Categories
Most Popular Technique, Practice, & Performance

Have No Fear! How to Create Choreography Courageously

Everyone loves a good belly dance choreography… once, of course, it’s grown up into a well-mannered and polished routine. In its growing stages, choreography can be an unruly, demanding brat-  a brat that sometimes makes us want to cry or tear our hair extensions out.

It’s easy to get intimidated when you first begin. Suddenly it’s as if you can’t remember any of the moves or combinations you know. You think that everything you try looks stupid, or it’s just not good enough (anyone else besides me a perfectionist?). These kinds of thoughts aren’t helpful. In fact, they can shut down your creativity. So when we choreograph, we have to give ourselves space to experiment. We have to be willing to have some failures, and to acknowledge that this is part of the process. We have to trust ourselves.

Follow this mantra: Keep. It. Simple.

Keep it simple means that we get out of our own way. We aren’t overly critical of ourselves in the early stages. We keep an open mind to all possibilities. We choose movements and combinations that our bodies love to dance, not moves that we think we should be using or that are beyond our skill level. Keep it simple works because we can (and will) add complexity later. Keep it simple is just our path to get us there.

Before We Begin

The music comes first. Choosing the right song is crucial! The music you select should inspire you, be appropriate for your skill level, and be sensitive to the cultures it represents. Give this some thought before you begin. To start, you can  read my blog article about selecting the right music.

Give yourself plenty of time. Rushing the creative process to meet a deadline is stressful! You’ll have more space to experiment, more opportunities to be innovative, and a better chance of enjoying the experience if you work with a longer timeline.

Use the techniques that work for you (and ignore the ones that don’t). We all have a different way of learning, and inspiration may come to us in different ways. Experiment with the techniques listed here to see what resonates with you. Don’t add unnecessary work by using every technique in this article. <– Shameless plug: Next month I’ll be discussing how to make your learning style work for you. Check back here in September!

Consider keeping  a journal. You can write down (or video!) your thoughts as you go through the process. It’s helpful for remembering where you left off at your last practice, and for noting ideas you’d like to incorporate later or even in another piece.

Relax. Creativity works best when the mind is clear. Find space in your day when you can set aside your to-do list and life’s demands. You may also find it helpful to begin your practice with a short breathing exercise or a few minutes of meditation.

A frame for your creativity

Step 1: Explore Creatively

The first stage in the process of creating choreography is like brainstorming. This is when we want to be inspired, to be open to lots of possibilities, and to withhold judgement. This is also the stage when we really dive deep into the music, getting to know its nuances and complexities. You might find it helpful to commit to time, not goals (Instead ofI will choreograph the first minute of this song” think “I will spend an hour working on the choreography today”). Be kind and patient with yourself!

  • Improvise. Dance to the music without any expectations and see what happens naturally. If you’d like, you can even use a video camera for later review. Make notes about anything that felt or looked right. It’s okay to note challenging sections too, just remember to withhold judgement.
  • Map the music. This can really help you learn the music at a deeper level. Name each section and note where sections repeat. Mark any interesting accents or melodies. Note rhythm changes or difficult transitions. Later, your map may help you decide where you’d like to repeat sections of choreography, and where you’d like to accentuate contrast.
  • Create a movement bank. Listen to the music and envision the dance in your mind. Write down any moves or combinations you hear along the way. Create a list that you can reference later if you get stuck.
  • Work with a friend. Together you may discover new possibilities that neither of you had thought of before. A friend can help you brainstorm movements, or simply be your sounding board as you talk your ideas out aloud. Make sure, however, that you don’t rely upon him or her to do the work for you.

Structure is strength

Step 2: Strengthen with Structure

Now we’ll take the fruits of our brainstorming efforts and begin to organize them more formally. This is where we start forming combinations, playing with transitions, and thinking about how all the pieces fit together as a whole.

