How to Choreograph

April 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

I don’t usually choreograph my solos.  I “tried” many times over the years, but was unsuccessful.  I tried choreographing by dancing through a song, but couldn’t remember what I’d done. Or I came up with a set of moves for one phrase, but couldn’t come up with anything for the rest.  Or I listened to a song and imagined how I would dance, but these images didn’t translate easily to reality.

Honestly, I think I lacked patience and confidence in my choices.  I wasn’t ready to choreograph.  Creating something definite was too much pressure.  If I improvised, I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my choreography.  Sometimes I worried about not knowing what was next, but I had no choice but to commit and keep dancing.  It seemed less stressful.  I love the freedom of improvisation.  It’s so honest and genuine.  However, both improvisation and choreography are important skills and lend themselves well to different circumstances.

A couple months ago, I signed up for a 3-5 minute solo at Amaya’s Oriental Potpourri.  I wanted to challenge myself with an Oriental belly dance choreography.  I picked a piece of music that seemed like it would be challenging to improvise to.  After working on it obsessively, I am pleased with how it turned out.

Here is the process I went through:

1) I listened to the song over and over and over again.  I wrote notes about the sections.  How are they different?  What is their feel?  Should that section be fast? Staccato?  Melodic?  Traveling?  In place?

2) I broke down the song by section and count.  I wrote things like “Intro-32 counts” and “Call and Answer-16 counts.”  Then I wrote general notes about what I saw for each section, such as “traveling,” “undulations,” “layering,” “shimmies.”

3) I listened to one section at a time, and then one phrase at a time.  I visualized dancing.  I kept listening until I had an idea I really liked, then I wrote it down.  If I couldn’t get an idea for something, I skipped it and came back to it later with the question, “what does the dance still need?” As the dance developed, I made sure there was enough variation in floor patterns, traveling, staying still, leveling, etc.  I didn’t want my dance to look stagnant and I wanted it to reflect the changes in the music.  I also made sure there was some repetition so the dance was cohesive.

4) Once I had a combo written down, I tried it. I sang each part to myself as I slowly went through the moves.  Some things worked and some didn’t.  Some phrases needed a little refinement while some had to be entirely reworked.  It was a process.  Once I had something solid, I tried it with the music.

5) When I finished choreographing, it was time for memorization.  I kept my notes nearby and practiced transitioning from one section to the next.  This took awhile.  It was the same process as learning someone else’s choreography.

6) Once it was memorized, I focused on musical expression.  I listened to the music very closely and adjusted moves to reflect the sound.  I tried to really dance it.

7) Practice, practice, practice.

This is the process that worked for me.  I put together my 3-and-a -half minute solo in about a week and a half.  I worked on it everywhere I could; every free second I got.  At home, at school, at work, at the laundry mat…Once I started, it was hard to stop.  It was a labor of love.

Here is the finished product:

What is your choreography process?  Do you have any tips to share?

New Troupe and Oriental Potpourri!

March 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I have re-immersed myself in dancing. It was really easy. I love how it seems no matter where I go, there is a flourishing and welcoming belly dance community. I went to a Farfesha student show and started taking classes at their studio shortly after. I signed up for an eight-week course with some American Tribal Style dancers who got their start at the same Santa Fe studio I did. I introduced myself after the first class and we talked a bit. After the second class, they invited me to join their troupe, The Desert Darlings! So how about that; I thought I would be stepping back from the tribal community, something I have thought before, yet it always seems to find a place for me. I guess it’s meant to be.  And the Desert Darlings are, well, darling!  I am still pursuing Oriental belly dance in my self-practice and will soon be seeking a weekly class.

Last month, I attended Oriental Potpourri, an annual event put on by Amaya. It was wonderful! The guest teacher was Karim Nagi of Turbo Tabla who is amazing! I took a Drum Solo and a Raks Assaya (cane) workshop. It was educational and inspiring! If you ever have the chance to take workshops with Karim, do it! If I had the means, I might travel all over the world taking his workshops. I would learn so much! He has published some DVDs and sells them at a discount to his workshop students. I haven’t gotten to watch mine yet, but I will post about them when I do.

