Monday, September 26, 2011

Drama, drama, everywhere: How to handle it gracefully

Drama is an unfortunate part of belly dancing. No matter how hard you try, it always finds a way to insert itself into your shows, your classes, and your professional life. You wish you could find a way of eliminating it, or just avoid dealing with it, but unless you choose to stop dancing all together, you'll always find that you have to deal with the drama.

Depending on where the drama originated from, you may not have to be involved, but you usually have to make a choice. Do I get involved or don't I? Whose side should I take? Should I even take a side? What will this mean for my professional life?

Dancer versus Dancer

Most of the drama I've seen has been between dancers. One dancer might accuse another of stepping on her toes, and both sides of the argument will get someone to back them up. With this type of drama, if you are not directly involved, you can safely remain an arm's length away from. If the involved dancers are professionals, they may even be able to handle it with grace, and without ruining it for everyone else.

For instance, one of my bellydance friends and I were visiting a city we used to live in, and we took some of the local dancers to see my old teacher perform. As it turned out, one of the locals we were with was locked in professional combat with my old teacher. Fortunately, the local dancer was completely professional, sat through the performance, and never mentioned it again. This is an ideal way to handle drama, especially if you end up at a show or workshop with someone your troupe,  teacher, or friends has crossed words with.

Another type of dancer vs. dancer drama can involve the entire troupe. When it's a troupe at war with another troupe, things can get very sticky, especially if you are all located in the same area. You'll often find yourselves competing for gigs, and a lot of the time you'll be at the same gig.

If you're not a senior member of the troupe, it's best to remain professional when interacting with the other troupe--if you have friends in that troupe, perhaps agree to remain friends but not get involved in the troupe drama. The last thing you want to do is let a small argument ruin your friendship. However, if the drama is getting out of hand, or the senior members are making ridiculous demands on what you can and can't do (such as seeing a friend from the opposite troupe outside performances), you'll want to consider changing troupes.

If you are a senior member of a troupe, try to remain the bigger person and at least work things out enough so both troupes can remain in the same geographical area and not get in each other's way. If that's not possible, maintain a professional demeanor at all times: don't gossip and don't tell your troupe members to slander or attempt to sabotage the opposite troupe. Remember that your actions are indicative not just of yourself and your troupe, but of bellydancing in general.

Student versus Teacher

This is a tough situation to be in. You don't think it can happen, but there's all sort of things that can cause student vs. teacher drama. For instance, perhaps a teacher is putting down a student's previous training. Or a student decides she's learned enough and decides to start parroting the teacher's lessons down the street without the teacher's blessing. Or a group of students circumvents the teacher and starts bidding for the same gigs as the student group.

Again, if you're not directly involved, try to stay out of it. Unfortunately, with student vs. teacher drama, especially if it involves several students, you might be forced to choose sides. If you've been with your teacher for a long time, you should have developed a high level respect for and her talents, so it's best to remain on her 'side'. However, refrain from gossip and slander, and be sure to support your teacher and the remaining students. If the teacher is at fault, you may have to find a new teacher. In this case, asking other dancers you trust--perhaps the students who are leaving--for a teacher recommendation.

Other kinds of drama

Sometimes drama doesn't even involve other bellydancers. It can involve a third party, such as a musician, an event coordinator, or even a vendor. I recently experienced dealing with this type of a drama when a vendor locked horns with my teacher. For me, it was easy to figure out what to do. I trusted my teacher, and have been with her longer than I've known the vendor, so I remained on her 'side'. I did ultimately make the the decision to stop visiting the vendors store, but there are other places I can get my costuming and jewelry. Unfortunately for my teacher, because she and the vendor are in the same geographic location, they will have to work with another for large shows. My teacher has chosen to remain as professional as possible, be honest with her troupe, and try to work together to achieve a great show.

