Azza Sherif, Egyptian dance icon, passed away in early February of 2019
I had the pleasure of learning from Mme. Azza at Camp Negum in 2010 and 2011. She was a vibrant, funny, lovely woman. One time, she danced the same song five times in a row (to live music), so we could see and follow her as she (and the musicians) interpreted the song differently every time.
I had the honor of Azza correcting me.
It was in 2011. Camp Negum was set on a cruise boat en route to Aswan. It was a Tuesday.
Madame Azza was teaching us a move, a deep hip circle with a head drop and a side lift. She went around the group, correcting each person individually. When she got to me, she called me to the front of the room. “Look, here,” she said to the rest of the group. “Demonstration.”
She turned to me.”What is this?” she asked, pointing to my shirt. I looked down. She chucked me under the nose, lifting my face, like Moe in the Three Stooges, only nicely. “Look up,” she said, smiling.
“Where are you from?”
America, I said.
“You speak English?”
“I like your dance,” she said. She spoke English slowly, her voice rich and warm. “You,” she gestured top to bottom, “all dance.” She turned to the rest of the group and touched under her eyes, saying, “I watch. I see.”
Then she turned back to me and said, “I love your dance.”
Out loud. In front of everyone.
“Shukran gezilan,” I gasped.
“Now, do,” she said.
So I did the move. And nearly fell on my head.
“Slower,” she said.
“Ah,” she said, nodding, pleased. “Very good.”
Then she eyed my tummy full of lunch. “After tomorrow, you don’t eat so much.” And she went on to the next dancer.
That trip was the last time I saw her.
That Friday, the Egyptian Revolution shocked the world. We were in Aswan when the curfew came; Lisa and I ended up stuck there for most of a week.
Mme. Azza made it back to Cairo, which was maybe not so good, as Cairo was devastated by the upheaval. But she survived, even coming back to teaching. I went back to Egypt in 2016, but she had hurt her knee and did not teach that time.
I am so sorry that she has gone, and so grateful that she has left us so much of herself on film. Here is a link to her page on the Carovan where you can see some of her performances (please copy and paste if links are not clickable). https://thecarovan.com/category/azza-sherif/
Farewell, Madame Azza. God loves you, and so do all of us.
We also say farewell to something more mundane. I am moving our email service from Mailchimp to Convertkit. This will be the last newsletter coming from Mailchimp. I’ll be back in touch soon with a brand new service. Fingers crossed for success!
News and happenings
Mar 24 – Mar 30: March into the Spotlight: Bring Basic Belly Dance Back Challenge
FunClasses. I’m teaching live weekly-ish online dance classes! Each class is streamed live (currently on Thursdays at 7pm EST) and a recording is posted until the next class replaces it. Registration coming soon! Email me if interested.
July 14. I’ll be at Cairo Cabaret in Chicopee MA, dancing and teaching workshops in Improv and Group Dance composition. https://www.facebook.com/events/2223293227683591/
When I was a kid, people used to smoke all the time, everywhere. Both of my parents smoked, and we were regularly sent to the store to get more cigarettes. Smoking was seen as fun. No one knew about second-hand smoke; even the effects on the smoker were kept from the public. But over time folks learned the bitter truth. Smoking in public has been drastically reduced, our collective health is improved, and we don’t have to smell like an ashtray after a night out.
Like smoking, the things we say and do can have unfortunate effects on other people (not to mention ourselves). Dance class is one place where we can create a warm, compassionate environment for our students. This is kind of a serious topic, but making your classroom a safe space makes the class more fun for everyone–including you.
We’ll look at three ways to create a safe space–Focus on Dance, Model Compassion, and Awaken Somatic Awareness.
Today we’ll look at how to Awaken Somatic Awareness.
What is Somatic Awareness?
Soma refers to the body. Somatic Awareness is body awareness. In this case, awareness of how movement feels in the body.
Most classes focus the students upon how they look. We use mirrors, we squint at them, and we try to make each move look exactly the same as everyone else’s. But belly dance is not about being a carbon copy. Belly dance is all about the feeling. And the feeling is not just emotional.
Just move your arm. Extend it away from your body, and then bring it back. Notice how that movement feels. Notice the muscles sliding against each other. Notice the joints opening and closing. Notice your hand, its many bones. What else do you notice?
