Bellydancing and pregnancy part 2

This bun is nearly baked.

In the last few weeks I’ve slowed things down, spending more time playing with fewer movements and choosing more relaxing music to dance to. Now the end is in sight I have complaining joints, tired legs and much less energy. Listening to my body has been my motto throughout this pregnancy and it is telling me in no uncertain terms to rest! So I’m putting dance on hold again apart from occasional movements to loosen up if I’ve been sitting down for too long. At a time when it’s an effort to put socks on it’s nice to find that a circle or horizontal eight still feels good.

Before stopping completely I decided to video myself so I’ve got a record of this time (and hey, maybe to encourage any other pregnant ladies out there!). Here it is:

Bellydancing and pregnancy

Important note: this is intended to be a description of my experience, not a recommendation to other dancers. I’ve seen a good number of my students dance through some, all or none of their pregnancies and in each case they made the choice that was right for them (and now more than ever I hope they felt supported in that choice!). Do what’s right for you.

As I enter my third trimester (where has the time gone?) I thought I’d write a little about how I’ve approached dance. I know there are plenty of other blogs out there but they tend to be a bit….woo….for my taste. Likewise instructional videos. If that’s your things, great, you do you, but it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t believe in mystikal wombyn bellydance power and I feel that one description of a childbirth ritual has been stretched an awfully long way. I wanted to read about a more down to earth experience and struggled to find it. So I’m writing my own.

I came back to bellydance after a long break, but even if that hadn’t been the case I still would have had time off from it because my first trimester was a write off as far as exercise was concerned. Amongst other things, relaxin and a job that required me to be on my feet eight hours a day gave me awful back pain. I used to carry around wheels of cheese and sacks of veggies with no problem; suddenly I couldn’t pick up an empty bag. I could just about manage walking and standing. I had no idea that relaxin could have such a large effect so early on. Happily after some time (and time off) it got better and I was ready to get moving again.

The approach I took was one I’ve used before after time away: slowly and surely. I started with fluid movements, reawakening the muscle memory, finding my range of motion, exploring the movement to find what felt good. Playing with it. There’s so much you can do with a circle! Whereas in the past I would have then made the movement harder, faster, more powerful, I stayed with that playful, soft intention. What felt good one day might not feel good the next (hello again relaxin!) so it was important to take things slowly every time and keep focused. It’s a very mindful way of dancing, something I hope I’ll be able to keep and develop.

Generalising: moves like backbends and drops have never been part of my repertoire so it was no effort to leave those out. My old ten minute shimmy practice will have to wait for now. Percussive movements feel awkward at the intensity I used to do them, but I’ll still throw one in now and again. Reverse camel feels very ungainly but on the other hand forwards camel feels great! Simple flat circles and eights have been a good way to incorporate pelvic floor exercises, which I find boring on their own. As my bump gets bigger I have to change things again, especially when stretching, because it just gets in the way.

Bonus: dancing seems to encourage the baby to take a break from kicking me :)

Of course you’ll have to take my word for this because I’m still mostly dancing on my own. I went out to a baladi workshop and had a lovely time, I was able to enjoy some fabulous music and dance at the right sort of intensity for me with no pressure to remember choreography or put on some kind of show.

As a low impact, low intensity workout dance has been good for me so far. Like I said before, I don’t believe it has any kind of inherant feminine power which is brought out by pregnancy BUT I do think it is a good way of paying attention to areas of the body which are changing weekly, if not daily, and the familiar way of moving helps me acknowledge and accept those changes. I’ve had a similar sense of groundedness when returning to dance after other big life changes.

Now onto the third trimester and *gulp* the birth!

I Danced Today

I danced today. For the first time in over a year I put music on and danced. No audience, no teacher, no students. Just me.

I stopped dancing in October 2014 although I’d made the decision to do so months before that. There were many reasons behind that decision which mostly boiled down to: I felt there was no place for me. I don’t fit in with the dancers who want to ignore or erase the cultural background(s) of this dance. Oriental style is turning into dancesport, complete with the thin, tanned, young bodies of its practitioners. As I get older and fatter more and more doors are closed to me. It was pretty disheartening when I had to accept that I just didn’t have the right look to be a successful commercial dancer; it’s really quite disappointing to find the same standards being applied within the community.

