Belly Dance Anatomy: The Erector Spinae Muscles

June 30, 2012

Erector spinaeYour mother told you to stand up straight. Your dance instructor reminds you to check your posture.  Thanks to your erector spinae muscles you can do these things! The erector spinae is actually a muscle group made up of many smaller muscles and tendons that attach them to your bones. The erector spinae group begins at your sacrum, the back portion of your illiac crest (hip bone) and your lumbar vertebrae at the lower back. It runs in two bundles up along both sides of your spinal column. Along the way different portions attach to vertebrae and your ribs from the mid-back up to the neck. These many attachment sites allow it to effectively support the entire length of the spinal column, and in cooperation with the rectus abdominus muscle on the front of our torso, keeps us standing tall and stable.

Any time you bend over at the waist, it is the erector spinae muscles that contract to bring your spine to an upright position – this is called spinal extension. They are also responsible for maintaining a “flat back”  position when we are bent at the hip.  This group  works to bend the spine to the side and to rotate it, with assistance from the oblique muscles. Think of those graceful reaching lunges that extend the arm and ribs  to the side or posing with your lower body on a diagonal and your ribs facing forward. (It’s a very body flattering position, try it!) If you are fond of those big, bent-over hip circles (think Dina) these muscles are very important because they keep your upper body from flopping over uncontrolled, which makes this movement look sloppy rather than big and emphatic as it should be.

The variety of attachment sites also helps us articulate smaller movements of parts of the spine, as we do in undulations or rib slides. Ask a dance friend if you can put your fingers on either side of their spine while they do an undulation or a rib circle and you’ll be able to feel the erector spinae in action.

Warming Up The Erector Spinae for Belly Dance

It is important to include some dynamic warm up of this muscle group at the beginning of your dance class or personal practice. This is easy to do with a few simple movements such as cat/cow pose or rolling the spine down slowly bringing the hands down toward the toes and rolling slowly back up “vertebrae by vertebrae” as we instructors are so fond of saying! Remember to drop the chin as your roll down to include the upper portions of the muscle in the warm up. Gentle overhead reaches  that bend the spine to alternate sides and reaches across the body that twist the spine will round out the warm up for the erector spinae group.

Strengthening the Erector Spinae for Belly Dance

Paying careful attention to our posture as we sit,  move through our day and our dance will naturally help strengthen the erector spinae, as well as the abdomen in general. If you feel that you need a more direct approach, the “superman” exercise or the Swan Dive or Swimming exercises from Pilates are good choices. As always, if you have any known spinal issues or pain, you should follow your physician or physical therapist’s recommendations for exercise.

Stand tall and dance proud… Team Erector Spinae is on the job!

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CD Review: “Nasrah” – Turkish Bellydance

June 25, 2012

Turkish belly dance CD review

Although I readily confess that my heart belongs to classic Arabic music, even I get a craving  for the lively energy of Turkish belly dance music now and then. And 9/8… that is a delicacy all its own in my book! When “Nasrah” by the Huseyin Turkmenler Ensemble found its way into my hands, I was very pleased with it’s mix of performance tracks, teaching tracks and soul-stirring 9/8s. Let’s have a virtual listen together….

Arabia (6:01)  Ironically, this Turkish CD starts out with a Turkish interpretation of Arabic bellydance music. This tune has a lively start with an interesting melody then progresses into a violin solo backed by a fast chiftitelli. The violin line is full of textural interest to play with. This track includes a fast drum solo before winding up with a fast, melodic close. This makes a nice selection for a showcase piece of limited length.

Rast Oyun Havasi (5:30)  Track 2 starts out fast then slows down to a moderate chiftitelli with a melody that takes turns the  qanoon and violin. There’s a fast-firing drum solo before  the melody returns, punctuated by drum breaks. This also is a good choice for a single-song performance.

Bekar Gezelim (4:34) This track takes off with a short drum intro that opens onto another lively melody. It mellows out with a clarinet solo. After a brief revisit with the melody, the violin takes a turn for a solo then changes rhythm abruptly changes to a  more flowing feel before fading out. This is usable for both performance and in class for combos.