  • Start with sections. This means you don’t have to start at the beginning and then work your way through to the end. Choreograph each section of the music discretely, then build the bridges between sections with solid transitions.
  • Repetition is good.  Untrained eyes in your audience will need repetition to take in all the complexity of your movements, and even trained eyes enjoy seeing repeated combinations. When a section of the music repeats, your choreography should acknowledge it in some way. It’s your choice whether to repeat choreography strictly, move by move, or to add a little variation. It can be as simple as changing the direction or orientation of your movements. Another idea is to keep the overall structure but change specific isolations.
  • Add interest with contrast and texture. These elements give your choreography depth. Contrast can be achieved by breaking patterns, changing the mood or level of energy, or accentuating differences in the music. Texture can be added through variations in arm positions, level changes, body orientation and angle, and through floor patterns.
  • Pay attention to your transitions. After all, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is really where you define your own style as a dancer. Transitions are simply how you get from A to B: between two movements, two combinations, two sections of the music, two moods. You can aim for seamlessness, and the audience arrives at B from A without having noticed. You can also deliberately add contrast, by making transitions sharp (but these are best used sparingly).
  • Spend time on the macro and micro. This is the key to making your choreography balanced. Macro elements are the big picture. It’s how your choreography flows from high energy sections to slow, reflective sections. It’s the symmetry of repeating combinations, giving equal weight to different parts of the room, and having diversity in movement. It’s how props are introduced, carried through, and discarded. Then there’s the micro elements, or the details. These elements include building combinations, the transitions between them, and their presentation.
  • It’s okay to be a hybrid. There’s nothing wrong with fusing choreography and improvisation together. You can create a macro structure and leave the details to improv. Or you can create a flow of movements and then improvise how and where you’ll carry them out in the performance space.

Polish to gold

Step 3: Refine and Polish

We’re ready to add the finishing touches – these are the details that will take your choreography from “nice” to “WOW!”. This is also the stage where it’s okay to be a constructive critic. Just remember that it’s the choreography that is being critiqued (“This shimmy isn’t working there… I need something that can let me travel”) not the dancer (“I can’t shimmy… I look awful”).

  • Make use of technology. Use that video camera or smart phone to record your performance! It’ll let you tease apart the areas that still need work, and it’ll show you what you look like without the aid of a mirror.
  • Get some feedback. A peer can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in a choreography. This is also a great time to schedule a private lesson with a teacher (in person or even online!) Getting overall impressions is useful, but you may also ask for help on specific areas or sections.
  • Consider expression and mood. Remember that through dance you can convey all the emotions of the soul, from celebratory joy to tragic loss. There’s also your approach, which can be flirty, mischievous, sensual, introspective, mysterious, or strong. Think about your body language or other cues you can give the audience. This is quite an in depth topic, but one we’ll surely explore in a later post!
  • Think about the presentation as a whole. How can you use costuming and makeup to accentuate the mood or movements? How you can use the venue’s performance space to your advantage? How will you introduce this piece to the audience?

 

I can’t promise you that after reading this blog article you’ll love creating choreography, nor do I think there are any tips I can give you that will make the process magically happen for you. In fact, I think it’s healthy to get frustrated, even to hate, the process sometimes (it shows that you’re being challenged, which means you’re growing as a dancer). Instead, I hope that this article may guide your approach and help you make the most of your creativity.

Well then! Now that you have a finished piece it’s time to really learn it. Check out my article on how to learn (and remember!) choreography for the stage.

Thanks to Burtn and night-fate-stock for the stock images.

 


Coming in September: We all have different learning styles. Find out which one works for you and how to use it in your study of belly dance.

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Categories
Most Popular Opinions

Is Belly Dance Sexy?

How to Embrace Sensuality When Words are Traps

Belly Dancer Belly“Now, stand with your pelvis in neutral, feet hip width apart, and knees bent” I told my class of Advanced Beginner students as I showed them a Figure 8. “Don’t do this,” I added, taking my legs wider apart and tilting my pelvis forward. “That’s okay for the club, but it’s not okay here.” As usual my students giggled at my exaggerated impersonation of an ‘impolite’ belly dancer.

Then one of my students asked shyly, as if she was anticipating my disappointment, “But… I don’t understand. Belly dance is sexy, isn’t it? Why do we have to try so hard not to be sexy?”

She didn’t mean it as a challenge. She was simply puzzled by a complicated issue I had often struggled with myself, one that has shadowed our art ever since it was brought to the Western world. Where does sexy belong in belly dance? And what are we to do with it?

