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 Aziza’s Hands, Arms & Poses

Aziza’s oft-repeated wisdom is: “Be amazed.”

At one point while I was doing this video, I thought: “Dude, if I found my body doing what hers is doing, in the way that hers is doing it, I sure would be amazed!”

When you see the title of the DVD, namely Hands, Arms & Poses, you can be forgiven for thinking this video will give you ideas for things to do with your hands and arms while you dance. And it does. Aziza covers useful stretches for the hands, does drills to isolate your wrists, teaches lotus hands as well as beautiful positioning of the fingers. And while the arm work centers on the port de bras, there are good tips for moving with intention, and other arm pathways as well.

That said, I kept thinking the video (which I received as a review copy) should have been called something else. Because the real strength of this program is not in giving you a thousand hand or arm positions — it doesn’t — but in teaching coordination and control. And for that, you have some really fine drills.

After a quite dancey warmup of eight minutes, focusing on the arms especially, you have a variety of exercises. The section called “Drills & Exercises” with “Drills.” This 17-minute segment is a great standalone mini practice companion, the bulk of it being slow and steady arm flows layered on top of  rhythmic hip movements. This is the kind of thing that some instructors do have you practice early on (one of mine does), but not reliably, and it is challenging. When I did this section, I had to think that I should probably do it at least once a week. Seventeen minutes can’t be that hard, can it?

Aziza is looking to see if you’ve been doing your wrist isolations.

Next come two sections on foot patterns. In each, Aziza teaches a long combination, has you repeat it a few times in both directions, and then adds changing arm work to it. I’ve grown to love the teaching technique of drilling a combo with stylistic variations, and I think it’s a wonderful way to show what varying arms can do. The first combination is somewhat easier to get a handle on, while the second shows Aziza’s ballet training, and has rather more difficult leg work. Aziza doesn’t then explain every single arm moves, but you’re supposed to follow along and, probably, improvise a bit on your own.
The one thing that drove me absolutely nuts during this section is that once Aziza gets going with the arm stylizations, the camera focuses way too much on her lower body and feet. I found myself wanting to stick my hand through the screen and yank the view up to Aziza’s arms!

After some wrist isolations, we move on to the “Poses & Combinations” section. In a way, this is the hardest of all, though it looks the easiest if you’re just watching the video. There are three combinations of, well, poses, but the trick is that you’re supposed to move with incredible control from one to the next. Imagine a crazy hard tai chi. When I posted about doing Hands, Arms & Poses on Facebook, Lauren Zehara confirmed my suspicion that this is truly hard, but worthwhile, dance practice:

It’s very different from what most dancers study in their regular weekly classes. Aziza is assuming that we can do all the basics (hipwork, etc) and challenging us to do that while holding exquisite lines in the body and moving with grace and intention. THAT is challenging at any level, and great stuff to work on!

Why do this kind of work? I think if I’d run across this material a few years ago, I would have thought it pointless and boring. But in the meantime, I’ve worked with Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses, and I took a workshop with Heather Wayman in which she shared some of Nadira Jamal’s tricks for using poses to structure improv. Both Rosa and Nadira are well aware of Aziza’s work, I know, but through them I was prepped to see the value of this. It is very hard to slow down the way Aziza practices here, and to keep looking good. I found myself naturally checking in on my abs, to see if they were pulled in, because I needed that muscular support to control my movements. And, while I wouldn’t do all of the poses, a lot of them were quite beautiful and pleasurable. It became, dare I say it, almost meditative to repeat them with intention.

After a brief, also dance-based cool down, you’re done. But you’re actually not done. Hands, Arms & Poses includes three performances. One incorporates the movements into an actual dance, another offers a dance with veil, and a third is “vintage Aziza” in a powerhouse performance from 1994. Other extras include photos of Aziza as a young ballet student and beginning bellydancer, and an interview.

Production values are very high. The quality of the film is extremely good, and the video itself is shot in Le Windsor, a nineteenth-century Montréal hotel. Aziza uses real music, from Hollywood Music Center, track information is given, and the music is in time to the exercises, not just a vague backdrop. The one thing I wasn’t fond of was the fascination with the feet in the foot patterns (!), but in other sections of the video the camera knew where to look. This is a gorgeous video, and one I will return to again.

