Friday, 20 May 2016

Bellydance - the art of femininity?

For a while I have been trying to wrap my head around the issue of bellydance and femininity.

I know many teachers advertise their classes using this term. "Try this beautiful, feminine artform". "Discover your femininity". And it gets me wondering what this means. Or whether it means to me the same as it means to the teacher, or the women who see the ad. Or indeed the men - because to me, there is plenty of scope for dancers of all genders in our artform.

And then I start to wonder if bellydance *is* a feminine artform, and if so, how. And what does that even mean?

When I typed "feminine" into my usual stock photo source, it gave me this, which is kind of apt for where I'm going now....

When I was a little girl, my mum insisted I kept my hair cut in a fairly short bob style. She told me that while I needed her help to wash, dry and style it, I would have to have a style that made this easy for her.

I hated this and often begged my mum to let me grow my hair out. Because girls have long hair, obviously. I also recall refusing to wear trousers in case people thought I was a boy. Being a girl was an important part of my identity and how I perceived myself. While a child's gender might arguably be an unnecessary consideration for those around them (does it really make a difference if a child you glance at in the street is male or female?), it does often matter to the child. I wasn't really a pink and princessy type of girl, though I "understood" that these were the girl things that girls liked and I should probably aspire to because I was a girl. I knew my own gender identity and wanted to express this in the manner I had learned was appropriate.

I was about 10 when my mum finally relented and let me grow my hair. As I've grown up I've done all sorts of things with my hair. It's been everything from very long to pixie cropped, I've shaved bits off, put dreadlocks in it and dyed it all the colours. This isn't because my understanding of my gender has changed, it is because I have discovered that there are many ways to express femininity beyond the Disney princess stereotypes. Women, and indeed femininity in those who don't identify as women, are complex and multifaceted, there's a lot more to women than being doe-eyed and conventionally "pretty".

So back to dance.

I recall a dancer I know posting on her Facebook page to say that she was painting her nails bright pink and how she loved bellydance because it was a great excuse to "be girly". That's great if that's your bag. I know plenty of dancers who love the prettiness of the costumes, who are light, elegant, bubbly and dance with maybe just a touch of coy flirtation. It suits them, because that is how they connect with themselves as women. Personally manicure duty is my least favourite part of preparing to perform - although I appreciate the aesthetic of well groomed hands (not pink polish mind....)

I've often witnessed ATS and other group Tribal style performers refer to each other as sisters and present a rich earthy aesthetic while dancing in a powerful style with the joy of togetherness. Undoubtedly feminine, but totally different. While a "cabaret" style dancer usually caters to a commercially acceptable aesthetic, other styles often ignore or shun the male gaze, or media-endorsed ideas of beauty.

One of my favoutite  dance friends recently prepared for a performance saying "I'm not going to do fancy make up, I'm doing ugly today" while applying fierce warpaint. But her performance was beautiful and touching - it gave me goosebumps. In fact when I look around my circles of dancing friends, I see all kinds of people, expressing themselves beautifully in unique and diverse ways. It's wonderful, but it doesn't really help in my quest to find out what it is about bellydance that is feminine.

Is it wearing floaty chiffon skirts and rhinestones? Is it push up bras and layers of hipscarves? Is it being comfortable enough in your natural woman's body to shun convention and dance with unshaven underarms? Is it baring your soul in a tender and emotional dance? Or is it showing strength, pride or sass? Is it flirty? Is it, as Ava says "sexy by accident"? Or is it not at all because being a woman isn't about what men think of you? Is is smooth, soft, gooey hips? Is it elegant lines? Is it explosive locks and isolations?

I think it's probably any, all and anything else you can think of.

I don't believe the dance itself is inherently feminine. Dance is a route to self expression, each dancer gets to choose how they wish to express themselves. We tell our own stories. We can choose to present a character, who might be fun or liberating to play. Or we can be raw and authentic. And maybe the audience never really knows which is which.

I don't doubt for a minute that many women discover bellydance as a safe space to find and express their femininity. Whether that means dressing up, or learning to feel good moving their body. I came to dance after an acute illness that left me feeling broken and out of sync with my body. Bellydance is accessible to women of all ages, body shapes and sizes, and so many find self acceptance through the realisation that their bodies can do amazing and beautiful things. Women coming through traumatic life events often find their joy and learn to express it through dance. I've spoken to a few trans-women who have found bellydance helped them discover how to move in their female identity, and I am not sure whether that is purely an act of physical instruction, or whether dancing and being accepted in a community of women is the perfect confidence boost.

