Egypt part 1

As expected this trip has been a whirlwind of activity, with hardly any time to draw breath, let alone blog! I’m writing this at around 23:40. We’ve just been out to see Luna on the Andrea boat and are waiting to go out again to see a new Egyptian dancer Sophia. She’ll probably be on at around 3:00 🙂

Most of our group arrived late on Sunday night. We’re staying in Zamalek, which is quite green and quiet by Cairo standards – the incessant beeping of car horns is noticably fainter here – Kay showed us round on Monday but noone has explored further on their own than the local shops just yet! There is a rather fine shoe shop a bit further out so I’m sure we’ll start wandering a bit further eventually.  We stopped at a cafe to try koshary for our lunch, and ate at another local restaurant (Bram) for dinner. This place had been particularly recommended for their live music in the evening, a takt of oud and riq with a singer. They were happy to take requests, although they may have regretted this after some of us joined in with Akdeb Aleik an dMawood at the tops of our voices! They finished with a lovely version of Enta Omri as we left. This wasn’t the sort of place to get up and dance, but to listen and appreciate.

We also had to squeeze in a first round of costume shopping on our first day, visiting the designers Hanan and Eman to place initial orders so that we’ll have completed costumes by the end of the week (inshallah!). Hanan had some beautiful new silk designs, she pulled costume after costume out of the unprepossessing black bin bags, each eliciting louder and louder “Ooooh!”s from the watching dancers. Look out for them at a hafla in Cambridge or Edinburgh…We visited Eman at her workshop which was very interesting because we got to see all the people who tailor and embroider the costumes. I have ordered a dress which I am very excited about 🙂 first fitting should be tomorrow.

Today most of the group went to the pyramids, which are still not very busy so they were able to go inside the Great Pyramid easily. There was quite a lot of hassle but their guide Nibal was able to fend off the touts.

Post club update – fantastic! The first dancer was nothing special but Sophia was very nice, even if was 4:00am and I could barely keep my eyes open. Quite surprising given how loud the music was, I swear each new band cranked the volume up a notch! We also saw around three singers inbetween dancers, but the best thing about going to these clubs is people watching. The big spenders with their bottles of whisky and wodges of £50 notes ready to throw, their younger female companions getting up on stage to demonstrate various degrees of dance skills…it’s fascinating. The table of funny foreigners attracted at least as much curious attention in return, we were quite an oddity. And that’s before we got up to dance 🙂 I really hope the rest of the girls can make it to the next nightclub to see Aziza, I want them to have this experience!

How did you start?

Chatting with some teacher friends the other day I was struck by the different ways we all came to bellydance. Some people start bellydancing for fun, for fitness, to make friends, to connect with their heritage, to learn about a new culture, to gain confidence, to do something a bit unusual…this is my story.

I was drawn to bellydance because I’d heard the “a dance by women, for women” line, which resonated nicely with my proto-feminist self. I remember saving an article about bellydance from a Sunday newspaper and going back to read it time and time again. When I saw a poster for classes in a local alternative/hippy type shop I went along and never looked back. Here I am 15 years later 🙂

Of course I soon learned that “by women, for women” wasn’t really true. Seeing Khaled dance for the first time definitely knocked any traces of that out of my head 🙂 and he has been on of my very favourite dancers and teachers ever since. I think a lot of people probably have ideas about bellydance when they start which aren’t true – sometimes wishtory, fantasy or outright misinformation – but what you learn in class to replace those ideas is hopefully far more interesting than the fantasy and is what will keep you bellydancing for a long time!

So if my initial idea about what bellydancing was turned out to be wrong, what kept me doing it? Simply, I fell in love with the music and this way of moving. I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t spend my childhood dancing. I did the obligatory little girl ballet classes, then found that swimming suited me more so that was that. I’d watch my friends at school discos, unable to do what they did. It felt wrong on me, so I perfected the nervous teenage shuffle instead. Then I found bellydance and it just felt RIGHT. I don’t have a body suited for ballet, or jazz, or contemporary dance but with bellydance it didn’t matter if I wasn’t thin as a whippet, or couldn’t do the splits. I could move my hips and that was all that was needed.

Of course there are other things that have kept me dancing and part of the dance community, principally the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, but it was that initial “Hey, I CAN do this!” that got me hooked.

Technique vs. Passion

A debate which crops up time and time again amongst bellydancers. For me it’s pretty simple:

I admire a dancer with strong technique.

I enjoy a dancer with lots of passion.

I love a dancer who has both and will never tire of watching them.

Hafla!

