Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"Those Who Can Do, & Those Who Can't Teach" the Bellydance Edition

  Maybe because I worked as a professional performer for 20 years before I had the guts to teach, I am truly amazed by the audacity of some of the people I see teaching Bellydance. I barely feel qualified myself when I think of all there is to know, & how much, after 40 years immersed in this dance, I don't know. But then I'm the queen of self deprecation, so I could be a little wrong about that.

  What I'm not wrong about is that there are a lot of people being fooled out there, being taught by "teachers" who have no business trying to impart knowledge, when they have such a shallow well to draw from. But how do you know this if you are a new student to the dance? And do you care, if all you want is a little exercise, or to put on a fancy costume occasionally? Well I really wish you would care, because whether or not this dance survives in a world of high octane dance forms, depends on who is teaching. And you really should have some respect for a dance form from a specific culture, & know that you are treading into something steeped in a tradition & history you may know nothing about, but really should before you put that costume on.

  If you find yourself really loving this dance, & coming to the realization that your teacher might not be all she/he pretends to be, you have studied with this person for years, working hard & not improving, or you've been going blithely along without knowing anything about your teacher's true credentials, then maybe I can give you some tips & warning signs.

Here goes:

Ask your teacher if she/he has been a professional performing dancer. How long did they dance, where did they dance, for what ethnic groups did the teacher perform for. If the teacher was a successful performer, popular with Middle Eastern people, then give them 20 points.

If your teacher is a native to a country whose dance they are teaching, and that teacher has been successful in their home country, then give them 50 points.

How long has your teacher been a professional in at least 2 aspects of Middle Eastern dance i.e. teacher, professional performer, academic. Add 2 points for every year.

Ask your teacher how long they studied Bellydance, & with what teachers. Ask your teacher's teachers if this person was qualified to teach, or particularly talented enough to teach. Teachers will let you know if the former student was truly qualified, or just possessed a distorted vision of their own talents, believing they had the right to teach before they really did. If you discover your teacher is more hype than knowledge, then give them -10 points.

 If your teacher's teacher is a master, & acknowledges that your teacher was a gifted protege, one who may not have had professional experience, but possessed a talent for teaching, then give them 15 points.

Ask your teacher what other dance forms they studied. Sometimes a strong background in another style is a detriment, & other times it is an asset. Some knowledge of ballet & ballet terms can be an advantage. If your teacher has studied a wide variety of dance, then give them 5 points. 

Is your teacher a dancer you enjoy watching? Is your teacher well respected in the dance community? Does your teacher have an original style? If yes to all the above, then give them 10 points.

A good teacher should not keep their students to themselves. A student shouldn't be made to feel they are betraying a teacher if they would like to further their dance education with other teachers. A good teacher will assist a student in finding the best teachers to broaden their skills. If your teacher has selflessly introduced you to other excellent teachers, then give them 10 points. If your teacher tries to keep you from other teachers, then give them -10 points.

If you often see your teacher taking class from other dancers, participating in workshops & furthering their own educations, then give them 10 points.

Add it up.
60+ points - a definite yes!
40+ points - you're in good hands!
30+ points - you may not be with a top teacher, but you're still learning something valuable!
20 & under points - red flags should go up, & you should research who the best teachers are in your area.

This is by no means scientific, but could be used as a general guideline.
There are some great teachers out there. Give them your business, your heart, your sweat, your trust, & your skill level will rise quickly. Don't stop there! Take advantage of workshops, go to the Middle East & North Africa to study, travel to festivals.

If you are young & cute & find yourself working as a dancer, don't rest on your laurels. If you don't continue your dance education, when your youth & looks fade you will no longer be needed. But if you are educated & talented, other doors will open & this dance can become a lifelong passion.

Find your great teachers, and dance dance dance. It will be worth it. Trust me!















Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Artist Prince & the Universal Emotion of Tarab

   It will take me a long time to get over the death of Prince. This is an artist I discovered on his first televised appearance in the '80s, shockingly performing in zebra striped crop top, briefs & leg warmers. To my rebellious artistic spirit, this registered as a momentous occasion - a visionary artist to torture my more moderate friends with. Fast forward 25 or so years & I finally saw Prince live, 3 times at a large venue, once leaning on the stage in a small venue, & once at an intimate club in his home town, Minneapolis. I walked away from each concert feeling like I had a deep physical & almost spiritual experience with his powerful energy. What surprised me, upon hearing of the tragic news of his passing, was the unprecedented outpouring of grief & love from the world at large. I was not alone in my infatuation & deep respect for the genius of this rare artist. I was not alone in my feelings of deep loss & connection.

  I had often read of the Arab world's passionate reaction to the death of Oum Kalsoum & with my Oriental Dancer's eye, thought of this as a uniquely Arabic experience due to the power of this woman having created the feeling of Tarab for all who heard & understood this exceptional artist. Tarab is a term thrown around in the Belly Dance world as an ecstasy created by dancer & musicians together, pulling the audience into their transcendent world. Boasting dancers have stated on social media things like (paraphrasing) "I achieved Tarab when I danced to live music" (which sounds like they had an orgasm onstage) to things like "Only Arabic people can really feel Tarab" or "this phenomenon doesn't occur in Western music" or "You have to dance in the Middle East to understand Tarab".

  Of course there is much to read on the academic study of Tarab.  Noted authority Ali Jihad Racy explains Tarab as a "multifaceted experience that can have intense emotional and mentally transforming effects ranging from excitement, inspiration, creativity and empowerment to a sense of timelessness intoxication and pain".

  Just this explanation, in my humble opinion explains well a phenomenon that occurs in human hearts, minds, bodies & spirits worldwide, a part of the human experience. Most cultures don't have a name for it. American phrases such as "being totally in the moment"or "worked into a frenzy" clumsily illustrate the same human condition.  I believe it is a close cousin to the athletic experience of "being in the zone" that can sweep an arena or stadium into shared exhilaration.

  What is this energy, this force, this ecstasy, this combined human climax? How is it that one artist can bring the world together in an entanglement of shared emotion? Is there a scientific explanation?
Perhaps Quantum Physics/Entanglement? Apparently Einstein called this Entanglement a “spooky action at a distance” as it occurs between parties who once came into contact, and maintain their contact even miles away. This has been experimentally demonstrated with individual atoms or light beams. Can it explain something that occurs in a shared human experience?

  I am an uneducated layman, looking for answers, looking to define why I am touched to my very soul by the humanity of an artist such as Prince. More than just being fans, I'm sure every person touched, in some way feels there is more to this deep connection.

  Tarab is not exclusive. Maybe the term is to the Arabic music & dance world, but the feeling is not. It is a precious gift, one that elevates us to that dimension humans don't normally inhabit. Is it heaven on earth? Yes, I'd say it is. And I say thank you to the artists who have touched us enough to take us out of our heads & bodies as we soar together in that shared state of bliss. It's what makes life worth living.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dance because You Can

  I guess you could say I've had an epiphany of sorts since my last sorry post. I was losing interest in dance, feeling like I just wasn't going anywhere and my better days were behind me. I felt like if I couldn't have a prestigious career then it wasn't worth the bother. And probably most of all I was practicing ageism on myself, influenced by the belief that the old need to move on & make way for the young. Find a rocking chair & fade away.

  Sometimes you need a good dose of reality, a knock on the head, a wake up call. You don't get to this age without people close to you falling ill, being injured or leaving this earth way too soon. And lately I feel like I'm getting slammed with bad news, enough to break my heart. It certainly makes you do some soul searching, & makes you so grateful for what you have & what you can still do.

                                                                This is 60. March 2016

  For today I am so grateful that I have no aches & pains. I am so grateful that I can still dance. I am so grateful for the dear people I've surrounded myself with. I'm grateful for every day I wake up.

  And so I recently put the eyelashes on, put the costume in the bag, & headed off to perform in my comfort zone - a small venue with live music. I hadn't prepared, didn't know what the musicians would play, I tried practicing around the house a bit but decided I was better off just leaving it to chance. But I went without reservation, which is more than I can say for my usual fussing & balking. I did it to celebrate this newfound gratefulness, to honor my friends who don't have the luxury of that choice: to dance or not. Because if you can do it, then why not? Why not say "I've survived, I'm still here & I'll dance while I still can".

