How to Make the World Better-by dancing

Can recipes make you more creative?

When I was a kid, any time my Mom and I wanted to cook something new, we hauled out all our favorite cookbooks and found as many versions of the recipe as we could (there was no internet back then <gasp!>, so yeah, cookbooks). 

We read them all, chose those we liked, and noted what was consistent between them. Then we mixed and matched everything else to come up with our own, custom recipe. 

Damn, we made some great food. 

That early mix-n-match experience made me a confident cook. And it colored my outlook on pretty much everything. With a little prep, I could make whatever I did my own. 

This is also how I have approached belly dance.

It has made me open to a wide variety of influences. The foundation has come from the cookbooks–er, the tried-and-true dance experts from whom I have learned over time–what do they say that is consistent, and what is personal style? 

The first time I went to Egypt in 2004, I attended the Ahlan wa Sahalan festival. One of the things that pleased me there was realizing that I interpreted the music much the same way the Egyptian dancers did. I understood their choices. It was a nice validation. Over the course of writing my book, I took pains to analyze what made the dance Eastern and to clarify the differences between Eastern and Western artistic priorities.

In many ways, I was fortunate that I did NOT have a Western dance background. I had no dance instruction to speak of before I came to belly dance–with the exception of Twist lessons with Chubby Checker on television waaay back in the day. I’m pretty sure Chubby’s freestyle approach didn’t hurt, either ; ).

As I wrote Midnight, I also realized we have a problem here in the West. We have built a model of belly dance classes (whereas folks of the culture learned from family and friends). So we have students who want to show their work. They want a product, something the can take home and show off. So we make dances for them. And it’s only gotten worse. In the competition circuit, dances are choreographed down to the last wink and smile. They are the exact same, every single time. But there is a problem.

At its heart, our dance is improvised.

How do we reconcile East and West?

In the book, I made a list of what I found to be the essential elements of the dance. Here it is.
(You can read the entire first chapter, which includes this list, here: https://payhip.com/b/a1Qp).

  • The foundation movement vocabulary, hip drops, shimmies, undulations, etc.
  • Micromovement, the modulation of a movement’s size, shape, direction, speed, and force to better fit the dancer’s mood and the music
  • Improvisation to improvised (preferably live, preferably Eastern) music or loose choreography/structured improvisation that can be changed or modified to each situation
  • Expression of the dancer’s physical and emotional feeling in the moment, including playfulness and fun
  • Embodiment of the principles and values of Oriental music (more on this later in the chapter)
  • The Eastern music with which this dance has evolved. You can have all of the above with other music, but the music and dance go together, and they make special magic together.

The more of these principles we include in the mix, the closer we get to the soul of the dance. So where does choreography figure in? Belly dance at its heart is an improvised solo dance form. But even solo dances are now rigidly choreographed, every wink and nod the same every time. To me, there is a Trifecta of Oriental dance mastery. Here it is.

The Feeling in the Moment, Same but Different, and Bring the Joy.

My long-term goal is an improvisational dance company. But my short-term goal has been, how to bring these principles into set dances? Because choreography is here to stay. So what do we do with it?

I have always been drawn to theatrical dance–most of the dances I made had meaning in them. Though meaning in Oriental dance comes with the feeling from the music in the moment, Egyptian film choreographers, already practicing with Western models, lavished theatrical dances on the films they made. So I considered this a suitable precedent. Choreography is Western meaning in art is Western, but how could I use these few Western elements, yet stay true to the soul of the dance?

I developed a systematic approach to dancemaking that took into account all the above issues. I wanted dances that were wonderful to dance and wonderful to view.

I began building improvisational frameworks that had something to say–while staying true to the dance’s core principles. I could choose stage patterns and a backstory without tying myself to exact steps (and I could throw them away if I pleased). The results were amazing. So I decided to share them. You are invited to a Webinar!

How to make a Dance without Steps

Yup. No need to agonize over setting steps. More fun to make, more fun to dance. Takes about an hour. Really.

How does this make the world a better place?

When we see joyous art, we feel that joy within ourselves. When we create joyous art, we free our ourselves–and our guests–from cares and pain. Even if only for a little while, everyone gets a vacation from everyday stress. It is a valid calling, to heal ourselves and the world.

Let’s do that. Here’s how.

Live WebClass

Wednesday, January 23, 2019
7-8 PM EST
Register here: https://bellydancesoul.webinarninja.com/live-webinars/78875/register
YES, there will be a recording.

See you then!

Love,
Alia

How to choreograph Oriental dance (and stay true to the dance’s soul)

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.

What happened?
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

Thank you for all your care and love!