“Hafla” is the Arabic word for party. Within the bellydance community it usually refers to a party mainly attended by bellydancers and including performances as well as social dancing.

Beyond that haflas vary wildly…

Haflas take place in studios, leisure centres, pub function rooms, theatres, social clubs, front rooms and restaurants. I think I’m still the only person who holds haflas in a church 🙂  I’m lucky to live in a progressive town with a church looked after by people who don’t believe it should sit empty and unused outside of Sunday mornings.

The number of people attending a hafla might be 20, might be 200, might be even more!

The venue and the number of guests determine the catering: just bar snacks, pot luck, hot catered buffet, full restaurant meal. I’d be disappointed if I went to a hafla with no food or drink at all – that’s not a party!

Music could be courtesy of a DJ, a band, a laptop playlist or whatever CDs everyone happens to have brought. You’re more likely to hear pop and shaabi than the classics, tunes that get everyone up and dancing – even non-bellydancers! Maybe the odd bit of Western pop as well. You’ll see people doing simple dances they’ve learned in class, ATS dancers improvising together but mostly people just dancing away however they like.

Of course there will be dancing, but often there will be shopping as well. Mobile bazaars can sell you hipscarves, music, costumes and accessories and you can try them out straight away 🙂

You’ll find all ages attending, and how many parties is that true of outside of family events? Most people who come are dancers, the rest tend to be their friends and family who have come along to support them as they perform, or just to see exactly what it is that they get up to on a Tuesday night! I think friends and family often aren’t sure what to expect, and every year I have to reassure my new students “Yes, you can bring men, yes you can bring children” although I’m sure some haflas limit themselves to bellydancers only. You rarely find anyone there who isn’t part of the bellydance community, even if they are on the periphery as a long-suffering partner :), haflas aren’t shows we put on for the general public, they are a time for us to have fun together.

This is also reflected in the performances at haflas. Some haflas verge on shows, with line ups exclusively made up of teachers and professionals, but most of the ones I’ve been to (and organised) have welcomed dancers of all levels of experience. For new dancers it’s a chance to show off what they’ve learned, for aspiring professionals the hafla is a valuable training ground. You can learn and practice your performance skills in front of a supportive audience before thinking about venturing out in front of the general public. In fact plenty of dancers only ever perform at haflas and that’s just fine – it’s nice to dance for people who really understand and appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s fantastic that bellydancers have created a space in which they can all share and enjoy each other’s creative efforts. There are all kinds of projects and schemes and grants to get people to participate in the arts and we’re just getting on and doing it.

With so many possible variations it can be difficult to discuss what we mean by a hafla. One person’s “hafla” might be another person’s “performance platform” or “show”. Every community can shape its hafla to suit the people who go, after all, a party is nothing without guests!

What are your haflas like?

Practice, practice, practice

Few dancers actually want to be full time professionals, but lots of dancers want to dance at that level and I’m sure all want be the very best dancer they can be. Every dancer knows that the only way to improve is to practice. The way you practice will change as you develop as a dancer. But how do you go about structuring that practice to make it effective? There are plenty of DVDs out there to help you, but I think that an important part of finding your own voice as a dancer is deciding how you dance when there is noone to tell you what to do. What works for your DVD teacher may not always work for you. At the risk of totally negating this entire post before I even start, the best person to decide how you practice is you. All I’m going to do is give you some suggestions.

[Important disclaimer: I am not responsible for what you do outside of classes! You are responsible for making sure you are dancing safely.]

What to Practice?
Probably the most important question to answer! The temptation is always to try and practice everything, every time, but this simply isn’t possible. If you’re attending weekly classes then it makes sense to practice what you’ve learned in class that week. Your teacher will have explained the technique to you and hopefully also given you some feedback so you know what corrections to make. Take notes at the end of class to remind you. You’ll probably be building on what you’ve learned in the next class and if you’ve got a strong grasp of the material it will be easier.

If you’re not attending weekly classes then choosing what to include in your practice can be harder. Again, avoid the temptation to try and do EVERYTHING. You might decide to focus on a particular area (such as fluidity, sagat, travelling or shimmy layering) and work on that for a few weeks or months, then pick a different topic. You could draw up a programme for yourself where you work alternate topics on different days, for example, day 1, 3, 5 taqs and shimmies, day 2, 4, 6 figure eights. Day 7 rest – rest is important! Sometimes I like to go back to basics and focus on core technique for a while, other times I’ll work on moves and combinations I’ve learned in a workshop. Having a plan which you can use for a few weeks will mean that when you’ve got time to practice you can start straight away, without worrying about what you’re going to do that day. If you’ve got a performance coming up spend more time running through your choreography for that and do less technique. Let your practice be fluid, adapt it to what you need.