A Belly Dancer Named Goldilocks

It’s always a harrowing walk along the edge of the knife for belly dancing professionals. We have to make our living, which means promoting ourselves and advertising our services to a general public that often is very misinformed about what we actually do. It can be difficult finding a common language that sells our classes and shows, but that still maintains an authentic connection to the art. If you lean too far one way, you’ll alienate potential students and customers who may not yet understand or appreciate authentic Middle Eastern culture. Lean too far the other way and… well, you know what kind of names are waiting for those belly dancers.

I don’t know about you, but I feel constantly burdened by the tension that exists between these two extremes. I’m always at the ready to defend my art, ever-anticipating a need to justify who I am and what I do. When I tell people I’m a belly dancer, I’ve come to expect that it will somehow give them permission to ask me personal questions they’d never ask another stranger, or even a close friend. I sometimes assume dancers of other mainstream and Western styles will be prejudiced against me. I often attribute rejections to be included in community events and exclusions from teaching at certain studios to be a judgement of me or my trade.

As I drove home that evening after class, I couldn’t help but think that I had, in some ways, failed in my duties as an instructor. In their studies I had encouraged my students to find the beauty and power, to respect the level of dexterity that it demanded, and to show them expressions of joy, humor, and even tragedy. But in my battle-ready preparedness to defend my art I had not encouraged them to embrace their sensuality. It wasn’t that I thought belly dance shouldn’t be sexy, it was that I assumed they already had connected the two. Or rather, I assumed what they knew about sex and belly dance was overdeveloped and that I, at the least, had to show them other dimensions of the dance, if not tone down the perception that already existed. I was coming to realize, however, that it wasn’t just that Americans tended to oversex belly dance, it was that their idea of sexiness was very different than the sensuality in belly dance. In other words, it wasn’t just the volume, it was the melody of the music, too.

An Ill-Advised Search

In the coming months I thought a lot about sexuality, sensuality, and belly dance. I even did a few searches on Google (I wouldn’t try it unless you are prepared!) to see what happened when I put the terms “sex” and “belly dance” together. In the top ten results there were a few links I didn’t dare click. In others, a teenage boy asked on Yahoo Answers if belly dancers made the best sex partners, to which the replies, also from other young men, unanimously agreed that they were. The experience was so sensationally crazy, one suggested, as to break his equipment. There was also a blog article from a feminist author that questioned whether or not belly dance supported or contradicted stereotypical roles for women, a tutorial “How to Belly Dance Your Way to Better Sex,” and in a forum where, again, the experience of having sex with a belly dancer was being discussed, a woman claiming she was just beginning to take belly dance classes joined the conversation and promised “to use [her] powers for good and not evil. ::wink::”.

It’s particularly frustrating to read these discussions when you think about how many double standards exist. Certainly, more skin is shown in professional ice skating (when there’s even more reason to bundle up!), and yet the sport is an esteemed tradition in Olympic competitions. There’s actual physical contact between partners in ballroom dancing but, at least in this day and age, the waltz wouldn’t be excluded from any wholesome community event. Other exercises that improve physical health, even some that probably do much more for improving sexual health like Yoga, are celebrated by doctors, physical therapists, and psychologists. I’m not going to discuss how and why these double standards came to exist (because there’s already great articles about that), but I think it’s important to acknowledge how challenging they can be.

*I happen to love ice skating, ballroom dancing, and yoga, so I am by no means suggesting that these are not legitimate pursuits. In fact, all of them are great for physical conditioning, and all are beautiful art forms, too.

It’s a Trap!

Why are these perceptions so damaging? Certainly most belly dancers would prefer not to be treated like strippers or prostitutes. But the real dangers, in my opinion, are in the limitations it imposes. In American culture being sexy is a trap. It’s a characteristic of the “other” entertainment, the kind that didn’t get to your television or to the stage by the merits of requiring dedication, talent, creativity, or vision. When entertainment is defined exclusively by its sexiness, it’s value is judged by the physical attributes of the performers, not by their skills.

