Tuesday, 27 September 2016

JoonDance Connections Summer School, August 2016

One line on my 'To Do' list may look like a small thing, but can contain a lot of time and work. Attending the JoonDance Connections Summer School was a prime example of that. It involved at least 20 hours in workshops and performance, excluding homework and other preparation. It entailed a week of heightened self-care as I nursed and cajoled my body to do more and rest well, ready for the next day. It meant a week of blocking out my critical inner voice and bolstering my self-confidence. It's taken me a while to blog about it, because it gave me a lot to think about, as a dancer and teacher, as well as personally.

Zosia of JoonDance contacted me to let me know that this year, the summer school would contain an adult group which she hoped I could be part of, because she was bringing over a dancer with whom she had collaborated on a recent project in Cairo. Working with an Egyptian dancer/choreographer in contemporary dance, rather than belly dance, was an irresistible idea! But personally, it would be a physical and psychological challenge. How would my body, particularly my knees and feet, stand up to a few hours daily of dance workshops? Would I let down the choreographer and the rest of the group, unable to manage the choreography, the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons? Reassured that there would be a wide age range and emphasis on inclusivity, I booked and decided to stop worrying so much and just be excited.

Whatever my personal challenges, I was also interested in those of the other participants, knowing that many adults like the idea of dancing and, possibly, performing, but feel so daunted by it that they don't make it happen. It can be a real struggle to find or make the time and arrange your life to suit, that you have to really want to do it. As I had started to revise and think anew about the challenges of teaching/leading dance and exercise with adults as part of my continuing professional development, I felt that all of this could offer some valuable insights.

I've become aware of how much discipline, for want of a better word, my ballet and contemporary classes instilled in me. There was an emphasis on having a 'professional' attitude, which included keeping dates for rehearsal and being on time, no outdoor shoes in the dance space, changing and putting dance shoes on instead of sitting around when you arrive, starting your own warm-up, not interrupting or talking over the teacher, but listening attentively, participating, trying and asking questions, as if you are wondering about something, then chances are someone else is too and the answer could help everyone. It can still be difficult to concentrate on working while you feel somewhat ridiculous, but I find the class 'discipline' gets me into a sort of calm, focused zone.

A big difference, and a challenge for a teacher/choreographer, is that adults learn and do things differently to children. Children are constantly told what to do (or not do!) and generally do as they are told so that they can continue to participate and belong to the group. Most adults get out of the habit of following orders and seem to pass information through a subconscious 'this doesn't apply to me' filter. This can be very frustrating for a teacher, as simple instructions like 'just stand and watch while I do it, then we'll break this sequence down', result in half the class with their backs to you, moving as you move and missing most of what you're doing, and possibly a couple of those will also be asking the dancer next to them how to do the move, so they're also missing what you are saying.

Participants are generally caught up in their own baggage and battles, so that the challenges faced by the choreographer/director don't occur to them, but they can be just as great, if not more so. Aly Khamees found that right from the start and I really felt for him. I don't think he was expecting quite the level of challenge he would face, especially working with older adults. Quite apart from the need to adapt choreography for those of us who can't throw ourselves around a stage any more, and allow for people nipping off to the toilet as needed, the participants' lack of experience in a dance discipline and various ingrained habits can become an issue.

He would be working in English, which was neither his first (Arabic) nor second language (French). Since I speak French, I could translate for him as necessary, but he did really well and I found him easy to understand. However, it can really throw some people who don't typically encounter other accents and languages. You need to speak less and listen more, and this extends to an understanding that you also need to allow the person who is working in another language enough time and silence to be able to get their thoughts in order and get a sentence out.

Some of the adults were there because their children were in the other workshops, so had already mounted a military-style campaign to get their children and themselves organised and out of the house, before even getting to the theatre, and the adult workshop could be subject to interruptions based on the childrens' needs (though this didn't happen often). Getting to the workshops on time is a major undertaking all by itself if you're coming more than 10 miles, which is often the case. You can start out in plenty of time, but get held up by traffic in the form of lorries, farm vehicles or queues at roadworks, or any number of unexpected circumstances (flocks of sheep, stray cows, flash floods, you name it, rural west Wales has it!)