Calgici Kansi Binnaz (5:19) This song starts out subtly with a clarinet solo backed by a veil of qanoon. The  melody begins at a nice walkling pace in a 4/4 time, but with a Roma feel. There’s lots of drum ornamentation to play with behind an expressive a melody that you can really sink into as a whole. The feel and tempo are very even throughout the piece, picking up the pace just for the close.  It’s even nature would make it a good piece for teaching.

Tekirdag Karsilamasi (4:37) This track also has a gentle qanoon introduction. But don’t relax, the drum comes in with a brisk 9/8 that will compel you to get out of your seat! There are some sporadic vocals and a really crazy repeating accent that sounds like a glissando-type effect on a qanoon – have fun with that! The pace throughout is steady until the final close. This is a really good track for practicing 9/8 combinations as well as a fun show piece.

Percussion Improvisation Konyali (6:09) This drum track starts off with unforgiving speed right out of the gates. The lead drum keeps up the speed till around 1:45 when it slows down to a moderate pace and the accents become more defined for a short while. This track feels related to” Tekirdag Karsilamasi” with it’s glissando- like features and would work well in combination for a longer performance.

Nikris Oyun Havasai/Ya Mustafa (4:11) If you are looking for a good Turkish-flavored class piece for combos, the first 3:00 of this track is a perfect choice.  After the 3 minute mark, it morphs into a fast close with the familiar “Ya Mustafa” melody.

Karacbey Ciftetellisi (7:00)  Another excellent choice for class, this moderately slow 4/4 piece would be very handy for combos or drilling smooth movements. Its relaxed feel would make a nice interlude between faster pieces in a Turkish set, but a bit long for my personal tastes – Audacity to the rescue! It does  gain some speed in the final 2:30 minutes before it fades out.

Mastika (4:39) This track is a delicate 9/8 with a light feel that I love. I think this is an especially nice “intro to 9/8” piece because it is easier to hear the rhythm and feel its pulse through the melody,more so than other 9/8 tracks commonly available. There are some vocal interjections of a man calling “Bravo!”.  “Mastika” is a girl’s name, perhaps he is cheering on a dancing girl? It speeds up slightly toward the end then slows down to a soft, clean finish. This is a lovely track for all-around 9/8  use. It is my personal favorite on the CD and will soon be taking up residence on my iPod!

Azize (5:22) This is a wonderful Turkish interpretation of the Arabic classic. A little  lighter and sprightlier than traditional Arabic recordings, it would make an excellent and uplifting performance piece. The drum accents are crisp and the violin taqsim is eloquent. The melody plays out on a dual layer of violin and qanoon that are delightful and fresh sounding. Even if you have several Arabic versions of this classic, this one is a unique addition to your performance music library.

CD Review: “The Essence of Bellydance”

May 14, 2012

Essence of BellydanceAl-Ahram Orchestra’s “The Essence of Bellydance” was released in 2008. In the years that I’ve had it, I have returned to its tracks over and over for both performing and teaching, so I thought I’d let you get to know it if you aren’t familiar with this versatile CD already. Overall, the album has a modern Egyptian sound with lots of keyboard, complex melodies and well-placed accents. Several of these songs really are staples on my bellydance show playlists!

Lylet Al Naseeb (7:28)  This classy entrance piece gets off to a traditional Malfouf start then drops into a moderate Saidi rhythm. The melody alternates between phrases of keyboard and ney for the main theme of the piece. It slows down midway in with a Chiftitelli, then picks up for an upbeat section with a Khaliji feel then drifts off to a waltz that is lovely for travelling around the floor. If you are doing a performance where you can only do one song, this one gives you lots of opportunities to show off different elements of your dancing. The song closes with a reprise of the main melodic theme and a Malfouf exit.

Tamr Henna (4:55) This is the “other” Tamr Henna. This piece has a melancholy melody and a steady pace. It works well for running slow, smooth combos or veil combos in class.

Nagham al Hob (3:33) Another good teaching track, this one has a steady Maqsoum rhythm at a nice moderate pace. The drum is rather “up front” in the sound which makes it a good choice for practicing combos with zills in the Maqsoum rhythm.

Sahran Alayya (6:36) This dramatic entrance piece always suggests whirling to me. It starts off with a qanoon taqsim,  then transitions with a fast gallopy section. It moves on to a slow Saidi with a sultry keyboard line interspersed with fast segments. It really invites you to show lots of personality through the changes of tempo.