This kind of drama, where it's focused outside the dancers but still involves the community, will still affect you in the long run. What happens if your troupe falls out with a musician or an event coordinator, and later when you're doing solos, you find you have to work with them? Hopefully, the primary parties will understand and not put you under stress by forcing you to become involved. If you do find that's the case, though, it's best to remove yourself from the situation. Remember, there will always be other opportunities elsewhere. Is it really worth it to participate when you'll have to deal with drama the entire time?

With dealing with drama in the belly dance world, just remember a few things: Always remain professional and courteous, and refrain from trying to undermine any of the involved parties. If you find yourself in a situation, remember that you are all Bellydancers, and give each other the respect you deserve.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Making the jump to teaching

I've recently started teaching when a studio director I once took flamenco from asked me to come in and take over an ill teacher's classes. Now, I have no teaching experience, but I have a lot of experience taking classes, so I hoped I could extrapolate some of what I'd (hopefully) absorbed.

I'm not a big people person by nature, so it took awhile for me to get used to the fact that I was standing at the front of the class, talking, instead of standing in the back of the room, listening, but my students are friendly and willing to learn. The studio owner, who has a decade or two worth of experience, has been fantastic about giving me advice on things to try, and while I'm stumbling along, I'm doing the best I can.

Truth be told, I had thought about contacting her and setting up classes, but I kept telling myself I wasn't ready yet, I've only been dancing for four and a half years, I have so much more to many excuses. A lot of them are the same for why I haven't performed solo.

I'm still not ready, but I'm never going to be ready if I don't start, and make mistakes, and test things. For instance, if the studio director tells me to try something new, or helps me figure out my students' personalities, I will try it next class, tweak it, see how it works, and go from there. This week, I'm putting together a simple choreo for the baby dancers to learn, so they have something to work towards.

And I've learned that not everyone dances like me. Not every belly dancer wants to be a professional dancer. Some of them just want something fun to do after work, or some reason to get away from the kids. I think that's the most difficult part, is getting into that mindset. They don't care about whether their arms are perfect; they just want to have fun dancing around to great music, and maybe show off their skills a little later.

So what have I learned so far?

Listen to your students. You can tell by their smiles, by how willing they are to work on the material you give them, how they leave the class, and how friendly they are with you, whether or not they are enjoying the class. It's this way that I can see whether or not we should move on, change the move, or keep working on it.

Know your audience. What kind of students do you have? Are they serious students who have dreams of performing and teaching one day, or just students who want a new, fun hobby? Ask your new students what their goals are, and teach accordingly.

Plan not to plan. Just like you, your students have varying moods. Maybe they've had a long week, or something happened at work or in their family. Or maybe they just aren't going to understand a move or are injured. If you plan out your class to the last detail, something will always go wrong and you'll be off your schedule. The most I will do is have an idea of what I want to teach in class, and then go from there.

Know your anatomy. The best teachers I've had know how the body works, and can explain which muscles I'm supposed to be using and when. This is probably one of the hardest parts for me, because I know all the basic moves instinctively. I can't remember what it's like to be a beginner, and not know how to do a chest lift, or what part of my abdominal I need to contract to do a hip circle. The ability to break down the move is a must for any teacher.

I hope to add more information here as I learn it--my journey into teaching is definitely a fun ride!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Treating Yourself to a Massage

Massages are a huge benefit to bellydancers. They can loosen up tight muscles, alleviate soreness, and help heal injuries. There's plenty of pyschological benefits to massage, too: relaxation, rest, and you can even have the social benefit if you go with a friend or partner, or make friends with your masseuse!

If you have never had a massage before, you should try it! You can either do self-massage, or pay a professional to do it. I recommend both, but first, the benefits of one over the other.


Self-massage requires either a tennis ball or a dense foam roller. Foam rollers can be had for very cheap--I purchased mine from Amazon for less than fifteen bucks. They're great for your hips, glutes, thighs, calves, and upper and lower back. If I'm a little sore or did too many shimmies in dance class, I just pull out the roller. You can also use them as exercise tools to improve your core for those belly rolls. Check out some of the videos on YouTube for ideas.

