Monday, 21 July 2014

The Bling's The Thing

I'm terribly excited to have a performance group again, after a little lull. We were quite active a couple of years ago, and started to discuss troupe costumes.  Then most of the dancers disappeared from class due to pregnancy, illness, shift and other work changes, new love interests, etc.

I'm so proud of 'my' dancers, including a couple of ladies who have really only been dancing anything from a  few weeks to a  few months. Having done a beginner's choreography last term, this one to Nourhanne's Habibi Ya Eini is pretty cute (even if I say so myself) but not very easy. They are working so hard and they are up for the challenge, although nerves are starting to kick in as the show comes closer. It is part of the Imago ethos that performance is optional and open to all abilities. This is a hafla-style show, so it's a safe place to perform for the first time.

Preparing for a performance can be scary and for your first performance, a little bit terrifying. Apart from doubts about whether you can learn and rehearse the choreography in time for the performance, the other big question is, What Shall I Wear? This is always a tricky one for beginners and casual dancers, and especially problematic for anyone not under UK size 16 and/or with body issues such as scars, flabby bits you want to keep hidden, unusual proportions and feeling so self-conscious that you may want to dance with everyone else, but blend into the background so that no-one can see you, and would fight to be at the back. Oh yes, I have all those issues, except for the last two which I'm over now, unless I have to watch myself in a mirror or on video.

Another issue is cost. If you are slim (up to a UK size 14, max!) with perhaps only A-B cups, and happy to show some tummy then it's quite easy to get a cheap, basic, far-east import costume of georgette/chiffon circular skirt, belt and bra for under £40 excluding post and packing. There are some fun, colourful costume pieces, if you can fit them.  They are marketed as One Size (don't get me started ...). They are also marketed as 'professional' and although they can look good, you should expect to pay £250 to £450 for a truly 'professional' full costume. At Raqs Britannia a few years ago, I overheard a couple of other teachers discussing how they don't let their students perform until they are at least 'intermediate' (in their book, dancing for a couple of years, not the JWAAD intermediate standard) and only then if they are prepared to buy their own 'professional' costume in the troupe colours. Not that all dancers are intermediate (whatever that means!) after a couple of years, and all very well if it's for paid, professional bookings or stage shows, but overkill if we're talking the local festival or street carnival. There's more to dancing well and being professional than the costume. A beautiful costume will certainly help you to look and feel the part, but it's what you do and how you do it that really counts!

Then there is the question of how to approach costuming a troupe. If everyone wears the same thing, the troupe can look very smart and can also help the self-conscious to feel that they are blending in. On the other hand, if you don't feel the costume suits you, it can make you feel worse and you might not dance your best, either. I was in a troupe where the requirement was for all white and I felt like a belly dancing meringue, conspicuous and uncomfortable.

Most costume decisions are about style, colour and cost, so for troupe costumes, it's a matter of finding a combination that works for everyone.

Style should be appropriate for the type of dance and choreography.  Doing ATS in a sparkly galabeya looks and feels too strange; I know, because I have done it. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and next time I shall make sure I have a big skirt and choli in my costume case! However, you can think of  'style' in very broad terms, such as everyone in dresses/galabeyas, or in a skirt and top, or wearing one or two unifying pieces which are the same style, such as harem pants and a glitterdot tie top.

Colour can be a difficult call.  It's hard to find a single colour/shade which suits everyone and everyone has their favourites in which they feel happy. It wasn't until I was loading a couple of photos onto my website that I realised how much stage lighting can alter colour, so that it can become almost insignificant. I may have felt like a meringue in my white costume, but under stage lights it became changing pastel shades, light and ethereal.

I usually advise against black for stage costumes, because it's not necessarily as flattering as you'd think and you can disappear against a black backdrop or in dim lighting. It's often chosen by people who want to appear slimmer and not be noticeable against the backdrop but beware! Your audience may look at you more closely if you're difficult to see! That said, sometimes black is the only option.  I have seen a very effective use of various separates - skirt or pants with some sort of top plus a coin belt - all in black and silver. Still, the whole troupe need to be okay with the colour choice.  I tried on a black and silver cabaret dress and it made me feel as though I was going to dance at a funeral.

With a unifying style, a troupe could be in all different colours, or could select a contrasting or toning colour range. This has the advantage that dancers get a choice (e.g. pink or turquoise, or any shades of blue and green) and might be able to use pieces they already have, keeping costs to a minimum.
Photo Credit Kathryn Goddard, Capture This Moment Photography
Here's a shot of Imago Dancers performing a couple of years ago in Cardiff, in whatever we had or could lend each other of black and royal blue, with the dancer's choice of silver or gold, unified by our masks and white boas.

