Posts Tagged ‘bellydance’

Have You Failed Lately? Thoughts on Growth and Challenge in Belly Dance

February 12, 2013

FAILWhen was the last time you failed at one of your belly dance pursuits? You haven’t lately? That’s too bad. If you have, good for you. Last week I was listening to an episode of The Accidental Creative and this topic really hit home.

Failure is good – and it’s good for you. Not only does it keep your feet on the ground, failing means you are stretching the borders of what you are willing to try in expanding the range of your skills. If we take challenging new workshops, we can find ourselves struggling through unfamiliar drills or long choreography. A lot of experienced dancers shy away from this kind of situation because they’re afraid of being seen by their peers doing anything less than perfectly.

There is so much to learn in belly dance and the associated regional folkloric styles; we could live and dance a full lifetime and still have new ground to cover. One dancer who I’ve always admired in this area is Helena Vlahos. When she still lived here in Phoenix, she would regularly show up at the workshops of dancers who weren’t even born yet when she was already a star on the ethnic club circuit. Not only did she show up with a gracious attitude, she was never afraid to try things someone else’s way and say with good humor “that’s hard, I’ll have to practice that.” A great example for us all.

There’s another up side to this kind of failure – one that is especially  important for belly dance instructors. I firmly believe that it is essential for teachers to consistently challenge themselves. Not only does it grow your dance skills, it reminds you of how your students feel when they are learning new material from you. New skills may feel awkward or require new levels of coordination they haven’t yet mastered. As teachers, we should never lose touch with what that feels like.

Personally, I relish this kind of failure, which is only temporary if we persevere.I try to follow Helena’s excellent example and laugh at myself, then get back to work.  I find that things  just beyond my immediate reach don’t discourage me – they fire me up. It’s why I keep going back to aerial yoga and knitting, even though I’m not particularly good at them.

Some failures are a little harder to take. I’ve produced some truly innovative belly dance shows with quality dancers and musicians… that were all but ignored by my dance community. The financial hit is just as tough as the emotional hit, but hey – this isn’t a business for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. Do I regret these risks? Not at all. It was awesome – too bad you missed it!  I may have lost enough to buy a Bella, but I know that I pushed my creative and production experience to new ground and even more importantly I learned a ton along the way – that will never be lost.

When belly dance opportunities present themselves in the form of a visiting instructor, a new style or the inspiration for a show, maybe we shouldn’t ask ourselves “why should I?” but rather “why not?”.  No, it might not work. Or it might. Either way, there is a “win” in there somewhere if you’re willing to look for it. We need to step away from the idea that failure to fully reach the goal line is a badge of shame. It’s a badge of courage that you try with all you’ve got.

What belly dance challenge (large or small) have tried and failed? What good things did you learn from it? Tell us in the comments below…

6 Things To Know About Stretching & Belly Dance

January 19, 2013

Stretch PicFlexibility is essential in belly dance. It gives us the range of motion to complete our movements with ease and grace. The field of exercise science has done quite a few flip-flops over the years in its recommendations on safe and effective stretching.  As new research emerges, these change and improve . If your main experience with flexibility exercises came from your high school P.E. class, or someone who isn’t up to date on the most current knowledge,  it may be time to re-think when and how you stretch.

  • The most common type of stretching is static stretching and this is generally considered the safest and most effective for the majority of people and their activities. In static stretching, you take the position to the point of a slight stretch, without causing pain. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, breathing and consciously relaxing the muscle for best effect. This is repeated 3 to 5 times for each side.
  • Dynamic stretching, for example bouncing down to touch your toes, is not a recommended stretching method for most people.  While it does have its applications in certain sports, it is not necessary or recommended for us as belly dancers. This type of stretching can cause muscle strains and tears – stick to static stretching.
  • The American College of Sports Medicine’s exercise guidelines for the general population recommend flexibility exercises be done at least twice a week. In training for activities where range of motion is a major feature, such as dance or gymnastics, more frequent  – even daily stretching is beneficial, provided it is done following activity when the muscles are warm.
  • The muscle groups that are most likely to be tight are the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and chest. Be sure to include them all in your flexibility routine.
  • Once upon a time, it was thought that stretching after a strenuous workout prevented DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). This is the kind of soreness that hits you the day after an 8-hour dance workshop and sticks around for the next two days. We now know that it won’t prevent DOMS , but it won’t make it worse either. Proper stretching after activity is always a good idea.
  • Research in the past 10 years has recommended that stretching be saved for post-workout, but that’s not the whole story. The ACSM does recommend this as a general rule, but has also stated that for activities such as dance and gymnastics, which require a high degree of flexibility in performance, some stretching should be done before activity. It still needs to be done on warm muscles however, so a dynamic warm up needs to comes first. Deep, long-held stretches are still most effective after dancing.

