My Year in Belly Dance: Reflecting and Looking Forward

January 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I feel like the past year has been a productive one for me on the dance front.  I attended some great workshops and events.  I moved forward in technique and experience.  I had a few breakthroughs that were quite amazing to me.

I had some major breakthroughs in the area of flexibility and usability of my muscles.  Throughout the year, I identified several problem areas in my body where the muscles were locked up and permanently engaged.  I was able to concentrate on and learn how to stretch and release my trapezius muscle (at the top of the shoulder), my hip flexors (at the top, front of the thighs), and my psoas muscles (in the hips).  These muscle groups were causing me some pain and minimizing movement.  After releasing them, I have less back pain, less neck pain and less hip pain.  My undulations have become bigger, my shoulder shimmies have become less tense, and my hip movements have gained depth and range of motion.

I also decided that this would be the year I would really solidify my continuous shimmies. Due in part to an old knee injury, continuous hip shimmies (that move alternately and repetitively between right and left hips) have been very challenging for me.  My left leg has been weaker and less consistent.  This year, I was putting that behind me.  For several months at the beginning of the year, I woke up early every morning to do shimmy drills.  It felt great.  And practicing every day made a world of difference.  I focused on my weaker side and built up the stamina.  After just a few weeks, I had a consistent, even shimmy.  After a few more weeks, I could vary size and intensity.  I eventually got to a point where the muscle memory was so ingrained in me, I would start my shimmying and I felt like my legs had a mind of their own.  The shimmy was automatic, almost like there was no stopping it.  I sometimes felt like the shimmy was in control and I was along for the ride.  It was amazing and I’m pretty sure it’s what everyone is talking about when they say “if you have to think about your shimmy, you haven’t done it enough.”

The most recent thing I discovered that made a huge difference for my body is a yoga technique called inner thigh spiraling.  One of my belly dance teachers brought it to her dance class after it was really helping her with her posture.  Essentially it’s where you stand in good posture and good alignment (keep those knees facing forward!), and engage your inner thighs and gently rotate them backward.  We did an exercise where you hold the yoga block with your thigh spiral and layered some belly dance drills on top of it (shoulder shimmies, chest circles, hip lifts, etc.)  I could feel my lower back and hips opening up.  I have been including this technique in my regular dance practice and it has greatly improved my alignment, posture, strength and is even keeping pressure off my injured knee.

I broke into performing solos.  I have always been more of a troupe dancer than a soloist.  I’m to a point where I actually want to do solos and feel like I need to in order to take my dancing to the next level.  This year, I did solos without props and with veil and sword, some to live music, some to recorded music.  It was great, actually.  I get more nervous before solos and the adrenaline rush is a bit more intense, but it is very rewarding and freeing.  Me and improv have started to get buddy, buddy as well and it has set my dancing free in so many ways.  I have learned to really trust my instincts and go with what the music tells me to do.  I mean, what’s so complicated about it really?  It’s just dancing.

I began playing clarinet again.  I was classically trained for 8 years, but had given it up for several years to focus more on dancing.  I am a little rusty, but the music reading, the embouchure, the technique all came back to me pretty quickly. I have actually joined the Lumani band, so I will be playing a lot more.

I attended TribalCon and Spirit of the Tribes which were both a ton of fun.  I took workshops with Mira Betz, Artemis Mourat, Myra Krien, Devyani, Asharah, Ariellah, Jahara Phoenix, Dalia Carella, Unmata, Kaya, Shadhavar, GypsyVille and even took a few hooping workshops.

As a teacher, I feel like my ATS students progressed so much this year.  I have a group of consistent students who have gotten the basics down quite well and are starting to move on to more challenging and more fun ATS moves and concepts.  I love that the class is picking up momentum!

Last year was a very good year, indeed!