Big hugs,

Alia

 

Dance Magic Webinar

Hola, beautiful!

Ready for a free LIVE webinar?

Box of rocks_0(3)
Sometimes making dances is like sorting a box of rocks.

How about one on making dances? Lots of holiday haflas coming up! How do you quickly make a dance so you feel confident–without having to remember all those steps?

Ta-daa! Presenting

Dance Magic

Quick, easy ways to make a dance without setting a single step. 
In fact, we will make a dance right on the webinar!

This will be on Thursday, Dec 17 at 3PM EST (see that in your time zone: https://goo.gl/tJs7UB).
Yes, there will be a recording!

Sign me up!

(We will only use your addy for the webinar (unless you also choose to get Alia’s fabbo newsletter). Pinky swear!)

Save the date! It’s gonna be a hot one!

Love,
Alia

Here’s that link again…

Dance Magic me!

Why Agriculturists Don’t Improvise

Why Agriculturists Don’t Improvise (and Hunter-Gatherers do)

I discovered Hunter-Gatherers in a college anthropology class. Finally, everything made sense. Hunter gatherers don’t seek to control their environment–they map it. They know where and when the best mushrooms grow–just like I knew the roll of tape was on the floor behind the bathroom door. And they don’t dig up those mushrooms and plant them outside the hovel, either. Just like I never bothered picking up the tape and putting it away. I knew where it was.

In stark contrast are the Agriculturists. Their prime motivation is control of their environment and reduction of risk. Those people would dig up every single mushroom and plant it in their own yard. They collect seeds and hoard them for the spring. They do everything the same way every time, because one slip and their crops might fail. Their world could be lost. So they are careful.

While the agriculturists hoard and plan, hunter gatherers hold feasts and eat up everything in sight. More food will turn up sooner or later. If it doesn’t, well, they will be hungry and put a lot more effort into finding food. It is a boom and bust cycle, one that capitalizes on the seasons, the earth’s bounty, and the vagaries of chance.

In a hunter-gatherer society, risk has value. Boldness, experimentation, and innovation are survival skills.

Agriculturists, however, hate risk. They hate change. They hate mess. They color inside the lines. They walk out on stage with an entire routine scotch-taped to the inside of their forehead.

The ags have taken over the world. They have amassed its riches. They have rejected and oppressed everyone who is different from them, or used those folks to advance their own ends. War is not fought by the old–they send the young to do that for them. They send the adventurers out on adventures, and then rake in the cash when one hits it good. Sure they lose sometimes, but they are calculated risks. And that’s the important difference.

In the field of oriental dance, the ags have come calling big time. They have colonized my beloved dance form with their choreographies, group dances, naming, and owning. I reject all that.

I understand the allure. It makes things easier, it is fun, yadda yadda. But there is a dark side. It destroys the creativity and agency of the student. It values copying over feeling, and perpetuates insecurity, shame, and hierarchy. It is “Strictly Ballroom” all over again.

I don’t stand for any of it.

I stand for creativity and self-expression grounded in traditional oriental dance values. I stand for becoming our true selves in dance and in life. I stand for letting go of limiting beliefs, trauma, and shame and entering into the fullness of our potential.

And there is hope.
Many of the Agiculturist traits are the result of how we are raised. Most people aren’t raised to be artists. They are not raised to trust that everything will work out. To just show up. To say YES.

It’s scary to let go, to seize the moment when you have to double check every decision of your life.

It is a leap of faith to leave the safety net and take the risk of improvisation.

It may be hard at first. Learning can feel uncomfortable and scary. But, but, but–when you hang in there and have faith, when you embrace the challenge, when you let yourself feel the wonder of the wind in your hair…

You can do it.

You can fly.

Fly with me .

 

 

Why copying has its place (and how to keep it there)

 

Why copying has its place (and how to keep it there)

When you learn something new, you copy. When you learn to draw, you will copy and trace drawings. When you learn to write, you will copy other writers. When you learn a new move, you will copy the new move, and so on. So when does it stop? Because a lot of us only copy the work of others. We are afraid to do anything of our own. Because it might not be (gasp!) perfect.

First task: Perfect. Let go of that idea. Nothing is perfect. Everything has room to develop. This life is is about becoming. We learn, we grow, we change. Otherwise, we are dead.

Second task: Examine your mindset. Many of us were raised with the idea that we are born with a certain amount of smarts, and that’s it. If we are smart, everything is easy. If not, it’s hard. If something is hard, we are just not smart enough. Except, surprise! That’s totally wrong. Advances in neuroscience now tell us that intelligence is highly malleable. We increase our intelligence by learning new things. This is a real shocker for many of us. Used to being the smartest person in the room, we suffer shame when confronted with difficult tasks, avoid anything that might make us look stupid, and give up rather than face failure.

