Workshops with Lorna

Yesterday brought two welcome visitors to Cambridge – the sun and Lorna of Cairo! She was here to teach two workshops as part of her UK tour. One of the great things about Lorna’s teaching is how she tailors her material to suit the group in front of her. Our group ranged in experience from improvers to professionals (and how I love to see other teachers participating in workshops!) which can be challenging for a teacher, but I think we all came away from the first technique workshop with new moves, new ways of thinking about familiar moves and most importantly new concepts to apply to our dancing. I’ve done my 5 minute shimmy practice today – have you?

Since it was such a glorious sunny day the people staying for the second workshop all went across the road for a picnic on Parkers Piece and watched the cyclists on their way back from the London to Cambridge ride:
A bellydance picnic
I think all workshops should include a picnic in the sunshine!

Our second workshop was “Dance with an Egyptian accent”, which I had requested specially after taking it last year. It really changed how I thought about my dancing. It’s all about how you acknowledge the accents in the music. Last year Lorna gave us seven ways of doing it – this year she had twelve! I found myself doing a 13th during the drum solo – eyebrow accents 🙂 I found the workshop just as interesting second time round, it’s great for making you really listen to the music and for identifying the ways you like to move. Some of the accents felt very natural, some were difficult, some were unusual but felt good and I’ll try and incorporate those in my dancing. We came a long way in two hours and I think everyone had tired legs and a full brain by the end. Success!

There is still time to catch Lorna while she’s in the UK, check out her tour schedule to see when she’s near you. I bribed her with local cider to get her to come back to Cambridge next year 🙂

In Defence of Choreography

Choreography and improvisation are both important parts of bellydance, but whenever I hear the two talked about the discussion is always framed as choreography versus improvisation, as if you had to choose one team or the other. I might add that I see this done most frequently by dancers who favour improvisation, who snobbishly dismiss choreography as something only done by amateurs who don’t know any better. “Real” dancers only ever improvise!

Well, I’m going to stick up for choreography. I love choreography!

I like learning choreography from other teachers. I like seeing how someone else puts movements together and how they make those transitions. I like learning how someone else hears a particular piece of music, the nuances, accents and melodic lines that speak to them when they listen. It helps me think about music in a new way. I like to hear other people’s ideas about stage dynamics and how they think about their audience as they dance and choreograph. I even like the challenge of learning a complete choreography in 3 hours, it means I have to use my mind as much as my body and now that most teachers allow time to video at the end of a workshop it means I have a complete record of what I did. Not necessarily because I want to replicate that choreography myself, but so I can analyse it at my leisure and take away the aspects that I like.

I like to teach choreography for all those reasons as well. It gives me a chance to explain about how to transition between different moves and to talk about how you can interpret a piece of music. I’m certainly not the only person in the world who gets a sense of achievement from learning a complete choreography and many of my students enjoy going on to perform what they’ve learned at haflas.

I like writing choreography. When writing for students I have to think about what technique they know already and what I will be teaching them and structure the choreography accordingly. This means I have to think about how I am interpreting the music and not just go for my default moves or combinations, which keeps me on my toes! When writing for myself I can challenge myself with footwork, weight changes and complex layering and really immerse myself in the music.

I have nothing against improvisation. In fact I love improvisation too! From social dancing at a hafla to performing with a live band, all dancers need improvisational skills. Speaking for myself, a lot of the ideas I come up with when improvising originate in choreographies. I don’t magic stuff out of the air. I’m not necessarily thinking “that combination from [choreography] would work nicely here”, but my body remembers something that I’ve spent hours practicing and the combination just comes out. I am confident that I have the ability to leave my choreography behind if I need to.

It doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to choreography and improvisation. A lot of people probably favour one over the other, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who prefers the other is bad or wrong or not a proper dancer. Good dancing is good dancing whether it is planned or spontaneous.

The social side

Here’s a trope I’d like to see the end of: “Bellydancers are so bitchy!”

