The Peacock Project

It all started almost a year ago, after the Shimmy in the City competition. A couple of people independently had the same idea: could a group of solo dancers come together and learn a dance well enough to perform in a competition? Forming a dance troupe is nothing new, but forming a dance troupe whose members live in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter and London is pretty ambitious.


View Peacock geography in a larger map

Geography was not in our favour, but we thought we could work round that with regular emails, phone meetings and video sharing. What was in our favour was the fact that we were all friends already and had similar styles of dance. Caroline, Elspeth, Hannah, Moyra and Zafirah all knew each other from their time in Edinburgh together, Zafirah and I go way back and I met the others because we kept on seeing each other at Randa’s UK workshops 🙂 so we knew we could get on as a group.

We needed a name though…at first we just referred to what were doing as “The Project”, with the understanding that we’d think of a proper name later. That turned out to be a bit harder than we thought, weeks went by and still noone had any ideas. It wasn’t until we were discussing costumes that inspiration hit. We were discussing colours, Zafirah suggested peacock colours and there was a collective “Oooooooooh!” on the line. It was a short step from there to “The Peacock Project”. There was some discussion of translating it into Arabic, but having heard Arabic names mangled by many MCs over the years it seemed that English was preferable.

The first step of the project to choose our music. A magency was the obvious choice, it’s a good piece of music for a competition anyway and the structure would allow different people to choreograph sections without the difference in style being too jarring. After a bit of editing to bring our music in under the time limit we all chose sections and got to work on our own. We wrote notes and made multiple videos – after all it’s hard to demonstrate the parts for six dancers on your own! The fluffy chicks were a particular highlight.

We had a deadline to work to: our first weekend rehearsal together in Edinburgh. This weekend was focussed on teaching our sections, learning the other sections and seeing if our grand visions could play out in real life. By the end of the weekend we’d learned the whole choreography and had our formation changes mapped out. With videos to help us we went our separate ways to practice, practice and practice some more.

Our second weekend rehearsal was also in Edinburgh, but this time the pressure was on because we were going to perform our dance at the Edinburgh Big Dance on the Sunday afternoon. Elspeth was also taking part in other Big Dance activities, performing with her students and coordinating a bellydance flash mob at the museum. If that wasn’t pressure enough our Friday night rehearsal was much shorter than planned after torrential rain caused landslides which left Zafirah and I stranded on trains for hours, so we had even more to do on Saturday! We remembered a large amount of the group work, and started hammering out the rest of the details, asking questions about issues that had arisen in our solo practice, making decisions on what worked and what didn’t and finding our style as a group. It all worked out in the end and we did our performance on a very gusty stage to an enthusiastic crowd of shoppers.

Our third (and final!) rehearsal was an afternoon in London and sadly one of our flock couldn’t be there due to prior commitments. This was our chance to really dig deep into the details of the choreography and tighten up our formations ready for the competition at Shimmy in the City this Friday. It was also our dress rehearsal, in costumes made by the talented Celia of Edinburgh as well as our in house peacock designer Hannah.

Let me spell it out: we’ve been planning for a year but we’re doing this after five days of dancing all together, and not everyone was there for all of those days. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved together. Everyone has contributed in different ways, whether it’s choreographing, teaching, finding rehearsal space, organising travel, editing music, making videos, making costumes or feeding hungry peacocks. I get really tired of people characterising bellydancers as catty divas, this project has shown just how well a group of solo dancers can work together. We’ve formed a cohesive group but you still get a sense of our individual personalities when we dance. As a choreographer it’s been liberating to be able to write choreography for a group of dancers where I know exactly how many people are dancing (ask anyone who has tried to choreograph for a class performance why this matters!) with no restrictions on what I can ask them to do. As a teacher it’s been educational to learn how other people hear and interpret the same piece of music, and be reminded of the different ways we have of learning and remembering. As a dancer it’s been amazing to work with people who love this dance as much as I do. The Peacock journey will not end on Friday!

The End

An update from the airport this time, very tired after a long final day and no sleep!

Our final warm up class was a cute fellaheen choreography. The warm ups have been led by Bedru who has taught us different folklore styles every day (bedouin, Nubian and I forget the others! Sorry Bedru!). Randa then taught us some more technique and finally a classical choreography to a song which her singer Samir had taught us yesterday. It is very important to know what the words mean! We have been told this again and again over the week and it’s true. Knowing what the song is about adds so much to your appreciation of a performance.