Learning about ourselves through dance is an ongoing process. I always feel immensely privileged to hold space for dancers who come to my class, for reasons they might not tell, dealing with issues I may never hear about, then slowly but surely bloom, as their true self begins to surface and shine.

If you are interested in exploring your own ideas of authentic self and what femininity means to you, do check out my Dancing with the Red Goddess immersion, taking place on the 6th August.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

How long does it take to dance for 30 minutes?

I've found there's a real art to getting myself ready to go out and perform. Whether it is a hafla or a wedding reception, putting on a performance can be quite a palava!

Preparing the dance for a performance is a process in itself, from conception, to banging my head against the wall to meticulous rehearsal. But preparing to perform is about a whole load more than having the choreography polished.

Sometimes a potential client will ask me to perform at a reduced rate and only perform a single set, instead of two, or for 10 minutes rather than 20. In reality I can't offer much discount for this, because the part that people actually see is only the tip of the iceberg. Being performance ready involves continuous commitment (like drilling, conditioning and developing material) and a solid investment of time beforehand, specific to that gig.

As a professional performer I do believe it is necessary to have the ability to drop everything and dance at short notice. I always have costumes on the hanger, generic sets compiled and regularly rehearsed etc, so that if I get a last minute booking, or another dancer calls and asks me to cover for her, I can roll up with a few hours notice and put on a fabulous show. But from my own perspective, I know that I do my best work when I have had the opportunity to tailor my performance to the client, venue and audience. I also know I am in my best headspace for performance, and give my absolute best, when I can be totally confident that everything is in place and is going smoothly.

Recently I was making small talk with the mother of one of my childrens' friends. I told her what I did for a living and she was rather surprised, "I'd never have guessed" she said. "Yeah" says I "it takes quite a lot of work to turn me into a bellydancer"....

T - at least 1 week. Finalising the playlist.

 I'll usually check in with my client about now too, and confirm any music requests. Finalising a week in advance means that I can guarantee myself rehearsal time in a large studio to run the entire set (I have space booked for one session a week by default).

I will likely have rehearsed each track separately many times, but I think it is important to rehearse a whole set from start to finish at least a couple of times. That 6 minute drum solo might feel fine as a standalone piece, but can you still dance it with as much energy after performing 15 minutes of upbeat pop?

T- 2 days. Costume alteration time.

There's no point in doing this too early, because the fit on my costumes has to be exact and a tiny fluctuation in weight can be the difference between a good fit and a potential mishap. Sometimes I will be wearing a costume that I haven't worn for a year or so, and you can't just get those out of the wardrobe 3 hours before a performance and hope they will fit! 2 days is a good timeline to get it done, without it being too last minute and with time to buy in supplies if repairs are needed.

I make the vast majority of my costumes myself, and when I do, I keep adjustability in mind.

There's a balance to be set between the ease of getting into a costume and versatility in sizing - especially with costume bras. Some of my bras have long straps that are tied in a knot or bow, and reinforced with a safety pin. This makes them really adjustable, you can get the band and shoulder strap length spot on every time, but they have to be tied right; usually they need to be tied, left to settle, then adjusted. My modern Orientale style costume bras are usually based on the hard "Dina" bra bases. These tend to fasten with hooks (I use trouser hooks, which are bigger and stronger) they are great for quick changes but the hooks have to be taken off and resewn in order to adjust them.

When I make skirts or pantaloons I always make the waistband accessible and easily adjustable.

T- 24 hours - putting together the costumes

At this point I gather together all the separate components. I tend to store complete sets on the same hanger, but some items go with more than one costume. The complete costume might also include shoes, bodystockings, tights, hairbands/flowers. I also always include a cover up, because I almost always need one at some point. I always lay everything out before I pack it so I know exactly what I have and can pack it efficiently.

For most commercial bookings I will be dancing 2 sets, which means 2 full costumes, often with a change of accessories (I try to make them starkly different so I often change my hair and everything between sets).

T- 23 hours - packing the bag

THE BAG has consistent components that I will always need, and changable components. The night before a performance I will check the stocks on things like hairgrips and pack the costumes and props into the bag carefully. Once it's set to go I try not to interfere with it at all, in case I accidentally take something out and forget it. I'm quite particular like that.