For smaller areas or to work out a knot, use a tennis ball. They work best if you lie on the floor with the ball underneath you, and you roll around the ball to work out the knot. You can also have a partner, friend, or family member use the ball to apply pressure to the area you want massaged, but make sure you effectively communicate what you want and what hurts.

Professional Massage

Professional massages can be more expensive, but it's worth it to have someone who is familiar with massage techniques and anatomy, and how all the muscles work together. There's also that psychological benefit, because spas are designed to be very relaxing. If you're an introvert like me, you've got a quiet room with soft, soothing music playing and maybe even some aromatherapy. If that much quiet makes the extrovert in you uncomfortable, make friends with your masseuse and you can enjoy some conversation while your get your muscles worked on. Massage can often help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression, so even if you're not experiencing any soreness or tightness, you'll find you can still benefit from your massage.

If you're injured, get yourself to a masseuse as soon as possible (after you visit a doctor, of course). A professional masseuse trained in sports massage can help break up scar tissue, stretch the injured muscles, increase blood flow to the area for healing, and restore mobility and flexibility, leading to a faster recovery.

Tips for your first time

If you've never had a massage before, the first time you walk into the room can be daunting. Here's a few tips on handling your first time.

Before your massage:
-Remember that your masseuse does this almost every day, all day long. There is very little she hasn't seen before.
-However, don't go to your massage appointment after a class or a sweaty workout. Just because your masseuse has seen it all doesn't mean you need to subject him to it. 
-Your masseuse should have a short briefing with you when she shows you to the room. This is the time to tell her about any trouble spots you have. Any old injuries, stiffness, places you want her to avoid--speak up!
-You can get as undressed as you want, whatever's you're comfortable with. Since you'll be face down or covered by a blanket the whole time, though, I do suggest at least removing your bra so the masseuse can work on your back. 

 During your massage:
-Don't be shy or afraid to speak if something hurts. Speak up if it hurts, or ask your masseuse to work on something else for awhile to give you a break if the pain gets to be too much. 
-Learn to relax. Your masseuse will move you if she needs to, and she needs you to be relaxed for that. My goal is always to have my masseuse tell me "Relax!" as little as possible.

After your massage:
-Tip your masseuse. It's just the nice thing to do.
-If you want to go frequently but money is a problem, ask your masseuse or the receptionist for upcoming specials. Some spas also give you points for recommending new clients, and everyone has social media promotions nowadays. There are lots of ways to discount your services. Don't be afraid to ask!
-Hydrate when you get home A deep massage will release toxins into your bloodstream and dehydrate you, so you may feel nauseated or have a headache after. The best cure is to drink plenty of water.
-Soreness and bruising are common, especially after your first couple of sessions. Apply hot and cold packs, or take a hot bath or shower and rinse off with cold water after. Any soreness will disappear in a few days. Hydration will also help alleviate any soreness.

If you decide to make an appointment with your masseuse post-haste, enjoy it, and prepare to get addicted!

Friday, September 16, 2011

What's Bellydance?

I've noticed a disturbing trend among bellydancers. It makes me really sad sometimes, especially since bellydance in general is a very misunderstood artform, and we already have to fight for some modicum of respect.

Some bellydancers refuse to acknowledge other bellydancers.

In fact, there are some belly dancers out there who claim that their fellow bellydancers aren't real bellydancers.

With the current generation of bellydancers exploring what they can do with the dance and the creative ways they can update it, modernize it, or just make it their own, the old school dancers and their protegees are refusing to claim some branches of tribal bellydance as part of the overall tree of bellydance. There are even some tribal and ATS dancers out there who insist that what they are doing isn't bellydance. Why would they say that?

