Thursday, 23 July 2015

Writing your bio for a bellydance performance

Let me introduce myself....

I promised this for the dancers who are attending my hafla this weekend, so I had better get on it...

When you are performing, whether at a show, restaurant or a hafla, it is usual to provide some kind of bio or introduction for your performance. For many dancers this is a struggle. Firstly because not all dancers are writers and secondly because many of us feel awkward about talking about ourselves. But never fear, I am here to help!

Why write a bio?

It's a fair question, why not just let your dance speak for itself? Well, some events do that, but if you are dancing in a show with an MC, they will want to say something. What they say will prime your audience for your performance, and you want your introduction to be an appropriate representation of you and your dancing.

If you don't provide an introduction they might just announce you by name (will they use the right one, will they pronounce it right?) or they might add all kinds of things, snippets from your website, something your said to informally describe your dance over email - who knows? You might know the MC well and feel you can leave it in their hands, and if you are comfortable with that, then it's all cool, but that's not always going to be the case.

It's entirely possible that if you do submit a bio, they will edit it to fit in with the other introductions, or add to it regardless, but at least you had a hand in it!

Another thing to consider is that your introduction is a venue-wide networking opportunity. Are you a teacher with classes or workshops to promote? Are you a solo dancer who is looking for potential troupemates? Let them know.

So what goes in an introduction?

You can put in pretty much anything you like, but here's some ideas:

You need to include your name, you might start with it, or end with it, or put it somewhere in the middle, but it's important. If your name might be mispronounced, put a phonetic breakdown in brackets too. I have an Arabic surname, but in my case it comes from a family line that came to the West several generations ago and use Western pronunciation. I get many variations if I don't let people know my preference.

You probably want to include something about your background, where you come from, if you teach or are part of a group, if you are a student performer then it is good to credit your teacher. If you are a newer dancer and this is your first solo, or even if it's not, you can let people know. Hafla audiences tend to be super supportive of new blood!

What are you dancing? What's the style? What's the music? I can take or leave this bit, depending on the audience. In an audience of other dancers, it might not be worthy of mention, if your audience is less well-versed, then maybe a brief explanation of the origins of the style will help them.

Next part is about context, what are your inspirations for this piece. Did attending a workshop with a particular teacher heavily influence this dance? A life event? Did the music just move you? More generally where do you get inspiration? What dancers do you love to watch? Did you come back from a Middle Eastern holiday bursting with ideas? Again, any dancer/musician/location names that the MC might struggle with will need a phonetic breakdown.

Credits. Did someone else write your choreography? Then you must credit them. If you learned it in a workshop then adapted it, make that clear - it's their intellectual property. If you are a group but one member wrote most of the choreography, credit them. It is also good to credit any teacher, or otherwise, who helped you prepare for the performance. You might also want to credit music editors or anything of that ilk, but don't turn it into an oscar speech.

More than one of you?

If you are dancing with others, you need to introduce all of you. With a live drummer, they will have their own bio to run alongside yours. This can make things a bit lengthy so if I am dancing more than once, I will have my full bio for my solo, but the "duet" introduction will focus on the drummer.

Doum Tekka and I performing at Gina's Bellygees hafla earlier this month - Photo by Angie Budd

If you are in a troupe, you can include information about how the troupe came together, who leads the group etc. If there are more than 2/3 of you, there probably won't be time to include much detail about the individuals, so focus on what you have in common.

What shouldn't go in the introductions?

This is me, your milage may vary, but there are some things I can do without...

Long introductions. The audience doesn't need to know every teacher you ever studied with, your education history and what you had for breakfast. Keep it interesting, relevant and brief. Some shows are notorious for long introductions - I can think of one in particular where I know I can reliably scroll through the first full minute of video before any dancing happens - but most of the time people just want to see you dance.

Instructions for the audience. OK, so this might be a very personal bugbear, but I really dislike being told how to react to a dancer. If I am told that I will be AMAZED by a performance, my inner contrary teenager sits back, folds her arms and says "come on then 'amaze' me". Of course the more sensible and supportive dancer tells her to shut up and engages with the performance, but it is worth considering that if you tell your audience to expect something spectacular, you have to deliver.

How the audience reacts is their choice. As an artist you can only present your piece, what they do with it is not your responsibility. That's especially important to remember when you have a tough crowd. Instead of telling them that they "will be moved" by your dance, tell them what inspired you, and let them take the performance in context and experience it for themselves.

Make it yours

It's always good to have something unique to you, a little quip or whatever reflects your personality. Watch out for cliches, there is no point in the MC reading out the same phrases for every dancer!


That being said, if you are still a bit stuck, here are a couple of idea to get you going:

Our next dancer has travelled all the way from [hometown] to be here. He has studied under [teacher] for 3 years and this is his very first solo piece. Inspired by a his recent visit to Egypt and the work of Mahmoud Reda. Please welcome [name].

[Name] and [Name] have been dancing together for 4 years after meeting at [dance festival]. [Dancer 1] teaches weekly Rasq Sharqui classes in her hometown [place], she has recently travelled to [place] to train with [teacher]. [Dancer 2] is based in [town] and is the troupe director of [troupe]. Today they are dancing to [song name] which is a song about [subject] from [location].

[Troupe name] are local dancers and students of [teacher]. Tonight they are really excited to share a piece, adapted from a choreography they learned from [teacher] at [festival]. This dance is in [style] which originated from [some background]. Ladies and gentlemen [troupe name]

These are focussed on a hafla-type venue. If you are performing in another context, you will have to think about what references your audience will understand, and what they will relate to.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

What's the point? Why fitness is about more than skinny jeans.

What are you fighting for?

I've been thinking recently about fitness, conditioning and our motivation for working at it.

I cross train, alongside my dance for a host of reasons, and I have noticed that almost almost all of the fitness classes or DVDs on the market have weightloss or aesthetics as a primary focus. That is to say, they are not marketed based on what your body can do, but what it looks like.

My favoured source of non-dance centred conditioning is Jillian Michaels, who does talk a lot about health, feeling strong, getting fit etc, but also spends a lot of time shouting about how we will feel when we get to go skinny jeans or bikini shopping. I know how I will feel incidentally, sweaty and awkward. Even though I no longer feel awkward (there's no escaping the sweaty) while completely owning her workouts.

Recently, when I was part way through writing this post [which has been sat as a draft for a week...] an aspiring professional dancer posted on a social media group for professional performers, asking about their fitness regimes. At the end of her question, she put a little caveat, that was along the lines of "please don't think I'm being shallow, this isn't about looks, it's about improving my dance".

While a commercial dancer will find her job opportunities limited by her looks, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with working to optimise that, if she chooses. The fact that she felt pressured to explain, to a group of dancers, that fitness was important to her in terms of her physical ability to dance, is very telling.

What does a bellydancer's body need?

I've been working on classes that I want to offer and how to market them. I really want to do a class that is purely conditioning and basic drills. Nothing fancy, just the solid foundations, the stuff that Zoe Jakes calls "dance vegetables".

I wanted to call it "body for bellydance", but then I realised that this would likely be interpreted as being slim with a flat, but not too muscular belly that would be considered widely socially acceptable in  a skimpy stereotypical 2 piece costume. I am not the postergirl for this concept.

I can live with this as I know that these criteria are not what is necessary in a bellydancer's body. Conditioning is important to reduce the gap between artistic vision and physical capability, not to make a dancer "the right shape". What a bellydancer needs is:

  • Control
  • Co-ordination
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Balance
  • Flexibility

You can have these at a size 6 or a size 26, but no one gets it without training.

Measuring progress in conditioning should never be about chasing unicorns.

Training goals need to be achievable. If they are not, then we give up. If my motivation for conditioning was centred around my dress size I know that I would never stay motivated on a tough regime. In the last 6 months of intensive dancing and conditioning, my dress size has remained stable while the factors that really matter have come on in leaps and bounds.

They also need to be positive. Any goal that shames your current state is a poor goal. To care for your body you need to believe that it is worth caring for - too many weight loss orientated goals ignore this. At best it leads to apathy or self sabotage, why bother when you are worth so little? At it's worst it leads to unhealthy regimes, overexercising and dieting to the detriment of your health.

What does fitness look like?

I have a bit of a rant, fairly regularly, about the lack of diversity in images of fitness. It becomes very clear as a blog writer, searching for images to illustrate fitness writing. A "fit" woman, according to stock photography is:

  • Slim built
  • Lean
  • Conventionally attractive
  • White
  • Usually blonde
  • Made up
  • Wears a sports bra and hot pants.

Here she is:

 Very lovely she is too, but if this is the only acceptable look for a fit and healthy woman, then I, along with the vast majority of people, am not it. Why is this important? Well, if this is what we are aiming for, most of us won't get there. Not being stupid, most of us will realise this and give up feeling bad about ourselves, losing all the benefits of a good fitness regime.

A few months back I discovered this project, a startling quick reference that demonstrates that a fit body does not have to fit the fitness model stereotype. Athletes at the top of their game, men and women selected not for their look, but for their accomplishments, for the superior physical function of their bodies.

Take a careful look through all the images on the link. Even among top athletes, there is an enormous variety in body shape, size and composition. Even between individuals competing in the same field.

Most have low body fat and high muscle mass, but we see tall, short, broad shoulders, slight shoulders, slender legs and powerful bulky thighs. Fitness doesn't have a single look, so why are we pretending that becoming fit will make us look a certain way?

I'm really heartened to see increasing visibility for diversity in fitness.Yoga teachers coming forward and breaking stereotypes, dancers showing us that you don't need to fit the ballerina aesthetic to excel in as an artist. In the bellydance world, Bellydance at Any Size seeks more acceptance for diversity in our danceform, because everybody deserves to dance.

So why do I work out?

I love the effortless leg lifts and arabesques that come from hours of pilates. I love how squatting down to pick something off the floor isn't a big deal. I love throwing a 20kg feed bag over my shoulder and confusing the pet store owner. I love being able to dance a 10 minute drum solo without pausing. I really love the strong feeling when I move and I know my muscles are working, but it doesn't feel like a struggle. I love the endorphin rush and satisfaction when I have got through a tough workout. I love how the strength in my leg muscles means I get less joint pain. I am proud of how I can now actually do burpees - hate them still, but I can do them!

Our understanding of how build and body composition relate to health is improving all the time. We don't have all the answers, but what we do know is that being active keeps you healthy. So let's focus on keeping our bodies healthy, not a particular shape.

PS - have you bought your hafla and workshop tickets yet?