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 class!

So my brand new, first ever American class is starting on Monday! I am really excited to be doing this. Because this is my first time teaching here I’m breaking with my usual 10 week course format and doing something a little different. To give people a chance to try out my style of dance and teaching I’m doing 4 weeks of drop in classes, which can be taken individually but will be tied together by a theme: baladi.

Baladi IS bellydance. It’s the social dance you’ll see women do all over Egypt, and while it can be danced in a performance context as well I want to focus on that social setting. We’re going to learn some moves and get dancing together! There won’t be choreography to learn and we’ll keep it relaxed and fun :) so if you’re new to bellydance this will be a nice introduction. If you’re a more experienced dancer this will be a chance to really get back to basics and think about the heart of this dance, and I’ll throw some more challenging technique your way. As my Cambridge students will tell you, I can always make things more difficult….. 😉

Classes will be at Sugar Space on Monday nights from 7-8pm and will run until 14th April. I hope you can come and join me!

Spirit of Egypt and Celebrating Dance

October was a busy month!

Early on this year I signed up for Spirit of Egypt, a show being produced by Yasmina of Cairo. The idea was that a small group of dancers would spend five days learning her choreographies, and then perform them in a show on Saturday night at Jewel of Yorkshire. When Kay of Farida Dance asked me if I would like to be part of this how could I possibly say no? So a few weeks ago I turned up at Victoria Hall in Saltaire with around 16 other dancers (including almost all of the Peacock Project!) to find out what we’d actually let ourselves in for. Our pre-course instructions had included requests to bring umbrellas, sun cream and jeans so it was all quite exciting!

We were going to perform four tracks from Yasmina’s latest album “Nawader”, which had been composed with the show in mind. A magency, an Oriental rumba, an Alexandrian beach tableau and a street tableau “Sharia el Fen” (the street of art) based on the idea of the famous Mohammed Ali street in Cairo where musicians and dancers lived.

Yasmina is a very creative and innovative choreographer and straight away we were into something I had never seen before – a wheel of veils! It took some practice to get used to spacing ourselves out and moving to see the wheel at its best without accidentally pulling it apart. It looked amazing in performance, the photos show all the glowing colours. The magency continued with more straightforward dancing, some saidi girls with sticks and a finale featuring all the dancers and props. The riot of colour and movment was followed by the more serene rumba, opening with a graceful solo by Natalie and some gorgeous partner dancing by three couples.

Then it was into the tableaus! The Alexandrian one was the one I had been most excited about after Zafirah told me about the sneak preview she had been given and we were shown our beach outfits. Cute tops and skirts all covered in polka dots! It was a shame to have to give them back. We entered the stage wrapped in brightly coloured melayas – dancers will know that there are two styles of melaya lef, from Cairo and Alexandria – which then became our beach towels! The middle section of the dance was a beautifully acted swimming scene followed by a dance with parasols. “Sharia el Fen” opened with a dance from the girls who lived there along with the local Ma’alima (boss lady – think Fifi Abdo!) played by Sandra, along with a pair of musicians who will have looked very familiar to anyone who has ever frequented the Farida stall… :) we had a short baladi interlude, a drum solo competition and finally everything was brought up to date with some shaabi.

The show was around 25 minutes long and I think we did really well to learn it! Of course it would have been nice to have a little more time to iron out the changeovers – things were  little frantic backstage at times – but I don’t think we had any major disasters. The missing umbrella came close :) but was found in time. It was hard work and sometimes we had to push on even though everyone was tired and not thinking straight in order to get through everything. Then in the evenings there was practice in our apartments and sewing to be getting on with. Kay and Yasmina had loaned us costumes but they all had to have minor alterations. It was a very useful experience for me and I’m glad I got to be part of such an exciting project. I hope that when Yasmina takes the show on tour the other groups who take part enjoy it just as much.

Two weeks after Jewel of Yorkshire I was off again, this time to Torquay for my second visit to Celebrating Dance run by Afra Al Kahira. Quite a few delegates remembered me from last time which was nice! Celebrating Dance is a very civilised festival. We all stay in the hotel, all the workshops and shows are there and we get breakfast and a three course meal each night. Meals are very important on a dance weekend! Everything kicked off on Friday night with a showcase by local dancers. It wasn’t a very late night because workshops started at nine the next morning and ran all day. I taught two workshops. The first was a choreography to “Ya Msafer Wahdak” which has little touches of flamenco. I was really pleased by how well the dancers picked it up, we learned the whole dance and even had time to do a little skirt work at the end. My second workshop was on Sunday morning and I had promised it would be nice and easy, all about moving slowly and taking your time but of course dancing is never that simple and actually there was a lot to think about! When I teach a new group I’m always nervous about asking them to improvise because it is a skill which still isn’t taught as widely or as well as it should be, but happily that was not a problem and they all took on board the ideas I gave them. In fact a lot of the dancers said how much they enjoyed it and they felt much more confident at the end.

There was a teachers showcase on Saturday night featuring (in alphabetical order for fairness!) Artemisia, Khalida, Kitty Kohl, Queenie, Sophie Armoza, Vashti and Zafirah. Sadly Nikki was unable to perform so I stepped in to open the first half in a costume which Vashti had very kindly let me borrow. It was lovely to be part of such a high quality show and see dancers in real life who I normally only see online. I rather lowered the tone with my shaabi, but you’ll all be used to that by now… :)

Jewel of Yorkshire and Celebrating Dance are two excellent events which I thoroughly recommend. Next year JoY will be featuring Randa Kamel amongst others but you’ll have to act quickly, at the time of writing one of her workshops has already sold out and the others are very close. There will be plenty of other high quality teachers to learn from.

Workshops with Lorna

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

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

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

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

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.

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?

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.

Celebrating Dance

This weekend I went to Celebrating Dance, a bellydance festival held in Torquay and run by Afra Al Kahira. It’s the first time I’ve been, and I was delighted to be one of the guest teachers. I taught two choreography workshops. The first was to an unusual version of the classic “Inta Omri”, played by the rock band Khalas. I usually prefer to dance to classic versions of Oum Kalsoum’s music (see my videos page!) but this one has such power and drama that I just had to do something with it. Anyway, it’s become a firm favourite of mine and I’m glad to be able to share it with other people. I think the choreography was a bit of a shock to the system for some students in the workshop, but they all tried really hard and got through the whole thing in just two hours. Phew!

On Sunday I was using more conventional music – “Zeina”. I think this song is so beautiful and simple that it would be a shame to dance all over it. Not everything has to go at 100 miles an hour and have 5 different layers at all times! We were able to take our time and really listen to what was happening in the music and think about how that could be reflected in out dancing. For anyone who was in that workshop, here is the video of Samia Gamal dancing to “Zeina”:

Samia Gamal

There was a show on Saturday night featuring the guest teachers: Yasmina, Khalida, Artemisia, Vashti, Emma Pyke, Deborah, Covert Bling, Nikki Livermore, Sara Shrapnell and me! I was slightly disconcerted by the number of vampires in the audience :) but they were all very enthusiastic. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show.

One of the lovely things about the festival was the fact that everything took place in the same venue, you were never more than 5 minutes away from anything. The hotel is part of a sprawling leisure complex with an old-fasioned air of English Riviera grandeur, very close to the sea – not that there was any time for playing on the beach (although I did sneak in a few lengths of the pool inbetween workshops)! Here’s a photo of the room where Yasmina taught some workshops:

The Arlington room

There was really nice food available, served in time to allow us all to get to the evening events. I’ve never been to a bellydance festival where you can have a three course meal with wine before the show! I could get used to this…. if only Torquay wasn’t so far from where I live!