Bellydance is a creative activity where your performance often ends up channelling deep emotions and so it becomes very personal. You can have a lot invested in one performance. Bellydance is also a field where work is scarce, paid work even more so, and so there is a lot of competition for the performance work which is available. Deep emotional investment and competition – of course you’re not always going to rub along nicely with everyone. Look, any time you get two or more people together, doing a thing of some kind, there is the potential for infighting and power struggles. No profession or pastime has a monopoly on this. No gender has a monopoly on this. However, there is also the potential for friendship, collaboration and inspiring each other to reach even greater heights. I have encountered much, much more of this in my bellydance lifetime than any infighting. I won’t pretend its all hugs and sisterhood and kum-ba-yah around the campfire because that’s just creepy and real people aren’t like that. I’ve been lucky to meet and work with dancers from all over the UK and beyond and made some great friends doing it. Dance friends clap and cheer the loudest, pick you up after a bad performance and when real life makes an unwelcome intrusion they’re there to support you. Dance friends are the best 🙂


“Conditioning” is one of those fitness buzz words that you find in class descriptions of all kinds, not just bellydance. It’s a fairly nebulous term though and can refer to a number of different things.

Conditioning can be something you do to your muscles. You might want to condition your muscles to make them stronger, more powerful (improved strength and speed of movement), to have better endurance (contracting repeatedly for a longer time), to improve your balance and stability (core strength). Of course the heart is a muscle as well so you might be trying to condition it to be more effective at getting blood to your muscles (cardiovascular endurance). Aerobic conditioning refers to improving your cardiovascular endurance and lung capacity. Conditioning is also used to describe trying to increase flexibility and range of movement. The purpose of conditioning can be to achieve an overall improvement in fitness, for injury prevention or to make your body do a particular activity more effectively.

So there are a lot of ways you might be “conditioning” your body. How do they relate to bellydance?

Bellydance For Body Conditioning

The NHS website suggests that dancing is good for “losing weight, maintaining strong bones, improving posture and muscle strength, increasing balance and co-ordination and beating stress”, so definitely covering some of the aspects of conditioning I’ve already described. There are plenty of classes and DVDs out there selling bellydance for fitness. Hey, I’ve used that aspect of it in advertising too, especially around the New Year when people are feeling the effects of holiday excess! I think that bellydance can be a good way to improve aspects of your fitness. Depending on how the class is taught it can offer a cardio workout – obviously an introspective session on taqasim is not going to do this but practicing travelling steps can raise a sweat. And what better example of improving muscular endurance than a shimmy drill? 1 minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes…From my own experience, when I jumped from teaching 2 classes a week to 7 classes a week I really noticed a difference in my overall fitness and body shape.

Body Conditioning For Bellydance

When you first start bellydancing you are probably using your body in new ways, unless it is part of your culture and you’ve grown up with it. It takes time to train yourself to move your hips on their own, and so you do exercises to condition your body to isolate your hips – this is a way of moving specific to bellydance. If you’re working on challenging moves like backbends or floorwork you’ll probably want to spend some time preparing your body (strength and flexibility) before attempting them. But that’s not the only way that you can condition your body for bellydance. Everything I mentioned in the second paragraph impacts your dancing – muscle strength, power and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility. Improve these and you will improve your dancing. Of course you can be a good dancer just by going to bellydance classes, and there is more to being a good dancer than having a well-conditioned body, but it’s something to consider if you’ve hit a plateau and are not sure how to progress.


Another buzz word! Generally used by bellydance teachers to mean “doing something other than bellydance to improve your bellydancing”. Now that you know the various ways in which you could be conditioning your body you can make a more informed choice about what to do. When I first took a workshop with Randa I realised that I needed to work on strength, power and cardiovascular endurance if I was going to have any chance of keeping up with her, and so I planned my non-bellydance training accordingly. There are so many options for aerobic activity to improve cardiovascular endurance! Running, swimming, rowing, cycling…indoors vs. outdoors, competitive vs. group class vs. solo activity, low impact vs. high impact… you’re bound to find something to suit you. A lot of the same activities will condition your muscles in various ways too. For further strength training you have exercises that use your body weight such as squats, lunges, crunches and press ups (but go on, make it interesting, add some weights!). I found Pilates to be an excellent way of complementing my dance training, my core strength improved and it got me thinking about isolation in a new way. Cross training by doing another form of dance such as ballet or jazz offers all the benefits of bellydance as well as introducing principles like extension and line, step patterns and stagecraft that you might not find in your average bellydance class.

