Wednesday, 16 April 2014

How can I get good at bellydance?

Part 1, Three things an aspiring bellydancer should know.

I decided I needed to write this blog when I was putting together this page about dance levels for my website.

One of the most common queries I get from dance students is about what they need to do to "get good at it". Similarly, the natural reaction from any dancer who has their level assessed is "OK, but how to I get to the next one" - that's OK, I do that too.

Where your goal lies is up to you. You may want to simply learn enough to be able to easily improvise in a group of dancers and enjoy dancing rather than having to think about your moves. You may want to be the next Bellydance Superstar. Either way, the basic principles are much the same.

I'd like to start by looking at 3 things, I think new dancers, or those wanting to push to the next level, will benefit from considering.

1) You need to enjoy the journey.

If all you are looking to do is to achieve a certain level, or attain professional standard as fast as possible, you are going to miss out. I understand, really I do. When you fall in love with bellydance, or any art form, that discrepancy between the result you want and what you are capable of achieving feels like a daily slap in the face. There are no short cuts, so you might as well make sure the road feels good to travel on.

This is an immense artform, learning technique is great, but perfectly executing a triple layered move while travelling doesn't necessarily make you an interesting performer. Musicality is at the heart of bellydance, to my eyes the best dancers are those who become a living embodiment of the music. That means knowing your music, understanding it from rhythm to instrumentation to lyrics, you have to get into the soul of it. Studying that as theory is dry. Listening to all the Arabic music you can get your hands on, dancing to it, feeling it, is a wonderfully rich experience.

Watch performances. Live if you can, filmed if you need to. Watch old Egyptian films. We learn to dance with our eyes too.

You will always be a student. There is no end point for you. The learning never stops, and that is brilliant, because discovering new things keeps us vital. Embrace the knowledge that every goal will only be a brief stopping point before the itch to learn more resumes, you will always have the joy of new discoveries.

It might sound like bellydance is going to take over your life. Well, yes, if you love it, it probably will. Have you met me?

2) It's going to be hard work.

Of course we love dancing and everything about it, but to really improve we have to make the commitment to spend time doing the stuff we find hard. We have to keep drilling through the muscle fatigue if we are going to get stronger, and we have to make sacrifices. There are times when you have to make the decision to be a better dancer rather than having that comfy evening on the sofa. To go out in the rain to get to tonight's class. Fitting the work in isn't always easy. It's all part of the process.

3) It's not about raw talent.

When we watch our dance idols perform, it seems effortless to them. Their bodies seem to respond to the music instinctively, and naturally move in ways that we struggle to replicate. The truth is though, they did not start like that.

I was once in a workshop with the awesome Ava Fleming, who explained that she often shows her students one of her early performance videos, where she has chicken arms and is nothing like the graceful performer she is today. Galit Mersand demonstrates in this comedy skit, that we all start the same way.

Of course some individuals are more "blessed", with natural musicality, co-ordination, flexibility or a cultural background that makes understanding the roots of the dance more natural to them. These dancers may progress rapidly initially, but unless they put in the work, they will reach their own limit. It is is pushing through those limits that makes us, whether you find your first hurdle in lesson 1 or a couple of years in. The greatest dancers are those who refused to rest on their natural talent (however much or little they had) kept working at their dance.

So how do you go about that work? How can you get the best out of your dance opportunities? We'll come to that later.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Another costume - a wedding dress conversion

I realised I haven't updated about costumes in a while. This isn't because I haven't made any, it's because I haven't had time to write about it!

I did this one several months back, it's not actually completely finished, in that the skirt is still to be dealt with, but I have worn it as a bra and belt set with a hipscarf.

This started life as a cheap wedding dress from ebay, it was too big for its original intended use, so I decided to butcher it for a white costume.

So here are my raw materials, a dress and a solid Egyptian bra base. These are available from costume vendors like Everything Egyptian. I got this as a job lot from and Egyptian costumer.

I unpicked the bodice from the dress 

Then I sewed it onto the bra base

The dress didn't completely cover the soup-bowl cups, so I added some large hotfix rhinestones, and filled in the gaps with smaller ones

Intermediate shot, the straps were extended with webbing (for a cross back) and covered in white satin ribbon. 

The belt part was made by taking a section from the top of the skirt, and using it to cover some wide elastic. The oval at the front is cut from a plastic container and covered in white fabric and hotfix. The large crystals on the front came from a buckle. I also added some crystal buckles to the front of the straps. The back is fastened with the old cross straps and rings method I used here

Dodgy selfie. The silver fringe is a separate piece.