This means that:

  • To be a good belly dancer, you should fit the American stereotype of an attractive woman. You should be thin, toned, and young. You should have flawless skin, thick shiny hair, and… well, you know. Go open a magazine.
  • The art of the dance goes unnoticed. The preparation and work given to each performance is overlooked. Your technique, your creativity of interpretation, your strength and poise, are relatively meaningless.
  • You’re limited in your expressions. You can be sexy, but you can’t use the dance to celebrate a joyful moment, interpret the loss of a loved one, show triumph over a challenging obstacle, connect to a higher being, share in a sisterhood, or anything else. Even sexy is limited to the American interpretation of being very loud, aggressive, and accessible.

It’s therefore easy to see why ‘polite’ belly dancers shy away from the label of “sexy”. It’s a dangerous one.

But Belly Dance Is Sexy, Isn’t It?

Yes, it can be! But it can be sexy in a way that embraces womanhood in all stages of life, no matter who she is or what she looks like. It can be sexy in the way she dances, the dedicated practice, the creative vision, and the energy that is invested, not what her body looks like through the performance. It can be sexy, but through an entire range of feminine expressions from cheerful celebrations to quiet lamentations, moments of hopelessness to surges of triumph, it can be many other things, too.

To my students: I encourage you to embrace sensuality in your dance, because it is a natural part of the human experience. But I ask that you first examine, and expanded upon, your previous conceptions of sexuality. Be wary of the limitations that “sexy” imposes. Continue to learn about and advocate for belly dance as an art. You have a responsibility to represent it as such to the greater community.

To other professionals: I encourage you to have a “birds and the bees” talk with your students. Let them discuss their ideas about what sexiness means to them and how it relates to belly dance in an environment that is supportive and judgement free. Remember that you’re not just turning down the volume, as I did for years, but also trying to change the melody. Sensuality in belly dance is not always bad.

What do you think?

Does sexy have a place in belly dance? How do you manage perceptions? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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Categories
Branding and Professional Image Most Popular

5 Creative Approaches to Writing a Stage Introduction

Gerson Kuhr, the “Fitness Pharaoh”, as emcee for a bellydance show in Silver Spring, MD.

You’ve worked really hard to make sure every detail is perfect for this performance. The costuming and make-up, your song selection, the choreography… each took hours of careful planning, hard-earned sweat, and maybe even a few tears. Don’t let all your work go to waste, take the time to write a good stage introduction!

What is a stage introduction? The stage introduction, sometimes called the emcee notes or dancer’s bio, is how your routine is announced to the audience. It’s the ‘who you are and what you’re doing’ that may be read by a live MC, pre-recorded, or printed in the show program. If you’re dancing in an organized show, you’ll probably submit your introduction with your music and contact details. If you’re performing at a professional gig, you may be asked if you want anything announced before you enter.

Why is it important? The stage introduction is often your first impression on the audience. It’s a chance to get their attention, set the mood, and raise the level of anticipation.

So let’s walk through some important considerations before we begin. Then we’ll look at a few creative writing approaches, with examples of how each may by used. We’ll finish with some general tips on style.

Considerations:

  • What’s the format? Will your intro be in a printed program, read by a live emcee, or both? If you know your intro is going to appear in print, then you can ask the show organizer if it would be okay to include a link to your website (or your teacher’s!) in your intro. It’s a great way to get free advertising. If your intro is being read by a live emcee, you may want to consider including a phonetic guide to pronouncing any difficult names.
  • Who is your audience? The purpose of the intro is to provide context for your audience, to help them connect to you and your work. You’ll first have to understand who they are to be successful. Are the people in your audience traditional American, or do they generally belong to a particular ethnicity, culture, or other socioeconomic group? What is their level of experience with bellydance? Will this be their first time seeing a live bellydancer?
  • What’s the venue? Is this a formal gathering, or something more casual? The tone of your writing should compliment the tone or mood of the event.

Approaches:

  • Educational: Explaining a few of the historical or cultural background details related to your performance. This works great for audiences that are new to bellydancing, or for haflas where there are often students in the audience that are learning about different styles and traditions. It also works nicely for folkloric routines.

Ancient dancers in Egypt, Greece, and Turkey held percussive instruments in their hands during religious and secular ceremonies. These instruments would later come to resemble the modern belly dancer’s finger cymbals. Tonight, Ananke fuses the traditional playing of finger cymbals with New Age world music in a routine that features some jazzy rhythms.

