Dance Infinities and the Secret to Seamless Transitions

Since I decided to call my new workshop series “Raqs to Infinity”, I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts from the first workshop, and talk more about the concept of infinity and why it’s relevant to dance.

The chances are, when I say “infinity” you think of something huge. Infinite distance. The vast depths of outer space. Infinite time. The end of the universe. Things too huge to contemplate!

Infinite space?

Well that is one kind of infinity. The big, showy, impressive kind. But Raqs Sharqi isn’t a big showy dance, and our infinities aren’t the big showy kind of infinity either. There’s another sort, and you meet it every day…

How many numbers are there? If you kept counting forever, how many numbers would there be? Obviously the answer is infinity. That is the big infinity, the “end of the universe” infinity. But what if I asked you how many numbers there are in between 0 and 1? The answer is also infinity. And this is the infinity we can explore in dance.

Why are there infinite numbers in between 0 and 1, and not none, since 1 is the next number after 0? Well, in between 0 and 1 there’s 1/2. And there’s 1/3, and 2/3, and 1/4, and 3/4, and 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5… And you can go on forever, deeper and deeper, dividing that little space up smaller and smaller. And there’s another infinity between 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3… Some infinities are bigger than others, and these little ones are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. There are an infinite number of points in even the tiniest space, and an infinite number of moments in the shortest blink of an eyelid.

But what does this maths stuff this have to do with bellydance, I hear you ask?

Well, consider these questions. How many ways are there to do a hip drop? How many different movements are there that are somewhere in between a figure of 8 and an undulation? How many paths can your arms move through to get from one position to another? It’s that little “in between 0 and 1” infinity, every time.

Almost every movement in bellydance exists on a continuum – that is, a sort of sliding scale, with infinite different points on it. In fact, usually it will belong to many of these sliding scales at once. To illustrate, here’s a graph I made in MS Paint:

Just two of the sliding scales for hip drops…

I chose hip drops because they are a move that seems ‘simple’ – a move that every beginner learns in their first few classes. And yet… How many points are there on that graph? There are infinite gradations of strength or softness in between the softest and hardest hip drops you can possibly do, and there are infinite gradations of size in between the tiniest and most enormous. Put those together and you get… An even bigger infinity!

And of course, that isn’t the only way you can vary a hip drop – if I kept thinking about it I could come up with tens or even hundreds of these sliding scales, even for this very simple little movement, and I could draw many similar graphs for “all the hip drops” with different things written on the axes. How is your hip positioned relative to your upper body? How bent are your knees? Does your hip stop suddenly or rebound, and how much? Where are your arms? Is there a change of level, and if so how much? The possibilities are limitless, even within what seems like a very limited range – just one move, just an ‘easy’ move everyone knows.

The same is true of every one of your ‘basic’ movements, of course. Each one contains ranges of infinite possibility like this, if you have the skill to access them.

But that’s not all…

I just mentioned ‘basic movements’, and you may be used to thinking of bellydance moves as a set list of shapes (circle, eight, undulation…), which you can trace out with different parts of your body. That’s how this dance is usually taught. That’s how I would probably still teach new beginners.

But that’s a very simplified view. It’s the kind of simplification that’s very useful when you first learn and need a way to make sense of things, but limiting later on, if you can’t move beyond it. What we really have isn’t a neat list of moves, but rather, an infinite variety of paths that our hips, torsos and spines, and our limbs, can trace through space. But that’s kind of overwhelming to contemplate. Where do you even start?

That’s where the “basic shapes” are useful. They are our starting points.

Exploring the landscape of movement

It helps if we think of the infinity of ways we can move our bodies within the style of movement that’s recognisable as “bellydance” as a map. Our archetypal, classic moves are the most important landmarks on that map – the cities and towns. They are our bases to start exploring. There are some obvious paths between them, our “A roads” if you like, and there are also many less obvious routes – our little country lanes, bridleways, and wildly circuitous scenic routes… And a whole lot of landscape that’s off the beaten track, perhaps because it’s physically kind of difficult, but still nice to visit occasionally.

The basic moves aren’t just arbitrary choices, of course. They are the classic defining movements of this dance style for a reason. In this infinite map of movements, they are the ones that align with the natural planes of our bodies, and which are symmetrical. But once we understand this, we can expand each into a whole huge family of movements by starting to deviate slightly from those planes, and to slightly disrupt the symmetry…

Think of this, in our map analogy, as exploring the suburbs of the cities, and the countryside just outside. We’ll find a lot of interesting places and beautiful sights outside of the city limits.

If we wander too far though, we may find that we’re no longer in the same town at all – we may, imperceptibly have entered the outskirts of another as our 8 becomes more undulatey and eventually looks more like a slightly twisty undulation, or our shifting hip circle has begun to tilt and to shrink until it has imperceptibly turned into an interior pelvic circle. We have, as it were, started out exploring around Manchester but eventually ended up in Liverpool… And that, dear readers, is one of the secrets of seamless “transitions”. What is a transition, after all, but a path through our infintely detailed landscape of movements, whether it’s quick and efficient, or roundabout with lots of stops along the way to enjoy the journey?

Well, I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. I hope it gives you some ideas to explore in your dance practice, and if you are near Manchester and would like to get into this kind of thing in more depth, please do check out my “Raqs to Infinity” workshops 🙂

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

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!

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!

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…