A Brief History

There are thousands of resources out there that explain, in detail, where belly dance came from. For the CliffsNotes version, the origins of belly dance are found in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. So right away we don't even have a specific area to work with. And, like most things that have have developed and evolved along with the human race over the centuries, it wasn't a single culture or race that came up with the idea.

Eventually, belly dance moved over to the United States, via the The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the many iterations of Little Egypt. Some of the burlesque dancers caught on, and so did Hollywood, and of course, everyone put their own spin on it. This lead us into the 70s and 80s, where the folkloric aspect of belly dance started spreading to Renaissance Faires and the Society of Creative Anachronism, which eventually led to Jamila Salimpour, Masha Archer, Carolena Nerricio, and the creation of FatChance BellyDance and American Tribal Style. From there, ATS dancers began taking some of the FatChance moves and spinning them into their own style, and tribal fusion, improve tribal style, alternative tribal, urban tribal, gothic tribal, et al., were born.

The one line that sums it up: It's all bellydance.

That's right. From your restaurant cabaret dancer to your Egyptian dancer covered in sequins, to the tribal troupe wearing kuchi jewelery and plain cotton skirts to the fusion dancer wearing yoga pants and minimalist accessories, it's all bellydance. Like it or not, we all came from the same place. We evolved from the Ghawazee dancers who inspired raqs sharqui, which became bellydance when it moved to Europe and the U.S.

What's not Bellydance? Well, you've got your hobbyist dancer who wants to learn a few moves to look sexy. Or the woman who takes six classes and decides she knows everything she needs to know about bellydance. Or the dancer who calls herself tribal fusion without ever learning what she's fusing. Or the bellydance that is so far removed from the basic movements that it's basically modern dance or hip hop.

None of us are performing "true bellydance" because there is no true bellydance. We evolved to avoid becoming extinct, like Ghawazee style, the knowledge of which is now mostly contained within the Banat Mazzin family in Luxor, Egypt.

It all comes down to respect

We spend so much time asking for respect from the general public, that we don't even realize we're crippling ourselves by infighting and refusing to change. It's true that tribal fusion, alternative tribal, and other kinds of tribal are the most popular styles right now, but tribal wouldn't have existed if it weren't for the women before us who evolved the dance, who asked, "What can I do with this?"

As long as you recognize where you come from, and respect the men and women who came before you, you're a bellydancer. And what you do is bellydance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dress Rehearsals, and Why You Need Them

I had a purple drawstring skirt that I was dying to wear to a performance. However, I'd bought it from another dancer who was slightly taller than me, so it was a few inches too long. No matter; I'll just roll it a few times and pin my scarves to it to keep it up, I told myself. But when it came time to go on stage, I realized that all the safety pins in the world weren't going to keep that heavy skirt around my waist, hip scarves or no hip scarves. For the entirety of the performance, I was in fear of stepping on that skirt and accidentally ripping it off.

What would have helped me realize that nothing short of superglue was going to keep that skirt on was a dress rehearsal. My troupe does do rehearsals, but we never do a full dress rehearsal, with everyone in their costumes and makeup, leaving it up to the dancer to determine whether or not her costume will fit. Looking back, it sure would have been helpful to try dancing in that skirt beforehand so I could realize that it wasn't going to work. I've run into many other dancers who should have tested their costumes before a performance--there's nothing more distracting than watching a belly dancer frantically tugging at her hip scarf while in the middle of a performance.

So what is a dress rehearsal, and how does it differ from just a rehearsal? Well, it's in the name already. A dress rehearsal implies that you wear your full costume and makeup and run through the entire performance, rather than just marking it out on stage. All kinds of performance art use a dress rehearsal, from theater to musicals to a ballet show. You are basically putting on the show for an empty theater before you perform the show live, allowing you and your troupe to work out any and all kinks before letting the audience in. And a dress rehearsal will point out all kinds of things that you never thought you'd have to worry about.