For a variety of stretches useful for belly dance, check out some of the Saturday Stretch “Daily Bellydance Quickies” on my YouTube channel

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!

An “Interesting” Experience

November 10, 2010

Last weekend my student troupe and I performed our newest choreography, a multi-part Saidi, at our MECDA chapter’s annual festival. They were very excited about it and deserved to be – they worked on it diligently for months, aligning cane angles and synchronizing their spins. Their post-show glow took a rude hit in the dressing room unfortunately when another dancer approached them and said, “Your piece was…. interesting.”  When she told me later my student did a look-down-the-nose, raised eyebrow imitation of the person who delivered the comment. Wow.

As much as I’d like to believe the best of people, I doubt this was meant as a compliment. “Interesting”? I did my homework and the piece was traditional from the music selections, to the costuming, to the movement vocabulary. We used some ingenuity in the multi -person cane tricks but even those were inspired by formations done by the Reda folkloric troupe in their choreographies. Even our addition of a Raks Balas segment didn’t venture too far out there.

Keeping that in mind, what do I think about that comment? I think the problem here is not only a shortage of politeness but narrow knowledge base. Before I go on, let me say that I wasn’t able to identify the speaker from what my students told me – and I’m glad I can’t.  Really, I don’t want to know. I probably know the person and I’d rather just skip the whole forgive and forget thing.

We had a similar experience last year at the same festival, but thankfully it was handled a lot better. My dance partner (yes, the crazy one) and I did a traditional Khaleegy piece. We did not include any cultural information in the introduction. Later a good friend of ours, a tribal dancer, told us she didn’t “get” what we were doing with the dresses or our hair so we explained the basic Khaleegy facts. With this cultural frame of reference she “got” it and recommended we include an introduction next time we perform it so the audience could better appreciate it.

We took her advice when we next performed it. In speaking to the show organizer, a very well-known dancer with a lifetime of experience, I requested it be introduced with some background information. I told her about our friend’s reaction and she agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, she told me years ago she saw a dancer wearing a short trashy dress, doing sloppy veil work and chewing gum on stage! She couldn’t believe it and thought she was a hot mess. Years later, she learned it was  – you guessed it – a Melaya Leff. I’m certain she was far too gracious to ever walk up to that dancer and tell her it was…. interesting.

I felt really bad that my students had to weather this little rain cloud on their parade. Being relatively new to performing, they haven’t yet developed the necessary thick skin and selective hearing we sometimes need in the bellydance world. If they wanted a comeback for an uninformed – and unsolicited – comment like that in the future, I suggested they reply with “You’re not familiar with that style?” and fill them in on the background.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If a dancer keeps her world small by studying one style with one teacher and not exposing herself to other styles, regional dances and folkloric elements, she’s bound to think odd things when something new comes into view. If  we choose to specialize in one style, we should keep our minds open to being familiar with other styles – even if we choose never to dance them. At the very least, a dancer should be willing to consider that she may be looking at something she knows nothing about.  If all else fails, remember what your Mom told you… if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.  Then go home and Google it.

If you’re on Facebook, you can see our “interesting” performance.

What Language Do You Speak?

September 15, 2010

Early this year I attended an out-of-state weekend workshop  to study Turkish Rom dance. After the final class, a group of us went out to restock our many burned calories. Our dinner party included the instructor and the sponsor in addition to a group of us students. Aside from being hungry, I was also there to work – specifically, to interview the instructor for Shimmy Magazine.

