Thursday, 28 February 2013

Flapdoodle and Other Sins

I learnt a new word a while ago: Flapdoodle.  Don't bother to look it up - it will be years before it makes it into the Oxford English Dictionary, if ever.  To whoever thought it up, a big Thank You.  It's a wonderfully flexible word; a verb, noun or adjective to describe really not good belly dancing.  'Belly Dance' which treats the music as a backing track and doesn't work with it, doesn't follow the rhythms and phrasing. 'Belly Dance' which pays little attention to the dance core vocabulary and to technique, full of unfinished or unnecessary movements. It's often full of repetition or with no structure, too frantic. It may sound like a fun word, but it's not a compliment!

I am loath to criticise. We all have to start somewhere. Everyone should have the opportunity to dance, regardless of how well they can do it. It takes guts for most beginners to dance in front of an audience but there they are, hopefully enjoying themselves, dancing their hearts out. It doesn't matter too much if they don't dance so well, because that's not the point - they are learning and doing their best. Many are coping with physical limitations and still manage to express the joy in moving to the music.  Dance, like other arts, is partly subjective and an observer can easily find something to criticise if they feel so inclined.  This is why live performance can be so scary. There will always be someone in the audience who is determined to find something to dislike.  As a dancer, it's important to remember that you are not dancing for them, but for those audience members who are happy to watch and enjoy.  I'm not the greatest dancer; I watch myself on video and cringe every time.  I am possibly overly self-critical, but regard that as my right, and use it as a way to learn.

So I rarely dismiss something as flapdoodle, but I have seen a couple of pieces which I found I couldn't watch all the way through. The worst so far (apart from the woman who appeared on Britain's Got Talent and passed off some sort of writhing around with a bra and a coin belt (no skirt!) as belly dance - I bet she got some hate mail from the belly dance community for that!) was a sort of generic oriental style to a well-known baladi track. The choreography didn't match the feeling and rhythms and had no discernable structure.  The group were beginners, and they struggled with the movements which were rather too advanced for them, and included a weird snake arm movement which was too fast for the music and involved a hand curl at the end.  Completely ... aargh ... flapdoodle. Worse, the 'teacher' was in front leading them, which made it look like some strange race as the other dancers fought to keep up, and made her look relatively good. Of course, baladi is one of my favourite things, so it triggered quite a reaction in me. I wanted to shout at them to stop, but made do with just looking away.

I put 'teacher' in inverted commas, because I was aware that this is a 'fun' group - in other words, most of the time is spent creating, learning and rehearsing choreographies, and the group regularly dress up in a variety of blingy costumes and dance at charity and community events. There is little of what I would recognise as teaching - that is, providing a structured class or course, breaking down the moves, taking care to explain technique to reduce the risk of injury, adding information on the music, history, culture and so on.

When I started teaching belly dance, I was aware of how little I knew, that I was starting too soon and I did a lot of work to bring myself up to speed.  I already had experience of teaching language, training in business and leading a dance group. Asking for help online brought a storm of criticism that if I didn't know x, y, z, then I shouldn't be teaching. I could understand the other teachers' protectiveness; if anyone with some dance experience can just call themselves a teacher and start a class, it devalues the hard work done by those teachers who really study the dance and how to teach it. Then again, everyone has to start somewhere and no-one knows everything.  I still do a lot of work, researching dance styles and the subtle differences in moves which mark out different styles, practising with different props, going to workshops and classes given by other teachers to extend my knowledge and work on my own dance.  I believe this 'continuing professional development' is essential for teachers.  There's nothing like being a perpetual student yourself for enabling you to see things from your students' point of view.  When a friend of mine planned to start teaching, I knew that she believed the same thing and already had amazing skills as a trainer, so I charged in on her behalf when I heard the same criticisms which had once been aimed at me. She's a very good teacher and her dance is improving all the time.

One of my teachers posed the question 'why would you as a dancer (and teacher) not want to be the best that you can be?' A committed dancer/teacher will want to work at improving their dance, although financial considerations, transport and childcare can be major limiting factors. However, many dancers regard this as just too much like hard work. They don't want to take it seriously, are tired by the time they get to 'class' and spending their time (and money) working on technique, doing drills and building their vocabulary of dance moves isn't their idea of fun.

