Veil and Drum Solo Workshops with Aisa Lafour, and other dance notes

My dear readers, I’ve been a busy dancer. I had an incredibly intense week about a month ago — lots of work, lots of kid, lots of dancing in the evenings, either in class or with a video or doing improv, and then on top of that, a super Saturday of workshops with Cihangir Gümüstürkmen. (I will write about this soon.)

Then I was tired. Just exhausted. I didn’t want to dance anymore, I took about a week and a half off. You know the feeling — not inspired, not motivated? I really just wanted to go home in the evenings and spend time with my family, and not be in the studio. I also felt a little sick. I thought, what’s wrong with going to bed ridiculously early for a while? (Answer: nothing. Nothing at all.)

I read my emails from Alia Thabit and Rosa Noreen, and felt guilty for not doing my improv or my Delicious Pauses homework.

I watched a bit of a few videos. Ranya Renee’s Baladi DVDs, and Autumn Ward’s Beautiful Technique. Listened to baladi songs while going about my business, and practiced taking apart the music. Realised that I have a ton of music, but not enough baladi. One night after work I wrote a little piece for the RAQStv essay contest. The prompt was to write about our practice, about how we fit dance into our lives. I wrote about how I try, but so, so often fail.

But you know what? Sometimes taking a break is good. I actually felt re-energized when I went back to classes. A few things clicked that I had been struggling with before. I won the RAQStv contest. And this past Saturday, I took part in two workshops with Aisa Lafour sponsored by Hayal Oriental Moves.

The first workshop was veil technique for beginners, along with a choreo to the gorgeous song “Yearning” by Raul Ferrando. I have very little experience of veil in class (or, well, anywhere else), so I was glad for the opportunity to do a workshop on veil that assumed nothing. Aisa had us start at the very beginning, walking back and forth with the veil, watching how it moves, and learning how to arc it up above us to get it behind or in front. Then we moved on to technique for a few traveling moves, and the rest of the technique was done in the course of the choreo. What I particularly appreciated — and want to remember — are the little performance details Aisa put in. Things like moving softly down as the veil falls, so as to mimic the veil’s movement with one’s own body. I adore these kinds of details, the refinements that make dance really beautiful and more than just a bunch of movements.

While this was all going on, I had Realization of the Day #1: bellydance, oriental dance, however you want to call it, is so ridiculously complex, involves so much training, attention to the tiniest muscle movements, practice with props, learning music, and yet most of the general public thinks it’s nothing more than hoochy mama butt grinding.

And then my veil got caught on one of the ceiling lamps.

The second workshop was a drum solo to “Drum On” by Ali Darwish. This was a really peppy, fun routine, with a number of different shimmies, some fast spins and travel accents, and a few cute Latin elements. I particularly enjoyed a funny butt shimmy Aisa described as coming from Brazilian dance, and which she called the “rabbit.”

It was above my level, but I love having a sense of what I might learn, review, try again work on. Here in Berlin, a lot of workshops are pretty explicitly geared to levels, which I’m not as used to from the US. There, people just went to workshops. On the one hand, it makes sense, since instructors can teach advanced material to advanced dancers. But I also think there’s a lot to be gained from doing workshops a bit above one’s level, since they give you an understanding of where you have to push yourself to get to.

Then I had Realization of the Day #2. Readers of this blog know I’m not a huge fan of learning choreos. I’m a slow learner, and I often get frustrated trying to remember and keep up with everyone else. But I realised on Saturday that learning choreos is not just about a certain approach to dance, or even about learning transitions. It’s also that certain moves are just not so likely to pop up in drilling or technique lessons, but somehow do make their way into choreo instruction. These might be transitions, or traveling steps, or stylizations, or they just might be somewhat lesser-used moves that the “home” instructor hasn’t covered yet.

Anyway, the point was, for once I found myself really enjoying the process of learning a choreo. Some parts of the song really clicked for me, others I had a lot of trouble with (and believe me, I know those are precisely the ones I need to practice!). But all in all, there were just a lot of really delicious movement combinations that were fun to do. And the more we rehearsed them, the sweatier we got, and the looser the muscles did too, so some of the passages also became easier to perform.

