Monday, 25 November 2013

What's This Step Called?

Many dancers seem to get frustrated at some point that 'belly dance' does not seem to have a codified set of steps, such as you might get in ballet or ballroom dancing.  I have been challenged by dancers asking, 'I know this as/my last teacher called this (whatever), which is correct?' To which my answer is both/all and any, and neither/none. Names for steps are a handy reference when you want to describe a certain movement, especially if you want to use it when calling out prompts while learning a choreography. The difficulty is finding a name which everyone knows, agrees on and which doesn't have other meanings or connotations.

A few months ago (my, doesn't time fly!), a colleague asked me to cover her classes for a day, and requested I teach a particular step.  I then had to clarify exactly what she meant, because her name for the step was not my name for the same step, and I knew of at least one other name for it as well. Then there is the question of the arm frame/flow to go with it, is there a shimmy or anything else layered on it, is it done on the spot, travelling, turning, if so which direction, starting from where ...? Once you start to think about the variations, no wonder we want to name a step or a sequence/combination.

The issue of codified belly dance steps or moves raises its head from time to time in various fora, along with the questions, do we really need it, and if so, which language should be used?  Ballet terms are mostly in French because of its development in the court of Louis XIV. Once you know the names of the steps, you can take a class elsewhere in the world and still follow the teacher setting the exercises.

For dancers who are keen to improve their dance, a standard, named set of moves to work on is indispensable as a basis for recording and teaching the moves and combinations, and for assessment.  ATS and other Improvised Tribal Styles use names for the moves and combinations, although the same move may have small differences, depending on the format.  The names are also used in tribal fusion, where you want to write something short which everyone recognises in the choreography notes.  In ATS/ITS, you learn the combination and it goes into muscle memory. But the dance is improvised, so while you're following the leader, do you see a cue and think to yourself, 'Ah, this is a such-and-such'?  I don't, but perhaps some dancers do.

I'm on the  JWAAD personal development programme, and I like the way they have a standardised, basic set of moves. Whilst we may or may not use their names for the moves outside the JWAAD courses, at least they give us a common reference. Progress is monitored by assessing the quality with which the movements are executed, and since there is more to the dance than being able to do individual moves, the quality of your use of arms, spinning, musicality and flow is also considered.  While I struggle with my isolations and don't feel I dance well when improvising to unknown music during my assessments, I prefer to be assessed on this relatively level playing field, which makes some allowance to age and physical limitations.  Advancement is about a technical/biomechanical and effective ability to dance a standard set of more basic moves, rather than the need to demonstrate increasingly complicated moves such as backbends or a Turkish fold (i.e. kneeling with the knees apart and bottom of the floor, and then lying down), which become difficult, dangerous or just downright impossible with age. Older dancers may be able to dance extremely well and use their experience to bring expression to their dance, without necessarily being able to do floor work or other physically demanding moves.

I have a list of named moves, for any dancers who want one. It is scarily long, but useful as a tick list when trying to build a movement vocabulary. However, the more I tried to list and name belly dance moves in all their variety and permutations, the more I realised that belly dance is more than just a set of moves, it is a way of moving through the body, reflecting the music.  There are some core moves, such as hip figure 8s, but they (and more complex, compound moves) can be broken down into slides, arcs and circles, undulations, twists and tilts or lifts and drops, which are the basis for the body core movement with step patterns, turns and arm shapes and flows.

There is a trap in thinking of dance in terms of a set of moves, even when broken down into core movements, and that is in thinking that if you learn the moves and some combinations, you can dance and that's all there is to it. It's good to have a toolbox of moves and combinations which you can use in your dance, but if you use only the same combinations over and over, regardless of the music or style of dance, it's like dancing-by-numbers. Differences in styles rely on small differences in moves and their qualities, nuances which are lost by using a sort of one-style-fits-all approach.