  • Translation: Summarizing a translation of the lyrics to set the mood or tone. This can add depth to your interpretation, especially when the singer relates an interesting story or parable. It also works well for traditional American audiences that may feel disconnected to foreign music.

Ananke interprets a Turkish pop song in which singer Tarkan pines for a woman that is a bit of a tease, and who also happens to be with another man.

  • Dedication: Dedicating the performance to a teacher or inspirational figure, or to a friend or family member. This works well for emotive pieces, especially when the routine demonstrates a quality of the person you are celebrating or remembering.

Ananke dedicates this performance to her good friend Jeanine, who taught her that life’s most valuable lessons are those that are the most hard-won.

  • Provide a setting: Using imagery to evoke a particular scene in space or time. This works well for non-traditional fusion pieces with a particular theme, as well as historic folkloric routines. Here’s one I used for a Halloween show:

On this moonless night you have been summoned to witness upon this stage a dark covenant. From the shadows emerge creatures who conjure around the ghostly flames and take pleasure in ghastly tricks and treats.

  • Use humor: People have a good time when they laugh. Use a bit of humor to engage an audience before a light or playful routine.

Ananke will perform a sizzling drum solo, a traditional component of the Cabaret line-up involving precise isolations that require intense practice and drills. These shimmies are sure to leave you (and her!) breathless.

Tips:

  • Keep it short! Less than four sentences is great.
  • Pick just one of the above approaches (or your own!) and do it well. Don’t overcomplicate the message.
  • If you need to include biographical information (like how long you’ve been dancing, who you study from, etc.), then try to creatively weave it into your approach. Avoid sentences like, “Salimah has been dancing for three years.” when you could write, “In three years of dancing Salimah has learned that the most challenging pieces are easiest to interpret with a veil in her hands.”
  • It is proper for student-level dancers to acknowledge their teachers, and to acknowledge the choreographer of the routine if it is not yours.
  • Remember to write in the third person, “Ananke dances…”, instead of “I dance…”, so that it makes sense when the emcee reads it. And don’t forget to include your name somewhere!
  • Use the present or future tense, “Ananke is performing…” or “Ananke will perform.”
  • Try to use an active voice, it sounds much more powerful. “The routine features…” instead of “… is featured in the routine.”
  • Save the introductions you write so that you can reference (and reuse!) them later.

Happy writing!

Categories
Health & Wellbeing Most Popular

8 Benefits of Belly Dance You Didn’t Know About

There’s a reason that dance is found in every culture. Modern science has only begun to examine the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits that have held intuitive value in human society throughout all history. In short, dancing makes you a better human being in body, mind, and soul.

The benefits of belly dancing you didn't know about!

The General Benefits of Dance

The Physical. You probably know that dance, like many aerobic activities, is great for burning calories and toning muscles. Unlike a standard gym equipment workout, however, practitioners also work on balance, coordination, and flexibility. These forms of conditioning are essential to creating better body awareness, improving posture, and preventing injury. This powerful fitness combination is an effective booster for heart health, immune system response, hormone regulation, and blood circulation. That is why…

1. Dancers have brighter, clearer skin. A benefit of better circulation and enhanced oxygen to skin cells. Maximize your skin’s potential by drinking lots of water especially before, during, and after dance class. Slough off dead skin cells regularly in the shower with a loofah and gentle exfoliant.

2. Dancers sleep better. Whole-body health and wellness is associated with an increased ability to follow natural cycles. For the best sleep, try for at least a half hour of dance or other physical activity every day. Do not dance just before bedtime, though.

The Mental. Dance is mentally stimulating, as well. Having to synchronize the movements of different muscle groups improves motor skills. The aesthetics of the art are tied to spatial geometry, and the practitioner must be aware of and learn to create shapes and lines with their bodies. This is why it’s hard to be bored in dance class, and it’s also why…

3. Dancers have good memory. Mental alertness and functioning is stimulated during a time when increased oxygen is being delivered to brain cells. Be sure to challenge yourself both physically and mentally with your dance practice and change up your routine as often as you can. If you normally improvise, try creating a choreography (and vice versa). Take apart your go-to combinations and create some new ones.