In class I help my students condition their bodies for bellydancing by….bellydancing!
No strength training, no flexibility training, no cardio other than really fast class choreography. I think cross training is good, and I encourage anyone who wants to improve their dancing to improve their all round fitness, but I’m not going to do it in class. A quick search on Classfinder shows me 165 yoga classes within 20 miles of Cambridge, and 14 bellydancing classes. Very simply, there are hundreds of other classes where you can work on different aspects of body conditioning, but not that many where you can learn bellydance technique. If you want squats and press ups, I’ll see you at the gym!

Girls and exercise

A survey came out this week about girls attitudes towards school sports. I’m not going to link to any of the news coverage, where the story was just used as an excuse to print photo of fruity girls in crop tops (A level results are a long way away for picture editors!). The one thing I will say is that the comments on the BBC News coverage suggested that boys are equally dissatisfied by the options they are presented with at school, but since the survey was commissioned by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation I’m going to concentrate on the girls. You can find the full report here.

Let’s look at some numbers!

Half of all girls (51%) are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE.

Count me in with that 51%. After leaving school I didn’t set foot in a gym or do any kind of exercise class until I was in my late 20s. If it wasn’t for bellydancing I would have been almost totally inactive during that period (apart from walking and cycling). I didn’t count bellydancing as exercise, it was too much fun! I associated exercise with being cold and miserable, therefore anything enjoyable couldn’t possibly be exercise. Never mind that after a week of bellydance summer school I went down a belt notch. But actually bellydance was my route back to more intense physical activity. It taught me that my body could do amazing things, and that I could enjoy movement in it’s own right, without worrying about being faster or better than the person next to me. I got a sense of achievement from mastering shimmy layering; I get the same sense of achievement now from squatting a few more kilos, or doing just one more push up. All this movement is joyful to me. I hope my students can learn to feel that joy when they dance, that sense of wonder at what their bodies can do.

Of the least active girls, 46% say that they don’t like the activities they get to do in PE compared to 26% of the most active.

At school we had two options: hockey or netball. After two years the girls who weren’t on a sports team were allowed to do aerobics instead. Guess what activities I haven’t done since leaving school! If you said hockey, netball and aerobics you win a cookie. Instead I have done bellydancing, Body Combat, boxercise, flamenco, pilates, weight training, yoga and Zumba. None of which are the “traditional sports” you do at school.

The survey goes on to examine the reasons that girls reject the activitives they are offered in school (they don’t reject activity and fitness outright, 76% of 15 year old girls said they would like to do more physical activity). Body image is a big part of this: not wanting to have to wear unflattering PE kit (athletics knickers and leotards *shudder*) especially in front of boys, not wanting to look “unfeminine” (sweaty or dirty). To a self conscious teenage girl these things are very very real and important. Girls are also very concerned with what their friends think, they want to be sociable and have fun together. They also don’t want to be seen to fail in front of their friends and peers. It’s all very well telling them to just get their act together and DO IT but if we’re concerned with long term health then it is necessary to address these things. There is no point in bullying a girl through an hour of PE when she is 15 only to have her reject all exercise at the age of 18. Noone benefits from that.

Can we not get these girls bellydancing already? You can wear what you like, as long as it allows you to move freely, it can cover as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. It is an incredibly feminine way of moving, even if you do get a bit sweaty now and then. You get to see how the same movements look equally beautiful on different bodies. There is an abundance of female role models. There is no competition – if competition motivates you to be active then you are already well catered for by school sports but the survey suggests you are in a minority. There is a strong social side to bellydancing, you can dance with your friends, create combinations and choreographies and even perform together. I still find that fun and my teenage years are a long way behind me 🙂

You know what, we could even let the boys have a go.