I also always pack at least 2 copies of my music. Usually I have my ipod, my phone and a CD of the whole set. There are some things you just don't take chances on.

T - 3 hours, the final countdown

On the day of a performance I try and make sure I have a couple of hours before I have to leave set aside for getting ready. I try to give myself more than I need because rushing is the sort of thing that gets eyelashes glued to your ears.

First thing I do is eat. Something proteiny so it's filling but not stodgy. Dancing on a stodgy meal is not good. Sometimes when I perform at a restaurant they will offer me dinner, which is frankly awesome. The tough bit is waiting until after I have finished dancing to take them up on it.

There was also the time when I told my husband not to worry about me for dinner, because I was dancing later. He took that as meaning I wouldn't have time to eat, so he boxed up a whole homemade pizza for me. I had a 2 hour drive ahead of me with this pizza smelling amazing on the passenger seat. I planned to eat it on the way home. Most of it didn't make it that far.

So once I have eaten I will usually have a shower and start looking at getting ready proper. If I'm using my real hair, I will usually dry it at this point and set it in velcro rollers or large pin curls to keep it out of the way while I do my face.

T- 90 minutes - Beat that mug

I give myself an hour for stage makeup, it actually takes less, but various other things tend to be going on as well which I can't really quantify - like painting nails. Taking time to lay down a good base and contours makes all the difference in a solid, lasting look.

Things like false eyelashes need a steady hand and time to get right, it really is a case of more haste, less speed otherwise.

T-30 minutes - Hair

Hair is always the last thing I do before leaving the house. It usually involves messing around with some kind of hairpiece and loads of bobby pins.

T - 15 mins - clothes

I rarely travel to a gig in costume. Most of my costumes are not comfortable to travel in and many could potentially be damaged. They just aren't made for sitting in. They also aren't made for being chucked in the washing machine if I get splashed by a puddle or catch the skirt in the car door. I usually wear something like a jersey maxi dress that I can step into to avoid hair and make up issues.

Time to go!

Grab the gig bag and off I go!

Friday, 13 May 2016

Bellydance training with an injury

This post partly comes out of my recent post about managing my EDS for dance, because managing injury is an enormous part of being a dancer with EDS, however it is also something I have been meaning to write about for general reasons, because every dancer has to deal with this sometimes, whether it is because of ongoing issues, accidents or even a bout of flu.

Illness or injury has the potential to completely mess with your training schedule, knock out your opportunity to rehearse for performances and for a teacher upset your schemes of work and student progression as you plan your classes around your own physical limitations.

When an injury happens, you have to rest it, but I am always aware that while I am doing so, there is a risk of muscle deterioration, which means slipping backwards in terms of the joint stability I have worked so hard to build up, not to mention my general dance conditioning.
I'm still trying to work out a solid strategy for injury management, but these are the things that have worked for me so far.

Recognising the problem, and not denying it.

Denial is really easy when you are used to regular twinges. It's easy to think "oh that's just a little sore, it'll be fine" and carry on. Well, it might be fine, but even if it is, taking care of it won't do any harm. I use a warming muscle rub on anything that feels tight or sore. It aids recovery from post-conditioning aches and I've also found it helpful for stiff and sore ankles.

An injury needs rest, elevation and ice asap, I usually take some ibuprofen at the time, to help stop the inflammation. There really are no prizes for being a hero here - admit there is a problem and deal with it before it turns into a bigger problem.

Then you have to actually rest it. Princess Farhana wrote recently about how dancers just can't leave their injuries alone. Stop poking it!

Modifying exercises

In my work as a perinatal yoga teacher I am used to finding workarounds for conventional exercises. There's no shame in using props or adapting to reduce impact or exclude a joint that won't tolerate the position. Usually modification means compromise in terms of results, but it's a much better option than doing nothing, and definitely a better option than continuing to work a damaged or weak joint.

Splitting the body

In general I try to work different areas of the body on different days. Core almost always happens, but I have legs days and upper body days and abs days. This is fairly conventional in fitness and allows recovery inbetween. If I have an ankle injury, I will focus on the other areas for a bit. I also keep my conditioning symmetrical, because an injury on one side of the body will strain the other, so that will need some respite and care too.

