Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Paladin is Moving to WordPress.

Greetings everyone!

For the new year, I'm moving to WordPress, on a domain of my very own. I'm moving to WordPress because it's more powerful, more easily customized, and there are way more features and plug-ins. Don't worry - the BlogSpot posts will still remain here, but future posts will be on my NEW blog:

The NEW Bellydance Paladin website.

For LJ readers, the new feed is at http://syndicated.livejournal.com/bd_paladin/

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Digging in the dirt...

When Kajira asked me to teach a "gothic" workshop at Tribal Fest this year, I didn't really know what to offer. I don't consider myself just a gothic bellydancer, although that seems to be the label that others often put on me. I don't mind, really; I do tend towards darker themes and costuming, so the label is understandable. However, despite being attracted to the darker side of things, I think my style encompasses more than "gothic". And as far as teaching any sort of authoritative workshop on gothic styling, costuming, or music, I could name several dancers and artists who are much more qualified to do so. I think the reason Kajira asked me to teach a "gothic" workshop is because my performance at Tribal Fest 8 last May was quite dark.

That performance was rooted in a lot of personal anger and frustration that I had been dealing with as an artist and as an individual. In order to perform that piece, I did a lot of introspection and soul-searching. The specific meaning behind the piece is, of course, personal. I had to face my fears, my insecurities, and my ever-present and often destructive Ego in order to work up the gall to share that with the world. I often describe that piece as "One girl confronting and conquering her demons."


The concept of personal demons has fascinated me since high school. Personal demons are the aspects of our own selves that we fear, that we don't want to accept, and that we don't want the rest of the world to see. They are our ugly parts, our sources of shame, anger, and fear. They are remnants of our past that we'd rather not remember, that we'd rather just push away. All of us have them, but only some of us choose to face them, and even fewer use them in our art. And the more you push them down, the stronger and less controllable they can become.

I believe the best art is made from the deepest and darkest demons. So, just as I had to reach deep inside my psyche to present my TF8 performance, maybe I can help others face, confront, and tame their darker sides, their Jungian Shadow archetype. I've also confronted (but by no means have I fully reconciled it--I'm not sure one ever does) my Demons and Shadow face-to-face several times in Suhaila Salimpour's workshops, particularly this past August during the Level III weeklong. I think I have some insight on how to use the darker aspects of ourselves to create a more powerful, more emotional, and more honest performance.

If we can't face the dark sides of ourselves, we will continue to never fully recognize our complete emotional range... and if we can't recognize our emotional range, how can we ever present a compelling performance to an audience who, whether they know it or not, are desperately seeking a connection with the artist on stage. The more you can face your demons, the more you can not only connect with yourself, but with every single person who sees you perform. And isn't making that sublime connection with others something that makes art ART?

Today, I'll leave you with this excerpt from Jung's writings on the Shadow.

We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.

"New Paths in Psychology" (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.425

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dance as language.

I've been encountering the metaphor of dance as language recently... Mira Betz told us during one of her workshops here in DC that performing is like telling a story. Every movement should add to a cohesive whole. It's one thing to have beautiful technique, but if the movements don't flow well together and if they don't fit the music, then all you're speaking to your audience is gibberish.

Performing lots of beautiful technique without a story or without flow is like going up to someone and saying, "Conceptual lucrative implement ameliorate."


Sure, those are all difficult words that are cool on their own, but when you put them together, they don't mean anything. They're just a string of difficult words.

It seems that recently in the tribal fusion community dancers have been praising other dancers who speak individual words very well (i.e. executing particular movements cleanly and precisely) without tying all of them together into a larger, complete performance. It's like applauding someone giving a speech because they said, "ameliorate" really really well. But what did the word "ameliorate" have to do with anything they were saying? Were they saying anything at all?

This is, of course, not to say that clean technique isn't important. Of course it's important. But technique alone is not the essence of dance. One must look at their performance as a whole, a complete presentation that flows seamlessly from beginning to end.

I leave you with two articles from two dancers and artists I respect very much: Shems and Tempest. Both have written eloquent articles on the importance of a cohesive performance.