Ikhlasik Fen (4:36)  This track also starts out with a qanoon intro then progresses to a moderately fast Saidi rhythm accompanied by a qanoon and keyboard melody line.  This song has some nice “stop accents” to play with. It feels vaguely like a traditional beladi, but not quite. The melody line in the last section is where you hear that most clearly.

Sahrawi Ya Wad (4:30) I am tempted to call this song “a meditation on the saxophone.” That is the melodic instrument at the forefront of the sound. It’s joined by a keyboard in some parts and has a very spare Maqsoum in the background. It is steady and subtle and makes a better teaching track than performance track, in my opinion.

Habayibna Gayyin (3:36)  This is a moderately paced Saidi track that presents the rhythm straight up and with heavier variations for phrase emphasis. It takes a few Malfouf  side trips along the way. This one is steady enough for teaching  but interesting enough for a show thanks to a nice melody and the rhythm changes.

Soublil Alashra (3:53) This track is a bouncy 2/4  with some scattered vocals. The melody is carried on keyboard and keyboard-synthesized mizmar.  I like to use this track for drilling and teaching small travelling “flat/ball” steps.

Mizamir Arabaa (3:47) With a keyboard mizmar, this track has the heavy feel of a Saidi but with an electronic modern sound. At 1:15 it changes to a drum break then features a call and response section between the “mizmar” and the keyboard. I’d use this for a Saidi performance if I was looking for a decidedly modern feel. I’d also use it for cane drills.

Altablalal Ghallab (2:14) This drum solo has a crisp, clear sound, nice changes and good flow. My crazy dance partner and I used it for a duet a few years back. It has nice tempo changes and some unusual riffs that are fun (if challenging to choreograph). The piece wraps with a heavy wind up and a clean end.

Ala Baladi Il Mahboob (3:24) This is one of my favorite  performance songs because you can play really interesting, musical zills to it. It also has a qanoon opening and then sets the mood with a  heavy Masmoudi variation. It progresses to a slow Maqsoum that breaks pattern to occasionally merge with whats going on in the melody line – which is where the zill fun is. There is a nice call and response between the qanoon and keyboard. The track moves into a fast section with plucky little surprise accents that I love – then straight into a 6/8 section. It closes with the same Masmoudi melody theme that it opened with.

Ouilli Ya Baboor (5:13) This track begins with an almost painfully slow and moody atmosphere from strings and ney. At 2:15 it turns up the intensity and pace but keeps its serious mood. This could make a good sword performance piece.  The melody line leaves a lot of room to work within it for sword tricks. It has another nice transition around 4:15 that reverts primarily to drum till the close.

Ana Hashik (3:53) This is a true gem with a coy attitude and fun moments! Its very playful opening develops into a sassy walking pace with great vocals to play off of. I have always found this song to be real crowd pleaser and especially great for parties where you are right among your audience. Try it, you’ll like it!

If you have this CD, what are you favorite tracks and how do you like to use them? Tell us about it in the comments below…

Sign On The Dotted Line – Contracts for Belly Dancers

May 11, 2012

Belly dance contractLast week I got an email from a local dancer asking about performance contracts and what to include in one. I’ll admit I was uncomfortable with contracts when I first started to do private gigs. Some part of me felt it was a gesture of distrust toward my client, but twelve years and a several hundred parties later, I wouldn’t do a private gig without one.  I’ve come to realize that it’s just a document of clarity and commitment that makes sure we are in agreement on the details, and most people aren’t put off by them. I call mine a “Performance Agreement”; I think it accurately describes its purpose and sounds less intimidating to the sensitive client.

Before I venture on a word further, I will say that I am not a legal professional and my contract has not been written by a legal professional. It also has never been “tested” in court – thank goodness! If you want a legally water-tight contract, I suggest you go straight to a lawyer.If you would like to draw up a document that will help you and your client  get all your gig facts straight for a smooth booking experience, the information to come should be helpful for you.

The Five W’s of a Belly Dance Contract

Like a good reporter, you’ve got to cover Who, What, Where, When and Why.

