Getting Down and Dancey with Mira Betz

October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some time ago, I participated in the most amazing, 3-day Ethics and Technique of Belly Dance Intensive with Mira Betz.  I’d describe it as a movement, dance theory, life, history, culture, performance, self-examination and trust-building workshop. This woman has inspired me not only in dance, but in life.  She is very honest and straight forward, and I really admire that. She works really hard and encourages her students to do the same.

In the dance section of the workshop, we learned some combos that Mira emphasized were not so much about the order of movements, but about the concepts we were learning. We explored stretching rhythms and altering the typical timing of combinations to create tension and variation of movement.  We also explored how to present ourselves on stage in a way that makes our audience comfortable and relaxed.

There were many talking circles. We discussed our views and the way others view belly dance, things we’ve struggled with, and how our journey within the dance has been. We talked about East vs. West and Orientalism.  We discussed pre-performance and post performance etiquette and how to elevate the dance form. We also ventured into how belly dance compares to other dance forms.  This was one of my favorite areas of discussion.  We compared it to Ballet and Burlesque and how they came to be respected and considered art and how belly dance could become an equally accepted art form.

I was surprised to learn that not everyone enjoyed the discussions as much as I did. A few subjects were addressed that some people took very personally such as performance etiquette, skill, religion, public presentation and other areas of ethics.  I suppose that can be expected when such things come up.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was a homework assignment called a wish wall. We made “wish walls” that represented things we wished for or that represented our hopes and dreams or inspirations in some way.  Mira said we could make it whatever we wanted, but most people did some sort of collage.  I used to collage a lot in high school but hadn’t in years.  I really enjoyed this assignment and wish I had more excuses to do arts and crafts projects.

My cat, Almond, helping me collage.

When we brought them to class the next day, they were presented anonymously and were analyzed and discussed by the group before revealing who’s wish wall each was. This was interesting because we got to see how other people perceived what we had done and even gained some insight into what our art was saying about us.

My finished wish wall

I definitely recommend taking this workshop or any workshop with Mira Betz. She is authentic and inspiring. It was a weekend of exploration, learning and self discovery.

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TribalCon VII, 2011

August 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

This year at TribalCon, I took workshops from Zoe Jakes, Al Confrin, John Compton, and Myra Krien. There was an interesting sounding lecture given by August Hoerr, but I really needed a break for lunch, so I did not attend. This year, there was a Friday night, live music only performance before the hafla. My troupe performed in that one. Saturday night was an all-recorded music show which I had the pleasure of relaxing in the audience during and just getting to enjoy.

The Friday night show was a lot of fun.  the small stage was crowded with very talented musicians.  The energy of a show that  uses live music is infectious.  It is very entertaining to watch the dancers and musicians play off each other.  Live music is so much more dynamic than canned music.  The show went very smoothly.  My troupe closed the show, following John Compton, which was quite a lot of pressure, let me tell you!  John Compton is amazingly mesmerizing on stage.  His playfulness and stage presence is captivating.  It was a lot of fun to get to hang out with him and bond backstage.  He informed me that if you fart before a performance it’s good luck!  That’s right, real life tips from a pro!

This was one of the enjoyable performances from the show.  I like it because, not only do I think Jaylee is a lovely dancer, I think this one also showcases the musical talent nicely as well.

My troupe did an American Tribal Style piece under my direction.  We honored both classical ATS and modern ATS styles. I think it went really well and we got enthusiastic feedback from the crowd afterward.  One woman told me that she was excited because she had never seen American Tribal Style performed before, but loved it.  She said she thought it was beautiful and is now interested in learning it.  I think that is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received after a show!

The hafla was fun.  There were a lot more hoopers this year.  The only downside of having a show on Friday before the hafla was the hafla started later, so you got in less free dancing if you like to go to bed on the earlier side.  I don’t however think this bothered much of the TribalCon crowd, as they will party into the wee hours.

In the morning, my first class was with Zoe Jakes.  It was a good class, a bit intense.  She had us do a lot of strengthening yoga exercises.  My abs were tired before the bulk of the class began.  The funniest thing that happened in that class was that she had us doing stretches where we lengthened our arms up and back slightly, elongating the torso and then folding from the hips stretching into a flat back, and then back into the original standing pose.  When we were first alternating between the two positions, we would hold for 4 counts each.  Then she had us double it to two counts and it was almost like standing sit ups with out stretched arms.  After a couple repetitions, I realized, it seemed oddly similar to bowing.  I began looking around.  It was an auditorium filled with women surrounding Zoe Jakes on 3 sides, bowing in unison.  I’m sure that probably wasn’t actually her goal, but it was quite hilarious.

For my next class, I got out my clarinet and switched to the music side with a class on Middle Eastern musical improvisation with Al Confrin.  It was an incredibly challenging, informative and fun class.  It was an intimate class, with only about a dozen people in the room.  We had the stringed instruments drone while we took turns individually improvising little melodies using the notes on specific middle eastern scales and attempting to incorporate rules and tips Al had given us.  By the end of the class, we were trying to match each others’ melodies and have musical conversations.  It was fun and a bit nerve racking since we played by ourselves.  I think I got an excellent compliment from Al.  After I played one of my improvised melodies he commented, “I just love the sound of the clarinet.”  !!!!  I was flattered!  Middle eastern musical improvisation is a huge subject as far as I can tell with many rules and subtleties to remember. I’m sure a person could work on new things in this area their entire career and still have more to learn.  Being a classically trained musician, I have had very little experience with musical improvisation.  I tried improvisation a little when I had a brief intro to jazz years ago, but that was it.  Classical musicians don’t really improvise.  Orchestral music is read from sheet music, and that’s most of what I’ve done.  I feel like Al’s class was a great starting point and I have really been able to use some of the instructions he gave to have more structured and more musically appealing improvisations.

I switched back to the dance side to take a workshop on traditional Tribal steps and combos with John Compton.  He is a delight to learn from!  He is incredibly fun and funny and informative to.  He taught us many combos that were challenging and some of them very different than what I have learned in the past.  By the end of the class we had a mini choreography of John Compton combos.

The last class of the day was with my first teacher, Myra Krien.  She taught flamenco fusion moves in the ATS format.  I felt a little like I was cheating in the class because I had previously known all but two of the moves.  I had them down perfectly while everyone else was struggling to remember them.  It was a great refresher and I enjoyed learning the two new flamenco adaptions that I had not seen before.

The Saturday night show was great;  very inspiring.  It was nice to get to sit down and watch a whole belly dance show without having to worry about performing.  The Friday night show kept the Saturday night show from not being overly long, so it easily held the audience’s attention.  The only downside is that I was starving after a day full of activity and you could smell the buffet waiting for us in the next room for after the show! That was a bit distracting, but not too bad and the buffet was worth the wait.  It was quite delicious.

All in all I would say I had another great TribalCon experience!

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.

TribalCon VI, 2010

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Once again, I had a great TribalCon experience.  This year, I only came to the Friday night hafla and Saturday workshops and show.

The hafla was fun.  I saw more ATS this year than I did last year.  There was less poi spinning and a bit of hooping.  Something new was African dancing, which I hadn’t seen at a hafla before.  That was really awesome.  Also, there were a few more male belly dancers participating in the convention.  Notably, the ATS troupe Shades of Araby was there.  They have a male troupe member and came all the way from Toronto.  They are a very fun troupe to watch.

My favorite workshops were Ariellah’s and Asharah’s.

Ariellah’s “The Artist’s Workshop: A primer for the well-rounded dancer”, was very interesting and thought-provoking.  We addressed many conceptual ideas about dancing, music interpretation, execution and expression.  We explored what moves us to dance, why we dance, how we envision ourselves sharing those things with an audience, and what qualities we want to possess when we dance.  During one really cool exercise, we listened to various songs and wrote down the temperature of each, the color and whether or not it evoked a memory.  Then, Ariellah taught us some combos, but insisted that we didn’t just go through the movements, that we actually danced the combos.  My favorite TribalCon quote was from after Ariellah had us do an arm movement as if we were touching velvet drapes with our finger tips.  A student in the class shared how much she was able to imagine that she could actually feel the drapes.  Ariellah told her, “That mental memory is going to become muscle memory, and it’s going to be beautiful.”

Asharah’s “Salimpour Legacy in Tribal” workshop was incredibly interesting.  She discussed the history of Tribal Belly Dance and how the dance morphed a little with each student becoming teacher. Jamila Salimpour is credited with establishing a common language in the dance.  Many of the names for movements we use today were coined by Jamila.  Jamila directed the first Tribal-like troupe, Bal Anat.  She was Masha Archer’s teacher, who was Carolena Nericcio’s teacher.  When Carolena began teaching, American Tribal Style was developed, somewhat unintentionally, to meet the needs of her and her dancers.  On the other side of Tribal, Rachel Brice was a member of Ultra Gypsy at the time she developed and named Tribal Fusion.  She was the first Tribal dancer to take the dance solo.  Ziah of Awalim was in the class and shared that she was at the Tribal Fest where Rachel Brice debuted her solo Tribal Fusion style.  Ziah said at the time they thought it was kind of funny and the general reaction was, “Hey, look! That Ultra Gypsy girl is dancing all by herself!”  We can thank Jamila’s daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, for refining the muscle technique to be more in line with other dance forms.  My favorite part of the workshop was when we danced through the moves as they were originally executed by Jamila and compared them to how they are executed today in American Tribal Style.  The moves are very similar, but the ATS versions have been modernized and altered to fit the music style and format of ATS.  One of the common changes occurs in the timing and where the downbeat and upbeat fall.  For example, Jamila’s Basic Egyptian was “step, twist, step, twist”, and the American Tribal Style version is “twist, step, twist, step.”

The Saturday show was beautiful.  It was a whopping 3 hours!  There was a lot of lyrical, modern-inspired pieces. Unfortunately, there were sound problems much of the night. It turns out a whole amp was turned off for the entire show.  The music didn’t fill the auditorium the way you’d expect during a dance show, and the mic levels for the live musicians were imbalanced, but it was still a pretty show.

My troupe is still waiting on our performance video, but here are two of my favorite performances of the evening.  The first is Jahara Phoenix and the second is their student troupe, Sherar.

Looking Forward to TribalCon!

February 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

I am really looking forward to attending TribalCon again this year. This will be my third year. The classes are diverse and educational, and my troupe has some really fun things planned for our performance.

I am especially looking forward to Asharah’s class on the legacy of Salimpour technique in Tribal Belly Dance. She will talk about how Tribal came to be and about the roots of the American Tribal Style dance moves. This should be very interesting. I enjoyed Asharah’s ticking class last year and am looking forward to seeing what else she has in her arsenal.

I am also looking forward to taking Megha’s dynamic fades workshop. I wonder if there will be new fade moves or just reviews and clarifications of the current ones. The class description specifically said we would be reviewing the ASWAT (Arabic Shimmy with Arms and Turn) which I learned in a TribalCon workshop two years ago. Whether there is new material or not, it is always interesting and valuable to take classes from other ATS instructors and see how they break things down.

I am sad I will not be attending the entire weekend because I will be missing the workshops taught by Donna Mejia. I loved her classes last year and think she is an absolutely amazing woman and beautiful dancer. Oh well, hopefully I will have an opportunity to take classes with her again one day.

As always, I am really looking forward to the Friday night hafla, which is such a blast!, and the never-disappointing Saturday night show!

This is the host troupe, Awalim, performing at the Saturday show in 2008:

Only two more weeks!



TribalCon V, 2009

March 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

My TribalCon experience this year was absolutely amazing! This was my second year attending, and I think this year’s was even better than last year’s.

The venue was the same: Holiday Inn in downtown Decatur, Georgia. Decatur is a darling little town with beautiful old buildings and funky little shops and cafes. However, it’s also a bit confusing. Both years I’ve gone, me and my carpool buddies have gotten lost as soon as we get to Decatur. This year we were lost for about an hour and a half. It was both hilarious and frustrating! At least I was in the car with a couple of very fun girls. It turned out we were very near the hotel several times but somehow kept passing it in large circles.  I really have no idea how this happened.  We had directions from multiple sources and still got lost.

Once we (finally) arrived, we got ready for the hafla, which is great fun. The musicians attending the event for the music workshops play and the dancers dance. This year, the music had a much more Balkan, gypsy feel. Last year, I believe it was more folkloric.  One big difference I noticed was while last year, the dancing was mostly dominated by American Tribal Style Dance and some Tribal Fusion, this year there was a Balkan line dance, lots of poi and even some hooping. I want to say it was actually less crowded, but it could also be that this time I knew what to expect and felt less overwhelmed, so I just perceived it as less crowded.

The workshops were of course amazing! Ariellah’s yoga workshop was energizing and challenging. She’s a lovely teacher and dancer and recommends taking yoga on a regular basis to open up the muscles we use in belly dance thus allowing for more movement.

Donna Mejia is an amazing woman! I didn’t know who she was before the workshops, but I certainly do now! She’s one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. She’s strong, yet feminine. If I’ve ever met a woman who embodies the poem Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, it’s definitely this woman. She taught interesting combos and a lot of useful info on posture.  My favorite quote from TribalCon was something she said in her class. We were doing dance combos across the floor in lines and she responded to many dancers looking timid. She told us, “Now is not the time to hold back, ladies. When you’re looking back on your life, you’re not going to say ‘gee, I’m so glad I held back at that TribalCon workshop on Feb. 21, 2009.  I really benefitted from that…” Good point.

Asharah taught a workshop about ticking (the repetitive momentary stalling of a movement often seen in Tribal Fusion usually in response to really quick beats in music or mechanical sounds in electronic music). She broke down the theory and muscular aspects of the movements and gave us exercises to practice to master the movement. These types of moves are difficult for me. I have limited experience with that style of Fusion so I really appreciated the practice techniques I learned in her class.

Mira’s class is always challenging and provokes thought about doing the unexpected. She is well-known for her very impressive and difficult layering. She also takes typical belly dance combos and changes something to make them more interesting. For example, if a combo traditionally involves grapevines and hip lifts, she’ll make you do grapevines and hip drops instead. Her class is fun and will make you sore!

One of my very favorite classes was with Onca and August of the Mezmer Society. It was The. Most. Hilarious! workshop I’ve ever taken. It was about narrative belly dance, which is essentially belly dancing and dramatic, theatrical acting. We were making faces at eachother, interacting with eachother and dramatically dancing our way through emotions and characters such as drunken wench, passion, etherealness, and innocence. At one point, we were put in two lines facing each other and were each assigned contradicting emotions. We were to dance toward each other, interact and cross to the other side/other emotion. It was hysterical. Such a great workshop.

There were also a couple lecture styles classes this year that taught us about the anatomy of our bodies and how to dance in a safe and healthy way.

The All-Star Show was beautiful as always. My troupe’s performance went very well. We did a World Tribal Fusion piece, and at the end the dancers and musicians traded places. We played for them and they did a spoon dance.

The show’s after party was possibly the most fun thing that weekend. It was like the hafla, only catered, and everyone was ready to really let loose and dance the night away with lots o’ wine, good-spirited wildness and old-fashioned debauchery. I got to play with my poi in a large open space for the first time in a very, very long time, but unfortunately got carried away (which I realized when I showed up to the workshops the next day and it hurt to lift my arms! Oops!)

Overall, it was an incredibly inspiring, educational and fun weekend! I can’t wait until next year!

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