Thursday, 28 May 2015

Dancing with fire

Fire props in bellydance

I am getting very excited right now, about teaching a workshop this weekend for bellydancers who are interested in fire props.

I love fire dancing, I actually began as a fire/circus skills performer before I really got into bellydance. I found fire poi first, after watching a friend perform. There is something magnetically hypnotic about the combination of sound, light and movement and I knew it was something I had to have a go at.

I started out, as any reasonable person would, with the non-firey kind. Sock poi, tail poi - that sort of thing. I practiced obsessively, studying books, videos and participating in forums. My internet was tuned into Home of Poi for months on end. I expanded my repertoire out into flags and meteors. I tried a bit of staff too, but that never really took for me.

My first fire poi were a standard rolled wick set, from which I graduated to cathedral heads and double heads. The cathedral poi are my favourite, they don't burn quite so long, but their flame is immense.

The old adage "If you play with fire, you'll get burnt" is absolutely true. It is impossible, in my experience, to train in firedance with the frequency and duration it takes to become accomplished without taking some damage along the way. Lighting up, hot metal fittings, even the most well-rehearsed tricks sometimes fail - but that's all part of the journey.

I once read a saying about dance "Don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong". That goes double for anything involving fire. Most of my fire performances are improvised, but I still don't perform any steps or tricks with fire that I haven't completely nailed in cold practice.

I began bellydance classes because I felt that I wanted to get more dance into my fire dance. For many performers, particularly of spinning acts like poi and staff, the focus of the performance is the prop, I wanted to bring out more of a dance element. Unexpectedly however, I found myself loving bellydance in it's pure form, and for a long time I didn't want to detract from my dance with a prop. It is very easy for a dance performance to become all about the prop, when dancing with something impressive like Isis wings or sword, set something on fire and that effect is magnified. I wanted to be absolutely sure I was not going to end up a "lazy" performer, relying on my props, so I didn't "cross the streams" between fire dance and bellydance for several years.

As I begin fusing fire and bellydance, I also took on new props. Bellydance with poi is entirely possible, but as the poi are a very "busy" prop, too much dance in there can make the performance confusing. You want to be able to flow around the performance area, make good lines, deep backbends etc, but nothing too complex. As I was also beginning to fuse some burlesque into my dance style, I decided to start working with fire fans, which are a lot more versatile in terms of energy and lines. I came to fire palms last. Fire palms are a versatile prop that can be used quite subtly and is easier to wield indoors and in smaller spaces.

I'm always keen to perform with fire, though at a professional level there are quite a lot of hurdles and red tape! Open air concerts and festivals are often willing; indoor shows are a bit trickier, as it requires permissions and insurance from the venue and many theatre and club venues won't allow candles, let alone paraffin-soaked kevlar!

Safety is a major issue with fire performance. My insurance stipulates a 2 metre marked clear zone, suitable extinguishing equipment and various preparation and packing up protocols. It's important to have these in place, regardless, at any performance no matter how informal, as these are the simple measures necessary to best ensure that not person or property is harmed by fault of the performer. Of course this isn't going to stop the occasional random numpty from walking into you (though hopefully your spotters will), but it does make it easier to prove that it was their fault, not yours if they sue you (and the insurance makes sure you can afford a lawyer to help with that).

But once you've cut through all that, you're left with music and movement and flames. The thrill of the intense spectacle of fire performance, whether I am watching or dancing, never goes away for me.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Become a top bellydance critic in 5 easy steps!

It was a happy coincidence last week, when shortly after writing the first installment of this pair, that I came across this article. It conveys an artist's frustration towards people who wish to offer constructive criticism in the wake of a performance. There are 2 types of post-performance feedback, only one is a reasonable choice.

The first is the criticism mentioned above. Don't go there. Even if you are the performer's official high critique officer, you need to let the dust settle. Don't kill the post performance high, or fuel the adrenaline fueled anxiety. I am usually rock steady before I perform, but I get nervous afterwards, dwelling on every perceived shortcoming. What I need at that point is someone to tell me I did OK, not a technical breakdown of the minutiae I need to work on!

The last, and only acceptable immediately post-performance feedback is brief, authentic and positive.

"I really enjoyed your dance tonight, your expression touched me". " I just wanted to say your performance was spectacular! Your choreography is really innovative"

All that said however, good, constructive feedback is a vital tool for any dancer who wants to get better. As teachers, mentors and peers we are often in the position to provide this, and help our fellow dancers strive for the next level. This is an enormous responsibility, so now lets look at a few things to help you along your way.

