Diary Entry: New Term Resolutions

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Today I’m making a brief diary entry about my own dancing progress- though I know I’m far less interesting than the incredible performers I have been blogging about this summer! This week I start my new term of Level 4 and American Tribal Style Bellydance classes (I’m so excited!), so I wanted to make a little list of aims for what I want to work on in my own dancing. I would love to hear what you other dancers are working on at the moment too!

Resolultion #1: Fight the stage fright! Get solo performance experience!

Getting my first solo performances under my belt is an important aim for me, and something I feel like I need to do to help overcome my shyness. Although I’m worried that my first few performances might not be very good, and that I may end up as fodder for the YouTube trolls, I feel that the only way to improve and develop some stage persona is to get up there at some student-friendly events and dance. Someone on Facebook recently posted a quote by Alarmel Valli “Dance is Like wine- it matures with every performance”. My first choreography is slowly but surely coming together, so it shouldn’t be too long before I’m up and running.

Resolution #2: Strengthen those shimmies.

Slowly but surely, my shimmies are improving- I’m gradually gaining more range in the layered movements I can make while shimmying. I have some nice layered shimmy drill videos that I hope to use to develop some nice strong shimmy technique this term. (I’m also considering climbing the stairs at the tube station rather than taking the lift to strengthen my knees. Might be a bit drastic though, as there’s 15 storeys to climb!). If you have any tactics that you use to work on shimmies, I would love to hear them!

Resolution #3: Work on isolating movements without needing to look in the mirror

I videoed myself last term practicing a routine away from the mirror, but found that my isolations suffered a bit when I didn’t have the feedback from the mirror to show me which body parts were moving that shouldn’t be. This term I hope to video more of my practice so that I can go through and note where I need to concentrate on sharpening isolations. My Mayas in particular seem to get a bit frisky and all over the place when I look away from the mirror!

Resolution #4: Make a costume

I love crafty projects and have been gradually learning how to sew over the last few years. As I currently can’t afford to buy a professional standard costume, I thought it was worth a go trying to make my own. I have been informed that the beading and sequinning is a mammoth task, but I’d still love to give it a shot. If I get around to this, I’ll make a nice photo diary of the progress.

And of course there’s the small task of starting my PhD project while I’m doing all that! Wish me luck!

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Hayaam Belly Dance Showcase

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A couple of weeks ago, I attended the first Hayaam Belly Dance showcase! Spotting the event on Facebook, I was intrigued to see the mix of Oriental and Tribal dancers on the billing: as I had only just written a blog post about the unnecessary conflict between the two styles, I was excited to see both branches of Bellydance sharing the same stage.

The venue for the show- Jewel Piccadilly- was beautiful, although pretty surreal! Not knowing what a labyrinth the place was on the inside, my friend and I were were unwittingly given a tour of the building when the doorman misunderstood which event it was that we were there for. We were whisked through a series of dimly lit chandelier strung rooms with Moulin Rouge-like decoration, full of men in business suits and ladies in cocktail dresses, before eventually being directed upstairs to the right room (We were actually quite pleased to have gotten to explore the rest of the swanky club, as I doubt we’d normally be able to afford to get in!). The room of the showcase itself was beautiful, with chandeliers and a ceiling draped in red fabric. There were also mirrors on the walls (which I imagine must have been helpful for the dancers!) and it was a good small size, which meant that the event felt cozy and intimate.

Ruby Rooms at Jewel Piccadilly

The hostess of the event, Adriana Hayaam, was very friendly and chatted with us after we arrived. She was also extremely apologetic of the fact that there was burlesque dancing going on elsewhere in the club. I don’t personally have a problem with burlesque, but I totally understand her concern, as the Bellydance community wants to disassociate the dance with sex and to be seen by the general public as the art form that it is- as Flamenco or Ballet dancing may be seen now. As a side note, I read recently that Ballet was once seen as a bit raunchy due to the short skirts showing off the dancer’s legs, which were of course a major source of sexual attention for the Victorians, so hopefully it will soon be seen as just as inappropriate to stick money down a belly dancer’s costume as it is to put it in a ballerina’s tutu!

The acts themselves were gorgeous. The order of performance mainly alternated between tribal and oriental dancers, which really highlighted the contrasts between the two forms. The Oriental acts were fast paced, with dancers twirling around the stage in brightly coloured costumes and making lots of eye contact and interaction with the audience, whereas tribal acts that night tended to be more slow paced, thoughtful and introspective, often creating a feeling of suspense, and wearing more muted, earthy colours.