  • Who is the person hiring you and responsible for paying you? If they are representing a company, the company name should be included too. Get their full name, an address, email and a phone number. Ask if that is the number where you can reach them at the time of the event. Be sure to get an on-site phone number in case you have to call on your way there for more directions, help getting into the venue or anything else.
  • What type of performance is it?  I have several types of performance services that I provide. Include a specific description of what you will be doing. How many dancers? How long is the show? What props are to be used? Does the client want audience interaction for a party or will it be contained on a stage for a cultural festival?
  • Where will it take place? You will need the physical address of the venue, including the specific room or hall if it’s in a hotel. Be sure to ask if it will be inside or outside. I always ask about the flooring or outside surface as well.
  • When does the show start? Be clear about this. I always ask “What time do you want the show to start?”. I do not ask “What time should I get there?” I list the “Performance Time” and the “Arrival/Set-Up Time” as two separate items with the arrival usually 15 minutes before the start, unless I feel I need more than that for some reason. Everyone has different tolerances for show delays. If you will be on a tight schedule, make it clear in both your conversation and in your contract. You can do this by including something like this…”A waiting fee of $XX per 15 minutes will be incurred if the show is delayed.”  In my experience, this alone is enough to keep people on time.
  • Why? Find out the reason for the occasion and if there is a guest of honor that they would like you to pay special attention to.

But There’s More…

  • Your Fee Details Specify the total price, any deposit amount and when and how each of these can be paid. Do you want cash?  Can you take a credit card on site?  Put it in writing.
  • Changing Area Some dancers arrive fully dressed. If you will be dressing there, you may want to include your needs. For example, I will not dress for a show in a public restroom and my contract has a nicely worded line to let them know that.
  • Cancellation Policy This is very important! Be sure that it is very specific and includes what happens if either you or the client cancel.  Of course we would never cancel on a client outside of an emergency, but the fact that it is in your contract is a matter of equality and protection for both parties. This should include a date beyond which any deposit is forfeited. In my contract, I agree to “provide a suitable substitute dancer at the same fee” if I cancel. I’ve never cancelled, but I am letting my client know that I cannot and will not leave them high and dry for any reason.
  • The Sound System Does the sound system play CDs or iPod? Do they have an iPod dock or cord or do you need to provide one?
  • Special Instructions Include in the contract any special requests such as theme colors, keeping your arrival a “surprise”, leading a dabke line  or dancing out the birthday cake.
  • Additional Services If you are including live music or any other professionals, I recommend having them draw up their own separate contracts rather than adding their services to yours.

Sealing The Deal

When you have filled in the contract and it’s been approved and signed by your client, be sure to sign it yourself and return a copy to them promptly.

A Contract of Your Very Own…

If you would like a sample contract to customize to your needs, you can download a Sample Belly Dance Performance Contract. From this starter document, you can add or edit any items that are specific to your needs. I hope you find it useful!

Teaching Zills in a Multi-Level Belly Dance Class

April 26, 2012

Multi-level classes have a lot of advantages for students, and present a few challenges for instructors, but personally, I   love teaching  this way!  For the student at any level, it allows them to move forward with new material on the skills they have mastered and take their time to improve those they are still working on. As we move from one movement or combo to the next, there are always options – provided the instructor is prepared.

A good multi-level class instructor will have 2 ( I prefer 3) variations ready for each class exercise they’ll be presenting. There’s a lot more class prep, but that’s not all. The instructor has to be able to keep an eye on each individual student as she moves through the room to see how everyone is doing. When I see that a movement is going well,  it’s time to add the next thing. If a student is struggling, I drop it back to where it’s a manageable challenge.

The key is to keep every student working in their personal “challenge zone” That means that they are not bored because it’s too easy and not frustrated because it’s too hard. I have heard from many students that their prior instructors taught by demonstrating at the front of the room and never came around to look at any individual or problem solve their movement issues. This is a shame. This is not teaching in my book – it’s demonstrating. I don’t even instruct this way when I travel and teach a workshop for 30. If a dancer invests their time and money to come to my class,  they deserve to be paid attention to and helped.

Hey, Mahin… I thought this was about teaching zills?

It is. Zills are one of those skills that a class can have a particularly wide skill range on. Some dancers come to class with pretty good foundation skills and no experience with zills. Others are musically inclined from outside of dance and take to them easily even as a beginner with basic movements. So here are a few suggestions for having a whole class drill zills at the same time, with different challenge levels.

