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.
“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 have been sponsoring visiting dance instructors in my town for 7 years now. Like many, I started doing it because there were people I wanted to bring to town that no one else was, as well as to bring teachers who were explicitly focused on more traditional forms of “belly dance” to San Francisco proper. It also made good business sense as part of my own dance work, and I greatly enjoy the connections that are made between the small businesswomen (and men, but we are a largely women driven industry) of belly dance when we work together to make something happen.
Sponsoring teachers in San Francisco remains part of my larger business plan, though I have gone from bringing people two to three times a year to one, or maybe two, times a year. The global belly dance world is vast and seemingly grows more and more each year, and what was once a unified, albeit loose, subculture can sometimes feel like many more fragmented subcultures, with not a lot of crossover between people working even down the street from one another! There are folks who don’t venture past their city limits or past what their own teachers bring or recommend, as well as folks who are working hard on one particular style or offshoot of belly dance (and I can definitely relate to and respect the latter!). There are also a lot more events to choose from, and the average belly dancers budget and time can be stretched thin having to choose from a plethora of often fabulous things to do. The rise of online classes, private lessons via skype, and dance destination festivals where we can choose from many teachers in one convenient spot also have–perhaps?–lessened the need to bring dancers to the area as often.
I have decided to tweak my sponsorship offerings a bit to bring dancers who can truly augment what I see from the amazing women and men in my local scene. I always remain loyal to dancers working from more traditional starting points, and work with the instructors I sponsor to keep the material focused on the advanced dancer, the working dancer, the teacher, the serious student, and the long term amateurs. I want to show respect to my Bay Area colleagues, dance friends, and students by offering them something slightly different that also has a clear value for their own continuing education, dance work, performances, and classes.
I’m ruminating on this topic today as I get more and more excited to bring Ranya back to San Francisco for the fourth time. Through some long phone conversations and a flurry of emails earlier in the year, we ultimately decided to focus on presenting two different approaches to Egyptian Dance, which is a phrase that sounds specific but can can actually–and hopefully!–be broad in its meaning when used by dancers (I usually want to know if it is referencing a specific time period, region of the country, audience, musical style, urban or rural, beledi or sharqi…). Ranya and I decided to offer two approaches to the form this time. One is what she terms an ‘organic’ style, one that is melody driven and derived from strong musicality. This has been my own preferred style and approach over many years, and I am so excited to get Ranya’s take on it! The other we are terming ‘combination-driven’, and is derived from the work pioneered by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy beginning in the 1950s as they presented staged Egyptian ‘folkloric’ dance to the Cairo stage. Their work has influenced many belly dancers today due to so many top Cairo dancers and teachers getting their professional dance start with the Reda Troupe.
It is teachers and topics like this that make me not quite ready to hang up my sponsor hat!
Belly dancers use Arabic, Turkish and North African music and songs to dance to—-at least they do in my world—-and that means an extra step for the second language practitioner and those of us working from outside source cultures to figure out what a song is about. I will share some predominantly Arabic lyric translation sites I like, though this whole post is presented with a huge disclaimer—-language is always about more than the words! Think of all the idioms, euphemisms, and slang you know in your first language and imagine having to explain them to a language learner (I teach ESL and get to explain things like that for a living—-trust me when I say it is a never-ending part of the job!). Sometimes we can easily learn the ‘superficial’ or dictionary meaning of a song, but that is not always telling us the idiomatic, cultural, or second level meaning. And wherever you are in your language journey, please remember there is nothing like working with a native speaker when it comes to translations.
But we have to start somewhere. Here are some sites that are consistently useful:
All the Lyrics (Arabic Section–they have many languages represented over there, though)
You can find so much here—-use the search button, but bring a little patience, and multiple spellings, as well!
Arabic Music Translation
Chris Gratien put together an amazing resource as part of his own Arabic language studies. Sadly no longer updated, but worth bookmarking.
Shira has compiled a large collection of translated lyrics specifically for belly dancers.
Golden Arabic Lyrics
A nice collection, though many songs are just transliterations. If you are on facebook you should join their group as well.
Egyptian Arabic Dialect Course
This is also a site by Chris Gratien, and is useful for folks who want to learn Egyptian Arabic. He does a lot of the lessons through songs.
There are some great translations here, also with the belly dancer in mind.
It is always worth doing a lyric and song search at the belly dance discussion forums at both Bhuz.com and Bellydance Forums.
Mostly poetry and stories, but some nice translations.
Take advantage of buying music from producers who include booklets or lyrics in the liner notes. If you mainly download music, check to make sure you won’t get the benefit of lyrics if you buy the physical CD—-many CDs produced by dancers include lyrics as they know their consumer base wants the knowledge. You can also write musicians, producers and singers and let them know you want lyrics. I have had artists and musicians themselves kindly send me lyrics over the years, and it is good for them to know they have an international audience that wants this knowledge of their work.
I also think it is fine to ask your teachers in class, and if they don’t know, it is okay for them to find out that their students want to know.
