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.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Costume Does Not Make the Dancer

Part of the reason I started this blog is to force myself to open up to all of you in a way that pushes my comfort zone.

I have insecurities about my dance. We all do. One of mine is that I don't have enough costumes. Or, at least, I used to feel like I don't have enough costumes. I wear the same things over and over again, mostly because I don't have a lot of time to make new bras or belts. Inspiration to make new pieces doesn't hit me often, either. It's taken me a while to accept that my lack of new wearables shouldn't detract from my skill as a dancer or performer.

I used to feel pressured to make a new costume item for each big performance of which I was a part, particularly stage shows. I'd see other dancers in the area sporting new creations at each event: beautiful belts, creative costume bras, and other innovative designs. I look at the costuming I wear and realize that I haven't made a new costume bra in a year. I haven't made a new belt in at least 9 months. In the spare time that I have, I'd rather spend it working on my dancing or looking for new music.... let alone relaxing or taking care of daily chores.

Thankfully, there are seamstresses out there (such as Christina of Black Lotus and Tempest of MedDevi Ink) who make amazing and beautiful costuming so that I can buy much more of my costuming than I could several years ago. But this presents a dilemma... the more pretty things that are out there, the more we are tempted to spend money on them rather than our training. I remain frugal in my costume purchases in relation to my spending on training.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and glitter of wearing a beautiful costume. Many of us dancers are attracted to tribal and fusion dance forms because of their aesthetics, and a key element of those aesthetics is the costuming. Believe me, I want to look my best on stage, and that requires appropriate and professional costuming.

When we first start dancing, we're more likely to get caught up in the "dress-up" element of the dance. We want to wear that flashy hip scarf to class, regardless of how annoying the coins sound or feel under your feet when the threads break. We want to stock up on our stash of shiny things, like magpies building their nests. Believe me, I went through that phase when I first started dancing.

But then I heard this question: Do you spend more money on costuming than you do your training?

Whoa. Reality check!

I remember that being a turning point for me and my approach to this dance. Sure, we want to look good on stage when we perform (and by all means, we should!), but the only way we'll truly look good is if we dance well. The best dancer could go on stage in nothing more than a t-shirt and sweat pants and still blow the crowd away with her skill and projection. (Of course, I'm not suggesting that we all ditch our bedlahs, bras, belts, and hair falls to perform in our pajamas.) A mediocre dancer can wear the most elaborate couture costuming money can buy, but it won't hide her poor technique or stage presence.

So, consider this: the next time you are tempted to buy a hot new costuming item, think about the last time you splurged on a workshop that would improve your technique or projection? A costume is only material, but training will last you a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On Music. Possibly my first truly controversial post.

I did promise music posts, right?


So, I was thinking about music (as I often do)...

I have pretty strong feelings about the use of music in dance, particularly when it comes to performing to music to which you've already seen someone else dance. I'm not talking about coincidental use of music that someone else has used, but more along the lines of "Ooh, [Insert name of Famous Dancer or Dancer on YouTube] used this song, and it's great, so I'm going to dance to it too!"

I understand that not everyone agrees with me on my beliefs about music usage. Some people believe that music, regardless of who you've seen dance to it, is fair game. I don't. (And I understand that might not be a very popular opinion, but this blog isn't for popular opinions... Hehe...)

To me, it's an issue of originality and hard work.

I believe music is so inherently part of this dance that the music to which we choose to perform is an extension of our dance and our identity.

I feel that the music a dancer chooses is a part of her because it speaks to her on an emotional level, and she has chosen to use that music to express an intimate part of her emotions and expression. That dancer's music therefore becomes a part of her physical self for that performance (and probably for longer), and she probably worked very hard to find that music, most likely sampling hundreds of songs and purchasing dozens of CDs. Learning a new song takes time and dedication. Finding music takes even more time and probably a good chunk of change.

Music is a financial and emotional investment. I feel like when a dancer performs to a song that she's seen someone else perform to on YouTube, she's not putting in the same investment into her dance that the original dancer did. I also feel that if that dancer performs similarly to the dancer who originally used that music, the dancer is selling her own creativity short by imitating someone else.

Unique music has the power to bring out unique elements of your personality, style, and expression.

There are, however, times when I don't think using "someone else's music" is a bad thing. I've determined that it's OK for you to use music someone else has used if...

  • You've asked permission of the dancer using the song if it's OK if you use it as well.

  • The music is ubiquitous within the community. For tribal bellydance, ubiquitous artists would be musicians like Helm, Solace, Gypsy Caravan, Raquy and the Cavemen, Maduro, Beats Antique, and Pentaphobe. As more dancers perform, more songs and artists are becoming "standards" of the genre... songs that come to mind are "Proper Hoodidge" by Amon Tobin and a recent new addition to the scene, "Ongyilkos Vasarnap" by Venetian Snares (although as recently as 2005, this song was not a tribal bellydance "standard"). (I believe that it's important to be aware of who these artists are, as many of them make music for dancers or at least with dancers in mind. Give them a little love.) For oriental and cabaret dancers, there are far more "standards" such as "Shashkin", "Alf Layla Wa Layla", "Aziza", "Mishaal", and many more.

  • Your performance is VERY different from the dancer who originally danced to that particular song. This generally means that you'll be dancing a different style as the original or using different props.

  • The original dancer taught a choreography to that music in a workshop and gave the students permission to perform it elsewhere with credit to the choreographer.
I feel like we owe it to ourselves and our community to find unique pieces of music to which to express ourselves and our dance. We owe it to ourselves because the music we choose to dance to is intrinsically linked to the movement of our bodies, and by association our own identities. We owe it to the community because every new piece of music, every new expression, helps to enrich this dance form and push it forward.

Sometimes it may seem safer to dance to music you know that another dancer has used successfully... That music is already audience-tested and approved. But you'll grow more as an artist if you take a little risk and perform to music that you've never heard anyone else use. Chances are your performance will be a little more heartfelt, and it will certainly be a unique expression of YOU as an artist and dancer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You've Got Style

But you don't have to choose a style right now.