When we were working on a particularly tricky bit, Aisa mentioned that she’d had a hard time at first with the combo, and had to practice to get it. This kind of thing is so good to hear when you’re struggling to pick up a phrase. She then talked about how she often choreographs above her dance level, so as to challenge herself. I thought this was also a wonderful reason and way to do choreography. If improv is about finding your safety moves and working with them, why not choreograph to bring more moves into that repertoire?

So now, some classes, workshops, DVDs, and writing later, I am once again a happy dancer. And I know precisely what I need to work on.

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And sometimes the universe tells you to dance

I try not to be too, too superstitious, but every now and then, the universe organizes its messages a little too neatly. Everywhere I turn I hear the same thing, and finally I start to think that maybe I should pay attention. Take breathing. Suddenly, everyone’s telling me to breathe! Alia Thabit, who tells me to prep for the 90 Day Dance Party by breathing in time to the music. Or I do Hala Khouri’s yoga DVD, and am struck by how much the breathing helps me unwind. Or my real life teachers are suddenly focusing much more on working with breath to create movement. Or I get an email from Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses Online Intensive, and she’s going on about…. well, you can guess.

Okay, so I’ve figured out I should take a breath now and then. Maybe even when I’m moving. But another little synchronicity got my attention lately too. First, it came my way from Life is Cake, in the form of a video in which several dancers talk about the evolution of their style. What really hit me was Autumn Ward’s contribution, which you can see here.

Autumn talks about a period in her life when she worked on a number of skills she thought would impress a nightclub crowd, and how she wound up returning to her own passion for intricate, lyrical dance. I thought it was so honest and vulnerable for her to talk about moments gone wrong (or at least awry) in her artistic path, and also so inspiring. It’s so easy when doing creative work to get caught up in what we can’t do, what other people can, and so on. And often that can be positive — as Autumn points out, it can lead to acquiring new skills. But sometimes it’s also key to remember where your passion is, what your strength is, what’s authentic to yourself. And really, that’s where the greater part of the effort needs to go.

Then Alia posted a quote from Seth Godin on her Facebook wall:

The ability to say, “It’s not for you,” is the foundation for creating something brave and important. You can’t do your best work if you’re always trying to touch the untouchable, or entertain those that refuse to be entertained.

“It’s not for you.”

This is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. You don’t have much choice, though, not if you want your work to matter.

Now, that’s pretty great stuff right there. I have no idea who this Seth Godin fellow is, but I’d buy him a cup of coffee if I saw him just because of that one blog post. What a wonderful line to keep in mind, not just for the living critics, but the imaginary critics who populate my head? “This is not for you, babe. Move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

Anyway, long story short, I put one and one together and figured the universe was telling me the following: first, however frustrated I sometimes get with myself in my dance classes, with the fact that I’m not further along than I really am, I needed to chill out, and also realise that at some point I’ll have to figure out what kind of dancing I most want to do, even if my skills and technique still have a lot of developing to do. And second, in my real life work, which is also creative, I needed to care a lot less about what people might think if I were to carry it out precisely as I want to. And that latter bit was much more important. Because in way, the dance world was telling me what I had to do at work.

The result? This week I finished an important chunk of a long project, and in fact, the hardest section so far — one I’ve been fighting with for more than a year. I rewarded myself by going to the wonderful local bellydance store, Saidi, and buying my first bedlah. It’s turquoise, so much louder and more revealing than what I went in looking for, and just unapologetically glittery. I’m a big believer in spending money on instruction and not on costuming, but in this case, I had earned it.

And my dance classes were filled with all sorts of little moments of joy. First, in ballet, having our teacher ask us to do a flat back, and actually getting it right. I have struggled with the flat back for ages, so having her come by, take a look at me, and say “it’s perfect” was like finishing a long hike. Or noticing that some of the armwork I did in the Aziza DVD was seeping its way into my bellydance class work. Or today, practicing those killer Soheir Zaki hips at home and finding that it actually made a difference when we drilled them.