Easiest: Have your students walk, stepping on the down beat of the music and just play a single “dum” with each step. I have them use their dominant hand

Step 2: Have them play a single “dum” on the down beat while doing one repeating basic movement, such as a drop kick.

Step 3: Have students walk on the down beat while playing a full rhythm pattern.

Step 4: Have students play a full rhythm pattern while doing a repeating basic or intermediate movement.

Step 5: Have students play a full rhythm while dancing a combination.

This is  just an example of how I build skill progressions, you could easily modify them to fit your own material or teaching style. They are also not a hard and fast linear presentation either. A good, experienced teacher has strong instincts and observation skills. Really LOOK at your student and decide whether to suggest moving a notch up or down in either the movement or the playing. The more you exercise the instinct as an instructor, the better you get at it.

As the instructor, if you take some time to think through these options in advance, you’ll be able to pull them out for each student as needed when you go around the room and lead zill drills.  At first it does feel like you’re running a 3-ring circus (to you, not the students) , but once you’ve got the hang of it, it feels like a fun juggling act. The great part is that is serves your students with exactly what they need when they need it  to become better dancers.

The Science Behind Learning Shimmies

April 24, 2012

Learning how to shimmy is a huge challenge for many new belly dance students. Even if they come to Middle Eastern dance with several years of other dance training, most likely none of it prepared them for that small, repetitive movement that is so integral to belly dance styles.  When they sigh “HOW do you do that so fast?”, we usually tell them “Practice, LOTS of practice!”. It’s true, practice makes perfect – or at least a lot better – but what exactly is happening in our bodies in that early shimmy learning stage?

The Engine That Stalls

Remember back to your early days, instructors! New students, yes, we’ve all been where you are. You get your shimmy going and a few seconds later your knees mysteriously stop by no will of your conscious brain, You pause, then you start it back up again like an old car that stalled at a stop light. What is happening and how do you “fix” it?

Getting Under The Hood

There are a few components to learning a new movement pattern. First, you brain needs to understand what you mean to do. Second, your brain needs to get your body to cooperate – at first in a  slow and rudimentary way. In class, I ask my students if “their heads have it” meaning, they understand the movement. After all, your body doesn’t stand much of a chance if your brain doesn’t get it first. From that understanding, the body will learn it with enough perseverance. Princess Farhana cracked me up in a workshop once expressing the same idea. She said “your brain is writing checks your hips can’t cash” –  so true!

Now that your brain understands and your body can carry out the motion at a moderate speed for a short amount of time, how do we get that to grow into a sustained, smooth shimmy? This is where the body works the behind the scenes magic of neural adaptation.

Bring In The Wiring Crew

Whether it’s a shimmy or strength training, much of the early progress we see with practice is due to neural adaptation rather than actual changes in the strength or size of our muscles.  For an Egyptian knee shimmy, the quadriceps and hamstrings are the primary muscle groups we are talking about. Each of these large groups in made up of several smaller muscles and each of these has bundles of muscle fibers that work together. Each of these bundles is controlled by one nerve and that work group of muscle fibers and it’s nerve is called a motor unit. Check out the picture at the top of this post for an illustration of a motor unit.

When the neural adaptation process starts, the brain and motor units improve the speed and efficiency of their communication. We experience this as our body “cooperating” with us. On a larger scale, the motor units learn to work together in a more synchronized way. Just like a rowing crew that has all its members in perfect timing to achieve maximum speed, your muscles work best when all the motor units needed contract in unison. As the movement pattern become more familiar to our brain, our bodies also begin to recruit more motor units to do the same movement which really adds more shimmy-power.  We experience this golden moment as the “smooth, sustained shimmy”.

So is your instructor conning you when she says “Practice, LOTS of practice!”? No, absolutely not. Neural adaptation is the outcome of all that practice. It doesn’t happen from thinking about your shimmy, or wishing your shimmy would get better. The more often you practice the more positively your neural network will adapt to comply with your dreams of amazing shimmies for hours on end.

“Often” is the important key word here. Shorter daily shimmy practice will get the beginner better neural adaptation results that wrestling with it for an hour once a week. All of these things are also true for experienced dancers who are working to master a new and different shimmy than the one they’ve been doing for years.