Context Matters

Imagine I stamp my foot. What style of dance am I doing? Is it tap, flamenco, debke, stepping, clogging, Odissi, Kathak, Moldavian folk, Bulgarian folk (thank you Vanya for all the videos!), Hungarian folk, Irish step dance….?

Let’s look for clues. What am I wearing on my foot? Maybe it’s a shoe with a small heel – could be flamenco, tap, Irish step dance or any of the European folk dances (and their many regional variations). Does the shoe have metal on it? Well, that narrows it down to flamenco or tap, but maybe I’m doing American clogging with slightly unorthodox footwear. Clogs are wooden, American clogging uses clogs with taps whereas regional British clogging uses clogs without taps, so if I’ve got a wooden shoe on then you’ll need to look very closely. Maybe I’m wearing boots, in which case I’m probably doing debke, but then again, it could be one of those folk dances or maybe I’ve branched out into American line dancing. Maybe I’m not wearing shoes, just bells round my ankle, in which case I could be doing Odissi or Kathak or one of the other classical forms of Indian dance.

The music which is playing can narrow down the possibilities. Tabla and a flute – could be Indian, could be Middle Eastern. If there’s a sitar as well, probably Indian, if there’s an accordion, probably Middle Eastern. But if there’s just a solo accordion, could be Middle Eastern or English morris dancing! The two styles of clogging will have different kinds of music to accompany them, British clogging will have traditional instruments such as the fiddle or bagpipes, American clogging will have bluegrass music. The shoes with metal taps – if there’s an acoustic guitar we can be confident it’s flamenco, if it’s a big band sound then it’s probably tap. And if there’s no music other than the sound of feet on the floor, hand claps and slaps against the body? Could be flamenco, could be stepping.

Context is crucial. There are a limited number of ways the human body can move, it is the context they are done in that gives us hundreds of different styles of dance. I know some people sigh and roll their eyes at talk about classifying dance styles but it is about more than putting a label on a thing. Dance can embody history, culture, politics, geography, pride in your heritage, the whole wealth of human experience. The way you dance is a way to distinguish yourself from the people in the neighbouring town or region or country. The labels people use tell us so much more than just the name of their dance.

You can see where I’m going with this. Bellydance is not just a movement vocabulary. It is the movements you use and the music you dance to and how you interpret it, and yes, what you wear. Would you experience Fifi’s dancing the same way if she was wearing a tutu? Once you start taking that cultural context away you have something different. Of course you can do typical bellydance movements to [genre] music, but then what you have is bellydance [genre] fusion. Be honest with yourself, your audience and your students. “World fusion dance” would be a much more honest description for a lot of what is called “bellydance” at the moment, although I would like to see the phrase “contortionistic jazz exotica” gain some popularity 🙂 (yes, I’ve been watching Twin Peaks recently!). Fusion isn’t bad, or wrong! It’s something different. But once you remove everything Middle Eastern from your dance it isn’t bellydancing any more. We don’t question that flamenco is Spanish, or that Kathak is Indian. Why then do people insist that you can have bellydancing which isn’t Middle Eastern?

Yes, things change over time. Styles merge and offshoots break away, new schools are formed from the old. I’m not advocating preserving bellydance in aspic. However I would suggest that the people who innovate successfully are those who have really immersed themselves in the style and who therefore know how to push the boundaries without losing the essence of what the dance is. It’s more than just taking a movement from here and a costume item from there and shouting “But DANCE EVOLVES!” when someone questions your choices.

What to wear?

“What should I wear to class?” is a pretty common question when people first start bellydancing, but as an instructor it’s not one I ask myself very often. Then this past week I was watching trailers for various online classes and noticed that one particular teacher appeared to be teaching in a full performance costume. OK, so maybe this was just for the trailer but it got me wondering whether dressing up for class is the norm. Not necessarily in full costume – I’m pretty sure that’s unusual – but making more of an effort than I do.

