Mariyah performs a drum solo

Review of Belly Dance Drum Solos with Mariyah and Faisal Zedan

Belly Dance Drum Solos: Concepts for Dancers and Drummers is an intermediate/advanced level instructional DVD put out by dhavir productions. It also happens to be very, very good. It is rich in material, innovative in its pedagogy, and will give the intermediate or advanced student tons to work with.

But let’s get one little thing out of the way. If you are a beginner dancer who does not have a lot of moves in your repertoire, or if you are the kind of person who likes to have a teacher explain every little thing before you feel comfortable following along (nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate learning style), your enjoyment of this DVD will be limited. You might still get value out of watching it, but it will be harder for you to use it actively.

Belly Dance Drum Solos is aimed at students who already know a few steps (a screen at the beginning invites you to modify the moves according to your own ability), and who, more importantly, are comfortable doing a bit of follow-along and interpretation. If you are familiar with the bellydance scene at all, you know that the dance is taught in different ways depending on region and teacher. Typically, “Western” students tend to like choreographies and step-by-step instructions, whereas Middle Eastern teaching is often done by example, or “follow the bouncing butt,” and works more with improvisation. But here’s the neat thing: this DVD does both: some sections are designed for you to follow along as best you can, but the DVD also includes a full choreography that is broken down step by step. It’s the best of both worlds.

After a brief written introduction to the DVD, we have a brief warm up routine (primarily for dancers, but drummers are also invited to use it) led by Mariyah. This is not a full, thorough warm up, but rather an exercise in centering yourself using breath. Mariyah talks about how staying centered and connected to your breath is what helps you have energy for an entire drum solo (which I didn’t know), and the movements are indeed delightful. My one criticism here is that the instructions are only written on the screen, which makes it difficult to follow them during the frequent forward bends. Faisal Zedan follows with a brief discussion of the importance of posture and warming up for drummers.

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The following section introduces a number of rhythms and movements that can be done to them. Included are masmoudi sagheer, maqsoum, saidi, falahi, malfouf, and ayoub. Each rhythm is shown first in notation, and then performed while Mariyah demonstrates the kinds of moves and move combinations she might do to them. The rhythms are not introduced slowly the way rhythm DVDs for dancers usually do — rather, the focus is on how they sound in an actual drum solo and how to move to them. On the one hand, I had trouble recognizing the rhythms at full speed, even though I know many of these in their slower, class versions. At the same time, I appreciated the exercise in reacting to real music, and loved seeing how Mariyah explored and varied both basic and more advanced bellydance moves. This is, I suspect, the part of the DVD I will return to most often.

In the section on “The Beat, Tempo, and Changing Rhythms”, Faisal plays two alternating rhythms while Mariyah claps along to the underlying beat. It’s an exercise in listening, and it’s one that I’m glad to have, because finding the beat is a real challenge for me. The next level would be to play close attention to the rhythms themselves, but simply holding the beat was enough for me on the first go.

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Another favourite section is “Putting the Sounds of the Drum into Movement,” a kind of bookend to the rhythms section. Here, Faisal plays the “Doum” repeatedly, and Mariyah shows the sort of big, dramatic movements she would use for it. Same for Tek, Suk, and Tuq. In what follows, Faisal plays longer riffs, and Mariyah dances to them. In all of these, I simply followed along with what Mariyah was doing. It was generally pretty easy to tell what she was doing, and what I liked about not having instructions was that I could focus on different aspects of her dance — the main accents, embellishment with the head or hands, ways of moving the upper body — and try to follow along with that aspect of the dance. The “follow me” kind of pedagogy is perfect for this kind of exercise, because it’s all about getting these moves and reactions into your body in an instinctual way, not about training you that there are one or two patterns to do when you hear a saidi. It’s training in improvisation, and the more you pay attention to the details of how Mariyah interprets the music, the more you can get out of it.

