Helsinki Bus Station Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you start?

Chatting with some teacher friends the other day I was struck by the different ways we all came to bellydance. Some people start bellydancing for fun, for fitness, to make friends, to connect with their heritage, to learn about a new culture, to gain confidence, to do something a bit unusual…this is my story.

I was drawn to bellydance because I’d heard the “a dance by women, for women” line, which resonated nicely with my proto-feminist self. I remember saving an article about bellydance from a Sunday newspaper and going back to read it time and time again. When I saw a poster for classes in a local alternative/hippy type shop I went along and never looked back. Here I am 15 years later 🙂

Of course I soon learned that “by women, for women” wasn’t really true. Seeing Khaled dance for the first time definitely knocked any traces of that out of my head 🙂 and he has been on of my very favourite dancers and teachers ever since. I think a lot of people probably have ideas about bellydance when they start which aren’t true – sometimes wishtory, fantasy or outright misinformation – but what you learn in class to replace those ideas is hopefully far more interesting than the fantasy and is what will keep you bellydancing for a long time!

So if my initial idea about what bellydancing was turned out to be wrong, what kept me doing it? Simply, I fell in love with the music and this way of moving. I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t spend my childhood dancing. I did the obligatory little girl ballet classes, then found that swimming suited me more so that was that. I’d watch my friends at school discos, unable to do what they did. It felt wrong on me, so I perfected the nervous teenage shuffle instead. Then I found bellydance and it just felt RIGHT. I don’t have a body suited for ballet, or jazz, or contemporary dance but with bellydance it didn’t matter if I wasn’t thin as a whippet, or couldn’t do the splits. I could move my hips and that was all that was needed.

Of course there are other things that have kept me dancing and part of the dance community, principally the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, but it was that initial “Hey, I CAN do this!” that got me hooked.

Practice, practice, practice

Few dancers actually want to be full time professionals, but lots of dancers want to dance at that level and I’m sure all want be the very best dancer they can be. Every dancer knows that the only way to improve is to practice. The way you practice will change as you develop as a dancer. But how do you go about structuring that practice to make it effective? There are plenty of DVDs out there to help you, but I think that an important part of finding your own voice as a dancer is deciding how you dance when there is noone to tell you what to do. What works for your DVD teacher may not always work for you. At the risk of totally negating this entire post before I even start, the best person to decide how you practice is you. All I’m going to do is give you some suggestions.

[Important disclaimer: I am not responsible for what you do outside of classes! You are responsible for making sure you are dancing safely.]

What to Practice?
Probably the most important question to answer! The temptation is always to try and practice everything, every time, but this simply isn’t possible. If you’re attending weekly classes then it makes sense to practice what you’ve learned in class that week. Your teacher will have explained the technique to you and hopefully also given you some feedback so you know what corrections to make. Take notes at the end of class to remind you. You’ll probably be building on what you’ve learned in the next class and if you’ve got a strong grasp of the material it will be easier.

If you’re not attending weekly classes then choosing what to include in your practice can be harder. Again, avoid the temptation to try and do EVERYTHING. You might decide to focus on a particular area (such as fluidity, sagat, travelling or shimmy layering) and work on that for a few weeks or months, then pick a different topic. You could draw up a programme for yourself where you work alternate topics on different days, for example, day 1, 3, 5 taqs and shimmies, day 2, 4, 6 figure eights. Day 7 rest – rest is important! Sometimes I like to go back to basics and focus on core technique for a while, other times I’ll work on moves and combinations I’ve learned in a workshop. Having a plan which you can use for a few weeks will mean that when you’ve got time to practice you can start straight away, without worrying about what you’re going to do that day. If you’ve got a performance coming up spend more time running through your choreography for that and do less technique. Let your practice be fluid, adapt it to what you need.

How long should you practice?
If I give you a specific figure I can guarantee that someone will comment and say “Oh but [genre] dancers practice for [that number plus four] hours every day! We should be doing that!”. Sure, the more you practice the better you will get but be smart about your practice, there is no point flogging yourself to death for three hours every day if you’re tired and miserable by the end of the first hour. That will just leave you feeling resentful the next time you come to practice, less likely to work hard and more likely to stop early.

Busy lifestyles can make it hard to find time to practice, but don’t beat yourself up about it and remember that little and often is very effective. When you’re a beginner just a few minutes here and there will make a big difference. Try practicing your shimmy while you boil the kettle for your tea ?. If you’re a professional/teacher level dancer then you should aim to be doing more, but be realistic. Most professional bellydancers have day jobs and families and lives outside of the dance world so I would say do what you can, when you can and make it as effective as possible. It’s the teachers who think they don’t need to learn or practice any more who worry me!

Also consider what time of day you practice – I know I work much better in the morning than the afternoon.

Where to practice?
Very few people have the luxury of a home studio but if you have a room at home with a big mirror that will do nicely. Watching yourself practice will help you pick up on mistakes quickly and let you see what really looks good on you. If you don’t have a mirror try recording yourself, then watch the video and make notes on areas you need to improve. Don’t try and correct all the mistakes all at once, pick a couple and work on those.

So you’ve found a suitable space and set aside an hour to work, you’ve made a list of what you want to cover – what next?

