Friday, 27 February 2015

Postcards from the coal face. Reflections on my dance practice.

I've been reflecting upon and tweaking my daily dance practice quite a lot lately. Over the last few months I have been working on refining my practice to get the best value out of my time and cultivate a schedule that allows me to maintain fitness, progress technically and prepare for performance in a way that works for my body and other commitments.

So after trying out a few variations of my own, I decided to start a clean slate in January with a little hand holding from Datura Online.  I know that when I choose my own practice, I'll choose the things I like and find easy. I started their Crazy Train programme, which is around 2 hours a day of conditioning, drills and technique, all set out, for 4 weeks of comprehensive practice. I completed the month on this, and then on reflection, decided what I would take away into my own tailored training. This is what I discovered:

Prioritising is more effective than you might think

At first I thought that finding 2 hours a day for basic dance practice (not including classes and performance preparation) was going to be impossible, but everything is impossible until you give it a go. The very first video on Crazy Train is this from Amy Sigil. She is totally right. You have to prioritise the important things. Dance is my passion and my trade, I can't afford to down-prioritise it. So I dance first, and do the other things later. When you work regular office hours, outside the home, your work comes first. You go to work, you do the work. If there is laundry left to hang up, but it's time to go to work, you don't do the laundry, you go to work. Equally you don't check your emails one last time, or anything else. I have learned to be this brutal about my dance schedule too, because if I let it slip, it's gone.

Reporting back helps

A few months back a dance co-conspirator of mine suggested a challenge, where our group of disparate dancers would attempt to complete at least 10 minutes dance every day. As I've said before, 10 minutes should be easy to achieve and is better than nothing. I was already in a daily habit of weight training, yoga, shimmy drills and core technique drills - on top of class preparation, choreography etc, so I figured it would be no problem.

This was a great challenge, firstly because I learned that actually, I was sometimes skipping out of my basic practice (especially if I was teaching or taking a class that day). I also noticed that "reporting in" to my peers was a motivator. Sharing your accomplishments, even if it is just 20 minutes of shimmy drills, is satisfying and hearing about their exploits was motivating. So I bought a notebook to dedicate as a dance diary. Writing in the diary is really just reporting in to myself, but the process of entering my practice encourages me to have more to write about! It also helps me keep track and check the patterns and roundedness of my schedule.

Dance vegetables are important

In her Flow Drills workshop, Zoe Jakes talks about the importance of "eating your dance vegetables". Foundation drills, strength conditioning, flexibility and cardio are the cornerstones of dance. Zoe talks about the necessity of practicing these on a daily basis, only then can you get down to "playing" trying out new layers and combos, choreography, all that stuff.

I believed her the first time I saw it, but after several weeks of religious vegetable dancing, the fundamental importance of a dedicated regular, grass roots practice has become extremely apparent to me. I've written before about the importance of returning to "beginner" technique, but it's actually about maintaining and improving it. Day by day.

Actual vegetables are also important

I've always had an interest in nutrition, and I know that how I eat reflects in how I feel and how I dance. Dancers are in an odd place of being both artists and athletes. It's tempting to think that we should be able to exist on tea and hob nobs, in a feverish artistic reclusion, but our art is enacted through our bodies. Our bodies are the instrument of our expression and we have to take care of them. Our bodies also often represent the limits of our expression. A stronger, healthier body means more access to more movements and a more versatile toolkit through which to express ourselves.

I've come across many variations in diet amongst bellydancers, some swear by their particular variant, supplement or lifestyle. Our ideal diets are all very individual, based on our baseline needs, budget, ethical choices, tastes and training levels, so I'm not going to make any suggestions here. However I have observed that being aware of (and increasing) the levels of water and protein in my diet has coincided with better stamina and less muscle fatigue or post-exercise weakness.

It's not just about maintenance

Working on the same drills, every single day doesn't just preserve the skill, it gradually refines it. You might not see the difference immediately, but give it a month and the contrast is stark. Getting better at a particular drill means that certain elements become automatic, and when you don't have to think about those anymore, you can focus on refining something new.

There is benefit in boredom

Following on from my previous point, sometimes doing the same drills over on a daily, or even weekly, basis can seem tedious. I considered for a while whether I could do something else while I was drilling. Then I realised that concentrating on the drill itself is really important. When I no longer have to apply my brain power to making the move happen, I have the capacity to analyse and refine it. There is always a reason to focus my attention.

It's not just drills that bear repeating.

I have an enormous collection of bellydance DVDs and downloads, not to mention the streamable Datura library. Everything from conditioning to drills, flow practice to technical breakdown. I tend to use them on a fairly broad rotation. The flow and drills gets used more.