So whether it’s your first shimmy or learning shimmy style #10, give yourself 5 minutes every day to let your body work that neural adaptation magic! Remember… “Practice, LOTS of practice!”

Warming Up to Dance

April 14, 2012

Every dance class and workshop should start with an effective warm-up. 

learn to belly danceOur warm up helps us make the transition from resting to dancing. A proper warm up can reduce the risk of injury and even asthma attacks for those who are prone to exercise-induced asthma. About 5-10 minutes is all it takes to prepare our bodies to do our best in dance class.

No matter what the activity, an effective warm up gets all the major muscle groups moving.  Some instructors use dance isolations in the warm up, and while these can certainly work as part of the specific preparation for your style, larger, multi-joint movements that aren’t typical in belly dance are also important to really get the body prepared for the rest of class.

As I’ve said so many times before in the DBQ, this is not the time for long static stretches. If an instructor leads the class in splits at the beginning of class, the only “splitting” you should do is out the door!

Some instructors leave the students to warm up on their own before class, but I have never felt comfortable with this practice because the students often simply don’t know how. Even if they are familiar with good general warm up techniques, they don’t know what you specifically have planned for the lesson. This may include lots of shoulder, back or head movements that require extra attention to those areas of the body. In my classes,  always tell my students what’s planned  as we start and any specific thing we are doing to prepare our bodies to be ready for it.

What exactly does a warm up do for our bodies?

  • An effective warm up routine increases our heart rate and breathing, which brings more oxygen to our muscles so they can do more than sit at a desk or in a car, which is probably what they were doing before class.
  • Getting all the major muscles moving increases the internal temperature of our body. That doesn’t mean we’re hot and sweaty already.  Warm muscles are more receptive to movement, especially those that use a larger range of motion that our daily activities.
  • Our joints get a lube-job.  When our body gets the cues that we’re picking up the pace of our day, it adjusts the fluid in our joints for better functioning. This is important for everyone, but especially those with the remnants of old injuries, arthritis or tendinitis issues.
  • On a less scientific level, I believe that the warm up is also a psychological transition from my students’ work day to their “me time”. It plugs their brain back into their body so they can focus on learning and the joy of moving.

Those first 10 minutes of class set the stage for the rest of the hour. Get things off to a good start, either on your own or as the instructor. Now that you know all the good things that happen to your body in the first few minutes, make sure to get there on time so you don’t miss out!

When Your Wrists Say “No”

April 5, 2012

playing zills with a wrist injuryA few weeks ago I got an email from a dancer who used to enjoy playing zills but no longer could due to carpal tunnel issues. Following surgery she has limited hand mobility to play finger cymbals. She was looking for ideas on how she might still be able to use her zills in her dance given these new limitations. I thought this was an interesting question and one that certainly other dancers have had to deal with, so I thought I’d share a few alternative ideas  with everyone here.

Switch instruments

If the issue is only in one hand, consider using a small, light tambourine to participate in your music. A tambourine makes a wonderful, playful and exciting prop that really works with your movement. You can watch a nice example of this here. In this video, Amani is using a larger tambourine, but you get the idea of how versatile it can be, whether the music is slow or lively.

Think “2 Hands”

Striking your zills together in the usual way involves flexion and extension of the ring finger and thumb. The muscles that do this are actually in the forearm, but their tendons that connect to the finger bones run through the wrist, Instead of producing your sound by bringing together the 2 zills on one hand, use both hands. Here are a few examples of ways to make different sounds and accents without aggravating your wrists.

  • Clap Accents: Bring your hands together and clap all 4 zills at one.  Just as with a one-handed sound, you will get a lower, duller sound if you bring them together and keep them closed than if you strike them and open immediately so that they ring. Using these two tones together creatively you can have some fun. Try it!
  • Open Ring: Position your zills as if they made a little box with one pair resting on the top and bottom, the other pair on two opposite side. Check out the picture at the top of this post to illustrate . Wag the hand with the “sides” so that they ring against the stable “top and bottom” zills. This can be done softly or exuberantly, depending on your music.
  • Tap It Out: Holding your hands as you did for a regular clap, you can play many of the same rhythmic pattern you normally would on one hand without the stress of finger flexion and extension if those movements now cause you difficulty or pain. Instead of “right” and left”, substitute “ring fingers” and “thumbs”.   If you use the old trick of having one zill in a different metal, you can have more than one pitch too.