Bellydance is probably the only dance form where the dancers are obsessed with choosing a "style" in their first few years of dancing. I mean, what other dance form do you know that implies that the dancer choose her one and only style by the time she's been dancing for two years? How many times have you heard a new dancer say, "Well, I only dance Egyptian style" or "I don't like cabaret style, so I'm a tribal style dancer"?

Here I make the trite and totally overused ballet vs. bellydance comparison. In this instance, it works.

When you take your first ballet class, you probably aren't taking that class for a particular style of ballet. Every beginning ballet dancer does work at the barre, learns the basic five positions, practices her plie, releve, tendu, and degage. She aims to perfect the basic movements as much as she can. Her instructor isn't pressuring her to dance in a particular style; she's probably pressuring her to be more flexible or keep her back long.

When you take your first ballet class, you don't say, "I only want to dance in The Nutcracker." You don't spend your entire time practicing your movements just to be able to dance in The Nutcracker. You work on your movements so that you can perform any ballet, regardless of composer, era, or style.

In any other dance form, dancers learn technique first. Then they learn choreographies that apply the technique. They continue to work on their technique. They might dance with a company and perform solos with that company. They continue to work on their technique as they learn more choreographies to various styles of music, learning the nuances of dancing to different pieces. Then, maybe, after 15-20 years, does that dance start to really develop her personal style.

Somehow, this approach doesn't apply to bellydance.

Why not?

Why are we bellydancers feeling so pressured to choose a style even before we know how to dance? Why do we succumb to this pressure? Why do dancers who choose a particular style sometimes denigrate styles that are not the one she has chosen? What is it about style that has become so important to us that we feel like we need to choose just one style and stick with it?
Why don't dancers try more styles of bellydance before deciding that she's "tribal" or "cabaret" or "folkloric" or "Turkish" or "Egyptian"? Don't these categories just continue to separate the "fusionists" from the "traditionalists" and widen the divide between them?

And aren't the greatest dancers out there the ones who are masters of their dance, regardless of style?

I don't have answers to these questions. Maybe you do.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Tribe.net - Separating the Grist from the Chaff

I'm sure many of you are familiar with and are perhaps members of tribe.net, an online social networking website that is just chock full of bellydancers. Tribe.net can be a great resource if you just know which tribes to join, however there are a lot of fan tribes that don't offer much substance, and personal/troupe tribes that mostly offer performance and class information for a particular city or area.

To save you some of the hassle of finding the tribes worth paying attention to (in my not so humble opinion), here are the ones that I find the most useful and informative.

  • The Biz of Belly Dance
    • This tribe is a fantastic resource for dancers who are either dancing professionally or who are seeking to do so in the near future. Moderated by Samira Shuruk--who has been an activist for professional ethics and standards in the bellydance community for several years--this tribe and its members provide quality discussion that rarely becomes uncivil or destructive.

  • Bellydance Health, Fitness, and Anatomy
    • I've turned to this tribe several times seeking advice and input from other dancers in regard to anatomy and health. While this tribe, of course, is hardly a substitute for seeing a physician, moderator Aubre and its members are chock full of knowledge on the human body and how bellydance affects it.

  • Bellydance Feedback
    • This tribe, unfortunately, is greatly underutilized. I'd like to see it grow a little bit more. This tribe offers dancers the opportunity to post their own performance videos and solicit constructive feedback from other dancers. Sometimes responses can be confusion, as each dancer might have a different opinion of what would improve a performance, most of the time the responses are honest, helpful, and--as far as I've seen--never hurtful.

  • Belly Dance Legacy
    • Know your history! This tribe is another great untapped resource. This tribe mostly focuses on the history of bellydance from the 1970s and earlier. I highly suggest you check it out, if only for the amazing photos in the gallery.

  • DCTribal
    • Created by community maven Mab, just Mab, this tribe serves the DC-area tribal and fusion bellydance scene, but its members span from all over the country. If you're not in DC, then you might not find this tribe as helpful as I do, but if you're ever in the area, this would be the first place to check for upcoming community events, performances, and workshops. This tribe really helped bring together disparate dancers from the area to launch a community in the true sense of the word.

  • Suhaila Method Resource Group
    • This tribe is limited to those who are at least Level I certified in the Suhaila Salimpour format. If you are Level I certified and haven't joined yet, let moderator Kitiera know that you're interested. It's a fantastic resource for anyone involved in the format.
There are many other tribes out there, but these are the ones that I check the most often and the ones that consistently have some of the best discussions and content.

Are there tribes that you frequent that you feel have helped your dance? Leave a comment. :)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I've been trying to express gratitude more often in my daily life. I think it lifts the spirits.

I'd like to say thank you to all the people who've been reading this blog since its inception in February. I appreciate that you take the time to read my ramblings and to leave comments. I read and think about every comment you post.

So... thank you.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On Mentoring

I performed in a pretty big show last weekend, involving some pretty reputable dancers (why they invited me, I have no idea!)... and one very respected local instructor asked me as I was about to leave the dressing room for a moment, "Do you have a cover-up? And do tribal dancers wear cover ups? I see a lot of tribal dancers just walking around in their costumes... and I wondered why."

Now, I admit to forgetting a "formal" cover-up on several occasions, but I at least have something to cover myself so that I'm not walking around in full costume.

And I replied to her, "Well, technically, yes, we do wear cover-ups... and I think the dancers you see without them haven't had anyone to tell them otherwise." You see, I think (and I worry) that there is a whole generation of tribal-oriented dancers out there whose primary instruction comes from instructional videos and YouTube... and I worry about these dancers. This is not to say that a dancer can't learn from these media, but it is a rare dancer who can do so. I can think of two.

One reason I worry for these dancers is that if they are learning primarily from videos, then they probably don't have a mentor or a primary instructor to guide them, not only physically to ensure proper technique and body awareness, but also professionally.