My first 'troupe' costume was a double layer skirt with a top which I'd used for a contemporary dance piece, years before. A couple of years later, I was due to dance in a show for Hossam and Serena Ramzy, when all the other dancers in the troupe backed out at less than a week's notice.  I had four days to select music, choreograph what would be my first solo, and put together a costume.
Melanie peforming at the Merlin Theatre, March 2008

I made a panne velvet overdress and polysilk harem pants, and wore both a fringe belt and a coin belt.  It was comfortable, covered a multitude of sins and it's still something I wear for more casual events.

However, after a couple of haflas and other performances,  I wondered why I was still feeling much too self-conscious and realised that it was because I felt too plain. Yes, the textures were nice and I was wearing jewellery and a coin belt, but I felt like a sparrow amongst peacocks. Unless you are being seriously folkloric, it's possible that for a local hafla, there's no such thing as too much bling!

Many 'larger ladies' are told to avoid lycra and this may be true in a figure-hugging, day-to-day fashion sense. I believed it, and since many belly dance costumes use lycra, I wasn't sure what to do.  Then I found a galabeya by Hanan in my size and was encouraged to try it on.  As I came out of the changing area, the other ladies in the souk all went 'OOooooh!'. It clung to some bits of me and skimmed the rest, and the bead and sequin work around the neck with the sparkly lycra made me feel elegant and dripping with style. Also, it was very comfortable to move and dance in, and some leggings underneath would deal with my dislike of flashing my legs. (It's the black and gold galabeya I'm wearing in the troupe photo, above.)

Since then, I've become a fan of dance galabeyas, treating myself to a turquoise and gold Hanan sparkly when I saw one in my size, and made an exception to my own black and silver rules to bag a second-hand Assuit galabeya when one came up at a reasonable price on eBay. I'm now planning to make a few. How many galabeyas does a dancer need?

In the end, I am reluctant to dictate when it comes to costuming for casual dancers; it's the dancers' money, and they should have a choice, including borrowing costume or going with what they have.  However, I encourage the maximum use of sparkle. Whatever you wear, if you want to feel fabulous and sparkly instead of frumpy and self-conscious, then the bling's the thing!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

How Are You?

So, how are you today?  We ask this by way of greeting, not really expecting the truth from the one we greet. Most of the time, we know this is just a social convention and answer 'Fine!' even when we aren't.  I was musing about this and added a 'check in with your body' note to a workshop plan, while the thought was fresh in my mind, when a Facebook post appeared which gave me food for thought.

It was a drawing of a knight in armour standing on a bald head, fighting off a flaming dragon. The message read 'Never own a disease. Reduce the amount of time you talk about being ill. Refuse to allow illness a place in your consciousness'.

Several friends had already seen it and commented their wholehearted agreement. Uh oh. I didn't agree.  I often find I'm irritated by the memes which my friends happily share, and frequently have to point out that something is a hoax or just a collection of ideas which people would like to be true and sound as though they should be, but for which there is no evidence. Do I ignore it, or comment, even though my dissenting voice could make me appear pedantic and negative? (Vote now!)

If you voted 'Comment' then either you know me, or you also find yourself disagreeing with social media memes, or both.  My comment was:

'I'm in two minds about this. I thoroughly agree that it doesn't do to think or talk about or focus on a disease, pain or a condition more than you need to, because you can start to wallow and feel sorry for yourself, which only makes things worse, not to mention boring the pants off friends or inciting others to wallow as well.
But for chronic conditions which are primarily self-managed, you have to 'own' your condition in order to 'own' your self care and management. Saying that you refuse to allow it a place in your consciousness is like saying you can ignore it or deny its existence. Furthermore, each person's experience of the same chronic condition can be individual and unique in the details, so in a way, it IS (e.g.) MY [experience of] severe osteoarthritis and I have to acknowledge it just enough to learn how to manage it and my life with it.  I give it roughly the same status as washing up - it is always there, needs to be done, I don't enjoy it, you can do things to minimise it and it's good once it's dealt with, however temporarily.
I've encountered some people who 'refuse' to be ill, coming into work with flu, dosed to the eyeballs with some remedy and mainlining coffee (as if that's any substitute for the sleep and water their body is demanding), doing a bad job which someone else has to deal with, correct and complete, spreading their germs around, and going home frankly unsafe to drive. We need to listen to our bodies and act on our physical needs. Denial can be dangerous.'