The need to have your hands together to make sound will probably mean that playing will be more of an accent than a continual sonic layer in your dance.  Explore different ways to position your arms that allow your movement to be seen and your body line to be balanced. For example, play overhead while doing larger hip or travelling movements. Position yourself with arms forward on a diagonal to the audience while doing movements that are best viewed in profile. Hold your hands coyly in front of one shoulder while doing movement on the opposite hip – then switch! Yes, there will be some adjustments, but with some effort and flexible thinking, a dancer does not have to mourn the loss of her zills if she’s willing to try some new approaches.

Have you stopped playing zills due to a wrist injury? Have you found ways to play with reduced mobility in your hands and wrists? Tell us about it in the comments below…

CD Review: Hossam Ramzy’s “Baladi Plus”

February 13, 2012

Baladi PlusI recently got a copy of  Hossam Ramzy’s “Baladi Plus”. True to its name, this CD has a heavy, folksy feel throughout its eight tracks. As an instructor, I find a lot to like in this CD and my students can count on hearing a lot of it in class. This one will definitely be taking up permanent residence on my teaching  iPod!

The CD opens with “Night Foal” (2:29) which sets the tone for the music to come. It starts out with a rebaba improvisation that is shortly joined by a mizmar. The rebaba drops into a drone in the background while the mizmar takes the lead in what I can only describe as a succulent and delicious taqsim. Mizmar is one of those love-it or hate-it instruments. If you love mizmar, this will move you. If you don’t… well, move on to the next track!

The second track, “Arabian Knights” (8:33) is a straight up Saidi. The liner notes say this was written for the dance of the stallions the Said region is known for. If you don’t have any dancing horses around, don’t worry. This mid-paced, even tempered Saidi makes a fantastic drill track. I can see it being used for ATS drill, Saidi zill drills or cane practice where its over 8 minute length is a real plus. This will be a mainstay on my playlist for teaching Saidi workshops.  Just because I’m recommending it for drill, don’t think it’s too boring for performance. The mizmar has a fun melody line and the rebaba pops up for some cute little accents in the background that could be expressed in choreography or improvisation.

“Mashalla” (8:08) is a rhythmic play on the similarities and differences between the Masmoudi and Maqsoum rhythms which have the same pattern but in different time signatures. I think this is really cool because I’ve demonstrated this with zills to my classes for years – now I can let them hear it directly in one piece of music too. Aside from this fun musical trivia bit,  this would also make a good drill track for shimmies.

Track 4, “Alla Hai” (5:58) is a Zaar, an Egyptian ritual dance to rid the particpants of evil spirits. It starts as a slow, plodding 2/4  that gradually picks up speed. This would be a very good track for drilling basics with zill triplets.

“Baladi We Hetta”  or “Baladi Plus” (9:17) is the title track. It has a lively pace and an accordion melody that you takes you on a great ride for improvisation. To me, this track feels like the second half of a traditional baladi progression. It has a built in drum solo starting around the 5:00 mark to the end, which is pretty handy for a performance piece.

If you like the flow of soft Chiftitelli pieces, you will most likely enjoy “Wahda We Bas” (7:16). This track has a Wahda Kabira base rhythm holding up a pretty oud melody, which playfully teases at Chiftitelli a couple times in the song. But just when you’re settled into the flow around 4:15 it gracefully sneaks into a Samaai (10/8) which makes it all the more interesting in my book. This would be a lovely piece for veil work.

“Malfouf Ala Westi” (6:54) means “Wrapped Around My Hip” – what a great title for a bellydance song! This track is entirely in the Malfuf rhythm, most often used for entrances and exits in cabaret pieces. Here it is the backdrop for a baladi piece with more of that juicy Egyptian accordion. This would make a really good show closer for a full set – it has a nice build up to a strong finish. Off the stage and in the studio, this would be a good piece to use for practicing the fast travelling steps we use to enter and exit the stage.