Even more of a trap is thinking that if you can't remember moves and combinations, you can't dance. Trying to remember moves and think about which to do next often kills flow and expression during improvisation. Posture, personality, flow and transitions and the use of dynamics are all part of the dance, but you cannot consciously think of them all while dancing. Instead of trying to remember moves, set some rules (or just guidelines) and let the music move you.  The rules can relate to typical moves and dynamics for a style, or use the classical Egyptian formula of arms for ney flute, shimmies for qanun and oud, etc.

Most important of all is musicality. Listen actively to the music and dance to both the rhythm and the melody. The thing which makes the real difference is practice, practice, practice.  So don't worry so much what moves are called, but break them down into their core components, look at the details, practise them, and when the music calls for it, let the music take over your body, let go and just dance!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Joy of Movement

One of the most frustrating things I'm finding about my osteoarthritis (OA) is, amazingly, not the daily pain and limitations on movement (although that's bad enough), but the fine line between doing enough and too much.  It's unpredictable on any given day how much will be too much, but I still the need to move and exercise because I know that without it, I will seize up altogether and that will be even more painful. I had some physiotherapy for my knees, which woke me up to the need to strengthen my quad muscles and pay attention to my knee tracking. The Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT) Workshop last year changed my view of somatics from a word which I read and puzzled over, to something real.  It awoke my curiosity in how I and others move and the links between movement and context, environment, emotional and physical states and the senses.  The realisation of how my OA is going to be a permanent feature of my life started a grieving process, of a sort.  Once over the initial upset, I knew I would have to start to listen to my body and rethink movement, learning to move in a different way.

After the success of the SRT workshop, a new series of somatic movement workshops started at Penpynfarch studio.  Unfortunately, the state of my knees and the timing of the operation on my foot meant that I have missed four out of the seven so far. Now my knees and toe/foot are improving, I'm driving again, and I need to dance and move!

Somatics refers to the link between the body and mind and its influence on movement. During the 20th Century, it developed into a broad field of approaches to awakening awareness and gaining a deeper understanding of the whole body in motion, using various techniques such as breathing, visualisation and various sensory stimuli. Some of the methods aim to reduce or eliminate chronic pain.  I can see how this could be the case for pain caused by poor movement habits, which can cause imbalances and tightness in muscles over time, pulling the body out of alignment and affecting posture and gait. I'm not sure how effective it could be for pain caused by OA, but it will make me think about the way in which I react to the pain in terms of body movement.

I love serendipitous coincidences!  As I continue my work to try and improve the function of my toes and knees, a fortnightly contemporary dance class started locally through Arts Care Gofal Celf.  It's really more of an extended warm-up and technique session for the youth performance group, but it is taught by a great young teacher who knows my background in dance and is happy for me to work differently at the back, playing with movements to adapt them to my capabilities, skipping those which would frankly be unwise. Each week I can safely test my limitations, explore the limits of my movement and do a little more.  I find that with a hot bath and an extra hour in bad the following day, I get a good 24 hours post-class reprieve from the worst of the OA symptoms and can feel the strength and flexibility creeping back into me, in a way that physiotherapy doesn't supply.

With the somatics workshops and the contemporary dance classes, there's a lot of floor work.  I'm suprised at how much I'm enjoying stretching, breathing, listening to and working with my body.  I've become fascinated with the healing process for my toe. Yes, it is highly subjective and apparently completely self-centred, but doing it with a group also provides insights into how others think about and experience movement. Who knew that rolling around on the floor could be so good for you?
False perspective, toe on window ledge; playing with extension of tree shapes

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Diary and Calender Time!

My diary this year was a lovely soft cover, day to a page, A5, with hourly appointments and ruled in a narrow feint so that each line represents a 20 minute slot. The feint ruling was broken so that the outer part of the page could be used for lists.  There was a pocket inside the back cover for loose papers and a matching page marker ribbon and elastic to keep the book closed.  I've become very attached to it. It was by Ryman, but unfortunately neither they, nor anyone else, have produced one like it for the coming year. Ryman still have a soft cover, A5, with elastic, day to a page Monday to Friday, but Saturday and Sunday are on one page and there are no times marked for appointments. I'm going to have to make do with another, hardback appointments diary, and it's left me feeling unaccountably grumpy that I can't get exactly what I want.

