Still here!

Well, it’s been a while since I updated this blog! Real life has been getting in the way of online life I’m afraid. A new job, a house move and time spent exploring this new country I live in – a year has gone by already and there’s so much still to see!

I’ve found a little bit of time to dance though :) I taught a weekend of workshops here in Salt Lake City for the lovely Thia, as well as dancing in her fabulous “Welcome to the Jungle” show. Local dancers will know how much effort she puts into her themes and this one was a real WOW. It was great to get back to teaching some of my favourite topics as well as some new ideas I’ve been working on.

I had two dance weekends away planned, sadly one of them got cancelled at the last minute but I did manage to go to the Randa Kamel Extensive Course hosted by Little Egypt in Dallas. Four full days of Randa – of course I was going to be there! We focused on technique and I think everyone benefited from working hard every day. Randa also talked a lot about how we should be dancing, not just technique but musicality and expression and of course FEELING. I learned some new things! Did you know taqasim aren’t really meant for dancing? They’re supposed to be played while you are off stage getting changed :) There was a competition as well, you can see my first round performance on my video page but I am afraid you will never see my performance in the final unless you were there! I had two musicians who couldn’t even keep time with each other and I am afraid that it rather affected my dancing 😉

Now I’m looking ahead to the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive where I will be teaching (Saturday 6th September, 10:30 – 12:00) and then performing later in the afternoon. After that I am heading back to the UK for Shimmy in the City in London  (performing), Jewel of Yorkshire in Saltaire (teaching and performing) and Cambridge (teaching). Better get to work!

New in town

So I guess everyone know by now that I’ve left the UK and am now living in America. I’ll be in Salt Lake City, Utah for the next three years and after that….we’ll see!

One of the things I’m really excited about is having the chance to learn from lots of new dancers. OK, so the first workshops I booked were Little Egypt’s weekend with Randa :) but I am learning from new people as well! Before I arrive in SLC I got in touch with local teacher Stephanie, who told me she was hosting Karim Nagi at the beginning of September, and she was also kind enough to invite me to be part of the Friday night show! I have to tell you how lovely it was to be welcomed like that. I’ve done the same for dancers who were new to Cambridge in the past, inviting them to perform at my haflas, and it felt so good to be on the receiving end this time! So I’d say to other new dancers, don’t be nervous and reach out and established teachers, your reply can mean more than you realise.

Having the show on the horizon was a great motivation to get back in practice, which I’d let slide during the last few weeks of packing. At the moment we only have a few piece of furniture (ours is still on a ship somewhere) but that’s not a bad thing! The empty basement is an excellent studio:

(Not the best photo, admittedly. You can just about see my cat by the computer)

I’ve also brought all my costumes, not wanting them to have to endure a sea journey. When I tried to pick up the costume suitcase it was so heavy that the handle broke off!

I was really interested to see the other dancers in the show, since my main exposure to American bellydance has been the Bellydance Superstars (and I don’t consider a lot of what they do to be bellydance anyway, but that is for another day…). First thing I have to say is what a high standard of dance there was! It looks like there is a strong Egyptian influence round here (apart from the Tribal of course) but with distinctly American touches. For instance, the use of floorwork (splits and a Turkish drop amongst other moves – wow!) and also the use of props. There were a lot of props, often more than one in a routine – I do love it when a dancer discard her veil and suddenly you see the sagat she’s been holding the whole time (and yes I do know sagat are an instrument and not a prop really). The sagat playing – wow again! Really exciting, worked beautifully with the music, so much better than most of what I’ve seen in the UK and I include myself in that.

(I should probably stop calling them sagat and start calling them zills, right? I’m having enough trouble remembering the right names for my groceries but I do want people to understand me :) )

The props were also really well integrated into the performances. Often a performance can turn into “Look at me here with my isis wings” and the actual dancing gets rather left behind, but I didn’t see any of that. So those are my first impressions of what bellydance is like here, I’m sure my thoughts will change as I see more dancing and travel further.

The show was on Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday there were workshops with Karim Nagi. I don’t know if he’s been to the UK (he’s certainly travelled widely) but I don’t recall seeing his name at a festival before so it was great to be able to learn from someone new. Our first workshop was on maqamat and taqasim (hope I’ve spelt those acceptably!). With each maqam we would listen to it, sing it and talk about the emotions it evoked. With Western music I’m used to the ides that major scale = happy and minor scale = sad, but in Arabic music things are much more complicated and just one maqam can bring out a whole range of feelings, even just from a straightforward up and down the set of notes. It was the kind of workshop you could only get from a musician, we explored the music in much greater depth than I’ve done before but we were left in no doubt that really we’d only scratched the surface. Our second workshop was tahtib, and Stephanie had thoughtfully brought spares for everyone – I didn’t think I could get away with bringing my stick on the plane so I was very grateful! We began by just getting a feel for the music, Karim talked about how a man would use the assaya in everyday life, and how that was brough into the dance. Oh yes, we were doing the man’s style! This is something I’ve wanted to learn for a while. Many years ago I had a teacher who said that women shouldn’t do the “masculine” moves, I ignored that and carried on with my twirling. I’ve noticed more and more actual tahtib moves being done by dancers in Cairo though and I think it looks great, but I’ve lacked the knowledge – and the practice space! – to add it to my own dance. So even though  I was pretty bad at catching my assaya, especially in my left hand (Karim made us do everything on both sides!) I am determined to be able to do it.

