Why dance?

What’s the point of dance? Why do I keep coming back? These are questions that I’ve been asking myself quite a bit of late, as I grapple with the effects of growing older on my movement and limited time from having a day job. I am someone who is extremely goal-driven. Right now I have no goals related to dance, so I am struggling to figure out what’s next and why I keep coming back. I’ve been getting movement from other activities, such as barre. I’ve been creating in other formats. (I’ve been making jewelry. If such things interest you, I invite you to checkout my store.) So why does dance specifically continue to matter.

The answer is both exactingly complicated and beautifully simple. I dance because it’s in my soul. I have danced as long as I can remember. Feeling rhythm in my body brings an effervescent joy moving through my entire being. I can’t explain why, but some of my happiest moments have been on the dance floor. While I enjoy the results of a good barre or Pilates class, I can’t say  either has ever left me feeling “bubbly”. And so I keep going. I keep looking for ways to move through my dance. I keep searching for a new goal.

Live, Love, Dance

“Success” Today

My physical practice ebbs and flows, but it’s always present. Lately though, there’s been a lot of ebbing. I’ve still been going to rehearsals, and a couple of cross-training classes each week, but for me that’s as little as I can get away with moving. Less movement than this base level, and I experience physical pain. I can tell I’m hitting my minimum movement threshold because recently my lumbar has made its voice heard. My sacriliac joint has insisted that I not sit in a standard chair. I attended a dance performance last night and awas barely able to sit through the whole thing.  And I’ve been noticing. It’s time to start flowing again.

I’ve given myself a goal: 15 minutes of dance-related movement every day. For my dance, barre and yoga count. Spin class does not. (High-intensity cardio is great for my health but has less effect on my dance.)  And on days that I have no class or rehearsal scheduled, I commit to putting other activities aside for 15 minutes and moving. This 15 minutes can be drilling ATS® combos, practicing a fusion piece for a coming performance, or even just stretching. I should be able to accomplish this goal even through most illness or injury.

Today is my first day since setting this goal that I have no class or rehearsal scheduled with others. Today is the first day that I have no accountability to anyone but myself. Today is also Father’s Day, so I have many other items on my schedule. Today, success means that I will spend some time moving in my studio. In spite of all the other things going on, in spite of no risk of disappointing anyone else, and in spite of other artistic pursuits calling my attention, I will hold myself accountable for my 15 minutes.

My studio awaits

What exactly is “Fusion”?

The subject of “what is Fusion” has come up several times for me recently. It’s been a topic of discussion with other Fusion dancers, and a topic of debate with dancers of other styles of belly dance. I don’t think that there is a single answer, but I would like to address some of the comments that I’ve heard and usages that I’ve seen. I think that it’s important to come to an understanding of what it is and is not to continue to elevate our dance form.

Transnational Fusion (sometimes Tribal Fusion Belly Dance) is my favorite dance style. The fluidity and freedom of movement that it offers me drive my creativity and desire to grow and develop as an artist. Fusion demands a great deal from me in terms of training and ongoing practice, but it repays that work in full with continuing inspiration to learn one more thing. My dance has evolved a great deal over the years. I have moved from incorporating yoga and modern-inspired moves into a sword piece to creating dance to accompany storytelling and lectures in exploration and celebration of the history of belly dance. And it is Fusion that has enabled my journey.

Dictionary.com defines “fusion” as: “that which is fused; the result of fusing”. And while it does not define my dance, it also offers: “popular music that is a blend of two styles, especially a combining of jazz with either rock, classical music, or such ethnic elements as Brazilian or Japanese music”. What is interesting about the second option is that the elements being fused are clearly definable. I would offer that in the bodies of skilled practitioners, Fusion dance is a blend of two (or more) styles of dance, with a dancer that is fully cognizant of what is being fused. In an ideal situation, those skilled practitioners are equally proficient in everything that they fuse. More likely, they are highly skilled in one form, but have studied the other forms that they are blending. Regardless, they have a clear understanding of the elements in play.

Fusion is not a catch all-term for “I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just going to call it ‘fusion’.”  There are many problems with this approach. If a dancer does not know what the term is for the art they are performing, they are likely also not sufficiently skilled in any of the forms that they are blending. I think that this is fine for presentation at a student hafla, for example, but hopefully even the student dancer is aware of their lack of knowledge. Fusion is also not a label of convenience for dance with sloppy movement. A lack of drilling and technique should not morph “raqs sharqi” into “fusion”. Each style, performed well, requires a great degree of practice and resulting expertise.

