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.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cool psoas experiment!

The psoas major and psoas minor are incredibly vital to maintaining healthy posture both in daily life and while belly dancing. Unfortunately, you can't really touch or feel your psoas muscles with your hands, as they are deep within the torso. The psoas muscles originate from the spine, right at the bottom of the rib cage, and come forward where they attach to the inside of the legs, which is the only part of the psoas that we can actually feel with our fingers (without dissecting ourselves, and that would be dangerous and a little messy).

The psoas muscles are hard to identify within the body. It's a lot easier to find and flex your bicep than it is to flex your psoas. Yet, the psoas muscles are very much involved in maintaining dance posture and home position. The tuck of the pelvis is achieved not only by contracting the lower abdominals but also the psoas muscles. But I was obsessed with answering this question: If when doing standing torso undulations, using the lower abdominals to achieve the bottom part of the undulation but without letting the pelvis rock back and forth, what keeps the pelvis still? The psoas! Now... how on earth do I know if they're actually engaged?

After taking a workshop on anatomy for bellydancers with Sarah J. Locke, I became obsessed with being able to to identify when my psoas muscles were working and when they weren't. And after nearly a year of becoming hyperaware of what my torso was doing, I finally came up with something that worked for me.

So, I experimented, and I came up with this little exercise:

Try this: Stand up, and get into dance posture: Feet parallel and close together, knees bent, pelvis tucked (glutes loose) using the lower abdominals, and chest lifted. Now slowly release the lower abdominals but keep your pelvis tucked and completely still. Hold it there. You should feel deep within your torso and on the inside of your legs where they attach to the pelvis, the psoas muscles, working away to keep your tuck as you release your abdominals. It may take a few tries to get the feeling, but it totally works. It's also a great way to isometrically strengthen your psoas. If you hold it long enough, you'll really feel those psoas muscles working away!
Maybe you're not as much as a geek as I am, but I thought this was pretty cool!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Loving your body: The Physical

I swear I'll get to the music posts... but for now, something a little different: taking care of your body.

This week, for the first time ever, I had to cancel a workshop and performance because of an injury. My iliotibial band in my right leg (shown in the illustration to the right; click for a larger image) has "gone on strike", so to speak. Since Monday, I haven't been able to walk up stairs, sometimes just walk, without being in pain, particularly where the tendon attaches to the iliac crest, at the top.

I am, like many of us, a "can do" kind of person. If I commit to something, I want to follow through. I hate backing out of previous arrangements, particularly when lots of people are relying on me to be there, for them. So for me to admit that I can't be there is very hard.

The experience, however, got me thinking about how my body is my dance career. If I don't take care of it, nurture it, take the time to heal injuries, and rehabilitate myself, I'm doing a greater disservice not only to myself but to those who want to learn from me.

I also started thinking about how many of us approach this dance... like it's easy and always good for us. And, if we practice properly, listening to our body when it needs care, and pushing it to our limits, and not beyond, this dance can bring us great emotional and physical joy.

But I also treat this dance like a sport. I want to sweat. I want to feel "the burn". If I'm not sore the next day after a practice, then I think the practice was too easy. In pushing myself, however, I risk injury, as I often don't have the time to properly rehabilitate my muscles after a hard workout. I'll teach for two hours straight, and instead of taking 30 minutes to an hour to cool down, relax, and recuperate, I take a hurried shower and jump into bed, because it's late, and I have to get up early in the mornings. I think that my body can take it. I am a "can do" person, so I think my body can handle this repetitive physical stress... but this week my body decided that enough was enough. So, I had no choice but to listen to it.

It's important to know our physical boundaries. We need to know when to say, "I'd love to prove to myself that I can do this, but my body won't be healthy if I do." Many of us are self-competitive, and we always want to do better, more, be stronger than we were yesterday. Sometimes our body gives us these little reminders that it needs some love, and it's our responsibility to realize that sometimes proving to ourselves that we're strong might actually be a sign of mental weakness. It takes more strength to be humble and admit that we're on the wrong path than it does to stay stubborn and push ourselves beyond our limits.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Quite the character.