On a brighter note, I spent years feeling dissatisfied with the calendars generally available, with their boy bands, cute kittens and country scenes, but have found a way around that - buying calendars from friends who are artists. I don't know what it is, probably something to do with creative spirits, but a number of the dancers I know are also artists of one sort or another.  We all need support and it gives me great pleasure to promote their work!

My friend Gwen Davies produces a lovely Lunar Calendar, which shows the main phases of the moon month by month, the eight festivals, and is scattered with small seasonal flowers, fruit and so on. It's very pretty and reminds me of her lovely henna art. This year, she produced a time-lapse film on the making of the calendar. Enjoy!

Gwen is also the maker of a couple of my favourite pairs of earrings! You can also find her calendars, wheel of the year and cards on Etsy.

I've also treated myself to a calendar by Katherine Soutar-Caddick, Dancing Cat Design, another friend and artist.  She has been producing some gorgeous illustrations for books of folk tales. I love her work, which has the feel of myth and magic just beneath the surface of the real world.

There is so much beautiful art available, why go with the mass produced stuff? So much better to support artists directly and get something more beautiful, useful and special. The real difficulty is in choosing from all of the wonderful arts and crafts out there, and the artists working to make the world a more beautiful place!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Cold and Frosty vs Warm and Woolly

I can't remember whether I've had to deal with frosty car windows yet this autumn, but it seems to me that last Wednesday was the first 'real' frosty morning here.  If that's true, then it was really late.  Suddenly, any leaves which managed to cling on after the high winds a couple of weeks ago have turned more vivid colours. The temperature is dropping and the weather forecast is for a very cold snap in the next couple of days.  The cats look at me sadly when the radiators are off and/or their bowls are empty.  They are more reluctant to go out and quickly come back in, eager to dry their cold, wet paws on a warm human, preferably one with a warm towel to dry them off.

Time for thick jumpers, hats, scarves, socks, and all things snuggly, including an urge to knit!  Oooh, yes, I need some fingerless gloves, and a cowl, and I wanted to learn to knit socks, and another hat might be nice, and what about some sort of woolly earwarmer headband, and a hot water bottle cover, and legwarmers, and a knitted dress and there's that wonderful cabled sweater I was going to make ....

I love cables! It's the thing I have for Celtic knotwork. The sweater appears to be cabled all over, is quite long with a big collar and takes a lot of yarn. Cue browsing in a few online knitting shops. Eeek! Even in a fairly cheap wool, it will cost around £75?  Is it my imagination, or was knitting wool relatively cheaper a long time ago? There seemed to be a point in the late '70s where the cost of yarn to knit a jumper seemed expensive against the price of jumpers in the shops. I remember knitting a chunky jumper as a present for a friend in the early '80s, and finding the money for the yarn was more difficult than knitting the jumper! Perhaps I'll have to do some serious research into online yarn shops and find a wool mix yarn to use for that sweater.  My local yarn store specialises in Rowan yarns, which are gorgeous and out of my budget, even when on sale. Something in me rebels against using 100% acrylic for this and the other lovely cabled jumpers I've seen, even though acrylics now are often better quality than the soapy-feeling '70s yarns which pilled as soon as you looked at them and stretched after washing. The cabled sweater needs three or four sizes of circular knitting needles, which of course I don't have. And of course, if those sizes don't give you the correct tension swatch result, just change needle sizes ... which I still don't have! Rules of the stash - you have all sorts of things except that which you specifically need. I might have to treat myself to a set of interchangeable circular needles just to get a selection of sizes and cable lengths in one fell swoop.  I managed to find some 'sets' of dpns at a charity shop a while ago, but never see circular needles.