I don’t have the energy to fight for a place. I’ve seen what it takes and I’ll leave that to those who are hungry for the spotlight. It would have been nice if there was still somewhere I could just dance – not drill, not teach, not perform, not compete – but social dancing seems to have disappeared. I went to ten events in my last two years, ranging from local haflas to international festivals, and only four of them had any time for social dancing. Isn’t that at the root of what we do? What happened? No criticism of event organisers by the way, I know how hard a job that is and that they have to respond to the wishes of their customers. So the question is: why don’t people want to dance for fun?

Now my life has been turned upside down again after moving country and finding out I’m pregnant within the same month. Even longed-for change can be challenging. I find that I need that connection between body, heart and soul that is unique to bellydance. If the only place I can find it is on my own in my front room, so be it.

I let other people take dance away from me. Now I’m taking it back.

 

One more thing…

I’ve stopped bellydancing. For now, anyway. I’m keeping this website and still following dancers who interest me in case I decide I want to be part of the bellydance community again, but for now my interests lie elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still think about dance and guess what, I have opinions!

Since I am still (online) friends with dancers I see dance posts and I thought I’d watch a little. I gave up: not because the dancing was bad, or watching reminded me of what I’ve given up. No, I gave up because I was BORED.

The dancers were beautiful and had good technique but that was all they had. Some of them filled up every part of the music with their good technique! There was no room left for FEELING. Their dances were sterile. Superficial. Boring.

I think the value that dancers place on being beautiful and having good technique – especially when every photo and video, good and bad, will make its way online – has made them scared of feeling. People talk about the “ugly cry”, well, facial expressions are many and varied and noone looks like the Mona Lisa all the time! The bland pageant smile that is plastered on for the performance represents the merest sliver of the range of human emotions. I don’t care about beauty and so I have a wonderful collection of unflattering performance photos, but I also have an audience who FELT SOMETHING when I danced. If you are afraid that your beauty will be compromised then you will always be holding back and thus will never connect with your audience.

As an audience member this is all I ask: make me feel something. “She looks nice” – if I want to look at nice things the internet is full of kittens. Are you so in love that you have to shout it to the world? Is your heart breaking and you fear it will never mend? Be excited, be naughty, be unexpected, be crazy, be still. Breathe. Feel. Express. Make me happy. Make me cry. Make me afraid. Show me hope in the depths of despair and make me believe in love again.

Being beautiful and having good technique will take you a long way both within the bellydance community and outside it. It’s easy and safe. If that works for you then why should you care what an ex-bellydancer thinks? I’m probably just jealous after all. It couldn’t be that the overwhelming blandness of western bellydance has isolated me from an art I loved.

Come back to me when you’ve got something to dance about.

 

Still here!

Well, it’s been a while since I updated this blog! Real life has been getting in the way of online life I’m afraid. A new job, a house move and time spent exploring this new country I live in – a year has gone by already and there’s so much still to see!

I’ve found a little bit of time to dance though :) I taught a weekend of workshops here in Salt Lake City for the lovely Thia, as well as dancing in her fabulous “Welcome to the Jungle” show. Local dancers will know how much effort she puts into her themes and this one was a real WOW. It was great to get back to teaching some of my favourite topics as well as some new ideas I’ve been working on.

I had two dance weekends away planned, sadly one of them got cancelled at the last minute but I did manage to go to the Randa Kamel Extensive Course hosted by Little Egypt in Dallas. Four full days of Randa – of course I was going to be there! We focused on technique and I think everyone benefited from working hard every day. Randa also talked a lot about how we should be dancing, not just technique but musicality and expression and of course FEELING. I learned some new things! Did you know taqasim aren’t really meant for dancing? They’re supposed to be played while you are off stage getting changed :) There was a competition as well, you can see my first round performance on my video page but I am afraid you will never see my performance in the final unless you were there! I had two musicians who couldn’t even keep time with each other and I am afraid that it rather affected my dancing 😉

Now I’m looking ahead to the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive where I will be teaching (Saturday 6th September, 10:30 – 12:00) and then performing later in the afternoon. After that I am heading back to the UK for Shimmy in the City in London  (performing), Jewel of Yorkshire in Saltaire (teaching and performing) and Cambridge (teaching). Better get to work!

New class!

So my brand new, first ever American class is starting on Monday! I am really excited to be doing this. Because this is my first time teaching here I’m breaking with my usual 10 week course format and doing something a little different. To give people a chance to try out my style of dance and teaching I’m doing 4 weeks of drop in classes, which can be taken individually but will be tied together by a theme: baladi.