Then is was time for the show which included the final of the competition. I was on second so at least I got it over with quickly. I actually enjoyed the performance even though the music wasn’t quite what I had hoped for! But nothing escapes Randa’s eyes and she could tell I am very inexperienced when it comes to working with a band, and in fact she was quite cross with me for not dancing my best 🙂 she loves all her students and wants us to always dance at the level she knows we are capable of. All the others dancers did really well, I enjoyed watching them a lot. We then had performances from a lot of the other dancers on the course (some of them twice!) with the band. Quite a few people chose to perform choreographies that we learned during the week, I was very impressed by their memories. It was lovely to see everyone that I’ve danced alongside this week up on stage.

There was a little surprise in the middle of the show because it was Randa’s birthday! (No I don’t know how old she is and I wouldn’t dream of asking). We all knew this but had kept it a secret from her 🙂 and had had a collection to buy her a birthday present. I think she liked it 🙂 . We finished very late (2:30 I think), the band had worked incredibly hard to keep going for so long, there was just a little time for dancing before saying goodbye and promising to connect on Facebook. I just had time to finish my packing before being taken to the airport.

Obviously it’s disappointing to finish the week on a downer but Randa and I have agreed that tonight’s performance never happened 🙂 and we are concentrating on the good from yesterday. I am so pleased that I got through to the final, because I know that dancers from the UK don’t have a very good reputation and for her to say yes, you are good enough, you have so much feeling and soul that you are like an Egyptian not a British person…..it confirms that my approach to learning and training is right and that it is possible for British dancers to raise their level to meet the rest of the world. So if you’re in my classes watch out, I’m going to expect even more from you from now on!

(Edit: because I realise I’m at risk of sounding a bit egotistical. I plead sleep deprivation. I’m not saying I’m the only British dancer who has feeling. Far from it. I know lots of gorgeous dancers who are full of feeling and it aggravates me that we have a poor reputation. I want to show people that it is undeserved, not just for me but for all the dancers.)

If you’ve enjoyed reading about the course (and I hope you have because I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you) and think you might like to go yourself I’m afraid I have bad news. This was the last one. Randa does plan to do something similar in the future, but will work with other teachers next time. It will still be a course, not a festival, so there should be a similar kind of atmosphere, but I’m glad I got to be part of the original version (twice!).

Checking in from the pool

This morning I woke up to my phone reminding me that  online check in had opened, which means that in 24 hours I’ll be on a plane home and this adventure will have come to an end 🙁

This is where I am right now:

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I’m not a sun worshipper so I haven’t been out here much, and while I’m here I’m sheltering under one of the canopy beds, but since this is my last day I thought I’d catch a little sun before heading back to England. I gather you’ve been having a spot of rain 🙂

If you’ve been following me on Facebook you’ll know already that I had a pretty good night last night. It was the competition and I’m through to the final! I still can’t believe it. I was so nervous when I got on stage and felt disoriented by the lights and though I recovered I didn’t think it would be enough, especially after I watched all the other dancers. I guess Randa was in a generous and forgiving mood 🙂 I haven’t spoken to her yet, she left before the results were announced. Randa hates competitions! It’s really good of her to do it anyway, it’s such a good learning experience. She said afterwards that everyone was good, everyone was a professional and had their own

Tonight is the final, with the band. We all had to give a shortlist of songs and Randa has chosen what we’re going to dance to. I got “Esmaooni” which I’m very happy about. I danced to “Fi Youm Wa Leyla” last night so it’s been an all-Warda competition for me! At the moment I’m not feeling as nervous as I was yesterday, I’m just so happy to have been given this opportunity and tonight I want to enjoy myself. I won’t place but I’ll tell you all about it later. Lots of dancers are going to be dancing with the band as part of the show and I’m really looking forward to watching them.

Keeping busy

A quick lunchtime update. I have completely lost track of what day it is! Two days ago we were learning baladi with a relatively simple choreography so we could really get the feeling of it. We’ve been given translations to all the songs we’re using and it’s good to see how the moves relate to the words. After snatching a few hours of sleep most people headed out to the Tivoli, a cabaret, to see the dancers.These weren’t famous dancers lie the ones who travel and teach, these were ordinary working dancers. There was a little bit of false advertising going on though:

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That’s Asmahan on the poster and I bet she’s never danced there! We saw two dancers and two singers. The dancers were quite reserved, almost shy, but then how would you be if you knew Randa was sitting in your audience? The first dancer invited her up and when Randa got going her face dropped but she rallied and carried on. Randa danced “El Eh Besalowni” and “Inta Omri” for us which was really special. I have video of her brother Fady giving her a money shower which I’ll try and put up when I get back. I learned a thing about money showers, I didn’t realise that they were essentially toy money. You might have a stack of £1000 but really it’s play money that you paid £100 for. Knowing that didn’t detract from the fun of seeing the men toss the bills around.

