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.

Two Ahmeds, two Saids

A quick note about a fun and filled Saturday. It began with my hightailing it up to Prenzlauer Berg to attend two workshops by Ahmed Said. Now, I was a bit early, so I treated myself to a really convincing cappuccino and a good-enough croissant before going in search of the dance studio at the Kulturbrauerei.

I finally made it, and was in for more than five hours of energetic dance. The first workshop was on Egyptian folkloric dances, namely Nubian and Debke. I had no experience with either. I adoooored the playfulness of Nubian, the groovyness of it, to say nothing of the music. Debke was more challenging. By that point, I was really feeling the impact in my feet and knees, and it made it hard to keep up. I think I could learn to like it if I got the basic step down, but for now I’m happy to leave it to the menfolk.

The second workshop was devoted to a shaabi choreography. It seems like every dancer who’s coming through Berlin these days is offering a shaabi choreo. And this is a Good Thing. I love the peppiness of the shaabi music I’ve heard so far, for starters. And Ahmed mixed up bellydance steps with some moves that were practically out of the disco, which I especially loved because it reminds me that this dance is, ultimately, about joy in movement and music. You can’t take yourself that seriously when you’re pretending to stab yourself out of heartache.

I had just enough time to jump on the subway — no doubt grossing out my fellow passengers — go home and take a shower before it came time to… go to the ballet! At that point I couldn’t even walk anymore, so hubby and I got a taxi to see La Péri at the Staatsballet Berlin. In a way, it was incredibly fitting. A nineteenth-century “hijinks in the harem” ballet newly choreographed by Vladimir Malakhov, it was the most unapologetically orientalist production of, well, anything I’ve ever seen. In it, Achmed — the second Ahmed of the day — is tired of all the available ladies and romantically dreams of the pure and eternal love of a supernatural Peri.

The second Said of the day had to be Edward Said, who was no doubt doing pirouettes in his grave. I mean, at one point Achmed is in prison, and while the previous backdrops had suggested his harem was in Istanbul, the prison has giant, Pergammon-style Mesopotamian wall carvings.

The production was gorgeous — although one of the poor little corps Peris did accidentally run into Achmed at one point — and the costuming was enough to make any bellydancer swoon. (Nourmahal, Achmed’s former favourite, had on a tribal kind of look — I had to wonder if that was on purpose.) But it also made me realise that if it hadn’t been for Balanchine, I would never have fallen in love with ballet. It’s the modern take on the dance that draws me, as well as the athleticism.

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:

Back in the Groove

Sunday was a red-letter day for me — I went to my first dance classes in almost a year. The North Texas Middle Eastern Dance Association held a nifty fundraiser: seven local teachers volunteered their time to teach a series of “Cheap Thrills” workshops, at ten bucks a pop for non-members. I thought that this would be a perfect way to get back in the groove of dancing, so I hauled myself to Grapevine despite a sleepless night and rather a good deal of laziness.

My abs are still feeling a bit sore from the surgery, so I decided to pick two workshops that seemed like they wouldn’t be core intensive: “Dancing With Emotion” with Rivkah, and “Arms, Frames & Transitions” with Heather Wayman. The workshops may have been inexpensive and brief, but each was packed with material.

Rivkah had us do exercises to express sadness, anger, and joy. I found the first two, but especially sadness, incredibly difficult. I’ve never taken an acting class, and all the stagework I’ve done was in rather silly college theatricals in pretty absurd roles. At the same time, despite how vulnerable this kind of work left me feeling, I also think it is one of the most important things to work on in dance. I really can’t stand busy, overly-athletic dancing with no emotion behind it. It’s boring, it gives me no pleasure to watch. But when a performer can really embody an emotion — Zari’s dance in Secrets of the Stage Volume One comes to mind — the result is entrancing.

When we practiced dancing to a fun song and conveying the sense of delight in the music, I couldn’t help but remember a scene in Wim Wenders’ documentary Pina in which one of the dancers has the same task. I found myself emulating his moves, albeit with a bellydance vocabulary. Focusing on emotion made me dance in a completely different way, looser, less worried about variation, less hung up altogether. I’m not sure it looked good, but it certainly felt good.

Heather gave us a full program of arm poses, ways to move from one frame to another, and exercises for structuring and experimenting with dance. She introduced us to some of the tricks she’d picked up while doing Nadira Jamal‘s Mastery Mentoring Program. My favourite exercise of the class was picking three poses and then improvising the movements between them. This seemed like an excellent way to introduce more dramatic punctuation into a dance that would otherwise have rather boring arm work.

Doing these workshops, I remembered one of the things I love so much about dance class, proper dance class instead of videos. The whole world outside the studio disappears. There’s nothing like focusing on the tiniest detail — the pointing of a foot, the precise way of lifting a hand — for wiping all the tedious everyday worries from my mind.