How long should you practice?
If I give you a specific figure I can guarantee that someone will comment and say “Oh but [genre] dancers practice for [that number plus four] hours every day! We should be doing that!”. Sure, the more you practice the better you will get but be smart about your practice, there is no point flogging yourself to death for three hours every day if you’re tired and miserable by the end of the first hour. That will just leave you feeling resentful the next time you come to practice, less likely to work hard and more likely to stop early.

Busy lifestyles can make it hard to find time to practice, but don’t beat yourself up about it and remember that little and often is very effective. When you’re a beginner just a few minutes here and there will make a big difference. Try practicing your shimmy while you boil the kettle for your tea ?. If you’re a professional/teacher level dancer then you should aim to be doing more, but be realistic. Most professional bellydancers have day jobs and families and lives outside of the dance world so I would say do what you can, when you can and make it as effective as possible. It’s the teachers who think they don’t need to learn or practice any more who worry me!

Also consider what time of day you practice – I know I work much better in the morning than the afternoon.

Where to practice?
Very few people have the luxury of a home studio but if you have a room at home with a big mirror that will do nicely. Watching yourself practice will help you pick up on mistakes quickly and let you see what really looks good on you. If you don’t have a mirror try recording yourself, then watch the video and make notes on areas you need to improve. Don’t try and correct all the mistakes all at once, pick a couple and work on those.

So you’ve found a suitable space and set aside an hour to work, you’ve made a list of what you want to cover – what next?

How do you practice?
Whatever else you’re doing, start with a warm up. This is where a DVD can really help you, although some DVDs will assume you already know how to warm up and don’t include one. If you don’t know how to do an effective warm up, ask your teacher. Spend around ten minutes warming up. Then, simply work through your list! I have a playlist of songs, all with a steady beat and lasting around four minutes, and I use one song for each move or combination on my list. Say my first move is circles – I’ll start with a basic hip circle then think about adding arm shapes, travelling, direction changes, layering with a shimmy etc. and that easily takes up one song. Repeat for as many moves as you like. I recommend you leave yourself some time for free dancing at the end, not only is it good to practice your improvisation but it will help you see what moves are starting to “stick” from the rest of your practice. Allow yourself time to cool down and stretch, and use this time to focus on any areas of your body that really need it. In classes and on DVDs you’ll usually get a good all round stretching routine, when you’re on your own you can take time to personalise it.

So there you go – it’s pretty simple really! If you want help in structuring your practice, or deciding what areas you need to work on then your teacher can help. If you don’t have a regular teacher then consider having a private lesson or signing up for the JWAAD Personal Development Programme. I also offer a workshop on daily drills which will allow you to see how I put these ideas into practice (as it were!).

Spirit of Egypt and Celebrating Dance

October was a busy month!

Early on this year I signed up for Spirit of Egypt, a show being produced by Yasmina of Cairo. The idea was that a small group of dancers would spend five days learning her choreographies, and then perform them in a show on Saturday night at Jewel of Yorkshire. When Kay of Farida Dance asked me if I would like to be part of this how could I possibly say no? So a few weeks ago I turned up at Victoria Hall in Saltaire with around 16 other dancers (including almost all of the Peacock Project!) to find out what we’d actually let ourselves in for. Our pre-course instructions had included requests to bring umbrellas, sun cream and jeans so it was all quite exciting!

We were going to perform four tracks from Yasmina’s latest album “Nawader”, which had been composed with the show in mind. A magency, an Oriental rumba, an Alexandrian beach tableau and a street tableau “Sharia el Fen” (the street of art) based on the idea of the famous Mohammed Ali street in Cairo where musicians and dancers lived.

Yasmina is a very creative and innovative choreographer and straight away we were into something I had never seen before – a wheel of veils! It took some practice to get used to spacing ourselves out and moving to see the wheel at its best without accidentally pulling it apart. It looked amazing in performance, the photos show all the glowing colours. The magency continued with more straightforward dancing, some saidi girls with sticks and a finale featuring all the dancers and props. The riot of colour and movment was followed by the more serene rumba, opening with a graceful solo by Natalie and some gorgeous partner dancing by three couples.