For instance, I spoke to a belly dance recently who was growing her hair out. Prior to an upcoming show, she decided to do some floor work, and during the dress rehearsal she went through her routine. It was during her routine that she realized the floor work wouldn't be practical because she kept sitting on her hair! She would have never thought of this before the dress rehearsal, but it was lucky she realized it prior to going on stage, or she would have had to do some quick thinking.

If I had had a dress rehearsal, or even just worn the skirt to our practice, I'd have realized beforehand that the skirt needed shortening before I could consider wearing it on stage. A dress rehearsal is also a good time to figure out if any parts of your costume need reinforcement, such as hair pieces and bra straps. The last thing you want is for a large flower to come flying off your head and hit an audience member, or for your coin bra to snap open in the middle of your show.

Even with all the preparation of a dress rehearsal, though, there are still small things you won't get to practice. I have seen plenty of zill-related incidents that would have never been worked out in a dress rehearsal. There's also the freak accidents that occur, such as a troopmate getting too close to you and accidentally hooking their costume on yours, or getting your hair caught in their jewelry. You're certainly not going to spend your dress rehearsal brushing past you troopmates to determine whether or not you'll get stuck to them! And you can't always plan for your performance space or audience, either.  Things just happen sometimes, and no matter what, you can't have control over them.

However, the advantage of a dress rehearsal is that you can be as prepared as possible. Freak accidents will happen; but that's no excuse for making sure your costume will stay put and you won't accidentally kill an audience member with a flying accessory. And one of the best things about dress rehearsal is that it gives you another chance to dress up in your finest and dance. Sometimes that ten minutes on stage just isn't enough to make up for the two hours it took to get ready, and you'll enjoy that second chance to rock your costume, even if it's just for your troupe mates.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Workshops, Intensives, or Classes?

I've had the good fortune to have access to quite a few different belly dance teachers in my short 4 and a half years of dancing, so I've experienced several different types of classes. From the three hour workshop to the multi-day intensive, to the 6-week class format and the beginning/intermediate/advanced class levels, I've been taking notes for when I eventually start my own teaching.

I love workshops because they give you a chance to get a taste of something completely new. A local-ish studio used to host several workshops, and I would sign up for about 2 or 3 of them per year. I also started taking workshops at Cairo Caravan this year, and learned about Indian fusion dance, adding some knowledge about spins and turns to my repertoire, and I learned about conditioning myself to do crazy things with my body. What I've really learned, though, is that if you don't take what you learn in your workshops and apply it to your practice, you'll soon forget it. There's at least one workshop I've taken, unfortunately with the lovely Sabrina Fox, where I don't actually remember what it was about. And I even took notes! But since I never applied it to my practice, it didn't stick in my memory. If you're going to take a workshop, decide beforehand what you want out of it and how you will apply it to your practice or performance.

I recently had the opportunity to take a 4-day intensive with Carolena Nericcio and Kristine Adams of FatChance Bellydance, and while it was the most exhausting thing I'd ever undertaken, it was also the most fun I've ever had as a dancer, second only to Cairo Caravan. I got the change to spend 5 hours a day with some great dancers, from all over the country and even one from halfway across the world, and even though we were swamped with tons of new information, I learned a lot. Even my teacher commented that the intensive improved my skill. My brain was fried after, but it was completely worth it. That being said, I think intensives should be a once-a-year thing. You might wind up overloading your brain if you do too many of them, and because intensives are usually packed full of new things, you'll be hard-pressed to find ways of applying all that new knowledge to your practice and performance.