Baladi IS bellydance. It’s the social dance you’ll see women do all over Egypt, and while it can be danced in a performance context as well I want to focus on that social setting. We’re going to learn some moves and get dancing together! There won’t be choreography to learn and we’ll keep it relaxed and fun :) so if you’re new to bellydance this will be a nice introduction. If you’re a more experienced dancer this will be a chance to really get back to basics and think about the heart of this dance, and I’ll throw some more challenging technique your way. As my Cambridge students will tell you, I can always make things more difficult….. 😉

Classes will be at Sugar Space on Monday nights from 7-8pm and will run until 14th April. I hope you can come and join me!

We REALLY need to talk

Take a break from posting no makeup selfies and go and read  Randa Jarrar’s follow up article. Yes, I am linking to it this time, even though I suspect it is an attempt to repeat the clickbait viral phenomenon of two weeks ago, because I have only seen it shared in one place and that was a group specifically formed to discuss matters of cultural appropriation. Is this because the social media cycle moves fast and everyone is over it, or is it because this article contains a whole lot of uncomfortable, un-sugarcoated truth? I read a lot of the same responses in the discussions that followed the original article (and that was what my last post was about) and I find very little to argue with here.

Yes, it might have been interesting if she had responded to some of the thoughtful articles that reflected on the complicated history of bellydance but she’s not obliged to, and frankly there is clearly a lot more basic education to be done. It’s well know that women who speak out online get some really nasty sexist abuse in return, and WOC get all that plus a hefty dose of racism. Seeing what Randa Jarrar got called in public I shudder to think what some of her private messages must have been like. Really, who can blame her for not wanting to engage?

So I’m not going to write about this article other than to say please read and try to understand. Instead I am going to share some other things I saw online yesterday:

A discussion in a bellydance group about cultural appropriation in which the original poster was called a “fat bitch” who “needs to get laid” and that she should be grateful that Westerners want to preserve bellydance.

A bellydance workshop which promises that participants will be “transforming the ordinary sex drive” and suggests dancing with vaginal balls (for four hours? Surely that’s going to chafe).

Sometimes I can’t stand white bellydancers either! Those are just examples I happened to come across yesterday, I didn’t even have to go looking. If you want more, then this tumblr is a collection is mislabellings, misappropriation and misrepresentation. Come on, we have GOT to do better than this.

THAT Article, or, Bellydance – We Need To Talk

You’ve read it* by now, yes? It’s popped up about a hundred times on your Facebook feed. I’m not going to link to it because I try not to link to clickbait. I read it on Tuesday night and my reaction was *eye roll*, partly because I’ve read a fair few articles on cultural appropriation and this one is not up there with the best, and partly because I thought I could predict the  FB reaction to it. I was wrong. The reaction was much worse than I expected and now I’m starting to think that this inflammatory article needed to be written because the message in the best articles is not reaching the people it needs to reach.

There have also been a lot of people making superb rebuttals to the the article and the more ignorant comments. Nice work! Edit: here is a fantastic take-down. I’m  not going to write about the article specifically but rather some of the issues it has brought up.

Art goes beyond borders. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush, or bang a drum, or  move their body to the beat of that drum. Art can bring us together. Art is done by people and people are the products of their culture which is defined by borders and language and religion and history and politics…and all those things mean that often art is not an exchange between equals but appropriation. I can’t pretend bellydancers don’t do this:

Dancers performing to music which includes a recording of the call to prayer.
Dancers adopting a fake Arabic accent to talk to people.
Dancers using a complete mishmash of cultural influences such as doing raqs assaya to show tunes whilst wearing an ATS costume.
Dancers wearing face veils, not for melaya lef or Bedouin dance, but coin-trimmed chiffon harem fantasy face veils.

So that’s taking particular cultural artefacts and using them in inappropriate or offensive contexts, putting on someone else’s identity as a costume and reinforcing stereotypes. This is cultural appropriation. I want to think the best of people and I believe that most of this is done out of ignorance, not malice. Ignorance is cured by education, right? But does our dance education always go far enough? I try to lead by example, by choosing appropriate costumes and music and talking about how the dance would be performed in Egypt. I have never said “Don’t wear a face veil” to my students because I didn’t think I had to. Now I think these conversations have to happen.

But to talk meaningfully about cultural appropriation we’ve got to avoid falling into certain traps. I’ve been reading these everywhere:

“Does that mean black people can’t dance ballet? Or Arabic people can’t dance hip hop?” – these things are NOT THE SAME as cultural appropriation because there is an imbalance in power both historical and current. Ask yourself is culture being taken from and imposed upon a group of people or is it being shared and received? The former is appropriation, the latter is exchange.

