When you learn something new, you copy. When you learn to draw, you copy and trace drawings. When you learn to write, you copy other writers. When you learn a new move, you 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: Perfection. 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.
Yet 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 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.
PS Effortless Improvisation will help you fly!
(Last call for earlybirds. Prices rise on Monday.)
The webinar last week turned out really well. An hour of rock-solid information, a host of extra resources (more on that below), plus 15 minutes of Q+A. One of the questions asked about students improvising.
What to do when all kinds of random stuff comes out–not belly dance at all?!
We talked about this a little a few weeks back in terms of freewriting. The little pipe in our head that the thoughts come out of gets easily clogged. It’s the same with improvisation. The important central concept is Don’t Think. Just follow. The first skill is to get out of our own way. Just allow the body to move as it wishes. This means letting go of judging and controlling. This is the most important thing. Everything else comes later.
In the beginning, all kinds of rusty water will come gurgling out of us. And that’s OKAY. Just let it out.
Looking pretty comes later ; )
Avoid the mirror. Close the eyes. Breathe with the music, use slow movement–and let it out.
Stuck in choreography? Wish your students could improvise? Wish you could improvise?
Dancers are often afraid to improvise, preferring the safety of choreography. Yet improv is a core skill for belly dance!
So how do we teach this? Can improv even be taught? Is there no hope?
Yes, there’s hope!
Alia Thabit is a specialist in improvisation and improv-based composition, and the coming months are a celebration of improvisation! From local classes and workshops to an online webinar and forum-based course, the time has come to open ourselves up to the music and see what comes out!
Here are our upcoming events:
Cairo Cabaret, July 14. 2019
Workshops in Northampton MA:
Effortless Improv + Micro-Movement 11 am-12:15 pm Improvisation is a core skill for belly dance, but so many folks just learn choreography–which makes it even harder to learn improvisation! Through tested strategies such as Micro-Movement, Rhythmic Breath, Slow Movement, and Creative Limitation, students will learn how to access limitless movement options, turn off anxiety and self-judgement, and turn on their intuitive response to the music.
Spontaneous Construction—complex, exciting easy-to-remember group dances–in about an hour. 1-2:15 pm In this class, we will learn how to build fast, fun, group dances–in about an hour. Dances that are complex, interactive, and easy to remember; dances that leave room for each dancer’s personal expression, with every cue drenched in feeling and meaning so dancers are free to embody the music in a more organic way. Full process notes will be included.
Full day- $70; Single Workshop $40 Bonus– all workshop attendees are invited to participate in an online book club discussion her book Midnight at the Crossroads. Still a few spaces left. Join here: https://www.sahinabellydance.com/workshops-with-alia.html/
Cairo Cabaret Show 5-8 pm at American Legion Post 275 in Chicopee (see map below) The show is hosted by Troupe Hazine and is open to the public. Cover is $8.
Webinar: How to Teach Improvisation for Oriental Dance
August 4th at 2PM Eastern. $15 includes includes notes and follow-up. I will be teaching a few classes for the Belly Dance Business Academy, starting with this webinar. It’s pointed at teachers, but students will also get a lot out of it. Signup coming soon. Info is here.
Raq-On Studio Classes
Aug-September, White River Junction, VT. Focus on improv. Sold out, sorry.
Effortless Improv: a 6-week online improvisation crash course
Sunday, August 25 through Friday October 4th, 2019
Effortless Improv explores improvisation including Dancing to Live Music. You can learn to improvise. You can learn to feel the music. It’s a skill, and you can learn it. Designed for those who want to learn or teach improvisation. Check it out here! Still a few early-bird seats left… https://aliathabit.com/classes/effortless/
It’s been raining a lot this Spring. It was a long crappy winter, and the Spring was no better. Recently we’ve had some lovely days, but today it is raining. Again.
I know, we need the rain, water is precious, etc etc. Lots of people love a rainy day, yadda yadda. I get it. I’m just not one of them. Dark, cold, rainy days disagree with me. My body feels tired and aimless. I just want to eat, read, and sleep. Sunny days brighten me up and I actually want to do things–real things, like walk around and dance.