As we would be working as a 'company' over the week, culminating in a performance, the first thing was to get to know each other, and that included physically, so we could effectively watch out for one another. A group hug, giving/receiving massage or various trust exercises where you basically fall backwards and allow yourself to be caught are easy for those used to dance and drama classes, but hard for someone who is coming to this new and is averse to being touched.
We also introduced ourselves, our dance backgrounds and what we were looking for from the week. For me it was for personal exploration and re-education; finding movement mechanisms, questioning, adjusting and adapting old movement patterns, pushing back against degenerating joints and the effects of age. I was also keen to think about the differences between the contemporary techniques in the use of weight and externalising movement, as opposed to the typical Middle Eastern feeling of weight and energy in the pelvis and passing movements through the body.

The next challenge was the concept: putting ourselves in the place of someone homeless, rootless, a refugee who has left behind their country and culture, someone who has nothing. How do they feel, what it is like for them, how do they make us feel? And then creating a seven-move phrase to express some of that.

My contemporary phrase was fine, but was ditched in favour of me doing some very slow, sustained, ballet-style moves. Cue rapid revision of temps liƩ and some barre exercises, because I hadn't done ballet for years.
And then, singing along to something (like I do), I found to my amazement it was thought I'd be all right singing and my next challenge was to create a song in several languages, using some phrases generated by the group, to sing in a soul/blues style at some point in the performance. I realised that I no longer sing, except for snatches of songs I dance to, I don't have music radio on in the house or car, I no longer know any songs and singing solo acapella? Seriously? I'm not a singer, much less a songwriter! Everyone was tremendously supportive (probably grateful it wasn't them!) but I couldn't imagine how I could do it.
Of course, I could have said a firm and outright NO! But then, how do you know what you can do, if you don't try to do what you think you can't, while there's a supportive group around you? And I wasn't the only one with a challenge. Quite apart from those getting past touch-aversion, lack of confidence and feeling their comparative lack of dance training and experience; as part of the performance, another of the dancers was to tell a personal story of what amounted to child abuse, which was completely shocking and heart-wrenching. It was a good thing we had rehearsals to get used to what was going to be thrown out there - it must have been challenging for the audience!

During the week, I found myself looking back at myself across the years and not recognising either the woman I was then, nor the one I'd become now, as if neither were me. What happened to that girl who always wore jewellery, perfume and make up, who sang and danced and acted? Could I be her again? Did I want to be?

So, given more text (in English, plus a line of Portugese which I don't speak at all) than I could actually use when keeping it as short as possible, I managed to create a song to include those two languages plus French, Italian, German, Russian and Welsh. And I found a sort of chord-progression, improvised-sounding backing track in G minor to sing along to. At the dress rehearsal, the sound of my voice through the mic made me cringe a bit. I didn't sing it as well as I'd wanted to in performance, but I think it conveyed our concept.

When the world looks away, o mundo olha para longi,
You’re still there, I see you, t’es encore la, je te vois, je te vois, je te vois.

When your feet hurt, i tuoi piedi ti fanno male,
And the river runs home, solo il fiume scorre a casa.
I think I understand, ich glaube ich verstehe,
But what do I know? A shto ya znaiou?
Living with that touch of hope, un poco, poco, poco di speranza
For kindness to fill this emptiness, la gentilesse va remplir ce vide.
And I’m sorry, maen flin da fi,
I’ve just my heart to give you, dim ond fy nghalon i,
You’ve got to reach beyond yourself , reach out, donne moi tes mains
I see you.

My ballet section seemed to go on forever (I can't remember what the music was or how long it went on for, but I would have cut the hell out of it!) and I didn't dance well, but perhaps my teetering balances, the strain (and pain) of some of it also spoke of hardship and yearning, grace and love in a harsh environment, attempting to connect in an alien culture, the bound movement and repetition evoking a feeling of being trapped by circumstances beyond your control.

