Friday, 25 September 2015

Reflecting in the aftermath of Tribalgate

Those who are part of the global Tribal Fusion community, will be well aware of the enormous controversy and upheaval that has been happening in the last week, since the release of this statement, and subsequent responses.

I have been hanging back for a few days, digesting the information and giving those directly affected an opportunity to speak and be heard on the subject. I've never been a part of Tribal Fest (although I would have loved to attend at some point) and I think it is important to hold space and support those at the centre of the turmoil as things were coming to light. The noise to signal ratio in situations like this can become unworkable, especially in this age of social media where everyone has an opinion and a right to publish it.

That said, the whole situation has brought into the spotlight some really important issues and that is what I would like to write about today.

Our safe space.

The bellydance community is an amazing place for women. At its best it is a place where we are free from the pressures of the modern/media ideas of beauty, femininity, fashion or social mores.

It is no coincidence that the first session of my Red Goddess course focusses on Inanna and the shedding of societal expectations and masks in order to dance as our true selves. That's not something I can take credit for conceiving, it is a part of being an artist in the bellydance community.

Within our community, at haflas, festivals etc, we have the freedom to dress as we will, to express ourselves as we will, to be "unladylike" without judgement, to be in our own skin with confidence, to be sensual without inviting sexual objectification, to be primal without inviting disgust. There is so much power and importance in this.

As a teacher I count myself among the guardians of this safe space. Safeguarding the dancers who bestow me with their trust means so much more than keeping their personal details safe and the studio floor clear.

First and foremost it is about having respect for the individuals and their journey. The understanding that dance, for every committed participant, is life altering on some level and scale. It is my responsibility to keep the environment uplifting and positive and to exclude damaging elements. The safety of the bellydance bubble is part of its appeal and one of our community's greatest strengths. Because of this I stand by the teachers who have chosen to remove themselves from Tribal Fest, for the safety of their students and fans.

The male gaze in bellydance

Unless you are completely unfamiliar with bellydance, you will be aware that, contrary to popular myth, it is not a dance of titillation for men. Sure there are times when it is sexy, but as Ava Fleming put it, it is sexy "by accident".

Tribal fusion takes a step further back again, consciously distancing itself from the male gaze and focusing on an almost completely female centred model.

When I perform in public, I usually ignore the men and keep my focus and eye contact for the women and children in the audience, it's about sharing the joy of the dance. But when a performer chooses to dance in public, they understand that they are exposing themselves to the opinions and misunderstandings of that audience, it's something we are aware of and have ways to deal with.

When a dancer performs at a hafla or festival, for an audience of fellow dancers and dance community members, they shouldn't have those elements to worry about. It allows us to be free in our artistry, it also allows beginners to feel safe when they dance with their midriff uncovered for the first time, or tentatively demonstrate months of hard work to an audience for the first time.

There are men in our community, but, for the most part, they are respectful and understanding of the hard work we do and the privilege they have of bearing witness to our heart and soul on stage.

The male allies in our community

While the bellydance world is dominated and managed by women, there are men among us who are important to us and loved by us. Male dancers, teachers, photographers, musicians, DJs, webmasters, event organisers, husbands and boyfriends all have their part to play in our ecosystem.

As the Tribal Fest scandal has unfolded attention has, quite rightly, been focused on the female victims and maintaining the community as a safe space for women. I hesitate to bring this up, because very few feminist discussions are improved by a bout of "what about the men?", but I'm going to say this:

I've seen some amazing responses by male allies in our community over the last few days. Men with integrity and respect for the women they work alongside, coming forward horrified at the breach of trust that has been uncovered, reaffirming their support for the women affected and their commitment to the safety of the community. I am grateful for them.

I am sad that we will now find ourselves second guessing the motives of the men around us, and I am sad that these decent people will be subject to that, as a result of the disgusting behaviour or a couple of individuals.

Strength and conviction

I am so proud by the overwhelming show of strength from the dancers at the centre of this. Many bellydancers have strong convictions about their individual lifestyle and political issues. I might not always agree with every one, but it is good to be surrounded by strong women of substance.

When teachers and traders came out in support of the public statement, they were putting themselves on the line. They will lose income, they could have lost reputation and professional currency coming out against the biggest festival in the Tribal world, but they did what they felt was right.

It sends such an important message to step forward and state "we will not tolerate this".

Solidarity as dancers

In response to this message, for the most part a closing of ranks was witnessed. So many dancers came out in support of those affected.

Sometimes dancers refer to each other as "sisters", I'm not entirely into that for reasons that I might cover another time, but if you wanted to call it sisterhood, I would agree with the sentiment for now because I am finding it almost impossible to put together words that convey the immense power and solidarity I have seen in the past few days.

I have no doubt that our community will bounce back from this blow. We are strong, resourceful, united, and I am inclined to say unbreakable.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Teaching a class with a drummer.

Anyone who attends my Glastonbury or Bridgwater bellydance classes, or indeed knows me from the local hafla circuit, will know that I often come as half of a double act.

Doum Tekka plays darbuka/Egyptian tabla, we met at my first Glastonbury hafla in 2013 and he has been regularly playing in my classes for nearly 2 years.

I know that not all teachers feel they can "use" a drummer in their class. When Doum Tekka first asked if he could play in class I wasn't entirely sure how it would work. I knew a live drummer would be really helpful for teaching rhythm recognition, but it didn't make sense on a weekly basis. Or did it?

Today I'm going to write about all the reasons why having a live drummer in my classes, almost all the time, is actually pretty marvelous and I consider myself very lucky for a whole host of reasons:

Finding the beat

New dancers often have issues recognising the downbeat in the music. With a live drummer you can either dance to a plain rhythm (and keep it as plain as you like) or ask them to play along with the rhythm in a recorded track.

Either way, the beat comes through more clearly and students have told me they find it easier to co-ordinate their footfalls or keep the pace of a move.

Learning rhythms

When I play recorded music, I usually talk to my class about the track, its origins, instrumentation, lyric meanings and rhythms. Again, with a drummer playing along with the rhythm, it's clearer and easier to recognise. Or I can ask for a quick demonstration of the rhythm then ask the class to listen out for it on the track.

I knew from the start that a live drum would be useful for teaching rhythms, but this doesn't have to happen as an isolated lesson once a year or so, it can happen every lesson. Also, while a dance teacher should have a good working knowledge of Arabic rhythms, a drummer will always be better, that's their area of expertise!

It's not just my dance students that learn more about rhythms from our resident drummer. I do too, all the time. It's great having someone really enthusiastic turning up every week with a new variation on a basic rhythm, or something daft like a 14/8 saying "hey check this out".

The track you want

If you are a dance teacher, no matter how organised you are with lesson plans and matching playlists, there will inevitably have been a time when you were desperately trying to find the right track for something. Maybe your students needed to go over something slower than you expected, or you were led down a new  path and changed your plans at the last minute.

No problem if you have live musicians. You can request the rhythm you want at exactly the speed you want, slow down, speed up, gradually accellerating, whatever you need.

Handsfree, wireless music control

I know I am spoilt by having a live drummer in class because I always complain when I have to keep pausing or changing the music when he's not there.

We've reached the point now where Doum Tekka will watch me break down a technique, work out what rhythm will work for it, and start playing to match my pace as we drill. It's like movement activated music and it is absolutely brilliant!

Developing a drummer

A good drummer for dancing needs to have a whole host of skills other than the usual technique and musicality of a  standalone musician. A good dance-drummer should be able to read a dancer, to recognise the need for a change of pace or rhythm, to maintain a subtle 2 way communication that makes for better performance and frees up improvisation.

There aren't a lot of places for drummers to learn this. Mostly occasional workshops at dance festivals or hours of drum solo practice with a dancer. In class however, these skills develop organically. Start working with a drummer who knows their rhythms and gradually they will grow into a drum solo partner.

Drumming for class is also excellent practice, extended periods of play, practising rhythms that might have been over looked and playing slowly with a focus on quality of sound and technique are all really worthwhile from the drummer's perspective.

Keeping the connection

A good drum solo performance is not just about a good drummer and a good dancer being in sync with each other, it's also about chemistry. Dancing with a drummer you get on with, can share a joke with an suchlike makes a big difference to your performance. Seeing each other on a regular basis for class and a catch up fosters a good working relationship, as well as many short, incidental practice sessions.

Being on good terms with the drummer also means it's easier to negotiate sets without worrying about offending them!


Work with someone long enough and you will start to pick up their habits and idiosyncrasies. I can hear when Doum Tekka is winding up the end of the solo, he can see when I am, so we finish together. I also recognise when he likes to put the pops on top of his rolls so I can ornament them, or how he structures the ornamentation on the basic rhythms which allows me to acknowledge more of the music in my dance. None of this comes from conscious study, it's just familiarity. It comes from hours of practice and listening, which builds up quickly with a couple of classes a week and regular pre-class jams.

