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.)

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 🙂

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.
http://oumkalsoum.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/this-is-excerpt-of-ana-fi-intidharak-im.html

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.

Drum Solos

Drum solos are for show offs, and I mean this in a good way. Dancers use them to show off their technique and personality. As a very broad rule of thumb, dancers in the West tend to put more emphasis on the technique, whilst Egyptian dancers put more emphasis on the personality.

The sharp beats of the drum invite crisp, precise technique, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything you do must be percussive and staccato. Give the audience some breathing space with some softer moves, or even some stillness. Try not to overcomplicate things. Daria Miskevich has incredible technique and energy but watch her closely and you’ll see that actually she isn’t dancing at a million miles an hour and throwing in layer after layer of moves. She is varying her pace and using those showstopper moves sparingly for maximum effect.

At the other end of the showing off spectrum, where it’s all about personality, here is Camelia. Camelia is wild on stage, a complete free spirit. She gets away with things that noone else could! She is definitely one of those dancers who divide opinions. She reminds me of a little girl, hyped up on sugar, desperate to be the centre of attention! I love watching her. The drum solo starts at 4:55.

EDIT: This video has been made private 🙁 if I find another Camelia drum solo I’ll update this post.

The eyebrow wiggle! 6:25 if you missed it 🙂 I’m sure the whole performance is not to everyone’s taste, but she is clearly just up there having fun and I admire that.

The rhythms and patterns in drum solos are easy for the average audience to listen to and understand, so it’s nice to be able to play with those patterns in unexpected ways. Personally, I like a dancer who can surprise me and make me laugh. There is no obvious emotion in the music so you need to bring something of yourself to your dance. I’ve seen dancers who perform their (technically admirable) drum solos with just one expression on their face and it just bores me. Most dancers manage to find their own balance between technique and personality. Some of my favourites are Aziza and Asmahan.

Aziza’s drum solo choreographies are always creative and fun:

Asmahan having fun with her musicians. Just watch 🙂 :

You can have too much of a good thing….I have a love/hate relationship with drum solos. The fact that they are so good for showing off the very best you can do in an audience-friendly way means that they get done an awful lot. At some shows it can feel like every second dance is a drum solo, sometimes because it is and sometimes because dancers insist on sticking one on to the end of their music (competitions are particularly bad for this). You’ve just enjoyed some lovely soulful tarab and then you hear the tell tale “tak, tak…” that means a drum solo is about to be committed. After the first couple I’m not thinking “Oh good, a drum solo!” but “Here we go again…is the bar still open?”. It’s a shame when you’ve got lots of very good dancers, but when everyone is doing the same thing it’s just too much. I very rarely dance drum solos at events for dancers for this reason.

But I still like them 🙂 I decided to teach my improvers class about Arabic rhythms this term, which I thought would go nicely with a drum solo choreography, and once I started working on it I found myself enjoying it. I might just have to choreograph a new one for myself. So I’m definitely back in the “love” phase!

Comedy and Bellydance

Not comedy bellydance, sorry.

Stewart Lee on whether comedy is art in an interview with Marc Maron, 11/8/10

“SL: A lot of money is spent in publically funded theatre workshops where highly educated theatre practitioners sit around working out how to engage directly with ordinary people in an audience, how to break the fourth wall, how to take theatre into unusual spaces, and all those things are things that the worst hack comic does every night. He has to walk into a room and recalibrate everything around the space, who’s there, what time of night it is. He has to make in the moment choices that people in theatre win awards for doing, if they do it the slightest bit people go ‘It was amazing, he turned slightly to the left instead of walking straight forward because something had happened in the room’.

MM: It was an improvisational choice in the moment, what a genius

SL: A comic is making improvisational choices from the moment they enter the room. They know, they go ‘You can’t do…that’s not going to work here, they won’t be able to see me there, the bar’s open, the last place you did it was closed’ every single thing is different.”

Bellydancers, does this sound familiar?

Every performance is different for us. We make improvisational choices every single time we perform.

When you perform at a restaurant or party there is no fourth wall to break, you are engaging directly with “ordinary people” from the second you appear. Families, couples, birthday parties, work parties, hen nights, rugby clubs…..all react differently to a bellydancer and want to engage in different ways. Or don’t want to engage at all and stare firmly at their dinner as you shimmy past! Sometimes they are happy to get up and be part of your show, sometimes they want to take it over (I like to have a little sit down at that point and let them have their moment!). The presence or absence of alcohol has a big effect on the average British audience when faced with a dancer. Personally I love audience interaction, as a dancer and as an “ordinary person” but it can be a frightening thing for a performer to attempt. Of all performers I think only comedians come close to the level of audience interaction that bellydancers have, and so far Stewart Lee is the only one I’ve seen actually leave the stage and join them (although I believe a lot of the young comedians are doing it now) like, say, Khaled does. Now there’s a comparison 🙂