Karim’s workshops got me thinking about some things. First of all, I now realize how important it is to call the traditional dances by their proper names to credit the Egyptians. Going forward, when doing these styles I will do my best to honor them with their true names. I will still call tribal style “belly dance” because it is so Americanized, and I will use “belly dance” as a catchall phrase since I don’t strictly do classical styles.

Second, I now know that I love Raks Assaya! I had never danced with a cane before, and it was so much fun!  I already knew that the women’s style of dance came from playfully teasing the men who do Tahtib (an ancient martial art form using a large stick, an assaya), but hearing Karim’s description made it so much more fun!  I want to buy a cane, but I have to do some research first because I don’t yet know what I’m looking for in this prop.  If anyone has any pointers, they would be much appreciated!

I also learned some very valuable tips for drum solos, like separating the location of accents in the body to reflect different sounds on the drum, and I performed in a show for friends and family of Oriental Potpourri participants.  I did my first ever, completely choreographed, non-Tribal solo.  It was really fun and a great experience.  I will post a video soon.

Combination Nation 3

February 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

I just watched my Combination Nation 3 DVD from Cheeky Girls. Like all the DVDs I’ve bought from them, I love it! Cheeky Girls always chooses very high quality instructors. Combination Nation 3 is the first of the Combination Nations I have purchased.

I read in Aleksie’s review of Combination Nation Volume 1 that the same music is repeated a lot, so while it is interesting to see how different people interpret the same music, it gets a little old by the end.  Since I haven’t seen the first I can’t compare the two,  but I think this volume uses a good variety of music with a great variety of dance styles to go with it.  There is some Modern Egyptian, Turkish Oriental with zill option, Classical Egyptian, Jazz-inspired Modern Belly Dance, Flamenco, Indian, and Samba-flavored pieces. There’s every thing from fast to slow, lyrical to rhythmic, old school to modern.  This DVD is very well-rounded.  Several combinations are quite challenging (ahem, Ruby–whom I love!) and I will have to go back to them before I can really get them down, but to me that is a sign of money well spent.  If I can already do everything on a DVD, it was a waste of money.  I want to learn new things!  I also really enjoy compilation DVDs like these that involve several dancers because you get introduced to people you may not have seen before (and their websites!) and if they have other instructional DVDs, it’s like a little preview.  You can get an idea of their teaching style and whether or not it’s what you’re looking for before you commit to buying their DVD.

This DVD starts out, for the most part, with faster, more upbeat combinations and winds down to slower, simpler ones. This makes sense to me because if you choose to go through the whole thing in one practice session, you will probably be exhausted by the end. It’s also conveniently organized into chapters by instructor, breakdown and practice session, so if you choose to do it in bits and pieces, or integrate just parts into your regular practice, it’s easy to do. There are three performances at the end, which I enjoy watching while I cool down and stretch.

I highly recommend this DVD, especially for intermediate to advanced dancers.  I think anyone can take away something from every combination, whether you dance in the instructor’s particular style or not.  It is full of great ideas that can be adapted and personalized for your own dance.

As always, great job Cheeky Girls!

Hobbies: Having to Make Choices

January 27, 2012 § 10 Comments

My life has become a bit hectic as of late, as I have recently moved and am taking a new direction.  I have returned to college to study biology (with a dance minor), with my eye on a career in physical therapy.  I am still working a day job and trying to figure out how I would like to enter my new dance community, all while maintaining a home life–the kinds of things we all must figure out how to balance.  When faced with less time and money to do all the things I want to do, I have had to figure out what it is I really want.  I would love to take multiple belly dance classes every week, a hoop class, join the local college juggling club to meet and practice with poi spinners, and maybe even play clarinet in some sort of band again.  I even considered joining the college marching band, because, hey, it was fun the first time around!  But alas, I have realized that accomplishing all those things in my daily life would simply be impossible.  I have been faced with the decision of picking an artistic direction, which will really make a person realize what they love.  I am most passionate about belly dance so, belly dance it is!  I will continue indulging in my other hobbies here and there for fun, but I won’t be investing in classes at this time.