I have very basic teaching outfits: trousers and a lycra vest top with a scarf round my hips. It isn’t even an exciting beaded or jingly scarf! Not because I’m the kind of spoilsport teacher who bans coin belts – for the record I am all in favour of them unless we’re dancing with sagat 🙂 – but because those scarves just can’t cope with the wear and tear I put them through. But now I’m worried that my students might be expecting a teacher festooned with scarves and dripping with sequins or they might used to seeing teachers in brightly coloured branded dancewear *cough*zumba*cough*. Am I a disappointment?

I have good reasons for dressing like I do. I remember the very first teacher I went to, who used to dress up for classes. She would have layers and layers of artfully arranged skirts and shawls, bracelets all the way up her arms, hair flowers and decorations – the kind of “gypsy” boho mashup which comes into fashion every few years. I thought she looked great! It wasn’t until I went back to her class after a year or so (this was when I was away at university) that I noticed that whilst all those layers made her hip movements very impressive they also made it kind of hard to see what she was actually doing. I didn’t go to any more classes with her because since I couldn’t see, I couldn’t learn. When I started teaching I wore outfits which meant it was easy for students to see how my body was moving. As regular students of mine know I will also roll up my top to show my midriff and hoick my trouser legs out of the way if I want them to get a really good look! Some teachers go down the route of the lycra catsuit which allows plenty of visibility, but those remind me of leotards in school PE lessons and give me the shivers 🙂

So I want students to be able to see what I’m doing. I also want to keep my classes affordable. One of the many things I love about bellydance is the fact that you don’t need to spend a fortune on the gear just to get started. With a lot of other dance forms you’re going to need at the very least a decent pair of shoes or trainers early on. My very basic flamenco shoes and skirt required a special trip to London and weren’t exactly cheap. With bellydance you just turn up to class, with a scarf if you’ve got one (but it’s not essential), and you’re good to go! I don’t want anyone to feel under pressure to dress a certain way to fit in, especially when they’re just starting out. I do love seeing the bellydance classwear that my students acquire over time but I hope that my Tesco Value look reassures the ones who choose not to.

Finally, I teach four or five days a week – I need robust workout clothes that last! I do like the fancy dance pants from Sharifwear and Melodia Designs (I wore my first pair of Melodias until the seams wore out!) but I rarely wear them outside of workshops and party lessons because they are made from delicate fabrics and you can’t just chuck them in the machine on a regular wash cycle. I am a practical woman at heart.

So there you go. I may look like I’m got lost on my way to the gym – well, apart from the scarf and the makeup 🙂 – but I’ve thought it through and I hope that my students can look past my unassuming appearance once we start dancing.

Know your music

When you’ve been bellydancing for a few years you probably start to think about choreographing your own dances. Finding your own style is an important part of a dancer’s development, and creating a choreography can be a really good way to explore your ideas about musical interpretation. You’ll have some ideas already from learning other people’s choreographies, and hopefully at some point someone has told you the importance of knowing what your music is about. You don’t want to bounce around with a big grin on your face when the singer is heartbroken, or dance to a religious song (yes people have really done this, and there are videos on Youtube to prove it!). But how far do you take this process?

With a pop song you’re probably OK if you can just get the general gist of the song. Pop music isn’t very complicated, either you’re in love and everything is wonderful, or your heart is broken and you can’t carry on. You need to take care with shaabi, it might just be a nice song about going for a ride in a hantour but there could be a double meaning you should be aware of. It could be about politics or drugs or bird flu… I recommend reading what Candi has to say.

In this post I’m going to talk about the classic songs in the Egyptian dancer’s repertoire and use Ana Fi Intizarak (Oum Kalthoum)* as an example. These songs are just beautiful. Like pop songs, they tend to be about love and heartbreak, but in a more complicated way. Love is never simple, to love is to suffer! This emotional complexity is what makes dancing to these songs so challenging and so rewarding. Also, if your audience is Arabic there’s a good chance they’ll know all the words and can sing along!

