There was a time I kept my (naturally long and strong, baby) nails done and my whole self primped and polished for gigs, both the gigs I had regularly, plus the always last minute work that was a staple of the industry and community I worked in. Had to be ready at all times. It […]
Dancer (presumably) asks a question an online discussion board. Good. Questions are good!
Said question is about a seemingly straightforward but actually complicated topic that involves major historical changes; changes that in fact have altered movement, costuming, location, language, status, or music, and most importantly, real peoples lives.
Nice people, some of whom have dedicated part of their lives to researching said topic(s) and some of whom have actually lived said topics, reply. Most know not to give it all away on the internet.
Others, many of whom are two, three, four, five steps removed from anything that can remotely be considered a source, offer various opinions freely.
Sometimes the discussion here is good, sometimes it fizzles.
Many of the replies offer references for further study that require purchasing a book, attending a class, traveling, interviewing someone, being patient, suggesting that the question might actually be framed inadequately in order to move forward, or kind hints to do some actual research beyond asking in a facebook group.
Some of that research may not be able to be completed in English.
Some of that research may not be able to be completed in the original querents location.
Sometimes the discussion here is good, sometimes it fizzles.
There is rarely one answer.
Finally, and almost invariably, and now dozens to hundreds of posts in, the dancer (presumably) who asked the original question lets everyone know that the replies are helpful and all but s/he really needs to know now because she is about to teach it/write about it/speak on a panel about it/put themself out there as an expert on it.
Weekly*, you guys.
If you take my class, I promise not to videotape said class and put it on the internet to advertise. If I ever need some sort of video of me teaching, I will ask/notify you ahead of time and even more likely I will set up and offer folks who take class with me a free class in exchange. If we ever need to video in preparation for a performance, I won’t share it outside our circle.
If you take my class I promise not to act like I own your time outside of the set parameters of class. If we choose to do other things outside of class—student shows, performances, community outings—there may be additional parameters and behavior and other things we agree to, of course. But—always—you are free to take class with anyone else you want to, and to stop coming to my class if it no longer serves your needs. You don’t owe me an explanation.
If you take my class I promise to teach you what I know. I promise to tell you if I don’t know something, and I’ll either find out for you or get you resources to find out for yourself. I promise to be honest based on my experiences and I promise not to make shit up if I don’t know the answer in order to look good or save face. I promise not to teach you what I am still in the process of learning (and I promise to be always still learning). If I am excited about something new to me maybe I’ll tell you about it (probably outside of class), but I won’t pretend to be able to teach it to you.
I promise to be honest in my offerings.
Oh, dear readers, the things I have heard and the things I have seen. It makes me vow to do better by my own peeps.
Yo! A heads up that I’ve been blogging some non-dance stuff over here, but then again…it’s all dance, baby.
Check it out if you’re so inclined.
I remember as a ‘baby dancer’* my first belly dance teacher, Leea, would have student nights about 4 times per year for her dancers to perform. She had beginners, working pros, and everything in between, and quarterly we would all come together to support one another and be inspired by one another. This was still a time, albeit the tail end though we did not realize it, when live music was the norm for dancers, and from the beginning I was out there with musicians that I did not realize at the time were incredibly accomplished and experienced in the field (as I grew and developed as a dancer, I would later have opportunities to work with many of them professionally as well and realized how lucky I had been right at the start of my experience as a teenage wannabe…whoa!).
Once a year our studio would also have what Leea called ‘alternative music night’, an evening of in-studio performances where we could dance for one another to non-Arab/Egyptian/Turkish/Greek/MiddleEastern/Mediterranean/Belly Dance music. It was a hoot. People would pull out random stuff that they listened to in their daily life to perform to, from metal to bluegrass, or sometimes people would choose things like rai music—-music from the regions our dances were inspired by, but that normally would not fly for belly dance performances. It was a night to be silly and have fun and let loose and show another side of ourselves. It was understood that it was indeed alternative and not the norm for our normal style of dance.
How things change! Within our subculture of global belly dance, fusion styles and folks utilizing belly dance movement separated from the music and cultural expression have exploded in popularity in the last 10 to 15 years. Today there are communities and studios where having an occasional traditional music night is the alternative to the norm!
The problem is that movement separated from music and cultural knowledge or expression can often look like (bad) jazz dancing or poorly trained contemporary dance, or look like some sort of burlesque (I use the term here to mean a caricature of sorts). This is certainly not to paint fusion dancers with the same brush—-there are dancers working under the umbrella of belly dance fusion who are doing interesting work of which I am a fan. It is meant to be a general observation and shared memory of how things have changed, and perhaps a small reminder not to assume that because something is newer or developed in a certain place that it is somehow better.
Sign of the times, eh?
*affectionate term for new dancers common in the 80s and 90s
P.S. I chose a photo of Samia Gamal playing a genie named Kahramana in the 1949 film Afrita Hanem, as in the film she portrays various characters, often through dance and costume, as she playfully manipulates the character played by Farid Atrache. An original concept of alternative for modern “belly dancers”, perhaps?
