The 2020 hits just keep on coming (talkin’ to you, endless fires), so today’s post will be short and escapist ; )
As I continued to explore the concepts I found in my Dad’s art, I started focusing on a more Arabic form of expression–by using the Symmetry feature on my phone. Whatever I draw gets mirrored both horizontally and vertically. I’ve used this before, but mostly in one direction. Adding all those lines and outlines to my squiggles, though–voila! Symmetry turns my squiggle into a beautiful pattern–Arabesque! It has been a ridiculous amount of fun!
This is the first one that really said YES. More followed!
As I shared these images with friends, the comment that kept coming back was, This would make a great phone case! So, I am making them into phone cases (and a few other things). This one is the first–there are more to come. I have to agree they are adorable (it has also been really fun to actually like my own art. This has been one of the most remarkable side benefits of SE).
And on the topic of dance, the second half of Amity’s Online August retreat is this weekend–with Sahra Saeeda and Tamalyn Dallal. I very much enjoyed the first half and look forward to the second half! Info and registration is here.
Back at the end of February, I had the pleasure of a tarot reading by my friend, Catti. We’ve done several of these over the last few years, and they are always inspiring and rich, helping me to understand what is going on in my life. This time, I was curious about where to focus my attention in the coming months. I’ve had some shifts that point towards finding new pathways, so I asked Catti’s cards, basically, which way I should go.
They said, welp, major things are happening (three major arcana cards in a row, including the Tower), but you don’t know which way to go because—it’s just not clear yet. You’ll have to step carefully and have faith.
On the one hand, I was like, well huh. On the other, it’s always good to know that it’s not just me—the way really is cloudy.
As it happens, this was just before Coronavirus smashed into our daily life.
Which brings me to Ataraxia.
It’s a Greek word that means “to be content knowing that you don’t know everything.” This is what my Literature prof told me in college. I fell in love with the word right then and there. Because I am content knowing that I don’t know everything. I have a healthy respect for mystery. I am content to wait for things to unfold. Time is a real thing, and sometimes things aren’t ready yet. So you have to wait.
Now, it is also true I have spent an inordinate amount of my life waiting. I have spent entire years unable to plan what I would do in five days, as I waited for some kind of sign. And I have planned entire years in five minutes flat.
At the time of this reading, I feel impatient, yet mystified. Like I am in the middle of a transformation, that place where the caterpillar has dissolved into goo, before the butterfly starts to form. Hence my tarot question. And having it thrown right back to me—”Sorry, your question can’t be answered at this time. Be of good cheer,” was, well frustrating.
This definition made me love the word even more. And it’s something for us to think about in these (or any) troubled times.
It is unhealthy and unwise to stew in despair, fear, or anger. The world news is enough to give us all panic attacks every day. And what good does that do? None.
This is where we practice ataraxia, that “conscious setting aside of things that wear down the soul.”
For our 20 minute improv dance session, we let all that go. And maybe we can take time through the day to return to our flow state, to be more present in the moment, and less subject to the vortex of pain and misery that is always pulling at us.
We also can be content to wait and see what happens. We don’t know everything. We are all in a state of transformation that is part of this practice. Things are happening. We don’t/can’t know what they are, but they’re happening. So let’s have faith, and be of good cheer.
PS Improv is a place where we never know what will happen! Where we set aside our cares to be in the moment. In this vein, I’m delighted to be offering a series on improvising to Drum Solo and one on simply relaxing and feeling better.
Starts Tuesday July 28!DreamBeat–Fun Drum Solo Improvisation Five Weeks, July 28 – Aug 25. Tuesdays at 4-5 PM ET. A five-week adventure into drum solo interpretation and intuitive movement. Drum solo structure, technique, and exploration of various rhythms. We will use Middle Eastern drum solos as well as fusion and surprises! Registration is now open.
Starts Friday, August 7Tuning In–Medicine for Modern Times Five Weeks, August 7 – September 4. Fridays, 4-4:30 PM ET This half-hour class comes from a Somatic Experiencing® (SE) perspective. It’s is a half-hour chillout session focused on nervous system regulation. It is designed to ease anxiety and restore wellbeing. We use gentle movement, breath, and body-based strategies to bring calm in the here and now. These strategies can be used any time to help the body feel more relaxed and grounded.
