Sunday, 29 November 2015

Reflecting on the sword

Sword is one of my favourite props. It's not a particularly culturally authentic prop, which is to say that while some Middle Eastern and North African dances do involve swords (or in some of the updated versions, rifles) the way that bellydancers use the sword in the west is not recognisable within the frame of MENA dance.

However, it is a very popular prop, it's flash and impressive, balance feats involving swords have a frisson of danger about them and audiences love that. There is also the advantage, when not attempting to create an accurate representation of a cultural dance, that we have the freedom to play, experiment and express our art however we wish.

Some dancers use weapons to create martial arts based pieces, Morgana is a great example of a dancer who blends her martial arts background with dance on stage.

I have also heard people criticise dancers for not doing this, for not "wielding" the sword "correctly" in their dance for instance. I think this criticism comes from a lack of consideration of what the dancer is trying to say with their dance (or perhaps what the teacher they learned from was trying to say), and I wanted to write a little about how we use weapons in dance, not to represent violence, but to subvert it.

I have martial arts training. I fought competitive, full contact Tae Kwon Do and I've trained in Western swordplay. When I dance with a sword, I'm not a fighter, I am a dancer. I don't hold my sword like a weapon, firstly, because it's not balanced like one, it's balanced to sit on my head, but also because part of the purpose of my dance is to take the sword as a classic symbol of violence, death and brutality, and subvert it as something delicate, graceful, even sensual.

Tech rehearsal for Juno's show in 2009
I've heard reports more recently, mostly from dancers in the USA, that they are being asked not to dance with a sword when booked for a performance, the reason being that it might remind people of the atrocities committed by Dae'sh extremists in the Middle East.

It makes me intensely sad that anyone would connect a beautiful performance with such things and moreso to see another way that terrorism creeps into our everyday lives.

As a counter to this I would suggest that artistic expression, dance, music and particularly the freedom of women to openly participate in the same, are all anathema to these extremists' ideals. Perhaps we are reaching a point where a woman, dancing, in public and subverting the symbol of the scimitar is becoming an act of defiance and ridicule against the perpetrators of violence.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Pushing our limits and the problem with comfortable

A few things have happened recently which got me thinking about comfort zones and learning, potential and achievement.

- I took a workshop with Heather Stants, who teaches very contemporary influenced fusion, a style which I find challenging to the point that I had previously concluded it "wasn't for me".

- A new student told me that she struggled with footwork and stated that she was slow at learning it.

- A prospective student asked if she would be able to perform in future.

When I started bellydance, one of the reasons I chose this particular form was because I believed that I had two left feet. I thought I couldn't handle footwork and I thought that bellydance didn't involve footwork.

I was wrong on both these counts.

It's taken years, but the greatest obstacle has not been my physical capability to move one foot and then the next without tripping over, it has been the mental understanding that it is OK to not get it first time, or second time, or the 50th time...

Dancing in Heather's workshop, I was trying to get my head/body around a combination that was all arms and legs and totally outside my comfort zone. I found myself thinking "this is hard", "I'm not good at this sort of thing", "I'm not getting this".

Then I mentally slapped myself around the face with a wet fish and told myself to sort it out. What I was experiencing wasn't being unable to do something, it was being unable to do something YET, and we have all experienced that with absolutely everything we can now do and take for granted. Every dance step we know, walking, talking, breathing. Not being able to do something does not mean never being able to do it, and it is not a good enough reason to give up.

If it frightens you, do it - Amanda Palmer

Your comfort zone is not where the good stuff happens. If you are comfortable doing something then you already know how to do it, so you aren't learning, you aren't progressing, you aren't growing.

It's OK to be uncomfortable. We live in a privileged world with constant progress towards making our lives easier, more convenient, more comfortable, and I think that sometimes we forget what it means to fight for something, to suffer because we know the reward will be worthwhile. There is not instant gratification for an artist, you have to sweat through the process.

Don't be afraid to get uncomfortable, you are safe. It's OK to be frustrated, it's OK to feel like your brain is overloaded, its OK if your muscles are struggling, if you are out of breath. It's all part of the process, this is what really living feels like.

The vast majority of my beginning students tell me that they are no good with footwork. I'm not sure why this is the case, perhaps it is because so much of the raqs sharqui vocabulary is so alien to those from a Western background, that they have no preconceptions, or take it for granted that it will be a struggle, but the feet? They assume that you either have it or you don't.

I have seen students begin the term falling over their own feet, but in 6-10 weeks, their grapevine, step touch and rocking step is second nature. If you can nail any one of those, you can nail any other step pattern. It's just a question of doing it over and over, slowly until it gets into your body. It will always be hard to start with, it will be automatic by the time you are done. Just don't give up before you get there.

The answer to the potential student's question is yes. You will be able to perform in time, if you put the work in. It may well be a couple of years, and I know that is daunting. When I first started out, I remember reading somewhere on Bhuz that one can expect to be at beginner level for around 2 years. A beginner? For 2 whole years? That seems like a long time when you have been dancing for 2 whole months! Well, time has flown and the more I dance, the more like a beginner I feel, and that's a good thing because it is merely an indicator of the immense amount of amazing dance experiences there are out there for the taking.

I do push my students, I am fairly unapologetic about it too! I won't throw them in the deep end (although I might encourage them to try the water just so they know how it feels), and I won't ask them to do anything they don't have the technical foundation to attempt safely. But I'm definitely not going to let them come back week after week dancing the same old material without testing their boundaries and trying new things. It's my responsibility as a facilitator of their dance journey to give them opportunities to test their limits and grow to meet their personal potential.

