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.