“The majority of people who came to my workshop reported that the reason they did so was because the word “gentle” appeared in the title. When we got into practice, something became clear: folks had very little sense of there being any middle ground. Either you’re lying around on bolsters with no “work” involved or doing high impact aerobic asana and sweating yourself into a frenzy. The suggestion that any pose can be done in a slower and simpler way seemed foreign to the familiar models. I couldn’t help but feel that these extremes in practice sensibility, as well as the comments on Facebook, are reflecting a need for lost nuance.” J. Brown, Yoga Extremism
I love J. Brown’s blog and how he thinks about yoga, movement, bodies, and concepts around simplicity being at the heart of the most complex practice of all. I have been doing yoga for a long time, though mine is very much a personal practice rather than part of my livelihood in any way. Because dance as work has been part of my entire teenage and adult life as a learner, practitioner, performer, and teacher, I pretty much think about everything I do or read or see body-wise through the lens of dance. It is a blessing and a curse, but it’s just how it is.
The quote above resonated with me greatly as an ongoing learner and practitioner of a culturally rooted dance art. I see similar patterns in global belly dance: Our community has its own extremes. We (note: we as a community, not necessary me or you specifically, dear reader) hear jokes about ‘housewife bellydancers’ and often the term ‘hobbyist’ is used with a snide tone of voice or a small eye roll, as if to have a hobby is somehow lesser (I cannot tell you how much I disagree, as do many I am sure, but that is for another post). While attendees of weekly classes are the bread and butter of the locally based dance instructor, there is also a consistent sense that there must be some goal in sight, a progression that is external to the dancer, perhaps the next extreme I’ll talk about pervading the first. On the other extreme, dancers revel in the joy of ‘no pain, no gain’ style study, constantly climbing ladders to new levels, internally relevant certifications, and opportunities to take different classes. It is advertised breezily that if you can walk after the workshop or don’t smell like bengay, you’re doing it wrong. The camaraderie of taking a path of intense physical training is strong and the appeal seems to come from it making one a “real” dancer, as perhaps we think it mimics ballet, our strongest cultural marker of what it is to be a dancer (never mind the weeding out that happens at a young age in professional ballet before the opportunities to take class 8 hours a day are presented).
As a teacher, at a certain point it behooves one to offer performance opportunities to students if you want to maintain class numbers. This has long been a part of our globalized belly dance culture, and while it is how I was raised as a young dancer, and indeed how I operate as an instructor, I find myself questioning it as a ‘must’. As a learner these days, admittedly a bit older and in a place where I have had a performance career already, I find myself appreciating class for just exactly what it is—-class, a place to learn with someone who can teach, a private moment to feel my body and its power as well as its weaknesses, a place to leave my ego at the door and try new things, or some days just to revel in the comfortable places I know I can shine and feel good.
I feel something is lost between the two extremes, namely the social dance aspect or just dancing or taking class for the fun of it. Perhaps my sense is a part of the way the entire scene has changed? For belly dancers who do want to take the path to perform as work there are less jobs than ever, the bands are mostly gone, and those that are around tend to play open stage nights where dancers can sign up to dance for free or for dinner along with a long list of others. Fun for sure, but hardly a job! Another path is to work within the community, as our scene is now large enough to support many of us teaching and performing for other dancers (we use the term ‘on the workshop circuit’). It is a tough life, but one that can be quite satisfying, although ultimately you are rarely reaching the general public with your work, and often the roots—-the Arabness of our form that makes it unique and special—-go by the wayside or become more fantasy than reality, or more myth and legend of how it used to be than the current reality.
I won’t pretend to end this with any great insights or answers. This is an ongoing pattern of thinking for me as I plan future classes I want to offer and that I want to take. There are certainly pockets of joy in our dance form all over, but they don’t always get the attention. Does it matter? Why is that? Check out J. Brown’s piece, and fellow dancers, feel free to let me know if you think I am off base with what you see in our own scene.
P.S. I’m writing from New York, where I have been for most of August!
I’ve long loved the fact that the Arabic word for the modern, but now ubiquitous, two-piece belly dance costume is bedla, which means suit. It made me feel like a worker as a dancer. When I would go to a gig I’d put on my suit and do my job. Even though it was my living for a while it was not taken seriously by many people, even those I worked alongside. But no need to fret or worry or doubt myself, I would think — I was in a suit!
“I’m a worker. I do the work to communicate, and I want people to embrace it, and when they do I’m happy.” ~Patti Smith
A student recently emailed me asking for advice about how to practice. She was chatting with a dance classmate on the post-class train ride home, and realized neither of them were sure how to practice between classes. I wrote her back, she seemed please with my response, and I thought others who attend weekly in-person dance classes might be interested as well. Here is what I wrote:
I understand about not knowing what, or how, to practice. Here are some initial thoughts/advice that has worked for me over the years, as well as many of my students:
Bring a notebook with you to class, ideally a dedicated dance/movement notebook, and write down what you remember immediately after class (on the way home, when you get home, whatever works). It can be movement, combinations, feelings, one-liners, impressions…whatever is sticking with you. Get it down while it is still fresh.