Now slow the movement down. Do it again, and inhale as the arm open, exhale as it closes. Do it even more slowly. Even more slowly. Even more.
Now check in with the rest of your body. What do you notice? Very likely you feel calmer than you did before. Maybe some part of you is uncomfortable. Maybe some part is hard to even feel. Maybe you feel great. All of these things are important. This internal focus is called interoception. And it has a lot of benefits.
When we feel the dance, we dance better
Belly dance is about having your own style, doing the same movement as everyone else yet with your own special sauce that makes the moves completely yours. This is not a trick we learn, it happens when we bring the dance into our own body and allow it to become one with us.
Our dance is not like most Western dances. It values improvisation, variation, feeling, and joy. Being a carbon copy is very hard–plus it is unnatural. Having our own feeling for the moves and the music is the most natural thing in the world. But most of us have been taught to discount it in favor of stylization and exactitude.
Of course, we must learn technique. But part of belly dance technique is the magic of micromovement, which allows us to tailor a move’s size, texture, speed, force, and so forth to better express our feeling and the music. It is the feeling of the music, allowing our bodies to follow it thinking or judging. Interoception and Somatic Awareness help us do that.
When we teach our students how to feel the dance, they learn faster and have more confidence. This makes them better dancers. They don’t need the mirror, because they know how the move feels.
Somatic Awareness fosters healing
In addition to upping our dance game, somatic awareness is a major component of healing. Using Slow Movement and Breath, as we did above, in particular using Rhythmic Breath, where we breath in time with the music while moving with “glacial slowness,” we have the opportunity to release a lot of old stress, fear, and pain.
When we move so slowly, we can allow the body to move as it wishes. We become observers of our body’s journey, as it releases stored tension. All of this helps us have confidence in our bodies, confidence in our dance. We can move with authority. We can improvise effortlessly. We practice this ourselves, so we can teach it to our students.
All of this helps us have confidence in our bodies, confidence in our dance. We can move with authority. We can improvise effortlessly.
How does this make dance class fun?
Students come to belly dance to feel beautiful and express themselves. When we embrace the Eastern values of the dance, feeling, improvisation, and joy, we enjoy dancing more–we feel more expressive, beautiful, and joyous. When we come away from class feeling calm, happy, and content, we want to come back. That’s fun.
It’s worth the effort of learning
Learning is hard work, especially learning something new. New things can feel scary. But that feeling of frustration is a sign that true learning is going on. Learning new things increases our intelligence and boosts brain health, plus having new skills feels great.
Plus we get to release stress. All the stress, fear and pain to which we have been subjected in our lives has poisoned us as throughly as cigarette smoke. Interoceptive Dance through somatic awareness is how we clear the poisons. And they don’t come back. As with learning, resolving old anxieties, increases our capacity for resilience.
That’s one heck of a win-win.
All my love,
As it happens, today is the last day for the Early bird Price for Effortless Improv. Effortless is designed for students–and for teachers. You might like to check it out. Details are here: aliathabit.com/effortless
Back when I was a kid, you wanted coffee, that’s what you got. There wasn’t much choice. The only decaf was Sanka, and instant coffee was pretty much undrinkable. Now you go into a nice café, or even a small grocery store, and the assortment is dizzying. Coffee from Sumatra, Brazil, Columbia, East Timor, Bali, even Hawaii. There’s Fair Trade, Shade-Grown, Organic, light, dark, and medium roast—a stunning level of diversity.
Just like belly dance, right? Egyptian, American, Russian, Tribal, Fusion and on and on.
We asked about the state of belly dance. “Is bad,” she said. “Every country takes belly dance for her own. Spanish belly dance, Russian belly dance. Is bad.”
“Is there Russian samba?” she asked. “No. Samba is samba. Why isn’t belly dance belly dance?”
“Samba is samba. Why isn’t belly dance belly dance?”
I had never really thought about this in such a way, but it makes sense. I’ve spent my time internalizing the big picture elements of belly dance—celebrating the feeling in the moment, incorporating the infinite variation of micromovement, and bringing joy. Everything else is window dressing– regional accent or personal style.