Then it was into the tableaus! The Alexandrian one was the one I had been most excited about after Zafirah told me about the sneak preview she had been given and we were shown our beach outfits. Cute tops and skirts all covered in polka dots! It was a shame to have to give them back. We entered the stage wrapped in brightly coloured melayas – dancers will know that there are two styles of melaya lef, from Cairo and Alexandria – which then became our beach towels! The middle section of the dance was a beautifully acted swimming scene followed by a dance with parasols. “Sharia el Fen” opened with a dance from the girls who lived there along with the local Ma’alima (boss lady – think Fifi Abdo!) played by Sandra, along with a pair of musicians who will have looked very familiar to anyone who has ever frequented the Farida stall… 🙂 we had a short baladi interlude, a drum solo competition and finally everything was brought up to date with some shaabi.

The show was around 25 minutes long and I think we did really well to learn it! Of course it would have been nice to have a little more time to iron out the changeovers – things were  little frantic backstage at times – but I don’t think we had any major disasters. The missing umbrella came close 🙂 but was found in time. It was hard work and sometimes we had to push on even though everyone was tired and not thinking straight in order to get through everything. Then in the evenings there was practice in our apartments and sewing to be getting on with. Kay and Yasmina had loaned us costumes but they all had to have minor alterations. It was a very useful experience for me and I’m glad I got to be part of such an exciting project. I hope that when Yasmina takes the show on tour the other groups who take part enjoy it just as much.

Two weeks after Jewel of Yorkshire I was off again, this time to Torquay for my second visit to Celebrating Dance run by Afra Al Kahira. Quite a few delegates remembered me from last time which was nice! Celebrating Dance is a very civilised festival. We all stay in the hotel, all the workshops and shows are there and we get breakfast and a three course meal each night. Meals are very important on a dance weekend! Everything kicked off on Friday night with a showcase by local dancers. It wasn’t a very late night because workshops started at nine the next morning and ran all day. I taught two workshops. The first was a choreography to “Ya Msafer Wahdak” which has little touches of flamenco. I was really pleased by how well the dancers picked it up, we learned the whole dance and even had time to do a little skirt work at the end. My second workshop was on Sunday morning and I had promised it would be nice and easy, all about moving slowly and taking your time but of course dancing is never that simple and actually there was a lot to think about! When I teach a new group I’m always nervous about asking them to improvise because it is a skill which still isn’t taught as widely or as well as it should be, but happily that was not a problem and they all took on board the ideas I gave them. In fact a lot of the dancers said how much they enjoyed it and they felt much more confident at the end.

There was a teachers showcase on Saturday night featuring (in alphabetical order for fairness!) Artemisia, Khalida, Kitty Kohl, Queenie, Sophie Armoza, Vashti and Zafirah. Sadly Nikki was unable to perform so I stepped in to open the first half in a costume which Vashti had very kindly let me borrow. It was lovely to be part of such a high quality show and see dancers in real life who I normally only see online. I rather lowered the tone with my shaabi, but you’ll all be used to that by now… 🙂

Jewel of Yorkshire and Celebrating Dance are two excellent events which I thoroughly recommend. Next year JoY will be featuring Randa Kamel amongst others but you’ll have to act quickly, at the time of writing one of her workshops has already sold out and the others are very close. There will be plenty of other high quality teachers to learn from.

Review: Shimmy in the City

As you know, my weekend started with the competition. I must say how well it was run this year, the team was very efficient and kept everything moving so we were finished in time for the open stage to start (or to go and find some food before the hafla!). The Peacock Project was an unofficial third in the group competition – “unofficial” because only first and second place were announced at the hafla but when we spoke to Orit later in the weekend she told us we were ranked third. Not bad going!

The hafla was in the same room at the Fairfield Halls in the evening, and there was a band! They played lots of classics and the dancefloor was soon full. We didn’t really get any impromptu performances although Orit went round the tables getting people up and the other stars got up and joined us all on the dancefloor. It’s pretty awesome to be dancing away and then realise Aziza is dancing next to you! It would have been nice to have some party music playing when the band were taking their breaks, but the quiet music did allow for chatting with friends. So much chatting that Nikki, Candi and I were the last ones there and had to be thrown out!

Last ones standing

Go Home!

I had booked myself onto all of Dina’s workshops because I have been wanting to learn from her FOREVER. She did not disappoint. She is an excellent teacher and it was so interesting to learn about her style of dancing, it’s very different to what I’m used to. Her technique workshop went at a cracking pace. The two choreography workshops (shaabi and Oum Kalsoum) were also pretty challenging, with lots of Dina’s characteristic footwork which looks so easy when she does it but is actually very complicated! We got so muddled up at one point that she had to simplify the step pattern for us. Predictably, the workshops were a scrum, although there was space for everyone and Dina was on a stage so she was easier to see. She was also very good at making everyone sit down while she demonstrated. I highly recommend taking a workshop with her if you have the chance. I also popped in to Orit’s shaabi workshop, just because I thought it would be fun, and it was! I felt like we finished a little early, but maybe everyone was a bit tired by then and didn’t want to do much more.