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This was a really late night and we left just as things were getting going – 4am! Fortunately yesterday was our day off, spent by a swimming pool followed by lunch and a folklore show with endearingly ropey dancers.  There’s always one or two who know the steps and the others are desperately following along. The bellydancer was good though and of course we all had a dance too.

I left early with a small group who were going to another show. We had all of 15 minutes at the hotel to make ourselves presentable then it was off to the Nile Maxim again to see Asmahan. I hadn’t been too sure about going back but when I heard Asmahan was dancing that was it, I HAD to go. I saw her in London last year and loved her but I’ve never seen her dance in Cairo. It wasn’t her full show with boy dancers and a grand entrance but it was still incredible. Asmahan is so powerful and her presence just fills the room, but she has a great sense of humour that goes with it. I think she appreciated two tables of excitable bellydancers, we were certainly the loudest people in the room. She got her band to play “Batwannes Beek” for us which was lovely. I had such a nice time.

Right, better leave it there because I need to head back down to find out when I’m dancing in the competition! Eeek!

Now the hard work starts…

The second full day of lessons is over and Randa is taking no prisoners! We are learning a choreography to her magency (that’s the first dance a dancer does in her show to introduce herself to the audience and show off her strengths) which is amazing to watch but so hard to dance. To help us get through it all we started this morning and continued through the afternoon and I think we’ve covered 5 and a half minutes which is pretty good work. I sat out the last run through so I could take a video and was really impressed by how well everyone was remembering it (my brain is full!) especially people who I know only had five hours sleep!

Yes, so 8 of us went out to see Soraya last night at the Marriott, which ended up being a late night (back at 3am). I’ve been to the Marriott before to see Randa in the nightclub (we’ll just skip over why Soraya is there instead!) but last night we were up on the roof in the open air. It was like a little ampitheatre with booths for the audience, there was a stage set up for the dancer and her musicians could sit around it. We got a good long show with three sets and lots of lovely songs, finishing with Soraya’s showpiece – her drum solo. Her shimmies are incredible! And she does it all in massive high heels which I’m sure I couldn’t even walk in never mind dancing. She’s a very sweet dancer, really engaging to watch. After all the excitement of the opening night it was nice to sit back and relax. We all got up and did a little dancing until it was time for our taxis to take us back to the hotel – we’ve been advised to let the course organisers arrange our transport rather then do it ourselves. It’s a bit of a shame because jumping into random taxis is always an eventful experience but it’s best to be safe.

Photos! Because everyone likes to see the costumes:

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The green dress is my favourite, but I’m not in the market for costumes on this trip so I’m staying well away from the temptation of the costume stalls.

First day of the course

As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I’m in Egypt again doing Randa Kamel’s week long course. I arrived late on Tuesday night (well,technically it was early on Wednesday morning) then had a relaxing morning getting to meet some of the new girls and catching up with returning students. I’m not the only one who thinks the course is worth doing again, in fact I think most people here have done it once (or even twice!) before. Randa has that sort of effect on you 🙂 it’s a fantastic atmosphere, it’s like being at a family reunion. We all live so far away but dance has brought us together.

Last night was the opening show at the Nile Maxim. We were met off the coach by a group of saidi dancers. Wow, mizmars are loud! They played and danced and sang for us, of course we danced as well, especially when the pantomime horse came out! I do love a pantomime horse. They were followed by a tannoura set and then finally we were allowed on the boat itself.

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I’m going to have to apologise to you because I took almost no photos of the show! I don’t like watching from behind a camera and I know that out official photographer Tracey Gibbs will have some spectacular pictures so I decided not to bother. It was a FANTASTIC show. Randa danced oriental, saidi, Alexandrian, shaabi and baladi. She is incredible and I think the love and cheers and clapping from all around the room lifted her even higher. Some of us may have had a few tears in our eyes 🙂 when I watch Randa I just think “YES. THIS is what it’s about, this is why I dance!”

I will share one photo, and this one I took especially for Candi to show that all the best people stand on chairs!