The Crazy Train programme actually repeats videos that I would not have considered repeating at such a tight frequency. Combinations and technique that I might previously have thought once, or very occasionally, was enough. Making myself repeat them I realised that there is a lot of depth you can miss while learning a combination, and going over the technique, from scratch, for a second or third time really allows me to get to the guts of it.

Teaching is not practice

There was a time when I considered my teaching time to equate to drilling time. After all, I am breaking down the technique, practicing it over and over. The problem is that while I am conscious of maintaining good technique, I am also watching my students, analysing their movements, making judgements about what to correct, what to encourage and what to let lie. While I may have revelations about the mechanics of a movement while I teach it, I can't really get into the meat of my own technique while my purpose is to support that of my students. In addition I can't really push myself when I am tailoring the level to beginner or improver level dancers. I have to respect the limits of their stamina, range of movement etc, and that means not challenging my own.

Variety is the spice of success

I've talked before about cross training, but I've also noticed how different types of cross training benefit each other. For instance I regularly use Jillian Michaels' Shred workouts for conditioning, although I have to make some modifications recommended by Shredheads, to respect my joints. I'm not a massive fan of working out, so the high intensity Shred workouts are the exercise equivalent of ripping off a band aid. I don't do Shred daily however. I mix it up with pilates, yoga and dance flow conditioning.

Early on, I found that my ability to keep up with the Shred workout was limited by muscle fatigue. Even on the cardio focussed workouts I wasn't nearing my cardio limit before my legs started to tire. After mixing it up with some pilates for a couple of weeks however, increasing my strength, I found that I had the ability to push harder and reach that sweaty out-of-breath sweet spot when I got back to my cardio circuits.

I also used to have a real problem with burpees. They were (and probably still are) my nemesis. On the other side of things I have been working on tolasana. I started back in October when I couldn't lift my weight off the floor at all. I've found that the core strength from my tolasana practice gives me the extra oomph I need to get my feet back to my hands from plank when I am doing burpees. I'm still not great at them, but I can actually get through a set now.

A committed practice habit has inertia

It surprised me how quickly this set in. I would suppose it took me less than a week of devoting 2 hours a day to basic practice and learning (not teaching, not choreography or rehearsal) to set in my mind that this was what I did now. Usually I do an hour of conditioning in the late morning or early afternoon, then the rest in 20-30 minute slots later in the day. I don't argue with myself about it. It has to be done.

Then I went away for a couple of days and had to break my schedule. I was so grouchy and twitchy not getting my dance fix. It was hard to get back to as well. So I have had to work out ways to maintain some semblance of routine even when my schedule is disrupted.

Missing  practice

Missing out a day's practice is really easy when other things get in the way, and one missed day easily turns into 2 or 3. I try to schedule my down days, usually to coincide with times when I know I am going to be busy or tired. I also try to replace my dance practice with something else, like restorative yoga, to maintain the "slot" in my day.

Busy people are happy people

My father always used to say that if you want something done, you should give it to a busy person. Getting down to practice straightaway. Making the decision not to sit down for that cup of tea after the kids are in bed, but to get straight down to dance-business. I don't let up until I get all my "to dos" ticked. It's busy, but it's productive.

Changes are incremental and not always predictable

I can't see from day to day, or even week to week, the improvements that a dedicated practice creates. It's not the instant gratification of an intensive for instance. I have also found that changes I expected haven't manifested as fast as I might predict, while others have been clear and surprising.

Keeping track of progress by filming samples of drills or combinations and comparing them, a few weeks apart makes it easier to see the changes, and gain the motivation to keep going.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Diva skills, Don't be shady, be a lady!

Continuing with my series about making yourself a better dancer and performer through the example of drag queens.

Today we are looking at shade.

It is well understood that drag queens can be mean and catty, sometimes this is intentionally mean, sometimes it is friendly banter, often it is somewhere inbetween. In fact "reading", the art of wittily and incisively pointing out someone's flaws as seen in Paris is Burning, is pretty much a sport in itself (that link has NSFW language). Being read is the natural companion to the important performer/artist skill, of not taking yourself too seriously; it's interesting to watch the reading challenge on Drag Race, and note the queens who really get in on the joke - they are often the better entertainers. A good read makes everyone laugh, even the subject, but when an insult it blunt, vicious and not intended lightly, it becomes "shade". The title of this post comes from Stacey Lane Matthews, who in season 3 of RuPaul's Drag race made a point of rising above the shade-throwing antics of her peers, and it is this that I would like to focus on.

So what has shade got to do with bellydance?

