Dance Everyday: an Invitation

I recently gave myself a challenge: do something dance-related everyday. That can mean many things:

  • Attending class
  • Reading a book to affect stagecraft
  • Watching videos for inspiration
  • Performing
  • Working out with performance enhancement in mind
  • Costuming

The list is endless. But mindfully engage in an activity related to my dance. And document it. I chose to use Instagram. It’s accessible in the sidebar, if you’d like to peruse my results. And the goal is not perfection. The goal is the process of learning and improving my dance, of inspiring myself to create, of dancing.

I invite you to join me. Choose your own method of documentation. But do document. It encourages accountability. Personally, I need the accountability. Feel free to share your preferred documentation here. I’d love to see what you’re doing!

Image from iwontdance.com

Image from iwontdance.com

The Great Shimmy Debate

In my studies of various styles of bellydance, I’ve come across 3 basic ways to drive a shimmy:

  • Obliques
  • Glutes
  • Knees/thighs

Each of these has its own look; and advantages and disadvantages.

Characteristics

The oblique shimmy tends to have a softer look to it. It’s produced by lengthening and shortening the internal obliques in opposition. Given the depth of the oblique muscles, the goal is to relax the muscles on top, resulting in an appearance of ease.

Trunk muscles

The glute shimmy looks a little sharper. It’s produced by using the lower part of the gluteous maximus, just above where the hamstring attaches to the bone. The movement tends to be more localized, and residual movement does not radiate out as much as it does for the other types.

The knee or thigh shimmy resembles the oblique shimmy in that it has a softer look. It’s produced by bending and straightening the legs in opposition, predominantly through the use of the quadriceps and hamstrings. It can also have a much more grounded appearance, with movement driven up from the floor. The movement requires no engagement of the torso area to create the effect.

Why limit yourself?

I’ve heard many people argue that their preferred shimmy is “the best”. To this I shrug, and wonder why there needs to be a “best”. The 3 are subtly different. As a dancer, why not learn how to do all of them, and understand the visual difference? This gives the dancer the most range of expression and musicality. Use a knee shimmy for an earthy, folkloric piece. Select a glute shimmy to match punctuation in the music or to provide contrast to smooth, sultry movement. Use an oblique shimmy for a piece that requires “ease”. Be sure to experiment. I find that different shimmies layer better with some movements than others.

If you’re a beginning dancer, learn your teacher’s approach. Perhaps even attend classes with more than one teacher and experience a different technique. Even now as a student, I will try to spend at least some of each class doing whichever shimmy is a given teacher’s preference.

If you’ve been dancing a while, embrace your own default for soloing. Pick the one that looks best on your body, along with your movement and music choices. Know how to layer well with that technique. Which shimmy you use matters more in a group choreography, in which case ask your choreographer’s preference. (They may even specify different approaches at different points.)

For me, I like the look of a glute shimmy best on my body. I don’t like the stomach reverb on me that comes with a well-done knee or oblique shimmy. But then, I’m a slightly larger dancer with a lot of loose skin from having twins. This is my choice. But I can switch to a knee shimmy without much of a thought as the music & mood dictate. I haven’t found much that I can’t accomplish with these two, but then I’m still working on my oblique shimmy. I may yet discover the move or layer that require it from me.

Daily practice or Jumping back on the wagon

Sometimes your daily practice gets sidelined. Perhaps you’ve been sick. Maybe you’ve done a different practice, such as attended a dance intensive workshop. Perhaps you’ve created and performed a show about the history of your dance. Any of these would be a good reason for temporarily letting go of your regular daily practice. In my case, the last 6 weeks have been filled with all of these things. But now, it’s time to get back on. The excuses are many: I’m still sick. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a movie. I even had to go to a visitation last night.

But then you reach a point where you just need to jump and grab on. I did my drills tonight for the first time in a while. I walked my dogs for a little light cardio. (I will still play the sick card here. Respiratory illness and asthma don’t play well with serious cardio.) I’m stretching as I type. I have two dance classes and one barre scheduled for the upcoming week. I’m working to schedule a rehearsal for Smiling Lune, and hopefully a second barre class as my regular one is cancelled over Monday’s holiday.  I also need to schedule time to choreograph.

And just like that, I’m back and holding on tight. Because it’s my practice, and I’m an adult. No one will tie me to the wagon. It’s my choice to hold tight or let it go. But what a ride if I stay!

