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.

Movie Poster for 'Overnight Sensation'
I have not seen this movie, but doesn’t it add something nice and visual to my post?

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!

Music, Water, Life :: The Nile Project

I was thrilled to attend The Nile Project’s recent performance at Zellerbach Hall, part of a larger residency on the UC Berkeley campus. I remember The Nile Project as an idea, a concept, and a kickstarter I supported and got a great CD out of. Little did I know how it would grow. I know one of the organizers, Mina Girgis, only tangentially—-I was a regular student at a music school called Zambaleta that he ran for a bit in San Francisco (it is rare to have a place where one can take weekly group riqq lessons and occasional Gnawa singing and music workshops) and have attended local music events he helped produce. I may in fact not yet be completely over the school closing, but seeing what Mina is doing now makes it hurt less, and it is more than a little inspiring to know of someone like him who gets an idea and then makes it happen.

My partner and I arrived in Berkeley early, via BART, and lingered over some spicy Thai food before cutting across the rapidly darkening campus of my alma mater. We saw a few friends outside and in the lobby, and when we got to our seats were happy to know both the person both behind us (a long time dance friend who I knew would be there) and in front of us (a local friend who is a record producer who I didn’t know was attending—-turns out he produced a few of Meklit‘s albums, one of the co-founders and performers in the project). The stage was set up with chairs, risers, and instruments, lit with a soft blue light, and it was fun to chat with friends as we eagerly awaited the start of the show.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.The crew prepares the stage.

In the two acts of the concert we were taken through 11 Nile and Nile Basin countries —- Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. There were performers onstage representing most of the countries, and they shared songs that evolved out of three multiple-week residencies, with one artist bringing a tune, tale, riff, or idea to the table, and the group working through it together to create a cohesive piece. The pacing of the first half was strong and steady, in my opinion the second half dragged a little (not because of the material or the performers, it seemed like there may have been technical difficulties). I admit that I never thought of some of the countries as ‘Nile countries’, and I laughed when co-founder Mina Girgis said from the stage that one of the performers goals was to make politicians jealous of them and the work they get to do making connections between people in the countries. I think the explicit politics of this project are important—-working for water rights from an artistic, pro-people, regional, and musical perspective.

As an artist who is inspired by Egyptian dance and music for my own work, it seems clear why an event with the word ‘Nile in it would appeal, and the connection between the Nile and Egypt is obvious to anyone. But it was incredibly refreshing to attend a ‘Nile’ music event where the focus was explicitly looking toward the rest of East Africa. In the global belly dance scene I am a part of, Egypt is sort of a touchstone for many—-albeit occasionally an imagined, fantastical, or dated one. However, many of the references and inspirations my fellow dancers also focus on point north and west, into West Asia and along the Mediterranean. While those connections are certainly real, vital and interesting—-politically, historically, spiritually, and linguistically the Arab influence on and relationship with Egypt cannot be understated—-what a joy to see connections made because of a river and because of a continent, because of land and because of water. It makes sense, and it goes deep. I do not mean to say these connections are not made by anyone in the dance world, as there are some well known dancers and dance researchers who are vocal with their work about African connections in our dance form. The Nile Project makes no bones about it. These are countries with a shared history and shared resources—–and shared, related, compatible instruments and musical styles, but often unknown between countries. Artistically representing countries often pitted politically against one another for shared resources, the Nile Project aims to show solidarity and commonality through music, dance, and good old fashioned people power. And they are doing it well. The women singers—-three from Rwanda, Egypt, and Ethiopia, and with roots in Ethiopia and Sudan—-sang solos in their own languages and backed one another up in learned languages. It was beautiful, powerful, participatory, inspiring and fun.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.From left to right: Nader Elshaer (kawala), Jorga Mesfin (saxophone), Mohamed Abouzekry (oud), Kasiva Mutua (percussion, vocals), Steven Sogo (bass, umiduri, vocals), Michael Bazibu (percussion), Hany Bedeir (percussion), Selamnesh Zemene (vocals), Sophie Nzayisenga (inanga, vocals), Dina El Wedidi (vocals), Meklit Hadero (vocals), Alsarah (vocals). Not pictured: Miles Jay (contrabass).

The focus on water also stood out watching the performance while in a state and a region being hit hard by a drought, with odds of any long term relief slim. I’m interested in regional solutions to some of the issues currently facing the Bay Area, and at times during the concert my thoughts wandered to representation and voices and access in my own city and expended communities. Geographic connections for resources both natural and human made—-water, land, housing, transit—-make sense to me. We can all benefit from learning about our neighbors stories.

