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 🙂

Know your music

When you’ve been bellydancing for a few years you probably start to think about choreographing your own dances. Finding your own style is an important part of a dancer’s development, and creating a choreography can be a really good way to explore your ideas about musical interpretation. You’ll have some ideas already from learning other people’s choreographies, and hopefully at some point someone has told you the importance of knowing what your music is about. You don’t want to bounce around with a big grin on your face when the singer is heartbroken, or dance to a religious song (yes people have really done this, and there are videos on Youtube to prove it!). But how far do you take this process?

With a pop song you’re probably OK if you can just get the general gist of the song. Pop music isn’t very complicated, either you’re in love and everything is wonderful, or your heart is broken and you can’t carry on. You need to take care with shaabi, it might just be a nice song about going for a ride in a hantour but there could be a double meaning you should be aware of. It could be about politics or drugs or bird flu… I recommend reading what Candi has to say.

In this post I’m going to talk about the classic songs in the Egyptian dancer’s repertoire and use Ana Fi Intizarak (Oum Kalthoum)* as an example. These songs are just beautiful. Like pop songs, they tend to be about love and heartbreak, but in a more complicated way. Love is never simple, to love is to suffer! This emotional complexity is what makes dancing to these songs so challenging and so rewarding. Also, if your audience is Arabic there’s a good chance they’ll know all the words and can sing along!

Here’s Fifi Abdo dancing to it.

When I’ve chosen a song to dance to the first thing I do is find out what the words are. Ideally I want a transliteration of the Arabic along with an English translation. I’ve written before about choosing music and you’ll find sites with collections of translations at that link. Luna (Kisses from Kairo in the bar to the left) offers a translation service with a very good reputation. Sorry, I can’t help with translations from Arabic to other languages. For Ana Fi Intizarak Shira has not one, but two translations! Direct translations can sometimes sound a bit clunky and awkward so with two (or more) examples I can compare how different people have translated different expressions. For example, I’ve found one line translated as:
“With each little letter I count your conversations with me”
“I consider the whisper your language”
“Each whisper counts your words”
“I hear your voice in any whisper”

It will really help if you can learn some Arabic. Look out for workshops aimed at dancers which will teach you some of the common words in songs – I’ve been to good workshops with Kay Taylor, Yasmina and Sara Farouk. If you have more time go to an evening course or try learning from CD. Knowing a few words will provide some anchor points in the translation for you.

If I’ve chosen an instrumental version of a song my next step is to find a vocal version so I can establish what the words would be if they were there. Even if you’ve chosen a version with a singer I think there is still a lot to be gained by hunting down the original version. You’ll find a lot of recordings uploaded to Youtube, occasionally there is a video to go with them but more often not. Here is 35 minutes of Ana Fintizarak:

I settle myself down with the instrumental version, the vocal version, the translations and my notebook and get to work!

If you’ve got this far no doubt some of you are thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of work, it’s far too analytical and isn’t it better to just dance to what you feel? Actually, I find that going through this process, which requires a lot of detailed listening, makes me appreciate the music on a much deeper level. I hear nuances in the instrumentation that I may have missed when I first listened. Comparing the different translations really makes me think about how to interpret the words and how I feel. There’s no one correct way to feel about a song. Oum Kalsoum sounds like she is in utter despair, but Fifi looks like she is in the early start of a relationship where you can’t bear to be apart so while she is suffering she is enjoying every moment…

For the readers who are thinking “Well, I know and do all this already”, good for you! However, I never had anyone sit down and explain all this to me and I guess I’m not the only one, so I thought it might help a few others. For you I offer one more link I found when researching Ana Fi Intizarak. It’s a detailed analysis of an 18 minute improvisation by Oum Kalthoum around 4 lines of the song and I found it very interesting.

Now geek out!

*Oum, Om, Um, Kalthoum, Kalthum, Kalsoum, Kalsum and probably no end of other potential spellings. Ana Fi Intizarak, Ana Fintizarak, Ana Fi Entezarak, etc. etc.

Choosing your music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can even learn to love the mizmar. Really.