“But my Arabic friend says it’s OK” – I think most bellydancers feel a little glow of pride when someone from Egypt (or wherever your particular style comes from) praises their dancing. That’s also why we feel so hurt when they criticise. Remember, no one person is spokesperson for an entire group of people, so the fact your friend says what you’re doing is OK doesn’t give you a pass. However, that also means that one person on the internet can’t shut you down! Not even me! Read widely. Look for consensus.

“The author is so angry” – if all you can focus on is the anger then you are tone-policing, which is a neat little way of engaging with the argument without actually addressing the content. Sure, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but we are talking about emotive subjects (identity, history, religion, culture, oppression) and to expect everyone to couch their opinions in the dry prose of a scientific paper is unrealistic. Besides, why is it wrong to feel and express strong emotion? I have been told off by Egyptian dancers. I didn’t ignore them because  I didn’t like their tone, I resolved not to make those mistakes in future. Emotion and respectful discourse are not incompatible.

“Sexism is the real problem, not racism” – this is playing the oppression olympics and the logical conclusion is that we can’t address any issues until we have all settled on the most important one, which would mean nothing ever got addressed. We don’t have to pick the one most important thing, we don’t have to deal with everything-all-in-one-go, we can be aware that there are multiple issues to discuss and address them all in different times and places.

“Arabic people should be grateful that we’re preserving bellydance for them” – oh HELL no.

These are all ways of dodging round a very uncomfortable question. Are bellydancers (who do not have an Arabic heritage) being racist? Noone want to think that they may have inadvertantly been offensive and that squeamishness is why we react so strongly to the accusation of cultural appropriation. I think we have to face it head on even though – because – it makes us uncomfortable. It’s a big and complex question. Let’s start the conversation but let’s start it by LISTENING.

 

* “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers” by Randa Jarrar on Salon. It’s been suggested I include the title to increase the potential readership (I don’t make money from adverts or anything so that is not an issue for me) but I’m still not linking to it.

Nice costume!

This is a sort of public service announcement.

If I say “Nice costume!” to you, it means I like your costume, I think it’s pretty and you look nice in it. That is all. It doesn’t mean “Your dancing sucked!”, it doesn’t mean “Your technique is awful!”, it doesn’t mean “Never darken the stage again with your appalling presence!”. It is not a calculated insult and I wish people would stop claiming it is, because it just plays into the myth that all belly dancers are catty mean girls. “Nice costume” means your costume is nice, nothing more, nothing less.

I’m a bit worried now that this scene may have played out somewhere:

“Hey, I saw you talking to Emma. What did she say?”
“She said I had a nice costume.”
“THAT BITCH!”

Ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m slightly afraid to compliment dancers now for fear of accidentally insulting them. Rest assured, all my compliments are genuine and the words used have their accepted dictionary definitions, not a secret mean girl code. I’m fairly sure that’s how most people operate too :)

Halloween Hafla

Americans are really into Halloween. There is a distressing* amount of plastic spider-based decoration, everything is pumpkin flavoured and my gym even has a special reduced schedule for the 31st so instructors can spend time with their families (OK, maybe that last one is for Dia de Muertos?). So I was excited to be able to go to a Halloween hafla to see how American bellydancers do it!

The answer is: with style :) I went to Thia’s Halloween Bash, which was held at the most amazing venue, a banqueting hall with a Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ. Not only does the organ still work, we were treated to silent moves with an organ accompaniment while we ate before the dancing started.

You can see some of the decoration there, try as I might I just couldn’t capture it in one photo, but here are a few details from our table decorations. Imagine a 200 person hall all decorated like this! As we walked in it was a riot of orange and black, with great attention to detail.

(Plastic rats don’t bother me. It’s just the spiders.)

The performances were most definitely non-traditional :) in fact I think I only heard two or three pieces of Arabic music the whole night, but I think that’s one thing Halloween haflas are about wherever you go – throwing the rule book out of the door and having fun. There were some really creative costumes from dancers (and audience members!), there were pirates, witches, a circus freak show, mermaids and – my personal favourite – a tree with a snake in it. Clearly everyone had had a lot of fun coming up with ideas and that came across in their dancing as well.

I’m sure there will be a lot of Halloween haflas coming up and I hope everyone going has just as much fun :)

* i.e. non-zero