Left: Kathleen Pearson, Tribal Fusion dancer. Photograph from http://www.kathleenpearlson.blogspot.co.uk/. Right: Caasi, Oriental Bellydancer. Photograph from http://www.caasibellydancer.webeden.co.uk/.

Kathleen Pearlson opened the show with a gorgeous tribal performance: she made great use of a slow and suspenseful start to the routine leading into an upbeat section with lots of great turns- the room was so quiet for the slow section that you could hear the beading on her costume clack together. I also loved the oriental performance by Caasi, which involved finger cymbals- that was particularly exciting as I’ve just bought some myself, so it was brilliant to see them in action. Caasi had a wonderful stage persona, with lots of cheeky looks and use of facial expressions to engage with the audience, with parts of the routine almost feeling like little jokes. The American Tribal Style duet Apsara was brilliant- I do love that style of dancing as I mentioned in my previous post. They wore the most gorgeous ruffled gypsy skirts with lacy hip scarfs, and danced the second half of their routine to Jolie Coquine by Caravan palace, a song that I absolutely adore. Electroswing and tribal dancing are a match made in heaven.

Left: Apsara, American Tribal Style duet. Photograph from http://www.hayaam.com/. Right: Maëlle, Oriental Bellydancer. Photograph from https://www.facebook.com/maelle.bellydancer.

I was also pleased to get to see Maëlle dance at the event- I saw her performing at the quater finals of the Bellydance trophies, which she then went on to win. She has a lovely style that is energetic and yet laid back at the same time. She also started her second routine with some poi spinning, which I was pretty excited about as I’m an avid poi spinner myself. The spinning moves she chose were quite simplistic, but they worked nicely with her dancing, not restricting her movements too much. Possibly the most unusual and inventive performance of the night came from Rosie, who did an amazing pantomime dance dressed as a devil. Her performance was full of a great sense of humour as she mimed a story of the little devil, approaching audience members in a comical attempt to make friends, eventually trooping off sadly from the stage, dragging her pitchfork behind her. Though many of her movements were drawn from bellydance, it felt on the whole like a piece of modern cabaret dance, with large elements of mime and clowning involved.

The event was impeccably well organised- everything ran smoothly and started on time, unlike some other Bellydance events I’ve been to. I often write geeky little notes in my notebook between acts at the shows I go to (when you’re a scientist for your day job, it’s hard to break the habit!), which help inspire me for my own routines, but this showcase flowed so smoothly that I struggled to get everything written in time! The professionalism of the event was refreshing, and keeping the lengths of breaks between acts helped the show to flow well, and prevented the audience from getting fatigued.
Overall it was a lovely evening, showing off all the best aspects of the dance, filled with incredibly talented dancers, with a friendly and intimate atmosphere that made you feel a part of the belly dance family. I’d be very enthusiastic to go to future Hayaam Showcases, and would recommend the night to dancers and non dancers alike.

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Dancing Oriental AND Tribal? Why not!

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Tribal and Cabaret/Oriental Bellydance seem to have a very strange and often stormy relationship. For any non-bellydancers reading, Tribal is a form of Bellydance created in America in the 1960s, inspired by a multitude of different dance forms in the Middle East and North Africa. The original American Tribal Style also spawned Tribal Fusion, a form incorporating modern pop and lock moves, as well as elements of other world dance forms such as Flamenco and Kathak. Tribal tends to have a dark, earthy feel, contrasting with the more high tempo, floaty Oriental styles, although there are many elements of overlap.  I must admit, it was a year or so into my Egyptian Bellydance lessons before I even heard of Tribal Bellydance, and when I did first come across Tribal, it was in the form of Tribal Fusion dancer Rachel Brice.

Now Rachel Brice is a beautiful, talented performer- and good grief that woman has some muscle control! But she never inspired me to want to try Tribal myself. Her style is so intense and dark and serious, that I could never visualise myself glaring moodily out at the audience like that, my personality is too flighty and smiley to be able to pull off that kind of brooding look without feeling supreemly silly. So for a while I saw Tribal as something cool that other people did, but wasn’t for me. I decided to stick with the floaty, dreamy cabaret style that seemed to suit me best.