As if all this weren’t cool enough, yet another section follows, this one on the structure of solos. Faisal and Mariyah demonstrate how dancer and drummer communicate at various points in the drum solo, and again, you get multiple examples of: Introductions, Phrases over a rhythm, Free or arhythmic phrases (typically in the middle of a solo), and Endings.

Honestly, it’s like these people sat down and thought to themselves, “what is every possible way we can teach how to dance to a drum solo?” and then gave you exercises for every single level. Single sound? Check. Riff? Check. Rhythm? Check. Section of the dance? You got it. And never just one exercise for each — multiple ones, so you get lots of ideas and practice. You could also just watch these and analyze, or note down moves or combos you like for your own practice.

Okay, so at this point we’re about 53 minutes into the program, your intrepid, out-of-shape reviewer is tired and sweaty, and feeling pretty satisfied with the whole thing. But — lo and behold, a choreography!

And this is what I mean about different learning styles. If the first half of the DVD encourages you to follow intuitively, analytically, improvisationally, now you get a classic choreo instruction. Mariyah shows you each section slowly and describes every single step, then she runs you through it again slowly and with guidance. Then you practice it twice at full speed following her, and another two times following her in costume (which looks a little different). Every single little section is chaptered and easy to repeat. She does no movement instruction per se, but if you are intermediate you should be able to follow along, at least at half speed. Full speed may take a bit more practice. Here is my second and last criticism: this section is not mirrored, and at one point it became quite challenging for me to follow Mariyah’s left with mine.

Because of the way my brain works, choreo tends to be something I like less than technique instruction. In this case, however, I felt the choreography was a real addition, a completion of the previous teaching, if you will. I treated it not as a dance I would personally perform, but as a series of combos that were mini-lessons in how to respond to rhythms. So I noticed that she’ll sometimes do three moves, and vary on the fourth, or the way she’ll move the movements from the lower body to upper and then back down again. Mariyah’s instruction also helped me figure out some moves which I wasn’t able to discern precisely from the previous sections. After you are done all the individual segments, there is a clip of Mariyah dancing the whole thing in costume. Your intrepid reviewer was, alas, too tired at this point to try and dance along.

The choreography is the kind that’s jam packed and complex, but lest you think that’s the only kind of drum solo there is, the last section of the DVD — about twenty minutes long — offers you five entire improv performances. I watched these while stretching, and while I was a bit tired, I could already see how different they were from the choreographed drum solo. Movements were simpler, you could see Mariyah and Faisal watching and interpreting each other’s intentions. Not only did it have the magic of improvisation, but after all the previous exercises, you could analyse these performances, see what choices each of them was making, see the little moments where things didn’t quite fit, and so on. I know some dancers go directly to the performances on a DVD, and this will be a special treat for them. Five. Five.

The production value of Belly Dance Drum Solos is very high: quality filming, in a bright, modern studio. Mariyah’s costumes make it easy to see her movements even on a small screen. The chaptering is heroic — every single little thing is chaptered, so you can repeat a section at the press of a button, and every section and most sub-sections can be reached through the menu.

Belly Dance Drum Solo DVD disc

Mariyah is, incidentally, an absolutely lovely dancer. Graceful, energetic, musical. She has great technique, but it looks like it comes out of her spontaneously, not out of a desire to show off what she can do. There is a robotic kind of festival choreography we are all familiar with, and which I tend to find rather depressing, but Mariyah’s dancing just makes me happy and hopeful about the art form. For a DVD like this, where so much of the learning happens by watching and imitating, it was really essential that the teacher be a beautiful dancer, and not merely a competent one, because you look to her for style, spirit, interpretation, not just to copy a bunch of moves.

All in all, Belly Dance Drum Solos is an excellent program for dancers who are past the beginner stage and ready to be active in their dance education. It is just under 1 hour and 52 minutes long, but it feels like much more than that because of all the different segments and exercises. I did it all in one go, but you can take the different sections on their own and study or practice with them — certainly the choreography would be worth working with in a more dedicated way to get it up to speed. I think it would also be a fantastic tool for teachers or troupes, since you have built in demonstrations and variations that you could analyse and discuss.