When I was pregnant and suffering with pelvis instability, I started drilling arm pathways, with weights, while sitting on a fitness ball. There's often a way to rest an injury without stopping completely!

Splitting the work

On reflection I have realised that I can split my practice into a variety of levels, each with their own internal goals, this helps a lot because it means I don't have to drop everything when one part is compromised.

  • Basic fitness for cardiovascular and metabolic health - this is walking and generally being active.
  • Strength and stability for joint health - simple hatha yoga, restorative yoga, basic pilates, wobble board etc.
  • Strength and conditioning for dance - pilates, interval training, ashtanga yoga.
  • Dance training - drills, technique and rehearsal

Only the first two are essential for managing my general health (though the others do make a marked difference). It is possible to "mark time" in recovery periods by identifying the activities that make the most positive difference for the least harm.

Managing the domino effect.

A couple of months back I sprained my right ankle, I'm not entirely sure how. A couple of weeks later my left ankle buckled under the pressure of compensating for the weakness. It just gave way underneath me and I sprained that too. The right was almost better, but after a day of the left being weak, it got much worse again. Another day later and I was suffering from excruciating muscle pain up the outside of my left calf and the inside of my right quad - as a result of losing the balance and alignment in my walk. The quad imbalance affected my kneed and my kneecap subluxated...

This is a pretty usual pattern in my experience and it characterises how devastating a relatively minor slip can be as well as reinforcing how important to rest.

I've become very aware of how the body compensates for injury, usually by compromising alignment. Appropriate use of supports and splints helps. If I damage one ankle/foot, I will use a support on both, to protect the good foot. I also use a lot of muscle rub, massage and stretching to prevent tightness and imbalance in the muscles that support the joints.

One of my postnatal yoga clients was asking me about using supports for an injury just this week. In particular she was concerned about relying on the support and losing the musculature that would naturally provide support. Ideally what you need to to is talk to a physiotherapist who can let you know exactly how to use supports appropriately. So... this is my personal experience and not advice... When I feel a weakness or pain, I use a support, always. Why? Because I have found that continuing to use a joint that is weak, wobbly or generally unreliable leads to further injury. A slight weakness due to reliance on a support is a much lesser issue than the risk of aggravating the injury or causing further injury. And I'm not convinced that a support will cause weakness, if your muscles/joints needed the extra help in the first place.

Total rest.

Sometimes the best thing to do is just stop and give yourself some recovery time. If you are ill, you need to get better and while in some cases taking a half hour to walk in the fresh air might do you the world of good, in others it might just prolong your illness and keep you out of training for much longer.

It's OK to have downtime, and downtime doesn't have to mean a break from dance entirely. I've written before about how you can improve your dance by watching and analysing video footage. So that's a start. There's also other things like mapping music for choreography (I hate this job but I've found it essential for really understanding all my performance music, improv too), or even just listening to tracks through services like Spotify or even on YouTube to find your next performance peace.

As a teacher I use downtime to plan lessons, or to type up my rough lesson plans, choreography and workshop notes from my notebooks. Or sort out the dreaded accounts.

You could also work on zills or drumming, or costume making. There's lots of ways you can turn a bit of time off your feet into genuinely productive work.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Reflecting on an intense year of dance.

So I've been a bit lax with this blog, and that's because I've just come to the end of an amazing chapter of dance.

I've had a phenomenal year which has involved multiple workshops, intensive instruction from Ashley Lopez and Ava Fleming, and the opportunity to participate in Alexis Southall's Tribal Fusion Education Programme.

I've really struggled to write this post and give everything the attention it deserves without going on too long, so I've reminded myself that most of these topics will get their own post in time. Now is a quick overview!

Working in a group

It's been a long while since I have worked consistently with the same bunch of people, as I have not been part of a troupe, or attended weekly classes for several years.

There is something really special about shared experience, knowing there are others working through the same material, preparing for the same goals. Being part of a collective can be restrictive in some ways, but it also gives you space to breathe and grow with the support of your peers.

Being back in a tight, shared dance space with lovely, talented dancers has been really refreshing. So much so that I decided to apply for this year's Juniper Project. And I was accepted, so I am really excited to have a group project, with a shared performance, on my training schedule for this year.

Diversity is amazing

One thing that really struck me was how different all of the dancers in the cohort were. We all came from different backgrounds and different influences, but everyone had something brilliant to offer and to be inspired by.