The prestige of performing in an internationally respected theater, in the very place where the Nile Project was first conceived of (Bay Area represent!), is important. But there were times during the show that I couldn’t help but wish for a smaller venue, one without velvet seats and steeply stepped aisles with ushers guarding the doors, where we could all move a little more to the music. While I appreciate the power of seeing music and movement on a stage presented as ‘real’ and worthy of the space, as well as the validation that can bring for future funding and work that it comes with, there is of course a high ticket price, an ‘educated’ in-the-know audience, and having to sit down while amazing music is being played.

I also found myself worrying before the show that the Nile Project might fall into the bland ‘word music’ trap—-a phrase I can’t stand, often a term of banality leading the hopeful listener to watered down versions of great music made palatable for sensitive outside ears. As a person who has been buying cassettes and records (remember those?) described in languages I often can’t yet understand regularly since I was a teenager, I know both the amazing joys and the unsatisfying disappointments that can hide behind the cover of an album or music project. I am pleased to report that these folks definitely have not given in to anything! Here is to the Nile Project staying political, sharp, down to earth and funny as they move forward.

To list what I perceived as highlights from the show almost seems unfair, as each person on the stage was amazing, and brought something unique to the group. I do have to give an extra fist bump, zaghareet, shimmy, and thumbs up to Nader Elshaer’s sublime kawala playing, Sophie Nzayisenga’s inanga playing and her total stage presence (it is not easy to command a big stage alone, and she set the tone of the evening immediately when she kicked off the show), Michael Bazibu’s percussion skills and song/instrument introductions, Dina El Wedidi’s mawaal, and all the women singers’ unity and beauty in blending sounds and words together. Again, I hesitate to even mention specific performers out for fear of implying that each person on the stage was not a core part of the energy, sound, and entire feel of the evening. To lose one of them would have made for a different show. Each participant in the Nile Project is a talented, experienced artist in their own right, and I posted the performers names as a caption to one of my photos above in hopes readers will search out their work. I believe they call it a “project” for a reason, as there are other artists working at various times and in various capacities on recordings, concerts, education, outreach, organizing, and residencies—and I’m sure after this many more talented folks will be hoping to participate in some way.

Two fun anecdotal asides: First, UC Berkeley is my Alma’s matter, and it is always fun to be back there. On our way from BART to Zellerbach, we went on a little detour to say hi to the T Rex and the pterodactyl, and I happily remembered late library nights feverishly researching obscure topics. Second, I ran into one of my very first belly dance students! In the early 2000s I began teaching dance classes under the mentorship of my own first teacher. I subbed for her classes, and she ultimately had me develop and implement a curriculum at her studio for teen dancers (she only taught adults). I wound up working with a great group of whip smart young women (who, if I can indulge in yet another aside, also were the ones who taught *me* that a version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song Khosara I used in class was sampled for the Jay Z song Big Pimpin’!). It was so cool to see a person I remember as a a teenager all grown up, working for environmental and social justice, and attending an great concert (hi Vrinda, if you ever stumble across this post!).

I am proud to have supported The Nile Project from its inception, and certainly will be there when they come through town next. I encourage my fellow dancers and Egyptian music lovers to check out their work, and hope we all let our own ideas, work, and processes expand and grow based on their work.

The Nile Project continues its current tour through the United States through early May 2015, and if you are near an area where they are performing, please consider attending. You will not be disappointed!

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.

And now, a word from your sponsor…

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.

sponsors-300x300After working with a few California artists (notably Shareen El Safy, Sahra Kent, and Amel Tafsout), I branched out to dancers from way across the country (Ranya Renee and Jim Boz) and even the world (Outi of Cairo).

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.

temporarily_lost_our_sponsor_133035I 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!

Ranya Renee teaches at Lines Dance Center in San Francisco on March 27 and 28, 2015. Please visit www.monicaraqs.com/ranya2015.html for more details and to register.

What is he saying?! Arabic Song Translations for Dancers:: A Guide (With Commentary)

arabiclanguage
The above (al 3rabiya) means ‘Arabic’ (as in the language) in standard Arabic…and it also means car/moving vehicle in Egyptian. Yup. Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome!) to Arabic!

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:

itsallgreektome

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
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.

Orientaldancer.net
There are some great translations here, also with the belly dancer in mind.

I have a few songs over at my site.

Amina has some at her site as well.

It is always worth doing a lyric and song search at the belly dance discussion forums at both Bhuz.com and Bellydance Forums.

La Reine
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.

Arabic_Alphabet

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.

italianforpizza

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.

emptybubble

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?!)?

arabic-clock

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!

greektome2

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.