The show at the Torch turned out all right on the night. In the end, I think we were all a bit blown away by what we achieved. I loved working with Aly Khamees and the other awesome women in the adult dance group, sorry, the Joon Golden Thugs or whatever our company name ended up as, the children were great, and the dance works by Zosia Jo, Kim Noble and Aly Khamees were amazing!

Overall, I enjoyed myself, but sometimes I wonder why. It was a series of challenges which took me well outside my comfort zone and gave me flashbacks, so perhaps it reached into my soul and awoke the masochistic dance student who once found such comfort in dance classes. Whatever, it sparked some creative thoughts and given me enough to think about until summer school next year!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Tutorial - covering a button for use as a flower centre

I've been preparing for a series of workshops making various fabric flowers, so while I was thinking about tutorial sheets for flower kits, I thought I'd do a little tutorial here too.

As I prefer to sew rather than glue, the flower centres need to cover the inner ends of the petals well, and buttons are often better than beads for this. I also find that buttons can sometimes look a bit plain, depending on the fabric used. Then, there's the problem of finding one in a colour which works well and which is undamaged. Layering buttons can work well - a larger, but damaged one can go under a smaller one. But the law of the stash is that however many you have, there's never exactly what you want. Covering a button can be a good solution.

First, decide how large a centre you need and find your button, and a scrap of fabric big enough to wrap around it. I'm using a circular button, as that's easiest. So, a circle of fabric at least twice the diameter of the button. The heavier your fabric, the bulkier it will be, so allow a little more.

Here's the button (these are 1 cm squares on the cutting mat). It's not a bad colour, but has been damaged by the button machine when it was attached to the garment.
I'm going to cover it with stretch panne velvet. It doesn't fray so much as lose bits, but for this purpose, I don't really need to turn the edge under as I take small running stitches around the edge of the fabric circle.

Pull the thread to gather the edge slightly and with the fabric wrong side uppermost, put the button in the centre.

I want a 'domed' rather than 'dished' centre, so I've placed the button with what was the top towards what will be the back of the button.

Keeping the button centred on the fabric, pull the threads tight and take several stitches to finish off. I like to leave the thread tail with the knot loose, and then tie both ends of the thread together when I've gathered the fabric, then sew some stitches to keep everything secure.

There, finished!

Finger Cymbals/Sagat/Zills

Finger cymbals, also known as Zills (from the Turkish Zilleri), Sagat/Sajat or Sunouj (Arabic), or Zang (Persian) are instruments used by musicians and dancers, particularly with Turkish, Ghawazee, American Cabaret (AmCab) and American/Improvised Tribal (ATS/ITS) styles of dance.  Played well, they can add a layer of shimmering, ringing, percussive sound to match or embellish the rhythms as a musical accompaniment.  Played badly, they create a clashing wall of sound which might still be useful for driving out demons, ex-boyfriends or other undesirables.

I started playing with finger cymbals almost from my first lesson. Not that I was really learning to play them, and I would still not say that I can truly dance and play finger cymbals well, but then I was always one for trying to run before I could walk. They are a fun prop for class when you feel like making some joyful noise, but some people really dislike the sound or having to try to coordinate another layer of movement, or both.

Finger cymbals for Middle Eastern music and dance usually come in sets of four, two for each hand. They are different to Tingsha bells, which are a pair of thick cymbals joined by a cord often used in Buddhist prayer and rituals, and often available in shops selling ethnic/world gifts and clothes. They are also not to be confused with finger cymbals sold by music shops, which often sell only one pair.

Finger cymbals come in a range of sizes, the most common having a diameter of about 5 cm (2 in), although some are quite tiny and others fairly large. Take a look on YouTube at Egyptian percussionist and dancer Karim Nagi and his masterful playing with large finger cymbals. They may be (sand) cast or pressed from various metal alloys. Makers commonly use brass rather than the bronze used for larger cymbals, but they may also use other alloys such as 'German silver'. Finger cymbals vary in appearance and may be shiny, dull, plain or engraved. Some may be plated or have some other surface finish in order to give a silvery colour or a brighter surface. The shape may vary, from almost flat with a very low dome in the centre, to a high dome and/or a raised rim. They may have a single, central hole for the elastic, or two slots. The different sizes, shapes, production methods and alloys will produce sounds that differ in pitch (the musical 'note'), tone, volume and resonance. The 'German silver' alloy cymbals often have a higher tone than their brass counterparts because of the different weight and nickel and silver content.