In reality, learning new things is the best way to keep the brain in good health (and if there isn’t a struggle, there is no learning). Learning develops new neural pathways. Learning wraps those pathways in myelin. Myelin is a white, tape-like structure that cements learning in place. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and several other diseases, destroy myelin, so we forget how to do things, and what things are. Pretty soon, we are loading the laundry into the freezer and pouring soy sauce into our coffee. Nobody wants to be like this.

The more we place ourselves in positions where we constantly learn, problem solve, and figure things out, the more we protect ourselves from these illnesses of demyelinization. A major study by Stanford University concluded that dancing regularly was the best defense against Alzheimer’s and dementia. By a LOT—76% more than any activity studied, cognitive or physical. Dancing makes you smarter. But not just any dancing. Based upon the other most protective activities, Richard Powers, who teaches ballroom dancing at Stanford, suggests, “Involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.”

Split-second rapid-fire decision making. Yes, we are talking about improvisation. When we improvise, we make innumerable calculations and adjustments, in the moment. We are not even aware of them. Powers refers to the follower in ballroom dance, who must interpret the invitations of the leader, and choose their next move with intelligence and intuition. So duet or group improv can bring even more benefit.

We copy to learn, we take classes, study others, and practice. But there comes a time when we must hop out on the branch, launch ourselves, and fly. Taking such risks benefits us in so many ways, some understood and others yet to come. Will our first efforts suck? Of course they will. Fail early, and fail often. That’s how we learn what works—through trial and error, persistence, and trying again.

We have been so brainwashed into thinking that we have to be perfect or stay home. Women especially are tyrannized by the expectation of perfection. That’s just a myth designed to keep you sad and powerless. It’s not about being a perfect copy. It’s about you. Being you. 100% yourself, with all your beauty and variety and personality. The world needs your individual glory.

Fly your freak flag high. 

 

 

Walk the Line

Walk the Line: How do you represent the dance and give the people what they want?

 

When I started teaching, my students wanted choreographies, something they could take home and show off. So I made them. Because the students were beginners, I needed simple, repetitious music. Do you know how hard this was to find? These days, there is a plethora of Egyptian pop (plenty of which is horribly boring, synth, repetition), but back in the 80s it was almost impossible to find a song that kept the same structure all the way through.

But that’s what I looked for, because, being self-taught, as everyone was, I didn’t know any better. And I made some fairly charming dances for my students. Even back then, I tended to have a lot of emotional and narrative elements, but most folks do not have this component. Additionally, I had the benefit of a superlative dance education through several years with Ibrahim Farrah, one of the most highly-regarded teachers of his day.

As I became a better teacher, my choreographies got more interesting and fun, and I encouraged my students’ creativity as well. It was important to me that their own voices come through, that they be creators in their own right. I encourage and make space for a lot of creativity and personal style in my classes. We free dance regularly, there are new combinations, and very little drilling.

But the minute I started teaching a choreography, the students’ creativity dropped like mercury in a polar vortex. Suddenly, they were anxious, careful, and narrowly focused, where the week before, they had been open, graceful, and free. They couldn’t remember, they were overly focused on symmetry, and they argued about their spacing. Their own dances suffered, as did the overall easygoing atmosphere I treasured in the classroom. Hmmm….

Why can’t the students make the group dances? Already, when my students  traveled to events, other students were amazed that my folks made their own dances. Even my beginners are trained and encouraged to make their own dances. So this is what I set out to do.

I began by having each student present a move that went with the music, which they then taught to the other dancers. I merely sequenced the steps with the music, usually in the same order as the students presented them. We let the music tell us how many times to do the move and what floor patterns we would take.

SHAZAM! Suddenly I had fully engaged students who remembered the moves, counts, and transitions, came up with floor patterns, and filled in any blanks without even being asked. Our focus was on feeling and expression rather than stylization. We had far more elaborate and complex interactions than before. Cooperation soared. The dances were great. And rather than passively accepting material, everyone was learning and doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love making dances. It is a great, great, pleasure to craft something just so. It is a great way to present new material in a concise way. But I love happy, productive, creative, engaged students even more.

My college classes–absolute beginners– now create, remember, and execute a beautifully, engaging dance, all within their final two weeks. A group of experienced dancers can do this in one hour. 

WIN-WIN.

How do you remember choreography?

How do you remember choreography?

This is one of the questions I hear most often, and with the most anguish.
One dancer struggles as another effortlessly repeats. Why?