Again, I feel conflicted about this.  When I started belly dance, I could take class seriously, as I've always enjoyed the discipline of drills, but I couldn't imagine myself taking belly dance seriously enough to be very interested in the culture, music, rhythms and so on.  Fusion seemed a safe place to be, with the style police in the belly dance community ready to pounce on any lack of authenticity.  Gradually, as my understanding has grown, I have been seduced. I may still be a bit fuzzy on what marks out certain styles, but now I realise how important it is to respect and maintain the different classical and folkloric genres. The dance may change, steps and styles fused to create new work, but it would be sad if that's all we had. This is why I like fusion pieces to be clear about which styles are being fused and have gone back to contemporary dance to indulge my occasional need for dance without rules or boundaries (except those imposed by my physical limitations and enough good technique to prevent injury!). 

As for performance groups, why shouldn't a group of people get together, share the costs of a hall and create dance pieces for their own enjoyment? They may have one or two who act as coordinators, letting everyone know when rehearsals are, collecting monies, booking and paying for the space, spare money into a costume fund. I've been there and it was good fun. We were creating contemporary dance pieces for performance to the public. At the time, the sin to avoid was 'self-indulgence'. I noticed that those who readily used it to dismiss others' pieces couldn't define it, so I tried to work out what it meant for myself.  It seemed to involve putting things into a piece just because you liked them or felt like it, rather than because it made good dance, and dancing for yourself rather than your audience, all highly subjective. 'Being unprofessional' was another sin, which amused me since we were amateurs, but it comprised a range of bad behaviour, from missing rehearsals and providing your music and dance details late to show organisers to being noisy backstage during a show. We all attended a weekly class as well as our group rehearsal, worked on the structure and cohesion of our choreographies and ensured rehearsals contained warm-up and cool-down sections.Years later, I think the thing which divides the worthwhile from the self-indulgent is a professional attitude. In other words, taking it seriously and putting in the work and time. I think this makes the difference; a group may have fun playing around with dance, but can share poorly understood technique and bad habits which will show when it comes to performance.

I want everyone to dance and enjoy themselves.  But unless you are prepared really to teach, with all that it entails, don't call yourself a teacher. If you don't want to study or rehearse and prefer to do your own thing, you may still improve slowly.  And although belly dance is a very broad term covering a range of styles, if  you choose to dance against the music and make no real attempt with the core movement vocabulary, the mash-up you create will still be dance, of a sort, but it may also be flapdoodle.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Missing Majma

Aaargh, I keep seeing posts from friends who are gearing up to go to Majma .   It's a belly dance intensive weekend in Glastonbury, in early March each year.  I had a great time last year, but this year I'm short of money.  I haven't been paid yet for some work I did 9 months ago and haven't picked up much work since, so I'm a little nervous, financially.  Oh, well, maybe next year ...
Last year I stayed at the Highlands Retreat; it was recommended by a friend and I'd stayed there the year before, too.  It is lovely, a very calm, comfortable and nurturing place to be, with fabulous breakfasts!
I did some rehab exercises for my right knee, which I had damaged trying to chase a dog after my chickens, and was gentle with it in preparation for the Majma weekend, so it was still a little dodgy but feeling pretty good.  Unfortunately, dragging my heavy bags up steep steps at the B&B, I must have strained my left knee and within minutes it was painful, swollen and tender around the inside of the knee joint. Arnica and a tisane notwithstanding, I had a bad night. I had brought a knee support for my right knee, so with the aid of that and some more arnica, I went off to the first workshop, creative combination play with Samantha Emanuel.  Which was great, but increasingly I needed to rest the knee and went out at break time to get some painkillers. (It turned out the knee problem is osteoarthritis, and a knee support is not really any use at all!) Thankfully, it is possible just to sit in the workshops and take notes, which is what I did for the next workshop on layering and her advanced choreo class on the Sunday morning.  So inspiring, and lots of good drills.