Before I go into my thoughts on the importance of music, I want to share some of my personal history with you all. I swear it's related.

When I was still figure skating, I took classes and lessons with an Armenian woman, Noemi Nargizian, who had danced with the Kirov Ballet during the Cold War. She immigrated to the United States after the Iron Curtain fell and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I lived the first 18 years of my life, and where I spent 12 of those 18 years as a competitive figure skater. Although Noemi herself did not skate, she worked with several figure skaters to improve their presence on the ice, character development, musical interpretation, and emotional expression.

She was one of the sweetest and most giving people I have known, as well as humble and incredibly talented. She was always joyful and loved sharing her secrets of the Russian ballet with us, unknown figure skaters who had little experience in the world.

At the time I was working with her, I didn't realize how much her instruction would help me later on as a belly dancer. I still use her lessons today, both in my own performances but also in my classes.

One of the lessons I learned from her was creating a character that was true to your emotional perspective. She said that for every performance I should create a story, something close to my heart that would help me get into "that place" before taking my starting pose on the ice. It had to be something I could relate to personally, and no one else had to know what it was. I loved this concept, and I ran with it. I created a personal story for every skating performance from then on. I credit my doing so, and Noemi's loving training, with winning several awards for Artistic Expression in the competitions I entered.

When I started belly dance, I was so consumed with learning the new dance and learning how to move on a floor instead of slick frozen water, that I forgot about Noemi's wisdom.

It wasn't until 2005, when I took a Level I three-day workshop with Suhaila Salimpour that I started thinking about characters and emotional perspective again. She was talking about her Level III workshops, and how it's all about facing your demons and reaching deep inside to find deep-seated emotions. Then, a few weeks later I took a workshop with another dancer I admire greatly, Sera, from New York. She said that in your performances you have to "give your throat to the wolves". Basically, you can't be afraid to make yourself vulnerable.

At that point I realized that I had lost my perspective.

From then on, I started to approach all of my bellydance performances from a deeply personal level, creating a story behind each, something that would move me and help convey my feelings from the stage to the audience. I started creating characters which were aspects of my true self. I think this rediscovery of my emotional expression helped to elevate my performances to a new level, and helped me connect with my audiences.

If you create a character that you can't relate to, it's not going to work. You have to come from something deep in you, something that creates an immediate emotional reaction when you think about it. You have to feel it inside you, in your heart, in your whole body. For me, it starts with the music. I have to dance to music that invokes a strong emotional response. From there I spin my tale, whatever it might be...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Sight of Music

One of the most essential elements in my performances is the music I choose. Music is what drives me to dance. After all, every style of belly dance is all about becoming the music. However, I feel like that essence somehow got lost in the bustling trend of new dancers who identify with the tribal fusion supergenre.

So... I'd like to address these subjects over the course of a few weeks or so...

  1. The importance of dancing, not just performing a series of disconnected movements.

  2. Loving your music.

  3. Not choosing music because you heard someone else using it and you thought it was cool.

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

  5. Knowing your music inside and out.

  6. Not allowing yourself or others to pigeonhole you into dancing to certain styles of music.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stillness and Nothingness

Or, how you can conquer creative burn-out.

The Artist as Sisyphus
"The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." - Albert Camus

Artists, it seems, put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to be creative, productive, and successful (not necessarily but sometimes in the monetary sense) all the time.

When we're not creating something new or acting on newfound inspiration, we easily get down on ourselves, questioning why we're not living up to our constantly climbing expectations. Many of us are not only seeking to create and innovate regularly, we're striving to produce art all the time. Because, well, we're artists!

We are self made Sisypheans: Pushing our rock up the hill eternally, only to reach the top and lose our grip, and the rock comes tumbling down, erasing our accomplishments... While this is an inherent element of being an artist, the uphill struggle can be exhausting. This is burn out.