Looking forward, joining the Lumani band is very exciting!  I’m enjoying exploring clarinet with Middle Eastern music and love being part of a musical ensemble again!  I have begun taking a Middle Eastern drumming classes, mostly to learn more about Middle Eastern rhythms to enhance my dancing, but  wouldn’t mind becoming a proficient drummer.  I am also taking a zill class and hope to become decent at more complex zilling.  I want to continue exploring solos and perhaps create some choreographies.  I’m going to TribalCon again and am trying to decided on another major event I’d like to attend.  I’ve never been to a convention for Oriental Style Belly Dance.  That might be fun.

The Joy of Teaching

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

I feel like my dance class is really flourishing.  I have enough regular students now, they can practice full formations in class, and I can watch, observe and offer help.  When we perform, I’m not the only one leading.  In fact, I can lead less and less, and let my students gain the experience and grow stronger.

As a teacher, there are moments that are so fulfilling:  The “aha” moments in my students.  The first time they really get a move.  Watching one of my students lead for the first time.  The first time one of them wants to lead in a performance.  The first time someone unexpectedly takes the lead (no really, you have no idea how exciting that is!).

I am glad I have been able to participate in this movement. I am grateful that I have gotten to continue being involved in ATS even as I have moved a couple times. I am extremely happy that I have been given the opportunity to teach this powerful and beautiful dance style to others, and through teaching, have fallen in love with American Tribal Style all over again. Yallah, Habibis!

Belly Dance Culture Shock

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the roughest times for me in my belly dance journey was leaving my first teacher.  I danced with her for about 3 1/2 years.  Her dancing style, her teaching style, and my time in her student troupe was my entire gateway to belly dance.  I stopped dancing at her studio because I moved with my family to Portland, OR.   My sister (who was in the troupe with me) and I looked up dance studios as soon as we got to Portland.  We attended open houses, we tried various classes, and what I found was Belly Dance Culture Shock.

I wanted to keep dancing, but I wanted to keep dancing how I had been dancing.  I liked my first teacher’s American Tribal Style (quite consistent with the Fat Chance Style).  I liked my teacher’s West Coast Cabaret Oriental Style.  Everything in Oregon was…different.

The Tribal Styles in Portland were strange, grunge fusion-hybrids.  The first cabaret dancers I saw seemed akin to drill teams–peppy smiling princesses.  Or they were too Modern.  Or too Egyptian.  Or too–NOT WHAT I WAS USED TO!   There were new techniques, new explanations, new step-combos, new tribal combos, new costuming styles!, new people, new payment systems!

Okay, okay.  Maybe I was unprepared.  A lovely dancer who came from the same studio in Santa Fe also moved to Portland (and would later become our roommate and troupe mate).  She told me she came to the new belly dance scene with the idea that she would just forget everything she knew. (Not literally, but you know, she was ready to embrace the new).  I was horrified!  I didn’t want to forget anything!  I was going to remember it all and dance like that forever!  Ofcourse, I did eventually warm up to the new styles and found many that I liked.

It was strange going from a small belly dance scene to a massive one.  There are definite benefits with large scenes…more workshops, more classes, more styles, more shows, more performance venues, more costume shops…but a small dance scene is intimate and comfortable and can feel close and supportive because everyone knows everyone else.  Now that I’ve experienced both, I don’t have a particular preference.  Huntsville has a small dance scene.  At the same time, there is a sense of connection and participation within the larger south east belly dance scene, so we get to really embrace the small scene within a bigger scene.

Once I got over my initial culture shock, I was able to really grow as a dancer, and I haven’t experienced the same kind of  shock since.  It was tough at first, but it has been beneficial in many ways to step outside of my comfort zone and explore.  I have been able to play different roles in different groups and try a lot of new things.

I love that there are so many belly dancers in the world!  It seems that no matter where you go, there will be belly dancing there.  That’s comforting.

ATS: If It’s Not Right, Is It Wrong?

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

American Tribal Style Belly Dance is a right side dominant dance form by design. The dancers are always turned slightly so their right side is more visible to the audience. Some moves, such as the Basic Egyptian, are very symmetrical so the two sides of the body are worked evenly. Other moves are not symmetrical such as the choo-choo, a hip bump that is always done with a weighted left leg and unweighted right leg and the right oblique working more than the left. Another is the Arabic Undulation, always done with the right foot in front. I am not sure that this is the healthiest thing for the body. I don’t know of any other dance form that works one side of the body more than the other. You wouldn’t go to the gym and lift weights with only your right arm, so why would we dance in a way that works out the right side more than the left?