"Learning the Language of Belly Dance" by Shems

Learning to belly dance is like learning a new language. Just like a baby learns how to shape her mouth to create new words, a dance student learns how to shape her body to express herself through dance. A child masters language as she grows and as she matures to adulthood eventually uses language to communicate more fully and even inspire.

"The Age of Storytelling" by Tempest
Really, it comes down to every dancer has a story to tell. And if they can stop for a moment and consider what it is and what it means to them before they get on that stage, then it will show in their dancing.

Having a good vocabulary is one thing... knowing how to use it is another thing entirely.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Swing it low.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm really into using visualization in my dance practice. I practice more in my head and in small increments than I do in the studio. (I don't recommend that for everyone, but I need to work with the time that I have!)

Several of my students have asked me about identifying and isolating the lower abdominals. For various reasons, the lower abdominals are very hard for many people isolate. Maybe it's because, as women, we're often told to "suck it in" and that our female parts are a source of shame or pain. Many women mentally and emotionally separate themselves from their lower abdominals, and any attention they pay the oft-neglected muscles is usually negative.

Regardless of why someone might have trouble accessing the lower abdominals, being able to access and isolate them is imperative in bellydance for clean pelvic locks, undulations, interior hip squares and circles, and plain old good posture.

Here are some tricks to help you connect your brain with your lower abs. Remember - your brain controls your body. Yes, that's sort of a "well, DUH" statement, but it's amazing how out of control our body feels when learning a new movement.

A bit about the abdominal muscles.

The rectus abdominis muscles are actually eight separate muscles. Their primary function is to protect the inner organs and to pull the torso forward. The human body is not normally expected to isolate the upper set of rectus abdominis from the lower set, so naturally, doing so is pretty difficult.

  • Start small. I can't emphasize this one enough, and it doesn't apply only to lower abdominal contractions. When trying to isolate a muscle or muscle group, make your first attempts tiny. With lower abdominals, put one hand on your upper abdominals. Contract the lower ones a little bit, making sure you feel no movement in the upper abdominals. Then, contract the lower ones even more. The second you feel your upper abdominals engaging, release everything, reset, and try again. The more you do this, the larger and more distinct your lower abdominal isolation will become. But you have to start small.

  • Aim low. The lower set of the rectus abdominis are also the longest. When I ask my students to isolate their lower abdominals, I ask them to think about contracting right above the public bone. The lower in the muscle you aim your mental focus, the more separated from the other muscles that movement will become.

  • Visualize. As you can see in the illustration above, I've added a small red dot. Focus your mental energy in one specific point in your lower abs, right above the pubic bone. The smaller your point of focus, the more you will be able to isolate the muscle. One of my students came up with an absolutely brilliant visual to help with lower ab isolations. She said that it's like there's a string attached to the little red dot, and it's pulling your lower abdominals backward, towards your lower back. I also like to tell students that it's like pulling your low belly into your low intestines. It's a gross image, but gross images stick in people's heads.

I hope this helps some of you identify and isolate your lower abdominals.... it may not come quickly. It's taken me years to be able to separate my upper abdominals from my lower abdominals, and I'm just now feeling like I can isolate them really well. If you work on this just a little bit every day, you'll have clean lower abdominal isolations in no time.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Returning after a long hiatus.

Greetings, dear readers... I know I have abandoned you for quite a while, but this Modern Day Warrior has been... busy. Very very busy. And because I've been so busy, I haven't had any ponderings that I thought worthy of the blog. I've been hosting, attending, and teaching workshops in addition to my day-to-day teaching weekly classes, working full time, and trying to spend some quality time with my husband... let alone some quality time alone.

One thing I have been doing that has been incredibly calming is drawing... My husband signed me up for a 9-week session of figure drawing class at the Art League in Alexandria. Once a week, I enter the studio, giant sketch pads in hand, and clear my head.

It's like yoga for my mind. I don't have to worry if my drawings are good or what others will think of them. I just focus, and everything else slips away... I spend those 2 and a half hours a week looking at how the shadows form on the model's body, seeing how the muscles and joints connect together, shading here, erasing and lightening there. Why didn't I do this before?