When doesn't it work?

Most of the time having a drummer in class is really useful. Teaching choreography is a possible exception. This might be more my own hang up because I feel guilty constantly interrupting the flow to repeatedly work over the same short sections. On the other hand, plain drums are a great intermediate step between dancing to a count and dancing with the actual music.

The other potential issue, if your drummer is male, is breaking the "women only" space. This might be an issue if you teach Muslim women, who will not want to dance in the presence of a male, or if your class are very self conscious. That said, I have never had any feedback from students suggesting that they have an issue with a male musician in class, mostly they focus on their dancing and ignore him! My classes are open to all genders, and I don't consider a male drummer to be any different to a male dancer in class. They are there to work just like the rest of us.

When I run the Red Goddess course, that is a feminine centric environment, and a fairly raw emotional one too, that is the only class where I personally would rule out the presence of any individual who was not an active participant in the primary course content.


Dancers often tell me how lucky I am to be able to work with a drummer, but I have also met a lot of teachers who are very reluctant to allow a drummer into their class. My advice would be to give it a go, it's a fabulous learning experience and it could well open up a whole new aspect in your dance and teaching.

Kash and Doum Tekka - image by Angie Budd

Monday, 21 September 2015


A general note of news for dancers in Bridgwater interested in attending my bellydance classes.

Our Tuesday night class, at the YMCA, will henceforth be running from 6.30 to 7.30pm. Same night, same location, 1 hour earlier.

Thank you!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The summer roundup!


I am back from the void!

So first thing, I have to apologise for the brief absence, summer is supposed to be my downtime when I teach less and get my affairs in order, but this one has been fairly hectic! So here's a bit of a round up, starting with the all important new-term's class information.

Glastonbury classes continue in the Goddess Hall, Mondays at 11.30am. By request I am going to be focusing on Tribal Fusion style this term, so we will be looking at the stylisation, musicality and evolution of this style.

Bridgwater classes recommence on Tuesday the 15th September at the YMCA at 7.30 pm. In October and November there will be a slight time change to 6.30pm, just for those weeks then back to normal in December. I've been looking at some classic Golden Era dancers for inspiration for this new term.

So what's been happening in bellydance this summer?

The summer break began with the hafla. We had a brilliant day of workshops. Demelza Fox was absolutely bewitching, both in her teaching and performances. I've had a lot of excellent feedback from those who attended her class. Samantha Riggs gave an energetic workshop which resulted in a brilliant performance where she turned the attendees into her own Bhangra gang. I was extremely proud of my workshop dancers, who all opted to join in and perform my Dark Cabaret choreography at the hafla.

Sam dancing Bhangra - photo by Angie Budd

The evening hafla was a roaring success. We had some fabulous performances and I have to again thank the lovely performers who came along and shared their dancing with us.

During my "teaching break" I also ran two workshops for a group of dancers visiting the area, one on tray balancing and one on stage presence - that was a marvellous weekend which wrapped up beautifully when I got to watch them perform in town for the Glastonbury Fringe Festival, great to see them putting their stage presence tips into practice too!

I've also been up to Manchester teaching a workshop for a large exhibition, a couple of hen parties and of course Glastonbury classes have continued, Bank Holidays and Goddesses excepted.

I've been working on some new choreography, which I am very excited about. I've been enormously inspired by training with Alexis Southall this year and I've been taking things in a whole new direction. I am also working on a super secret collaboration with an amazing dance partner, but I have already said too much.

Then, on top of it all, I discovered one of my favourite fellow dancers, Dawn O Brian teaches a monthly drills intensive in Bristol, so I went to that, which was awesome.

Somehow I still managed to find myself missing the dance community, so I started a group on Facebook, to help dancers in the South West to network, socialise and organise themselves.

Doum Tekka, our resident drummer organised an event in August. Originally planned as a picnic on the Tor, though the weather sent us undercover. No spirits were dampened however, we had a whole bunch of drummers from all over the place, including Ommadom from Wales and some visitors all the way from Ireland. The Ommadom dancers rocked their thing and even took a turn out by the Market Cross to cheer everyone's Sunday afternoon. It looks like this will be a regular event, so I am looking forward to that.

So it's been a dancing, drumming, teaching, costume making, conditioning and planning kind of summer. I can't wait for the new season of classes to start so I can take a break.