There's a lot of diversity in traditional Arabic dance as it is, but when you get fusion performers bringing in influences from other styles, along with their personality and aesthetic, the possibilities are endless.

One thing I have learned from bellydance is to see and appreciate something in everyone's dance, every individual has something worth watching. Working with the TFEP group I saw this phenomenon, but massively inflated. At the final showcase I was blown away with the high calibre of all the performances, though each one was vastly different from the next.

Seeing through others' eyes

Feedback is a super important part of improving your dance, but good feedback can be hard to come by. Much of the feedback I get for my dancing isn't true feedback, it's niceties, or its accurate, but not backed up with the information that helps me understand *exactly* what it is that made that feel that way, or what I have to do to improve.

With Alexis as a mentor I have had some really useful feedback, but in the course of our studio time we also got feedback from the other participants, and that was really useful too.

Another aspect that was fun, and revelatory, was the exercises where we got to evaluate each other's dance styles. I've been told before that my style is "distinctive" or "quirky" or all kinds of things, but I've never really understood what that meant until other dancers sat down, watched me then listed all the traits they saw that made my dance "me" (and I got to do the same in return). This brings me back to the last point, understanding how two dancers, dancing the same style, even taught by the same teacher, can be quite distinctive. It also helped me understand a very important point of artistic angst, the "what am I doing that everyone else isn't doing? Why would anyone want to watch *me*". Which brings me to my next point...

Self doubt is part of the process

I've talked to a lot of dancers this year, from international master teachers to dancers preparing their first solo, and I've come to realise that every one of them has moments of wondering why they are doing this to themselves, whether they can pull it off and whether it is worth it. This isn't just normal, it's vital if you want to keep your feet on the ground. Sometimes the answer is what you need to get you to put your big girl pantaloons on and get up there. Sometimes the answer is to sit this one out because it's not right, at this moment, and that's ok too, as long as it's authentic and honest.

Vulnerability is powerful

At Majma last year, I asked Ava how she managed to bring the raw emotion in her fusion pieces (like Too Close and Roxanne), which she explained always come from real, personal experiences, to the stage. How did she present her heart on her sleeve with such vulnerability? How does she get up there and take that risk?

Her answer: You just do it.

So at first that didn't seem all that helpful, but then I decided to take it as advice. At a friendly, local hafla, I took a track that touched me, but which I hadn't choreographed or rehearsed to the point where technique starts to erase the feels. And I just did it.

And no one laughed, or criticised the technical flaws, or threw things. In fact I got a lot of very good feedback. I didn't record it, because sometimes you don't need to sit there and cringe and dissect things, some things just have to live and die in the moment.

What I took away from that performance, was a little more confidence in allowing my dance to come from the heart. And every time I do that, it gets a little easier.

Don't be afraid to be a dancer

I've always had a certain amount of self conciousness about doing "dancey" things. There's bellydance moves, and that's fine because I'm a bellydancer, but some movements, gestures, delicate turns etc. Moves which have evolved from ballet or contemporary dance. They just feel a bit silly. Well they did, until I realised that what I had to do was just commit to them and remember that I am a dancer, so I better dance like one!

I realised through rehearsal, recording rehearsal, performing and recording performing, that sometimes I hold back, and actually I dance better without the audience, because I'm not afraid of looking daft. But of course the fear of looking daft, the holding back, that's what makes you look daft.

Or to make decisions

This seems like a small thing, but it's made a tremendous difference to my dance time. Alexis made us choreograph on a very tight time limit, and I learned to make snap decisions. To just put in something that is about 80% right to get that section choreographed and move on. You can always change it or embellish it later. Recent new work has shown that this just about halves my choreography time, giving me more time to actually perfect it.

A supportive mentor is priceless

Alexis has been great this year. I can't really explain quite why, but having a teacher who is genuinely invested in your progress makes a huge difference, even when they aren't doing anything. I suppose it's a bit like a doula, it's what they are as much as what they do, and knowing they are there makes all the difference. So I have to say a massive thank you to her, because she is fantastic.

The result

So I'm pretty proud to be able to present the video of my final performance at the Vernal Equinox showcase. It represents the culmination of a great year of growth in my dance. If you would like to see the work of some of my peers on the course, they are also available on the same channel.