I look forward to dancing with you! All my love, Alia
The word sacred or spiritual or anything like that sets some of our teeth on edge. I generally avoid these words, but my practice is certainly spiritually nurturing for me as well as healing (plus good exercise, a mind-body practice, and generally an amazing package of benefits! My teaching is geared to helping others feel more deeply and develop their intuitive movement, and I see my performances as blessings.
I am very excited to be part of the Sacred Dance Summit this May 4-8!
Leslie Zehr, author of The Alchemy of Dance: Sacred Dance as a Path to the Universal Dancer, is the host for this free online Sacred Dance Summit. Twice a year she brings together five fascinating women to speak about their experiences with Dance as a Spiritual Practice.
The speakers span halfway across the globe from Arizona to Australia. Guests, besides myself, include Carrie Konyha, Katie Holland, Keti Sharif and Maria Sangiorgi, all of whom are belly dancers.
They will discuss modalities ranging from Awakened Bellydance, Embodied Bellydance, Dancemeditation and Spiritual Belly Dance; to how to bring somatics, esoteric wisdom and energy healing arts into bellydance. You can read more about each of these women on the Universal Dancer website.
The summit runs May 4th-8th. Each day at 12am PDT (3am EDT, 7am GMT/UTC, 9am EET, 3pm AWST) a new interview will be released. The interview will be available for viewing for free for until the end of the summit.
In addition to the interviews each of the speakers has a wonderful free gift for you on the interview page. I invite you to check it out and take advantage of it. It is an excellent way to get to know the speakers better, as well as a way to expand your awareness of the healing and sacred side of bellydance.
I hope you will join us to hear what all these wonderful ladies have to say as we “peek behind the veils” of the ancient art of bellydance. And please share with your friends!
Here’s a vintage Love Note from 2013 (so it wasn’t last night, but 7 years ago ; ).
I’m not gonna lie, I went out and got drunk last night (and I’m a cheap date: one Lemon Drop and I was pretty happy :). I had gone to see my friend’s Al’s band play, and it was glorious.
They played music I love, standards like Mustang Sally and Black Magic Woman, but also music from the Allman Brothers that I hadn’t heard in years, Statesboro Blues and Whipping Post. Ahhh, such joy! I vividly remember back in the 70’s when we came out of the Fillmore East as dawn broke over the city skyline, because back then, bands really did PLAY ALL NIGHT.
Dancing joyously, I realized it is the songs of our own generation that speak to us—we know all the words, we can sing them in our sleep, and they make us happy. Of course, oldies stations are always popular for this reason, but there is more to it than that. These musicians jammed, long intricate improvisations, and the structural integrity of the songs, the remarkable skills of the musicians (technique being, as ever, the servant of expression), the deep blues influences, this was an authentic outgrowth of American music, and it expressed its generation as cogently as Umm Kulthum expressed hers.
If we want to really understand Oriental dance, we must bring its music into our hearts and souls as fully as the songs of our own youth. I remember a belly dancer (I wish I could remember who), who wrote that she was a cheerleader for the audience’s favorite songs as they sang along to the music of Umm Kulthum. She was perfectly fine with that—their joy spilled over onto her; she became part of it.
Al’s band is “just” a cover band playing forty-year-old songs as the audience hums along, dizzy with delight. They, too, bring the joy. And this music is part of my Umm Kulthum; I feel it in my heart and soul.
So tonight I present to you the music of my youth, The Allman Brothers, recorded live in 1971 at the Fillmore East. I was probably at these shows.
This is a playlist, but several of the songs are at, longer than, or close to 20 minutes, so you can just pick one if you like.
Think of the most wonderful dancer you’ve ever seen. Everything they do entrances you—every action feels perfect. You notice only the energy and the love. Joy and warmth suffuse your soul. You feel loved and loving, uplifted and happy. At the end, you applaud wildly, wishing only for more. How do they do it? How do they make everything so beautiful? They must practice a lot. If only…
What is the most beautiful move?
Here’s a conundrum. When we exist in the moment, all of life is perfect—or hell—or however that moment happens to feel. Ironically, the moment itself may be neutral. It’s about how we feel. (Okay, some moments suck—but even so, our emotional experience can be at odds with the circumstances. Who hasn’t felt crappy at a happy event? Or curiously free at a sad time?)