What can I say about the show…..FANTASTIC. What a line up! In fact I don’t need to say anything because you can just watch the DVD trailer:

 

Two sets of really high quality performances and then a full show from Dina! Time just flies when Dina performs, an hour goes by in a flash.

So there you go, despite what happened at the competition I had a super weekend and I’m sure I’ll be back next year.

And I’m done

Friday ended up being a particularly busy day for me because I ended up dancing in the Shimmy in the City competition three times! I’ve already written about being in the group competition with Peacock Project but I also entered the solo competition. I chose “Esmaooni” for my first piece, which is a song I’ve loved ever since I saw Yasmina dance to it in a workshop and it gave me goosebumps. It’s so full of emotion but it’s not your typical competition piece so I was very surprised when I was called back for the final. In fact I didn’t think I’d be in the final at all. We were told that five dancers would be called back, and when I went back to the hall for the annoucement five dancers were called back then there was an “And finally….” followed by my name! I’d been busy preparing with the Peacocks and had missed the announcement that there would be now six dancers in the final. For my final I danced to “Zaki Ya Zaki” which is a fast, exciting shaabi piece in total contrast to the slower, more soulful piece I’d done earlier. It seemed to go down well.

Afterwards I saw Orit (one of the judges) as we were getting drinks and she told me she loved what I did but that I wouldn’t be placed because I’d danced shaabi, and shaabi isn’t folklore.

Well I know that. In fact I said as much when I watched this competition last year, and was surprised that so many dancers including the winner chose to do shaabi in the folklore round. I’d initially been planning to dance saidi, but had changed my mind about a month ago because I was having a lot of fun with shaabi (one of my classes is learning about it this term). Since it was clearly an acceptable style last year I didn’t anticipate it being a problem this year. I certainly got that wrong!

All respect to Orit for telling me though, I am very grateful to her for setting me straight immediately rather than letting me fret for hours about the result of a competition that I’d effectively disqualified myself from. It wasn’t just me either, one other finalist danced shaabi and another danced baladi and we were all disqualified so the eventual result was simply a case of ranking the remaining three dancers. I don’t think the organisers knew what had happened but the word soon got round the audience. When Khaled announced the results at the hafla in the evening he asked “Is everybody happy with the results?” and there was a looooooong pause before some polite applause. He seemed taken aback. When he saw me at the hotel later someone must have explained because he was very, very apologetic.

This is what happened. The judges decided that the folklore round should be exactly that: folklore. Saidi, fellahi, khaleegy, Alexandrian etc. Given what was allowed last year either the competitors should have been told in advance exactly what styles would be allowed or the judges should have been told that actually in this competition shaabi or baladi were allowed in the second round. There was no organiser on hand at the competition to resolve this situation.The organisers knew what styles we were all planning to dance because we had told them when we submitted our entry forms.

Close friends have followed my career as a competition dancer and made me promise earlier this year that I would stop doing them and that this would be the last one. It’s unfortunate that it had to end like this. I have gained a lot from competitions, the process has taken my dancing to new levels and I like to think that a few more people know who I am. In the two competitions I’ve done this year I’ve been the only finalist from the UK (in fact the only entrant from the UK!). An unanticipated side effect is that competitions have also made me mentally tougher. Every performer needs a thick skin and putting yourself up for that kind of judgement certainly helps you develop one. But another unanticipated, and much less welcome side effect is how cynical they have made me and this is why I am done with competitions. I see them rewarding beautiful, but ultimately superficial dancing, rather than the emotion-filled performances that I love to watch. More than one judge has told me about panels they were on where the results came down to dance politics (who wrote the choreography, who works at who’s festival etc.). That’s disappointing. And as for the video-based competitions that are popping up now…those are nothing more than a test of your social networking ability.

I don’t think that bellydance competitions are necessarily bad. People who have never seen or taken part in one tend to write them off as some kind of sequinned Hunger Games, which is simply nonsense. If anything competitors bond through adversity! If you’re the kind of dancer who doesn’t crumble under pressure and likes a goal to work towards then you can get a lot out of taking part in a competition. Just don’t pay any attention to the results. I used to think that all the results of competition told you was who was the dancer the judges liked best that day, but now I know that they don’t even tell you that.