Hmmmm…. I hear you wondering. Is there a moral to this long, rambling post? Basically:

1. Do what your passion tells you to do.
2. Enjoy small victories.
3. Try breathing once in a while.

Review of Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction

Every now and then, I quite simply fall in love with a DVD.

This happens to be one of those times.

Let’s just say I haven’t had the easiest time of it since becoming a mother. For all kinds of reasons, it’s been the most challenging period of my life.

I’ve worked with Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction: Simple Techniques to Manage and Release Stress a couple of times since getting a copy to review. It was hard to make the time for it, or rather, for myself, due to obvious reasons. But every time I did, I enjoyed it so much, for every single second, that I kept asking myself why I don’t do it more often. This should be my go-to yoga DVD. It may well become my go-to yoga DVD, at least for when I have about 70 minutes to devote to it.

Before I go into the chapter breakdown, let me list the things I like about this video:

  • It’s a flow, but it doesn’t move so fast that you don’t have time to find your stability or make sure your form is right. That tends to drive me nuts about flow-type yoga.
  • The focus is in fact on stability, on finding relaxation in a strong pose.
  • Hala incorporates faster and looser movements into the yoga practice, so there’s also a chance to get some nervous energy out.
  • Her voiceover is soothing, and inspirational. This kind of thing is such a fine line to tread, since the kinds of things that yoga teachers find motivational can sound a bit cheesy to the rest of us. But Hala walks the line well, and frankly, when you really are very stressed out, it’s nice to have the instructor remind you that it’s ok if you fall during a balance pose.
  • Good production values: Yoga for Stress Reduction is beautifully filmed, chaptered, all that stuff. The sound and image are clear. Though I found that by the second time around, I barely looked at the screen anymore — I just followed the instructions, often with my eyes closed.
  • Almost every single breath is cued with movement. Breath is central in this practice, and so good cueing is essential.
  • I slept like a baby last night after doing it.

Now to the contents. After a brief spoken intro, you have a Warm Up with a focus on deep breathing and basic, passive stretches for the back, legs, and shoulders. This 18-minute segment would be great on its own at the end of a long day.

Next is a 25-minute Standing Pose segment. You have a slow version of a sun salutation with a variety of standing poses worked into it. Then, facing forward, you do a straddle sit with arm movements — I found this delicious, building strength in the lower body and flexibility in the arms and torso. Finally, you move between balancing on the left leg and the right, also a really pleasurable way of practicing balance without getting bored or exhausted.

Shaking It Off is twelve minutes long, and you will either love it or hated. After some slow, tai chi-type moves, Hala has you “massage” different parts of your body with percussive hand movements. The second part is loose, energetic movement, in which you shake what your body needs shaken. I think the key to doing this section is being alone, closing your eyes, and really committing to looking ridiculous. I still don’t quite know what Hala does in this section, because I just don’t watch it. When I did this video, it really clicked with some of the online discussions I’ve had with Alia Thabit, mastermind of the 90 Day Dance Party Challenge. Alia sent me some literature by Peter Levine, who works to heal trauma by helping patients discharge nervous energy built up in the body (Somatic Experiencing). Touching the various body parts and shaking out the energy are two techniques I know, second hand, from Alia. Now, I am not a therapist, and I haven’t really evaluated the research too closely (though there is research on it). All I can tell is that it does feel good to do this kind of movement. I sometimes found myself moving into bellydance vocabulary, but I tried to shy away from it and just be really free and chaotic in this section. I didn’t want to feel like I was in the classroom! (A footnote: reading Hala’s online biography, I find that she’s trained in Somatic Experiencing. Makes sense!)

The physical part of the practice ends with a 15-minute Cool Down. This was probably my favourite part of Yoga for Stress Reduction. Hala leads you through forward bending poses, which always have a soothing effect on me. And shavasana to end, of course.

The video also includes two 5-minute meditation practices, but I have to confess I haven’t spent too much time with these!