When we dance, we can feel great, crappy, or anything in between—whether the audience loves us or not—and this largely depends upon how we feel about ourselves in that moment. So if we feel like we are are crap, the moment will be crap. But when we feel great, beautiful, enchanting—the moment will be lovely. We can literally transform the moment through our own emotional projection. It’s magic.
So the most beautiful move is the one you are doing right now.
I know, right? Sadly, the crappiest move can also be the move you are doing right now. Yes, the same move. The difference is in your mind. This is why you won’t see me suggesting specific moves, or how to use specific muscles. Movement choice and creation in the moment is intuitive. The movement doesn’t matter. What’s important is how we feel, our connection to the music, and what we give to the audience. That’s what the audience notices. That’s what they love. That’s what they remember.
I first heard this from Fahtiem, a wonderful dancer, great teacher, and super cool human being. She said, “It’s not a hip drop. It’s a hip drop! Every time!” It’s something cool and special that we share with the audience—and ourselves. And it’s up to us to make it happen. What do they know? Nothing. We create the audience’s perception through our projection of emotional texture. So we have to learn to feel great about our moves. Seriously.
How do we learn that?
Practice. But not the way you think. We’re mostly trained to practice technique—perfecting our physical ability to recreate shapes in time and space. But there is more to improvisation than making a shape. There is the intuitive connection to the music, which we practice in our 20 minutes. And there is the mindspace of joy, of beauty. Yes, that, too, deserves practice. How?
Here’s the secret: Pick a basic move. My favorite is the infinity (aka upward hip figure 8, aka snake hips). Do the move. Slowly. Enjoy the physical feeling of every moment. As you do it, use your breath. I exhale the weight change, as the hip goes down and out, and I inhale the hip up. As you do it, gaze lovingly at yourself and say, “This is the most beautiful move I have ever seen.” And mean it.
I do this after using the restroom, before I walk out the door. It’s one of my Tiny Habits. I do it 3 times, with the breath and the affirmation. It takes 30 seconds. PS, if the mirror bothers you, then don’t look. Just feel it. Here’s a tiny video to show you what I mean.* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bT2ntWMinhU
Yeah, but what if I’m not very good?
That’s in your mind. Really. Even if you are an absolute beginner, the fastest way to hip-drop hell is to tell yourself how much you suck, to apologize on stage for existing. Look, the audience took time out of their busy lives to come and see you. Give them some honey. They don’t care about you—they care about how they feel. And that comes from what you give them: Joy. Verve. Fun.
These are things you can practice. The most beautiful move is whatever you perceive as such. So when you sashay out on stage with joy and verve, when you delight them with your love and generosity, they will respond.
Try the exercise for a week.
Put a note in the bathroom to remind you. See how you feel. Love yourself. Love your body. Love your moves. Love your guests. They will love you back.
*Adapted from Kenny Werner’s highly recommended book, Effortless Mastery (and eternal thanks to Teadora for suggesting it). Werner writes about jazz improvisation, but his observations apply to us as well.
*Adapted from Kenny Werner’s highly recommended book, Effortless Mastery (and eternal thanks to Teadora for suggesting it). Werner writes about jazz improvisation, but his observations apply to us as well.
Here’s Sun Ra, with some of my favorite jazz.
Whatever Lola Wants is a fun film about about an American postal worker (Lola), who falls for an Egyptian man, and, when he returns home, follows him to Egypt. In the meantime, another friend sets her to find the reclusive belly dance star Asmahan, who disappeared from public view following a mysterious scandal.
Spoiler alert: Lola finds Asmahan, who reluctantly agrees to teach Lola to dance. In general, the dancing is nothing special, but there is a great scene where Asmahan explains the heart of the dance. She tells a frustrated Lola that she will not demonstrate moves because, “You are not me. I can’t teach you how to be yourself. … Take that energy and use it. Use everything you are living. Don’t run from your feelings.” We are meant to honor our own feeling. We are meant to make the dance our own.