Here’s Fifi Abdo dancing to it.

When I’ve chosen a song to dance to the first thing I do is find out what the words are. Ideally I want a transliteration of the Arabic along with an English translation. I’ve written before about choosing music and you’ll find sites with collections of translations at that link. Luna (Kisses from Kairo in the bar to the left) offers a translation service with a very good reputation. Sorry, I can’t help with translations from Arabic to other languages. For Ana Fi Intizarak Shira has not one, but two translations! Direct translations can sometimes sound a bit clunky and awkward so with two (or more) examples I can compare how different people have translated different expressions. For example, I’ve found one line translated as:
“With each little letter I count your conversations with me”
“I consider the whisper your language”
“Each whisper counts your words”
“I hear your voice in any whisper”

It will really help if you can learn some Arabic. Look out for workshops aimed at dancers which will teach you some of the common words in songs – I’ve been to good workshops with Kay Taylor, Yasmina and Sara Farouk. If you have more time go to an evening course or try learning from CD. Knowing a few words will provide some anchor points in the translation for you.

If I’ve chosen an instrumental version of a song my next step is to find a vocal version so I can establish what the words would be if they were there. Even if you’ve chosen a version with a singer I think there is still a lot to be gained by hunting down the original version. You’ll find a lot of recordings uploaded to Youtube, occasionally there is a video to go with them but more often not. Here is 35 minutes of Ana Fintizarak:

I settle myself down with the instrumental version, the vocal version, the translations and my notebook and get to work!

If you’ve got this far no doubt some of you are thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of work, it’s far too analytical and isn’t it better to just dance to what you feel? Actually, I find that going through this process, which requires a lot of detailed listening, makes me appreciate the music on a much deeper level. I hear nuances in the instrumentation that I may have missed when I first listened. Comparing the different translations really makes me think about how to interpret the words and how I feel. There’s no one correct way to feel about a song. Oum Kalsoum sounds like she is in utter despair, but Fifi looks like she is in the early start of a relationship where you can’t bear to be apart so while she is suffering she is enjoying every moment…

For the readers who are thinking “Well, I know and do all this already”, good for you! However, I never had anyone sit down and explain all this to me and I guess I’m not the only one, so I thought it might help a few others. For you I offer one more link I found when researching Ana Fi Intizarak. It’s a detailed analysis of an 18 minute improvisation by Oum Kalthoum around 4 lines of the song and I found it very interesting.

Now geek out!

*Oum, Om, Um, Kalthoum, Kalthum, Kalsoum, Kalsum and probably no end of other potential spellings. Ana Fi Intizarak, Ana Fintizarak, Ana Fi Entezarak, etc. etc.

Cairo Aziza

As opposed to Portland Aziza, the film Aziza, the piece of music Aziza or any other dancers called Aziza!

Aziza from Cairo is one of the hottest Egyptian dancers at the moment. She teaches at Ahlan Wa Sahlan and travels round the world to teach at other festivals – I hear a rumour that the UK might be on her list for next year…She also models for Sahar Okasha, and I am deeply jealous of her for this 🙂 I first saw Aziza in 2010 when our group went to Casino El Leyl on the Pyramids Road. We’d been tipped off about the fantastic new dancer they had and we certainly weren’t disappointed! She had clear influences from Dina and Randa at that time but I think that now she has a definite style all of her own. There’s an old-fashioned quality to her, the large, soft hip and arm movements, but she also has a lot of strength and drama which is totally modern Cairo style.

Let’s have some videos!
Some Dina influence in the costume here! A video from April 2010.

A more recent video, filmed by Caroline Afifi in November last year. I think Aziza looks a lot more powerful here. Also worh watching for the amount of money which is being thrown!

One more, from December’s Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival. I think most dancers make an extra effort when they’re performing for other dancers.