Monday, January 25, 2010

Time for a deep breath

Preparing for a performance at any level can be tiring, even down right exhausting. Performing with a group of 10, to non-traditional belly dance music, with costumes to make and steps to perfect could, in essence, suck the life out of you. However, if you can find that sweet spot between creative inspiration and group collaboration, the experience is different. It's an exciting, joyful ride that leaves you a little breathless at the end. Such was my feeling after this weekend.

Friday's show marked the debut of my first big performance and choreography since leaving Troupe Mirage, and showcased Baharat Belly Dance Ensemble. I took the name of my student troupe and expanded it a bit. It was the perfect solution for me because right here and now, I need a group over which I have creative control...just to keep me sane. So, I took students from my class and brought in dancers from the community that I respect and enjoy (as dancers and friends) and mixed up a whole new concept. Consider it my version of a belly dance hook-up. Minimal obligations for invited dancers, limited commitments, but maximum rewards!

The wonderful part of this journey was the enthusiasm and professionalism of all the dancers. They showed up early, stayed late to practice as needed, volunteered to help out and kept me posted on their schedules on a regular basis. And the relief I felt in knowing that everyone would follow through on their promises was priceless...really priceless. There were so much time before we performed (we got to close the show) where I had nothing to do...nothing! I just could sit and relax. No stress or worries! In fact, minutes before we went on stage I found myself counting dancers (there were ten of us you know...), not because I was afraid someone would go missing, but because I needed something to think about to occupy my time. And like counting sheep, counting dancers actually had a calming effect on my nervous (actually excited) energy.

And the costumes! Seriously very hot. We chose a take on menswear, but with a girly twist to go with our Michael Buble song. My favorite part of the whole costume making experience (yes we made all of these), was the group effort. I can say that in every costume there is a little piece of each dancer. We picked a couple of days for a sewing marathon and banged out costumes in an assembly line process. One person cut, another stitched, another ironed. Buttons and other bling were carefully added by another person. It was a community effort and such a bonding experience. And just what I needed to give my creative spirits a lift this year. I plan to do more collaborations and involve other dancers in the community. Right now, I need a little sleep, a little rest and nice big breath!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shaking it or faking it?

It happens over and over again in conversations I have. Women find out that I belly dance and then they either confess that they are belly dancers or know a dancer. Maybe it's just a sign of the time, but upon further prodding I typically find out their definition of "dancer" means classes that consist of 6-8 lessons at a gym or dance school. And that friend who dances? Not much more training there either. It seems that applying the term belly dancer happens all too easily, as if one class, one hip drop or one shimmy with a coin scarf satisfies any needed qualifications.

So just when can you call yourself a true belly dancer? A similar discussion emerged when I first started taking martial arts class. Our Sensei would ask the class , "When do you become a true martial artist?" Did it happen when you achieved black belt status or the rank of Master, was it when you successfully landed your first punch or kick, applied a block or take down correctly. Or, did it happen when you first put on the gi (uniform) or simply make the decision to enter a dojo or training facility?

For me, the first time I felt like a true martial artist was the day I was able to focus my mind and energy, overcome my fears and successfully break a board during class. It wasn't the cliche of the board breaking that did it, it was the culmination of everything I learned converging into a single, well-executed, singular and beautiful action. It was, the sense of mastery over that single moment and obstacle.

I admit in belly dance, you have to get students intrigued and excited about the dance. You 'hook' them with coin scarves and shimmies and fun movements. I try not to throw complex or obscure music and movements on beginners, but try and keep with simple, easy rhythms. My secret hope is that they will be hooked and want to learn and study more, just like I did.

When I first started dancing, I went through the motions, dressed the part, learned to use the props and execute the dance moves. But it took time before I really considered myself a true belly dancer. Unlike my martial arts experience, there was no single defining moment. It was more of a slow spiral and gradual realization that I had evolved into that role. One day I realized that I would hear classic Middle Eastern music and it made sense to me. I got it. And, even better, I understood how to dance to it...the right way. I was no longer thrown off by all the strange rhythms or the blast of a mizmar. It just all flowed, and listening to the music made my heart sing and my hips start to move!

Now I meet so many women who claim they belly dance, but also tell me that they either just don't want to dance to traditional music or simply can't stand it. I think that's a dead giveaway that although they do have belly dance moves, that they haven't really studied how to be a belly dancer. They are hooked on the image or allure of the dance, but seem to shy away from the meat of the matter, the really good juicy part of the dance...the culture, the rhythms, and the emotional connection between dancer and audience.

Princess Farhana posted a wonderful story about the need to honor our past as dancers. Her words struck a chord in me, because over the past few years I've been drawn more to "old-school" dance than fusion styles. Now, I love fusion, but I realize that the older, more traditional, folkloric style has a greater pull. It's a need to 'up' my skill level and challenge myself to truly represent this dance and culture. And although executing a perfect hip drop is important, that one movement only represents a small part of this dance form.

So I've made it my personal goal to work more on studying the culture and music. This year I'm excited to start Sahra Saeeda's Journey through Egypt program and work on passing this information onto my students and fellow dancers. Because I want people to know that some times you may dance and use belly dance moves, but it's not belly dancing. And knowing that difference is important to me...and it lets me know if you really are shaking or faking it!

Monday, January 18, 2010

My new anthem

So what happens when you're told as a belly dancer that there will be a show coming up but the catch is not using belly dance music. Well, the wheels start turning, you consider all the possibilities and then--wham--inspiration hits.

Last fall when Austin Belly Dance Association announced a "Jukebox" belly dance show in January, I was excited about the possibility. My students were more than eager, and their music suggestions were numerous, varied and frankly a little overwhelming. I was torn between something jazzy and a Janet Jackson song when a little bit of serendipity came into play.

The lovely Naima, who's blog I read on a regular basis, posted a video with this song. Seriously, it was like God speaking to me when I watched it (maybe not in such a serious tone)...but it felt like divine inspiration. I've always loved this song and I've always wanted to perform it, but never had the right venue, or the right group of dancers...until now.

So here we are three months later, the show is this Friday and damn! It's been all-consuming, between the practices and the costumes (wow...the costumes...including fedoras), but it has been , uplifting and so inspirational. And yes, I stole several of Michael's moves for the performance (in particular see minute 2:37 below). We've got ten dancers, we're closing a really big show at the Dougherty Arts Center and we're going to kick butt. I've never seen a group of women so excited about what they are performing, wearing, and the amount of cleavage involved.

I've decided this is my anthem for the new year. So if you see me and wonder how I'm feeling, please refer the clip below.