I was lucky to begin my dancing with Myra Krien who is also an Oriental Style trained belly dancer and had thought it was not healthy to dance this way. She had designed a way to switch sides so we could also do ATS left side dominant. I still use this technique in my dancing today. Most students are right-handed so the right side is more comfortable for them, but it is important to get an even workout.

When I began ATS, my class would do what was easiest and dance on the right more. Later that year, I was injured while playing soccer in my high school P.E. class. I saw multiple doctors to help me through different stages of my healing. I saw an orthopedic doctor who said one of the problems was that my pelvis popped out of place and he sent me to physical therapy. Another doctor I saw was a cranial sacral specialist. He told me that the muscles in my sacrum were not equal in strength and it was causing my hips and pelvis to twist to one side. I told him about the style of belly dance I was studying and told him we end up dancing more on one side than the other. He told me I should work on building up the muscles on the other side, even if it was just during practice at home. After I told Myra about this, she was much more strict about making us practice both sides equally. Now that I am teaching ATS, I teach both the right and left side as it was taught to me and make my students practice evenly in class.

I believe the ATS community should adopt a more evenly strengthening approach to the dance. I have heard that Carolena Nerricio, who developed the dance form, is an avid gym visitor, so perhaps she builds her muscles evenly enough in other forms of exercise that it does not have adverse effects on her body like it did mine. A lot of people use dance as one of their main forms of exercise and do not have the time or motivation to get in as much gym time, so I think it is important that we workout evenly in dance class.

Adding left-sided ATS is actually quite easy and does not have to interrupt the improvisational choreography. What my teacher had come up with were a couple of moves based on the existing vocabulary that could cue a switch to the left. The transitions are really quite seamless. When dancing on the left, we use the same vocabulary and formations as on the right, only mirrored. This can be done when dancing to fast or slow music.

Here is a video of me and my students dancing at Panoply this year. The first song is performed by my ATS Basics students, with me leading them on the right (the traditional ATS way). The second, slower song is performed by two of my ATS Beyond Basics students on the right. I join them for the final, faster song and lead them into dancing on the left.  (The switch happens at 4:37.)

Mirror, Mirror…

April 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve had an interesting journey with the way dancing feels versus the way it looks.

When I first began dancing away from a mirror (in performance, for example), belly dance was still very new to me. When I didn’t have a mirror to look at, I could still tell I was doing a move because I had to put a fair amount of effort and concentration into it.

Later, around my third or fourth year of dancing, I went through a strange transition. Many moves had started feeling more natural, and I could no longer tell how much I was doing with my hips.  When looking in a mirror, I could see the moves were bold and defined, but they didn’t feel big any more.

This went on for the next couple years. When I took workshops without a mirror, sometimes I was told I was trying to make a move too big. Sometimes I put my hands on my hip bones to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Perhaps I had developed some sort of mirror dependency, but mostly I think I had reached a point in my dancing where some moves felt effortless, and that was new to me.

There is one instance that the opposite thing occurred: learning continuous hip shimmies (vibrational shimmies, piston hip shimmies, freeze shimmies, etc.).  These are very challenging and I had greater success if I focused only on feeling each hip moving up and down alternately and not on how the shimmy looked.  When I would look at myself, my shimmies would freeze up or stutter.  The mirrors were working against me. Looking back, it may have been a self-conscious, mental block.  Because these shimmies are so challenging,  seeing myself try to execute the move probably just pulled my focus to my not being that good at them and away from concentrating on getting the move to happen.

It’s only in the last couple years all this has resolved itself.  Now, unless I’m doing something that’s really new to me, I can usually tell what my hips are doing and how big, with or without a mirror.

I think a major aspect of learning to dance is a shifting of focus between how a move looks and how it feels, until eventually the two become aligned.  Perhaps that’s one way to define mastering a move.