Sometimes you just need to step away from the stone and let it sit at the bottom of the hill.

Zen and the Art of Bellydance
"As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself." - Shunryu Suzuki

Throughout the years I have discovered that being creative, as well as all learning many other aspects of this dance, is an experiment in Zen. The Oracle (Wikipedia) tells us that "Zen is notable for its emphasis on mindful acceptance of the present moment, spontaneous action, and letting go of self-conscious, judgmental thinking." I'm hardly an expert on Eastern philosophy, but my experiences with dance have been that when I let go of my self-criticism, my high expectations, and accept where I am at this moment, I progress much further in my art than when I force it.

I've noticed that my students are more likely to accomplish a troublesome movement when they take a moment to just play with it, releasing the inner analyst and critic. They beautifully perform the movement without thinking about it. I find this to be true with myself, as well. If I approach the movement without analyzing it, without forcing it, the more effortless and natural that movement becomes. Just as with technique, this is also true for the creative process.

Let your art happen independently of you.

Clearing the Creative Clutter
"The quieter you become, the more you can hear." - Baba Ram Dass

To pause the constant stream of dance aspirations in my head, I like to involve myself in activities completely unrelated to my artistic pursuits. No listening to potential dance music. No searching for new costuming ideas. No shopping for new DVDs, and no watching of dance performance or instructional DVDs. (I will, however, answer e-mails and phone calls related to the business end of my dancing, as that does not seem to interfere much with my creative process, but your experience might be different.) Eschewing these activities is the equivalent of a creative fast.

My favorite activity is listening to music to which I have no intention of dancing. For me, this usually means progressive rock like Rush (of course), Yes, Dream Theater, and others. The works of J. S. Bach also help clear out my creative clutter.

If you're constantly working on costuming, try putting it aside and working on a different craft. If you're constantly watching dance instructional or performance videos, watch something different, and don't seek inspiration in whatever new program you choose to watch. Just enjoy watching it for the program's sake. If you're constantly reading newsgroups that only focus on dance, stop reading those newsgroups for a while and read a book unrelated to dance or to creativity. (I love science writing, but I know that's certainly not something that appeals to all of you.) Sometimes it is good to stay in touch with what others are discussing, but it's easy to get sucked in to the endless dribble of dance drama as well. I find that those newsgroups offer lots of chaff and not a lot of wheat.

Find an activity you enjoy that is unrelated to your creative pursuits. Immerse yourself in that activity, relish it, and you'll find yourself feeling mentally and emotionally refreshed. And most importantly, (I think this is the most difficult part for us) give yourself permission to step away. Time away from your art will do you no good if you constantly feel guilty for not creating. You must consider your creative break as a gift to yourself.

The Enjoyment of Now
No thought, no reflection, no analysis, no cultivation, no intention; let it settle itself....

By turning your focus away from your creative pursuits (in my case, dance), you'll find yourself focusing on the enjoyment of now, rather than the anxiety of making your next great artistic creation. Your enjoyment of now will help you quiet your judgemental mind, your No Demon, your doubts and fears.

Why is Now so difficult to enjoy? Because once you recognize it, it's gone. That tiny point between the cones in the somewhat esoteric image above is Now. Compared with the history of what has happened and the possibilities of what is to come, Now is miniscule. But that doesn't mean you can't revel in it when you're there. And you're there right now. And now. And now.

Permission to Stop
Allow yourself time away from your art. Acknowledge it as healthy, refreshing, replenishing, and nourishing to your artistic self. When you feel the loom of burn-out approaching, recognize it, and take that moment to still your creative quests and refill your artistic well.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Inspiration: Rush.

For me, the best inspiration comes from sources seemingly unrelated to dance....

I'm sitting at home, watching one of my favorite live music DVDs, Rush in Rio, (that would be Rush the band, not Rush Limbaugh) and reading writings by the band's drummer, Neil Peart, and thinking about how much this band has inspired me as an artist, as a dancer, and as a human being.