After the meal and interview were wrapped up, the talk continued heading in the direction of comparative styles. The sponsor was giving her opinion and said she liked Turkish style bellydance best because it is “so much more expressive than Egyptian.” My gut reaction left me speechless – probably a really good thing at that moment! ( I think my dance partner later said all the color drained from my face.) What could possibly be more expressive than Egyptian music with all its drama? I regained my powers of speech and tossed in my point of view – one long-steeped in Oum Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The sponsor was unswayed  and still convinced that Turkish style was the epitome of expression in bellydance. I dropped the point and left her to her opinion, but had a long drive home to think about why we were each so shocked at the other’s fiercely held view.

In turning the world “expression” over and over in my mind, comparisons to language kept coming up. Learning a dance style is like learning another language. New movements are like new words. Combinations and gestures that convey the style are like context and idioms. As we gain mastery over these elements – be they words or movements – we gain fluency. Fluency is what allows us to truly express.

Expression happens in all languages with native speakers and diligent students; the less skilled linguist has to be satisfied with mechanically picking their way word by word through a conversation until they earn the badge of fluency. The same is true in dance. When a style truly becomes part of us, we have body fluency and the ability to express both ourselves and the music with every movement. And just as with languages, we can be fluent in one or maybe more, and quite challenged in many others.

By the time I reached home, I concluded it isn’t that one style of bellydance is inherently  “more expressive” than another, it is that each dancer has a different skill set, body-fluent in some styles more than others. We can choose to specialize and be mono-lingual dancers, work hard to be dance multi-linguists or happily reside somewhere in between. The important thing isn’t where we are on that scale, but that we realize it’s US and not the style that determine the possibilities for expression.

What language does your body speak?

Under the (Beladi) Influence

August 18, 2010

I love beladi music. I love the way my ears are seduced by the first strains of accordion, then my hips are playfully poked by the scattered drum beats. I am willfully led down the garden path by the growing steadiness and energy till I am whirled like a dust devil in the final bars and released. Ahhhh.

Beladi music sucks me in body, mind and soul like no other kind of Middle Eastern music – and I enjoy it all, from classical to shaabi to pop. When I’m driving, it’s either NPR or my iPod coming through the speakers. If it’s my iPod it is most likely Middle Eastern music – but not Beladi.  I can’t drive while listening to – it’s dangerous. It goes kind of like this…

Police officer: “Ma’am, do you know you were going 20 mph on this here freeway?”

Me: “Was I, really? I was just listening to this song – I guess I didn’t notice…  I looove that slow part…”

(No, that didn’t really happen – but it could and would!)

Dancing to beladi music is like being voluntarily possessed. You let the rhythm and melody inside you and carry it in your torso. I picture it trying to get out and my torso is a stretchy bag that contains it. The melody snakes to the right and takes my hip with it, then throws a beat to the side and there I go!

My personal dance credo is “in the ears, through the heart, out the hips” and this is never more true than in beladi style. Because of the immediate and reactive nature of this dance form, it’s very awkward to teach through drills, combos and choreography. It requires some switching of tactics to intense listening and developing a vocabulary of expressive punctuation, texture and flow that can be accessed instantly as the music demands.

Beladi isn’t big and flashy with layer upon layer of complicated technique. It is not over-the-top in “Superstars” style. The general public is seeing more and more of the Big & Flashy brand of bellydance these days. I worry that they are being desensitized and should they come across a beautiful, subtle, soulful and succulent beladi performance, they will fail to appreciate it.

I appreciate it. I adore it. I just can’t drive to it, so be warned if you hear Mario Kirlis’ “Little Beladi” coming from my open window…. I may be D.U. (B.) I.

Standing in the Beginner’s Shoes

August 4, 2010

When you’ve been doing something for a long time, it’s difficult to remember what it was like to be a newbie. Once time has woven the once-unfamiliar into the fabric of your being it’s hard to recall when it wasn’t part of you – or the struggle to get there. It is usually (hopefully) those that have been down that road who are teaching the newcomers.

As instructors, we regularly stand before an eager group of women ready to try bellydance for the first time. We demonstrate hip drops and basic Egyptian walks. We explain and count and cue, and often watch them flounder to find the beat and step on it. Do you remember when that was you?

Getting some “beginner perspective” every once in a while is a good thing for an instructor. This past weekend I was one of a group of workshop presenters at a bellydance event. I dropped in to a Bhangra/Bollywood workshop for fun. I picked up a few moves, but the most valuable thing I got was the opportunity to stand in the beginner’s shoes.