I used to draw all the time. Any free moment I had was spent with my sketchbook (a 9x12 Strathmore recycled sketch, with the green cover). When I draw, the world slips away.

I've posted a few of my sketches (from a visit to the New England Aquarium and some other random things) on Flickr, for those who'd like to see. They're nothing spectacular, but it will give you an idea of what I do. While dance is a job (albeit one I absolutely love), when I draw I don't have to worry about what others will think or whether that performance will end up on YouTube.

Do you have something that just makes the world slip away, where you feel no pressure, no anxiety, and no one but yourself? Drawing makes me feel like that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

You are your own style.

Following up to "You got Style" - I was thinking about dancers who feel pulled in multiple directions and who have many influences... and we feel pressured to choose one particular style or integrate all our style influences in a way that might be forced or artificial. There is no reason why you and your personal style of movement can't evolve or change as you grow and learn.

I thought that I wanted to be an Ultra Gypsy/Rachel Brice-inspired tribal fusion dancer back in 2004 when I first really started to explore the new tribal-style belly dance that was finally hitting the East Coast. I tried on those styles, and much of it didn't work well with my body or personality. Rachel's early dancing (2004 - 2005) was very liquidy, smooth, gooey, and long... my body is fiery, sharp, and, well, short! So, I took what I liked from the UG/RB stylization, and started playing around with adding my own elements from other dance styles that I appreciate and enjoy.

I studied Turkish oryantal and Romany for a while with Artemis Mourat. The fiesty, fiery Turkish-style dances worked well with my personality and my body type, but I quickly became bored with the lack of music selection and the limited dance vocabulary... so I added some of that fire and punch into my fusion performances.

I love the elegance and grace of classical Egyptian oriental dance, but the 10-minute long orchestrated pieces weren't moving my soul... but I try to put some of that languid ease and extension into my own dance.

The posture and dignity of American Tribal Style has always attracted me, but I would rather dance as a soloist than in an ATS troupe... So I integrate a lot of ATS movements into my own performances as an homage to the style that has influenced myself and so many other tribally-inspired dancers.

There is no reason to pigeon-hole yourself into a style. It took me a long time to be comfortable with performing a dark, gritty fusion piece one day, and an elegant qanun taqsim the next. Many people label me as a gothic-style dancer, but then I turn around and perform to "YYZ" by Rush (which is so far from goth!). Some people label me as a "tribal" style dancer, but I performed an oriental piece at a recent show here in DC.

Whatever you do, and whatever you dance to, as long as you stay true to your inspirations and your own heart, then that is the style you are meant to do. Trusting your instinct in this regard is probably one of the most difficult things you can do as a dancer. When you dance as yourself, you are out on your own, you are a pioneer. It's scary to take a chance and perform in a way that hasn't been done before... but it's so rewarding.

You are your own style.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Amy from Kallisti's Fantastic Post.

I like to support my fellow bloggers, and Amy, the Right and Kind Reverend of Kallisti Tribal (I'm a fan of these ladies, in case ya didn't know), posted a fantastic entry recently about performance, honesty, and matching your performance ideas to your skill level.

Amy tells it like it is. I strongly encourage you to take a moment and read her thoughts.

(And, of course, I want to hear what YOU think... leave a comment if you have anything to add or refute. I love a good, civil debate.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Undercutting is bad, mmmmkay?

There's been some talk amongst DC-area belly dancers about undercutting, and frankly, there's no excuse for charging less than the going rate.

Some of my fellow dancers have posted some thoughtful entries on the subject matter, and I'd like to bring these to your attention:

Brooke/Lyra: "So you wanna go pro"
Shems: Mostly directed to DC-area dancers, but non-DC dancers might find some useful information here.

I just want to add my philosophical 2 cents. Undercutting is not only detrimental to the community, but also I believe it is unethical. Why? Because it causes harm. It does service to no one, and ultimately hurts everyone involved:

  • the dancer who lost a gig because her client hired someone else charging less than the going rate;
  • the client who doesn't get a quality, professional performance if they hire an undercutter;
  • the undercutter who does herself a disservice by not charging what she's worth;
  • the audience who sees another mediocre bellydance performance by someone not ready to dance;
  • the dance community who suffers writ large when the general public believes that this dance is nothing better than the mediocre undercutter.
I'll leave you with this, one of my favorite comic strips, Freelance Freedom (click to enlarge):

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A question of your honesty...