How do you practice?
Whatever else you’re doing, start with a warm up. This is where a DVD can really help you, although some DVDs will assume you already know how to warm up and don’t include one. If you don’t know how to do an effective warm up, ask your teacher. Spend around ten minutes warming up. Then, simply work through your list! I have a playlist of songs, all with a steady beat and lasting around four minutes, and I use one song for each move or combination on my list. Say my first move is circles – I’ll start with a basic hip circle then think about adding arm shapes, travelling, direction changes, layering with a shimmy etc. and that easily takes up one song. Repeat for as many moves as you like. I recommend you leave yourself some time for free dancing at the end, not only is it good to practice your improvisation but it will help you see what moves are starting to “stick” from the rest of your practice. Allow yourself time to cool down and stretch, and use this time to focus on any areas of your body that really need it. In classes and on DVDs you’ll usually get a good all round stretching routine, when you’re on your own you can take time to personalise it.

So there you go – it’s pretty simple really! If you want help in structuring your practice, or deciding what areas you need to work on then your teacher can help. If you don’t have a regular teacher then consider having a private lesson or signing up for the JWAAD Personal Development Programme. I also offer a workshop on daily drills which will allow you to see how I put these ideas into practice (as it were!).

And I’m done

Friday ended up being a particularly busy day for me because I ended up dancing in the Shimmy in the City competition three times! I’ve already written about being in the group competition with Peacock Project but I also entered the solo competition. I chose “Esmaooni” for my first piece, which is a song I’ve loved ever since I saw Yasmina dance to it in a workshop and it gave me goosebumps. It’s so full of emotion but it’s not your typical competition piece so I was very surprised when I was called back for the final. In fact I didn’t think I’d be in the final at all. We were told that five dancers would be called back, and when I went back to the hall for the annoucement five dancers were called back then there was an “And finally….” followed by my name! I’d been busy preparing with the Peacocks and had missed the announcement that there would be now six dancers in the final. For my final I danced to “Zaki Ya Zaki” which is a fast, exciting shaabi piece in total contrast to the slower, more soulful piece I’d done earlier. It seemed to go down well.

Afterwards I saw Orit (one of the judges) as we were getting drinks and she told me she loved what I did but that I wouldn’t be placed because I’d danced shaabi, and shaabi isn’t folklore.

Well I know that. In fact I said as much when I watched this competition last year, and was surprised that so many dancers including the winner chose to do shaabi in the folklore round. I’d initially been planning to dance saidi, but had changed my mind about a month ago because I was having a lot of fun with shaabi (one of my classes is learning about it this term). Since it was clearly an acceptable style last year I didn’t anticipate it being a problem this year. I certainly got that wrong!

All respect to Orit for telling me though, I am very grateful to her for setting me straight immediately rather than letting me fret for hours about the result of a competition that I’d effectively disqualified myself from. It wasn’t just me either, one other finalist danced shaabi and another danced baladi and we were all disqualified so the eventual result was simply a case of ranking the remaining three dancers. I don’t think the organisers knew what had happened but the word soon got round the audience. When Khaled announced the results at the hafla in the evening he asked “Is everybody happy with the results?” and there was a looooooong pause before some polite applause. He seemed taken aback. When he saw me at the hotel later someone must have explained because he was very, very apologetic.

This is what happened. The judges decided that the folklore round should be exactly that: folklore. Saidi, fellahi, khaleegy, Alexandrian etc. Given what was allowed last year either the competitors should have been told in advance exactly what styles would be allowed or the judges should have been told that actually in this competition shaabi or baladi were allowed in the second round. There was no organiser on hand at the competition to resolve this situation.The organisers knew what styles we were all planning to dance because we had told them when we submitted our entry forms.

Close friends have followed my career as a competition dancer and made me promise earlier this year that I would stop doing them and that this would be the last one. It’s unfortunate that it had to end like this. I have gained a lot from competitions, the process has taken my dancing to new levels and I like to think that a few more people know who I am. In the two competitions I’ve done this year I’ve been the only finalist from the UK (in fact the only entrant from the UK!). An unanticipated side effect is that competitions have also made me mentally tougher. Every performer needs a thick skin and putting yourself up for that kind of judgement certainly helps you develop one. But another unanticipated, and much less welcome side effect is how cynical they have made me and this is why I am done with competitions. I see them rewarding beautiful, but ultimately superficial dancing, rather than the emotion-filled performances that I love to watch. More than one judge has told me about panels they were on where the results came down to dance politics (who wrote the choreography, who works at who’s festival etc.). That’s disappointing. And as for the video-based competitions that are popping up now…those are nothing more than a test of your social networking ability.

I don’t think that bellydance competitions are necessarily bad. People who have never seen or taken part in one tend to write them off as some kind of sequinned Hunger Games, which is simply nonsense. If anything competitors bond through adversity! If you’re the kind of dancer who doesn’t crumble under pressure and likes a goal to work towards then you can get a lot out of taking part in a competition. Just don’t pay any attention to the results. I used to think that all the results of competition told you was who was the dancer the judges liked best that day, but now I know that they don’t even tell you that.


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 🙂

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.

   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.


New Year’s resolution: update this blog more often! There are so many exciting things going on this year, I must make the time to write about them.

For now,let me point you towards the latest issue of Nafoura magazine:

There’s a really interesting interview with Yasmina. She speaks candidly about working as a dancer in Cairo and how things have changed in her time there. For anyone who thinks the life of a dancer is a glamorous one, this will open your eyes!