Today, dancers can take classes in Fusion instead of the “pure” dance forms that they then blend on their own. These classes vary a great deal, but do have some underlying threads. Most Fusion classes incorporate a muscular approach to belly dance isolations. Most will call out moves borrowed from other belly dance and other dance forms. These elements are important as they help dancers understand the rich breadth of movement in use today, as well as what is appropriate (or inappropriate) to do in front of a given audience.

Personally, I am proficient in Oriental style belly dance. I’m working on proficiency in American Tribal Style®. I have also studied Jazz, Modern, and some ethnic/folkloric Middle Eastern dance. I know which moves that I use in my own choreography are influenced by which style. (This awareness also helps me understand which moves are going to be foreign to the bodies of other dancers based on their experience.) As a teacher, I feel that it is essential to help my students understand the origin of a movement. It’s all work to learn these things. But work is essential for professional (and even semi-professional) dancers in any form.

Photo by Dave Stagner

A lesson for the teacher

I’ve mostly been teaching private lessons lately. Between the day job, not needing to rent space, and a few other things, they just work better. Recently, I had one of my transnational fusion students ask me to teach her American Tribal Style (ATS ®) during her lessons instead. For those unfamiliar with ATS, it is a planned improvisational style of dance where dancers learn a finite set of combinations and formations, and cue each other as to which move to do next mid-performance. She’s heard me extoll the benefits of ATS, like the strong component of community (a post for another day) and those appealed to her. As I just completed my Teacher Training certification, I agreed.

This student has studied with me for a very long time. She is a wonderfully expressive dancer who has battled with a few physical issues over the years. My insistence on proper (and healthy) technique is one of the reasons that she comes to me.  This is one way that I generally give my perfectionism free reign. It has served me well to insist on proper alignment for myself and my students, and to help students find the right positioning for their bodies.

On the day of our first official ATS class, I threw a whole lot of information at her. I gave her  4 weeks’ worth of information in an hour, and she absorbed it like a sponge. I did this because her previous dance experience allowed her to grasp the information easily, and because it was enough information to start dancing. Through the hour, we talked through the 4 basic movements, rules for formations, how take a turn leading the group, and how to change the leader. As we walked through each item, I corrected her technique both for alignment and the stylization that is used in ATS. I helped her practice the path that she would follow to move in and out of formations. I gave her tricks to help her remember some of the details that are more difficult for a fusion dancer to remember. I talked her through the corrections. She did it all, and adjusted the things we discussed. And  then it was time to dance.

I put on an appropriate “fast” song and took the lead position. She stepped in behind me and we started to move. We went through each of the basic moves, and then I shifted the lead. We talked a bit as we danced, me helping her remember some of the details. She took the lead, we did two moves together, then she turned to hand the lead role back to me. I led us through a bit more, then gave her another opportunity to try leading. She didn’t take it. We talked briefly about how to take the front rank, and kept dancing. Then I yielded the position again. We circled around and this time, she took the lead spot, but not quite the way she should. She led us through a few more moves until the song ended.

I turned off the music, and turned to explain exactly how to move into position. But she looked at me, and I stopped. The look of sheer joy on her face kept me from uttering a single word. What I had to say didn’t matter. That minor detail was immaterial in the face of all that bliss. Because regardless of the rules, the technique, and the formations, we had danced. We had shared a perfect moment in the music and enjoyed every bit of it. And that moment reminded me why I keep going back, why I work so hard, and what it feels like to join with other dancers and move. I told my inner perfectionist to shove off and hugged her. A “perfect” transition to lead can wait for another day.

Saying “Yes, and…”

Criticism is hard to take, especially for a recovering perfectionist. I frequently find myself denying any correction offered by teachers in workshops that I attend. But then I remind myself that the critique is why I’m here. I’ve paid good money to be told that I’m wrong. So instead of immediately  begrudging the teach telling me that I’m locking my elbow out in a floreo, I should listen to what’s being offered. I’m working to say, “Yes.”