American Tribal Style?

November 19, 2009 § 7 Comments

A few months back, I had to do some belly dance teacher soul searching. I teach American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Recently, the creator of this amazing dance form, Carolena Nericcio, has become increasingly vocal that all ATS dancers should do the dance the way she does, or it shouldn’t be called ATS. Now, I teach a form of ATS that is very closely based on the Fat Chance dance vocabulary with a few stylistic decisions made here and there, some by me, some by my first teacher. Carolena has expressed that moves that haven’t been approved by her should not be considered ATS.

I understand where she’s coming from. I have seen a lot of ATS over the last 8 years. Some has been really good, some mediocre, and some really not true to the ATS style.   ATS has spawned a whole movement of growing and changing (and sometimes difficult to define) genres of belly dance. There is a great article on this at tribalbellydance.org. What a lovely movement this has been. Art giving birth to art.

So a couple months ago, after a few discussions and after reading the above article, I had to do some soul searching. If everything I’m performing and teaching is not exactly as Fat Chance would do it, am I really doing American Tribal Style?

I let this marinate in my mind for a bit and kept teaching the style as I learned it with some occasional stylistic choices and decisions made amongst my dancers to clarify cues and transitions to make our dancing cleaner.

I thought about how some of the stylistic decisions had been made by my first teach, Myra Krien, and thought of her decades of belly dance experience and decade of ATS experience. I trust her judgment.

I also thought about the incredibly strong technique and stylistic base she instilled in me in my several years of training with her.

I still had some doubt in my mind, until my two best ATS students went to TribOriginal last month. One of the workshops they took was with a couple of lovely ladies who perform ATS and study directly under Carolena.

First of all, my students expressed how confident they felt in this workshop and how they felt like their arms were in the correct places, their posture was correct and they had a pretty easy time following along and picking up the new moves they learned.  Other students asked for tips when they were getting something easily or their way of executing the movement looked correct. This made me feel very proud; proud of them for their dedication to classes and how much they’ve learned, proud of me for teaching them so well, and proud to be part of such a massive global dance movement.

This along with this next tidbit restored my confidence in my right to call myself an American Tribal Style dancer. They learned in this workshop that even the Fat Chance language is still evolving.  Even the base dance form is evolving. In beautiful ways. And we evolve with it.

And I feel confident enough in my ATS training and experience to make some technical, artistic or stylistic choices and still keep the integrity of the ATS language and style in tact.  As with any language, there may be slightly different dialects from place to place. Language is fluid, more about what you’re communicating than the exact words you are speaking. The sentence, more powerful than an individual word.  Art communicates in an organic way, with a life of its own.

I can honestly say I think we are representing American Tribal Style well.

Belly Dance Classes

August 16, 2009 § 5 Comments

At the beginning of the summer I started a new Beginning American Tribal Style class in a new, more popular time slot. I’ve gained a lot of new students. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve designed it around the very basic ATS movements and the standard triplet zill pattern. It takes 6 weeks to cycle back through so everything gets reviewed every month and a half.

The students are great. Very excited, and very supportive of each other. I try to bestow upon them the little gems of knowledge I’ve collected and find the most useful. Planting seeds.

Starting in the fall, I will have an ATS Beginning II class following my Beginning class that will focus on beginning combo moves and specialty moves with a couple specialty zill patterns. I’m planning on also designing this class on a 6 week cycle.

I love having a bigger class and new students who I can really help develop a safe and strong technique. I feel newly inspired by my students each week. I always leave class rejuvenated and energized.

The only downside to the new class schedule is there’s no official time now for my Intermediate students from my troupe who have been dancing with me the last 2 years. The Intermediate class has been tacked onto the end of troupe rehearsal since we are the performance level dancers. Unfortunately, our time usually gets swallowed by other parts of rehearsal. Must find some way to remedy this….

Oh yeah, check out this short clip taken by an audience member of me and my Performance students performing some slow ATS at Panoply a couple months ago.

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