The rhythm count was unfamiliar, the hopping around was not my style – I’m not a “bouncy” type. The wide low stance felt weird and un-dancelike to me. The arm movements and hand gestures were hard to remember. I felt awkward and self-conscious. All this might make it sound like I didn’t like the style or the class but that wasn’t the case at all. I did enjoy it and it’s also a style I enjoy watching.  If I decided to learn it, it would clearly be a long time before I looked Bollywood-cute or like anything more than a spastic marionette.

I do consider myself a patient teacher and my students’ comments back that up. However, tonight as I started a new session with a large crop of total beginners I had both patience and a renewed connection to how awkward it can feel to stand in their place. I’m always excited and proud to watch new students execute their first steps, but as tonight’s students hip twisted their way across the floor it was just that much better.

My Crazy Dance Partner..or What I Learned from a Turkish Drop

July 28, 2010

I have a crazy dance partner.  I could describe her for you, but I think you’ll get a better sense of our relationship from the tale of a choreography in the making…

We had a drum solo from the prior season, but she was tired of it and was itching for a new one. She’s like that – once it’s done, she’s often done with it. I’m thinking, it’s finally super-smooth and polished let’s get some mileage out of all that work. She wanted to move on.  I held out for a while then agreed to start a new one.

We picked music, which is usually the easy part.  She was sold on the one that had the cool gong sound at the end. Honestly, I think the whole solo could have been mediocre, but the gong just did it for her. I liked the whole thing, and could live with the gong – decision made.

We played with some ideas for the beginning and everything was going fine. During  this phase, I happened to see a video of two tribal dancers on Facebook. They had some really interesting shapes and ways of moving around each other that I thought might inspire some ideas for our piece, so I sent her the link. They also happened to be doing a combo that had a Turkish drop that came up into some floorwork, but that wasn’t the point of sending it.

I hit the send button and heard a huge GONG then lighting struck. “Oh, #$%^! She’s gonna want to do a Turkish drop!”  At our next rehearsal she announced, “You know what we should do on the gong?” I turned away and winced because I knew what was coming. “A Turkish drop – it’ll be AWESOME!” I know her too well.

“No. There will be no Turkish drops.” I answered. I explained the risk of damage to the occipital nerve if you hit your head, not to mention the stress on the knees, the ACL in particular. I spent 5 years and an awful lot of yet-to-be-paid-back money to learn about athletic injury and how to avoid it. Wantonly throwing oneself on the ground was a risk not worth the “wow factor.” She pouted. Over the next week I came up with other arguments in support of my position. For example, she had health insurance and I didn’t. I dance Egyptian style, why should I do a Turkish drop?

All of this was happening during the winter Olympics. A week or two later I was at the gym on the elliptical trainer. The sports channel was showing ski jumpers. I watched and thought about the level of insanity required to fling your body into the air on a mountain with skis to complicate the landing process. It was amazing to watch, and somehow the thought crept into my head that if they played it safe all the time, they wouldn’t be doing those amazing things. At the next rehearsal, she tried again and I said “OK, we’ll do a Turkish drop.” I wish I had taken a picture of her face at that moment.

The gap in our approach still wasn’t entirely bridged. I told her we needed to strengthen this and stretch that to do it safely. She just wanted to fling herself down there – right now. Me – I trained, and most importantly,  I had to talk myself into it. To be quite precise, I had to “spin myself” into it.

We hit the decks at the end of an 8 count spin. For me, the drop didn’t happen on 8. It began with the spin. When I started to turn, I had committed to the floor. It’s like a cliff diver in free fall before hitting the water – there’s no turning back. If I didn’t look at it that way, I don’t think I’d have ever done it and it’s like that every time.

In the end, this story isn’t really about a Turkish drop. It’s about having a dance partner that is in some ways your polar opposite. We have enough common ground in style and musical taste to make a good dance pair, but personality-wise our differences are more complementary than similar. She pushes me past my borders. I keep her feet on the ground.

Right now she’s off hiking the mountains of Peru – she does stuff like that. I can’t wait for her to get back so we can start our next choreography adventure.

She’s Got Hips Podcast Episode #3

April 8, 2010

LISTEN HERE : Yasmina of AZSGH Episode #3

Interview with Yasmina on her bellydance journey from cabaret to tribal fusion and her adventures in between.