Agency is key
We are not meant to be little dance clones, copying someone else. We are meant to celebrate our unique, beautiful, individual selves, with our own power and agency. This focus on dancer agency–the dancer making their own choices, following their own intuition in the moment–is built in to the dance. Here is a list of cultural values I wrote for Midnight at the Crossroads.
I combine these with three principles (which became the three sections of the book): The Feeling in the Moment; Different Every Time; and Bring the Joy.
To become a wonderful dancer, to approach the true soul of the dance, we must find our own way.
But how do we do that?
We have to look, experiment, make mistakes, and experiment some more. It helps to be willing to let go of being perfect, flawless, always right. Learning is about messiness. It is about making mistakes. It is about curiosity and discovery.
This is the purpose of the 90 Day Dance Party.
We 90 Days to experiment and discover, to be curious about our body’s wisdom, to learn how we personally feel the music–we have time to actually feel the music, to discover our own body’s response to it.
And there is a further magic that happens as we dare to touch into the body, to notice our own physical sensations, to be curious about how they shift and change.
Most of us are pretty stressed out these days, amirite? We are over-scheduled and under-resourced. The news is harrowing. We run as fast as we can just to stay in the same place. This adds up. It’s like being splashed with mud every day and never getting a chance to wash it off, day after mont after year.
The 90 Days is like a lovely bath, soothing, relaxing, and healing. Allowing the body to express itself undoes the knots of tension. The 20 minutes gives the brain and body a rest from all the daily cares. This adds up, too. It adds up to self-compassion, groundedness, resilience, and–dare I say it? Joy.
So where do we start? Someone (Hi, Dawnie!) once described the 90 Days as “a series of magical signposts that point in different directions for each person.” What do we do with that?
It helps to have a guide
That would be me ; ).
This is why we have weekly video calls. This is why we have the Bonus Pack of Joy, with daily interaction. So folks can ask questions and get answers–so each of us can find out own way to our true self, our true dance. Personal style isn’t about endless copying. It’s about interior discovery and valuing ourselves. Yes, we need the basic vocabulary. But we also need basic self-love and respect. We need confidence. We need a place to make mistakes so we can discover our ability to recover from them gracefully.
To celebrate the upcoming 90 Days, I’m including a Love Note each week.
Here is the very first Love Note from the very first 90 Day Dance Party.
Today we begin. Today we gather up our gilded inspiration, put the music on to play, and ascend into the heavens. We breathe, and move, and become one with the music.
For some of us, this will be easy. We have practiced it many times before. For some of us, this may be more difficult. This may be the first time we have ever tried. We may yearn for this state, yet be convinced we will never get there. We expect to fail.
This note is for you.
There are skills and there are talents. Talents you are born with. Maybe you have good hearing. Or steady hands. Or a beautiful face. Lucky you.
Skills we learn. We figure out how to do something, and we practice until we can do it well. Someone with a wonderful voice who doesn’t bother to develop it may not sing as well as someone with a decent voice who learns and trains. Someone with a beautiful face who frowns and sneers will be less attractive than someone with a plain face who consciously adopts a warm, friendly expression.
Letting go of the scurrying, thinking brain and tuning in to the intuitive side is a skill we can learn. But first we must realize it is possible. This belief in our ability to solve problems and to learn new things is called a “Growth Mindset.” The belief that one’s talents and intelligence are limited and can’t be changed is a “Fixed Mindset.” Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor who pioneered this research, has found that these mindsets can be changed.
Knowing that intelligence is malleable frees us to stop proving ourselves and start enjoying our experiments. If it is an experiment, there is no failure—you do an experiment to see what happens.
Today, it’s just an experiment. The outcome doesn’t matter. There will always be tomorrow. And the next day. The less the outcome matters, the more enjoyment you can have in the moment. And enjoying the moment is what life— and improvisation—is all about.
***** The 90 day Dance Party. We start Feb 16. Come join us. Come find yourself. Come find the treasure within yourself. It’s there. It has been waiting for you all this time.
As we count down to the 90 Day Dance party, we celebrate the 90 Days with Love Notes from previous 90 Days. This one is Day 19 from 2018. I’ve noticed that many dancers are terrified of making a mistake–but making mistakes is an essential part of how we learn and grow. The 90 Days is an excellent venue for experimentation with lots of room for happy mistake-making!