Having popped my head above the parapet, I clicked on the picture to see what comments had been added at source. It was very good to see that I wasn't the only one who thought the advice on the picture overly simplistic. Predictably, there were one or two who believe it is simply a matter of eating right, keeping fit, avoiding toxins, refusing to be ill, refusing to accept a diagnosis, refusing to die (okay, good luck with that!). Whilst the power of the mind shouldn't be underestimated, there were some who considered that illness was a result of negative thinking or that anyone who was ill only had themselves to blame.  They were gently shot down by some with first hand experience of (e.g.) a child fighting leukaemia, who was too young to have brought it on themselves and who stayed positive until the end. And someone who said that it must have been the toxic chemo drugs which killed them, not the disease, could not then answer why others who refuse chemo and believe deeply that they will be fine with alternative therapies and dietary changes don't manage to survive cancer.

Some time later, I went back to the post to see if there were any further comments. I expected some flak, but there was nothing.

Yes, it's often a case of mind over matter, but even if you do mind and it matters very much indeed, and you are feeling desperate for the pain and misery to stop, there are a couple of things to remember: Don't let your illness define who you are. Don't let it run your life. Try to stay positive and carry on as normal.

Sadly, there are times when this just doesn't work. My lovely friend S who has IIH was the one who originally told me not to 'own' my osteoarthritis pain. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to be getting any better and may be admitted to hospital again this evening.  I positively wish I had a magic wand.  Then when I ask someone 'How are you?', with a wave of my wand, the reply 'Fine!' will be true (whether they want it to be, or not!).

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Rose Within a Rose, Within a Rose ... A Dance Journey

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a teaching inspection, trying to finish a choreography for the class, get the notes written up to my satisfaction and review (and formally write up) my scheme of work and lesson plans.  I do plan my lessons, but having thought about and decided what I'm going to cover in a lesson, I seldom refer to a written plan as I teach. As I wrote them up, I had my usual tussle with the 'learning outcomes', those TSSBAT (at the end of the lesson, The Student Should Be Able To ....) objectives. There's an implication that an objective is an end point. It's the idea that you cover a topic and it is 'learnt'. Learning to dance is an ongoing process. Like all the arts, there is usually a gap between theory and practice; the knowledge of how something should be done, look, or even sound, and the physical achievement of it. While learning some background theory may be quick, the basic objective is to learn some moves and apply them in dance. Ya Leil means Oh Night. Fact. Remember it. What does Ya Leil mean? Oh Night. Correct. Learnt. Tick the box. That a dancer is still working to get her hips under control doesn't mean a lack of learning. Anyone who has a go rather than giving up is learning; the control will come, it's just not there yet. YET. It's a very important word.

I struggle to define realistic 'learning outcomes' for a mixed level group, as each dancer may be at a different point. I can change the language and expectations of the learning outcomes so that, for instance, all dancers should be able to tell me what a move is even if they can't do it, and that can be assessed. Sooner or later, though, a dancer needs to be able to demonstrate the moves, the transitions, flow, musicality, posture, gaze, expression - in other words, to dance!

For the lesson, hip 8s were a case in point.  We covered (in fact, revised) the four main symmetrical hip 8s - Standard (front to back) and Reverse (back to front) horizontal and Taksim (down-out-up) and Maya (up-out-down) vertical 8s. However, much as I would like to say that at the end of a lesson everyone will be able to do these 8s, it's not a realistic aim. I can't spend the whole lesson just on those 8s, everyone would get frustrated and/or bored. While some dancers may be more or less proficient, others may still be struggling to access muscles, control the movement and coordinate the transfer of weight.  Some may get the movement quickly, others will need to work on it for longer, and that's okay because everyone is different.  Then the process of refinement begins, practising until the movement is smooth, symmetrical and defined, with good isolation and musicality to match and reflect the music. This can take years, an idea which can be a little off-putting for someone wanting belly dance as a recreational and social activity, for an hour or so once a week.  However, it is the journey which is important here, not the destination.

The learning journey is a common analogy used for many dance styles and arts in general. Good teachers who are committed to CPD are also on a journey, just (hopefully!) further up the road than their students. It's a journey which dancers should enjoy, so these lessons have to be as much about the students' experience of the lesson as what they get out of it; in some ways, more about what they want to learn than about what I want to teach. It needs a lightweight, stealthy approach to corrections and assessments. The learning objectives are just milestones, waymarkers on a route which can meander through drills and combinations, choreography and improvisation, different belly dance styles and props, rhythms and musical instruments, history and culture, fantasy and fact.