I kinda feel this way about Improvisation and Choreography, too.
Improvisation is fun for me, engaging, curious, and invigorating. Memorizing choreography, making everything exactly the same every time? Not so much. I mean, strict choreography is great, and encompasses much wonderful art; it’s just not my thing.
So I am really grateful to have found Oriental Dance, where improvisation is a core, valued skill. Artistic agency, different every time, the feeling in the moment, all that jazz. Right?
So, um… Why is so much belly dance choreography?
The short answer is, Western dance values. Since most folks lack access to the cultural values of Oriental dance, we just paste our own cultural values on top of the dance. Immersed in a culture informed by ballet and the Rockettes, we assume that precision and strict choreography are the way to go.
But belly dance is Eastern. It has completely different values. Setting this straight is part of why I wrote Midnight. But it also drives the way I teach.
How to teach Improvisation?
I focus on improv from the very beginning. Oriental dance is improv-based. Yes, I also teach technique, folks need to know the basic vocabulary AND how to adapt it to express the music. But even if I’m teaching a one-hour intro class, there is improv. I’d rather see folks have fun to music than struggle through some combo.
So how do I do this?
I make my classes fun. These are live beginner classes we are talking about right now. I start an upbeat improv warmup, and then slow it down for basic vocabulary practice, and include a Dancemeditation sequence. I also talk about the dance and its cultural values, so folks understand what and why we do these things.
After a while, I intro combinations, which I prefer to choreo for beginners. In Bobby Farrah’s classes, we had a different combination every class, and they were challenging–but in this way we learned very fast how to combine and transition between movements.
If I do a choreo w beginners (after several months have passed), THEY choose the movement. Dina recently specified beginners should not touch choreography for at least two years, so, yeah, I’m jumping the gun ; ). And these dances also include improv sections where each dancer gets to play.
For the in-depth, forum-based course, Effortless Improvisation, we get very deep into a variety of strategies to help dancers build confidence and let go of thinking and self judgement so they can enjoy their own dance. Each week we have new strategies. This stuff maybe offbeat, but it works.
The core of the course practice and accountability. The practice is a daily (M-F) 20-minute session of freestyle improvisation. This is where the the strategies show up and make a difference. The accountability is daily (M-F) posting of practice, how it went, how you felt, and so forth–and I give students feedback and coaching every day, tuned to their specific needs.
Students also cheerlead each other. We have small groups, so it is easy to keep track of just a few people, to encourage, congratulate, and commiserate. We have clear guidelines and maintain a positive environment so everyone feels safe and cherished. This is how you run an effective online course. And students agree.
What do people say about this?
This course dives deep into finding personal style and preferences. It approaches the wide spread concept that improv is difficult, filled with moments of dread, panic, and fear of looking boring or just not knowing what to do next. It is definitely a “soft skill” class, where “hard skills” are moves, combos, & choreos. This is about how to dance by finding confidence, how to convey emotion by MEANING it, how to string movements together because they FEEL right. The course is about the art behind the dance.
I feel much more confident about my dancing–even though I have “only” belly danced for 2 years and danced period for about 6 years!Actually, I don’t really feel like a “newbie” anymore now. And I know that when I am not having fun dancing it’s because I am trying to “do it right,” so I can remind myself “there are no wrong moves” and let go into the flow of the music. There is also a bit of sadness there, though, that the course is ending because I enjoyed the support I have gotten from Alia and fellow students. It’s amazing what even just a smiley face can do for encouragement.
Dancing with my eyes closed while I practiced. I found it so much easier to breathe, relax and take in the music when I wasn’t also taking in my surroundings or tempted to see how things looked as I danced. When we moved on to homework later that we kept our eyes open, it was much easier to simply dance and not be so concerned with what my eyes might see.