In addition, Dina’s point reminded of what Mo Geddawi had said at the same festival the previous year, when asked about a suitable name for belly dance. Egyptian dance, he said promptly. It comes from Egypt. Historically, when other Arab-speaking countries dance this dance, he explained, they call it raqs Masri—Masri being Arabic for Egyptian.
Dina (and Dr. Mo) want Egypt to get credit for this monumental addition to world culture. Even if Egypt herself is not willing to take the credit, even if, as she maintains, that raqs sharqi will never be the national dance of Egypt (Dina dismissed that hope with one word—Dream). Still, it’s from Egypt and that’s that. I can relate to that. So then we asked her,
What is the number one foreign dancers mistake?
Dina said it’s that they don’t follow belly dancing. It’s not a style to mix, for example, Russian style. She said “Dancers go to Dubai and see hair dance, or erotic steps and mix that with belly dance. They call it belly dance. It’s not. Golden age dancers never used their hair like this. I’m different–but I do the same steps [as the golden age dancers]. To be different, you have to BE different, be you,” but the steps are the same. The dance is the dance.
“To learn belly dance for real is difficult,” she said, “but
you have to do it, because you love this art and you have to do it real… Easy to
dance and get money. To love this art, is not about money. It’s about the
future of your art, where it’s going.”
What should beginners do?
Beginners should “learn technique first—torso (the hips and
upper body), then take hands. Hands important, showing the step or moving the
step. Don’t touch choreography before two
Dina’s ideas about teaching and learning really resonated for me. How many beginner classes start out with choreography? Most of them, right?
Mine don’t. When I teach beginners, we learn technique and
improv and transitions. My Community College students can dance in 15 weeks. Yes, this dance takes your whole life, but they
dance with more grace and confidence than lots of folks I see who’ve been
dancing for years.
What is our
responsibility as pro dancers?
“The new generation,” she said, “to teach them the truth of belly dance. This is Egyptian, this is the rules, 1 2 3 4, Oriental belly dance–and this–this is other thing. If you mix, it’s fusion. Call it fusion.”
And what do we call all our merging of belly dance with
ballet, hip hop, kathak, and god knows what? What do we call that?
“Fusion,” she said. “Is a good word. Fusion.”
Okay. But where does this leave Turkish belly dance?
Also Greek, Lebanese, and any other Near Eastern regional style?
When Dr. Mo suggested Egyptian dance as a name, Yasmina Ramzy said, no, we can’t have that because we have Turkish etc.
Turkish stye is a fusion. But I believe it is also authentic. Here are three reasons off the top of my head.
Turkish music is somewhat different–clarinet, influences, etc–so some of the dance differences are from representing the music, plus it’s regional accent, see below.
The dancers there have a regional “accent” related to the local folklore and culture. I think that’s authentic, as everyone has that, no matter where they dance.
The inclusion of Romani steps (and music). Here is where it’s mixing and now it’s fusion. And it is–though it is a venerable established thing. To me, it’s still belly dance.
Why? Leila Farid once told me that in Cairo, audiences expect a dancer to mix in some of the folklore from her native village. This is what the Romani dancers have done. So that’s authentic.
How is it different from us dancing the cancan to Peter Gunn in bellydance costumes? To me, that’s too many things that don’t go together. That’s clearly fusion (not to mention some hints of appropriation, depending on who what when where why).
Now, Dina or Dr. Mo might not agree with me.
They may well think that Turkish style is an abomination. The Ottomans did, after all, control Egypt for almost 300 years, and they are roundly disliked for it (which is why you don’t see much 9/8 in Egyptian music). And Egypt and Turkey have blamed each other for belly dance, neither willing to accept the blame (or credit) for being the originator of the dance.
But the Romani people are not Turkish. They are a separate ethnic group, an oppressed people who take on the styles of their oppressors to make a living from them. So they get special dispensation.
What’s the answer? Yes, you can certainly say it’s fusion, however it’s A. Very old, and B. the unique creation of an entire ethnic group. So I think we can still say Turkish style, just like we always have ; ).
And there you are.
Dina’s points make sense to me, especially having explored the differences between Eastern and Western values though writing Midnight at the Crossroads. Belly dance is a uniquely magical, healing, creative, expressive dance form–it deserves to be valued for itself.
Wikipedia says, “The native (undomesticated) origin of coffee is thought to have been Ethiopia, with several mythical accounts but no solid evidence. The earliest substantiated evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree is from the early 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen, spreading soon to Mecca and Cairo.”