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We also had some bamboutiyya and saidi from Bedru, who is teaching our warm ups and folklore this time. I think he was at a bit of a disadvantage coming on after Randa and her band. As a special treat we also had the singer Rico and his band, who had us all up dancing, and finally a fashion show with a rather incongruous soundtrack of 80s cheese! I think some of the Egyptians were slightly baffled by our YMCA conga but they joined in anyway 🙂

It was a brilliant was to start the week but there were some tired faces at breakfast this morning. Randa went easy on us with some gentle technique, looking at ways to get on stage with different rhythms. I learned some new rhythms, which was good, and new ways for thinking about an entrance. We continued this afternoon by thinking about choreography but everything descended into chaos when two delicious cakes arrived for two birthday girls. You can’t keep dancers away from cake for too long.

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One last photo for you:  this is the new poster in the ballroom to inspire us as we dance. Imagine my delight when I realised that not only were there lovely pictures of Randa, but also the silhouette of that dancer! You’ll have to look quite carefully but I promise you that she’s there.

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Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

I recently noticed that a particular dancer seems to be popping up all over the place. It’s this lady:

Dancer in bedlahShe is more commonly seen in silhouette:

Silhouette of the same dancerYou’ll find her advertising hen parties:

Advert for a hen partyand university societies:

Logo of University of Kent BellydanceYou’ll find her in London:

Flyer for the Collaboration eventGreece (you can only see her upper body but it’s definitely her):

Flyer for Cairo by Night festivaland China:

Flyer for International Belly Dance Cultural Festival in ChinaShe also appears in magazines:

Ispahan magazineand on the cover of CDs:

Cover of Tigi Tigi singleWhere have you seen her?

 

(This post is not intended to make fun of the people who have used this image, but to make fun of its ubiquity. These are just the examples I have come across since having the idea for this post about six weeks ago, the only ones I went looking for were the original two images.)

JWAAD Personal Development Programme

After you’ve been bellydancing for a few years it’s not unusual to reach a point where you’ve outgrown (or think you’ve outgrown 😉 ) the classes available to you locally. Teachers are not always able to offer advanced classes, either because the demand is not sufficient to make a viable class, or because they themselves haven’t reached an advanced level of dancing. So what do you do next if you want to continue growing as a dancer?

My solution to this problem was to take the money I had been spending on regular classes and spend it on workshops instead. That way I could learn whatever I liked from whoever I liked at a high level. I recommend everyone take as many workshops as they can manage at every stage of their dance career. The only problem with using workshops as your only tuition is that you often don’t get much (or any) feedback on your dancing. 30 dancers in a 2 hour workshop – you do the maths. It can be easy to fall into bad habits, to become lazy and to find that your progress has stalled.

Private lessons can be a good way to give yourself a reality check. They require a certain amount of commitment from a student in terms of time and money so make sure you choose a teacher who will give you what you want and, more importantly, what you need. If all you want is a pat on the head, don’t bother. If you want constructive feedback to help you progress and you are prepared to put the work in between classes then private lessons are a good way to go.

For dancers who find themselves in the situation where you don’t quite know what do to next there is a new programme that might help you: the JWAAD Personal Development Programme. I am one of the National Assessors* and you can read about what I can offer you here. The programme is centred around technique assessments which will be familiar to anyone who has done a JWAAD Foundation or Diploma course. As part of my Diploma course I did three, then did a fourth one afterwards just for fun! I think they are universally acknowledged to be the most scary part of the courses. You dance, the assessor assesses you. I was pretty terrified when I did my first assessment with Jo, but she corrected a problem with my posture that I didn’t even know about and that made a huge improvement to my dancing. At every assessment I was given something new to work on and by the end I was a much, much better dancer. The assessment process has changed a little since then. Most noticeably you are given a description of the levels in advance so you know what kind of thing the assessor will be looking for, which will remove a lot of the fear. It is all centred around principles of movement and it is desirable to have your own style – we’re not trying to create an army of clones!

You don’t have to be enrolled on a JWAAD course to take part in the programme, it is for anyone who wants an appraisal of their dancing and guidance for how to take it to the next level. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

*(If you’re one of my regular students don’t panic! I’m not going to watch you all and mentally go through my tick sheet, or start making you take assessments before you can move up a level.)

Changed!

Well, I’ve finished tinkering and this is the end result. I hope it just looks like a few cosmetic changes. What I’ve actually been doing is making a whole new site in WordPress, which has meant getting to grips with a whole new way of working (my previous website was all done in Notepad!) but the end result should be a website which works more smoothly on mobile devices. I’m going to keep playing with the look of it but you hsould find all the photos, videos, Paypal links etc. are working. If you find something that looks broken please tell me!