Grab on as best you can

Grab on as best you can

Space

I’ve just spent the past week in the middle of the desert in northern New Mexico on a dance retreat with Mira Betz. Mira offers many types of intensives, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But her retreats are my favorites. Mornings give me a chance for some awesome fusion drilling and technique work. Afternoons and daily dance sketches give me an opportunity to push myself artistically. I should also say in full disclosure that for me, intensives are not about amazing breakthroughs. They are about  a concentrated dose of incremental work to help me progress my dance.

The focus this year was spaces. In the external realm, we created site-responsive dances. We did both a carefully planned one out in the desert, and more spontaneous dances at the fantastic Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. (One of my videos from the latter is posted below.) But it was the internal spaces that I explored that left the strongest mark on me.

My inner critic kept her damn mouth shut almost the entire week. I find it amazing that Mira was able to provide a space in which that voice was mostly silent. She encourages her students to test themselves, to support each other, and to try new and different things in support of their individual art. She gives them tools to do all of these things. But it is the student’s choice on which to pick up.  I chose to pick up all I could hold.

I found myself trying new things, exploring characters and movement that I might not have otherwise. I portrayed a character that was simply happy and in love, not something that I would typically do as many of my pieces tend to be a little darker. I discovered that I can still do a backward somersault, and performed one where it fit in a different piece that I created. I even fully participated in the site-responsive exercises, something that I started as a little resistant to. Even on day 3 (hump-day, for those unfamiliar with the emotional roller coaster of week-long intensives), when my inner critic was  closest to the surface, I was still able to fully participate and brush past what the critic was saying. As a result, I had one of my best intensives ever. I left with solid ideas to explore for 3 new pieces, and a desire to dive right in when I get back to the real world.

My internal space, my dance and creative home, is happy.

Finale – or not…

We finished our run at the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival last night with our show The History of (my) Dance. There are still 2 days left of the festival, and I will be relaxing, and enjoying shows during both. I’m sitting here, enjoying my lunch and a little down time, and trying to process a little of what this show has meant for me. I think I still have a ways to go in this regard.

Let me start by saying that this show has gotten the best audience reception out of the 5 that I’ve done. I’m very proud of this. But I also want to examine why. In some ways, the show was like any other. I started by giving myself a monumental challenge, and spent the past year meeting that challenge. This time, my challenges were to learn how to do personal storytelling, and to create dance that really nailed the emotions that I wanted to present. I think I succeeded at both, but have mastered neither. Audiences have consistently remarked on my vulnerability in the show, shared both through the storytelling and the dance. The fact that both of my challenges centered around vulnerability is perhaps the difference. These are things that I want to continue to explore in the future.

I end this run in a different headspace than I typically do. I frequently find myself depressed at the end of Fringe. Typically, the thing that I have given life to over the previous year or so, that I have poured my heart and soul into, has flown and died. That depression is probably a bit of mourning. This time, the show feels like a beginning.  I feel myself optimistically looking forward to where I can take it next. I think this one will be around a little while. And I feel hopeful and inspired to create more.

And for this and so much else, I am grateful.

Daily Drills #14

  1. “Kotyka” by Goulasch Excotica feat. EtnoRom – glutes & arms
  2. “Everlasting Light” by the Black Keys – smooth & locked
  3. “Hati Kass el Rah” by Helm – chest circles; focus on options: leaving the shoulders as quiet as possible, adding shoulder circles to enhance the chest, etc.
  4. “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant – downbeat: alternate glutes dbR & pelvic locks dbF; upbeat: alternate chest locks dbF & chest slides dbR

Daily Drills #14

 

The Choreographer Equation, or Process

Recently, the subject of my process has come up a couple of times in conversations with others. I thought I would ponder on this a bit and share the results here. I wrote this thinking about the works that I’m proudest of: Dancing with Death from 2011, and The Forgotten Angle from 2015. My guess is that The History of (my) Dance will join those ranks shortly. I’m gearing up for the final onslaught of activity on History. (We open in just under 2 weeks.)

The common equation is stated as “Artist + Athlete = Dancer”. But for me, the more important equation is “Academic + Artist + Athlete = Choreographer”. Stated another way, it’s simply mind, soul, and body working together to create art. I have always been a bit of an egghead. I think about and analyze stuff all the time. Conceptualization is at the core of my best work. Artistry and technique are also vital components, but it’s thought that lives at the center.