It was a great day of workshops, held in a lovely studio (it belongs to another local teacher, Thia) which is just for bellydance. I would definitely go to more workshops with Karim and would recommend him highly as a teacher. I know a lot of people who would have loved that music workshop! From chatting to the other dancers I met it sounds like there is a lot going on locally and within the rest of the state so hopefully I will be sharing more adventures with you all soon :)

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?

The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to 2012

I always enjoy planning the new dance year. I have booked myself onto a weekend with Mohamed El Hosseny in London, 12 hours of intense training which I’m sure will leave my body aching and my brain frazzled, if his workshops at Jewel of Yorkshire are anything to go by. Love it! The dates for Shimmy in the City are already in my diary and I’m anxiously awaiting the email that says booking is open because DINA! If you’re in my classes you’re going to hear a lot about this festival…I’ll be getting more involved with JWAAD (Josephine Wise Academy of Arabic Dance) as chair of the JTA and also as a national assessor once I’ve completed the training.

Closer to  home I’m delighted to be hosting a genuine Cairo star this year – Lorna Gow! I met her on one of my Egypt trips in 2011, then went to her London workshops and just had to bring her to Cambridge in July 2012. Watch this space, or better yet, sign up for my mailing list so you can be first to book.

I’ve received some lovely make up for Christmas this year and I’m feeling inspired to run my “Makeup for Performance” workshop again because I’m sure I’m not the only one with a fab new Strictly Come Dancing tie in set :)

As far as performances are concerned I will be dancing at the new look Shisha Lounge in Peterborough in February, and then at Casino Candi in March. This is Candi’s last ever, big farewell, really mean it show and there are only 20 tickets left so book soon if you intend to go.

I daresay you’ll see me at a competition or two as well :)

I’m sure there will be  more events to go to, and more plans to be made (student trip to Cairo 2013!) but for now it’s back to planning lessons for my students this term. Beginners will be looking at classical oriental, improvers having fun with drum solos and intermediates learning the steps of the stars…but which stars will they be?

Call of Arabia

Oh how I envy dancers who work with a band all the time!

Tomorrow night (Saturday 29th October) I’m taking part in “The Call of Arabia”, a new show being produced by The Arab Quarter http://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/1576 go buy a ticket if you haven’t already :)

On Wednesday I had rehearsals with the band, along with Melanie Norman and Anne White. It was just great being able to work with Hassan (tabla, vocals) and George (keyboards), deciding which parts of each song to do, which bits should be longer or shorter, how the introduction should sound, what rhythms to use…in short, to totally customise the song. Rather tricky to get such a good result from a CD without access to an editing suite and a sound engineer. When Emile (violin) and Bashir (ney) arrived the sound just filled the studio, it was glorious. I will do my best to make my dancing live up to their music :) I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night.

Emma’s Soapbox: “Why Yes, I Am a Professional Bellydancer”

Last week the following video went round the online bellydance community.

It made me laugh, in a hollow, sad sort of way. I decided to write about it.

   In this post I will consider the following question: what SHOULD a professional bellydancer be? I am addressing anyone who considers themselves to have reached a point in their dance career where they can represent bellydance in public outside of a hafla setting[1], whether through performance or teaching. Student dancers, relax, I’m not talking about you :). These are the standards I hold myself to. I am not claiming to be perfect and I have not always managed to fulfil all of these in the past, but when I fail to meet these standards I do my best to make sure I learn from that and do better next time.

   So what makes a professional bellydancer?

Getting paid to dance
   Well, yes, this is the most basic definition of a professional but actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. To quote my friend Kitty Kohl : “Somebody can behave professionally and still be a student, and they can be earning money as a teacher and a dancer and be totally not professional in any way.” Sometimes a professional will choose to waive their fee, for example, in support of a charity, but even without money changing hands they still give a professional standard performance. Discussions about money and professionalism are often derailed by arguments over what proportion of your income comes from dance, which is simply not relevant. In situations where you would reasonably expect an entertainer to be paid (birthday party, restaurant, wedding…) you should be paid, even if you only do one gig in a year.
   There’s more to it than that. You should be getting paid a fair price, and if you’re not sure what that is you should ask. Hint: don’t ask a restaurant owner :). You shouldn’t be undercutting the other dancers in your area and if you don’t understand why then you are not ready to be a professional dancer. If you think the standard of your dancing means you should be paid less than the average (“50% less than any other dancer!”) you are certainly not ready to be a professional dancer.