I can read Arabic which makes a big difference, and I also work with musicians who are used to my asking ‘hey what does that word mean’ every time I see them. But even without that knowledge or access to knowledge, there are a lot of resources out there! As dancers learning and in many cases performing (and therefore representing) dances from another culture, it is paramount we take the extra steps to know what we are dancing to. I would say a majority of dancers do their due diligence, and as a community I hope we continue to keep that up. Our dance mothers and grandmothers had a harder time getting information—-even I remember the days before the internet, when waiting for the annual convention or the Habibi magazine to arrive was the only way to find out what folks in other parts of the country and world were up to—-but with the resources available to us today, I dare say there is little excuse for performers of all levels not to at least get a sense of what a song is about.
A few final tips and some personal anecdotes from my own experiences. If you hear the word ‘allah’ (‘god’) in a song, it does not mean it is automatically a religious song. Just like in English non-religious folks can say ‘oh my god’ or god willing’ as an exclamation, or religious folks can say similar things in a non-spiritual context. However, please feel free to let it give you pause, or at least make you dig up more information. If the song is a religious song—-please do not belly dance or perform to it as part of your public show. As a young dancer still in my teens, and just a few months in to working my first restaurant job, I saw another performer dance to a religious song, and the staff of the restaurant—-Palestinian, Moroccan, Pakistani by nationality, and a mix of practicing and ex-Muslims—-seemed to be amused (luckily) and offended (particularly in one guy’s case) at the same time. The owner faded out her music and she was left on the dance floor confused as to why she had been stopped in the middle of her show. It was painful to watch, but a great early lesson about what not to do.
Modern song lyrics can be hard sometimes even for native speakers to figure out. I used to meet my Egyptian Arabic language tutor every week at a cafe, and often I would have songs I wanted to translate (or songs I had attempted to translate that I wanted checked). There were a few times that he would laugh at the slang or terminology, and often it was new slang, slang from a class of people he felt were not doing justice to his country or culture, or just funny things he could figure out, but would never say himself. Other times there were political overtones to a song that were really good for me to know about. I have witnessed a few uncomfortable moments when American dancers performed with big toothy smiles to songs about being an immigrant in a strange land and feeling lonely and persecuted. While artists can transport us to other places, in those situations the disconnect was often too wide to bridge, and I was left wondering if the dancers were doing it on purpose, or just had not done their homework.
I have had dancers talk about purposely choosing music without lyrics, so they are “safe” from having to figure out what the song is about. I can definitely understand this impetus, though it does mean closing oneself off to amazing songs. It is also not a foolproof plan. This strategy can work fine for instrumental songs—-but be aware that a lot of songs are in fact just instrumental versions of songs with lyrics, and anyone who knows the melody will know the words as well. That path won’t always get you off the hook.
This leads me to my next point: Not all music that has an Arabic rhythm is made for belly dancing! There is nothing wrong with being conservative in your choices and choosing songs that were written for dancers or that have become associated with dancing over time. I will never forget seeing someone belly dance to a national anthem. Beautiful dancing that was overshadowed by a bizarre music choice. As an outsider to a culture who wants to learn a social and professional art form, there is great power in dancing socially with folks and following their lead to learn social dance ‘etiquette’. For readers who have a similar cultural background to me—-hello 1980s and 90s America—-think about how you might dance differently at a party if ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came on, compared to ‘Baby Got Back’ compared to ‘Sexual Healing’. Think about how you would feel if a hired entertainer at your wedding danced to, say, ‘Billie Jean’—-even an instrumental version. While raqs sharqi/belly dance is not a ‘miming’ style dance—-we aren’t expected to act out the songs or tell a linear lyrical story with our dance—-the cultural knowledge of the moves you might do (or if you might choose to sit down) and emotional and facial expressions you might convey is important, as is larger cultural knowledge of songs you choose. Is it funny? Sad? Happy? Political? Suggestive? Corny? From a famous film everyone knows? Played at weddings? Funerals? Arab League meetings? Is it a bit dated, maybe something grandma would have danced to? Modern, maybe something older folks might not even call music? Was it used in a commercial for a cleaning product, or sung by a respected artist (or both?!)?
I have had dance colleagues say to me ‘Eh, I always dance for people who don’t know Arabic or anything, it is all just gibberish to them.’ I find this problematic on several levels, not the least of which is that it completely underestimates an audience as well as the expected knowledge base of the pro or semi-pro dancer. If we are representing a dance form as professionals, we need to have done our homework—-and then some. I also think it is patently untrue—-you never, ever know who is going to be in your audience, and why take the chance of looking foolish (at best)? I have told my students about a time I participated in a dance variety show at a very large and upscale senior living home in the Western Addition/Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco. As I performed, I noticed a few staff members of the place hanging out in the back of the theater watching the show. When the chorus to my song came on, over half of them started singing along. It was great—-just the energy I needed to get more into it, just what the audience needed to see the connection between raqs sharqi and the music as well as between dancer and audience, and apparently just what these audience members/workers—-all Arab, Arab-American or of Middle Eastern/North African descent—-needed that day. We all had a blast. They stayed after the show to compliment me and say hello, and from that interaction I ultimately wound up being hired to dance at one of their cousin’s weddings a year later! Had I decided it didn’t matter and chosen a song that was not appropriate for belly dance, or for an afternoon show at a fancy schmancy place, or for my elders, or for my own self-respect—-I would have looked foolish, would have never met some nice people, would not have had as good of a show, and would have missed out on a future gig.
