Saturday, 25 April 2015

Baby steps - Starting bellydance as a beginning dancer

What's it like being a beginner, stepping into your first Raqs Sharqui lesson? 

For me, as a teacher, this is something I try hard not to forget. It's easy to get wrapped up in your own dance place, the excitement and joy an experienced dancer feels when they get a chance to discover something new, or even just to dance again. I have to be aware that the new dancers crossing the threshold of the studio for their first class, may well be feeling something entirely different.

My first proper class was the climax of several years trying to find the right teacher, and several weeks waiting for a space to open up on her beginner course. When I started I fell for the dance hard and fast, it turned my world upside down, much for the better.

I'm not the only one, I often meet dancers who arrive at my class happy and relieved to have found a way to begin (or continue) their journey with bellydance. Some students are more nervous, and it can be a big deal to put yourself out there and try something new, but given the right support, they bloom in confidence and reap immense rewards from their involvement in class and dance community events.

Thinking of starting a bellydance class? Or new to class? Here is what I would like you to know.

You are welcome, and wanted in the studio

I keep saying this, because it's true: Bellydance is for EVERY body. You can be younger, older, slight or bigger, fit or a couch potato, tall or short, any ethnicity, any gender. You have a place here.

I often get calls or messages from people who would like to join the class, but are reluctant because they think they might be too old to try a new dance, or because they feel their body somehow inhibits them. This makes me so sad, for while I can try and reassure those who contact me, I know that they are the tip of the iceburg. Bellydance can be great for your body and great for your confidence. Come along, give it a go, you have little to lose and so much to gain. Many people like to come with a friend, and that's great, but if you arrive on your own you won't be lonely for long! We love sharing the dance with new people!

So what if you think you have 2 left feet! We can work around your limitations, psychological or physical! I am always interested in finding new ways to help different people access the dance I love.

There is a place for you in our community

Learning bellydance is fun! Most people who attend classes are not going to become professional performers or teachers, not because the field is cutthroat and competitive, but because most dancers who enjoy lessons get everything they need from it by attending lessons, workshops and community events.

I've written about this at length before, the bellydance world is diverse and everyone can find a niche here.

Nobody "gets it" first time

I love this skit by Galit Mersand. She is a technically brilliant dancer who I very much admire, and I recall the feeling of relief when I realised that she started out just as I did, with the flailing and the uncoordinated wobbly stuff! Everyone does, and that's just fine.

If you could do it already, you wouldn't be in the class and I know that many people who start bellydance have absolutely no previous dance experience, I didn't, and I don't expect it.

I still find myself struggling when I go to classes or workshops in other dance styles - or even just with a teacher I'm not so familiar with. It's all part of the the process.

It's hard 

Anything worthwhile is worth putting effort into. A good performer makes dance look effortless, but it's not. That's OK because the journey to getting there is  a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

There are some terrible misconceptions about Middle Eastern dance, and it's forgivable to not realise the complexity and skill that lies behind the artform, but please don't be daunted by that. There is so much richness in the learning and there is always more to learn.

You will get better

Some dancers take to new moves faster than others, but the truth is that everyone who regularly attends classes is going to get better. How fast you get better depends a little on your fitness and natural ability and a little on how hard you work at it, but it will happen, and when it does, it feels great.

It's OK to ask questions

If you aren't sure about something. Just ask. I'm immensely nerdy about all things bellydance, from tweaking your posture to recommending music to discussing the origins of the dance. This is one of the benefits of going to a class with a real-live teacher. My brains are yours for the picking.

Don't fear the feedback

This is another topic I would really like to get my teeth into properly in another post. I always give feedback in my classes, because that is one of the greatest benefits to taking a class in person. Feedback should be positive and might be corrective or just a heads up on something you are doing well. Without it, your progress would be much slower.

I know that some new dancers can get quite intimidated by direct feedback, and I understand that, I've completely lost track of what I was supposed to be doing while under scrutiny too! I do still give hints and adjustments to individuals as I move around the class, because I know that a single, precise correction can make an immense difference to your dance in an instant. Most of the feedback I give is universal though, I tend to give points to focus on for the class as a whole, so listen out for them and check in with yourself. It's a good skill to be able to assess your technique, so when I call out "watch out for...." I'm teaching you to correct yourself.

Give me feedback too

What did you like about class? What made it easier for you? What didn't you like so much? What would you like to see in future?

