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.

 

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 :)

Helsinki Bus Station Theory

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and individual style recently. Everyone knows there are different styles of bellydance, mostly defined by geography and time. For example, the style I do is rooted firmly in present day Egypt. It’s different to the style you’d see in Egypt 50 years ago, or the style you might see in Turkey today. It’s easy for a dancer to be exposed to many different styles of dance through workshops and videos, and to choose the ones they want to pursue further. Finding your individual style within that dance is another thing altogether. After 15 years of studying I think I’m just getting a handle on what makes my dancing my own :) I have it in mind to write a series of posts so don’t be too disappointed that this one doesn’t cover absolutely everything there is about finding your own style!

Which brings me to Helsinki Bus Station Theory. What, you’ve never heard of it? Well, neither had I until it was mentioned in my Twitter feed, and I found the name intriguing enough to read further. The link will take you to a written excerpt from the original speech by photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. Do read the whole thing if you have time. I’m going to use a shorter quote from a Guardian article:

There are two dozen platforms…from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.

This resonated so strongly, and not just because I enjoy extending metaphors as far as they will go. As I said above, it’s easy enough for dancers to try different styles – they are getting on one bus for a bit, rushing back to the station, hopping on another, riding it for a little while then back to the station to get on another. And this is all fine when you are starting out and having fun exploring this amazing shiny world of bellydance but if you want to be of a professional standard you are never going to develop any depth to your dancing by only riding each bus for a couple of stops. There are the bellydancers who describe what they do as a fusion of Egyptian, Turkish, Tribal, Indian, flamenco and whatever else they found down the back of the sofa and claim it constitutes their very own original style. I’ve rarely seen anything interesting or coherant come from that.

It’s another version of know the rules before you break them. Knowing when and how to break the rules is far more exciting than just claiming there were no rules in the first place. When you know the other bus routes you know when your route has diverged and you’re doing something truly original.

My route has been following an Egyptian line for a long time now, and I have worried that at times it’s been following other dancers’ buses too closely, but I stayed on it and it’s taken me somewhere new. You can make a career out of tailgating another bus but it can’t be as artistically satisfying as finding your own way.

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?

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.