Practice

I am interested in how other dancers practice. I have an online crew of about a dozen folks that I have gotten to know over the last decade, and though we are in very different parts of the world we have a group we check in with to talk about what we did in our day. Practice to me is a broad word. For all dancers it means movement, class, technique, rehearsal. But in my experience it also means listening to and learning about music, thinking about the bigger picture , travel, culture, context, and research. I like to keep the ‘why’ involved along with the ‘how’ and the ‘what’! Many dancers I know are not full time dancers, and I particularly like to hear about how part-time pros and serious hobbyists keep up with dance while juggling day jobs. There is no wrong answer when it comes to a personal practice methodology, and it is an ongoing, changing, dynamic process with an ebb and a flow.

Given all that, when I saw Dancers Group, a rockin’ local organization in my city, was hosting a panel on Practice Discourses on a winter evening at a local performance space as part of their Dancers Discourse Project, I knew I wanted to go and listen to what my colleagues had to say.

On the panel were some folks who were known to me by name only, and some folks who I had not heard of. Old school stalwarts of the Bay Area Contemporary dance scene such as Sarah Shelton Mann, Nina Haft and Margaret Jenkins were representing, along with a fellow I only know from Facebook but feel a kinship with (punk rock + dance!), Brontez Purnell, plus a new to me dancer, Dia Dear. Moderators were Jesse Hewit and Larry Arrington. It was a great group to hear in conversation.

I won’t lie: I often feel like a poser at contemporary dance events, which is my own silly issue. I have to build myself up and remind myself that everyone has their path, not to get on my high horse and blurt out random accomplishments to attempt to prove something no one cares about, and just…chill. While a lot of it stems from my dance form not always being taken seriously by varied groups of people, the truth is in these kinds of situations it really is mostly in my head. Though the bulk of my work and thinking is done in and around Southwest Asian, Arab, North African and belly dance and music contexts, I have also participated in DanceUSA conferences (on a grant, even!), and various other non-Arab dance workshops and events and what do you know…no one has ever been a jerk to me. Imagine that! I even teach at a big city dance center that is mostly ballet and modern dance, and have done so happily, and feeling supported and welcomed, since 2003. The good thing about discourse-based events like this is you learn everyone feels left out or awkward sometimes—-you get to hear what people are thinking rather than make guesses as they grunt though class next to you. Yay discourse!

I thought I would use my little blog platform here to share some of what I got out of this event. I took a lot of notes, and 7 or so weeks later have stumbled across them again. I think there is some value in them, and hope my readers might as well.

The evening started, as so many conversations among non-tech people in San Francisco do lately, about changes in our city and in our region. It was generally agreed that as artists we are seeing even more of a commercial based exchange than ever before in a city that is altering, or being altered, faster than any of us can remember. Calling yourself an artist is a precarious thing to do in what are precarious times. It’s rough times for dancers out there to spend time doing anything but making commercial work and making a living, which does not bode well for artistic growth or even maintenance. This is the reality and the context of all dance discussions in this town.

The panel talked about practice as an expanded concept of what we do in a day–including what we do to keep our chins up in the above-referenced challenging economic times. This really resonated with me as a person who, as I mentioned, likes hearing the nitty gritty of how dancers live, act, and practice every day in the regular old world and recognizing all of that as part of their practice. Someone referenced Merce Cunningham talking about practice: “It’s easy when you learn how to do it..but you’ll never learn how to do it. That’s my practice.” (Note: I looked for a reference to this quote and could not find it, so it is likely a paraphrase. Merce had some great quotable things to say.)

In one of my very favorite parts of the evening, Nina Haft talked about her experience as a martial arts student and practitioner, and how that informed her ideas about being a dancer and a dance maker. She said that in martial arts getting older meant having more to offer—-and that that felt like the exact opposite of dance. She said that in martial arts, older folks could kick your ass without even getting near you—-the goal, in fact, was to never perform and practice is what gets you to that point. It is all about control, control that comes with time. She went on to talk about the mystery of ‘levels’ in dance classes and it really often being an unspoken hierarchy. She learned to greatly appreciate the clarity of a belt system in martial arts. Finally, she talked about the unskilled person (a white belt) playing an important role. Simply by being unpredictable, they make the black belts better.