Yeah, yeah. I know what you're thinking. Rush? You mean, like "Red Barchetta" and "Tom Sawyer"? You're probably thinking it's a little dorky. Well, welcome to the world of the BDP: full of unabashed Geekiness and Dorkitude.

Often described as the "thinking man's arena rock band", they have managed to gain a worldwide following of millions of fans by doing things their way. Never following the musical trends, never giving in to pop culture or record label pressures, always making genuine and real music, they have become rock legends. They never compromised their art for the sake of making it marketable. In fact, in staying true to themselves, they found a market for their music. And what's more remarkable to me is that there are millions of people around the world who adore this band of three guys from Canada, who rarely led tabloid-worthy lives, who make music because they love making music. They also constantly strive to improve their skills, always becoming more accomplished musicians, songwriters, and artists.

Another thing I admire about them is that they always approach their art with a sense of humor. They are young at heart. They've been playing music together for 30 years, and when they're on stage it's like they're teenagers again. It's clear that music, and sharing it with so many devoted fans, brings them infinite joy and happiness.

Their music is intellectual without being pompous, technical without being inaccessible, emotional without being sappy. To me it is beautiful, genuine, and heartening.

I want to be a dancer like that.

These three guys are role models for me, and their music reminds me of the power of the individual, to believe in myself and my abilities, and to continue to strive to improve upon that which I have learned, and to never compromise my personal principles to gain a greater following.

I leave you with some writing and lyrics by Peart that I think can apply to dance, and of course, to life in general. Peart is an artist and a thinker - a combination I aspire to become myself. My notes and quote sources are square brackets. I hope that some of this inspires you in some way as well.
While searching for a capsule definition of "excellence," which is described by Robert Pirsig [author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - I highly recommend!] as "quality" and by Aristotle as "arete," I tentatively defined it as "doing something well enough that other people who do it admire your work," I think that nails it reasonably well - for a drummer, a bricklayer, or just a life well-lived. And certainly my own quest for excellence continues. While fully aware of all my faults, in music and in life, the eternal consolation is: "Hey, at least I'm getting BETTER!" I happily remain a "work in progress." [From Modern Drummer, October 1992]

There is a certain trait evident in human nature which some people seem to possess in greater degrees. It derives from a state of insecurity and low self-esteem and shows itself in the actions of those who wish to make themselves look good by making others look bad. You see it everywhere once you start to look for it. People who can't gain respect for their own merits feel obliged to try and tear down those who do. We see it in the failures who try to prove their aloofness by criticizing the actions of those who actually do something... [From The Daily Texan, 1981]

Spirits fly on dangerous missions
Imaginations on fire
Focused high on soaring ambitions
Consumed in a single desire

In the grip of a nameless possession-
A slave to the drive of obsession-
A spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission...
[From "Mission" on Hold Your Fire, 1987]

Keep on looking forward
No use in looking 'round
Hold your head above the crowd
And they won't bring you down
[From "Anthem" on Fly By Night, 1975]

I have spent my working life believing fervently in that distinction [of quality music versus music made only to sell albums], fighting to preserve it in my own work, and being offended by music calculated only to the lowest common denominator of commercial appeal — I would like to believe it makes a difference. [From a review of Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music, Bubba's Book Club, 2008]

I'm not giving in
To security under pressure
I'm not missing out
On the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up
On implausible dreams-
Experience to extremes-
Experience to extremes
[From "The Enemy Within, Part I of Fear" on Grace Under Pressure, 1984]

Art as expression
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely help us along...

The most endangered species
The honest man
Will still survive annihilation
Forming a world-
State of integrity
Sensitive, open and strong
[From "Natural Science" on Permanent Waves, 1980]

What you own is your own kingdom
What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power
What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer
Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor
And the beat of your own song
[From "Something for Nothing" on 2112, 1976]

More excitement, less fear.
[From Roadshow, 2006]