if you wish to put yourself out there as an artist and specifically a professional**, you need to have your own voice.  Yes, you are going to learn styles and moves from your teachers, but you are NOT your teacher. You do not have her (or his) experiences, life, inspirations. You are YOU. You have your own experiences and life to live, and inspirations to find. Those moves and those songs need to be told in your voice. This is the only way to really develop your own style.  And if you wish to teach workshops and get out there, it's best to do it with your own material. Likewise, if you're going to dance in big shows and put yourself out there, why not be known for your own dancing?  You're not going to find the answers all at once, but if you set your sights beyond that dancer you idolize, you'll find a much more satisfying experience. You'll find you. 

And it's not going to happen overnight either, it's an ongoing journey.  Who I was as a dancer and a person 10 years, 5 years, or even 2 years ago is not the same person and dancer writing this blog at this moment, and I expect to continue to grow and change in 2, 5, 10, 30 years.

*there are artists out there using the methods of masters or copies of masters paintings to make a name for themselves, but these works are often created with a twist on the original, or some sort of modern commentary - again, the artist is adding their own voice to the piece.

**now if someone has no plans whatsoever to become a professional dancer, but rather just want to learn dance, do it as a hobby for fun, etc - then they would be on a different path.  Not everyone needs (or should be) to be a professional dancer or an artist.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Essence of Bellydance - so I remember... (reposted from 2/10/09)

(another entry originally posted on, February 10th, 2009)

Ah, that nearly decade-old question of is GBD bellydance? Wrote this up as a response, and I think some parts are especially worth keeping around for later, so I save it here:

Before I ever took my first lessons in bellydance, I spent months studying it online and in books. Reading about the do's and don'ts, about the folkloric dances, reading interviews with Morocco, Carolena, Artemis, and more. And I distinctly remembering at some point coming across Dalia Carella and her "Dunyavi Gypsy" and thinking - wow, she has her OWN style of bellydance, how cool is that? I would love to do that!

That all went out the window once I started taking lessons, I couldn't even imagine how it would be possible, not for years and years and even then! So I never created my performances with that in mind, rather I just had ideas I wanted to express in my dancing, through my costuming, music, and presentation. I didn't consider it a specific type of bellydance - just bellydance, as that was the only dance form I had ever studied. Rather, it was after doing bellydance for a couple of years that other people remarked about how my dancing had a different feel. It seemed somewhat more "dark", more theatrical, perhaps Gothic? ( All this without the aid of fangs, fake blood, giant rosaries, and graveyards! This was even before boots and fishnets were applied!) So ironically, it was the bellydance community itself, its veteran crew, that dubbed what I was doing as "gothic bellydance", long before it became a common name.

What was so "dark" about those early performances? The costuming could be best described as tribaret, the movements were bellydance, the music was mostly bellydance. The stories in my head to remember the moves and to express something through my moves were about avenging angels, silent film stars, lost love, folkloric/ethnic myths and fairytales, metamorphosis, tongue-in-cheek wickedness, hidden beauty, and the merging of cultures. If you consider all of that "dark", then there you have it.

To me, "darkness" is about revelation, uncovering and exploring mysteries, weaving stories that are often hidden, enchantment, and particles of memory. It's about the ability to express your soul fully, even if that leaves you exposed. I believe that bellydance, in it's myriad forms, celebrates life, and that a celebration of life takes hold of all of its aspects - that includes joy, passion, love, pain, and sadness. Love can be light and it can be dark. You really can't have one without the other. So perhaps Goth can be defined as the obsession to find balance between the light and the dark, and appreciate the differences between them. There is beauty to be found in all things, if you know how to look for it. And frankly, I'm a hopeless optimist in most things.

No, I'm not a "stereotypical" Goth, but frankly, none of the people I know who have identified themselves as Goth for years fit the stereotype either. The folks who focus only on the fashion don't have a clue. Same goes for the folks who think if they latch on to a cliche (heh, wanna start a thread on the cliches of GBD?), that means they're doing it right. There's doing something because it would be terribly cliche and a lot of fun and silliness, and then there's doing a cliche seriously because you don't understand what's behind it. There's a wealth of art, literature, and music produced by this subculture, which within itself is quite diverse, full of different minds. That's why I love it.

Now that years have gone by, I think I have been able to develop my own style, because I let go of the idea of trying to do it. I just focused on expressing what inspires me. And I'm excited to go back and re-do some of those early pieces, because I've also realized I traveled far as a dancer (and continue so). One of the greatest frustrations of being an artist is having an idea and not being fully capable of expressing that idea - whether it's because of your skill level, money or depth of exploration. But that doesn't mean you cease to try, or that those early attempts were wrong. Rather, it's the process of trying again and again, building better technique, stronger awareness, getting all of those skills together...and while I feel I'm much better now than I was 6 years or even 6 months ago, I'll still continue to strive to improve. I continue to study the older forms of this dance and find inspiration. I feel what I do is bellydance, and I believe the essence of what is bellydance is still there, depending on the project. Whether others consider a piece bellydance or not, I suppose that all depends on their own journey to it.