I feel like I get so much more out of Alia’s online intensives than many of the 2 or 3 hour workshops I have attended in person. There is much more time to ask questions and working thru the short homework each day really helps make the material click
I will be teaching a webinar on How to Teach Improvisation for the Belly Dance Business Academy in August (info coming) and Effortless Improvisation, an entire course this fall (still some early bird seats left!), which helps dancers who want to learn AND teachers who want to teach improv more effectively.
Whether you are a student or a teacher, please take the time to explore improvisation. You will find it a wonderfully rewarding enterprise. Oriental dance is a powerful venue for healing and transformation; I explore this aspect in all my classes–and improvisation plays a large part.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.” This is supposedly a South African proverb; I don’t know that it actually is. Or that it is always true. But I do know that combining group work with personal work is a fast way to go far.
This is how I have always created my courses–a mix of group accountability and camaraderie combined with individual focus and experimentation. I have found this combination to be satisfying and effective,, both in the classes I have taken as well as those I have taught.
I know, everyone despised group work in school.
Largely because it is for a grade, so everyone hates the slacker who drags them down almost as much as the perfectionist who drives them forward (at one time, I had my college students categorize themselves as Early Birds, Slow and Steady, or Caffiends, and grouped them accordingly–which worked surprisingly well).
One thing I noticed, though–the more fun the task, the more agreeable the groups were. The more motivated people are, the better everything goes.
Fun and motivation are key.
I have been in many, many groups (you probably have, too), from boards to business to classes. I have found that a good group motivates me to show up, and that I learn as much from the processes of the others as I do from my own (sometimes more). Groups work best when we have our own things to do between meetings, and we come back together to debrief and choose our next focus.
As someone who has often danced in a vacuum, with no teachers near at hand, before the internet, I am familiar with going alone. It’s not my strong suit, even though I do it all the time. Why?
I’m an introvert.
Generally, I avoid people. I abhor groups. They make me tired. I don’t like to be seen. BUT!
I get a lot farther with others to help me prioritize, act as a sounding board, or generally be on the path with me. Sometimes it’s just one person, sometimes it’s several. But when we are all motivated and the task is rewarding the process becomes enjoyable.
This is how I structure my classes.
A long time ago I read that some students responded more in written conversations and others to in-person conversation. I immediately tested this in my college classrooms, and was delighted to find silent students become chatty and helpful in forum threads. Since then, I have used a mix of video meetings with private forums for my classes–and it works.
Here are some comments from a recent class…
I think the group encouragement helped us all come “out” and share videos, etc… without feeling we would be judged. I felt everyone’s beauty from the inside out. I got to know them because we interacted everyday online. The love I felt from knowing them and seeing their dance was so sweet for me to watch. I am going to feel lost when the course is over. I also feel like I have made friends. I felt like I could do no wrong, explore and try new things every step of the way.
In this course Alia always encouraged being “you” and how “you” feel. All the assignments were open to “our” interpretations to build “our” dances. Alia gave guidance and examples, not “do this” “like this.” And everyone including me shared their own experiences, ideas, twists, struggles, questions, learned from each other, inspired each other, supported each other. There was no right or wrong. There was no who is better than others or “this is good because it looks like the example.” There really wasn’t. –HT
The group made all the difference. Things that I was privately feeling or insecurities I had would be expressed by someone else in the group. This gave me the confidence to speak up, ask questions and not be afraid of what others thought. The group was very supportive and their questions and comments were very helpful. I did not feel alone. ..I got so many great ideas from others in the forum. I remember saying to myself on numerous occasions, “I want to try that!” We were all free to share and explore together. –KG
“Awaken people to their own beauty and power. Enable them to express their unique individuality through art.”
This is my mission. This is why I teach classes, write books and articles, and dance the way I do. This is why I am embarked upon the trauma resolution path, to help others transcend the ice of old fear so they can create the art of their dreams.
It is from this place that I present our fall calendar.
I have built these courses over time. I have built them to heal the divides I see in our dance scene. I have built them for you. Thank you for reading, for thinking, for being part of all this, for being you. You are my heart and soul. Let’s go far–together.