  I watched a documentary on Loretta Lynn, one of many older artists who has inspired the younger generation. Musicians tend to have a reverence for their elders that dancers don't have. Dance can be a little superficial. Young & beautiful = respect. Old = has-been. But why do I have to care about such shallowness? If I can still dance, can still express myself, then I should. So from now on I will try on my new attitude & just do what I want. Isn't that one of the benefits of old age? The right to not care what anyone else thinks, to just do what I do because I want to? I'm going to ride that wave a while, in honor of those who can't. With love.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Slipping Away

   Belly Dance, you've been my identity for almost 40 years. You almost left me a few times, but then you'd come back in a new way, breathing new life into me, new reasons for dancing. Through longevity & serendipity, I've attained a certain amount of respect, a tiny amount of recognition. But I'm starting to feel the blood flowing quickly out of my dance veins, & I don't know if I'll be able to stem the flow this time. I just might have to let her go - my alter ego as dancer. The heartbeat is fading, & I don't think anyone will notice if one day she slips away for good. That's when you know it's time to bid farewell.

  So an obituary of sorts for this once dancing girl: She did it as a lark. She wanted attention & didn't know another way to get it. She didn't really love it, she didn't really invest in it. Her dancing was shallow & average. She was thrown into a new culture that she never fully embraced. She was an "It" girl for a fleeting moment, & she had many falls from grace. Yet she kept trying. She kept reinventing. She started caring & wanted to get it right. She would feel confident, only to be torn down, she never really believed the compliments, yet sometimes she thought she just might be ok. Because deep down below the glitter & glamourous costumes, the eyelashes & hair, was still the unbearably shy, sad child, the one who tried to be invisible - & maybe this was the best way for her to hide. It was a facade - an artificial & deceptive front.

  I don't expect anyone to show up at her funeral. People move on, & in an instant one can be forgotten. She wanted respect, she wanted recognition, but she didn't put in the work to deserve it. Yet she persevered & had many successes she was proud of. Was it a wasted life? I don't know. Will anyone remember? Maybe a few. So maybe she really did care, maybe she cared too much.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Dance is Not Fair! This is over 30 Years of Experience Talking!

 You've fallen in love with Belly Dance. It speaks to you. You've been inspired by a teacher & a community of dancers. You want to take it as far as possible, maybe be a professional, or a serious hobbyist who performs often. I am thankful for you. There's nothing I love more than to share this passion of mine with others who are motivated to learn. But so often I find myself licking the wounds of students who find their hopes dashed by the harsh realities of dance. I've personally licked my own share of wounds & would like to share the wisdom of my experience. This is geared towards the American dancer, but no doubt stands true for many other countries.

  Let me say right here & now. Dance is NOT fair! ...And belly Dance is no different.

1. The rules of normal life, the cliches we see on memes, do not necessarily transfer to the laws of dance. "If you work hard you will achieve success" might be true in other life pursuits, but it doesn't mean a lot in dance. Hard work will be rewarded for some who also have other desirable dance assets, but for others, hard work needs to be for the love of dance only, not for the possibility of working or being chosen for a dance company or performance.

2. You will see dancers who have put in minimal effort rise to enviable heights. This is so frustrating for long time students who have put in blood, sweat & tears learning the intricacies of Belly Dance, only to see some young beautiful upstart come in for a few months & start being wooed into companies or hired for jobs. Stop trying to figure it all out. It is what it is, plain & simple, no complexities.

3. If your teacher said you can be any size, shape, & age to Belly Dance, she is telling the truth - if your desires are to enjoy the process of learning, form friendships, perform at haflas & amateur showcases. If you take the teacher's word to mean anyone can be successful as a professional or in demand Belly Dancer, you might be very disappointed & confused.

4.  Yes, looks & youth can trump talent & experience. Belly Dance training may not even be necessary for some troupes to hire a dancer. There are professional Belly Dance companies who actively recruit jazz & contemporary dancers rather than look to the belly dance classes. They are looking for uniformity, beauty, youth & the ability to learn quickly.