How beautiful is that, you guys? It made me reflect on the concept of beginners mind, of always having something to learn, of revering our masters but welcoming our newbies, of honoring everyone involved, and of never taking anything or anyone for granted. I recall attending classes with Lorna Zilba in the 1990s. She chose to run her classes as mixed level, beginners next to pros. I had been making my living as a performing dancer for a while, thought I knew a thing or two (such a dangerous, silly thought pattern!), and was not always sure about her methods. In fact, being thrown out of my comfort one and being surrounded by variety (while still being challenged as a student) became a big part of my development as a dancer. Nina’s comments on the panel also reminded me of a scene in Carlos Saura‘s documentary film and love letter to dance and music, ‘Flamenco‘, where an older woman gets up to sing and dance and holy shit—-the power behind her just getting out of her chair is mindboggling. It comes right through the screen, and she does not have to do much to show that she has everything to offer, a lifetime of experience to show and tell. Everything. At risk of romanticizing or simplifying things, in general the reverence shown to older singers, dancers and participants in dances of the people and folk dances can be powerful. That is not true in many contemporary forms around the world. I saw it in Egypt among many folkloric styles as well, though not usually in raqs sharqi. Nina talking about the appreciation of the older master along with the need for the younger learner resonated with me, especially in a world where ‘younger’, ‘faster’, ‘snappier’, and ‘harder’ sometimes is taken to mean an evolutionary form of ‘better’. This seems shortsighted. What are we missing out on as dancers? As audience members? As dance makers? As humans?

Okay, back to the event!

Brontez Purnell hit it out of the park when he talked about formalizing what he was already doing in his life. I wrote down exactly what he said: “Fuck, if I don’t class it up people are gonna think I’m just a drunk slut in my underwear. So I started a dance company.”

Anyone else find that as liberating as I do?

I’ll end on a note that made me feel so much better about it all. Sarah Shelton Mann said, “I quit every year.” I believe all dancers who have been around for a minute can relate to this, and hearing it from someone who is a ‘name’—-decades on the scene, national grant recipient, highly respected—-was shockingly reassuring to me. She hasn’t quit, obviously, but admitting she wants to sometimes? Yup. I needed that! She went on to talk about how her work has changed. Some years it has been a full time company, some years a part time company, some years project based work. Ebb and flow.

At this point we had been going almost two hours. As the moderators moved folks into breakout groups to continue the conversation with everyone, I slipped out, and walked through the cool night air toward my bus stop, my head a mix of thoughts and emotions.

In my notebook I wrote “talking to self = practice“. I’m not sure who said it, or if it was a thought that came up during one part of the chat or even on the bus ride home. But I believe this implicitly. There is the physical, though truthfully my own dancing never flourished through an aerobic style methodology alone. I am willing to work hard physically, and love waking up knowing without question I danced the day before, but that alone is…hollow. The ‘it will burn!’ mentality is a turn-off. I need thought, authenticity, realness, brains, and purpose behind the movement.

So how does all this apply to belly dance, a form that modern practitioners in the globalized dance scene can not always even agree on defining the exact same way?! I can only speak for myself and my approach. To me, and in my practice, it has meant asking the tough questions, using definitions and methods that come from source cultures, remaining true to myself as a person while I explored, and learning to look at those who came before me and taking their work seriously—-even the ones who never gained popularity outside small circles or a period of time. It has meant never taking anything as gospel truth, even things I have seen with my own eyes. But it has also meant personalizing it all a bit, while still trying to balance ego and staying hungry and open. I am a dancer, it is a huge part of my life and livelihood. My aim has been to dance a style rooted in a place not my own, and it has meant accepting that, like my Arabic speaking, I may always dance with an accent (luckily I like accents and dialects). It has meant larger intellectual learning, which–perhaps paradoxically to some readers—-has in fact allowed me to ultimately let go and experience joy and dancing without thinking. It is only though the daily drudge of practice—-dance class, daily movement, observation of peers and dance mammas and grandmammas (and some pappas!), reading, traveling, listening, thinking, making mistakes, admitting when I’m wrong, the solidity of knowing when I am right or recognize a truth, knowing when to say no, being brave enough to say yes, being a good physical ‘editor’ (belly dance does not require the kitchen sink!), being scared, feeling silly, quitting dance jobs I fought hard to get, knowing when to limit my artistic input and when to widen my views—-that I have come to a place where I finally think I might know a thing or two. And yup, a couple of those things I know is that there is always more to know, solidity is an illusion, there is no such thing as perfect. And none of that means I have nothing to say or offer as a dancer—-quite the contrary. In fact, letting go of ‘perfect’ as some kind of goal and seeing practice as a continuum and a process and a daily habit has allowed me to to stretch more artistically than I did before, take more risks, and be confident and aware in the moment while not being scared of ‘failure’. Things change in different contexts, and that is okay. We can work in a shifting medium if we stay flexible and stay true. Practice is performance, practice is the thing, and the journey is, in fact, the destination. No one else will see it even as you are doing it all the time, it is just your daily life that may get glimpsed by a lucky few when it comes together for performance.

And it is worth it.

Keep practicing, guys! I welcome your thoughts, comments, and hearing about your own practice should you be moved to share.

Can you see the back of my head in the photo above? 😉