Naturally, I have to set the example by trying new styles, techniques and concepts. And when the going gets tough, I'll grit my teeth and get stuck in.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

What's in your gig bag?

I'm packing to go to Infusion Emporium at the moment (well, I'm procrastinating packing by writing a blog). It's a bit of a mammoth task because I have to have everything I need for attending workshops, being a bit fancy for the theatre show (by fancy I really mean, "not in sweaty leggings") travelling and staying overnight - Oh and because I love my students I am driving back early on Monday for my Glastonbury classes, so I need everything for that too. But the biggest obstacle is that I also need everything for performing at the Glitterball Shakedown.

When I do a performance, and often if I am teaching a hen party class or suchlike, I take my hallowed gig bag. It's a carry on size suitcase which has literally everything I could ever need in it. I carefully pack it beforehand, and "reset" it afterwards. Some of the contents is changeable, like costumes, props etc, and some of it is consistent.

For this weekend it doesn't make sense to take 2 suitcases, so I am having to decant the bits and bobs I need from my gig bag, into my weekend luggage. It's the little, consistent things that are the trick, because it has taken me a while to refine exactly what I need for any eventuality. Here's some of the stuff I carry around with me:

Hairgrips/bobby pins

I always have 2 packs of these, because the hairgrip pixies steal them at a frightening speed. Anyone who has hairgrips knows about the hairgrip pixies, they will take 80% of your stash every time you look away. Don't Blink.

If you buy in bulk, they just get lost faster, I have tried. So my rule is that I buy small packs, and there must be one in my dresser and 2 in my gig bag, all at least half full.

I carry 2 packs because one will be standard grips and the other heavy duty/wig grips, which can take the strain of pinning hairpieces, rats and bulky accessories.


My Minirig is one of my favourite things ever, no exaggeration. It's a speaker about the size of a large mug of tea, which is rechargable and surprisingly loud. Loud enough to teach with, on high gain you can get enough sound to perform with, even outdoors. Not super noisy, but enough. I have a 500W tailgate speaker which is louder, but it's about the same size as my gig bag, and I'm only going to double my luggage if I absolutely have to.

Even if I know my venue has a sound system, it is no trouble at all to carry the Minirig and that means that if there is an issue with sound, I can still teach/perform.

MP3 player

I go absolutely nowhere without my MP3 player. It has *all* my dance music on and specific playlists for particular lessons, moods and performance sets.

Tin of gubbins

Used hairgrips, safety pins (essential for securing costumes and last minute fixes), hairbands. Anything small and vital goes in my tin.

My tin of gubbins, essential kit.

Sewing kit.

This little repair kit came from my local craft shop. It's important to be able to fix  costumes on the go because a loose hook can be the difference between a servicable costume and having nothing to wear, or worse, a costume malfunction! The scissors are also great for trimming lashes.

All the underwear

In case I happen to forget to pack the appropriate underpinnings for the particular costume (Shira has a great article on this), I always carry a pair of black and a pair of fleshtone "invisible" knickers (seamfree, but I like to call them that because I never get tired of saying "I can't find my invisible knickers"), which between them will work for most costumes. I also carry a normal pair because I was raised to be prepared.

I also carry a pair of Capezio dance tights in my bag all the time, and a fleshtone, sleeved bellystocking, both are transferable to almost any costume if need be.


Body glitter, travel size hairspray, hairbrush, versatile red lipstick. These are necessities, so they stay in there. Also a spare shake and go wig, because nobody needs a hairmergency.

Eyelashes and glue

I always have a spare pair of eyelashes, just in case. Eyelash glue suffers in the same way as hairgrips. It's small and the pixies steal it. I use latex free eyelash glue, which isn't commonly available, so I buy lots of little bottles and secrete them in handy places (no use buying a large bottle, it dries up). Eyelash glue isn't just for eyelashes, I use a lot of little gems in my makeup and it's useful for wayward wig lace. Having spare glue is essential if any of the cornucopia of stuff stuck to my face comes loose.

Pre-gig war paint photo demonstrating how I might stick stuff on my face...

Health stuff

In case of emergency. Ibuprofen and paracetamol (for headaches or injuries), Tiger Balm and sanitary protection. More often than not I am lending this stuff to other dancers in need!

Wet wipes

Amazing all around for everything. You can wipe down the surface in the dressing room, before or after use. You can wipe the floor dirt off your feet, a smudge of hummus off your costume, take your make up off with them, all sorts of things.

Parking change.

Because there is nothing worse when you have somewhere to get to than finding yourself in a car park with no meter money... in costume.

Flyers and business cards

You never know where a networking opportunity might come up, so I try to keep a stock of class flyers and business cards on hand.

Video camera and tripod

One of the best ways to improve your dance is to video yourself and watch it critically. I do this in practice, but where I can, I try to do it for performances too, because sometimes stuff comes out under pressure. I carry a small video camera and a tabletop tripod for that purpose.

The changables

So all those things are a given, I might need them in most situations. I also have room in my bag for the items that are specific to a gig.

So if I am teaching a burlesque party, I will have half a case full of feather boas, spare gloves, party favours etc.

If I am doing a bellydance performance I have space for 2 complete costumes (providing only one of them is a bulky one) and a cover up, plus shoes, hairpieces etc.

Everyone's essentials are going to be different, and it has evolved over time as I have learned what I can do without and what I wished I had packed.