So coffee is another thing, like belly dance, that comes to us from Africa. Clearly, there are some similarities. But everyone seems to be happy to let coffee become nativised in country after country. The thing with coffee, though, is that it’s still coffee, no matter where it’s grown. The species doesn’t change. It has regional differences due to terroir, but it’s the same plant. It’s the same stuff.
Belly dance hasn’t always fared so well. When we see our dance through Western eyes instead of an Eastern perspective, we start to lose its most important attributes–feeling, improvisation, and joy. And then belly dance becomes something very different–stylized, externally focused, competitive, and performative. Yet, in its home environment it is internal, joyous, social, healing, and free. So in this way, it is unlike coffee.
Both coffee and belly dance are are delicious and addictive. But if I drink too much coffee, I get a headache and my armpits stink. Too much Western culture does this, too. Belly dance never does that to me. So there’s that ; )
Over the years, I’ve developed classes that teach technique, improvisation, musicality, and composition from a clear Eastern perspective. Some of them are coming up (details are below), but whatever classes you take, or styles you dance, these are things to think about. So let me know what you think ; )
PS I’m on Instagram!
@BellyDanceSoul, or instagram.com/BellyDanceSoul Come say hi!
Sept 23-Nov 3 Effortless Improv, a Six-week Online Improvisation Crash Course Want to improvise with joy and ease? You can! Effortless is a forum-based course with daily exercises and accountability. More at aliathabit.com/effortless
Oct 1 The Belly Dance Bundle Returns! Over $1000 worth of belly dance madness. 27 contributors. Over 80% off! I’m making a class on Musicality. See more at https://aliathabit.com/bundle
Nov 4-Dec 8 Glorious: A Five-Week Course about the Five-Part Routine Each week we will: Highlight one part of the routine. Dance through an entire routine (different every time). Each class will be recorded. Each recording will be available for one week. There will also be a Q&A video/phone conference each week. Students will learn structure, moods, and technique, as well as practice improvising through the routine. This is so fresh it doesn’t even have a sales page. Trust the Chef Premium Earlybird Pricing (until Oct 8): $69 (full price $99). Link goes straight to Paypal. Please copy and paste if the link is not clickable. https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=WGXCTY2AW22LW
It’s a funny thing about food, especially ethnic food. However your grandmother made something, that’s the way it’s supposed to taste. Unless you never met your grandmother, or she couldn’t cook worth a damn, of course. That happens, and I’m sorry. But for most of us, she’s the heaven to which we aspire, the yardstick by which we measure all other things.
My kids never got to taste my grandmother’s hummus, but I did, and they got to taste mine. Ironically, I learned how to make hummus from my non-Arabic mom, but she learned from my grandmother. So it’s not a matter of ethnicity, but understanding and valuing.
So the kids know what it’s supposed to taste like, and what’s supposed to be in it (and so will you, shortly). And oh my god, you should hear my daughter’s disdain for what she calls “hippie hummus.”
You’ve eaten it, I’m sure.
Bland, grainy, tainted by sun-dried veggies or roasted garlic, or even made with other legumes entirely! Like non-basil pesto with no pine nuts, such foods may be fine inventions on their own, but they are not hummus, which has a specific ingredient list and texture.
Hummus bi-tahini means chickpeas with tahini. So there are two essential ingredients right there. The others are massive quantities of fresh garlic and lemon juice, and some olive oil. In addition, a smooth, creamy texture is essential. Everything else is frippery.
I realize this is a bit draconic. But this is the way I learned. I’m Levantine (Syria, Lebanon, Paelestine). So if you’re fam is from somewhere else and the ratios are different, that’s fine. But I have been to a ton of old school restaurants and they all make the same hummus, so I’m not just being nostalgic. It’s a real thing.
Belly dance is also a real thing.
It has a basic recipe. It varies by region, but like chickpeas and tahini, there are basic ingredients and textures that one changes at one’s peril, and with each variation it becomes further removed from its own truth.
What are the basic ingredients of belly dance?
For me, there are three basic ingredients, though each one expands to encompass several other things. These include the basic movement vocabulary, the music, and three conceptual frameworks: the feeling in the moment, same but different, and bring the joy.