I am currently attending ATS® General Skills. I have been dancing a long time, so my form is generally pretty good. But I have only been doing ATS for a couple of years. That form is imperfect. Most of the time, I know a different way to do a particular move. Today, I found myself getting frustrated by floreos. I could see that I was missing something because my timing was off. During a break, I asked one of the teachers to help me figure out what was wrong. She very patiently helped me figure out that I was “missing half the move”. I had originally learned floreos as being about the circle of the wrist. In ATS, the move is about the circle of the fingers. Because I focused on the wrist, my fingers short the top half of the circle from an ATS perspective. During the next drill, I went back to my spot and really focused on getting the fingers right. Another teacher came over and told me that I was locking out my elbow. My internal monologue said, “No I’m not. I’m just focusing on my fingers. There’s no elbow lock occurring.”

But I’ve been here before. I remembered a recent piece of advice from another teacher, Jill Parker. She said, “Don’t let your ego get in the way of your learning.” Instead of ignoring the information, I put it in my back pocket and kept working on my fingers. A couple of hours, and several drill sessions later, my fingers were noticeably improved. I was ready to revisit the locking out comment. I worked my refined finger technique, and watched my elbow. It was straightening ever so slightly, and dipping when I flipped my fingers over in my new-found improvements. The comment clicked, along with one that another teacher had said. I now had a new thing to work, along with my fingers.

I already said yes to this training. I said yes to learning a new style of dance. Class is the time to also say yes to help offered. This is how to get your money’s worth.

Crossing boundaries, pt. 1

One of my biggest motivations in life is pushing into new territory. I love to learn new things, to push past physical limitations, and even to challenge my own perceptions. This is not always easy, but it is important for me and I find it intrinsically rewarding. I don’t need another reason beyond doing or knowing something new.

For my dance, this means that I am always willing to work on pushing to the next level. But what constitutes “the next level” is not static. My level of fitness waxes and wanes as for a variety of reasons: season, day job, illness, interest in sedentary pursuits like research and costuming. I rarely am completely inactive, but there is a big difference between taking the dogs for a mile-long stroll and commuting to work by bike, a 25+ mile round trip. So I do find myself looking to “reset” and restart my physical practice. And now is one of those times. I find myself thinking about what my goals are, and my upcoming week, and looking for the best place to start. My goal is the boundary that I need to cross, but I need to start on the path to get there.

For this week, that means focusing on 3 things: Restarting my ATS practice (which has gotten rather lax), Making a better effort to attend an alternate cabaret class when I can’t make my favorite, and getting in a few bike rides to up my cardio. We’ll see how the next couple of weeks go.

Revisiting

This post rambles a bit, but it’s more about documenting my process. I’ve been absent from blogging of late because I’ve been working on other projects. And in the melée of working through those projects, I’ve found my creative juices flowing once again. Deadlines help, but so does devouring voluminous source material. I’ve spent the last couple of months creating 2 new pieces, and reading a large pile of books as research.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself revisiting previous interests and discovering new sources of inspiration. On a personal level, I’ve been coloring in ways that explore the relationship of colors with each other and explore the medium of markers. A small thing perhaps, but I’ve enjoyed the experimentation.  I’ve also joined a Chinese language and culture meet-up and started dusting off my extremely rusty language skills and meeting new people. Both of these ventures represent interests that were strong enough to spawn a college major, but have barely been used in recent years. I’ve also restarted my tarot studies, a long-term interest in my adult life.

On an artistic level, I’m finding a continued interest in the topic of Orientalism and the history of bellydance. Recently, I was fortunate enough to present the first in a 3-series workshop entitled Dancing through History to a very eager audience. It was a combination of lecture and dance. This lecture focuses on the era of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the resulting dance (mostly Orientalist in nature) found in the West. In the workshop, we then strolled to both the Fair’s Street in Cairo and Algerian Village exhibits to try on the folkloric movement presented there. This research, in turn, has spurred an idea for a 15-minute long piece called Unveiled that looks at the topic of Orientalism on a more personal level. My dance partner and I are proposing the piece for an upcoming showcase. Let’s see if it gets accepted. This would likely be the most ambitious work I’ve undertaken for someone else’s show. Wish us luck.