Fall 2019 Upcoming Events
Raq-On Live Classes, mid Aug-mid Sept
I’m excited to be teaching some of Amity’s classes between mid August to mid Sept. There are a few spots left in the intermediate to advanced class on Monday nights–join live in the studio or Skype in.
“Individual growth while focusing not just on technique and drills, but different styles, props, history, and performance methods. You must be willing to take constructive criticism from your instructor work as a team player with your peers. Please note, in order to join this class, you must get instructor permission.” If interested, please contact me.
FUN classes are live online (video) classes designed for FUN. They are primarily follow-me, improv classes with some combinations, technique, and an extended Dancemeditation section for stress release and joy.
Each class is recorded. The recording is available for one week only, then replaced by the next recording. We use zoom for the classes and teachable.com to host the streamable recordings. Registration opens in August.
Creative Expressions Mastermind
I am very excited about this new venture. This Mastermind is for small groups (+/- five people) who meet online bi-weekly for two months (five total meetings of about two hours per meeting). Each member chooses their own creative goals while the group provides accountability, cheerleading, and coaching.
Each person gets twenty minutes per meeting to talk about what they’ve done, what they want to do, and troubleshoot or discuss. Alia will provide coaching, and they will choose their new goals or next steps for the coming month.
What might you focus on? It could be any kind of creative goal, dance, improvisation, a prop, or anything you want to learn or get better at, painting, costume making, writing, marketing, establishing boundaries, whatever you want to work on.
This Mastermind will run through September and October. Meeting times will be decided by the group. Meetings will be recorded and available via teachable.com.
There are only ten spaces available for the mastermind. If you are interested, contact me. Formal registration opens in August. However, if you are sure this is for you, you may partake of our special Trust the Chef pricing (there’s even a payment plan).
How to Teach Improvisation
Save the Date: August 4th at 2PM This is a webinar I’m teaching for the Belly Dance Business Academy. More info and signup coming soon.
Effortless Improv: a 6-week online improvisation crash course
This is one of my favorite classes. It is wild and crazy and oh, does it work! Get ready for transformation. Ten spots are available right now at a special early price (only 25 spots for the whole class). Info/Register
Focus on the Feeling How to Get and Give Great Critique for Oriental Dance
Who among us has not been told something cutting about our dance? Sure, maybe it’s true, but really–cutting? All of us want to improve; none of us need to be shredded in the process. Yet the only other option seems to be saying how good something was–when it wasn’t? Can’t we be honest, yet kind?
YES, WE CAN.
Focus on the Feeling helps us identify our strengths, prioritize our growth, build up our skills, and enjoy doing it–we even get to enjoy our own videos! Find out more here. FoF will run for 6 weeks, from Sunday, October 13 — Friday, November 22, 2019. Registration opens in September.
It is so nearly spring here in Vermont that the weather changes every day. We are tired of winter–so very tired.
Apparently, dancers are tired, too–tired of the toxic environments, bullying, and negativity many belly dancers must navigate.
In a recent Facebook post, Yasmina Ramzy, yasminaramzy.com, wrote on Facebook of her dismay over these challenges. The post struck a chord, with almost 200 replies from folks who had such experiences, as well as many suggestions for change. The following quote is just a taste of the original.
RAQS SHARQI IS SO BEAUTIFUL, EMPOWERING, HEALING, INSPIRING, SOUL-ENRICHING AND FULL OF JOY. And yet ….
often when I arrive in a new city to teach a workshop, the host picks me up at the airport and at some point we share a meal and then the host breaks down crying while she asks what to do about feeling bullied by the BD community Or….
the out-of-town students in Pro Course who book a private and within 10 minutes they are in tears asking me how to cope with being bullied by other Bellydancers . Or….
the 2am phonecalls, I receive from across North America from past students in tears who can not cope with troupe members or students being nasty to her or to each other Or….or….or….