How to Interpret Music Through Movement
Among the many things we worry about is if we are doing our dance “right.” And a practice like the 90 Days often causes some fear that we may dance “wrong” <gasp!> to music that has specific genre conventions… which makes it hard to have any fun at all.
So here are a few guidelines to help us feel more confident. We’ll look at Genre, Intention, and Feeling.
Even within belly dance, we have many musical genres. There is folkloric music from assorted regions, tarab songs, entrance pieces, the list goes on–and that’s just belly dance. Worldwide, there are countless genres. Some connect to specific dance forms, some are meant for listening, some have lyrics, and on and on.
For those who plan to perform, it’s wise to understand the background of your chosen music.Then you can decide upon the degree to which you will conform to its cultural context and expectations–and the degree to which you will depart from those expectations.
As artists, we make these choices in any art form. In your own home or your own party, it is perfectly fine, in fact, helpful, to dance however you want to whatever you want; however, as a performer, you want to know the rules of your chosen medium so you can break them intelligently.
For example, I love tango music. I’ve taken the time to learn tango, at least a little, and made a point of learning from Argentine dancers. When I dance at home, I can do whatever I please (which rarely looks anything like tango).
If I were to perform, however, I’d be careful to show that I understand the context of the music by referencing (at the very least), it’s traditional movement vocabulary, costuming, and attitude. Doing so expands my range of expression, and it’s just plain respectful of the dance–and its culture.
Another layer is our intention for the piece. What do we want to express? Who is our audience? How do we want them to feel? How do we best create the effects we desire? While these are seen as performative concerns, home and party dancers may enjoy creating specific effects just as much as performers do.
Intention also relates to the venue. For example, when I perform in a restaurant or nightclub, I will do a classic show. People go to clubs to relax and forget their cares. They want to have fun. A wedding, even a birthday party, is also like this, but includes a big to-do over the special guests, photo ops and the like.
Nobody in these contexts wants to watch any strange theatrical thing or dramatic downer. And no one wants to hear sad songs about heartbreak or betrayal, either. As artists, we take these things into account. If we only want to do dramatic theatrical weirdness, we don’t book trad parties. Then everyone is happy.
Many of our choices above may come from the feeling we get from the music. I’m putting it last here, but truly it is first in importance. One big reason to dance however to whatever is to find a way into the music, to find out what we feel, to find out what the music suggests to us.
If we deprive ourselves of this experimental phase, for example, if we are afraid to dance the wrong way to some song, if we are afraid the belly dance police can see into our little dance space and will come and arrest us, then we never get to discover many wonderful things about the music and our body’s response to it.
It’s essential to allow ourselves to experience the music fully. If we like it enough to develop it, then we can do all that reflective and research process. But if the most important thing in belly dance is the feeling, then it behooves us to develop our capacity to feel the music, and that means letting our body experience it fully.
The more we practice this with a wide variety of music, the more it becomes second nature. So even if we have a somewhat balky relationship to improv with belly dance music, maybe because our dance education was too tightly choreographed, through allowing our body to respond however it feels to a variety of music, we also train ourselves into responding freely to whatever music, including belly dance.
Of course, different music inspires different kinds of movement. And any genre may have specific vocabulary. And we have to be aware of this to give the music its due. But it’s through relaxed, intuitive movement that these things come together and look good.
It is sad to see a dancer conscientiously run through her little repertoire of genre moves with all the studiousness of a 4th grader in a school play. I have seen even good dancers do this. Honestly, we don’t have to constantly pull out those little Lego blocks of movement. We can allow things to drip and meld. This is who we are, and it’s okay.
When we have the movement in our bodies, when we allow our bodies to respond organically to the music, we bypass awkwardness and come into our own style.
Thank you for being part of my crazy path ; ) As a gift, here is a full Fun Class for you to stream. It’ll be up for the next month. https://vimeo.com/378023790 (please copy and paste if the link is not clickable)
Here’s to a great 2020!