I was lucky enough to have a very respected instructor as my professional mentor: Artemis Mourat, from Washington, DC. She took me in after I moved to this area after graduating from college, and taught me nearly everything I needed to know about being not only a dancer, but a professional entertainer. If I had learned only from videos, I probably wouldn't have any idea about asking for a fare wage, always wearing a cover-up, how to conduct oneself when confronted with threatening restaurant owners, and how to dance with a live band. If I had to sum it up, she taught me professional ethics. And I continue to seek her guidance in professional matters to this day. She is a mentor in the true sense of the word. I am grateful that I have such an amazing woman as a resource in my life.

I understand that not all aspiring dancers have such instructors in their areas... and I wonder if it might be worth setting up some sort of mentoring program for dancers... if we could pair up new dancers with experienced ones, and have them establish a relationship either online or over the phone or both. My day job has a program like this, and every new employee is assigned a mentor to help them learn the ropes of the profession. Why don't we have something like this in belly dance?

As we who have been in the dance for a while complain about undercutters who don't know better than to dance for free (*cringe*) or that they should wear a cover-up unless performing, we do very little to combat it. We've been relatively passive, offering guidance to those who seek it, but only after they've sought it, unless those seeking the guidance are our own students. What if we actively sought out "mentees" to coach? Of course, there will always be those dancers who disregard the community at large and will perform and teach before they're ready, but I think we can do more to combat this, particularly as more dancers don't have primary instructors and look to videos for their dance training.

I think I'm going to post about this on the Biz of Belly Dance tribe and see what people say. I'm not sure anyone has thought of this before...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Community Service

In the tribal bellydance world (for some reason this subject doesn't seem to come up as often amongst oriental/cabaret dancers) dancers often bring up the subject of "community". What is community? What happens in your community? How did you find each other? How often do you see each other? Are you friends or just fellow dancers who happen to live in the same area?

For me, community is a lot more than just the dancers who live, perform, teach, and study in your area. There are plenty of areas in the United States where many dancers live in the same region, but hardly ever see each other, and there might even be a sense of animosity that separates them more than physical distance ever could.

There's something bigger at work than just physical proximity that makes a community.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions for "community", and this one is probably the one most suited to what I'm getting at:

II. A body of individuals.
c. Often applied to those members of a civil community, who have certain circumstances of nativity, religion, or pursuit, common to them, but not shared by those among whom they live. [Emphasis mine.]
That definition, while close, isn't quite what I'm getting at...

In the Washington, DC, area, I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a true community. What that means for us is that most of us are friends, we hang out with each other outside of bellydance and similar events, we call on each other for assistance when we need it, and we support each others' endeavors and successes. For the most part we do not see our fellow dancers as competitors, but as colleagues. I feel like we have something very special in this area; I'm not sure other regions or metro areas in the United States can boast such a claim.

That is not to say we don't have intra-community tension sometimes, but it's rare. As we are more like an extended family than a group of people with similar interests, we can take on the characteristics of a classic family with all of its ups and downs.

How did we get here? I think the most important factors in creating community are:
  • Leaving your ego and insecurities at home. I think the paramount factors that can ruin a community are insecurity and arrogance. Both trigger responses to others' dancing skill such as, "She's not that good; I can do better", or "Wow, she's really good and I have to compete with her for gigs and attention!" These emotions can also trigger harmful gossip, backbiting, and verbal sabotage. A true community is not about competition against others. (Competition against yourself, however, is perfectly acceptable.)
  • Holding and attending events that get everyone in the same space. Sharing your art with others in the same physical space as other dancers and artists in your region is essential to building trust and camaraderie. These events absolutely must be open to anyone who is interested in the artform (in this case, tribal belly dance). Allowing anyone to attend helps emphasize the openness of the individuals who compose the community. When you are at an event where others are present, you must be present as well. It is your chance not only to experience their art, but also to talk to fellow dancers and artists. The more you talk to and associate with others in your region, the less likely you are to succumb to the dangers of insecurity and arrogance.

Of course, there are other variables, but I think these two factors are the key to a really strong community, vice disparate dancers who happen to live in the same general area.

Just as I was to post about community...


So, if you don't know Mab, just Mab, you really should. She's a cornerstone of the DC dance and performance community, and without her efforts, I'm not sure the DC tribal and related art scenes would be as tight as we are.

She has created a new blog about arts in DC, and I'm pretty sure she's gonna post about every upcoming event related (but not limited) to: Sideshow, Burlesque, Vaudeville, Tribal Bellydance, Fire Artistry, Circus Arts, Unusual Music and Theater... and more! I have a feeling this will be an indespensible resource for events in the area.

The blog: DC Variety. I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


This is really only tangentially related to the overall subject of the blog, but...

I got new ink!

I've been thinking about this design for over a year. It's an adaptation of the Rush Starman (see below), which first appeared on the back of their album 2112.

The original Starman symbolizes "the abstract man against the masses. The red star symbolizes any collectivist mentality" [Neil Peart, Creem, 1982]. I identified so much with that symbolism and the sentiment behind it. I have felt like an individual fighting the masses... My experiences in elementary school and junior high (see the section on the "No Demon")--particularly being told that I shouldn't try to be the best in school because it was threatening the other students--have been a fundamental building block in my worldview and personal philosophies.

I became really enamored with the image, but I wanted to change it a bit if I were to put it on my body. I took the man out of the original because I feel like the abstract man. The placement of the star on my upper back (vice any other part of my body) is to remind me that the pressure is always there, behind me, and that I must stay true to my convictions regardless of what pressures I face, particularly in my art. I also chose to have it on my upper back because the muscles there are the source of strong dance posture, particularly in tribal style. I feel powerful when I contract my back muscles and stand tall, and that posture conveys a sense of control and confidence.

My entire life I've striven to remain an individual, to not compromise myself in the face of peer pressure, trends, and conformity.

And to give credit where credit is very much due... my tattoo artist is Susan Behney-Doyle at Jinx Proof in Washington, DC. She's amazing, and she made my star a reality.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A call for integrity in belly dance periodicals.

Why is it that belly dance periodicals don't seem to pride themselves on well-crafted, objective, and thought-provoking writing, and instead publish poorly-written, subjective, insulting, and inflammatory articles? Are we belly dancers as a community that nasty, ill-educated, catty, and insecure?