When I was training as a schoolteacher I was taught to consistently evaluate my teaching in order to constantly improve. That can be trickier with dance classes as adults tend to be less blunt about the parts that don't work for them! So if there is something that didn't work for you, or something that really did, let me know, because I'm always learning too!

Drop me a message via my Facebook page or email, and I promise I will keep working at it!

Friday, 10 April 2015

Evolution of a dance workshop student.

Beginning bellydance

My first "proper" bellydance lesson was a workshop.

This is quite unusual, most student dancers find a teacher first, then learn the basics in class for a few terms before they venture out into the world of workshops and dance events. It turned out however that the local teacher I wanted to learn with was nearing the end of a term, and taught her beginners in a 10 week course. I would have to wait until the next term, so in the meantime, I tried out some moves with a good beginner DVD, then went to a fundamentals workshop with Yasmin Asar.

I was a fair bit out of my depth, but it was the perfect workshop for me at the time, being technically based it gave me a better understanding of the basic moves, because while DVDs have their place, the best way to learn will always be in a class with a real life teacher.

It was only a couple of weeks after that, when I was finally able to enroll in a regular class, and my journey in dance could begin in earnest.

Attending workshops as a baby dancer

I'd been attending classes, and doggedly practicing inbetween, for about 3 months when I got to go to my first dance festival. Gothla was a gentle introduction to dance events, because I had friends who would be there, and because the booking system allowed me to book in for just a few workshops. I booked in for more when I got there too!

I practiced extra hard in the weeks before, because the prospect of dancing for 10 or more hours over a weekend was far more extreme than I had ever attempted, I wanted to make sure I didn't flake out and waste my opportunity.

My workshop choices were fairly random. Some technical, some presentation based, some choreography, some arty. I did the stuff that sounded coolest. I booked for fun.

I kept this pattern up over my next few festivals, Celebrating Dance, my first Majma - I tried out new styles, so that I could decide which folkloric dances I liked best. I trained with teachers I liked, I took workshops with titles that sounded good. I learned a lot, sometimes I learned that I should probably have chosen something else, but that's all part of the process. I was getting out and feeling like a dancer, wearing out dance shoes and making friends.

This decimated dance paw is Emma Pyke's fault.

The bellydance upstart

Then came the phase where I decided I wanted to "get good" at bellydance. To do that, I needed to be challenged. So I became quite discerning at choosing workshops that were aimed at dancers above beginner level (many workshops are "open level" which means they are attainable for newer dancers, but usually have benefits for more experienced dancers as well).

I also started looking at skills I particularly wanted to develop, prop refinement, finger cymbals etc, but I rarely took a workshop just to have a go at something new. I was narrowing my focus with the aim of improving my performance skills, rather than simply having a dance. I also stopped doing choreography workshops so much.

The purist.

I went through a year when I decided I was going to work on my improvisation to live music. In that time I only took workshops on musicality, improvisation or dancing to live bands; with the only exceptions being when I was hosting a guest teacher for a workshop in Glastonbury.

This wasn't just a workshop thing, I had a choreography ban and worked on, and performed, only improvised dances. It was a good break, I learned a lot and developed skills that serve me well as an entertainer.

It was also during this time that I became a notebook devotee. For years I had watched other dancers take notes in workshops and convinced myself that I didn't need to, what I needed to take away was in my body. Now I take loads of notes, immediately after class so I get to participate in all the dancing, but get down all the information while it is still fresh. I use my notes a lot in my personal practice, it means I can take material away from a workshop to keep working on it, thoroughly. I take notes on DVDs too. It's easier to refer back to my notebook than to dig out the DVD to find one small section; if I rent a class from RaqsTV, then it means that I have the information, long after my rental expires.

Back to basics

Now I have almost come full circle. I'm going back to the open level classes, looking at basics, because I know that really working hard on the minutiae in my basic technique can have an enormous knock on effect on my dance as a whole. I'm also going back to those arty workshops and looking harder at expression, musicality and storytelling. All those things are accessible to beginners, but as an experienced dancer, they are still fresh and vital performance skills.

Very recently I have started learning other dancer's choreography again. After a long stretch of concentrating on technique, creating my own choreography and improvisation, I feel ready to learn from choreography again. It helps me break out of my habits and forces me to dance  in ways I might not have thought of, or might find more challenging. In a way I am broadening my horizons again, but instead of learning a load of dances just for fun, I am finding elements in those dances to bring back to my, now firmly established, personal dance base.