My shows always start with a simple idea. But there’s a long way to go from conception to finished project. I take the idea and journal about it. I see where it leads me. Once I have an idea that I like, I create a rough flow for how I envision the final piece. This is basically an outline, one-liners that define different components. This is rarely the final form, but it is an important step that gives me a general trajectory for my next step, research.

I read. A lot. I amass huge collections of material about the subject of the show. I have always enjoyed learning new things. I get bored if I don’t. One of the reasons that I like to create new shows is that they give my quest for knowledge direction and motivation. It was a lot easier to get myself to read Edward Said’s Orientalism, an important book written in 1970s-style Ivory Tower academic English, when it was directly applicable to a lecture that I was writing. And the shows give me deadlines. I have to finish this research by X date because I need to move on to the next step. I never get through all of the material that I amass, but collection and using that material are essential to my process. I never really stop researching throughout the life of a project, though the rate at which I continue to consume that material does dwindle as other activities ramp up.

The research drives the next activity, the actual creation. I will return to my flow and start creating in pieces. I get “far enough” to refine the pieces as I go. The flow is always close-at-hand as I create. I may go back and journal about the flow to see where the story of the show is going. The flow provides the through-line to the story that I want to tell. Even if my rough, bullet point outline doesn’t mean much to other people, it helps me to keep the end-game in sight. As I create the individual pieces in the flow, I get to feel accomplished as I “check them off”.

And then there’s the revision. I may discover logistical issues that I need to resolve. I might discover that one piece didn’t take me where I thought it would. I’ll have to revise other sections, or even add or subtract parts as I go. No creation is ever springs forth fully formed from my head like Athena from Zeus. It’s important to remember this, and not hold to those first thoughts too tightly. In my current show, I’ve had to drop whole threads that I really wanted to cover because my show is limited to an hour and I simply don’t have time to even touch on them, let alone do them justice. Just last night, I gave up on including an historic thread about the battle between Ida Craddock and Anthony Comstock around their opinions of bellydance in 1893 that I find utterly fascinating, but doesn’t really contribute to the direction of the show. And so it goes.

Once that initial spark and flow are created, I continue a cyclical process of research, creation, and revision. Those activities ebb and flow in concert with one another as I refine my show up until the very end. And the refinement has been known to continue into the run. At last year’s Angle, I made two tiny adjustments mid-run based on audience feedback and reaction. One of those ran contrary to my original vision of the show, but it made everything much clearer to the audience.

And then I finish the run, and I collapse. The thing that has been driving me for months, or perhaps years is done. I stare at the wall. I might even get depressed without that thing that has brought so much meaning to how I spend my time. Then, I dust myself off and find my dance again. And I look for the next idea.

Transnational Fusion Music

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation about my upcoming Fringe Festival show with a remarkably intelligent and analytical woman. She is from Turkey, but has been living in the US for quite some time. As such, she is both familiar with bellydance in her home culture and has seen it in the US as well. We started talking about styles. I said that I do tribal fusion bellydance, though I prefer the term transnational fusion dance. The dance form blends movement vocabulary from all over the world, with the bulk originating in various Middle Eastern and North African cultures. I don’t use the phrase often because not many people are familiar with it, but I like it because I feel it is the most accurate.

She asked what kind of music I dance to. I said that I will dance to almost anything, but I really prefer some fusion artists from the region. We started talking about some of these bands. It occurs to me that many of these bands could also be labeled “transnational fusion”. I thought I would list some of my favorites below. I find that this type of music is frequently the perfect setting for blending a shimmy with sous-sus in the same phrase. Band names link to their websites.

By the way, this woman offered to share a few Turkish bands that she thought might fit the  category. I am eagerly awaiting her email.

Request for support

I am hard at work on my next show, History of (my) Dance. If you’ve spoken to me about the project, you know that it is something very new for me. I am combining 3 separate threads: academic lecture on the origins and development of American belly dance, personal storytelling narrative about how I found the dance form, and actual dance. I’ve published an early version of one of the narratives on this site. If you made last year’s Dancing through Time, you may have seen me deliver one of the lectures that will be included in the show. As I continue to work on this show and research the dance form, the list of desired materials grows. If you’d like to support this work, I invite you to donate research or show materials.

History of (my) Dance wish list

Belly Dance Around the World