Quite a lot actually. We are part of a diverse but tight knit community of passionate artists, so sometimes people disagree. Bellydancers are all kinds of people, different ages, different music tastes, different aesthetics and different dance styles, so it is human nature that "tribes" and cliques will form.

The dance circles I move in are generally very pleasant and supportive. We recognise our shared love of the dance and celebrate our differences. I do occasionally encounter a shady dancer, or find myself witnessing a fevered debate between dancers whose ethos or opinions clash. I also know dancers who have been involved in more unpleasant rivalries within the community and it gives pause for thought.

Shade is not good for the community.

It appears that a lot of shade comes out of a perceived competition between dancers. Insecurity or a need to "get ahead" sometimes leads to dancers putting each other down. The truth however is that there is not a limited amount of talent to go around. You are not going to get better by dragging others down, and if you could, would that be a sweet victory? Only you can dance your dance. Bring others up with you, don't trample them, raising the quality of dance performances in general is good for all of us. If you really wish to get ahead, save the energy and use it productively to become a better dancer instead.

When dancers consider themselves rivals, it divides the community. Teachers who support each others events, haflas and workshops aren't sending their students away, they are igniting and rekindling their enthusiasm for the dance by offering them increased opportunities. If we trust our students to recognise the value of our classes, and endeavour to deliver good teaching whilst working on our own dance and knowledge, they will come back. If they don't enjoy our classes, then they won't keep coming, whether there is another teacher to go to or not. If we introduce them to a teacher who suits them better however, we keep them in the community. Maybe they will come back for our workshops and events. Maybe they will come back to class if, in future, their interest shifts more towards our speciality. By helping our students to find their niche, even if that is with another teacher, we nourish our students, we strengthen our community and we earn their trust.

Shade is not professional

It should be go without saying that public, uncivil arguments, spreading gossip rumours or insulting individuals is ungraceful and ugly. I don't want to take classes with a teacher who is unpleasant, whether that be in person, or passive aggressively on social media, to me or anyone else. Dance takes up a huge amount of my time, I'm going to spend it with people who are positive and enthusiastic. Professionalism is not just for people who make their living through dance either. Being pleasant, tolerant and tactful opens doors and is a great way for every dancer to help make everyone's dance experience better.

Is shade ever OK?

So is it ever ok to throw shade as a dancer? Or are there better alternatives? Sometimes it's not entirely appropriate or healthy to be all sweetness and light, is shade sometimes appropriate?

Counters and defence

Sometimes people behave in a way that damages our community, like undercutting, behaving unprofessionally (tarring the reputation of other performers by association) or presenting poor quality or sleazy performances in a professional setting. Many of us work very hard to ensure our dance is perceived as the skilled and serious artform that it is, and it can be immensely frustrating to see people damaging our reputation and livelihood, either willfully or through ignorance.

Another instance you might consider is when an individual is throwing a lot of shade themselves. Should you counter it? Or find another way?

The truth of it is, that if you start badmouthing (or badtyping) other people, you are not going to come out of it well. You can't sling mud without getting your hands dirty.  When people hear you say bad things about other people, the bad feeling that comes from that ends up being associated with you, not your subject, no matter how much they might deserve it. So first and foremost, consider your audience. It's probably OK to whine about the dancer who behaved badly at your local restaurant leaving the organiser sworn off bellydancers forever.... in private, in your own circles, to others who share your disappointment. It's not OK to post about it all over your professional Facebook page. If you have to vent, do it to someone you trust, who knows you well.

It might be appropriate to tactfully approach the individual and explain the issue to them. Most good teachers and mentors school their students in professionalism and etiquette, some slip through the net. Be gentle and supportive and you might be helping them on the path of being a great member of the community.

Some individuals know better, but refuse to do better. You can't change their mind, but going around warning people off them isn't going to help you either. What you can do is demonstrate your own values, professionalism and skill. People aren't daft, they'll realise for themselves.

When is shade not shade? When it's T.

There's a phrase that you will hear amongst drag queens: No T no shade. It's like the drag equivalent of "no offence but...." T stands for truth, and sometimes we need a good tactful dose of truth for our own good. There is a fine line however between being honest and being rude.

I have a few close dance-friends who I trust to "serve T" in a supportive and enriching manner. They get to be brutally honest because I can trust them not to break me in the process. We all need people like this, at the very least someone who will tell you if you are about to make an almighty fool of yourself or drag you off stage if your skirt is tucked into your knickers.