I would like to say that on the whole, most of us are well-educated, nice, and generally good people. If an outsider read the most popular of our online periodicals and message boards, she would not get that impression.

This dancer is tired of the poorly written articles that value style over substance and controversy over content.

Here's what I wish for:

  • Articles written by dancers who are experts on the subject matters on which they are writing.
  • Articles that focus on the art and history of this dance, rather than the gimmicks and controversies.
  • Authors who can proofread their own writing, or have the foresight to have a colleague proofread for them.
  • Authors who check their facts.
  • Authors who can identify and check their assumptions about other styles and dancers.
  • Authors who can take the time to spell other dancers' names correctly.
  • Authors who, if presented with a DVD or CD to review, have the honesty to tell the periodical, "I am not qualified to review this, so please ask someone else who knows more about this style/subject/dancer."
  • Performance and product reviews that are neither hate-fests nor love-fests, but are objective and analytical dissections of the performance or product in question.
  • Authors who, if they are offended by a particular style or dancer, do not immediately write an emotionally charged article for the sake of stirring up controversy. We are all passionate about something in this dance, yes, but we don't need to go insulting others to show others how passionate we are.
  • In relation to the previous point, authors who, when faced with something that offends them, take the time to understand and conduct some research on the offending style/dancer.
  • Authors and articles who don't resort to commenting on the appearance or costuming of a dancer. (Please comment on the quality of the dancing; frankly I don't care if someone was dancing in a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants or if she's in a $1000 Eman.)
  • Publications who seek out quality authors, rather than just allowing their friends and favorite dancers to write articles.
I find it ironic (explained below) that one of the only surviving popular and prolific periodicals is the Gilded Serpent. Most of the Gilded Serpent's articles are either insipid "reviews" of recent events which merely describe a dancer's lovely new Bella bedlah or who performed at a recent stage show, or the articles are ignorant attempts that insult fusion styles of dance. The Gilded Serpent's core authors appear to have an agenda: one that praises the old school and degrades those of us experimenting and pushing this dance forward for a new generation of dancers. To its credit, the Gilded Serpent does accept articles by guest authors; however, I feel that these articles are lost in the cacophany of criticism and nearly substance-free articles. I feel that the Gilded Serpent has become the tabloid of belly dance news, and yet so many people continue to read it... because there are so few other options.

I assume (yes, I could be wrong) that most of the Gilded Serpent's readership is the same population of dancers that lament the passing of the more scholarly paper publications of Habibi and Arabesque, both of which developed a well-earned reputation for well-crafted, well-researched, and honest reporting on our dance. Where are all of those dancers who read these periodicals? Wouldn't you want to see our dance's publications rise up to the high standards that these now defunct periodicals set? Or did these publications perish because we as a community don't really have an appetite for academic research and writing on our dance? I would hope that isn't the case, but I fear that the passing of these magazines indicates that our community would rather wallow in insults and subjective ass-kissing and back-biting than to take the high road of objectivity, research, and integrity in our written products.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More words of wisdom from Mr. Peart

My favorite rock drummer, Neil Peart, says this on one of his instructional DVDs:

"Be inspired by your accomplishments and not threatened by your limitations."

I like that!

Hearing that made me think about my own accomplishments and limitations as a dancer and artist. I feel like I have a few accomplishments, achievements that I'm proud of and that I worked really hard to attain. And then I thought of my limitations. My main limitation is time. There's never enough time in the day for me to accomplish all that I want with my art. Sometimes I do feel threatened by my limitations, but I have to look at them as not hindrances but a framework: How much can I do within these boundaries? How much can I push myself within the box of my own schedule and my own limits?

I think as artists it's really easy to be discouraged by those elements of our lives that appear to hold us back from really flourishing.

What do you feel limits you? What are your accomplishments as an artist and as a human? Take a moment to reflect and maybe your limitations are guidelines in disguise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Returning from my fourth Tribal Fest

Tribal Fest. It's like the (pardon the analogy) Mecca of tribal and fusion bellydance. It's where we go to learn from and watch the "stars", and it's where new stars are born and discovered.

And for a little less than a week, you can immerse yourself in this world of fantasy and individuality, if you go in with the right attitude.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the glitz and glitter and infinite searches for "fame." Frankly, there's a whole lot of ass-kissing and schmoozing that goes on at a festival like this one. So many people wanting to talk to the more famous dancers, to have their troupe noticed by the big names, and to get that latest hip (haha... punny!) pair of Melodia pants.

I've inadvertently been sucked into the materialism and external focus that is so prevalent at large gatherings such as this one. It's easy for me to feel like the odd one out, the outsider who isn't cool enough to hang with the popular kids... it's a complex I've had since elementary school... This sense of not being able to relate and feeling like I need to keep up with the Joneses of tribal belly dance leaves me feeling inadequate, inexperienced, and disconnected... not only from the "scene" but myself. It also doesn't help that I'm introverted and have a hard time feeling comfortable around large groups of people, particularly when I don't know most of them.

This year I made a conscious decision to make the most of my time at the fest, regardless of what happened. I think it worked!

I took time away from the fest when I needed to be isolated, and I spent a a leisurely amount of time getting ready for my performance on Friday night. When I got to the festival venue after finishing my hair and make up, I spent at least an hour and a half walking around with my earphones on, listening to Rush (of course!) and just centering myself. I had a few one-on-one conversations with vendors about music and dance and integrity, which also helped to boost my confidence a little bit more. I think that this time alone, in my own little world of music, helped me deliver (what I thought was) a solid performance that night.

I spent the remainder of the festival with my friends, spending time with people who I hadn't seen in months, sometimes years, and enjoying the warmth of the northern California sun. I spent money on things that I knew I would use, not just because they were the "cool new things".

If you look past all the shiny things on the vendors' tables and find a sense of peace within yourself and your abilities as a dancer and as a human being, chances are you'll be less likely to be sucked into the vortex of activity at such a large festival as Tribal Fest. Everyone has a different festival experience, and it's up to you to choose how you approach and spend your time. This year, I feel like I chose very wisely.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fly by night away from here.