Habibi Journal — now online!

When I first got into bellydancing I heard a bit about Habibi, a journal about Middle Eastern dance published between 1993 and 2002. I was so curious. I used to check in on the Gilded Serpent regularly, but only a few of its articles are really substantive. (And its reviews quite superficial and congratulatory — which made them useless for me, a budding collector.)

Well, Shareen el Safy just announced that much of Habibi, which she published, is now available online:

The Best of Habibi

I was lucky enough to take a long workshop with Shareen a few years ago in New York. I still haven’t gotten around to working with the videos I bought, and I only remember a few of the moves she taught, but what really stayed in my memory were her reflections on the dance itself. She talked about how dance is not just a way of interpreting music for the audience, but that the dancer’s role is also to communicate the “deliciousness” of the movement to those watching her. What I loved was her focus on the internal, private, and sensuous aspects of a dance that tends to seem showy, entertaining, and “available” — at least when compared to modern dance or ballet.

I’ve only skimmed a bit through the Habibi archive, but a lot of the articles seem to reflect this thoughtful approach to a dance that is often misunderstood, and often approached with technique but not with soul. The one article I read, which I absolutely loved, was Suhaila Salimpour’s recollection of working as a dancer in Lebanon. I can’t wait to discover more of the writing on Habibi.

Ballet for Oriental Dance with Autumn Ward

I took part in Autumn Ward’s “Ballet Technique for Oriental Dance” workshop yesterday at Salsa International. I have pain in the weirdest muscles today (my pecs hurt, if you can believe it!) and places in my hip, and my credit card also hurts because of the Sharifwear sale they were having…. but all in all, it was great.

You obviously can’t learn much ballet in two hours, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise. I thought this class might be something like an introductory ballet class, but it was nothing of the kind. Instead, it was much more interesting: Autumn discussed some aspects of ballet that have been incorporated into oriental dance, and how they might vary from the ballet forms. This also included some descriptions of ballet technique — she made us do some very interesting exercises for getting a proper pointed foot, for example.

Autumn talked about arm positions in ballet and how we vary them for oriental dance, and made us do a partner exercise where we had to use our arms, in position, to resist against our partner. (Hence the painful pecs and back muscles today, which I take as a good sign!) We worked on that hipdrop-kick movement that gets used so much in bellydance, and on getting a graceful leg extension.

And, we spent a lot of time on turns. I’m probably the most turn-challenged person on the face of the planet, but I loved her instruction. First of all, she talked about how ballet drives spins and turns from the legs, while oriental dance drives them with the arms or the hips. She went over arm technique, and right away I realised how much I had been missing by not using my arms. And although she mentioned spotting, she didn’t start with it. My trouble is that spotting, if anything, makes me more dizzy and confused, and makes me forget about what my body is supposed to do. I found I did alright when I just focused on my body — my footwork, and powering the turns with my arms — but the moment I tried to introduce spotting I lost it all.

We also covered arabesques, spinning inward and outward, and when each might be used. All in all, it was a wonderfully useful, tight class. I’m not a brilliant spinner now, but one can’t be after two hours. Stil, I now have a much better idea of what to do, and strangely enough, I have this desire to run around a room spinning — I can see how it could get addictive!

The Princess in Milford

Yesterday, a treat: Princess Farhana was giving workshops in Milford, CT. I really enjoyed this, both because of the Princess’s way of running a workshop and because of the warm, welcoming attitudes of the women attending. It helped me realize that the competitiveness I had felt at the NYC class was not just something I had imagined, but also, quite happily, that there are other ways of experiencing a dance class with other women. Farhana had us all say at the beginning how much experience we had so that she knew how to deliver the instructions, and we ranged from 3 months to six or seven years. This could have been weird, or a moment for showing off, but instead everyone applauded the “bellydance babies,” and I had the feeling that having less experience was just not something to be embarrassed about in this environment.

As for Farhana, my god is that woman fun. She has a style that I can only describe as “studied vulgarity,” and I mean that in a very good way. She playacted at being domineering and angry when we did the moves too quickly, she described some of the hand-to-head poses as the “one hand headache” and the “two hand headache,” she swore a bit too, but it was always with a sharp sense of humour. That was one side of her performance. The other was composed of dancing that was just lovely and graceful, a real acknowledgment of us as individuals, and a sense of warmth.

The class itself was quite relaxed, and quite varied in content: a big section on abdominal muscle control, some quite lovely combos which then had abdominal work layered on them, and finally, a short amount of time with veils. I didn’t buy anything: to be quite honest, I’m still a little weirded out by the intense shopping aspect of workshops. This was only my second, and while I really love shopping and getting bellydance videos, props, etc., it still seems kind of weird to me to gather around a table of wares instead of dancing.