Metaphorical stock photo.

Are you sure you are the right person to do this?

OK, so the feedback police aren't going to cart you away, but to do justice to your fellow dancer's work, the first thing you need to do is decide whether this is the right route to be taking.

The first clue that you are in a good place to be giving critique, is that you have been asked. See, I said this was going to be easy! Critique has to be welcome, or you are wasting both your time. You don't always have to be asked, you can offer, and don't be downhearted if they decline, there's a lot of reasons why this might happen, few are personal. If, for instance, a dancer is working on the piece under the guidance of a particular teacher, seeking feedback from a third party mid-process can cause them to lose focus.

The next thing to consider is whether you have the technical/artistic understanding to give the kind of feedback in question. Do you understand the style well enough to know whether a move is executed with the appropriate nuances? If not, then perhaps focus on another angle that you feel you can comment upon with authority. Not sure if you can? Here is my acid test:

a) Can you see what they are doing right? 

If you can't find something to positively comment on the perhaps take a step back.

b) When you see that something is "wrong" or sub-optimal, can you clearly explain what they would need to do to improve or correct it? 

There is absolutely no point in calling attention to a problem if you cannot offer a solution.

That's in bold because it's important. It is absolutely crushing to be told something is not right but be given no hope of overcoming it. The perceived flaw becomes a part of the dancer's self-identity, a ball and chain that they feel they are stuck with, and then it becomes even harder to work through, even under proper guidance.

Consider your bearing towards the dancer, can you give fair critique? Do you have a vested interest in their progress? I have met teachers who teach for financial or egotistical reasons, and I have met those who teach because they genuinely want to help others get better. Those teachers, the ones who are not threatened by the "risk" of a student who might get better even than themselves, those who get a kick out of sharing their students' triumphs, are the ones I would book a private lesson with and gladly trust to take my dance apart and put it back together. 

The last point is one of etiquette. If you are in a dance class, and you are not the teacher, you are never the right person to give feedback. Apart from being really rude, you are likely to be disrupting the teacher's carefully considered plan for that student's progress.

If you aren't sure if you are the right person for the job, that's fine. It's better to take a step back and say so, than to thrash around in the dark. It is a really helpful and supportive thing to be able to say "you deserve more than I have to give".

Is this the right time?

A time and a place for everything. I said last week that processing critique is hard and today I've said that immediately after a performance is not the time to get the most out of it.

A dancer once advised me to wait a few weeks after a performance before watching it back on video. I don't always do this. Sometimes I film a performance or practice session specifically to look it over and make improvements in time for the next performance. I do agree though, that given a little breathing space, it becomes a lot easier to see the good and be proud of the result.

My favourite official critiquer will always approach me and ask if now is a good time to go over my latest offerings. It gives me a chance to make sure I am in a positive and receptive place.

Know what you are looking at

"The premise of post-modern dance was that it required a style of viewing very different from ballet or early modern dance - and every other dance genre also proposes its own way of seeing. If audiences are not meant to look for flying jumps and romantic agonies in 60s realism, they're also not intended to expect raw emotion or realistic drama in the ballet repertoire of the nineteenth century" Judith Mackrell - Reading Dance.

Just like Western dance forms, different styles of bellydance need to be viewed with a different eye. Elements that are desirable in one form might be inauthentic or inappropriate in another. So consider the style the dancer is aiming to convey.

Also consider the dancer's level. What are they working on? What have they asked you to look at?

Then there is the context. If you are looking at a dancer's first solo, then you can expect to see the product of nerves and anticipation, that is something that is likely to improve over time, through increased confidence which you can fortify with empowering feedback.

Specifically you might choose to focus on any or all of the following:

  • Stage presence/audience interaction
  • Technique
  • Musicality
  • Stylistic authenticity
  • Choreography (in terms of the writing or interpretation)
  • Costuming/presentation

The good stuff

As a school teacher, I was taught to write reports as a "praise sandwich". Begin on a good note, move on to points for improvement and leave them with something positive that motivates them to pick up your advice and get better. Even if your subject understands this concept, it still works.

It's really important to include positive points. For a start it lets the dancer know what works so they can do more of it, this is the first step towards developing their own style around their strengths. It's also just really important not to leave them thinking they sucked, because they didn't. Whatever they produced, it's theirs

Room for improvement

Last of all it is time to think about the elements that need work. This is a really important part of the critique, as it is where the most potential for growth lies, but it is also a treacherous rope bridge over a swamp of negativity.