I learned to dance through improvisation. In Bobby Farrah’s classes of the mid 70s, no matter how many times a week you went to class (and I often went three times a week for two hours at a time, 1973-1977), we did something completely different. The format of each class was fairly consistent: there was usually an extended combination, moves across the floor, and often we followed him as he improvised. Cymbal class was much the same, with zils on. However, the content varied widely–what we did was always new and different, class after class, week after week. I learned to dance, very quickly, and with a wide range of options. I learned how to use a stage, how to interpret music, and how to create on the spot.

However, I did not learn any choreography. Consequently, when I started attending workshops (Morocco’s was my first), and even Bobby’s later classes, I was at sea. I quickly developed a strategy of not giving a damn about the choreography, just cherry-picking steps, attitudes and some combinations, and I was happy with this. But I did feel stupid when I saw other people learn so fast. On the other hand, I usually didn’t like their dancing, so I just snobbed over this little problem.

Then my students wanted me to teach them choreographies. Okay. I had been exposed to enough of them. I started making dances for my students. I went to more workshops where there was nothing presented but choreographies. I watched movies such as A Chorus Line and saw dancers repeat complex combinations after seeing them ONCE. And I paid attention to the differences in values between oriental dance and western dance. And this is what I saw.

In traditional Oriental dance, the dancer creates the dance in the moment. Oriental dance values intuitive movement and expression of emotion. Technique is the servant of expression. The most important thing is the feeling. These are the values of the music as well.

Western dance, however, distinguishes between the dancer and the choreographer (even that word is hard to type!). Dancers are trained to remember and repeat. Movement is stylized, specific, and exact. So are movement strings. The dancer is the vessel for the vision of the choreographer. The dancer’s job is to manifest that vision physically. So how do these dancers remember all that choreography?

Dancers remember choreographies because they practice. It’s as simple as that. What do they practice? Remembering choreography. In the dance school setup, children as young as three begin this practice. They go to class and learn choreographies. Their parents buy the cute (expensive) little cossies and have pictures taken, while their babies go on stage at the annual recital and toddle charmingly through their steps.

By high school, these kids have practiced this at least 800 hours (an hour a week for 15 years), repeating precisely stylized movement, combinations, and choreography. If they are at all enthusiastic, they go more often than once a week, and they practice at home, too, running through their choreographies endless times, not only with their bodies, but in their heads. They have gone to dance camp, this camp, that festival, the other workshop, spending many, many hours a day honing their technique and learning to repeat. We could be talking thousands of hours of practice here.

How much time have the rest of us spent? Learning to remember choreography? Not dancing, not improvising, not creating dances. Remembering. Probably we looked that other dancer and just felt stupid. Then we gave up, and said, I’m not good at learning choreography. I’m stupid. I’m slow. At that point, Resistance’s work is done. We have given up. And even though we struggle, we know it’s no good, because we compare ourselves to the other. But I bet you have spent quite a few hours practicing other aspects of your dance. And I bet there are even more things you never thought about practicing, things that would have a much bigger impact on the quality of your dance than remembering choreography. Like being in the moment. Loving the audience. Enjoying yourself onstage. Laughing at your mistakes. Developing your emotional response to the music.

We do much better at whatever we practice. So if we practice feeling sorry for ourselves because some little twerp has a better memory for choreo, we will get better at feeling sorry for ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve been reading Talent is Overrated by Shawn Colvin. Colvin’s premise is that much of what we think of as inborn talent is in fact the result of effort and practice. He tells the story of SF, an otherwise unremarkable guy, who learned through 250 hours of training to be able to repeat a string of 80+ numbers, no small feat. Prior to this, memorization and repetition of such long strings were thought to be outside the range of human ability. A pal of SF’s later went on to repeat a string of 102 numbers. The researchers concluded that there was no upward limit to the length of number strings that humans could remember. 250 hours is not a big investment to change the course of history.

Colvin mentions retrieval structures, one of the most important elements of memory development. These are the strategies we use to remember things. SF cast his numbers into groups that represented running times. We will create choreographies with rich structures so that we will have myriad retrieval strategies in place. And we know that intelligence is malleable and can be grown, that anyone can develop skills with practice. So we can use the techniques of deliberate practice to learn whatever we want more effectively.

We may never put in the hours to learn choreo in one click. But as Colvin reports, ability in one area has nothing to do with ability in others. Sf could only remember numbers. Chess masters could only remember games. So don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. You have much better uses for your time.

Ask yourself, what makes a great dancer? Is it remembering choreography? I didn’t think so. Make a list. Leverage the skills you do have. Leverage your new ability to learn new things.

Where do you want to excel?

Practice that.

 

 

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