Majma is also great for the shows, featuring teachers on the first two nights and then the Shimmy On showcase on the Sunday afternoon for students and guest dancers. Of course, the teachers' performances are all wonderful to watch, but Ava Fleming's piece to Roxanne (tango, Moulin Rouge version) got a standing ovation. She left us all dry-mouthed, hearts thumping, on the verge of tears, having been transported to another place and then left wondering what had just happened. Such shimmies! Such power, control and expression! Awesome!

One of the reasons for going to Majma last year was to perform in the Shimmy On, an ambition of friend and fellow dancer A, who also talked C into coming and performing.  A and I created the choreography the previous year, to music A found and liked - Aal Eah by Samira Saiid.  The pop/shaabi choreography has been performed by various class members at various haflas since then, but for this event, we really concentrated on polishing it. It was a steeper learning curve for C, because she hadn't danced the piece yet and some of the moves were new to her too.  I found the rehearsal process very interesting; it challenged me to be more mindful in my dance and teaching.  What arms do I use with this figure 8?  Why?  Does the hand turn out at the end of this movement?  How do the arms flow and transition to the next movement?  Do I do it the same way each time?  How do you progress from copying a leader's/teacher's moves to knowing the choreography in muscle memory? How do you make the transition from concentrating on remembering what to do next, to letting your memory take over?

Well, we did it.  We looked and felt absolutely fabulous in our matching turquoise sparkly galabeyas. I reckoned that my knees would be okay for a short, intense burst, so I just went for it. It felt good, A and C danced brilliantly and I felt so pleased and proud to be dancing with them. They shone! We received such compliments afterwards, including from some of the teachers (!!), it was overwhelming.

Since then, A and C have joined two other friends to form their own performance troupe for fun, and have produced some of their own choreographies, including a wonderful contemporary fusion piece using Isis wings.  They took the life cycle of a butterfly as their theme, reminding me of my own belief in the transformational power of dance.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Everybody Dance Now!

How quickly a year can go by!
I was looking for some photos which I had forgotten to post on Facebook from a hafla I went to last May, and came across some photos from a workshop I had given a year ago.  It gave me so much food for thought that I forgot to write about it!
My friend and fellow dancer Sue arranged for me to do a belly dance workshop in Cwm Penmachno, a small community in North Wales, where she and her husband have a cottage.  In this beautiful valley, the phones and broadband can be affected by earth faults due to the amount of rain, there is hardly radio signal, no TV unless you shell out for satellite and no mobile signal.  No wonder they like to party!

My Belly Dance Basics workshop was part of a day of dance, with another couple of teachers who came to teach a swing/line dance and some country dancing. It was advertised as 'Strictly Cwm Dancing' (apparently, it had to be done. Deary, deary me.). 
I was impressed by the number who came; all ages, including some men, all up for having a go.  I rounded off the workshop with a little playtime, bringing all my veils, fan veils and Isis wings for all to play with while they practised their shimmies and hip drops, shaking their hips to make their hip scarves jingle.  Most of the photos I took at the end are blurred because I was laughing so hard.
Everybody Dance Now!

Lunch and dinner were shared, 'potluck' affairs, varied and plentiful, in the Shiloh community centre, a converted chapel providing a lovely space. The day was rounded off by a party, including a performance of a few pieces by yours truly and dancing until everybody was exhausted. It seemed like everyone was happy to do some sort of dancing and had such energy. 

The party started with a showing of 'Footfalls', a 20 minute dance/art film by Striking Attitudes, a dance theatre company based in Cardiff.  Striking Attitudes collaborated with a few community dance companies around Wales, including Dawns i Bawb (Dance for All) in North Wales.  Some of the local residents became involved in the film as community dancers, and some of the filming was done in the quarry at the head of the valley.  It was a beautiful, emotive film, weaving dance in wild locations and in all weathers with concepts of pathways through life, ageing and its attendant grief for lost youth and times, and the determination to move forward, to carry on, to complete the dance that is life.