You can get the DVD or a streaming rental at dhavir productions, which also provided me with a review copy.

Belly Dance Drum Solos DVD cover

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IAMED essay contest for the near-win!

Dear readers, I thought I’d share a little something with you. I just got word that my entry to IAMED’s 2013 essay contest won second place. Woo hoo! I’m especially delighted by the generous prize of four DVDs, which I have been having a lot of fun choosing.

The prompt asked us to describe our favourite part of the bellydance routine, and I wrote about the drum solo:

This is how I started to fall for the drum solo. It can be fierce and tight, full of pops and locks, but it can also be cool and relaxed, with travel moves and big shimmies. And it’s the perfect do-it-yourself version of bellydance. You don’t need to have a lot of space for traveling moves, or the right floor for spins, or ceilings high enough to practice the veil. I can listen to a drum solo while waiting for the bus, and play with the rhythms under my winter coat. And even more exciting, you don’t need a full orchestra to enjoy dancing to live music. Find one drummer who is really into it, even if he or she hasn’t mastered all of Arabic or Turkish percussion, and you can have music and dance to it.

You can read the entire essay online here.

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.

Doumbek follies continue: it’s time to take off the wedding ring

I recently started working with Carmine Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop, a super basic and gentle introduction to the doumbek. As I wrote in the earlier post, I don’t think it makes sense to try and learn all these rhythms in a day: for beginners as rhythmically-challenged as myself, that’s a hopeless proposition!

Cross training the ring fingers!

Although I only popped the video in for the second time yesterday, the Doumbek Workshop has been with me constantly in the intervening time. Part of this is due to the brilliant idea to write down the rhythms on the inside cover of the CD. I was a fan of this from the start, and I’m even more enthusiastic now. Because, while I began working with the video by learning the maqsum and baladi basic forms, as I practiced on my own I noticed that the saidi basic form has beats on all the same accents. Pretty soon, without even getting further in the video itself, I was switching back and forth between the three rhythms, speeding them up, slowing them down, and so on.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that for the first time, I really am starting to identify rhythms in the Middle Eastern music I listen to. Not all of them, and not all of the time, but every now and then my ear will tune in and pick one out. And once I do, dancing to it becomes even more natural. This is precisely what I hoped for, and I don’t think it would have happened just watching bellydance rhythm instructionals. 

My husband, who is musically gifted, hearing me practice, picked up both the doumbek and the rhythms in a moment flat, and started filling them in. He hasn’t even watched the video, but he doesn’t need to! We’ve now had a few lovely sessions of him drumming, both Middle Eastern and other beats, and me improvising some bellydance moves to it. Needless to say, I am thrilled. I, who have never really performed in public, now get to practice improv drum solos with my own live musician!

I returned to video practice by running the maqsum, baladi, and saidi segments, the last of which felt like a repeat due to my intervening practice, although I hadn’t actually watched it yet. And then came the time, the time for… the dreaded ka.

Carmine demonstrates how not to do the ka.

My first doumbek classes were in a world drumming course, so half the students had djembes, and half had doumbeks. We learned our first rhythms holding the drums between our legs, which effectively also meant that I learned to do the ka with a few fingers of my left hand, pretty much like the tek. And that was fine, except I could also see that most doumbek players don’t do it that way. Carmine teaches a version in which the ring finger of the left hand produces the sound.

Now this is hard. I was very glad that when he introduced the ka, and most of the students in the drum circle could do it right away, he pointed out that they were repeat students and that getting any kind of ka sound on the first try was a triumph. He gives quite a few tips for placement of the hand and arm, and how relaxed they should be, that do increase my ka batting average. To my surprise, however, learning the dancey ayub rhythm actually helped me get the sound more frequently. Even though once Carmine sped that one up, I got lost again. Well, now I know what my homework is!