The last thing I have noticed as my dance experience has grown, is that a 2 hour workshop is never enough. I am far more interested now in dancing in longer workshops, or intensives. At this year's Majma I deliberately booked all my sessions with the same teacher - 3 of the workshops were a series anyhow. I want to really get down to the nitty gritty of things, and that takes long, intensive study. I'm really pleased to have some fabulous intensives coming up this year. 

I wonder what the next phase of my dance learning will look like.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sneaky fusion - The subtle influences that bleed into our dance.

I've been thinking a lot about fusion lately.

There is a whole spectrum of thought in the bellydance community about fusing Middle Eastern dance, both on a technical and artistic level. While some dancers believe that the dances should remain "unpolluted" for reasons of preservation or appropriation, others are more willing to mix it up. But this isn't the place for that debate, I haven't got long enough to even cover the tip of that iceberg today!!

Usually fusion, well, good fusion, means a dancer who has a solid training and understanding of 2 or more dance forms, blends them together into a performance that uses elements of both, where the origins are clear. Hopefully this is done tastefully and sympathetically, but not always, which is why people sometimes get twitchy about it.

Some kinds of fusion, like Tribal Fusion, have gained a life of their own and are now taught independently of the parent styles.

But that's still not what I want to talk about today. What I have been thinking about lately is incidental fusion. Where movement, posture, gesture, bearing or stylisation bleeds into bellydance, without really being acknowledged, maybe not even by the dancer herself.

This is a metaphor. A delicious metaphor.

Whether we like it or not, "bellydance" has been subject to fusion from the outset. Many of the "folkloric" styles taught for performance have been tweaked for that purpose generations ago and are no longer strictly authentic. Most infamously Mahmoud Reda took dances from all over Egypt and adapted them for stage and screen. He was heavily influenced by Western musical theatre and film. He even created new dances for regions that did not have a suitable local dance.

Tahia Carioca took her stage name from the Brazillian dance steps she incorporated into her shows.

Samia Gamal notoriously took ballet training which is evident in her arm carriage and graceful movement. I have never studied ballet, but I know that it has an influence on my Oriental style because Gamal's performances, along with several other ballet-influenced Oriental dancers, are inspirational to me.

Cross training in dance styles is not new in Raqs Sharqui, and allowing an "accent" to show through from this training has, in some cases, become important in a dancer's uniqueness.

I recently did a workshop with Ava Fleming entitled "Ballroom for Bellydancers" where I learned that her trademark fluid travelling technique has a strong Latin ballroom influence. 

I also noticed during these workshops, that when I walk slowly in dance, I trail my back toe, partly for balance, partly for ooze. It took me a while to realise that I learned this habit taking Argentinian Tango lessons.

Then more recently I have been working on a short choreography by Collena Shakti. There's no Arabic element in this dance at all, but I chose it specifically because I wanted to cross train in terms of arm pathways, hand awareness (crucial in the Classical Indian elements of this dance) and eyeline. The impact this has had on my Raqs Sharqui was immediate and unconscious. Which was the point. I can drill bellydance arms (and ballet arms, thanks Aziza) forever, but getting out of my comfort zone and learning something new heightened my awareness and forced the learning curve.

While teaching this choreography, Collena explains the influences. The Persian in there is very subtle, it's about posture and bodylines. I wouldn't have seen it if she hadn't mentioned it, but it makes an impact on the presentation that is unmistakable.

In short, the more you delve into it, the more apparent it is that there is more fusion in our dance than we might at first assume.

This got me thinking about how easily our dancing can be influenced. I've written before about how witnessing dance without learning or practicing it can affect our brains and our muscle memory. I wondered how many of the hundreds of performances of various dance styles I have witnessed have left a subtle impression somewhere on my dance. A little gesture here, a subtle element of musicality there.

And it isn't just dancing either. I know that I use poses, gestures, expressions etc from a variety of sources, images and non-dance performance when I create a new piece; every day all of us are exposed to a myriad of sources of inspiration, that are all adding their tiny flavour somewhere. Maybe it will come out, maybe it won't.

I try to be mindful of inauthentic elements creeping into my performance. If they are there I want to know they are there and why. But I also find it fascinating how each of us is building our unique dance fingerprint; created and continuously adjusted by how we practice and what we witness every day.