Yes, the stash, which reminds me of other projects on hold and which I should complete before I start any more.  I discovered an unfinished cardigan in 4 ply when I was sorting out a box this summer (in a shade of blue I would not normally go for and I don't know what size I was making. What was I thinking?). Not to mention a bag of fleece which needs dealing with, because I am going to learn to spin. So to satisfy my knitting urge, I've picked up my mohair autumn leaves thing again.  I still haven't decided what to do with it, because I'm very bored with it, but I feel like I've put in too much work just to junk it. I was thinking along the lines of a shrug, but I don't think what I had in mind will work. One of this week's jobs will be to take a few of the leaves and see what size they are after blocking. Note to self: just get over it and learn to do colourwork. Aran has always seemed so easy to me, and  Fairisle so complicated, but lots of people do it so how hard can it be?

I might have to have a go at some fingerless gloves too, because my hands get so cold (honest!) ... but only if I promise to myself to use yarn and needles from my stash!

Friday, 8 November 2013

How to Let Go

I often get stuck during choreography, as I start to over-think the movement and get too caught up in trying to make something work.  Sometimes it's good just to set a few rules, then let go and improvise.
I was flicking through my workshop notes and musing about some choreography (like I do), pondering intent, order, chance, improvisation and mindfulness.  I found my notes from a dance/movement workshop I attended in the middle of nowhere near Llandysul last summer.  Not belly dance (for once) and not just any old workshop either.  I had the great privilege to attend a small workshop on Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT), given by Robert Davidson, one of the seminal teachers of the technique.

I had previously come across a mention of SRT when I was doing some reading into kinaesthetics. It is an approach to dance and movement training developed by Joan Skinner in the early 1960s. The following extract is a very good description from the Skinner Releasing website:

"Skinner Releasing Technique™ is a gentle but powerful system of movement training that encourages a deepened sensory and imaginative awareness of the body. Through its use of improvisatory movement, guided by visualised imagery, music and touch, it also awakens creativity and imagination. SRT teaches the fundamental physical skills and awareness that underlie almost any style of movement and dance.
We're all born dancers, with innate coordination and animal-like grace. As time goes by, we tend to lose touch with this natural ease. Muscles tense unnecessarily, and our alignment goes askew. The Skinner Releasing Technique™ (SRT) lets us practise letting go: letting go of stress, letting go of unnecessary holding in our body, letting go of preconceptions about what is supposed to happen, letting go of fear of awkwardness, letting go of the belief that we don't have the right body for dancing. We let go of habitual holding patterns and habitual ways of thinking in order to let something new happen. Eventually, we find energy and power. We rediscover our natural alignment, improve strength and flexibility, and awaken creativity and spontaneity."

Oh, so true!  I hadn't realised it, but the more my knees and feet hurt, the more I was holding myself, tensely ready to adapt or stop movements when it was painful.  Trying to dance with all that tension wasn't working in terms of avoiding pain; all it was doing was reducing flow and freedom of movement.

We worked with awareness of different body parts and qualities of movement such as sponginess, skating or gliding, leading movement from different parts of the body by imagining puppet strings attached to the head, elbow, wrist, hips and melting down to the floor and up again.  I found that I had let my tension build to the point where I could scarcely relax and release my shoulders and arms on demand! I discovered that if I let go of the tension and used a wall or corner for support, I could flow and melt down onto the floor without hurting myself or my knees.

It came as a shock to realise that it had been 20 years since I did any contemporary contact-style improvisation. I don't remember enjoying it as much as I did during the workshop.  I think I used to be too preoccupied with trying to get it right and create something.  It was still about me, and the revelation, the 'light bulb moment' from this workshop was: it's not about you.

As far as my belly dance is concerned, I've realised that there needs to be an element of release in the movements, as tensing and grabbing for a move often reduces isolation and flowing transitions from one move to the next.  When improvising, it's important not to try to think too hard about what to do next. It's not about you, it's about the music, so let that lead you. The heightened awareness of body and mindfulness in movement can result in self-consciousness and doubts as the inner voice emerges. You have to let go of all the self-talk and just explore your body's movement, and enjoy!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Salad Days - Rainbow

What, no meat?  It can't be good for you!