The further you get from these basic ingredients, the further you get from belly dance as a cultural jewel, the closer you get to white bean dip with sun dried tomatoes and soy sauce calling itself hummus. That is to say, it won’t make sense to its own people.
Most of us are familiar with the movement vocabulary, less so with the music, and often not at all with these textural concepts. Let’s take a closer look at them, with the music in context, since the music and the dance go together like chickpeas and tahini.
1. The feeling in the moment
This is the dancer’s feeling from the music, which she shares with her guests, both its emotional timbres and her body’s enjoyment of the movement itself as it follows and interacts with the music. The goal is to embody the music, to be connected to it and to any guests in a visceral, immediate way.
Most of us are trained to judge how we look and ignore the pleasure of the movement. What if we flip that and get back to enjoying how the dance feels?
2. Same but different
Musicians of the culture pride themselves on never making a song the same way twice. The melody and rhythm may stay the same, but the feeling and the ornaments change. In addition, musicians tweak the notes themselves to better express their feeling in the moment.
Dancers who improvise make their dance different every time. Even with choreography this us possible, allowing the body to react from its feeling today differently from yesterday. In addition to this, we have micromovent, with which we tweak the dynamics of our movement, their force, speed shapes and textures.
Why spend all our energy on perfecting choreos? We have all this agency as dancers. What if we take this back, teach this, and give dancers this confidence? Even groups of beginners can do this. And it’s beautiful.
3. Bring the joy.
The arts of the near and middle east tend to have the intention of meditative entrainment. You see it in the music in the concept of tarab, musical ecstacy. We’re talking joy. The dance is always characterized as a dance of joy. It is meant to bring joy, to the dancer, musicians, and any guests.
Yet so much of what I see is dancers working hard or showing off. When our goal is to engage a room in joy, to give joy rather than to get approval, our dance changes. What if we dance to experience and to share our love and joy?
These are important questions, important skills worthy of the time and effort it takes to change our focus. So we might need some food to sustain us…
Here’s my Grandmother’s Hummus Recipe
You’ll need a blender or food processor.
1 can of chickpeas, up to 20 oz.
Freshly squeezed juice of five lemons (nice juicy ones).
An entire bulb of garlic (nice and fat. Really).
Tahini to taste
Salt to taste (if any)
Olive oil to drizzle on top
If all that garlic scares you, put it with the lemon juice and blend that first. Blend the hell out of it.
Then do the same with the chickpeas. Add them to the liquid and blend until it is liquified, smooth, smooth, smooth.
Add tahini to taste. This is a bit subjective. Too little and the hummus stays watery and gross. Too much and it gets bitter. Just enough and it suddenly becomes creamy and pale and delicious. It usually takes a few tablespoons. (Please note, this is how I cook. It’s a little slap dash, but it works.)
Olive oil drizzled on top, and or mixed in. Tastes vary.
Serve with pocket bread, marouk (super flat mountain bread) or even veggies. I can live with fresh veggies, lol.
So there you have it. Belly dance and hummus. Let me know how it goes.
Symbiosis is the name for a collaboration the benefits both partners. Bees and flowers, for example. Bees pollinate flowers by feeding on their nectar. Pollen sticks to the bees’ legs and gets deposited in other flowers. Pollination means the flowers can set set seeds and reproduce themselves, while the flowers’ nectar feeds the bees and allows them to make honey. Sharks and those sucker fish that clean their skins are another symbiotic collaboration (btw, what do you call a shark that has lost all those fish? Completely without remoras! But I digress…).
Recently I had the pleasure of a symbiotic collaboration with the Raksultana Bellydancers of MI. We made a dance for the Bellydance Blossom Festival in Toronto, ON, bellydanceblossom.com. We collaborated via live video over several weeks to make our dance. I say we because that’s the important part.
Most of the choreographers who spoke at the festival made a dance and then taught it to their dancers. Our process was radically different.
In our dance, everything came from the dancers–the feelings, imagery, movement, even the floor patterns. What I did, what I do, is weave it all together. I am a synthesist. I compose ideas and inspiration from varied places to create a new thing.
Why did we do it that way? What did we do? How did it turn out? Ah, read on!