I appreciate an honest performance. One without airs, gimmicks, gratuitous costuming, or obvious trend following.

But how do you know when a performance is honest? How can you tell when the performer is genuinely enjoying herself without worrying about impressing the audience or whether her performance will be well-received?

I thought back to my skating days, when my mother and I would get annoyed at the skaters who were rewarded by their use of gimmicks and props, while the skaters will skill and musicality weren't always recognized.

In belly dance, I think gimmicks are also overused, and often point to a disingenuous performance. My friend the Oxford English Dictionary says that a "gimmick" is "a tricky or ingenious device, gadget, idea, etc., especially one adopted for the purpose of attracting attention or publicity." In this definition, there is an inherent intend to trick or mislead. In my mind, a gimmick in a performance can be used to distract the audience away from the fact that a dancer is not accomplished or secure enough for her dancing to stand alone. That gimmick could be the use of an unusual prop, wearing provocative or unusual costuming, using catchy music, or gratuitous humor. (This is not to say that I believe that anyone who uses a prop is doing so because they can't dance. On the contrary, I've seen many a skilled dancer use props in a manner that compliments and enhances her dance.)

Other elements that seem to tip off a performance that isn't wholly honest is gratuitous use of trendy or scandalous music, overly-revealing costuming for the sake of garnering attention, or scandalous movements. These things are also gimmicks, inadvertently placing skill and expression behind gaining attention or notoriety.

I think it takes a long time and a wise dancer to give an honest performance. The most honest and raw performances I've seen are from dancers who have either been dancing their whole life or who have been dancing for 20 or more years. It's difficult for a new performer to have the confidence and sense of self to give an honest performance. Many of us newbies are still focusing on whether our technique is correct or whether or not the audience cares or appreciates what we're doing, or whether or not our costume might... "malfunction." An experienced performer is so open on stage that she's not paying attention to these things - she isn't paying attention to anything, in the conscious sense. It's as if she's turning her emotional self inside out, baring her shadows for all of us to see, and she isn't worrying about whether or not we like what we're seeing. She just IS, and that's all that matters.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Believe in the Freedom of Music

Anyone who's been reading this blog regularly knows that I'm a huge fan of the band Rush. These three talented musicians have been creating moving, memorable songs for over 30 years, and I had the pleasure of seeing them last weekend. I splurged on the tickets - 7th row, stage left, right in front of the multitalented bassist, vocalist, and keyboardist Geddy Lee.

Besides being one of the best concerts I've ever attended, this concert had a certain intensity, a passion, a real love for life. Rush doesn't depend on their old hit songs; they are not a nostalgia act. They made it a point to play a lot of their new material, new songs that highlight their maturity, craftsmanship, and dedication to always striving to make better music. The boys (as fans call them) are not outwardly self-indulgent, as many a prog rocker (or any rocker, really) can be. Every song they played was bursting with honesty, laid over technically flawless musical execution.

Each member of the band believes in the music that they create, and each of them strives to make the best music they can make, emotionally and technically. Musicians highly regard Rush for the mastery of their instruments, and their technical prowess. The whole of the three members' contributions to the band is really greater than the sum of their parts. And each member of the band is constantly striving to be a better musician, pushing their abilities.

The best part about the concert was that it was clear that these three men, each in their 50s, were enjoying every moment up on that stage... not in a "aren't we so awesome" way, but in a manner that conveyed, "we love this music, and we're honored that you came along with us for the ride." And I can't forget to mention that their concerts are laced with humor: in the introductory video clips before each set, in the set design, and in the musicians themselves.

I thought, the next day as I reflected on that memorable night, that I want that in my dancing. That honesty, that technical proficiency, that mastery, that intensity, and most of all that humble love of the art. I want to be able to go on stage and feel that I'm putting out the best performance I can, but not care so much about what the audience thinks.

Maybe after I've been performing for over 30 years, I'll find myself balancing humor, passion, technicality, mastery, and humility as the "boys" of Rush do.