5. You may be a whizz at learning choreography, & congratulations for a having a great skill! But often a student who feels they know a choreography really well, may not be executing the movements well at all. They often feel confused about why they may not be chosen for a company when they know the dance well. Knowing what step comes after what is only a small part. It's how you do the steps that counts more.

6.  You may be the most reliable person in the world. You may always be at the beck & call of the director or teacher, to the point of even obsequiousness. Then why do you see the flakey dancers who are never on time, or generally give the director headaches, be chosen over you? Who cares if they are talented as hell, it's not fair!  Well there you go, truer word was never spoken.

7.  Or the flip side -  you see the student who is a brown noser & you find it extremely annoying. She may even resent you or sabotage you because you are looking like a threat. You see her getting jobs she doesn't deserve, because she knows who to butter up. But - this one won't last, no need to fear. If you are good enough, she'll eventually be on the losing end of this scenario.

8. Competitions are subjective. They will never be fair, unless you're the winner.

9.  The sleazy girl, who no dancer likes or respects, is getting good jobs. You know she's undercutting, she's being less than decorous & the rumors are flying. Yet she's on the hot list for the clubs & parties. Maddening, irritating, but chances are there's nothing you can do to change it.

10.  You may be a victim of racism. Yes it is rampant, no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise. Your race or ethnicity alone might keep you from those coveted jobs.

11.   If you are already a professional dancer, there will come a day when you dance better than you ever have. You will finally feel your dancing is the way you've always wanted it to be. On that day you will probably be too old. Suddenly the jobs start drying up & troupes stop asking for you to perform. Belly Dancers are a little more fortunate than others. A beautiful dancer who keeps herself in shape can easily last through her mid 40s. Even then, she will often be overlooked & replaced.

12.  You are a respected teacher. You've paid your dues, you've got a lifetime of experience to share, but you can't get on that good workshop circuit. You see a dancer video go viral, sometimes warranted, sometimes not, & suddenly she's out there as a "master". You see teachers short on talent, but long on self promotion become a hot item for the name recognition. You may be deluding yourself about your abilities. You may not come across well in videos, or just never have anyone discover them. You may hate to promote yourself, suffering from a bit of "Tall Poppy" syndrome. You just can't get a break.

And this is where I leave it, because, yes even after close to 40 years making a living as a dancer, I have had my share of rejection. At different times I've been too skinny, too tall, too old, no name recognition, not attractive enough & the list goes on & on. Yes I still have dreams & goals for dance, but they may never materialize. And after all I've done it just doesn't seem fair. Point well taken.

                                                 






Monday, February 23, 2015

What's Missing in Competition Belly Dance?


 I was going to write a blog on Belly Dance competitions after attending Belly Dancer of the Universe (BDUC) last weekend. Then I read Luna of Cairo's blog (& I urge you to read it), & felt she covered all the bases and then some. Enough that I no longer felt compelled to add my two cents. Read here for her insightful comments:   http://www.kissesfromkairo.blogspot.com/
But then I got to thinking about the nature of competition & the belly dance competitors I've watched, & thought I might have something more to expound on. 

  I'm not going to bad mouth competitions or competitors. I am the mother of a former gymnast/dance team competitor, and after years in the stands, I've grown to respect highly the hard work, hours of repetition, & the palpable improvement of one's craft that competition promotes. I've had my share of belly dancers I've coached win competitions & always found it to be a fun & creative endeavor. I enjoy going to the competitions - the well prepared dances, the suspense, the beautiful costumes. Occasionally I watch them on Youtube if someone recommends a particularly good video, though I gave up actively searching for them due to lack of time & often boredom. And I have to separate belly dance competition from belly dance. It's really a different animal (for better or for worse).

 To expound on the different animal concept - let me just say this "competition vs authentic/artistic" is a battle going on in all of the dance world. Academic dance, ballet & modern dancers eschew & revile competition dance. They believe it's flashy, depending heavily on tricks & develops poor technique. I understand this argument & agree to a point. Yet there's something to be said for whipping out ten pirouettes & chucking an arial cartwheel into a double illusion. Competition dancers learn to be tough & learn to push their physical abilities to the limit, & consequentially it's changed the face of dance. It's raised the bar for young jazz/contemporary/hip hop dancers looking to make a living - you have to have some tricks in your arsenal. The traditional dance establishment is seething about this, but hey, at some point you have to face reality & realize you can't turn back the clock. 