The one fault I can find with Yoga for Stress Reduction is that the menu does not include minute counts for the individual segments. This is a small oversight, but I think I would have done the program more often if I could have seen at a glance how long I needed to commit. In fact, any of the yoga segments — including the warm up and cool down — would be great mini practice sessions too. I can imagine doing Shaking It Off during a particularly stressful day, or the Cool Down before going to bed. (This is why, incidentally, I’ve put all the info here!) The other thing you need to know is that Hala does not give really detailed basic instructions about how to do the poses. She gives good pointers, but it’s helpful if you are already familiar with basic asanas. I liked not having a lot of extra talking, since I already know to check where my weight is in mountain pose, for example.

Yoga for Stress Reduction is available at Amazon. You can also find out more about Hala Khouri at http://halakhouri.com/.

Against Rigidity: Some Inspirations for Improvisation

Lately, I’ve been dealing with some challenges. How to navigate being a mom — even though my expectations of myself are not high, somehow they’re still too high for the reality. How to embrace my dancing where it is, skill-wise, rather than mourning the skills I don’t have. And in my own, real-life, for-money work, how to focus on and enjoy the work I’m doing now, rather than regretting what I didn’t do before.

And so I was inspired by some recent reading. The first comes from Alia Thabit, whose 90 Day Dance Challenge I’ve been doing for the past week, and actually even managing to keep up on. (Five days out of six!) In one of her recent “love notes,” Alia writes:

Why are so many classes so deadly serious? Drilling (I hate drilling), combos, choreo, all work, work work. Why do we always have to do what we’re told? Why do we so rarely get to dance?

Students, play in class. Embellish, reinvent, enjoy yourself. Do the drills differently. Make the combos your own. Reinterpret the choreo. Stand in back, be respectful, and explain your mission to your teacher so they don’t feel the need to correct you :). But quietly get your groove on–don’t ignore the class, just give yourself permission to add your own sauce.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to shout “YES” and pump my fist into the air. Because here’s my dirty little secret… I hate choreos. I mean, I’m not very good at picking them up anyway, though lately I have begun to see the point of learning how someone else interprets the music. But whenever I see an ad for a workshop being offered with a choreo, I think to myself, “Why would I want to dance like someone else? Would I ever really perform someone else’s choreography?”

But when I think these things, I always tend to suspect that I do so because choreos are a weak point for me. It’s also good to hear someone who is a teacher confirm that it is, in the end, about making the dance your own.

The next bit comes from an article called “Letting Go of Perfectionism and Embracing Motherhood,” by Hala Khouri. I ran across it because I’m preparing to review Hala’s DVD, Yoga for Stress Reduction. Hala describes how having children forced her to modify her perfect ecowholegrainyogaeverydaynosugarorpolyester lifestyle:

As I was faced with birthday parties with “regular” cake (i.e. the white flour and sugar kind), crying babies with high fevers, and my boys’ insatiable appetite for superheroes and dinosaurs, I had to surrender to the fact that being rigid wouldn’t serve anyone. I noticed that sometimes fighting for my ideals felt unhealthy. It came from my own fear and need to feel in control. The last thing I want to do is dump my fear and neurosis onto my children. I have had to start discerning when I’m clinging to my idea of what’s right simply because I want to feel right (and make others wrong so I feel better about myself). I’m finding a middle ground that feels balanced.

Although I have no pretensions to the kind of perfection Khouri had before, I recognize bits of this in myself. My obsessions have to do with the baby’s sleep and with nursing. I resisted supplementing with formula for months, even though I was exhausting myself with round-the-clock nursing, because I was secretly proud that the baby hadn’t touched those chemicals. And yet, once I started supplementing a bit and wasn’t so exhaused, I found I also wasn’t so resentful of the nursing, and able to do it longer. The perfect was the enemy of the good.

As different as these examples are, both are about improvisation. After all, isn’t that what we’re doing when we take on a new role? And it helps to remember — it helps me at least — that improvising is what’s most fun. Cooking teachers and food writers have started to talk about the value of improvising in the kitchen rather than following recipes slavishly, and that’s really what I love about cooking. Why would I expect myself to follow a preset model in other parts of my life?