The Paladin will be away for about a week... I'm sure that after I return from Tribal Fest, I'll have more thoughts to share with you all.

Thanks for reading. :)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

On being a performer.

A stream of consciousness post for a Sunday morning...

I think the hardest part of being a dancer for me is also being a performer. I get a little self-absorbed, and not in a "I'm so awesome" kind of way, but in that I forget that there are others watching me perform. If I'm not in the right headspace, I don't project as much emotion to the audience as I should or could. And then the audience doesn't follow me on my journey on stage.

I am an introvert. I have a hard time connecting with people in general, and when I'm putting myself on stage, expressing very personal elements of myself as a dancer and artist, I feel very vulnerable.

What really helped open my eyes was taking a workshop with Sera, formerly of Washington DC and now in New York. She said that when we're on stage we must "give our throat to the wolves" - basically we have to forget our fears and open ourselves up to the audience, no matter how cruel or aloof they might be.

I've always been a technical dancer - the skill of dancing has come rather easily to me, but connecting with the audience has always been a challenge. I think it's a challenge for most dancers who aspire to also be performers. It's much easier to go out there, do some tricks, and then walk off stage... but to really connect with the audience, to give them a piece of yourself, your soul, is so much different... and it's scary!

What I see in a lot of newer dancers is that they have not yet learned how to project, to give themselves to the audience. Being able to project means being confident in your technical abilities that they become second nature... it's like an actor knowing her lines so well that she doesn't have to think about them anymore and she can become the character that she's portraying.

Recently I've been focusing more on getting into that emotional place than on drilling technique, so that I can just dance "in the moment" and yet still give myself to the audience.

What has really helped me is eye contact. I used to be so afraid of looking people in the eyes, even when not on stage. Honestly, sometimes I fake eye contact when on stage. I'll look between people, and not really at anyone, but it looks like I'm staring someone down. I'm trying to get better at this and really look right at people in the audience. It makes them smile, and it makes me smile. Both good things when on stage!

I also try to spend some time alone before the performance, getting into an emotional place. If I don't have that time before a performance to settle into my "character", the piece isn't going to be as successful, and I have a harder time controlling my emotional projection on stage. When creating a piece, I try to have a particular mood or character that I'm portraying, and these are always a part of myself. I never portray a character that isn't inherent in my own personality.

And while I'm on stage, I have to believe and know that I am in control: of my movements, my expression, and the audience. They are my captives... otherwise they wouldn't be there. It's a delicate balance... because if you try too hard for their attention, it will slip away. The audience will know that you're trying to hard and then they won't take you seriously. But if it's obvious that you're enjoying yourself and loving what you do up on stage, they'll go along with you for the journey. It's very zen. It's trying without effort.

The most useful way to become a performer is, of course, getting performance experience. Nothing will teach you most about being on stage than actually being on stage. You can read all about emotional expression all you want, but if you don't actually perform, none of that intellectual knowledge will do you any good.

Where are you in this process? Is connecting with the audience something that comes naturally for you or not? What do you do to help you with this aspect of performance?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Brain Boosters!

So you all probably know by now that I'm really into understanding the connection between the brain, the body, and learning dance. I really love a good science narrative, too!

I started reading (and I'm not yet finished with) Steven Johnson's book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. And it's fabulous! I have to read it with a pen in hand to underline all the amazing insights about how our brains work from day to day.

If you're interested in learning more about how your brain works, and why it works that way, I recommend this book. It's full of awesome.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Boost your Brainpower

Some of you may have already seen this, but I read this today in Wired, from their article "12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower":

Learning new things actually strengthens your brain — especially when you believe you can learn new things. It's a virtuous circle: When you think you're getting smarter, you study harder, making more nerve-cell connections, which in turn makes you ... smarter. This effect shows up consistently among experimental subjects, from seventh graders to college students to businesspeople. According to studies carried out by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck and others, volunteers with a so-called growth mindset about learning ("persist in the face of setbacks") have more brain plasticity. In other words, their noggins are more adaptable. They exhibit increases in cognitive performance compared with those who have a so-called fixed mindset ("get defensive or give up easily"). "Many people believe they have a fixed level of intelligence, and that's that," Dweck says. "The cure is to change the mindset." Certain that we're wrong? Enjoy stupidity!

I try to tell students who are feeling stumped or stymied in class that they absolutely CAN do everything that I'm teaching them. They look at me like I'm crazy and that I'm just saying that to make them feel better. But I sincerely believe that they have the power within themselves to do everything that I teach. Maybe they won't get it right there at that moment in class, but they will get it. They can. I feel like the only thing really holding them back is... themselves.

I'm still trying to figure out how to break that mental and emotional barrier in those students. I wonder if there's really anything I can do besides believing in their abilities and genuine encouragement. I truly care for each of my students, and I want them to learn and dance to their fullest potential. When they don't believe they can do something, I feel like all I can do is tell them that they can, and to give them the tools to do so. It's really up to the student to make the decision that they will work for that difficult movement or combination. As an instructor, it's my responsibility to give my students the best I can to help them achieve and learn the most they can. It's the student's responsibility to use the tools.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


What do you do when you're feeling stuck? (That's Flick from A Christmas Story in the photo... He manages to scream out, "stuck... stuck! STUCK!" when he realizes that his tongue is frozen to the flagpole.)

I think this is one of the greatest creative hurdles for any artist. I admit, I've been feeling uninspired myself.

I took a creativity course at work a few months ago, and at the end of the class, the instructor passed out little cards with these tips for boosting creativity:

  • Shift Perspective - Take a walk, visit a museum, try writing things with your non-dominant hand... that sort of thing. Take your mind off of your art for a moment. I find just taking a walk helps me reset myself.

  • Diversify Connections - Talk to artists who aren't dancers. Talk with people who aren't artists.... what do they have to offer your creative process?