  So let's just once & for all say that there are two different animals in our world as well - Belly Dance & Belly Sport. American & European competitions to an extent, have kept more of the dance in competition - so let's face it - Belly Sport is a Ukrainian/Russian phenomenon. But with all of the competition dance, I've noticed an element often missing from all these competitors. I've tried to put my finger on why the majority of videos & competitors I've watched leave me cold, even though the technique, creativity & packaging can be flawless. And this goes for all competition that requires some artistry - gymnastics, ice skating, ballroom dance, etc. Then I realized I was over- analyzing & it comes down to a very basic ingredient: Entertainment. 

  A belly dance competition isn't the place you'll find true tarab. Just the nature of the atmosphere & 3 or 4 minutes of canned music isn't enough to send a dancer into another world (& nothing worse than feigned anguish to lyrics not even quite understood!). Yes, getting in the zone - being totally in the moment is necessary, but if you prefer the dancer to really feel the music rather than perfectly execute steps, this is rarely the venue you'll see that either, although still important to strive for. Competition is, as I said before, just different.

  So what separates the wheat from the chaff? **Entertainment!** Yes, that elusive quality that dancers forget about. So often a competitor wants a pre choreographed number packed with bells & whistles. They've seen the well trained & polished dancers win, & feel this is a formula they need to join the ranks - & often that's all it takes. So if all dancers are executing their steps well, have the beautiful costume & polished look, how do they stand out in a sea of similar competitors? 

  This is my answer - get up there & entertain - show that infectious joy that brings on spontaneous hoots & hollers & the audience to their feet! Difficult you say? Damn right! I often think perhaps it's even an innate talent, since I've seen so few really entertaining competitors. So many are serious, frightened or choreograph silly gimmicks that come across as a little embarrassing.  Trying to turn inward to show raw emotion rarely works in this genre. True entertainers will stand out like refreshing rays of sunshine & make you, the audience, feel good (or any other emotion!) about life. Now that's a quality to aspire towards!

  So take a look at two competitors of a different stripe (takes little more than 1 minute), one executes a beautiful floor exercise with great skills & perfection. Then look at the second video & see another competitor, equally talented & perfect. Which one regularly gets the perfect 10s? Which competitor do audiences wait to see & rise to their feet when she does her thing? Which competitor makes me, watching on my computer, get goose bumps, laugh out loud & just plain old feel happy? 




                 A beautiful competitor with excellent execution which I appreciate, but quickly forget



                  A simple seat drop puts a lump in my throat & brings the audience to their feet


  This is what I want to see at a belly dance competition - that dancer who make my heart soar. Do I prefer a dance competition to a real, artistic, organic belly dance situation (nightclub, theater, etc)? No I don't. But it is what it is & it's not going away any time soon. In actuality it is possibly becoming THE way a dancer makes a name or gets the opportunity to be onstage in front of a large audience. 

  So let the games begin. Be well prepared, find music that brings out the best in you, get the ba-bam costume, & here's hoping you will bring the element of entertainment to the table. The world could use a lot more joy.

  In closing I want to include a video of my students who have won tons of competitions. Not conventionally beautiful, not a lot of bling - but the cheers say it all. That extra something special. This year they were inducted into the Belly Dancer of the Universe (BDUC) hall of fame for their many wins in all categories. Now that's entertainment!:



                             Recreating their 2014 BDUC first place choreography & performance. 
                                                                  Viridiana & Roxana

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Movie "The Turning Point", & the Joy of Being a Mentor

  One of my favorite movies is "The Turning Point" from the '70s. Not only because of the magnificent dance scenes with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but the timeless theme of the sacrifices dancers make. For so long I related to the Shirley MacClain character - becoming a wife & mother to the detriment of devoting a life to dance & the possible successes that could have been achieved, but at times I suppose I more resembled the Anne Bancroft character - the professional performer who milked every drop out of a fading career. But recently watching the movie, I realized I had crossed a new threshold when I related to the older, respected ballet coach, Madame Dakharova. Young, up & coming dance stars sought out Madame for one to one coaching - & one scene showed exactly why: a seemingly simple step was being shown with a nuanced tilt of the shoulders, & the budding pro ballerina was struggling with getting it right. Madame looked natural, mature & refined doing this movement - yet when we see the student, resplendent onstage, performing with American Ballet Theater (played by real life ABT ballerina Leslie Browne) she still doesn't get the shoulder movement correctly, giving her a coltish, immature look, as technically glorious as she was. And this was not intentional, but a real life example of the difficulty of nuanced, mature dance.