Choose your areas of focus carefully. Often when I am teaching I look at a student and my brain comes up with a dozen small adjustments they could make to perfect their technique; but if I stood there and reeled them off they would at best be overwhelmed and at worst run sobbing from the class never to return!

Instead I prioritise. Top priority goes to anything that might actually damage their body - so creating and maintaining a good dance posture, especially in the low back, knees/ankles, neck and shoulders. After that I look for the elements that would make the biggest improvement with the least effort. I usually leave regular students with one or two things to work on, a private student with notebook in hand will get enough material to work on for a couple of month's practice.

Focus on the solutions, not the problems. Instead of "your arms look like spaghetti" go with "I'd like you to focus on keep energy in your arms, especially when they are in this position, try working with these drills and imagining you are projecting through this part of your hand..."

In closing

Critiquing other dancers is not just a skill for teachers, it's also a skill that will help you to use other people's performances to improve your own dance. Tactful and helpful feedback, and those who can give it, are an asset to the dance community, so go forth and spread the love, with permission of course.

Friday, 8 May 2015

It's not personal. It's bellydance

As previously promised, I want to look a little into feedback/critique. This week we are going to look at taking it, and next week at giving it, because that's only fair.

Getting better at bellydance, using your ears.

Nobody likes criticism. Absolutely nobody. But, like it or not, it is a valuable part of your toolkit for becoming a better dancer. So let's have a look at a few things that make putting your big girl/boy pants on and hearing the truth more useful and more palatable.

Tuning in to the right channels.

The first thing to consider, is who you are receiving feedback from. Everybody has an opinion. Not every opinion is useful or valid for you, in this context, in this moment.

The first criterion for receiving feedback is wanting to receive it. If you are not comfortable welcoming that input, then you don't have to hear it, and it is entirely possible it is not great feedback anyway, because people who give good, constructive advice usually understand when it is appropriate to do so.

You need to be in the right place to hear critique, especially the thorough, dance improving kind. It's OK to decide that now is not the right time and just enjoy your dance until you feel less delicate.

A teacher or fellow dancer who understands your level, is aware of your goals and has an interest in seeing you meet your potential as a dancer is a good source of useful critique.

Someone who sees your performance out of context does not have the frame of reference to give you the most helpful advice.

Someone who is competitive or more focussed on their own outcomes, is unlikely to be all that helpful. Someone who does not understand the technical process of learning dance is unlikely to pick out the best things to work on.

Be vulnerable around positive, encouraging, supportive, but honest people. Use your diva nerve on everyone else.

The last thing to mention in this section, is the people who pay the piper, well, the dancer. As a performing pro, you sometimes need to get feedback from the guys who pay your bills, but as a freelance dancer, you have a certain amount of leeway to choose those people.

When asking for feedback, be specific

If you find yourself approaching someone asking for critique, let them know exactly what you need from them.

Are you feeling fragile and just looking for general reassurance you didn't completely suck? Or do you want the minutiae dissected out so you can absolutely nail that choreography?

Were you trying to tell a story or express an emotion? Ask them if they saw it? When did it come through? Was it enough or could you push it further?

Have you been working on a technical issue? Let them know and ask if they are seeing an improvement.


Seems obvious, but let's go back to that bit about how everyone hates feedback.

Good feedback will be a mixture of observations about your strong points and areas for improvement.

Everyone hates hearing negative things about themselves, and areas for improvement are often received as negative criticism. When we hear them, we shut down, we disagree with it and argue (maybe just in our heads, but we do, it's natural) or we feel miserable about our apparent "failings" and shut ourselves off.

Be mindful of this. You will do it, you have to consciously rally against it. A sympathetic reviewer will cushion the blows, but you still need to focus on the fact that this is a route to improvement. Not an end point.

If you are told that your arms are flailing like a giant orangutan, well firstly ditch your reviewer because that's just shady; but then remember that even if this is true, it is only true at this point in time. You are not condemned to permanent ape-flailing. You are already taking the first step towards beautiful, graceful arms, right now.

Listen to the good stuff too. It can be overwhelming when you are suddenly presented with a whole bundle of things to work on. Exciting sometimes too, but there's so much to do and  after a particularly meticulous critique, you can be left feeling like you can hardly dance at all. So remember the good stuff. When we shut down to protect ourselves from the "negative" side, we often shut out the compliments too.

If your reviewer hasn't pointed out a few things that you are absolutely rocking, or have made a lot of improvement upon, then they are not doing their job.

Feedback in a wider context.