A dancer performing with an orchestra will need larger cymbals with more volume, whereas a cabaret dancer may want a more delicate sound. American Tribal Style dancers typically use larger cymbals with a more mellow or deeper tone. Dancers may select the cymbals for a particular piece according to their pitch, so that it suits the maqam of the piece of music. Or they may use sets of cymbals which produce different pitches for their right and left hands so that they can replicate and play with doum and tak sounds.

I was under the impression that zill and sagat were interchangeable names for finger cymbals, just in different languages, but I've learned from a Facebook discussion group that in general, sagat have one hole and zills, two slots. I'd also previously been told that the one-hole cymbals weren't 'professional' quality (implying the two-slot cymbals are) but I have a heap of cheap and nasty two-slot cymbals which I use for class practice, and have since learned that the one-hole cymbals can be high quality. However, the one-hole sagat tend not to have the prolonged ring of the two-slot zills and the playing technique differs a little, as they can be harder to control, especially if they have a loop of round, rather than flat, elastic. I've been given a set of sagat, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they ring and sound, but I find I cup my hands slightly more when playing them to keep them from wobbling so much on my fingers.

The cymbals are worn on the thumb and middle finger of each hand, just below the base of the finger nails. They need to fit snugly so that they don't slip around or come off . (As my friend Rose put it recently, there are two settings; cutting off the circulation or flying off the fingers!) This can feel very strange; so strange that it interrupts your normal physical feedback while you are dancing, so that at first you feel as though you can either move your fingers, or your body, or feet, but no two at the same time. The different sounds, patterns and drills are for another post, but it's important to get used to moving around while wearing and playing, even if at first you only do isolation and movement drills while wearing the finger cymbals but not playing them.

What did we do before we had elastic?
However they used to be secured, the usual method now is to have a short length of elastic threaded through the hole or slots. White gets dirty very quickly, so I use black for preference, although the teacher of one of the workshops I've been to likes gold lurex elastic, as it's appropriately shiny and less obvious than black. I liked the idea, but I couldn't find any to buy, so experimented with some off a gift box. I found it a bit prickly and irritating.

In fact, the teacher of every workshop I've been to has their own favourite type of elastic and way of  fastening and adjusting it; knotting it, sewing it, using safety pins, using metal or plastic adjusters (the same as used on bras and suspenders). I played with the latter a bit. One of the problems with this is finding an adjuster which is the right size for the elastic. Another problem is that it's a fiddle to get the elastic in because of the tight fit,  and despite this, it seems to slip. I used these for one performance and as I was putting them on just before going on, the elastic came pinging right out of one of the fasteners, and there wasn't the time or the light to get it back in again. I just had time to take them off and leave them on the sound desk before going on. Luckily the dance wasn't about them, they were just to be an accompaniment. After the same happened at a party recently, I've decided to stick with the little brass safety pins, which allow quick adjustment for different sized fingers and thumbs and a bit of tightening as the elastic loosens as it ages.

Having adjusted your elastics, you may find a noticeable difference between the loops for the thumb and finger cymbals. On your own set, you might want to mark which is which, although I don't bother. I've seen suggestions involving putting a dot of (bright) nail polish on the elastic on the 'inside' of the thumb cymbals, or use different colours of thread to sew the thumb and finger elastics, which is fine if you have some light, not so good in darkened wings. A more tactile solution is to sew a smallish bead to the thumb or finger elastics.