  • Exploit Creative Moments - When you get an idea, pounce on it. Write it down. Leave a voicemail on your own phone as a reminder. Don't let your ideas get away from you. I bring notebooks with me everywhere for this very reason.

  • Challenge Assumptions - What are you assuming about your own art and expectations? What do you assume other people want to see from you? Is this hurting or helping your art? Identifying your assumptions about your art will hep you break out of your routine and spark new life into it.

  • Break Routine - Take a new route to work. Change your schedule a bit. Do something differently. We can easily fall into daily habits without realizing it, and these habits can stifle our creativity.

  • Capture Insights - If you hear something inspiring from someone else, write it down. There are insights all around us. I read several business and creativity blogs to keep my brain active and inspired. Sometimes you might hear something on the radio. Don't lose those nuggets of knowledge.

  • Take Risks - Sometimes we're afraid to try something new because of what others might think or say. Umm... screw that. Stay true to your convictions and take a risk! It's better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all. It's true.

  • Persevere - In the face of adversity, naysayers, and your own self-doubt, don't give up when you do have a new idea.

I'd add one more: Take a break. This one sort of fits in with Shift Perspective, but I find that it helps me to not think about dance at all... and, more importantly, allow myself to not think about dance and to not feel guilty for not thinking about dance.

What do you do when you're feeling stuck?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Trouble with Tribal (Fusion) - Part 2

Videos! Duh, I should have thought of that, but, I didn't. That's ok. There are enough here for a post!

Folkloric Tribal

Based on pre-ATS belly dance, particularly American Cabaret, Hahbi'Ru performs a kind of "Folkloric Tribal."

American Tribal Style

FatChanceBellyDance. Our dance mommas.

BlackSheepBellyDance at Tribal Fest 2007.

Disclaimer: "Cabaret" is a very broad term, and there are subtypes of cabaret, just as there are subtypes of tribal. Here are some of my favorite cabaret performances on YouTube, but this list is absolutely by no means exhaustive.

Aziza. Aziza performs American/Egyptian cabaret.

Shems (Performing to Oum Kalthoum's "Lissa Fakir"). And performing a rockin' drum solo.

Jillina. If you can ignore the pink snake costume, you can see she's really amazing.

Suhaila Salimpour. Suhaila isn't really classifiable. She does it all. This piece blends locking with a classic cabaret drum solo.

Improvisational Tribal Style: Still using a system of movements and cues, these groups have developed a unique dance vocabulary with ATS as its base.

Unmata performing their high-energy improv.

n.o.madic tribal in 2007.

Kallisti Tribal.

Tribal Fusion (Various)
Rachel Brice at Tribal Fest in 2006.

Ariellah. She blends tribal, cabaret, and gothic stylings, but her core is tribal.

Zoe Jakes of the Indigo at Tribal Fest 2007.


Romka (duet from DC).

Urban Tribal Dance Company (they verge on just being dance fusion).

Ultra Gypsy in 2001.

Bellydance Fusion (Not Necessarily Tribal)

Mira Betz fuses the dignity of tribal with the grace of classic cabaret. Putting her in a category is very difficult - and I think that's what makes her one of my favorites.

Anasma. Theatrical fusion.

Hip Hop fusion by Raqs Arabi, directed by Crystal Silmi.

Sera and Solstice at Night of 1000 Goddesses, September 2007. They also perform tribal fusion.

Tempest. An icon of the Gothic Bellydance genre.


In addition to these videos, Shems has an excellent article on her website on the different styles of bellydance with YouTube playlists for each. I encourage you to check it out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Trouble with Tribal (Fusion)

I think tribal belly dance is going through a bit of a crisis right now. The problem? So many new dancers and so little definition of tribal's identity. With the explosion of soloists dressing up like The Indigo and posting videos of themselves on YouTube, I feel like these dancers don't know where their roots lie. With so many dancers out there without the resources or instructors to learn American Tribal Style (ATS)--the root of "tribal fusion bellydance"--I see the misconceptions and innocent ignorance going global. Dancers without access to ATS classes will call themselves "tribal fusion" and yet despite their costuming, they dance like oriental/cabaret dancers. It's like watching a hip hop performance by a dancer in a ballet tutu... and calling herself a ballerina.

After seeing video upon video, I think I've figured out what makes a dance "tribal". Of course sometimes the line isn't so distinct, and it doesn't always have to be... but I believe that a dancer should know the implications of what she calls her dance.

As I made the journey into becoming a tribal-inspired bellydancer, I tried to identify the core characteristics of tribal bellydance. These elements, when integrated with other dance forms, make that integration a form of "tribal fusion bellydance." Without those core elements, the dance can't be called "tribal fusion bellydance" but rather "fusion bellydance". And, for the record, there's nothing wrong with fusion bellydance as long as its performed well. Just don't call fusion bellydance "tribal".

Why even narrow these characteristics down? Why do I care?

I think I care because I like to know the roots of what I perform. Boiling down a dance to its bare essence helps me figure out whether I'm staying true to a dance form or style. I want to perform tribal fusion bellydance; therefore, I need to find out what defines "tribal bellydance".

Everyone has their opinion of what makes a fusion "tribal", but here are the core elements I believe should be part of a tribal fusion performance, and note how none of it has to do with the costuming:
  • Arms and hands: floreos (ATS-style), high elbows, and strong ATS (flamenco-inspired) arms.

  • Upper body posture: A lifted chest, using the muscles in the upper back. A relaxed upper body is more casual, less stylized, and, frankly, more oriental/cabaret.

  • Use of classic American Tribal Style steps, integrated into a routine and not just thrown in to fulfill the "tribal" requirement.

  • Open facial expression. True ATS dancers smile. Tribal fusion doesn't require a frown.

  • A sense of grounding into the floor. Tribal is inherently earthy.

Note that "locking", "popping", and "ticking" are not mentioned. These are breakdance/hip hop movements that many tribal fusion dancers have integrated into their performances. These robotic and staccato movements are not essentially tribal, nor are they essentially belly dance. I have seen many cabaret and oriental dancers integrate these movements into their performances, and yet they still remain essentially cabaret because they lacked the other above mentioned characteristics. Popping, locking, ticking, and strobing are part of the "fusion" of "tribal fusion bellydance." I'm surprised at how many people I encounter who believe that these are essential to tribal style bellydance.