You can get Hands, Arms & Poses at Amazon or via Aziza’s website.

 

Review of Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses

Belly dance videos have come a long way since I made my first purchase, over ten years ago, of a Veena and Neena video that consisted mainly of them hopping side to side for what seemed like an eternity. We got better “basics” videos… then we got better workouts, and better drills… videos focused on all kinds of specialized forms of the dance (can you say “tribal style iranian-texan fusion with double feather poi and an isis tail”?). But one of the most inspiring innovations in the industry, from where I sit as a consumer and lover of dance, has to be the videos that deal with high-level dance concepts: how to refine movements, the tricks of performing, and how to convey a feeling or tell a story with dance. Rosa Noreen’s new DVD, Delicious Pauses: Negative Space in Movement, is just such a program.

Now let me start by saying that I have my biases when it comes to bellydance. While there are many fabulous dancers who practice forms of it, the ones that make me happiest to watch — and who most make me want to dance — are those who dance with a certain kind of simplicity. Now, that doesn’t mean simplicity is easy to achieve, but rather that they imbue the most basic movements with expression, fluidity, tension. And this is actually hard work. So right from the start, I was drawn to the concept behind Delicious Pauses: using drawn out movements, dramatic stops, and “negative space” to keep the audience engaged and interested.

The DVD itself has three sections. The first is a theoretical introduction, in which Rosa Noreen describes the kinds of pauses she will teach later in the DVD, along with some other principles of her methodology. I won’t give away the whole bag here, but I will say the most interesting for me was her use of breath to aid either a sense of calmness or a dramatic move. I’m used to thinking about breath in yoga, but have never managed to do it much in dance, and this video really made me see how integral a part of dance conscious breath (and not just remembering to breathe) can be.

If you’re like me, the theory will leave you interested but confused. This is where the second section comes in, a series of detailed exercises in which Rosa Noreen has you practice the different kinds of pauses. Now, this is very methodically done: for, say, undulations, she reviews all the principles, shows you how different pauses might work with an undulation, has you practice them in a follow-along drill (no talking, just on-screen text), and then has you improvise using the same movements.

I loved how incremental this strategy was, and how it kept building up on itself. Rosa Noreen repeats the concepts a lot, but it turns out they mean different things when applied to different movements. Having the theory and then showing all the ways it can be applied using practical exercises is just excellent teaching, in my opinion. And while only the main sections are in the DVD menu, the chaptering is detailed enough that I could easily skip to a certain section or repeat what I needed.

What I found was that once I hit the “improv” segments, my body started taking over… but it also started almost unconsciously incorporating the different kinds of pauses into other moves as well. This is really superb training for improv, because it’s not about doing a million moves, but about being able to vary the basic moves in interesting ways. By the end of this video, you can do six variations on a horizontal hip figure 8 without really even thinking about it too much!

The final section includes two combinations that have you practice the pauses and concepts, this time in a slightly different way — for example, with a languorous sweep of an arm, or a intentful pose. To be honest, they didn’t look like much when I watched them, but I did find when doing them that they also “taught” in a different way than the theory and exercises. The combos are presented and drilled in super small increments, then added together, re-explained, and drilled. For someone who has an easy time learning choreography, this would probably be tiresome. I am not that person, so I happen to be happy for very slow choreo teaching, and kind of wish every teacher did it this way!

Delicious Pauses is only about 75 minutes long, but it contains material that will be worth going over repeatedly. Although all the instruction is with bellydance moves — and you do have to know the moves already — the concepts could be more generally applicable to dance. I’ve watched it through once and then worked with the exercises and choreo once, and already I feel different performing the same moves. I have a better sense not just of what it’s like to slow down (and in fact, it’s harder to slow down than to speed up), but the kinds of effects and sensations I can get from varying regular speed, staccato, and slow movements.

This is really smart stuff, and lot of thought and care has been put into the making of this DVD. We’re light years beyond Veena and Neena’s “genie hop.”

Delicious Pauses is available at Amazon via the link, and from http://rosanoreen.com/. I received a review copy of the DVD from Rosa Noreen.