The Peacock Project

It all started almost a year ago, after the Shimmy in the City competition. A couple of people independently had the same idea: could a group of solo dancers come together and learn a dance well enough to perform in a competition? Forming a dance troupe is nothing new, but forming a dance troupe whose members live in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter and London is pretty ambitious.

View Peacock geography in a larger map

Geography was not in our favour, but we thought we could work round that with regular emails, phone meetings and video sharing. What was in our favour was the fact that we were all friends already and had similar styles of dance. Caroline, Elspeth, Hannah, Moyra and Zafirah all knew each other from their time in Edinburgh together, Zafirah and I go way back and I met the others because we kept on seeing each other at Randa’s UK workshops 🙂 so we knew we could get on as a group.

We needed a name though…at first we just referred to what were doing as “The Project”, with the understanding that we’d think of a proper name later. That turned out to be a bit harder than we thought, weeks went by and still noone had any ideas. It wasn’t until we were discussing costumes that inspiration hit. We were discussing colours, Zafirah suggested peacock colours and there was a collective “Oooooooooh!” on the line. It was a short step from there to “The Peacock Project”. There was some discussion of translating it into Arabic, but having heard Arabic names mangled by many MCs over the years it seemed that English was preferable.

The first step of the project to choose our music. A magency was the obvious choice, it’s a good piece of music for a competition anyway and the structure would allow different people to choreograph sections without the difference in style being too jarring. After a bit of editing to bring our music in under the time limit we all chose sections and got to work on our own. We wrote notes and made multiple videos – after all it’s hard to demonstrate the parts for six dancers on your own! The fluffy chicks were a particular highlight.

We had a deadline to work to: our first weekend rehearsal together in Edinburgh. This weekend was focussed on teaching our sections, learning the other sections and seeing if our grand visions could play out in real life. By the end of the weekend we’d learned the whole choreography and had our formation changes mapped out. With videos to help us we went our separate ways to practice, practice and practice some more.

Our second weekend rehearsal was also in Edinburgh, but this time the pressure was on because we were going to perform our dance at the Edinburgh Big Dance on the Sunday afternoon. Elspeth was also taking part in other Big Dance activities, performing with her students and coordinating a bellydance flash mob at the museum. If that wasn’t pressure enough our Friday night rehearsal was much shorter than planned after torrential rain caused landslides which left Zafirah and I stranded on trains for hours, so we had even more to do on Saturday! We remembered a large amount of the group work, and started hammering out the rest of the details, asking questions about issues that had arisen in our solo practice, making decisions on what worked and what didn’t and finding our style as a group. It all worked out in the end and we did our performance on a very gusty stage to an enthusiastic crowd of shoppers.

Our third (and final!) rehearsal was an afternoon in London and sadly one of our flock couldn’t be there due to prior commitments. This was our chance to really dig deep into the details of the choreography and tighten up our formations ready for the competition at Shimmy in the City this Friday. It was also our dress rehearsal, in costumes made by the talented Celia of Edinburgh as well as our in house peacock designer Hannah.

Let me spell it out: we’ve been planning for a year but we’re doing this after five days of dancing all together, and not everyone was there for all of those days. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved together. Everyone has contributed in different ways, whether it’s choreographing, teaching, finding rehearsal space, organising travel, editing music, making videos, making costumes or feeding hungry peacocks. I get really tired of people characterising bellydancers as catty divas, this project has shown just how well a group of solo dancers can work together. We’ve formed a cohesive group but you still get a sense of our individual personalities when we dance. As a choreographer it’s been liberating to be able to write choreography for a group of dancers where I know exactly how many people are dancing (ask anyone who has tried to choreograph for a class performance why this matters!) with no restrictions on what I can ask them to do. As a teacher it’s been educational to learn how other people hear and interpret the same piece of music, and be reminded of the different ways we have of learning and remembering. As a dancer it’s been amazing to work with people who love this dance as much as I do. The Peacock journey will not end on Friday!

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.

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!