This also goes for the recent "vintage" trend that is so hot right now (and when done tastefully, can be stunning!). Neo-Victorian/Edwardian/Roaring 20s/burlesque-inspired costuming does not make a dancer "tribal fusion." As beautiful as the costuming may be, it, in and of itself, is not essentially tribal.

A costume does not make a dancer tribal. If a costume made a dancer "cabaret", then Carolena Nericcio's performance in San Francisco Beledi would be cabaret... and when you see this performance, it's SO tribal. (I wish I could find a screen capture online, but I'm not finding one.)

There are a few things that I feel like should be left out of a "tribal fusion bellydance" performance because I feel that they are contrary to the essence of American Tribal Style. These, of course, are only my personal opinions:

  • Cabaret facial expressions

  • Lifting the hair with the hands

  • Suggestive movements such as wide hip circles a la Dina.

  • Wild shoulder shimmies. ATS dancers do perform shoulder shimmies, yet they are subtle and "quiet".

Lastly, I believe that anyone who calls themselves a "tribal fusion bellydancer" absolutely MUST have studied with authentic American Tribal Style instructors. In this, I would expect anyone who calls themselves "tribal fusion" would be able to dance with others who know American Tribal Style and perform a decent group improvisation. If you've never studied American Tribal Style, what are you doing calling yourself tribal fusion?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The urge to compete...

I wanted to share an opinion piece by Garrison Keillor, of "Prairie Home Companion" fame.

No one wants to be a loser, but you don't have to be first in line. There is grace afoot in the world and it will find you.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Rhythm Resources

Some of you were interested to know where you could learn more about Middle Eastern rhythms.

  • I recommend Suhaila Salimpour/Susu Pampanin's rhythm identification CD first and foremost. It's an excellent collection of Middle Eastern rhythms, and their various forms. You might also want to pick up Jamila Salimpour's finger cymbal CD, which has a ton of cymbal patterns to play along with. Both are available from Suhaila's website.

  • Khafif has an amazing webpage full of drum resources, including an entire page of sound samples. There's even a section on time signatures. If you're looking for an introduction to basic Middle Eastern rhythms, this page is an excellent place to start.

If you just want to listen to some awesome drumming, these are some recordings I really enjoy:

There's nothing like the drum... nothing at all.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Mystic Rhythms

So, this morning I, like the fangirl I am, was watching YouTube videos of my favorite rock drummer (you guessed it), Neil Peart.

(Stay with me here!)

One of the clips on YouTube is from his instructional DVD called Anatomy of a Drum Solo. He says something to the effect that one of his recent drum solos is more than just drumming, it's a tribute to the history of the drum... from African, to jazz, to rock...

And that got me thinking: Every culture has drums. And I can imagine that even before the first human stretched an animal skin across a circular frame, her fellow humans were striking stone against stone, stick against stick, using gourds as rattles, and, of course, clapping their hands together... in synchronized rhythm.

Rhythm is the glue that holds a song together, even if the time signature is constantly changing. Even songs without any actual drumming have a rhythm, a pulse.

Percussion and rhythm seem to be completely necessary for human existence. We as humans need it. We are drawn to it. We are moved by it. The beat of the drum is present everywhere. You can't go through a day of your life (unless you're a hermit) without hearing a beat somewhere. My husband and I live on a busy city street, so we hear the drum beats echoing from passing cars all the time: hip hop, reggaeton, pop, rock, and everything else in between. Right now I hear the beat of the clock... tick tick tick...

Before we are born, we hear the rhythm of our mother's heart. Bump-BUMP... bump-BUMP... bump-BUMP

When we emerge from the womb, we pound our tiny fists on our high chairs. Thump thump thumpity thump.

When we finally can hold utensils, we bang them on the table. Rat-tat-tat... rat-tat-tat...

I think each human has a personal beat. There's a rhythm and tempo that resonates with each of us, and not everyone will respond the same to the same rhythm or tempo. That resonant rhythm is the one that makes us get out of our chair and dance. Personally, I like the heavy sound of the Saidi beat, or the odd meter of the Turkish karsilama, or the frantic racing of the Amen Break heard often in drum and bass and breakcore music.

The drum is of paramount importance for bellydancers. The drum solo is a ubiquitous and exciting part of a classical bellydancer's performance. The Arabic tabla (also called darbuka, darabuka, and doumbek) is the backbone of Middle Eastern music.

The great master instructors of bellydance will always tell you, "know your rhythms. Know them by name, and be able to play them, at least at a basic level." And besides being able to communicate with a live drummer for a performance should the opportunity ever arise, there's something deeper about knowing Middle Eastern rhythms. The drum patterns of a culture ARE its culture. The Saidi rhythm with its heavy double-doum is the sound of Upper Egypt. It IS Upper Egypt. The 9/8 karsilama is the sound of the Turkish Rom. The lilting 6/8 of North Africa is North Africa. These rhythms distinguish their cultures from every other. The rhythm is the people, and the people hold these rhythms in their bodies. When you start becoming familiar with these rhythms, you are connecting to a deep history of culture and tradition. Learning these rhythms grounds you to the people whose dance you have chosen to present.

Even when we play finger cymbals when dancing, we are tapping (haha... pun!) into the great culture of the Middle East and North Africa. We become percussionists ourselves. It is our duty to not only keep the rhythm and melody of the song in our bodies but also in our cymbals. Cymbals aren't just for clinking along with the beat of the music; they are meant to enhance your dance and add depth to your and the musicians performance. They are instruments, and their playing should not be taken lightly.

So, when we dance, particularly to traditional rhythms (even when remixed into modern electronica), we should take a moment to reflect on the cultures who gave us this dance and gave us this music. Our dance should honor those traditions and pay tribute to those who have come before us... but also pave the way for future dancers to find their own personal rhythm.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Sometimes life is like this:
At least it's cute, right? Gotta look at the good in everything. :)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Big Money...