Why did we do it that way? Since traditional Oriental dance is largely abstract, improvised, and celebrates the dancer’s agency in the moment, how to we nail it down into any kind of group choreography? I prefer to create loose frameworks, and I prefer that the material come from the group’s interpretation of the music.
When the RakSultana gals told me what they wanted from the collaboration, a new group creation process and emotional expression were high on their lists. I also saw that they were great with blocking and stage pictures, so I knew we were a good fit for the project.
What we did Our first meeting, I was staying in a youth hostel in New Zealand. I was out on the sunny porch, chatting away, while an international assortment of young folks ate their lunch all around me. It was pretty cool.
The first thing we did was pick a song. They chose the National Arab Orchestra‘s lovely version of Alf Leila wa Leila. I contacted Michael Ibrahim, the Orchestra’s director, for permission to use the song, and a high-rez copy, both of which he graciously provided. In the meantime, the dancers were to listen to the song and record any visual impressions, wisps of emotions, or stories that they felt from the music.
They really went into this with gusto. One gal took the song to work and played it for everyone there, recording all their impressions. Another conceived of a complete story, with each bit of the music tied to each bit of action. The dancers were surprised to find that they had such strong reactions, and in how many places they had the same reactions, yet how other reactions were different, sometimes the opposite.
From there, we began to weave everyone’s impressions into a conceptual framework. It was important to me that everyone’s voice be heard. I showed them how even when two dancers are doing the same thing, they can be expressing two different emotions, and how that creates drama and suspense.
We didn’t need a cohesive story or for the audience to know any parts of the story, because the dance is abstract in and of itself, and because the audience will create their own story out of the emotional arc. So we could create a fever dream that shifted and changed and it would still work.
As the arc of the piece evolved, relationships between the dancers’ characters became clearer. We began to highlight certain elements as the piece took on its own energy. The dancers were surprised that it started to hang together–there is always a point in this process where it seems all is lost–and then the sun comes out and everything comes clear.
My job is Artistic Director and dramaturge. I see what’s evolving and ask for clarification. I tweak the stage pictures to highlight interactions, direct the dancer’s energy, and pull out the nascent threads of drama and suspense. I look for resolution and closure. And I help it all to be born from the dancers’ imaginations, feelings, and desires (our process is all part of the course CreateDanceArt.com).
As clarity evolved out of chaos, we designed stage pictures and travel patterns based on character interactions. Suddenly things became exciting! And, just in time, we had a dance–one where almost no one was doing the same thing as anyone else, and yet the whole thing hung together and clicked.
It was a challenging process. Working via distance took a lot longer than working in person. There were weeks we couldn’t meet, weeks I forgot to meet, and weeks most of us met from different places. But with the magic of video conferencing, we got it all done.
Distance also made more chances for things to go off the rails. The dancers spent hours one night developing stage patterns on their own, then struggled trying to remember them. Once we started determining why each dancer was in a certain position, what was happening at that time in that place, and with whom, it all unrolled into simplicity.
Everyone pulled together. I hadn’t done this via distance before, and struggled sometimes to make it work. The dancers were patient and enthusiastic, even though the process was new to them and the learning curve was steep.
In the end, it all came right. The dancers brought their A-game, and they rocked it. I was sitting with my friend Rahma Haddad, a Lebanese dancer and choreographer from Vancouver (who had also presented a beautiful piece). “This is fantastic,” she kept saying. “How did you get them to do this?!” The fact is, I didn’t. They did it themselves.
We got a ton of compliments.
I love doing this stuff. Everybody wins.
This is what I did with the book, too.
I took the time to let it evolve, found the vital elements, and highlighted them. After three and a half long years, the book is finally oozing its way to completion. The text is done. The designer has started work. It will still be a while before we have books in our hands, but I feel comfortable offering preorders at this time. Check it out here: Bellydancesoul.com
In our secret hearts, we come to this dance for transformation. We seek a magic carpet ride to our true self, our inner goddess, femme fatale, power and glory. We want this so hard it hurts. We cry at night for the loss of the beauty, freedom, mystery and adventure with which we were born. Life is hard, and it has taken its toll.
We come to this dance for redemption. To see ourselves in a new, truer, mirror, one that will shine back to us the beauty and joy hidden away in our souls.
This dance delivers. It delivers in spades.