Technical standard
   I wish it went without saying, but you must be able to bellydance well. I could write a whole other essay on what it means to “bellydance well” but for now I will stick to “execute isolated movements clearly and gracefully with good posture and demonstrable knowledge of stagecraft”. I’ve been involved in bellydance for over 12 years and have seen the overall standard of dance in the UK rise but still I come across videos that make me shake my head in sadness when I see that the dancer claims to be a professional or worse, teaches other people. And don’t come to me and say “But I only teach beginners!” because you will unleash a rant which makes this polemic sound like The Little Book of Calm!
   A professional dancer should also have the necessary background knowledge for whatever she is performing. Know the style of music, the style of dance that goes with it, what the words mean etc. You can’t assume that your audience is totally ignorant. Maybe I am there in the back row, judging you :) If you are a fusion dancer, know what you’re fusing. Do you really feel “boxed in by styles” or are you just not prepared to put in the effort of learning about them? Believe me, it will show in your performance.

Professional development
   There is no standing still in dance. As soon as you stop trying to push your dancing forward you start going backwards. The opportunities for professional development have simply exploded in the time I have been involved in the bellydance world. You don’t need to travel abroad to train with world-renowned dancers, but if you do want to there are plenty of people to help make that happen for you. Artists from Egypt, the US and Europe regularly visit the UK for festivals and intensive training weekends and of course we have some superb home grown teachers. There is a mind-boggling array of DVDs available on every subject related to bellydance, no matter how tangentially. And of course there is YouTube which is an amazing resource for different styles, dancers and settings if you can navigate your way through the dross. I will note here that “free classes on YouTube” are worth exactly what you pay for them. There is absolutely no excuse for stopping your dance education, and why would you want to? Learning is awesome!
   If you are also a teacher then professional development also covers teacher training and health and safety. There are quite a few bellydance teacher training courses available although it looks like JWAAD is going to dominate the field for some time (disclaimer, I am JWAAD trained). There are also more general courses for teaching exercise to music such as that offered by the YMCA. You should seriously consider having a first aid qualification and some venues will require you to have one. Before you all email with me with the names of perfectly good teachers with no qualifications don’t bother. I KNOW THAT [EGYPTIAN TEACHER] HAS NO CERTIFICATE. I think that anyone starting out on their teaching careers NOW should undergo training.

Appearance
   Oh boy, this one is a mine field. I think bellydance is more inclusive then most other dance forms when it comes to appearance. A wider range of body shapes and ages are acceptable to most audiences. For example, I would never have made it as a ballet dancer and even if I had I would have retired by now! However, we still have to dance in a society with certain expectations of what a bellydancer should look like and whilst I think many of them are ridiculous that is not what I want to write about today. How much each individual performer chooses to fulfil these expectations is their own business.
   I am more interested in the cosmetic aspect of appearance. You should be well groomed, by which I mean clean (!), with suitable hair and makeup and a good costume. Good costume – now there’s a potentially loaded term. A good costume is well made, fits you and flatters your shape. It doesn’t reveal anything you don’t want revealing (I think we can all agree that bellydance should be family friendly). It’s appropriate for the style of dance you’re performing, the venue and the time of day.
   Your costume doesn’t need to be a $1300 designer creation. It does need to be a costume i.e. “a bra from Target” with a few sequins stuck on it will not do. I cannot say this often enough, but a costume bra is very different to a lingerie bra. You can use your bra from Primark (I guess that’s equivalent to Target) as a base for your costume but it needs more work than ten minutes with a hot glue gun. Hint: if the original straps are visible it will always look like you are dancing around in your underwear. I wish I could forget the dancer I saw performing (in a professional setting) in white leggings, a coin belt that shed as she danced, and an undecorated bra from New Look. How do I know it was from New Look? Because I saw the exact same one there the day afterwards. Her costume was a perfect reflection of her dance ability. I had to be led away quietly for a strong drink.
   Student dancers, please don’t be worried. If you are performing at haflas a simple long skirt and coin belt with a nice top is just fine as long as it satisfies the principles in that second paragraph. Just be aware that if you want to step outside the hafla setting you are going to need to invest money and/or time on your costuming.