"Big money make mistakes..."
This year as I was working on my taxes, organizing my dance income and itemized deductions I realized that I was, er, a bit unorganized, and I was scrambling to add up all the numbers at the last minute. Not good, particularly for something I could have spent more time on during the year to prevent tax time stress.

So, this year I decided to be way more on top of things. Way more.

Enter the power of Google.

I have been an avid fan of Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and I love that I can access my documents from any computer, anywhere... even from my BlackBerry. I write my class syllabi, workshop notes, contracts, and more in Google Docs. I especially love that Google Docs allows me to open Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint presentations, as well as save my Google Doc files as MS file types without having to install Microsoft Office on my Apple MacBook. (My computer is a Microsoft-free Zone, and I intend to keep it that way.) Why it never occurred to me to organize my finances in Google Docs before this year is beyond me, but this year I've made it a point to be more on top of my money.

Instead of just throwing all of my paper receipts in a folder (or worse, a pile on the kitchen table), I immediately enter my expenses into a Google Spreadsheet, on a page I've marked as "Expenses" (naturally). When I get home from a dance-related event, I immediately take the receipts out of my wallet and enter the numbers into the spreadsheet. Everything goes in that spreadsheet: gas money, plane flights, groceries and meals I've bought while traveling for dance, rental car and hotel costs... everything dance-related. I do the same for my earnings. The moment I get home from an event where I've earned income through dance, I enter the numbers into my "Earnings" spreadsheet. I've set up each spreadsheet to add up the numbers automatically, so all the work is all done for me. No more scrambling at the last minute with a calculator! I can also easily keep track of whether or not I'm earning a net profit (or operating at a loss!).

I'm not sure why it took me so long to realize how incredibly helpful this would be, but I hope that it will help me a lot next year, when tax time comes around again.

So, of course, I suggest to all of the working dancers out there... find a way to keep track of your expenses and earnings as they happen, rather than at the last minute. Maybe that's obvious, but for me, I thought I would be fine just gathering it all up right before tax time. Now I know better!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Darkness and Light.

I was talking to a fellow dancer yesterday, and we were talking about emotional expression and crying in dance workshops... I said this:

We go into this dance thinking it's all fun and light, but if we really want to get something out of it, we have to face the dark within ourselves.

Some of the best workshops I've ever taken are the ones that have made me cry.... Not because the instructor was mean or overly demanding, but because the dancing has been so physically intense that I let down my emotional guard and the demons that I usually suppress from day to day come knocking on my proverbial door. When I take a moment to cry out my frustrations with myself and my expectations, I realize that I have broken through yet another emotional wall. I emerge victorious, ready to face the world again, having confronted painful memories and conquering them.

So much of our emotional existence is like that of the life of the Phoenix... we constantly immolate ourselves in our self-made fires, only to be reborn, stronger.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Music Aesthetics

Using your music as a springboard to creating an aesthetic for a performance or several performances.

Music is the base of all of my performances.

The songs I choose help me determine the movements I use, the costuming I wear, and the mood that I convey.

I really believe that your costuming should reflect your music in some way. One wouldn't wear a tutu while performing an Irish step dance, so why would a fusion bellydancer wear a full out cabaret costume? If your music is fusion, your costuming needs to fuse. I know it's difficult as someone new to performing to have a costume to reflect all the different styles of music to which you might want to dance, so I find it absolutely imperative to buy or make costuming pieces that are versatile and modular, meaning that you can mix-and-match your bras, belts, cholis, and pants. I also think that too much attention is paid to costuming in the tribal fusion world, at the expense of actually dancing well, so make sure that your costuming is appropriate, but not upstaging your dance.

Dance Movement:
Of course, when I create a performance, it's based in belly dance movement. But, as the music I'm using is often not traditional, I feel it's necessary to put in some non-traditional movement. Your movements should fuse, just as your costuming should fuse. For me, as I dance to a lot of electronic music, I try to integrate into my performances robotic and "electronic-looking" movements, often based in the "popping", "locking", and "ticking" dance styles of breakdancing. I feel it is important to never lose my tribal belly dance posture or arms when executing this movements - because keeping the posture of tribal while performing popping and locking truly fuses the movements. I feel that integrating appropriate movements into my belly dance performances is the only way I can appropriately interpret the music and give the music the credit it deserves for inspiring me to want to perform to it. Of course, this applies to any style of music you choose. If a jazzy piece of music inspires you, research jazz dance, and find ways to fully fuse it with your belly dance movement. If Indian or South Asian music inspires you, look into its history and into classical Indian music. What's most important that you dance to your music as though you were dancing a tribute to the musician who created it. And remember that as belly dancers, it is our duty to become the music, whichever music you choose.

This is perhaps one of the hardest parts about performing: how to lose yourself in the mood of the music without losing control of your dance music. I believe to be able to do this consistently well takes years of training. I've been dancing for more than eight years and I barely feel like I've gotten to a point where I can truly become the music in the way I feel I should. I think there are two issues at hand here. One is that it is very difficult to reach down inside ourselves and share our raw emotions with an audience through our dances. It takes a lot of soul-searching and courage, which can take years to feel remotely comfortable doing on a regular basis. The other issue is finding music that we NEED to dance to, rather than just finding a song that's kinda cool or fun, or something to which another dancer has already performed. Personally, I used to dance to music that I thought was just kinda cool, and my performances to those songs lacked Ooomph. But when I perform to songs that I absolutely love, then that love flows through my body and out to the audience, even if the music itself is sad or angry. Now, when I choose music, it has to make me feel a strong emotion, whether it be anger, joy, sadness, frustration, or longing. The mood the song invokes in me will then be conveyed through my movements, and with appropriate movement and costuming, I can create a complete performance.

One last note on music: Never take music for granted. An artist worked very hard to create that music, and as dancers, I believe it is our responsibility to respect the work of those artists. One of the best ways I feel I can pay tribute to a musician is dancing well to their music. And this lofty goal, of course, takes years of practice, dedication, and straight up love for both this dance and the music to which we perform.