Everything we crave awaits us inside this dance. All the joy, the beauty, the glory, hidden treasure waiting to be found. A secret blossom trembling on the brink. A fourth doorway, a portal to the Divine, hidden from sight—until we are ready to open it.
But we are afraid. Afraid of feeling our pain, afraid of shoveling through the shit of life to get to the treasure. Afraid there is no treasure. So we put on our hipscarves and copy empty movement for an hour a week, pretending we are beautiful. It is an epic tragedy.
How do we get through the fourth door?
Well, first we have to find it.
And then we have to make a few changes.
And that may take some effort.
Learning is hard. It hurts, like an unused muscle, newly awakened. We all want to have fun, but most of us also want to learn. How do we balance the difficulty of learning with the pleasure of the dance itself?
This dance flourishes within its cultural context. All of its wonderful, chaotic heterophony, micromovement, improvisation, social ritual, and feeling–these are not quaint traditions. They are the living breathing center of this dance.
Our dance is a magical doorway. It leads to a place within where we feel our beauty, dissolve trauma and stress, nurture our body and brain, feed our soul, and connect with the Divine. This is the nature of this dance. It is a magical transmission of wonder.
Wait, how do we magically transmit wonder? The first step is to reclaim our own wonder. We have all been brainwashed into regarding ourselves with narrow eyes, alert for any flaws or ways in which we do not fit the proscribed vision of perfection. Alas, there are so many ways to miss the mark.
Let’s change the rating system. Let’s step back from perfection of form and the Platonic Ideal. Let’s step up to shared mystery and glory.
The wonderful Fahtiem once explained, “It’s not just a hip drop,” as she rolled her eyes, looking bored with her own movement.
“It’s a hip drop!” And she gasped, her eyes got big as her face expressed amazement. Suddenly the move transformed into wonder–the wonder we all felt once upon a time, the wonder that drew us to this dance.
What if every hip drop, every move, every moment of our dance were a testament to wonder? We feel and express the wonder so others can also see it, feel it, live it.
The fourth doorway awaits.
Will you walk through?
PS Last call for How to Create Dance Art
Oriental dance evolved for improvisation. Choreography can inhibit our ability to express our feeling from the music in the moment, to be different every time.
On the other hand, recorded music is the same every time. How to balance these conflicting influences?
It’s pretty clear by now that belly dance is much more than a sparkly little toy. It’s much more than a sexy treat for the male gaze, a fun way of getting exercise, or a dress-up opportunity. It is more than entertainment. It is more than art. We can use it that way, and it will work just fine, but we are playing marbles with giant pearls.
Belly dance is a glorious marriage of the sacred and the profane—beautiful, sensual, healing, and integrative. It aligns the body and mind, washes away stress and trauma, frees us from fear and anxiety, and connects us to the Divine. How many other venues have all that?
There are plenty of practices that do most of it—tai-chi, yoga, Zen archery, even sitting meditation. But none of them include those sensual, beautiful, entertaining, profane qualities. There are no spangles, playfulness, or music. No sensuality. No fun.
Belly dance has all that and more.
Belly dance has been seen asa pastime, entertainment, even art—but always as a generally innocuous occupation with little meaning outside of itself. Many of us have a mission to “elevate the dance,” which often means to make it more Western—put it on bigger stages, with bigger audiences.
What if there were a way to elevate the dance that kept its cultural values? Without them, this dance is dead. It’s an empty movement vocabulary. It becomes like Cheez Wiz or Cool Whip—an artificial, processed, non-food masquerading as real food. We don’t need more plastic crap in our lives.
We need real things that connect us to our true selves. We need avenues to our souls, ways to accept and nurture ourselves, be kind to ourselves, love ourselves. Through accepting and affirming the self, we find the courage and the kindness to love others.
Little by little, this love radiates outward, touching others, healing as it goes. It extends outward, all over the world, finally returning back to us, energizing us and everyone it meets.
Am I saying belly dance has the potential for world peace?
Yes. Yes, I am.
Instead of using this dance to glorify ourselves, we can spread love, healing, kindness, spirit, joy.
