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.