Okay, not really a rainbow, exactly, but I'm playing with food colours again, and why not? It takes so little to create a tempting plateful and for most colours, you're spoilt for choice. There's not much to choose from at the blue-violet end of the spectrum - perhaps in summer some viola flowers and Edzell Blue potatoes, if you can get the colour of the skins to stay on, and you can now get purple carrots too.  I didn't have any of that, so just went for beetroot. It takes so little to create a tempting plateful!

The weather is getting colder, so while raw salads are lovely and fresh, I'm starting to crave something warmer and more substantial. There will be another gap in the sequence while I look for more salad inspiration ....

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Salad Days - Salade Niçoise

In recent years, the mention of this salad reminds me of the sequence in Ridley Scott's film 'A Good Year', when Russell Crowe is serving an American couple in a French restaurant. 

"I would like a salad Neeswahzay with ranch dressing on ... I'm still on my diet, so I would like low-cal ranch dressing with no oil and could you sprinkle some bacon bits on top?"

It's probably very naughty of me, but the resulting head-on culture clash (let alone the irony of low cal dressing but with bacon bits!) leaves me giggling every time. I watched the film again recently and it was the inspiration for today's salad (except I forgot that I had anchovies in the cupboard, so didn't add any ... and the last one I had in France used a big, tasty beef tomato instead of cherry toms and some salad leaves instead of a wedge of iceberg lettuce). The cats happily shared the tuna!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Salad Days - Waldorf Salad

So called, because it was first presented at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The original recipe of apple, celery and walnuts on a bed of lettuce seems to have had plenty of variants over the years.  Years ago, I ordered a sandwich with Waldorf salad and what arrived was basically coleslaw with added raisins in a runny mayonnaise.  When I complained about the lack of walnuts, I was told that they could not serve a salad with nuts in, because of the risk of allergies!  I pointed out that surely, someone ordering a Waldorf salad would expect a salad with walnuts and what they served in no way resembled what I expected of a Waldorf salad, so I refused to eat or pay for it. The server just shrugged.  It was a catering firm and this was what their supplier sent them, described as Waldorf salad, what were they supposed to do? I didn't go back to eat there again, but don't expect they acted on my suggestion to sack their supplier, employ a chef and make their own food from scratch.

So, is it still a Waldorf if it doesn't contain celery? A friend took a little diversion to see me on her way back from a week away visiting various family members, and stopped for a light supper of herb and cheese omelet and salad (and with a gift of chocolate profiteroles on a bed of chocolate mousse for pudding. Oh my!).  She doesn't like celery, so I didn't put any in. I like shredded white cabbage in mine too.  But it must have walnuts and apple!

We chatted for hours, drinking, eating and generally catching up with the latest news. It was such a pleasure to cook for her, especially since the alternative might have been for her to try to get something at a motorway services. No problem if you like burgers from a well-known chain, but if you're after real food on a Sunday evening, you're probably out of luck!

For a late night TV snack, I added celery to the left-over salad and munched away, with my cat Greebo sat purring companionably by my side. He was probably hoping for a lick of mayo or something, but there really isn't anything in a Waldorf salad to interest him. Tomorrow's salad, on the other hand ....

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Salad Days - Prawn Cocktail

It's November, not the usual time of year for salads and the weather is pretty horrible. For some reason, (probably because I have been eating pumpkin soup all week!) I had a bit of a craving for a prawn cocktail salad, and they are so easy to put together (especially if you're not trying to be artistic with it).  A bed of salad, some prawns, a slick of suitable sauce (like Marie-Rose or, in my case, some light Thousand Island dressing) and you have something light and delicious.
They were so fashionable in the 1970s and '80s that all restaurants seemed to include a prawn cocktail in their starter menu, before they were considered a cliché and dropped out of fashion and off the menus.
I like the contrast of the tender prawns and the sauce on crisp lettuce leaves.  Here's my messy version, which  had a bed of little gem lettuce, cherry tomatoes and avocado and was delicious.  I could have done with some brown crusty bread to eat it with. Must remember that for next time!