Of course, there are specific folkloric dances that have nothing to do with belly dance—no one is arguing about that. But there are others that have been adopted. They are not belly dance as such (Sa’idi stick dance, for example, or Turkish Romani dance), but they are here to stay in our repertoire. So “belly dance,” (a made-up name to begin with), is already inclusive of many fusion elements. Then there are the various forms of “Tribal” dance, from Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat through tribal fusion, a host of ethnic and other fusions, and all the theatrical approaches. It’s a mishmash. What do we do with all of these? What do we call them?
I am loathe to kick anyone off the belly dance bus. I have concerns about some things, and will explore them as we go along, never fear. But as we come to understand the soul of the dance, misconceptions fall away. There are qualities of the dance that underlie everything else, and these are where we want to put our focus. The rest is window dressing.
To me, the vital elements of the dance are
improvisation to improvised (preferably live) music
the foundation movement vocabulary, with micro-movement
an inseparable connection Oriental music and its the values and qualities, includingthe importance of the feeling in the moment.
I will return to these elements often. This dance is not only as an ancient, beautiful art form. It also has healing, spiritual properties, and is a legitimate mind-body practice that equals yoga, tai-chi, and sitting meditation in its effectiveness and power. Really? Yes.
Sparkly little belly dance has immense power. People are drawn to it because they sense this, though they may not know how to access it. Once they come to a class, they are usually taught a sterilized version: stylized, choreographed, counted, body-control to recorded music. This is not the dance they were looking for. But it is all they see, so okay. Well, it’s not okay with me. I am here to explode this view of the dance. I am here to shine a light on the magic and mystery of our dance.
We are drawn to this dance because we feel something from it. It is real. It is there. The dance waits for you, a hidden seed trembling with life, ready to blossom in your heart and soul. It is beautiful and free and loving–and so are you.
You know those little voices that always rag on us to just quit and be done with it? That we will never amount to anything? What does that even mean? Like we will not be world-class famous dancers with tons of money and fame? Why is that the benchmark of success in our dance?
Few of us dance solely for adulation or money. It’s awesome that dance gives us those things, but the dance is deeper than this. It’s the connection to the music we crave—the sense of oneness that we value. Yet all the emphasis is on the pretty girl on stage in a costume.
Most people who do this dance do not teach or perform. They dance with friends at home or at parties. Why would they do that? Dance around the house and play music, women of all ages. A dance of joy. What does that really mean?
This dance has power. We know this. And not all of it in the venue of performance. That in some ways is the smallest of it attributes. Because it is a dance of joy, that is why its performances have power—they bring joy, both to viewers and dancers. That is also why it is so popular offstage as well. Doing or viewing this dance lifts one’s mood. Joy is there for all of us.
I sometimes hear disdain for the “hobbyists.” You know, the ones who take classes, fill workshops, and pay the bills The ones with relatively normal lives who just want to dance and have fun. Because we all should be serious dancers who work hard.
Well, surprise. Maybe the hobbyists have the right idea. I’m all for performance. I am a performer. I love it. Many of us do. I love teaching. I’m good at it. So I get it. I’m not suggesting anyone stop. People feel called to open studios, develop professional companies, dance at birthday parties; I say YES to all of it. But this dance is a folk dance, done by folks, in their homes. And that is a legitimate, honorable relationship with the dance.
What ifwestopbeatingourselvesup for not “goinganywhere” with our dance? Think of all the people who do yoga, or tai chi. They don’t look to be performers. Few even look to be teachers. Most of them just go to class, a workshop, a retreat. The activity is part of their life. It gives them physical and emotional benefits. Maybe a community. And they enjoy it.
The same with dance.
The physical interaction with the music is pleasurable in and of itself. And the more in sync we get the better and more beautiful and delicious it feels. Think how lovely our 20 minutes could be ifwe focused on the sensuality of the moves and their relationship with the music. Right there is a good reason for pursuing mastery. For the pleasure of the activity all by itself. On our own or with friends.
That sounds radical, doesn’t it? Most of us don’t move for the enjoyment of it. We practice to get better. We work. What ifwe enjoyed ourselves instead?
Something to think about…
PS With the encouragement of my friend Mackay Rippey, of Lyme Ninja Radio, I’ll teach a free 4-week web series this fall called Belly Dance Foundation Flow–an exploration of belly dance movement for healing and joy. It will be a lovely, rich experience.
Update: Mackay and I recorded an interview for his podcast;; the web series followed. It is all archived–you can get the recordings here. This is a totally free series. All are welcome.