And the best comes last…. dear “Roah Albi” (7:20), where have you been all my dancing life? That’s ok, if I heard this too early on as a performer I wouldn’t have been able to handle it! If you are into doing virtuoso drum solos this track is manna from heaven. You better eat your Wheaties if you plan to dance to this – it’s long and unrelenting in dishing up rhythm changes and  interesting hooks you just will not want to pass up. It has some fun call and response passes between the tabla and zills and a great roll section perfect for some fun shimmy-play. All that would be enough but to gild the lilly, that Samaai is back around 4:00 – and that really pleases the rhythm junkie in this dancer. When I said eat your Wheaties, I meant it because Mr. Ramzy will work you hard for the last 2:30. I LOVE it. This IS my next drum solo – bring it on!

You see, I told you there was a lot to like about this CD! From stage to studio this one will get lots of use around here.

Already own this CD? What are you favorite tracks and how do you use them? Tell us in the comments below….

My Battle with the “B-Word”

February 3, 2012

Last week I was doing an informal talk on bellydance at a bookstore. A woman came in, not even knowing there was one scheduled. She heard the Pandora bellydance station playing on the store sound system and did a little dance to herself as she waited for the clerk. She dropped in to chat with me. It turns out that this woman, who was in her 60’s, used to dance with Anahid Sofian in New York City when she was in her 20’s. She shared many stories of the New York scene in its heyday when people like Morocco were headlining clubs, backed by fabulous bands.

When she first walked in, I didn’t know her background of course.  Thinking I was talking to a complete civilian, I told her we were going to talk about some popular ideas and misconceptions about belly dance. She replied, “like the word bellydance itself.” Oh yes! Myself, I’ve had a very ambivalent and reluctant relationship with the “B-word.”

When I started studying about 15 years ago, I didn’t think much about the word and accepted it on the face value of what I understood it to be in the general public at the time. For me, this was minus the stripper notions because I’d seen plenty of classy cabaret dancers growing up in the Philadelphia area. My parents loved live entertainment of all sorts and took us to tons of ethnic events and restaurants. It may have been a year or two into dancing that I even became aware of the unfortunate and uninformed association between the two.

After I’d been in the sparkly mix for about 5 years, I started to explore the folkloric roots and cultural information. At this point, I developed a distinct dislike for the world “bellydance” because even in its best general public definition, I felt it really didn’t convey the culture and tradition of this worthy dance style. At its worst, it did convey a lot of sexpot stereotypes.

When I began to teach and do more culturally oriented performances, I made a concerted effort to not use the word “bellydance” on my advertising, website or in conversations about what I personally was doing. I used terms like “Middle Eastern dance”, “raks sharqui” or “Egyptian dance” to try to get my message across. Face to face conversations usually went something like this:

Joe Public:  Oh, you perform! What do you do?

Me: I do Middle Eastern dance.

Joe Public: <blank stare>
(Maybe he’s not the brightest crayon in the box.. I wait for him to process this.)
<still staring>

Me:  You know, like bellydance. <grits teeth>

Joe Public: <lights up in recognition> Cool!

Me: <sigh>

I swam upstream with this for about 2 or 3 years. Yes, I am stubborn. Eventually I realized that right or wrong, this was really a losing battle – and one that was not very pragmatic from a business standpoint. So I reluctantly, and carefully began to include the word “bellydance” on my cards and in my conversations. There was definitely still some teeth gritting going on at first.

Perhaps I think too much, but for me I really needed a way to live and dance peacefully with the “B-word.”  In the bigger world at the time, Bellydance Superstars was becoming more visible on the pop culture scene.   I absolutely have some gripes with the project, but at least it wasn’t a stage full of scantily clad belly-bunnies.

My personal paradigm shift happened around year 12. I decided to accept the word “bellydance” and use it openly and with conviction. I decided that I would claim and wear the badge with integrity and be the best example I could be of the culture, grace and joy our dance has to share with the world. And if the masses want to call me a “bellydancer”…. well, I will do my part to help them redefine it.

Now the conversation goes more like this…

Joe Public: Oh, you perform? What do you do?

Me: I bellydance professionally. I teach and perform the dance styles of Egypt and around the Middle East – the ones you’ve probably seen as bellydance and the folkloric styles also.

Joe Public: <no blank stare!> Cool!

“BELLYDANCE” Do you love the word or loathe it? Have your feelings about being identified as a “bellydancer” changed over the years you have been involved?  

I know you’ve got opinions!  Tell us in the comments below…