Within a couple of days be sure to look at those notes again to ‘decipher’ them, and rework or rewrite them as needed so they make sense as time goes by.
(Note: I am a pen and paper person, but this could be done on a tablet or phone as well, I am sure!)
Related idea that takes a bit more time/resources: Video tape yourself when you get home from class doing what you remember. Invaluable.
Listen to Arabic music. Lots of it, not just when you are in practice or dance mode, but for fun when you are puttering around the house, doing what you do. Let it ‘normalize for you as a genre.
If you hear a song you like in class, ask me about it!
Go between focused practice and free practice. In other words, once you get your own notes started you can be methodical about making a plan for what you want to work on. But I also hope on days you want to dance but aren’t sure what to do you will get comfortable just putting on a song and dancing to it without a plan (though sometimes a practice plan forms from there as you go, and that is great, too).
Watch dancing. See what you like and see what you don’t like, and then try to decide why. Is it charisma or costuming? Get past that and try to look at the movement, the reaction to music. Live is great, but video is fine, too. You tube is amazing for this!
Hope that helps with a bit of a start.
I have a new 6-week fundamentals course starting in mid-June, and I’m starting to work on the details since I have time off of my other teaching work right now.
It’s funny, the idea of starting to work on something, as if it is going from 0 to 60 in 21 days or some such thing. What it really is is a culmination of years and years, decades in fact, edited and culled and put together in a hopefully cohesive manner to present in what will ultimately be 6 hours to a diverse group of random people (random in the sense that they are folks who know who I am and are interested in my classes, and are able and willing to pay a certain amount of money to be in a certain building in a certain city at a certain time over a six week period). But I begin by putting the goals of the course on paper, and working backwards to figure out how to get the group to the point I can say goodbye, and leave them feeling they learned something of value to their own dance work, and also leave them wanting more, knowing how much more there is to learn and having it feel accessible, exciting, and worth continuing with me, or with their other teachers present and future.
This is why I always have to smile a bit at the concept of an overnight sensation. The people who seemingly come out of nowhere have likely been at it for a long while, were prepared, and recognized (and took, or created) opportunities. Of course, in our modern technology driven world the concept of fame has to be redefined a bit, as one can become (virtually) known by many in a relatively short period of time.
In the US belly dance world there has long been a teeny element of ‘I am famous because I say I am’. Pre-internet days there were the names that got around, and luckily it was indeed mostly due to talent, but also it was due to the folks who put themselves out there–took the ads out in Habibi, went to the workshops (they used to be called seminars!) or the very few annual festivals that existed and taught, performed, or made the scene. There was a sense of really being able to check people out that brought us all to those annual events—-we had seen their ads in the zines, heard their name from our teachers, maybe even met them, or maybe they were one of the very few who put out VHS tapes of performances from Egypt, or their performances or classes—-but the proof was in the pudding when we got a chance to see them dance. Sometimes it was amazing and I was sure never to miss their show or a chance to study with them, and sometimes it was disappointing. We also had our local dancers who worked in the clubs—-when there were clubs that paid, and not a dancer on every corner willing to dance for their supper. (Note: I am not bitter, I promise, but I sure am glad I am out of the club scene!) They were sometimes better than the ‘famous’ dancers, but they were often busy working, and promoting yourself as a dancer was very different then…you worked, you got gigs from your other gigs and from word of mouth and from colleagues and club owners and bands, and you worked and worked and worked!
I remember when it went from using business cards supplied by the booking agents or your teacher when you went out on a gig to suddenly folks slowly starting to have their own business cards. It was a bit strange! Then we had the med-dance list (an early listserv that was amazing in connecting dancers). I remember one of my teachers asking me about it, “Wait, you sit at a…computer and read things other dancers wrote?! Why?!” Then bhuz.com came along, and there was a visual element to the online discussions rather than a textual one, and dancers started getting their own websites at a rapid pace (I got mine started in 1999 thanks to some geeky friends!). And then in what felt like an overnight shift, to be a dancer of value you had to have a slick website and an image, and to be hip and savvy to the whole scene!
And so it goes. We are lucky that there are lots of amazing dancers out there, as there probably always were, and we can see them immediately via you tube, websites, and social media. Hype still exists, of course, but it is much fancier, and a bit harder to get away with.
The teaching part of the work has not changed that much, though. I go through what I have learned from reliable sources, what I have seen with my own eyes, and what I have experienced, and then I parse out what I want to share and figure out why, and how it all fits together. I honor my teachers past, present, and future, and ultimately, I head into the studio to see who wants to try it all out with me, open to the experience and questions and energy they bring with them that day.
This zigzaggy little trip down memory lane is brought to you by three of my favorite things: Procrastination, Living in the Past, and Coffee!
P.S. I’ll be at Belly Dancer of the Year this coming weekend—-I’m a judge! Check it out if you are in the Bay Area!