Class Format
When it comes to classes, I do have a preference for the level class format over the 6-week format. With the level format, it's up to the teacher to assess whether or not you're ready to advance to the next stage. Everyone learns at a different pace, and moving everyone up after 6 weeks does a disservice to all the dancers, regardless of skill or talent, and to the teacher, who may end up having to teach to the lowest lowest level dancer. You'll end up with advanced dancers who are bored with the material, and lower level dancers who feel pressured to advance quickly, resulting in injury and high drop-out rates. And ending a "session" after 6 weeks doesn't give the dancer the right opportunity to perfect the moves, and she might end up losing her confidence as other dancers who have time to practice a little more or who are naturally talented seem to grasp concepts faster than she can. However, the level format does require a teacher who really knows her dancers, and can tell when someone is ready to move on. Unfortunately, the only place a teacher will learn that skill is through experience.

When I start teaching, I want to use the level class format. Not being an advanced student myself, my concentration will be on taking beginners by the hand and showing them the basics. I want to give them the confidence to start performing earlier, and to seek out more knowledge from other teachers and dancers. I'd like to start doing workshops one day when I sort out my performance style (though, strength-training for the belly dancer comes to mind), but I don't feel that I have enough to offer for the intensive. Leave the intensives for the innovators. I just want to share my love for the dance.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dialing Down Your Ego

A few weeks ago, thinking I was hot stuff, I put in a ballet workout DVD to work on leg strength and work on some of the finer points of my posture.

Instead, I was beaten by the DVD about halfway through the warmup. Now, I know ballet is hard, but it's harder still when you find out that you're not as flexible, strong, or as good as you thought.

I found a saying once, when I first started belly dancing, that went like this: "Beginning belly dancers want to be good enough to dance with everyone, even the advanced dancers; intermediate belly dancers are too good to dance with anyone; and advanced belly dancers are so good they'll dance with everyone, especially beginner dancers!"

I guess that would put me squarely in the intermediate dancers.

It's important to remember to humble yourself as a dancer. I'd say it's important to stay humble, but that's a lot harder than it sounds, especially when you're getting praise from all sides, are performing regularly, and practicing frequently.  So how do you humble yourself?

Ask Your Teacher
Now, don't start out by asking her to tell you what you did wrong. Instead, go to her honestly, see if you can arrange for a private class, or even just some time before or after class, and ask her for pointers. Tell her you're looking to get better and want to know what you can improve, or what you can do to perform better. Chances are, she already has a list of things she thinks you could improve on and didn't want to do an info dump on you. If you think that's the case, make sure you bring a notebook first, so you can take notes on everything you tell her. This has the added benefit of showing your teacher how serious you are about your practice, and how willing you are to take advice and instruction.

Fight Your Weakness
Is there something you've been struggling with? It doesn't have to be something you've been banging your head against--even something that you know you don't do as well as you'd like will work. Commit to a performance that consists of mostly that one thing you're struggling with, and then practice it constantly. My teacher likes to tell us of the time she committed to performing with zills even though she was struggling with them, so she forced herself to practice every day until she mastered them. Maybe your shimmy isn't as good as you'd like, or you've noticed that your arms aren't always perfect. Commit to a choreography with whatever your weakness is, and battle it until you come out the victor.

Try Something New
Take a new dance class, try yoga or pilates, start strength-training. Do something that's not belly dance, that you've never tried before. Trust me, all your belly dance training will not help when it comes to a completely different style of exercise! By the end of your class, you'll come out feeling like a beginner again--and maybe even with a new hobby!

Take an Advanced Class
Try one of the advanced classes offered by your teacher or studio. Even dancing with the advanced girls for one class will show you how much more you have to learn. Another advantage to this is you'll probably be shown things that, as an intermediate dancer, you wouldn't have access to. If you do take an advanced class, make sure to take notes and apply it to your regular practice.

A Final Note
Whatever you do to humble yourself, make sure it's not discouraging. The last thing you want to do it try something that's so hard you feel like giving up dancing entirely. If you find yourself getting discouraged, think back to the days when you were a beginner dancer, and 3/4 shimmies seemed completely beyond you. Remember what it felt like to be a beginner, and how eager you were to learn. Regain that beginner's mind, and forge ahead to new dancing heights!