I had heard of Striking Attitudes, and was quite thrilled to see this statement about their work:
'Striking Attitudes challenges the ageism endemic in society and the dance community by working with older dancers, providing them with performance opportunities which celebrate their strengths.'

This is the bit which set me off on a whole other train of thought, because I find myself increasingly interested in dance for older or less fit dancers - but I shall keep that for another post (or two).

Back to that weekend last February. On the Sunday, I did an interview for Radio Machno.  Sue then took me on a drive through Snowdonia (Eryri in Welsh), which would have been more breathtakingly scenic if the weather weren't so grey and rainy.  Well, Snowdonia is one of the wettest places in Britain! I hope I'll get to go back to do another workshop when the weather is better!
Mt Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) is up there in the clouds somewhere!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Fantasia 2012 and the Wonder of Workshops

I stand in awe of some bloggers, who seem to be able to knock out a post complete with wonderful photos of what they've made/been/done, every day.  Do they not sleep?
I often forget to blog about things which inspire me at the time, think too much about it, forget to take photos, get distracted onto other topics, then I self-edit and revise the post almost to the point of non-existence.

Since I was whining musing about the lack of takers for regular classes, it occurred to me what a very good idea workshops are. If you can't make a regular class, then you can do an intensive couple of hours or so, filling in gaps in your knowledge or learning about different dance styles. I find I need workshops more than ever, to challenge me and correct my technique; they're very important to my continuing professional development, as well as FUN!

I sometimes, very rarely, choose a workshop that turns out to be a bit ... meh (boring, indifferent, badly taught ...). Most of the time, even if it's a subject or style that I know about, or aimed at beginners, there is some juicy nugget of information, the interest of hearing a different teacher give alternative approaches and explanations, and the joy of getting together with other dancers, which makes the workshop worthwhile.

The workshops I chose at JWAAD (Josephine Wise Academy of Arabic Dance) Fantasia 2012 in December were all wonderful.  At 1.5 hours, they are relatively short workshops, but intensive and with a high standard of teaching!  You can choose up to 4 on the Saturday and 3 on Sunday, and because they are individually priced (at £15 - cheap!) it is great value for money. Okay, so it's in London, which isn't the cheapest place to stay, but unless the workshops are in your town, you are going to have to travel and perhaps stay over, wherever they are. There is only half an hour between workshops, so it can be difficult to find time to eat, shop at the souk, catch up with friends and acquaintances or sit and watch the dance competitions which are also held that weekend.  The Arts Educational School in Chiswick is a good venue, although on Sunday some of us were wishing that there was a lift instead of stairs to get to the third floor dance studios!

I always take a notebook to try to jot down learning points during or after workshops.  One teacher asked if I ever read my notes; I do, particularly when I am thinking about a new choreography or wanting to refresh my sieve-like memory.  Good classes and workshops always seem to contain a lot of information; not all of it contained in the handout (if one has been prepared!). But I always maintain that if you take away just one or two ideas, it was worthwhile.  From the workshops I attended, I corrected a problem I was having using fan veils (it's all in the flick!), did some baladi to a fun song, refreshed my spatial awareness, learnt an interesting balance challenge exercise, survived a brutal but effective hand and arm conditioning exercise for playing zills and had my coordination challenged doing Zambra flamenco combinations.

Last weekend, we had the wonderful Kay Taylor from Farida Dance (also a JWAAD teacher and assessor) here, giving a couple of workshops on technique and use of arms, to help us put some sparkle in our dance.  I picked up a couple of useful step combinations and clarification of oriental vs baladi and folkloric arm framing. I also had an assessment, which highlighted where my own dance technique needs serious work and some holes - I've forgotten how to do a break circle! What was I saying about use it or lose it?  Looks like I need to concentrate on some belly dance rehab!

Of course, many local workshops are also followed by a dance party (hafla) in the evening, and ours was no exception.

I didn't take any photos at Fantasia, so here's one of everyone up and dancing a Saidi-style line dance at the end of the evening.  There I am, dancing away with a big grin on my face, as usual, and having a great time.  Bring on the next workshop!