As I was dancing through the choreography and working on transitions, I had an image of dancing in a garden with many-petalled roses, all with beautiful scent and lovely colours. For each thing you learn about and every time you practise a move, a petal falls. As you learn and work, the petals drop away, and you discover another rose within the rose, with a different shade of petals and a slightly different rose scent.  You start to explore further and after a while, find yet another rose, with yet another colour and scent.  By now, you are dancing through a drift of roses, surrounded by lustrous petals and their scent fills the air.

Don't worry about the journey, just enjoy the rose petals.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Moving in Circles - Class Notes on Circular Moves

I've been thinking a lot about the core movements used in belly dance, a sort of 'nuts and bolts' or 'toolbox' approach to belly dance as a way of moving rather than a set of moves.  While preparing for some recent classes, I started pondering the permutations of circular movements and since then, I've used this in class.  This post provides some brief notes on circular moves as inspiration for some dance exploration.  Although these notes use belly dance as a reference, I could see this as an interesting contemporary dance exploration, too.

We looked at creating circles and arcs (e.g. half or part-circles) using different parts of the body, turning, and creating circular pathways.

Head Circle, as if you are drawing a large circle on the wall in front of you with your nose (remembering to keep the neck long).
Shoulders Vertically circling forwards and backwards, singly or alternating
Chest/upper body
  • Shifting, 
  • Tilting, 
  • Vertical face on, 
  • Vertical forward and back = upper body undulation standard (a backwards circle, forward, up, back, down) and reverse (a forward circle, back-up-forward-down, being careful not to let the shoulders sag forward and the chin lift then dip as you complete the forward-down movement, as it will look like you're throwing up!)
  • Wide chest/upper body circle (remembering to vacuum pack your innards, strong core, tail down and back long as this involves leaning back. Gently does it, keep it small to start with.)
  • Shifting, horizontal small, medium or large/dipping hip circles,
  • Tilting,
  • Vertical face on and vertical forward and back = lower body undulation standard and reverse
  • Asymmetrical (one hip) horizontal or vertical forwards and backwards.
Hand and Wrist, Like floreos, scooping honey from a jar, plucking a flower, beckoning, pushing away
Arms Leading with the elbow backwards, or with stretched arms large circles forward and back or face on, inwards across the body or outwards, lower arm circles in across the body or out, either singly or both together
Legs Describing an arc on the floor with the toe before placing the foot down (as in the ballet rond de jambe). Slinky walk, or as part of a pivot half turn.

Explore circles in different planes of movement:
  • horizontal - parallel to floor,
  • vertical - face on,
  • vertical - forward and back or side-on
Link circles or arcs and undulations, for example a backwards shoulder circle sending a wave down the outstretched arm to produce and arm ripple.

Parts of circles = arcs, e.g.horizontal hip circles made of a front and back arc beginning and ending in the side/hip slide position.  These can be used as transitions, with a weight shift from one foot to the other.

Explore single hip vertical arcs: a smooth series of short arcs, or write m, n, o, u, w with one hip, side on.

Circular movements with arms, turns, pathways are particularly useful when dancing with air props - veils, fan veils and Isis wings, as the movement allows air to be caught under the fabric, swirling as you turn. Explore floor patterns space and directions:
  • Turns
  • Turning a movement on the spot
  • Circular pathways
  • Circles within circles - moving around in a circle with added turns.
It's often useful in improvisation and choreography to set rules and limits to movement. The same movement repeated with different dynamics, such as size of movement, speed and changes in speed and direction, and between arcs and whole circles, can create interesting effects.

In class, we created a combination by adding a circular move suggested by each person around the circle. In your own practice, you could add or reorder the moves, pass the move around the body, change or repeat moves, think about transitions and flow, how to move smoothly from one move to the next.  This is primarily a study, but it would be possible to base an entire dance piece on circular movements.

Have fun! I'd love to see what you come up with.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Property Buzzword Bingo

I've been a bit quiet on this blog for a couple of weeks because things are changing in my life.  As some may know, it's now five years since my then partner of 20 years found someone else to share his life.  In that time, he and his girlfriend have done most of the structural work on the main farmhouse (which we'd gutted to renovate, pre-split) and I've been living in the farm cottage.  We all get on amicably enough, but it's really time to move on.  The idea is that they buy my share of the farm, which frankly doesn't amount to all that much when it comes to buying a new place.  As a result, I'm looking for somewhere to live in the area west of Carmarthen and south of Cardigan. Unfortunately, most of what's available within my budget is mid-terrace property in the larger towns, in the areas which a policeman friend advised me to avoid. There isn't much available around here, which means I'll have the hassle of changing doctor and vet along with change of email and home addresses. I keep telling myself that things could be worse, but the idea of having to live in a town after over 10 years in the country feels like a backwards step, and it's breaking my heart.