LOTS of love, Alia PS I added a 90 Days Sharegasm Payment Plan, if that helps. Remember, the Sharegasm closes with 2019. Scroll down at aliathabit.com/90days/
Last week, we saw how Kongtrul Rinpoche explained the difference between Hope and Prayer. Rinpoche did not express much hope for Hope. He is Tibetan, a people who have been systematically crushed by China, most heavily for the last 150 years–from mass killings, environmental devastation, and forced marriages, to brutal torture. An intensely faithful, gentle people, the Tibetans did not merely hope for salvation–they brought on their centuries of powerful prayer to preserve themselves, their culture, and their faith. I can see why hope wasn’t high on his list. But…
Many of us interpret hope differently.
Wikipedia says, “Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large. As a verb, its definitions include: “expect with confidence” and “to cherish a desire with anticipation.”” 
For many, hope is a refusal of despair, a determination to keep living, to take one step after another. It is the only reason we can get up, day after day, and continue. Because maybe today will be different. And what is the alternative? Not so good…
I think it’s clear that the optimism of hope combines well with the activism of prayer. Many of us are not religious or do not believe in standard gods. That’s okay. We can make of ourselves a lighthouse, radiating positive outcomes. We can call upon alternative energies, the earth, the universe, the moon. Our friends…
Which brings me to a conversation I had with some friends recently…
These are Arabic women, smart, talented, and fun. Both teach dance (and you know, this is fairly rare, that women of the culture take the social risk of teaching or performing Oriental dance). Both were born and raised in Europe, deeply enmeshed in their original culture. Both found that here in America they were much more accepted–they endured much less racism than in Europe.
Except in one area.
How ironic is that?
They told me of being pushed aside, argued with, ignored, and otherwise excluded. These are people I love. It hurts my heart to hear these things.
Even more recently, I attended Soumaya MaRose’s “Thé à l’Oriental 7- Attaï Sharq: ” Surprise”.” I have attended several of Soumaya‘s events, and they are always remarkable, high-quality gatherings. This one included a panel discussion and an Iftar dinner (the event took place during Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from sunup to sundown every day for a month. The dinner at sundown is called Iftar).
Pictured from left to right, Hanane El, a Moroccan dancer/teacher in NYC; Amar (Gamal) Garcia, of the BellyDance SuperStars, Soumaya MaRose, Moroccan dance artist, educator, and producer of this event; and Tamalyn Dallal, worldwide pioneer of belly dance.
Soumaya asked specific questions of each of the panelists, and also questions of the guests, most of whom were part of the belly dance scene. We are also asked to get into groups and draw a map of the middle east/north africa. After the panel discussion, Rawda Aljawhary opened the Iftar with a heartrending Quran recital; and we had a really fabulous traditional Moroccan Iftar, created by Saadia Malek, Khadija from Sabrine Bakery in Revere, MA, and friends. And then several of the Moroccan women took up instruments and led a mini dance party!
The panel discussion was fascinating–and challenging.
One of the questions Soumaya put to the guests was, “Why would you not ask a native woman questions about the dance?” I could see the guests cringe a little. No one wants to be pushy or ask total strangers things that might offend them. But when you have an artist of the culture, offering to help you, why ignore what they have to say? Even if it may be a little uncomfortable or challenge your beliefs? It’s a big world out there.
One of the biggest questions Soumaya asked was right at the beginning: “Dancers, what do you do for the culture that feeds you?” We have all been nourished by our dance. Many of us teachers have also made good money off it. How do we give back? How to we nurture and nourish the culture that has given us Oriental dance?
For myself, I wrote a book. I was pleased that the vast majority of the questions Soumaya raised, I also raise in the book. I also seek out and promote teachers of the culture, have visited the middle east several times, and regularly write about and highlight the cultural elements of the dance.
What about you?
How do you give back to the dance’s culture of origin?
If the answer is, um, I don’t, what might you do differently?
This brings me back to Hope and Prayer.
It is my hope that we in the belly dance scene can step back from the anti-Muslim propaganda that we are fed so routinely in the West. It is my hope that we can come to understand the breathtaking beauty of the cultural dance–we have been fed a Westernized, stripped down version, with little of its inherent richness and joy. It’s time for that to change.
I mentioned above, maybe we can pray to our friends. One of the older uses of the word pray, is as please–pray tell, pray go on, etc. Please, do some thinking. Do some reading on the cultural aspects of the dance. Do some improvisation. Do some classes with native dancers. Do some traveling in the Middle East. Do something to benefit the culture of our dance. This my prayer to you.