But this sort of truth shouldn't come unsolicited. Don't critique a performance unless you are asked for your opinion, that's rude and potentially damaging. Similarly it is better to walk away than give a half hearted or backhanded compliment. One of my favourite instances of shade was Aretha Franklin's clipped response to a question about Taylor Swift "Great gowns. Beautiful gowns."  Technically a compliment, but with scandalously shady intent. Make sure that your feedback is heartfelt and clear.

So this brings us full circle. While bantering or giving honest feedback with your closest dance buddies is great, there is really no situation in dance when putting down another person is the optimal route to take.

Don't be shady, be a lady!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Finding the balance in bellydance performance.

Being a performing bellydancer means fulfilling a complex set of requirements. As performers we are entertainers, our job is to use our skills to bring joy to the audience, to make their event better, or their evening more memorable.

However there is a whole lot more to it than that. We are also artists, we tell our stories, express our interpretations of the world, sometimes we even challenge our audiences and hope they come away with a new perspective.

Then, as skilled practitioners of Raqs Sharqui, we are custodians of an art that, for most of us, comes from a culture different to our own. We become implied ambassadors for Middle Eastern art, culture and music, and the impression our audiences take away from our performance, will undoubtedly influence their overall impression of our artform and its origins. Through this we have a unique opportunity to educate our audiences, and eradicate (or inadvertently perpetuate) harmful stereotypes.

Artist, entertainer or educator?

To an extent individual performers choose where they lie on this spectrum. Some dancers are avid students of Middle Eastern culture, the visit regularly, study with local teachers, they learn the language, they learn to play Arabic instruments, when they dance, they dance as much like a dancer from their style's country of origin as they can, in the most authentic costumes.

Some dancers are aiming for Tarab, that perfect sychronicity of movement, music and emotion. Some are more focussed on being authentic to themselves, telling their own stories. Sometimes this means deviating from cultural authenticity, perhaps fusing Middle Eastern dance with Western danceforms. Sometimes this means pushing the boundaries and challenging audiences in a way that provokes thought and invites criticism.

Entertainment is our last dancer "class". Whether the dancer gets her greatest satisfaction from bringing the party, or because she finds this to be the best way to ensure  a solid income as a professional performer. Being an entertainer means knowing your audience and tailoring your sets to excite and impress them.

Finding the balance by knowing your audience.

Of course in reality no one fits neatly in any of these categories, and the savvy performer will learn how to adjust their sets to fit an appropriate balance for each occasion.

I came to this as a stark realisation when performing at a public event. It was one of the first I had done as a solo professional, after previously preparing performances under the guidance of my teacher. Feeling full of the awesomeness of Raqs, I opened with a bit of Classic Orientale piece, to an instrumental version of an Oum Kalthoum song.

I didn't get far into the performance before I realised my mistake. In this public setting with the audience essentially being passers by, a more subtle performance was unlikely to grab their attention.

A promenade performance needs to be eye catching, your audience is not likely to stop and watch for the full set, so I needed to prioritise being dynamic and conveying a simple message, over  indulging my artistic side. Cultural integrity is great in this setting, it would be a missed opportunity to reach out to an audience who wouldn't normally be exposed to Arabic dance, but I had to get their attention first.

Now, for contrast, sometimes I go into schools to teach and perform. In this setting I have a captive audience, I don't need to work so hard to encourage them to engage with my performance, though I do need to hold their attention. My function in this setting is to provide a cultural education, so I am likely to be performing at my most culturally authentic, probably in a folkloric style. There is a little room for personal flair, it wouldn't be a performance without it, but it is my responsibility to make sure that my audience comes away with an accurate idea of what Middle Eastern dance is all about.

As a final example I am going to take a performance at a niche, dance event, such as Gothla. The audience will be dancers, in the vast majority, who will generally have a good education in the dance and it's origins. They have seen  a lot of performances, authentic, and less so, and this is the ideal forum for individuality and innovation
I know that no one in the audience is going to go home thinking that my performance is an accurate reflection of Egyptian culture, and this is the appropriate forum to dance the material that might be misunderstood in a more conventional setting. However when I dance in a fusion style, I always do so with mindfulness of the foundation, and respect for the danceforms that I am working with, so a touch of the education/culture portion remains.

Every performance will have different requirements, and every dancer will make their own judgements about how they will play their balance for that situation, while others will specifically pick their performances to fit their personal preferences. I'm happy to dance with fire fans to Western music at festival, others market themselves solely to more traditional/culturally authentic settings. Some restaurant dancers aim to give an accurate Cairo nightclub experience, while others invest more energy into interacting with the audience and raising a party atmosphere on more Westernised terms.

Bellydance is a complex and varied artform, with niches for all kinds of performers and all kinds of audience. I love this diversity of opportunities and expression.