While I was writing this article, I was cleaning zills (removing tarnish and spots of corrosion with a metal cleaner and a soft cloth), checking and replacing elastics ready for the new dance term.  It's a good idea to have a safety pins and a set of spare elastics (4 pieces of 12 mm wide x 75 mm long elastic - braided is nicer than corded, if you can find it) in your 'emergency kit' for workshops and performance, but at a push, you can use a narrow hair elastic, looping it around a finger or thumb until it's tight. It works, although being a round elastic, is prone to wobble a bit. A Facebook belly buddy found this blog post using jersey hair elastics and this seems to be a good solution if you find elastics too uncomfortable, assuming you have or can find jersey hair elastics. It makes me wonder whether you could improvise some of these by cutting narrow rounds from the ankle of an old sock, or whether they would be too large. Maybe worth a go!

A dozen sets of finger cymbals of various types, shapes, sizes and metals

The photo shows a dozen sets of finger cymbals.
Top row, my Saroyan zills. Left, my originals, Arabesque II, awaiting a clean and new elastics. If you click on the photo for the large version, you might be able to see that one of the safety pins had corroded, leaving just the spike in the elastic. I found that the hard way as I fished these out of my performance case. The middle set are my 'newest' ones, not used yet, bought a couple of years ago (when Harry Saroyan announced his retirement and triggered a spot of panic buying! Fortunately, Saroyan are still going under new ownership. I can't remember which these are! Small Grecian, perhaps?).  The 12mm wide elastic is a snug fit and the trick is to put one corner up through the slot first, and use that to pull the elastic through. I played with using a hair elastic in one of them, just to see how it worked. Right, my Nefertitis with the offending slide adjusters.
On the middle row and bottom left, my latest acquisitions, second hand from another belly dance teacher who has thrown in the towel as far as teaching goes. Middle left, in the middle of cleaning - the brass ones seemed to tarnish and corrode more than the silver-coloured ones next to them, which need new, wider elastics. And middle right, more slide adjusters to be removed. Bottom left, I rather like the two-tone copper and brass. The elastic had totally gone. Bottom row middle, the single hole sagat with their raised rims. Bottom right, 4 assorted sets from my class zills. You can see spots of nail varnish on the elastics of the set on the right, used to differentiate my class zills from those of another teacher during a workshop where lots were needed.

What to look for when buying
The perennial question is, 'As a beginner, should I buy a cheap set or professional quality finger cymbals?'.

The main argument for buying a cheap, basic, first set is to save your money for finger cymbals to match your preference, once you've danced enough to know what that is! I would normally encourage a beginner to borrow some in class until they decide they want their own (hence my sets of 'class' zills). There's nothing wrong with buying cheap zills if you want some to play with at home. Little boxed sets of pressed zills with a little booklet and a belly bindi are often given as presents.  Most of my class zills are from these.  They sound pretty terrible, frankly, but these are perfectly good enough for a bit of fun and to find out whether you like playing finger cymbals.

Professional quality finger cymbals are generally larger, heavier gauge, and louder. The heavier gauge is more tiring to play with, so practice to strengthen and 'condition' the hands is a good thing. The louder tone means that mistakes are easier to hear! I found my first 'professional' zills deafening, compared to the cheap set I had. At 2.5"/6.5 cm, they were also about as large as I would like to go, considering that I have wide hands with short fingers. (The standard advice is not to get anything larger than slightly smaller than your palm, in which case I should be able to manage 3"/7.5 cm cymbals, but I find finger length makes a big difference.)

You can also find finger cymbals which are a good compromise; reasonable quality, but not as expensive as the 'high end' cymbals, with a much better tone than the cheap sets. In the UK, the best place to find these is through vendors such as Zara's Zouk and Farida Souk. Everything Egyptian no longer seems to sell online, but you can contact them if you know what you want.  Bellydance Boutique is now stocking some of the Saroyan zills as well. (This is correct at the time of writing, and no, unfortunately, I don't receive anything for these recommendations!)

When buying zills, you will want to check them for size, weight, tone and finish. I find it annoying when sellers do not have a 'test set' with the elastics set up, so that you can sound them out. Ask - a good vendor will oblige. Check the finish - some have rough or sharp edges, or surface damage from the casting or engraving which could snag on your costume, though I've never found this a problem with the high end zills. If you are buying online and concerned, just ask the vendor to check for you. The ones linked above will all be happy to help.

Then it's just a matter of learning to play and dance at the same time! Have fun!