Then I stumbled across Fat Chance Belly Dance. These guys convinced me that you can dance Tribal with a joyful demeanour. I adore the laid back, earthy feel of this kind of Tribal, and the sense of sisterhood that comes through with the group dancing. It really feels like a celebration of femininity. And I would just love to get my hands on a pair of zills!

It took a few more months before I decided I’d like to try some lessons. I was a little taken aback by the sniffy attitude of some other Oriental Bellydancers to Tribal, who seemed to see it as somehow inauthentic. This seems odd to me given the huge amount of change and evolution that Modern Egyptian Bellydance has undergone within the last century, taking on a lot of western influence after Bellydancers featured in Hollywood films. Additionally, the huge variety of forms of Bellydance styles within the Middle East and North Africa, Raqs Sharki, Raqs Baladi, Turkish, Lebanese etc., shows that this is a dance that has been re-imagined by many different people over time.

Take a look at this old footage of the Egyptian Ghawazee dancers, who were one of the precursors to modern Bellydance. (After the guys finish having their silly stick fight :p)

Compare their hip movement and finger cymbals to that in the FCBD video above. It looks astoundingly similar- probably as this tribe were also an influence for Jamila Salimpour, the founder of Tribal style in the 60s. I think that both branches of Bellydance have elements of tradition as well as elements of modern fabrication, so it makes no sense for either side to be snobby! Even so, it’s such a natural part of art for people to take an existing idea that they enjoy and to change and add their own take to it.

I’ll always be a Cabaret/Egyptian style dancer at heart. I adore the high energy, the flashiness and the airy quality of the dance (although having said that, I’ve seen some people dance some extremely dark and earthy Egyptian style too! Baladi especially can be really intense!). But Tribal style represents a new and intriguing avenue to explore, that I hope will strengthen and broaden my dancing overall. I’m looking forwards to starting American Tribal Style classes in September!

Dancing with props: a Poi spinner’s perspective

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As well as dancing, another of my great passions is poi spinning, which I’ve been practicing for about 5 years now. Poi in its simplest form is a pair of weights on the end of two pieces of string; one is held in each hand, and the poi are spun around in circles, the two weaving intricate Spirograph like paths between one another. And then, of course, you spice things up a bit by adding ribbon, LED lights or set them on fire. Here is a video that really inspired me back when I first started, by a spinner named Pistache.

I love the laid back, happy aura this spinner has, and she makes some beautiful and technically difficult patterns look so natural and easy.

So on approaching props in Bellydance (I’m having a go at putting a short fan veil choreography together at the mo), I tend to come from the perspective of a poi spinner- often there are a lot of similarities, and the movements that are used in poi are also used to spin veil, double veil, or fans.

But I feel that some dancers (sometimes even outstanding dancers), don’t seem to put the same care and attention into their prop as when they dance without. Equally, with prop in hand, the dancing itself is also somewhat neglected, sometimes with dancers standing stock still to fling a veil around. I think props are seen by some as an easy gimmick to spice up a routine, when in theory, dancing with a prop should take twice the work, as both dancing and prop work need to be carried out skilfully.

Here are a few thoughts  from a spinner’s perspective when working with a prop that you hold in each hand such as double veil, or fan veil.

Great veil work can be one of the most beautiful sights in bellydance, but it needs hard work and care.

  1. Pay attention to your non dominant hand. Seriously, my lefty is out to get me. When practicing moves you may need to spend a lot more time getting moves smooth and fluid with your non dominant hand, as it will tend to be weaker and less coordinated than your other hand.
  2. Focus on making clean geometric patterns, and making matching movements with both hands. As a rule of thumb, neat circles, straight lines, arcs, and figure eights look nicer than wonky egg shapes and knots. If you want to make a symmetrical pattern with both hands, concentrate on making a perfect mirror image, as unless you’re after a specific asymmetic effect, mismatched hands look messy.
  3. Be aware of the shapes your fabric makes: generally moves look nicer when your fabric is stretched out and smooth as opposed to twisted or scrunched up. In a few of the fan veil videos I’ve seen, dancers have gotten themselves a bit twisted up- particularly when the fabric passes behind you, be careful not to let the fabric tangle, lose shape or catch on your costume.
  4. Keep Dancing! Think about how different dance moves fit together with different prop moves, and fit the two together so that they compliment each other nicely. Spend lots of time playing and dancing with your prop, and seeing what works. I think it’s a cliche to say “Think of your prop as an extension of your body”, but I think that’s probably a good attitude to have.