Business skills
   If you are earning money from dancing at some point you need to be registered for tax purposes, and that means keeping records and accounts. You also need to think about public liability insurance (you’d be extremely foolish to start teaching dance without it), music licensing, advertising, creating and maintaining a website…in short, pretty much everything a small business start up has to consider. You have to be able to deal with clients and customers in a professional manner. Can you accept a compliment? Can you handle a complaint? Can you deal with competition from other dancers, ideally without creating a rift that splits your community in two? This brings me onto…

Supporting the dance community
   You can support the dance community in two ways: by playing nice and by not being an idiot. In other words, by taking positive actions and by avoiding engaging in negative behaviour (but I prefer the glib version!). So: playing nice. This includes everything discussed so far in order to be a good role model for the up and coming dancers in your community. It is also attending classes, workshops, haflas and festivals and encouraging other dancers or your students (if you teach) to do the same. You could go further and organise an event for your dance community. It is also important to show your support as an audience member, if you swan off as soon as your performance is over, or spend all your time hiding out in the dressing room, or sit scowling through every performance other than your friend’s (and I’ve seen all of these!) it will reflect badly on you.
   Alas, without infinite time and money it is impossible to show positive support to everyone. You can still support the community in other ways. Not undercutting is a big one. Not allowing your personal feelings towards other professionals to interfere with your participation – we’ve got a small sandbox to play in which is why we have to play nice. Not scheduling your events to clash with someone else’s. Not representing bellydance in an inappropriate or sleazy way. I could go on but I think you get the idea.

   I believe all of the above points are the absolute minimum necessary to make a professional bellydancer. The relevance of each is down to the individual – maybe your website is not as important to you as your training, for example – but no one point is sufficient. No, not even the one about being paid. The obvious next question to ask is “What makes a GOOD professional bellydancer?” and there’s a lot more scope for argument there!

[1] I make this distinction for the following reason. The definition of a hafla varies between regions but it is always an event put on by the bellydance community for the bellydance community, rather then the general public. A hafla is in no way inferior to any other performance setting.

Performances

My students have a lot of performances coming up, and they are all on the same weekend! Next Saturday I’m taking a group to a hafla in Huntingdon (hosted by Caroline with special guest star Kay Taylor) where we’ll be dancing a drum solo. It’s a dance I first taught a few years ago and the group seemed to like it, so we performed it quite a lot. When new people joined the class I taught it again, and again, and tried to resist the temptation to tweak it along the way :) I think I will have to choreograph a new drum solo for us so I can use all my new ideas! As well as the group dance three of my students will be performing solos. I love watching my students blossom and develop their own dances, although I turn into a Stage Mother, excited and nervous for them in equal parts. Far more so than for my own performances!

On Sunday a bigger group will be taking part in the Big Weekend on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge. This is a celebration of world music and dance and is a wonderful family day out. I love going to it and was delighted to be asked to be in it. This will be the third year my group has taken part. We’ve spent this term preparing enough dances for a 30 minute set, which is a lot of work. I like to have plenty of variety for such a long performance, and if you come to watch you’ll see modern Egyptian, saidi, pop, classical and a magency which includes oriental, baladi, saidi, khaleegy as well as different props – you see why this is such hard work! Everyone has pulled together to make the group dances really exciting. I’ll be doing some solos to give them a break and then we’ll all teach the audience some moves and get them up and dancing. Then it will be time for a well earned ice cream (or possibly beer) before heading off to enjoy the rest of the day. Look out for sparkly ladies in red, they’ll be the ones dancing right at the front :)

Music

In Egypt the norm is for dancers to perform to live music. Their orchestras can range from the equivalent of a fancy surround sound speaker system to a battered old CD player that skips if you look at it the wrong way, but the music is still live. In the UK CDs are the norm. Some parts of the country are lucky enough to have thriving communities of Arabic musicians, such as the Nile Band in Manchester, so dancers there have the opportunity to enjoy social dancing and performance with live music.

Cambridge is not one of those areas! If anyone knows differently I’d love to hear from you… *dreams of own orchestra*…back to reality. I’ve been bringing artists to Cambridge for the past three years to share the joy and magic of dancing with a band, we’ve had Brothers of the Baladi here twice and I’ve just arranged for the Arab Quarter to make a return visit (put 26th March in your diary now and check back in the New Year for tickets!). Last week I went to Caroline’s hafla in Huntingdon where Sheikh Taha, Tim Garside and Dave Murray entertained us with their music. As part of the show a few dancers performed (improvised!) with them and I was delighted to be one of them. With that musical line up there was no way I was doing anything other than some lovely, lovely baladi, so I asked for “Aminti Billah”.  There’s just nothing like dancing to live music, the excitement of not knowing quite what will happen and where the music will take you, the fact that the musicians respond to your dancing so your performance becomes a true collaboration, the wonderful moments when you’re all perfectly in synch in mind and body. Of course it’s different again if you’re a dancer in Egypt and can sack your band if they play a wrong note!