Orientalist movie poster from 1924

Sorting through the blocks

I feel blocked lately. It’s not that I haven’t had ideas. I’ve just had a hard time taking those ideas to fruition.  I’ve had choreographies that I’m working on come to an abrupt halt. I’ve got a couple of blog posts that I’ve started and just don’t seem to be going anywhere. I’ve got an idea for a show that is thus far still a vague mist that has yet to condense into a solid kernel that I can develop. Sometimes all this stalling out makes me feel like I’m accomplishing nothing. I thought I’d take a minute to list projects that have been a bit more successful in the last few months to remind myself of the truth.

For the athlete and technician, I have improved my ankle and arch stability immensely in the last few months. I’ve been going to barre class at least twice a week, and my relevé no longer rolls out. My arabesque is much less likely to wobble. My turns are steadier. Also, I have been working on learning American Tribal Style ® dance. My ATS has improved markedly. Just yesterday, I felt reasonably confident taking a turn at leading in this improv style of dance. This was the first time I’ve done so.

For the artist, I’ve been focusing on other arts. I knit a lap blanket for donation to a local senior citizen for the holidays. I am almost done knitting a second lap blanket as a present for a friend. I have plans for 2 new ATS bras and a new belt to round out my costuming. I’ve gathered the materials for these pieces and am ready to begin as soon as the second blanket is complete. Work continues on the show as I forge ahead with the gathering. At this point, my gathering is in the forming of emotions and experiences. I’ve been journaling in earnest of late as I sort through my feelings around the current prsidency and the things that are happening in our culture as a result. I hope that these feelings will be easier to sort and categorize with a little distance, but the ability to read what I felt in the moment. I’ve also continued with trying to make the world a softer place, another aspect of gathering experiences today. I’ve aranged a stitch & bitch for friends that included a service project. A local organization, The Family Project, requests decorated journals for its counseling clients to use. (I called us Crafting Corner for their purposes. Much easier to publish in their annual report.) We spent the first part of the stitch & bitch decorating journals. We completed 10 journals for their clients. The service project was popular with both the creators and The Family Project, so I’m planning another stitch & bitch for later this month.

And for fun, I’ve restarted my tarot studies. I’ve also discovered the joy of checking electronic books out of the local library, and read a few memoirs and novels with a bit more substance than my usual brain candy choices when I’m not “studying”.

When I step back and sort my blocks, I can see that I’ve quite a pile, and many have a firm foundation. So the challenge, it would seem, is to figure out how to perhaps use some of these other roads to get around them.

The shape of things to come

It’s a few days after President Trump’s inauguration. I scroll through my Facebook feed and feel a myriad of emotions:

  • Frustration that so many people write off logic and science
  • Disbelief at people who have decided that antisemitism and racism are okay
  • Fear that my children won’t have decent, affordable health insurance
  • Anger at the misogyny and the insistence that old, white men know my body better than me
  • Humor at the trolling (I admit I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy, and Trump offers a lot of material.)
  • Desire to go out and make it all better

Through it all, it is this last that I feel strongest. Moreso than before the election, I have been looking for the little ways I can help. I’ve sought out opportunities to help others. I’ve made many small donations to a variety of charities and causes that I believe in. I’ve been looking for ways to volunteer with a goal of making the world a softer place. And I know that I want to create art about all of this. I want to dance it out in a more meaningful way than dancing myself to exhaustion.

But right now, those emotions are so mixed and raw. The thoughts are fast, furious, and ephemeral. My ideas have yet to congeal into a firm shape. So for now I continue marching forward, exploring and forming. And I wait to see what is to come.

Retreating into technique

I’ve not posted much of late. I’ve even grown derelict in posting images on my Instagram account. I’m still doing something dance-related (more-or-less) every day. But what I’m doing is simply my personal technique practice. Repeated photos of the same DVDs or class or studio seem… less than compelling shall we say. While I am more than happy to wax poetic about shimmies or undulations to those who ask, it’s creation that yields the deepest interest for me and what I prefer to share. From conception to completion and every step along the way, it’s projects and what I learn in them that truly excite me. Technique feels easy, but barren. It is easy because there is a “right” and a “wrong”. It undoubtedly gets better with practice. So when I finish a major project, my default to retreat there. But now, it is time to once again stretch my creative brain. I have started playing with the nugget of an idea. So expect to see more soon. Because if I tell you to expect it, I have motivation and an obligation to follow through.

Image from IAI TV