Be smart and knowledgeable in in your choices, enjoy the ongoing journey and process of learning, don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you go, never be afraid to ask for help and to ask questions, and may you always aim for joyful, meaningful dancing for yourself and your audiences!
I would love it if you shared your own lyric resources in the comments–or even any of your own experiences of why knowing the words is a good idea. Dancers who focus on Turkish styles, any tips for great translation sites? If you need specific translations I have a few friends who will translate songs from Turkish and Arabic (most dialects) for reasonable prices—-I’m happy to make connections for folks, and get nothing out of the transaction.
I have made a little list of things I do to stay bendy and steady in both body and mind when I have a non-structured month off, and thought I’d share it here.
Take dance classes, specifically classes I can’t take when I am in the throes of my own teaching, taking, working, and performing/prepping others to perform. I drop in to stuff last minute and get to be a beginner in styles not my own.
Take other classes. For me that usually means art making stuff, and in January I’ll be taking a weeklong intensive working in the metal arts (jewelry, not music), a side hobby and interest of mine. I also try to hit movement classes like Feldenkrais and Alexander technique, and am much more regular at my very favorite Iyengar studio here in town. Sometimes I’ll sign up for an herbal medicine or plant identification course, or work on tarot cards and fun stuff like that. Pretty much anything I can nerd out on for a bit makes me happy.
Do something movement oriented at home, every day. For me that usually means yoga, although I also tend to go through some dance videos/DVDs I have. I’ll list some links of favorites at the end of this post.
Read like a motherfucker. To be fair, I do that all year round, I just get to do it even more when I am off. I have my library card number memorized. (Yes, I also curse.)
Cook. Being off for a spell also means less cash around, so I get to cook more and try new to me recipes along with favorites I don’t always have time to make when I get busy again. Nourishing oneself is never a bad idea, and I love food.
Clean and organize. This is the time to clean out the sock drawer and sweep away all the dust bunnies hidden in corners and under rugs. I want to start back into my routine with a clean, safe, home base to work from. This is directly connected to being creative. My mom used to say “Messy bed messy head!”, and she had a point (I still say my messy desk is a sign of genius though, but that may be my inner procrastinator talking). I catchup on my podcasts and become the master of my world for a minute (knowing full well it will fall apart again–cycle of life, baby!)
I’m also a musician, so I try to practice music making every day as well (I don’t always succeed, but I try). I do succeed in listening to music every day. Actually, I’m super good at listening to music, really a natural talent. 😉
I will occasionally doThe Artists Way when I have big chunks of time as well. Not up for it right now, but it is a nifty program for creative types (aka all humans).
I am not a big dance/movement instructional DVD person, but I enjoy a few now and again when I need a push and feel like a hermit. I strongly encourage dancers to watch a lot of performances whenever they can both live and recorded. You can dance along to videos of performers you love and make a mini-lesson for yourself. If you have taken class with me you may have been given homework a few times on how to structure this kind of learning. I still do this myself!
That said, here are some recorded classes/instructionals I have consistently gone back to:
I teach at a university that runs on a semester system, and have come to plan a lot of the rest of my life around that calendar. I like the cyclical nature of it all. Things start, things end, there is a break and time to breathe, and then things start again, a little the same but a little different. It works for me. Dance teacher colleagues have called me crazy for taking 2 to 6 week breaks from ongoing classes, but I find a regular short ‘sabbatical’ of sorts twice a year refreshing. It makes me a better teacher to step back and be a bit selfish (though that word sounds more negative than I mean it to) for a minute. When I can just be a student and be a newbie and be more open it ultimately serves my audiences and my students, and myself, pretty darn well.
Today after I leave the university, heading into a month off after the whirlwind of finals week and a lot of grading, I’m going directly to a dance studio to work with new to me teachers in a style not my own, and I pretty much have no idea what to expect. I’m excited and nervous and doing my best to be open. I know that even as a dancer and thinker and dance maker and teacher in a very rooted style and form I can learn a lot from other body thinkers and dancers. I am particularly excited how this dancemaker (Joe Goode) talks in terms of human-ness — he has a class called ‘movement for humans’, and writes of starting simple wherever you are at, having no expectation of anything perfect or even particularly good, and authenticity in the body you are in at the moment. It all fits a lot of my own philosophies about dance, at least on paper. We’ll see very soon what the reality brings.