                                                       

  Here in my second half of life, I have the good fortune to have attained a position of Dance Mentor & Coach to many of LA's most promising professional young dancers, as well as to dedicated students with a passion for our dance form. It is an honor I don't take lightly, & with my always shaky feelings of self worth, an honor I am not sure I'm worthy of. I often tell myself, if you stick around long enough, you'll gain respect. Perhaps it's my overabundance of maternal instinct or possibly some overactive nurturing hormone or gene that draws me to this position, or possibly draws dancers seeking me out for council. Whatever it is, I am more than thankful for the opportunities it has rendered.

  I am so impressed with this new generation of dancers. Let's face it - it's now a whole lot more complicated than it was when I was in full professional mode:
1. There's the videos opening up the whole world, where we can see every style of dancer from every country with a click of a button. To be an original in this day & age is near impossible, when it's all been done before.
2. The jobs are few & far between & usually require a dancer to form or join a troupe, & almost always clever choreographies are required.
3. A dancer now needs a lot of training. Cross training, refining, perfecting technique. These dancers are better than their predecessors.
4. Competitions are often the doorway to a successful career. The stress, the preparation, the thrill of victory & more often the agony of defeat have made dance a sport, requiring not only the artistic values, but the values required of the athlete.

 The young dancers that seek me out have their eyes wide open. Their good training is firmly in place, & even more importantly, I feel blessed to work with dancers with unique styles & a true passion. I often wonder what I can offer, not wanting to disturb the balance these talented dancers have developed. Most often my advice is something to the effect of "Be yourself. Stay yourself. Continue to grow, but don't change because you think another style you've seen might be better, or that you feel you should dance like 'so & so'. Cut your own path."

 I have choreographed for troupes, although I warn them I am not a commercial choreographer & my style is probably too quirky & theatrical for mainstream parties, etc. I remember an interview I heard with Elvis Costello, how he would be embarrassed to bring new songs to the band, wondering if they would snicker, or if they were too personal to be shared. I get that, I relate. Showing choreographies to talented pros can scare me to death. Will they look at me blankly, thinking "this is total crap"?

 And the one thing I've realized I can't offer is the choreographed solo. To me Raqs Sharki, or the Belly  Dance solo is a personal journey, optimally improvised. 99% of the time a solo choreographed by someone else doesn't look right. Isn't entertaining. I could make more money if I could offer this skill, but it's almost an ethical issue, showing my age I suppose.

 Yet still they seek me out, & I adore them. And like Madame Dakharova in "The Turning Point", I believe I do have something to offer - those subtle things only fully seasoned dancers have achieved &  the (hopefully) sage advice of someone who has been there & done that. Perhaps a mentor is a motherly figure, someone to help navigate the journey through this daunting profession.

 But how fortunate for the older dancer to have respect of the younger ones. I think my generation regarded elders as the enemy (a holdover from the 'don't trust anyone over 30' era). How lovely that these new generations have somehow been instilled with such a high regard for experience & for artistic styles of the past. Like the Millennial musicians who still revere the Beatles, or the blues, I have been so impressed with the new generations. And what keeps an elder dancer more on her toes & more engaged than a talented young dancer seeking out some knowledge? They are my muse, my reason for not giving up.

  This has been a gift and a blessing, & possibly the most rewarding part of my career. To be the best I can possibly be for these trusting proteges, I will continue to learn and grow, to try to stay one step ahead. To understand the new world of dance & not be stuck in the past. The rest is all there inside me, from the decades of blood, sweat & tears, & I am most happy to share this. In this way, perhaps a little piece of the past, & selfishly, a little piece of me will live on. What more could a dancer hope for?