Action shot from this video

I plan to finish the skirt at some point, I still have enough of the dress left to make a column skirt, with one or two slits. I just need to add a waistband and hem the edges of the slits, which will probably happen 2 days before I have the occasion to wear it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Descent

I am writing this post off the back of the first session of my Dancing with the Red Goddess Course.

The first session is entitled "The Descent" and is themed around the myth of Inanna's descent into the underworld.

The link between this tale, and the toolkit of an artist or performer are plain to me. At the beginning of the tale Inanna dresses in all her finery. In fact she dresses in enough finery that the guardians of the underworld, and her "sister" Ereshkrigal would be suspicious of her motives, and rightly so. The recorded myths don't seem to make it very clear what she was up to taking a day trip into places no living being would willingly go; but it does appear clear that she sought to protect herself from harm, by loading herself down with "Mes", symbols that align with the features of the civilised, earthly world.

The thing is, that while these protected her, they also prevented her from reaching what, if it were not her conscious goal, is the necessary path in her tale.

Ereshkrigal, the queen of the underworld, represents a darker side to Inanna, she is the goddess of death to oppose the goddess of love (Inanna). She is not so much a sibling, as the darker side of the same being. In order to be whole, we have to be prepared to meet and understand the side of ourselves that doesn't usually see the light of day. We may choose not to express it, but we do need to be aware of it to be sure that is the right choice.

As performers, we often portray a character or a role, but that's not good enough. Your audience is too clever for that. Your audience knows when you fake it, and the only way to present a genuine performance, that will sit well with them, is to include a strong element of your true self. A streak of vulnerability. A good dose of honesty. How can we do that, if we don't really understand who we are. What is there under the sequins and makeup?

When I prepared for this session, I looked at Inanna's finery, and the Mes they represent. I wondered what these might mean for a modern day performer.

It should be noted, that these are not "bad" things. In fact they represented the ideals that make society work. If however, we hold them too tight, or mistake them for being part of ourselves, rather than a framework we can live around, they become millstones around our necks. As a performer they become inhibiting, and they hold us back. So what stops us from being the artists we want to be? Here are just a couple of examples.

Your status, job or role. Even if that identity for you is that of a dancer. In fact, does being "a dancer" or "a dance teacher" hold you back from taking the risks that might make you look undeserving of that title, but also might just make magic happen. Perhaps you have a "serious" job, that makes it hard to let go as a performer, lest that professional mask slips.

Your creations, and spiel. As artists self expression is what we do when we do it best, but your art is not you, it is derived from you. The things you produce, and the things you say, are not you.

Your gender role/sexuality. As women (and for those living as women), who this course is geared towards, we live under a heap of expectations in terms of our behaviour, our dress, our personal grooming. Sometimes we are loathe to be raw, or emotive, or willful; Or alternatively, we fear to let slip our sensuality, lest it be misinterpreted as an invitation, rather than simply an expression of feeling good in our skin.

Letting go

In order to enter the underworld, Inanna has to shed a layer of protection at each of the gates. She casts aside her status, her magic, her loves, her ego, her will, her illumination and her role as a woman, and stands naked before her dark sister.

It's a frightening process to go through, but also liberating. 

I would like to share an example of how letting go of the constructs that helped me define and maintain the everyday version of myself could contribute to my dance.

It was a running theme that I had a  technical issue with my dance. A small niggling flaw became part of my identity as a dancer, I complained to my teachers about it, and the consciousness spread so that it was always a feature of my dance critiques. After one performance, where I had worked so hard to eliminate it, and it happened so little, that were you not looking for it, you would never notice, it was mentioned again as a flaw in my performance. 

Annoyed with myself, I watched a video of that dance, and then I watched several others, and I noticed that several dancers who "didn't" have this issue, seemed to manifest it more than I did. In fact one of my greatest dance idols carries it almost as a feature of her dance. In other words, my "problem" was now only a problem because I brought attention to it, through my self-critique.

So I cast off the lapis beads. I told some close dance friends that I was done with it. I no longer have this issue, it is not part of my dance. 

It doesn't happen anymore. The physical work I did to correct my technique was weighed down by the construct I had created. When I let go, I freed myself to be a better dancer.

Often the ideas we have about ourselves, or the ideas others have about us, can be a positive for our performance. We can take them and use them to add texture to our expression. We need to be mindful though, of what we carry on our shoulders, what we need, and what we must cast aside, and most importantly, to not be afraid to be naked, and staring ourselves in the eyes.