I was initially excited to have a look at the properties on offer, but trawling through them is proving fairly depressing. At one end of the scale, there are the places which need a lot of work, but are too close to my budget limit for me to afford it.  Then there are those which are 'in good order', where the first words to escape my lips on seeing the carpets, tiling or other decor are 'oh, dear'.  There's a horrible fashion for 'feature' walls, such as a large-patterned wallpaper or an intense colour on one wall in a smallish room.  Although I generally like colour, I can feel the claustrophobia start just from looking at the photo.

Then there are some which have been done up so well, it looks as though they've had the attentions of an interior designer. That would be fine if they also had a garden and somewhere to park, but it seems that the combination of all three is impossible. In south-west Wales, public transport is a rare thing and unless you live, work and go out in the same town, having a car and somewhere to park it is essential. Much of the older housing stock, including a lot of ex-council properties from the 1950s or earlier, has nowhere to park.  If you are lucky, there is a garden and you can join the fight for parallel parking space in a narrow street. I'm finding the Google Maps 'street view' very useful, as it can give a more objective view than the estate agent's photo, in which you might not see, for example, that the property fronts directly onto a busy road with double yellow lines. Strangely, even some of the more modern housing has no adjacent, off-road parking, and it's a safe bet that anything modern will not have a garden larger than a shaded, overlooked space just big enough to put a small table and chair and a rotary washing line, possibly not both at the same time.

I've had a little look above my budget too.  When comparing what's offered to what's asked for some properties, I find myself thinking (or exclaiming aloud in some cases) 'You have got to be kidding!'. Way above what I can afford, there are some lovely, spacious properties, so big that I could rattle around like a dried pea in a tin.

I love that I can get the details and photos online, but the websites could use some work on their filters.  I find that I want to filter by exclusion (not flats/apartments, commercial, building plots, holiday homes, mobile homes).  For example, I can filter on houses, but that excludes bungalows and includes mobile homes! Of course, the web filters depend on the accuracy of the data input, which often leaves something to be desired.

As for the descriptions! Poor English is making me wince so often, I almost have a nervous tic. I'm fed up of looking for important things like room sizes, or whether the bathroom actually includes a bath (replacing the bath with a shower has obviously been another trend) and finding instead a paragraph of wonderfully meaningless waffle trying to 'sell' the area. 

I remember playing buzz-word bingo in boring management meetings during the '90s. We used to copy a sheet on which there was a grid with words and phrases such as synergy, leverage (used as a verb), touch base, blue sky and outside the box.  The first one to get a row, column or diagonal won, although it didn't do to shout BINGO!

Here are my suggestions for a property-based buzzword bingo.  I would just leave this as a list and cross them off as you find them.  I promise, it won't take you long; why not have a game over a cuppa?
You get a point for every occurrence of:
  • Any missing or misplaced apostrophe
  • 'Boasting'
  • 'Benefits from'
  • 'Comprises of' (yes, I know it's wrong, but you'll find this one easily)
  • 'Deceptively' (or even, deceivingly)
  • 'Generous'
  • 'Low maintenance'
  • 'Spacious'
  • 'Surprisingly'
  • 'Sympathetic'
  • 'Good size' (double points when this description is applied to e.g. a double bedroom in which you can only just fit a double bed, or a garden in which there is only just room for the clothes line and a seat)
  • 'Immaculately presented' (double points when the decor makes you want to scream/vomit/run away)
  • 'Ideal' (double points when your immediate reaction on viewing is a cynical 'yeah, right')
  • Any incorrect description (such as a semi-detached described as detached, two-storey house described as a bungalow or a building plot labelled as a new home)
  • Any incorrectly applied data filter characteristic; for example, a search for properties with a garden or parking returns properties where there is clearly no garden, or parking.
Well, that was fun, but I didn't see anywhere I could afford that I could picture myself living. Thinking ahead, I should go for a bungalow, as stairs will become a trial as my osteoarthritis worsens, but bungalows are always more expensive and most are out of my budget.  It's all about location and space - some two- or three-bed houses and bungalows are two to three times my budget.  I need to win the lottery!