While figuring out what dance classes I can afford and fit in my schedule, I have also had to decide what direction to take within belly dance, being the large genre it is.  I think I have settled on taking Oriental classes a couple times a week and focusing on daily self-practice.  This means I will be stepping back from the Tribal Community for the time being.  This was a tough decision, but there aren’t many, American Tribal Style classes in Albuquerque.  There are some that are just Tribal, which I think are more along the lines of Improvised Tribal Style.  ITS is like ATS, using the same improvisational structure, but with mostly different foundational moves.  I can’t be sure if that’s true until I take some of their classes, but this semester, my school schedule conflicts with the classes I’ve found.  For now, I will continue staying sharp in my ATS with self-practice, and make a return to Tribal in a community setting in the (hopefully not too far off) future.

I need to develop my Oriental side of belly dance more anyway.  I long for it, the refined feminine movements, it’s grace and beauty, it’s expressiveness and freedom of movement.  I should focus more on developing my skills as a soloist as well, and Oriental style is great for that.

One day I will return to teaching.  It is definitely on my agenda, but I don’t have the time or energy to start up a new program.  It takes a lot of self-promotion and a lot of patience to get steady student enrollment, and that is just not something I can invest in right now.  I need to focus on my day job career goals first.  Long-term, I hope to be a great physical therapist, dance teacher, solo performer and troupe dancer.

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.

Belly Dance Cross-Dressing

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m sure there will be some disappointed people who find this post in their search results, but I’m not talking about that kind of cross-dressing.  I’m talking about Tribal ladies gone Cabaret!  And back again!  And vice versa!  While many people lean toward one belly dance genre or another, I am an equal-opportunity shimmyer.  An ATS girl with Cabaret in my heart.

And truth be told, I could use a little more Cabaret in my life.  I long for sparkly, sequined, hair-swinging, even sometimes down right cute, Oriental style.  That’s right!  Cute!  I said it.  (Just so you know, there’s no cute allowed in ATS!)  Sometimes I just want some big, lyrical freedom; to let my hair down, my arms relax and let out a big, sweeping, ooey-gooey, horizontal hip circle.  Maybe even complete with an adorable, feminine arm position; one hand to the head, one on the hip, accented with a hip-wiggling, psoas-engaging jewel.

I subbed for a couple of basic belly dance classes a couple weeks ago and I made the students do incredibly adorable things.  And I enjoyed it!  Some of my ATS students were in these classes and joked that the other teachers would come back from vacation and say, “what happened to Jade?!”

Well now everyone knows.  Your ATS teacher is a Cabaret lover.  This is also a huge motivator for me to do more solos.  I need an opportunity for feminine.  I need an avenue for cute.

American Belly Dance: Tribal Versus Cabaret

March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently I was at a hafla at my dance studio and someone asked if she could start coming to my ATS classes. I said of course she could and told her what to bring and what to expect about the class structure and dance style. I explained how it would be different from other styles of belly dance.

This got me thinking about the notorious battle between Tribal and Cabaret. I personally love all styles of belly dance and know many other dancers that do as well, but it’s still there and talked about often enough in the belly dance community. It occurred to me that in ways American Tribal Style really is the antithesis of American Cabaret.

For example, I was talking about how she should bring zills with her to class, but explained that the zill patterns are coupled with particular dance moves, not specifically what rhythm the drum is playing. We learn the moves specific to ATS, a particular way to execute them, and the cue for each. We learn to dance in synchronization without a choreography.

With Cabaret, the zills usually reflect or play off of the drum rhythms and may be layered over any dance move. There are endless variations for each move and group pieces are usually choreographed.

Tribal dances are often beat driven; Cabaret tends to spend more time on the melody.

Tribal is earthy; Cabaret is airy.

Tribal is dark; Cabaret is light.

Tribal: coins and cotton, Cabaret: sequins and chiffon.

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