The Emotional. Dance is a well recognized form of psychotherapy used primarily for its ability to promote healthy body image, positive social interactions, and confidence. It is also a notable form of stress relief and management. These benefits are especially important to the modern woman, who is bombarded by unrealistic standards of female beauty by mainstream media. Moms are the new unsung superheros of today, expected to fulfill roles both within and without the domestic sphere. Many women are drawn to dance for its social and emotional benefits, and it’s also why…

4. Dancers make better decisions. Stress is linked to procrastination and impulsiveness, both of which can lead to making poor choices. A person of healthy mind is better able to weigh the facts and consequences, and is more likely to give up immediate satisfaction for long-term benefit. For dancers this is especially true with body-related decisions such as wearing a seat belt, choosing not to smoke, and practicing safe sex.

Did you know… that there are ‘dancer’ genes? A study published in the American Journal by psychologist Richard P. Ebstein and colleagues revealed that dancers consistently differed from the general public at two key gene locations. Interestingly enough, these genes had little to do with physical ability. Instead they were associated with a personality that tends to communicate through symbolism, and to attach a ceremonial or spiritual connection to this communication.

The Unique Benefits of Belly Dance

Within the spheres of different dances there are unique benefits. Belly dance emphasizes fine articulation of the core, pelvis, and gluteal muscle groups. These are stimulated in several ways. Movements like shimmies utilize a rapid contraction and release mechanism, while circles and eights tend to elongate and strengthen muscles simultaneously. This is why..

Ananke with a assaya (cane)5. Belly dancers digest better. We move muscles of the abdominal and pelvis region which massages deeper internal organs. The result is better intestine and colon health. Remember, though, to leave at least an hour or two after eating before you practice. Having food content in the stomach while dancing can make one nauseous!

6. Belly dancers have less intense menstrual cramps. Strengthening of pelvic muscle groups and improvements in blood circulation help prevent cramps over time. However, practicing belly dance can also relieve cramps when they occur. It’s even recommend by the Kotex brand.

7. Belly dancers experience less back pain. Back pain is now reported by over 80% of adults, and the numbers continue to increase as our lives become increasingly sedentary. Relief can be found, however, by strengthening the deep core muscles that cushion and support the spine. This is why it is especially important to always practice with good posture, otherwise dancing may instead aggravate an existing back condition.

8. Belly dancers experience easier child-birth. Belly dance has been used in Arabic cultures to condition women for child birth for hundreds of years. Studies now confirm that belly dance, through its strengthening and lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles, is in fact great pre and post natal exercise. Increased blood circulation to these regions also delivers more oxygen to the developing fetus. Women who are pregnant, or who plan to become pregnant, should consult their doctor first to make sure belly dance as a prenatal exercise is appropriate for their body.

 


Ananke Professional Belly Dancer

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Disclaimer: So you might have noticed that I made a few generalizations in this article. It’s important to remember that the benefits of ‘movement therapy’ can only be experienced with a commitment to regular, continued practice. While most people will certainly experience some of these benefits, they are not likely to experience them all. This guide is meant to alert you to many of the potential benefits of belly dancing, allowing you to create a practice that serves your needs best.

References and Further Information:

  1. al Musa, M. (2011). Birth preparation using belly dance. Women and Birth, 24, S29-S30.
  2. Belly dancing can help beat back pain. (Aug2010).Dance Dynamic, 11.
  3. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2006, February 13). Are Dancers Genetically Different Than The Rest Of Us? Yes, Says Hebrew University Researcher. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2006/02/060213183707.htm
  4. Moore, C. (Spring2005). BELLY DANCE & BIRTH. Midwifery Today, (73), 28-29.
  5. Moreside, J. M., Vera-Garcia, F. J., & McGill, S. M. (2008). Neuromuscular independence of abdominal wall muscles as demonstrated by middle-eastern style dancers. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 18(4), 527-537.
  6. Orecklin, M. (2002). SHAKIN’ ALL OVER. Time, 160(18), 56.
  7. Shephard, R. J., & Balady, G. J. (1999). Exercise as Cardiovascular Therapy. Circulation, 99(7), 963 -972. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.99.7.963