Although the above applies to most feedback situations, it is most valid on a specific, one-on-one basis, such as a performance critique or private lesson, but for most bellydance students, the most common arena for feedback is your weekly class.

I try to ensure that I have given every dancer a little bit of individual attention every lesson, but the logistics of getting around a larger group, along with my consciousness to avoid bogging a dancer down with too many things to work on at once, means that my in-class individual feedback manifests in small, palatable chunks.

So I tend to give a lot of feedback to the group. I'm going to talk about giving feedback next week, where I will go into that more. As a student, in a class listening to general feedback, any piece of information from your teacher could be corrective, informative, or complimentary, which makes it a little easier to process.

When your teacher flags up an issue, it may be because they see something that needs improvement, or it may be something you need to be mindful of in general - if you are getting it right today, best be aware that you are lest you miss that crucial bit of technique next time.

Processing this kind of feedback is a skill in itself, and it is teaching you to assess and make judgments on your own technique. So when an issue is flagged, check in with yourself, can you improve, or do you just need to consolidate the picture perfect job you are already doing?

Work on it.

Listen. Accept. Act.

Your feedback has hopefully flagged up some areas to work on. If not, ask for them.

If a teacher has flagged up a gap in your technique, then ask for drills or conditioning to improve it. Critique should be constructive, so if someone is qualified to critique you, they should be able to tell you how to improve. Otherwise they are just being unkind and undermining.

Feedback is useless unless it is acted upon, so now the baton has been passed to you. Go forth and improve!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

May is EDS awareness month, so this seems like a time to write a bit of a post about dancing in a less-than-perfectly-functional body. I wrote a post a while back, originally for Yahoo Lifestyle, limited by their requirements, so I'm welcoming an opportunity to return to the topic from another perspective.

EDS is an inherited disorder that affects the soft tissue. I have Hypermobility Type which is a milder version characterised by extreme flexibility and therefore instability in the joints. There are various effects on the nervous system, digestion, skin etc, but the most noticeable effect is joint pain, frequent dislocations and fatigue.

While my previous focus was working around physical limitations, and staying healthy while dancing, today I want to focus on the psychological side. It is well understood that dance can do wonders for our psychological well being, from body confidence, to warding off depression and mental health issues.

Living with chronic pain or physical restrictions can be a war of attrition against your self esteem. It's very easy to become hung up on the things you can't do, or the times when your body can't meet your aspirations. Of course this can happen to anyone, regardless of their state of health,  but the more often it happens, the more frustrated you become and the more averse to trying again.

I grew up unable to consistently participate in sport, in a culture where athletic prowess was social currency. I spent my teenage years taking painkillers and throwing myself into endurance sports, where grit and determination would get me through. It made me tenacious, but it also left me with a lot of sprains and subluxations, because that's not what I'm made for.

Discovering dance was another matter. The great thing about Raqs Sharqui is that the movements, when executed with good technique and mindful alignment, are not damaging or extreme. The core stability afforded by regular training helps me to stabilise my joints, so this dance is physically good for me. There are some aspects I struggle with, you'll rarely see me use very deep level changes for instance, but I don't need to, the beauty in the dance doesn't come from increasingly challenging physical feats but through connection and expression with the music.

Learning to dance gave me an opportunity to feel good in my skin, which is an incredible blessing when your body feels like an inconvenience the rest of the time. As part of Dancing with the Red Goddess, I encourage dancers to do an exercise/meditation in body positivity, where they come up with a list of things their body can do. Dance is something my body can do, and I do it every day,  to keep strong and healthy, but also to remind myself that I can.

It restores the balance. I can't do some things most people can do, but I can do this one thing, with my body (besides the hilarious party tricks involving joints that move in entirely the wrong direction) that most people can't. There is satisfaction in that. It reminds me that differently able does not mean lesser.

There is enormous freedom and triumph in dancing despite the pain and fatigue.There is enormous therapeutic effect in finding artistic expression, strength and beauty through a medium that should be my most restrictive. Every movement is a poke in the eye for a condition that still makes it hard to move off the sofa some days. Dancing has taught me to care for my body better, because I need to be on my best form, because it is worth taking care of.

I have met some amazing people in the dance community. People who remind me why I need to keep dancing, people who keep it fun, and people who show me how to enrich my life through dance, even when I am not dancing.

I teach dance to all kinds of people, with all kinds of ability levels. I teach general classes, but also classes and workshops for pregnant, elderly or disabled dancers (including chair based dance). I do this because I truly believe that the benefits of dance, physical and psychological are something that everyone deserves to access.