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.

In which the writer performs at a wedding (sort of)

Another recent highlight was, as you might have guessed by the headline, performing at a friend’s wedding.

Now, this wasn’t a big formal thing, nor was it a real gig. The couple wanted their friends to put on little skits and the like, and I knew this was just my chance to pull out the ol’ hip scarf and foot undies and embarrass someone. Preferably not me.

Factors working in favour of this momentous event actually taking place included working with Nadira Jamal’s Rock the Routine and taking Cihangir’s workshops last weekend. What I wanted to do was to get my husband to play the doumbek and do a short improvised drum solo, and then go around and get everyone up to dance. I thought if we kept it short and sweet, there would be less time to screw up, and it would be obvious that we were amateurs doing something out of love for the couple.

It also helped that Cihangir mentioned during one of the workshops that the audience doesn’t notice much of the dancing anyway for the first bit of a dance, as they’re looking at you, checking out your costume, and so on. So I thought a stately, showy entrance would get me halfway there, and that already allayed some of the nerves.

The key was getting something sparkly to wear. I didn’t think the full bellydancer getup would be appropriate, especially given that I wasn’t doing a proper performance. But a friend and I went to the Saidi boutique here in Berlin, and after an hour or so of dedicated attention managed to find a gorgeous saidi dress, black with silver vertical stripes, and a light peach, translucent hip scarf to match. I may also have picked up a saidi cane on the way out. The golden goddess saidi dress I also fell in love with stayed in the store, hopefully for a future visit. As you can imagine, trying on the sparkly stuff was tough, grueling work. But I’m just that kind of person.

As the day approached, my love and I did some drum and dance improvising, and I reviewed Nadira Jamal’s notes for the drum solo.

Factors working against this performance? The fact that our son gave us about three hours of sleep the night before the celebration.

But the show must go on. As it happens, I wound up doing my best moves in the bathroom, as I grossly underestimated how slowly the evening’s festivities would progress. I wanted to be ready — with full makeup and warmed up — in time for our appearance. However, we were last on the program, and the precise nature of the performances was meant to be a surprise. Effectively, this meant that I spent about an hour hiding in the bathroom, stretching and practicing a variety of combos. Let me tell you, there’s nothing to combat stage fright quite like the prospect of escaping the smell of a public loo.

The dance itself was incredibly fun to do, if ultimately a bit messy. (There’s no video, and my memory is a bit blank of what I actually did, so the details cannot be reconstructed…) I had the DJ follow it up with Alabina’s Lolole which, since it has the same melody as “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” seemed like it would be an approachable, arabic-sounding but still hummable tune to start dancing too. Then I went around and started pulling people from their chairs and onto the dance floor.

The results? It was fun, I have a saidi dress and cane that are patiently waiting to be brought out again, I overcame a fear of mine, and all sorts of people asked me where I took classes. Somewhere, out there, there are photos. My husband and I proved to ourselves that we could still do zany things despite being kept up by a baby most of the night.

And from now on, no celebration is safe. I have a hip scarf and I’m not afraid to use it.

Çiftetellisi and Expression Workshops with Cihangir Gümüstürkmen

Dear readers, I have been away for a bit. Unlike most radio silences, this is not because I’m not dancing. In fact, as far as my busier-than-ever life allows, I’m dancing even more. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some memories and reflections.

Last weekend I took two workshops with the Berlin-based artist and dancer, Cihangir Gümüstürkmen. The first one was on Istanbul Çiftetellisi. One highlight was Cihangir’s discussion of the varied ways the word “ciftetelli” and its many, many spelling alternatives is used around the Mediterranean. It strikes me that North American dancers often like to find precise definitions for particular words — “it’s the dance done to this rhythm” or “it’s the dance performed in that place” — but dance history being what it is, a vague and flowing thing, hard and fast categories are pretty difficult to find.

Another highlight was doing a bit of floor work! I have some videos that touch on floor work, but I’ve never tried it myself, figuring I needed a lot more abdominal strength. If I’d known this workshop included it I probably wouldn’t even have signed up, but it was a tremendous amount of fun. I realised you don’t have to throw every move in the book into a floorwork routine, especially if it’s part of a longer song. And Cihangir gave us some very precise, very useful tips.

After a quick nursing/eating break, I returned to the dance studio for Cihangir’s “Express Yourself!” workshop. Now, I was in a position to compare this workshop with Rivkah’s mini-workshop on expression in dance that I recently did in Texas. Cihangir’s strategy was quite different. Rather than having us improvise dance to suit particular emotions, he began by teaching us a simple choreography, and drilling it a few times so we wouldn’t have to think about moves at all. Then he told us little stories, stories intended to inspire feelings, but without naming the emotion itself. We then danced the same choreography repeatedly, each time seeking to convey the feeling inspired by the story, not through the movements themselves, but by the way we performed the movements.

I loved this. It was basically a bit of method acting for bellydancers. What really worked for me was that some of Cihangir’s stories hit a chord in me. One instruction was to imagine dancing for the first time after being sick, and given my recent surgery, that is a feeling I can connect to. Another was to imagine dancing for someone who had never seen dance before, and again, given that I often dance for my baby boy, I could connect to that particular kind of joy too. I don’t know how the dancing looked, but I do know it felt wonderful.

Another thing Cihangir had us play with was clowning around. This was without a doubt the hardest assignment of all, but I think it’s important. I suspect it’s very hard for women to allow themselves to be a bit silly, silly enough to be funny. Part of the pleasure of bellydance is being beautiful in a really old fashioned way — long hair, lots of makeup, hyper-feminine clothing. How are we supposed to then consciously look ridiculous, albeit in a controlled way? Later, at home, I looked up some of Cihangir’s videos on YouTube and found that he’s a master of the form. So I leave you, for now, with this little jewel: