A bellydancer’s best week of the year: JWAAD Summer School 2013

I’m aware that I’ve been a bit quiet for a while – sorry! I tend to have grandiose ideas for blog posts that end up more like massive essays, and then feel bad about posting anything else until I finish them. I’m still working on part 2 of my rather epic article on bellydance and ballet, but in the mean time, I’ve decided to try writing some shorter and less weighty posts (although I also feel a terrible compulsion to actually write a post on bellydance and cultural appropriation soon, which will, no doubt, turn into some sort of monstrous mini-doctoral thesis…).

English: View of Wellington College main build...

Wellington College (image credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway… I spent the week before last secluded in the Berkshire countryside at the 23rd JWAAD Summer School, which was held at Wellington College this year for the first time, after the old venue decided they’d rather hold ballet summer schools for small children than have the school taken over by 100 rampaging bellydancers! Another first, for me, was going as an ‘angel’ – one of the helpers who keeps the whole event running smoothly – along with my good friend Sarah, who had travelled all the way from Bergen, Norway.

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

The thing that makes Summer School so different from attending a normal dance festival or workshop weekend is the complete immersion in the dance world – for a week, a hundred-odd bellydancers (or indeed, a hundred odd bellydancers!) live together, eat together, dance together and party together. The number of dancers in each class is rarely more than 20, which also helps. It’s quite a unique atmosphere to be in a class with dancers you’ve become friends with at Summer Schools over the years, and indeed with teachers who have had a chance to get to know you and your dancing.

By the end of the week, most people will have made new friends, and there is a real feeling of community. It’s also easy to forget the outside world, and focus completely on dance, in a way that’s rarely possible for most of us. This means that it’s not uncommon to make real leaps in your dancing whilst at Summer School, that may have taken many months back in the outside world…  This year, I don’t feel that I’ve absorbed quite as much new information as in previous years, but I’ve definitely come back with some useful insights, and in particular, greatly enjoyed the opportunity to dance with one of my favourite tabla players, Adam Warne.

Rasha in Angel mode

In Angel mode. Yes, they do make us wear those…

As for the Angel experience, well… It was definitely tiring, but also fun. Arrival day was something of a baptism of fire, as busloads of dancers appeared and had to be shepherded to their rooms in the new and unfamiliar venue, amidst a sort of controlled chaos of flamboyantly dressed women and enormous suitcases. Later in the week, things calmed down a lot, with our main tasks being getting rooms set up for our various evening activities (i.e. covering everything in sparkly fabric and fairy lights!). Not particularly hard work, but even as a non-Angel most people start to succumb to exhaustion after a few days, and our duties meant we rarely had time for a sneaky pre-dinner nap to recover… Towards the end of the week, Sarah and I were both becoming quite unhinged through sheer tiredness, and could be sent into helpless giggling fits by the most seemingly innocuous comments – if I’m honest, we didn’t mind this too much. But I did sleep for almost 12 hours straight on my first night back at home…

And the parties? Well, what happens at Summer School stays at Summer School. You’ll just have to come next year to find out what we get up to 😉

Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters


Anteater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ballet. It’s a comparison that inevitably comes up when discussing any issue in the bellydance world. For a lot of people in the West, “dance” is ballet, and it’s the standard against which all other dances get compared. Unfortunately, in discussions on bellydance, I don’t believe that this comparison is very useful, because the two dance forms are so wildly different in so many ways. The ballet analogies are unavoidable, but I feel that they very rarely provide any meaningful insight. To borrow and misquote from someone else I can’t remember, it’s not even like comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to anteaters.

In these posts, I’ll be discussing the various comparisons that are frequently made between bellydance and ballet, and why in my view, there aren’t many true parallels. Since it is a subject which I have a lot to say about, I’ve had to split my post into several parts, of which this is the first…

Cultural roots – the dance of my people?

Fifi Abdou dances baladi

Egyptian bellydance has its roots in Raqs Baladi, the folk dance of ordinary Egyptian people. Raqs Baladi literally means “dance of my country” or “dance of my people”. It is a dance that ordinary people learn by copying their family and friends as children, and dance together at celebrations. Egyptian kids don’t get shipped off on a Saturday morning for Baladi classes, it’s just the dance they grow up with, and a part of who they are as much as the language they grow up speaking or the music they grow up listening to. Even those who go on to be top professional dancers often say they started out dancing at family gatherings, then copied the dancers they saw at weddings and on TV,  and although they may have gone on to have more formal training, that was not until they were already accomplished dancers.

English: A performance of The Nutcracker balle...

A performance of The Nutcracker ballet, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, it’s a very long time since ballet parted ways with any folk roots it once had. In all of my lifetime as a white British woman, I’ve never seen ballet danced among friends at a party (my own social circle mostly prefer variations on awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other, apart from those family members who have taken up modern Jive), or met anyone who had picked up ballet from their family and friends without going to formal classes. As somebody who has never taken regular ballet classes and has only been to the ballet once (that’s fewer times than I’ve seen the Chinese state circus…), it is not really a part of my culture in any meaningful way. It is very disconnected from the cultural expressions of ordinary people anywhere. To learn ballet, children go to formal classes from a young age, and the child’s cultural background is mostly irrelevant to this training process.

If ballet ‘belongs’ to any group of people as a cultural expression, it’s to an upper middle class elite, spread across many countries and even continents, who may have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their respective countries. But even these people don’t actually learn ballet unless they go to classes, although they may watch it much more frequently than most people. There is nobody, anywhere, for whom ballet is truly “the dance of my people”.

Types of learning – speaking Latin?

Bellydancers often ask why our training isn’t more like ballet. More codification, more terminology, more rigour… I believe that the differences here also come from the differences between a folk dance and a classical dance.

To use the analogy of language learning, which I often find helpful when thinking about dance learning, Egyptians grow up with Raqs Baladi as their ‘mother tongue’ of dance movement. This means that for them, formal lessons play only a small role – they are able to learn by imitation of the people around them, the same way I learned to speak English. They will probably need training later on if they want to reach artistic greatness, just as a native English speaker would still need training to go from being just a fluent speaker to being a good novelist or poet, but the basics come from cultural immersion.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A British or American dancer, on the other hand, hasn’t grown up with Raqs Baladi. Sadly, we often don’t even have our own equivalent, as social dancing of any type has declined miserably in many places, hence the awkward foot-to-foot shuffling. When we decide to learn bellydance, we are in the same sort of position as we would be as English speakers turning up to our first Arabic language class. Everything is unfamiliar, from the alphabet to the grammar. And as adults, we’re no longer able to effortlessly soak up information from our surroundings like children, and we don’t have easy access to that culture to immerse ourselves in anyway (unless we live somewhere that still has a thriving Arabic club scene), so apart from a few rare individuals, most of us will need formal lessons.

However, because of its social nature in its home environment, bellydance doesn’t come ‘ready made’ with a formal learning structure. The people who developed it didn’t need one. That leaves it up to dance teachers in the West to devise a learning structure that can replace the social learning for Western dancers, without losing the social, improvisational nature of the dance that is part of its unique appeal. As Western learners, we have to start from the very beginning, having to learn the alphabet all over again before we can even string sounds together into words, let alone compose our own poetry.

Latin inscription in the museum at Monteleone ...

Latin inscription (Photo credit: diffendale)

Sticking with the language analogy for a bit, ballet is like a language with no native speakers. Learning ballet is more akin to studying Latin than learning a modern language with an existing body of native speakers. Everyone who learns it is learning it as a ‘second language’. Some will have advantages, like having a native language that uses the Latin alphabet, or that is linguistically related to Latin (like Italian or French). In dance, this might translate as things like having familiarity with the structures of Western classical music, or coming from a culture where dance is expected to be primarily about movements of the limbs through space, or a culture where the physical body is seen as a thing to be transcended. But nobody comes to it as a native speaker. Everyone has to go through the formal learning process, which native Egyptians don’t usually need to dance Raqs Baladi. Ballet simply could not exist as a dance without the formal learning process.

Toy Poodle from 1915

Toy Poodle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for bellydance, formal learning is an ‘added extra’ which allows cultural outsiders to participate, but which is somewhat alien to its folk roots. But for ballet, it’s an absolute necessity, without which the dance form could not exist. This is why a universal codified learning structure for bellydance is unlikely to ever exist as it does for ballet. The dance form does not need it to survive, and by strictly codifying bellydance, it would be removed further from the more organic nature of Raqs Baladi, possibly eventually being refined and redefined until it bore no more resemblance to it than a toy poodle does to its ancestor, the grey wolf.

Tango Kiss

(Photo credit: Pat McDonald)

This is not a totally unfounded concern on my part. It has been pointed out to me that a similar thing has already happened to dances like Argentine Tango and Salsa as they have been incorporated into ballroom dance and ‘dancesport’. The ballroom versions of these dances, as performed in competitions and widely taught around the world, are sanitised, homogenised and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original social dances they were based on. They have been taken from their original cultural context, and have lost a lot in the process (including their music) – people who dance the original versions simply don’t recognise the ballroom styles as their own dance. Do we want this to happen to bellydance in the West? To some extent, it already has.

The Performer’s Paradox – It’s the Quiet Ones You Need to Watch

I am many things. A dancer, a teacher, a performer, a blogger, and in my ‘other’ life a geek, a feminist, an occasional goth… And an introvert.

The idea of a shy or introverted performer doesn’t make sense to most people. It doesn’t seem natural for somebody who finds social interaction stressful or tiring to excel at performing for a crowd, or at teaching a class. People who know me from the non-dance world are often amazed when they see me perform for the first time, because they really didn’t expect somebody who is normally quiet and reserved to be able to bare their soul on stage for a theater audience.

Rasha dancing to Enta Omri

Rachael dancing to Enta Omri. Photo by Nick Mills

And yet, I meet many performers who are not naturally outgoing or attention-seeking types in their normal lives. I can’t begin to guess what the percentage is, but it seems that introverted performers are far more common than one might expect. This leads me to wonder, why?

I can only speak for myself, but as a beginner dancer, I found the idea of performing quite frightening (as do most of us!). The idea of dancing socially with others, however, was far more terrifying. And dancing of any kind paled into insignificance compared to the sheer horror of actually speaking to my teacher or my classmates.

As I’ve grown as a dancer my social anxiety has lessened drastically, and I’m now pretty comfortable talking to people I don’t know, but I still find social interaction a bit draining, and probably always will. Yet somehow, performing doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps it’s the freedom from having to actually speak to a single person face to face that makes the difference. When I talk enthusiastically about bellydance to a room full of people, or dance at a busy restaurant, there is no anxiety or fear of getting something wrong. It sounds strange, but that’s how it is.

Whyever it happens, this lack of fear is very liberating. Introverts often express themselves through the arts, typically through solitary activities like painting, writing or making music – and although dance performance seems like something that wouldn’t work for us in the same way because of the social aspect, in reality it seems even more powerful. Through dance, introverts can express their emotions and artistic vision naturally and directly to their audience, without any of the awkwardness that accompanies normal conversation. This, for me, is a wonderful thing.

The strange thing is, as a dancer, I’m totally fine with even quite personal interactions like giving a cheeky grin to a lady two feet away in the front row whilst shimmying my bottom in her direction. I feel that when I’m dancing, I have permission to be bold and outgoing in a way that feels safe to me, because there are clearly defined roles. I am the performer, and I’m doing what is expected from me as the performer, so I don’t have to worry at all about what people will think of me for interacting with them or showing emotion.

So, if you’re shy or don’t like drawing attention to yourself, please don’t feel that this is a reason not to try dancing, or a reason to never perform. You may find that not only is it less frightening than you expected, but also that dancing and performing frees you to be truly yourself in a way that isn’t easy for all of us in daily life. And if you’re one of those bouncy, gregarious, life-and-soul-of-the-party types, well… Know that we reserved and quiet people aren’t  necessarily boring or unfriendly, and many of us have flamboyant hidden sides that may be deeply surprising to you. Remember what they say – it’s the quiet ones you need to watch 😉

Related links

Habits and posture – more bellydance musings

I’m reasonably sure that one of the secrets of being a great dancer (or for that matter, a great musician, artist, writer, or just about anything) is having good habits. When something becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about it or make an effort anymore, it just happens. It’s the path of least resistance. Habits are what enables us to get through each day without constantly having to worry about every little detail of what we’re doing, so they are both useful and powerful when managed wisely.

We usually think about habits in the context of breaking bad habits, like slouching or biting your nails, but in fact, forming new good habits to take their place is just as important. Good habits take the stress and hard work out of doing the right thing, whether the right thing is remembering to point your toes, practising and exercising regularly, eating well, or just getting your false eyelashes on before a show…

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for rearranging our habits – the only way is sheer repetition. The good news is, there are ways to get through the repetition stage more easily. What works for me is the use of reminders – these make it easier to remember your new habit during the early stages, until it starts to become automatic. Here are a few ideas:

  • Time and place – If you associate your new habit with a particular environment or set of circumstances, this will act as a reminder every time you do it, eventually making it easier to go through the motions effortlessly when you’re in the right place at the right time. For example, a couple of years ago, Khalida suggested in a workshop that we should practise shimmies whilst brushing our teeth. I’ve done this ever since, and I now shimmy automatically as soon as I pick up my toothbrush. It actually feels very wrong not to do it now! The act of beginning to shimmy is unconscious, but once I’ve started, I can choose to practise a certain type of shimmy or focus on a particular aspect of the movement.
  • Mental Imagery – A mental image can serve as a memorable shorthand for a whole lot of physical adjustments. This is especially useful for fixing postural issues. The more amusing and memorable the image, the better! At the moment, I’m working on lengthening and relaxing the back of my neck, and relaxing my jaw. To achieve this, I’ve been using imagery from the book ‘Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery’  by Eric Franklin, a book which I’ve found very useful to refer to for these types of issues. What this means in practise is that I’ve been walking around Oxford for the last few weeks imagining that my head is a helium balloon on a string, and my tongue is hung over a towel rail. Weird, but effective!
  • Positive incentives – find some immediate, obvious reason why you’ll feel better right now if you remember your new habit. This probably won’t be the same reason that you are actually trying to create the habit, but something you can use to persuade yourself if you’re feeling a bit lazy or apathetic. These aren’t always easy to come up with, but can be very handy. For example, I’m trying to change my habitual gaze from being downward, to being outward at eye level (a common problem for tall people, who are always having to look down at the rest of the world!). Day to day, “it’ll make your dancing better” won’t necessarily persuade my change-resistant subconscious mind to actually do this. But I’ve had a lot more luck thinking instead about how changing my gaze means I get to see a lot more of the beautiful scenery and architecture of Oxford as I’m out and about.
  • Physical reminders – Sometimes if your mind tends to wander, a cleverly arranged physical reminder can nudge you back in the right direction. Things that have worked for me in the past include holding objects between my fingers to bring attention to my hand positions, and wearing a necklace or scarf to remind me to open my chest or lengthen my neck.

Have you found any other good ways to create new virtuous dance habits? Please share them in the comments!

In Love With Music

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about music, and how we relate to it emotionally. Since becoming a bellydancer, I’ve gradually begun to listen to more and more Arabic music, until it has become almost the only thing I ever listen to. I love the complex rhythms, the melodies that can soar majestically before diving into subtle modulations of almost infinite detail, and the incredibly emotional and beautiful lyrics.

The Smiths in 1985.

The Smiths in 1985

But in the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to more Western music again, rediscovering the music that is, if I’m honest, my own cultural heritage. It’s an odd mixture – music that was the soundtrack of my life as I grew up, survived secondary school, and stumbled haphazardly through university, that comforted me when life was bleak and was there alongside me during the good times. Music has always been a very important part of my life.

What struck me, returning to these songs, was how many of them bring back a huge, tangled web of memories and feelings, of a place and time, weather, people I knew, places I lived, events, smells… Of course, some songs have far more of these associations than others. The most powerful are perhaps those I remember from childhood and that I still love now – ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ for me is hot summer days in Bristol and the smell of dry grass in the mid-1990s, whereas Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is both long car journeys with my family, listening to chart music on the radio, and later (when I actually started paying attention to the words) one of the anthems of my years at university in Oxford… Others are less deep and meaningful – the songs that I’d sing along to with my friends at the tops of our voices. Everything from the Smiths to Sean Paul to Madness finds its way into this category.

The point of all of this rambling is that at the moment, there are some levels on which Western music is meaningful to me and deeply affects me, which Arabic music rarely can. This is partly because of these memories of time and place and what songs have meant to me at different times in my life. Some Arabic songs are now beginning to have this effect, as my love for bellydance reaches its fifth year and this music has started to become as much a part of the fabric of my memories as David Bowie or the Sisters of Mercy.

But it’s also because of the language barrier. I don’t speak Arabic beyond a very basic level at the moment (“Good morning! My name is Rachael! Please may I have some falafel?”), although I’ve picked up a fair bit of ‘dancer’s Arabic’, phrases that are fairly useless in normal conversation, but turn up all the time in love songs… With an Umm Kulthum song, I need to spend hours poring over translations and transliterations, following along with the lyrics as I listen to the song, before I can begin to appreciate the meaning. And even so, I’ll be missing metaphors and cultural references. When I listen to a Western song that I love, appreciating it is effortless, because not only do I understand the lyrics immediately, but I can also pick up on layers of meaning that aren’t apparent in a literal reading, without having to study the song for days.

Taking all of this into account, I can see why some dancers feel tempted to give up on Arabic music, and dance to their favourite Western songs instead. It is easy to think, in this situation, that fully understanding and appreciating Arabic music as a non-Arab dancer is a hopeless cause, that we’ll never enjoy it as natives do, and that we might as well just do our own version of bellydance reflecting our own cultural heritage. But those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I don’t agree with this line of reasoning!

Umm Kalthum, Egyptian singer

Umm Kalthum, Egyptian singer

Let’s first look at the type of response to music that I began this post by talking about. That mixture of memory, emotion and nostalgia that we feel listening to a song that we’ve known and loved for a long time. These feelings are uniquely personal and sometimes quite idiosyncratic, depending as they do on the events in your own life. So, I’ll never feel the same way about Umm Kalthum or Abdel Halim as someone who grew up in Cairo. But the thing is, no two Egyptians will feel exactly the same way about these songs either. Everyone relates to them in their own way, that comes from where that music has fitted in to their own unique lives. The question for us as Western dancers is then simply, do we have that kind of relationship with this music at all? The kind where hearing even the first few notes takes us back to past moments of joy or sadness? We may not to begin with, but after years of immersion in the music, we all develop our own relationships with it, and our own deep feelings about it. And in this context, our feelings are as valid as anybody else’s – what matters is that we have them at all.

Looking more deeply at this, I do think it’s true that the music we hear in our childhoods is inevitably what gets etched most deeply into our subconscious minds. The songs we hear as children are the ones we’ll still be singing when we’re ancient and have forgotten everything else. But it’s possible to fall in love with new music from our own culture later in life, and that love is just as valid, if not more so since it’s music we’ve chosen rather than being passively exposed to. For example I didn’t discover the Smiths until I was at university – but metaphorically speaking, Morrissey and I have been through a lot together… Likewise, I don’t see that it’s any less valid to discover music from another culture as an adult.

The language barrier is harder to overcome. A song may have all kinds of associations for me, but to fully enjoy it, I need to know the meanings that the writer and the singer (usually different people in Arabic music, because a great poet isn’t necessarily also a great singer) were trying to express, as well as my own feelings that colour my perception of the piece. And without speaking the language fluently, this is hard work.

Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer

Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer

But it’s not impossible. You just need to spend some quality time with the song, a transliteration of the lyrics (that is, the lyrics in Arabic written in latin script so that you can read it and follow along), and a good line-by-line translation. Shira’s website is an excellent place to find these, and if you can’t find a translation online, there are also many people out there who will do song translations for you for a small fee. After listening to the song whilst following along with the lyrics enough times, you’ll begin to know which lines in the song correspond to which meanings, and be able to start feeling the meaning and intention behind the singer’s words. This is also the point where the ‘dancer’s Arabic’ vocabulary comes in handy, providing ‘signposts’ in the lyrics where you can recognise words which remind you which part is which.

There are a small number of songs where I’ve now done this so often that I can follow most of the lyrics without referring to a translation, and experience the emotional impact of the song much more fully. It’s a lot of effort, but I feel it’s worth it to really get to know this incredible music. I do still feel that I’m missing something though. This is why I’ve decided to start taking Arabic classes this year – it’ll be a long time before I’m fluent enough to be able to understand a song as I hear it, but I hope that that day will eventually come. In the mean time, I’m enjoying learning to write in a new and beautiful script, and finding out about a completely unfamiliar system of grammar. However, I appreciate that learning a new language isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to be able to enjoy Arabic music.

All of this may seem like I’m over-thinking the whole thing. And maybe I am. Because when I listen to a live Arabic band (sadly not as common an occurrence as I’d like), it doesn’t matter one bit if I don’t know all the songs or don’t understand the words. The sheer beauty and passion of the music still carries me away and sends shivers down my spine. And really, on some level, that’s all that matters.

Stealth Bellydance Practise – Part 1: Public Transport

As we (hopefully!) all know, the only way to become a better bellydancer is through regular, focused practise. But this can be a daunting prospect! When you have lots of time commitments already – work, study, family, and even just keeping yourself fed and clothed – it’s hard to set aside a big chunk of time for dance practise.

The aim of this blog series is to sneak tiny practises into your daily life. Any change in your dancing takes hundreds of repetitions to get it into your ‘muscle memory’, the point where repeating it no longer takes any conscious effort. Normally we think of getting to this stage by drilling a movement many times in a single practise session, but it’s just as effective to reach the necessary number of repetitions by fitting in lots of brief practises throughout the day.

Each of my posts in this series will look at a different way to make bellydance practise a habitual part of your everyday life, so that your dancing continues to improve even when you are ‘too busy to practise’.

Sneaky practise on public transport!

Since I spend several hours every week on buses to and from dance classes, I’ve decided to begin this series with stealth practise strategies for public transport. Although you are normally sitting down on a bus or train, there are lots of ways you can use this time to work on your dancing:

  • Listen to Arabic music – This one’s easy! Fill your MP3 player with Arabic music, and listen to it whenever you’re travelling. Your musicality and ability to improvise will improve hugely as you develop a feeling for the Arabic rhythms and song structures.
  • Practise glute squeezes – Developing control of your glutes (gluteus maximus, the big muscles in your bum cheeks) enables you to make your hip isolations sharp, precise and powerful. Practise clenching and releasing one bum cheek, both cheeks, and alternating, at various speeds. Try to relax your thighs so that the movement is isolated in your glutes. If you’re sat next to someone, they may notice you bobbing up and down a little, but they won’t be able to tell quite what you’re doing 😉
  • Work on your abdominal isolations – Abdominal work is cool, and impressive! Belly rolls, pops and flutters can look amazing, but the fine muscle control takes a lot of practise to perfect. As it happens, all of these skills are easier to practise when sitting down, so a bus journey is the perfect time to work on them. You may look a bit odd to anyone sat nearby, unless you are wearing a big jumper or coat, but the skills you’ll develop are more than worth it. My flutters have improved immensely since I started practising them on my weekly bus journeys.
  • Perfect your hand ripples – This one is a bit more obvious to your fellow passengers. Try practising hand waves, hand circles and wrist isolations (for a good selection of hand and wrist drills, some of which can be adapted for stealth practise, I recommend Aziza’s Arms DVD).

Have you ever used a public transport journey for stealthy dance practise? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Bellydance Trophies – an update

The Bellydance Trophies 1st selection round has been and gone, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks recovering – I’m mostly relieved that it’s over, and it feels a bit like it was all a dream. Lots of people have been asking me how it went, so I’ll do my best to tell you…

First of all, I’d like to thank Farah, Nafiseh and Rosy for organising the event, and especially Delia (AKA Delilah) for being such a kind, reassuring and helpful presence backstage!

After getting the news two weeks ago that I was going to be in the first selection round, I panicked. I was eventually talked into going ahead with the competition by one of my teachers, Gwen Booth. I then had to work single-mindedly to prepare for the competition – choreographing a new piece from scratch for my solo performance, as well as learning the group choreography that the contestants had to learn from a video to perform together on the night.

For my solo, I chose to perform Saiidi with a ‘man’s’ stick, as I have been working on Saiidi and on developing strength in my dancing for the last few months.  It was the first time I’d choreographed anything for quite a while. But under the pressure of an impending deadline, I finally managed to stop procrastinating and come up with things, doing the first combination that popped into my head that fitted the music and worked with the preceding section, filming it before I forgot, and then moving on. With the help and support of Gwen and of Charlotte Desorgher (another of my teachers, and also an official Bellydance Trophies coach), I had a whole choreography almost finished by the day of the competition. However, the short notice meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse!

When I arrived at the venue on the afternoon of the competition for the group rehearsals, I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew one of the other four contestants, and wasn’t sure what kind of level or atmosphere there would be. As it turned out, everybody was nervous, and everyone was friendly and supportive. There was definitely a feeling of camaraderie rather than cut-throat competition. We ran through the group choreography several times, by ourselves and then with Farah (who had choreographed the piece). After the group rehearsal, I was left feeling quite unprepared, as there were still several bits that I wasn’t comfortable with, but didn’t have time to do anything about. It is very challenging to learn a choreography from a video and then perform it with a group, and I think it’s an interesting way to test the skills of the competitors.

Following the rehearsals, there was what seemed like an awfully long time spent hanging around backstage, applying makeup in a crowded loo, and dodging between the many members of the London Algerian Ballet Company. By the time the competition got started, only 45 minutes later than expected, I was more dazed than frightened, and nothing felt quite real anymore. Watching the other contestants from backstage, I was impressed by their beautiful dancing (especially by Henrietta, who went on to win first place in the selection), and tried my best to think about entertaining my friends in the audience, rather than comparing myself to these very talented dancers.

When the time came for my own performance, I was less nervous than I’d expected. The powerful mizmar introduction started, and I strode onto the stage with my stick raised, feeling the strength and pride that the choreography demanded. I felt the heavy connection to the Earth that I’d been working to achieve for months, and held my head high, looking the judges in the eye as I twirled my cane defiantly. However, there was also an undercurrent of anxiety – I didn’t know my choreography well enough, and competitions are scary at the best of times. I do think that I danced technically well, and was certainly ‘fierce’ if the photos that I’ve seen are anything to go by, but the fear must have showed on my face.

After the performance, I had to stay on stage for the judges to each give their feedback – sort of like the X Factor, but generally nicer. The judges were kind, and said that I had good potential as a dancer, but it was clear that all of them thought I had looked tense and worried, and had been a bit too ‘masculine’ in style. I am reasonably happy with how my performance went, as I think I did as well as I could have done in the circumstances, but it is a little frustrating that a lot of the feedback I received reflected the fact that I was nervous and unprepared. Charlotte, who had seen my choreography in its embroyonic stages in our coaching session the previous week, was impressed by how much I had improved it in that time and was very kind about my performance, so I still feel that it was an achievement.

By the time of the group performance, I wasn’t really ‘with it’ any more, after a lot of stress both mental and physical, and having sustained myself all afternoon on muesli bars! I had been focusing so intensely on the solo performance all evening that the group one seemed like an afterthought. I don’t remember much about it, but I recall feeling bewildered and off-balance, and struggling to remember the footwork or stay in time even in parts that had been OK in the rehearsal – a combination of nerves and mental exhaustion, I suppose. I was glad when it was over!

After a selection of guest performances by the London Algerian Ballet, and two of our judges (Sara Farouk and Bless Klepcharek – the third Judge was Asmahan, but she didn’t perform that evening), the final results were announced. The first prize went to Henrietta (AKA Sofeya), who I had expected to win, as I was so impressed by her performance. Then second and third places went to Anna for a gorgeous baladi piece, and Serenay for her sweet and lovely oriental number – Serenay also won the ‘people’s choice’ award. I admit to feeling a little disappointed at the time, but the winners definitely deserved their places, and I entered Trophies with the intention of growing as a dancer rather than with any expectation of winning anything.

I’ve now also received detailed feedback on my solo performance from Delilah, who specialises in coaching dancers on stage presence and performance skills, and some written comments from each of the judges. This, for me, is possibly the most useful part of the whole experience, along with having been forced to work intensively on a choreography, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done. It will take me a while to digest all this feedback, but some is encouraging (several judges commented on my good technique), some points out areas I need to work on (relaxation and stage personality), whilst some is downright confusing (one judge praises my timing, whilst another criticises it! I wonder whether this is due to the differences between how Western and Egyptian dancers hear music, and it’s something I’ll be paying more attention to in future).

In conclusion, although the two weeks between being told my selection date and competing were phenomenally stressful (the only thing I can compare it to is my university final year exams), I am glad that I took part in Trophies. It has helped me to push myself and to become a better dancer, and I like the way that the competition is designed to test so many aspects of a dancer’s skills. You are really encouraged to become a more rounded and knowledgeable artist, rather than simply performing the showy yet repetitive 5-minute oriental pieces rewarded in many competitions. I will definitely be entering again next year, and will be aiming this time to be prepared well in advance, to show the very best of my dancing!

Musings on dance and the brain

I’m still (slowly) working on a post about Bellydance Trophies, but in the mean time, here are some thoughts which perhaps you will find interesting…

One of the first skills we begin to develop as dancers is called proprioception. This basically means knowing the position of your body, without having to look. This sounds like it should be easy, but actually most people’s proprioception isn’t great – I notice this a lot when I’m cycling, and I see people trying to signal that they are about to turn by raising one arm. They think that their arm is out to the side, but often it’s actually pointing somewhere completely different, usually down and to the back. In dance classes, this problem shows up when beginners are asked for the first time to raise their arms to their sides, or above their heads.

One of the first things we begin learning when we step into a dance class is to adjust the normal posture of our body so that what feels ‘normal’ and comfortable becomes closer to what is healthy, graceful and well aligned. And when we perform, we don’t have any way to see ourselves, so we have to be able to move confidently, knowing that what we think we’re doing matches what we’re actually doing.

Learning to dance, and practising dance movements, is actually rewiring your own nervous system. I think this is pretty cool. By comparing what we feel to what we see in the mirror, we are making a more detailed map of the body in the brain. As we refine our movements, we are building new neural connections to muscles that we weren’t previously able to consciously control. And as we practise a new movement or sequence of moves, by repeating it, we are creating pathways in the brain for those whole sequences of movement, which enable us to eventually repeat them without conscious effort.

The brain is massively complex, and movements, memories and ideas are often connected in our minds in surprising ways, so thinking of seemingly unrelated imagery can often lead to noticeable differences in dance movement. Finding roundabout ways to persuade your brain to communicate a certain message to your muscles can be an art in itself…

So, as we become better dancers, we are actually completely reshaping the relationship between mind and body. In a sense, we become a living work of art, or a musician and their instrument at the same time, as we fine-tune our body and our nervous system to move with skill and grace in harmony with our music. To conclude my ramblings, dance is not just a thing that you do, it is something that you become. Learning to dance will change you, for the better in my opinion!

Bellydance Trophies

I’ve been a bit quiet for the last few weeks since starting this blog. The reason? I decided rather impulsively to enter Bellydance Trophies this year – a unique bellydance contest held in London, where rather than being judged on a single performance, contestants are whittled down by selection rounds, quarter finals and semi finals before a winner is finally announced. It is also unusual because for each round, dancers get to dance to one song of their own choice, but also have a song chosen for them by the judges, which can be in any style of Middle Eastern dance at all, and is often something unusual.
Anyway, the selection rounds run from November until the spring, and I discovered last week that I’m in the first selection round, on Sunday 11th November. So, I’m currently very busy indeed choreographing my solo performance, learning a group choreography, and adjusting my super-fabulous new costume to fit. I was fairly panicked when I first got the news, and I’m still quite nervous right now, but this has given me the kick that I needed to get back to choreographing, and it’s nice to have something concrete to work towards.
If you’d like to come and support me, the first selection is on Sunday 11th November, at Bombay Dreams restaurant in Wembley, from 6:30pm. Full event details, ticket bookings & maps are on the Bellydance Trophies website. And here’s a facebook event. It would really mean a lot to me to see some friendly faces in the audience!

Dance: my journey so far

A few weeks ago, I did a bellydance party in Bristol for the hen night of an old school friend. We had a wonderful time – everyone from the bride’s little sister to her grandmother joined in, and I was amazed by how quickly the assorted friends and relatives forgot their awkwardness and began smiling as they shimmied and rolled their shoulders together. At the end of the evening, my friend’s mum told me how much she had enjoyed the dancing, and added “I would never have imagined you doing this!”. I suddenly remembered the girl I had been the last time she had met me – the painfully shy 18 year old, studying maths and physics, a tall and gangly figure in black trying ineffectively to not be noticed. And I wondered, how did I get here from there?

“I have been dancing since I was three years old” is one of the great clichés of the bellydancer’s biography. Well, I haven’t been. Whilst my schoolfriends were taken to flit around in pink tutus or learn tap and jazz, I was the strange kid reading fantasy novels and fashioning dinosaurs from old cereal boxes. I wasn’t one of those children who seemed born for showbusiness, singing and dancing and starring in school plays – I was the one hiding in a corner of the library, dreading the humiliation of drama class even more than the horrors of PE, and terrified of speaking to strangers. I loved drawing, painting, and playing guitar, but dance was something I could never have imagined myself doing.

So, what on Earth compelled me to go to my first bellydance class, some years later, whilst at home from university for the summer? I was so shy that I could barely bring myself to introduce myself to the teacher, and hid at the back of the room, shuffling clumsily through the unfamiliar steps. But something about the dance had captured my imagination years before – the undulating movements, rich fabrics, the impression of glittering coins and exotic perfumes… I knew next to nothing about this dance then, and most of what I thought I knew was wrong, but somewhere inside of my awkward and rather lonely younger self, something unusual was happening. I secretly imagined myself bejewelled and fascinating, dancing sensuously before an enthralled audience to the strange, foreign music that had quickly taken a hold on me, leaving me humming lyrics I didn’t understand and tapping my feet to new rhythms inside my head. It’s fair to say my family were pretty confused by this new development.

When I got back to university, I began classes with the Oxford Middle Eastern Dance Society (where I now teach). It wasn’t until I’d been taking classes for almost a year that I worked up the courage to speak to my fellow dance students or even to our teacher – but I loved the new movements, the way they made me feel beautiful and graceful for the first time in my life, and I practised as much as I could, coming to classes religiously. And four years later, some of the women I was too shy to speak to in that first class are now my closest friends.

My transformation was so gradual that I didn’t notice it myself, but people started commenting that I seemed to have got taller as I stopped stooping and hunching my shoulders. My clothes got more colourful, my jewellery more sparkly, and I increasingly listened to Egyptian and Turkish music in place of the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure (though I still love those things). And more strikingly, slowly at first, I began speaking to people… And realised it wasn’t actually that bad! I had also stopped seeing my own body as something ungainly and disappointing, never measuring up to the ideal of an attractive woman, and instead it became my own musical instrument, that had to be cared for and learned about in order to express the beautiful music that flowed through me. Little by little, for the love of dance, I confronted my fears – of speaking to new people, of performing on stage, of failure, of hard physical exercise, even of public speaking. And as I did those things, I realised that there had never really been anything to be afraid of.

At the time of writing, I have been dancing for four years. Bellydance has in many ways transformed my life, so that the shy student is now the confident teacher and glamorous performer (my inner geek is still there just the same, but these days she’s taking an obsessive interest in Middle Eastern music, history, language and culture)… But I still remember how it was to be that unhappy girl. I hope that through dance I can pass on the joy and creativity that have made such a difference to me. And I wonder what new changes I will see looking back in another four years…