Performing in unusual spaces…I bet we’ve all got stories to tell about that! I’ve had audiences on one side of the stage, two sides at a right angle, two opposite sides (had they all had a fight before I arrived?), three sides and in the round. Unexpected pillars, waiters and children. In a theatre, in a church, in a club, in a school, in a field. Very rarely do you know what the space will be like beforehand. If you’ve danced there before it may be different this time, even in your regular restaurant maybe the tables are set up differently, maybe there is a big table rather than four small tables, maybe tables have taken over your performance space! My students and I danced at a big event this summer which has become an annual gig for us. We carefully planned our entrances and exits based on the stage set up that has been used for the past two years only to find that this year it had been changed. Fortunately we are used to adapting to circumstances quickly and everything went smoothly.

All that’s before you consider whether you’re dancing to CD or have the unpredictability of a live band…

So bellydance and stand up have more in common than you might think, right down to the question of “but is it art?”, and I think that is very revealing. Bellydance and stand up are both entertaining, and I think there is a perception that something cannot be both art and entertainment. Art is good for you, but you’re not supposed to enjoy it. Like sprouts :). Why can’t we concede that being entertaining IS an art?

Choosing your music

This post inspired by a suggestion from Jitka. Sorry it took me so long to write it 🙂

Some of the first questions students ask – after “How do you shimmy?” – are about music. What to get and where to get it. Arabic music is so easy to find now. Most of my music has come from Aladdin’s Cave http://www.aladdinscave.com/acatalog/New_arrivals.html , who always have a wide selection and great customer service, but in the past few years more and more has become available to download through sites like iTunes, emusic and Amazon. If you want to listen to a whole song, rather than the snippets available on those sites, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone dancing to it on YouTube. Bellydance downloads http://www.bellydancedownloads.com/ can help you find particular tracks.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive in this post because I think discovering music for yourself is such an enjoyable experience I would hate it to be spoiled with a box ticking mentality. I just want to point you in a direction and let you explore. Everything I write here is just a suggestion 🙂 how much you do is up to you.

With so much choice out there it can be hard to know what to start with. If you’re a beginner, or new to Arabic music, then pop music can be a good way to start training your ear. The rhythms and the structures of pop songs are pretty simple, so all you’ve contend with are some unfamiliar instruments and a language that you probably don’t understand. If you’re feeling very keen you can always look up the lyrics, there are websites out there dedicated to song translations:

http://www.allthelyrics.com/forum/arabic-lyrics-translation/

http://www.arabicmusictranslation.com/

http://www.shira.net/lyrics.htm

Look out for album series like “Now Dance Arabia….” and “Now That’s What I Call Arabia…”. I have a double CD set which is quite out of date now 🙂 but I still like it called “Arabia: The Essential Album”. Find an artist you like, search for more of their songs…

When you’re ready to start moving beyond pop music try looking for compilations. One of my favourites is Bellydance Superstars Volume 1, it has a really varied selection of styles. None of the other albums in the series have had such a good selection, in my opinion. The only downside is that this one was so popular that a lot of the songs have been done to death – please let me never have to hear “Chicky” again! Another album I like is “10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know”, which is a good introduction to some of the classics. The “Oriental Fantasy” series is not so widely available now, but you can download them http://www.oriental-fantasy.com/dance-academy-cifuentes-berlin.php . Find a song you like, find out what it is about, look for videos of dancers using it, find out the composer and who originally sang it…

If you’re looking for music with performance in mind, check out the albums produced by dancers who have worked in Cairo. Yasmina, Leila, Outi, Samasem, Nesma…dancer-friendly versions of lots of classic songs. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning music piracy up until now, because it’s something that everyone knows is bad but does anyway. I’m mentioning it now because producing these CDs is often a labour of love for the dancers, so please try and get yourself an original copy.

Ask questions! When you’re in class or a workshop and you hear something you like – ask what it is. If you have a song you like but you’re not sure what the style is or how to dance to it – ask your teacher. We like questions. Get on the internet and start searching. If you want a checklist of composers and singers then Candi’s website is a fantastic starting point http://www.rakscandi.co.uk/ I often refer to it especially when I’m looking for different versions of a particular song or some background information.

Music is essential for bellydance. It can be difficult at first if you’re not familiar with Arabic music – new rhythms, new instruments, a language you may not understand – so I can understand why people seek refuge in the familiar and end up dancing to western music or Shakira. I think it’s such a shame to limit yourself in this way, more so if you are telling yourself that you are in some way being edgy by doing so. What is transgressive about dancing to the music that has surrounded you all your life? Learning about a whole new genre of music is a challenge but if you want to call yourself a bellydancer it’s one you must embrace. Listen and listen and listen some more and you will soon find you lose yourself in the ethereal beauty of a ney taqasim, or luxuriate in accordion balady, or with a lump in your throat listening to Oum Kalsoum.

You can even learn to love the mizmar. Really.