I’d love to hear other dancers’ opinions, as I know I’m coming at this from a different perspective to most other performers.

I’d encourage you to give poi spinning a go as it’s great fun and looks awesome; it should help improve your prop work and overall coordination; plus it’s a whole new way of moving and exploring the space around you, and feels a little like a dance in itseif.
Poi Guru Nick Woolsey has some great beginners lessons here.
Or I’m always happy to teach friends a few tricks!

Me, spinning fire in the Camel Estuary, Cornwall

Fleur Estelle’s Bellydance Cabaret Show!

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So, I’ve finally got the photos sorted for the awesome Fleur Estelle showcase I performed in a few weeks ago! This is the end of term show for everyone taking classes with the Fleur Estelle Dance school. I performed a group routine with my Level 3 classmates and had a blast. We were dancing to Alabina by Alabina- the routine was fairly simple, but gave me lots of opportunity to work on getting a bit of stage charisma going. I still spent way too much time looking at the floor rather than my audience, but I think I’m slowly getting there.

Our Level 3 Cabaret Bellydance troupe

It’s a great environment to practice performing as the audience is mainly other students and friends/family of students- everyone was really enthusiastic and supportive, and just generally out to have a good time. The dance teachers also have their own troupe (which performs in various corporate events outside of classes) who put on a real spectacle with lots of elaborate costumes and props.

Beginners Fan veils performance

It’s a very different feel to the Haflas and dance competitions I’ve seen around London. The show has a more polished highly choreographed kind of feel compared to the often chaotic and raw Haflas I’ve seen. The show maybe loses a bit of the raw emotion, spontaneity and wildness of the Haflas, where you have a dancer just a few feet from your face, but at the same time the big stage set up lets you scale things up a bit, with big choreographed groups and space to fling fan veils and isis wings around. It reminds me a bit of the Bellydance Superstars stage shows.

Advanced Veils Performance

I was excited to see the other student acts, which come from the tens of other classes that the school runs. There were lots of different fusion forms performing, many of which I’ve not seen done outside of the school, some of which were fantastic, and some of which maybe could do with a little more work. I’m not sure whether some of these fusions were invented personally by the class teachers themselves, which is pretty cool, but they felt a little forced in places. My favourite fusion performances were the BellyFlamenco class (I thought the two dance forms worked nicely together, although I know a few bellydance purists who might have had a heart attack), and the well established Tribal Fusion style.

BellyFlamenco Performance

I thought the Level 3 Tribal Fusion performance stole the show actually, it was pretty epic. I’ve always been on the fence about tribal, but I’m pretty tempted to go for some beginners’ classes now. I’ll do a whole post on Tribal maybe in a bit.

Level 3 Tribal performance

I also got to see the Level 4 Bellydance class perform, which was exciting, as I’m booked in to start this level next term! I can’t wait!

All in all it was a great night, I’d recommend Fleur Estelle to anyone who wants to start learning Bellydance in London.

And a big thanks to my partner, Tom, for taking these lovely photos.

Confessions of a Bellydance Addict.

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Vintage Belly Dance

Bellydancing is beginning to take over my life.

There, I’ve said it! The first step for an addict is to admit that you’re addicted!

The thing is, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve been practicing Bellydancing for 3 years now, and this beautiful ancient artform has found a place in my heart. I first started taking classes at university as a kind of challenge to myself: I’m quite a shy, anxious person, and I wanted a new pastime that would force me to be outrageous and outgoing. Lets face it, if you can confidently stand up on stage in front of a crowd of people and shimmy around in a bra and bedlah, a lot of other things in life seem less scary. But while I started bellydancing to get fit and confident, I was soon pulled into the fascinating culture of it all: the beautiful costumes, the different dance forms originating from all over the world, and the gorgeous music . I get a real sense of euphoria and serenity when I dance now.

I wanted to start this blog to share my exploration of this dance form and my journey towards becoming a better dancer. My dancing is gradually getting more fluid and graceful, and my real dream for the next year or so is to start to build my own choreographies and to have the confidence to dance solo, and properly connect with an audience without shying away.

So yes, I hope to share music, videos, costumes (and maybe my poor attempts at making my own), reviews of events and classes around London, and a few musings about the dance with you. Hope you enjoy it!