She listed many more such experiences and and asked what folks thought would help. I have a lot of thoughts about this, so I posted a response–which garnered a hundred likes, loves, etc, and 25 comments of its own. Wow! I saw that people are interested in this topic, so I decided to share it with you. Here it is. (I have edited it a little bit ; )
I have also heard the stories and been thinking about this.
I notice several elements in play.
1. We in the west have made this dance over in our own likeness -as a primarily performance art rather than a social dance -as a venue for stylization, choreography, and competitive perfectionism, rather than a playful dance of joy -as a taking rather than a giving
2. We have all been damaged by internalized sexism and patriarchy. In some folks this results in victimizing, shaming, and blaming (do unto others), and in others, in ongoing vulnerability to victimization.
-this is part of our dual addiction to perfectionism and self loathing, both of which, I think, are connected to the unresolved chronic stress of being women in this society. It is even worse for minorities of any kind, who get double doses of daily meanness.
3. Everyone is angry. Turf wars in a saturated market place, scarcity mentality, Internet anonymity’s decimation of decent manners, and the legitimate rage felt by those who have gotten the short end of the minority stick all conspire into a time of unprecedented bullying from every angle.
How do we heal our troubled dance world?
The fact is, we can only change ourselves. But we are leaders. Leaders go first. They show the way. So where we go, others will follow. That being said… one person can have a BIG impact.
A. Bring the dance back to its roots.
Value improvisation, with all its impermanence and messiness. Value live improvised music of the culture. Value social dance, playfulness, and joy. Dance is supposed to be fun!
B. Prioritize dancer agency.
This is a core strength of our dance. Empower student confidence. Engage students in the creative process. We do not need little dance automatons who are only concerned with following orders and how they look. We want our dancers to have something to say. Dance is communication, self-expression. Teach dancers to find their own true dance.
C. Focus on how the dance *feels.*
Patriarchy wants us to focus on our looks, our sexual attractiveness. It wants us to always be seeking approval. It undermines our felt reality. It’s time to take back our pleasure in movement.
Oriental dance is about expressing our feeling from the music, emotional, yes, but also the deliciousness of the physical action of dance. This dance feels good to the body.
When we improvise, we let the body respond to the music as it wishes. As such, the dance becomes a healing, stress releasing, and deeply spiritual practice. We have enough problems in life. Dance is for joy.
D. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.
We get what we pay attention to. Its time to let the haters go.
-Someone is a jerk? Unfollow them. Don’t go to their classes or events.
-Don’t bitch in class about anything–dance class is joy time. I don’t care how hard it is to to get respect, make a living, etc. Don’t put that on your students (or your classmates). You don’t want their pity. You want their enthusiasm.
-Find compassionate, generous dance folks and back them–especially teachers of the culture.
-Check your privilege. Most belly dancers are white women. For folk of other colors, sexual orientation, abilities, low socioeconomic status, etc, life is so much harder than we can ever imagine. Remember this.
-Take steps to be fair and kind, to provide safe spaces for your students. It’s okay to fire bitchy, troublesome students. Make your classroom a bubble of joy.
We may only be able to change ourselves, but we can build a nurturing creative oasis, and welcome others inside. The ripples spread, ever outward…
Saturday, May 18th: Boston area folks–Soumaya MaRose’s 7th “Thé à l’Oriental” with Tamalyn Dallal and Amar Gamal Garcia, and features a traditional Moroccan Iftar fest. Soumaya is a brilliant Moroccan Oriental dancer, and she does things right. This is a do-not-miss if you are in the area.
Saturday-Sunday, June 8-9: Cassandra Shore in midcoast Maine. Cassandra is exceptional. I can only remember one time she was in New England–and that was decades ago. Not to be missed! It’s hosted by Kay Hardy Campbell, so you know it will be good. https://www.facebook.com/events/1060567260783532/
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 didn’t know your grandmother, or she couldn’t cook worth a damn, or she was scary and not safe, or some such, of course. That happens, and I’m sorry. But for most of us, she’s the culinary 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.
And here’s my grandmother, Shukria Swyden Thabit
So there you have it. Belly dance and hummus. Let me know how it goes.