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Build Your Staircase: What Learning Riq Reminded Me About Belly Dance

masteryRemember back to your first few month of bellydance class – or maybe you are still in those first few months! Every week you are presented with a few new places to try to coax your hips to go. Some are easier than others. One side works better than the other. That’s the way it is for pretty much everyone.

The first 6 to 9 months of bellydance is really building your foundation. Good posture, clean hip directions, moving from the right muscles, learning rhythms. It’s so tempting to cheat sometimes – like when your teacher tells you to keep those heels down for your mayas – it’s just so much easier with your heels off the floor. Or you’re advised not to “side-swipe” your zills. Why? Why do you have to? It sounds fine. It looks right enough. Does it really matter?

It really does. Building quality foundation movements and good technique can be frustrating at first and feels like such a slow process. I remind beginner students often that “fundamental” doesn’t mean “easy”, it means important. Like the foundation of a house, everything you build on top of it will be made better by a solid base. In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise , a book on skill acquisition by Anders Ericsson, he describes the path to mastery as a stairway you build as you go. You build the next step, then you stand upon it to build the one after it. What a perfect metaphor!

It’s been a good two decades since I’ve been a beginner dancer, but I have recently started seriously learning to play the riq. I am most definitely a beginner at that. I had a moment that really brought it all back for me.

When you play rhythms on the Arabic tambourine, you play the “tek-ka-teks”  by alternating your left and right ring fingers on the bottom cymbals.  My teacher, Gaby Tawil,  is excellent – he’s a walking rhythm encyclopedia with a discriminating ear. I know he showed me to play the pattern with a left-right-left and I tried. When I kept fumbling and couldn’t keep up with the group, I found myself falling into a right-left-right pattern – but it was working and I was keeping up. And I thought it wouldn’t matter as long as the sound was on time.

Everything was fine for a while… till it wasn’t.

2 months later, Gaby showed me a fancy new pattern to play on top of the drum line. It was so cool and I was very excited that he thought I was ready for it. I had to move quickly from the cymbals to the main surface of the riq repeatedly. My hand couldn’t get back and forth in time and the whole pattern was falling apart even though I could understand it and hear what it should sound like in my head. I took a minute to walk it back and pull it apart – analyzing the problem as a movement issue just as I would do with a student struggling with a walking 3/4 shimmy.

The answer was left-right-left. If I didn’t play it that way, I wasn’t going to get my right hand to the next place on time. The technique point I glossed over and thought was fine came back and bit me hard.  I have now added left-right-left finger drills to my practice list since this is clearly a weak link. Two steps forward, one step back – lesson learned.

It’s just like that with dance fundamentals too. The student that fakes their way through hip ups will struggle with all the movements that bring the hip up as part of a more complex pattern or shape – and there are many.

Time spent on the fundamentals of bellydance may not be glamorous or exciting, but it is absolutely essential to long term progress. That first flight of stairs that you build as a beginner lead to everything you can climb to beyond. So take your time and do your drills, knowing that you are laying the foundation of your future dance successes!

 

 

October 12, 2017 0 Comments

Does Your Brain Get it? Tips for Learning & Memorizing Belly Dance Choreography

Does Your Brain Get It- PIN

Does your brain get it?

Anyone who’s been in a class or workshop with me has probably heard me say this when checking in with students. Once I’ve presented and broken down a combo or section of choreography, I ask if their brain gets it before we move on. So what exactly do I mean by that?

In short, your body takes orders from your brain when dancing so if your brain doesn’t fully understand the instructions – what shape is your hip making, where is your arm and what foot are you supposed to be on – then the chances of getting an accurate result from your body are pretty slim. Of course, once your brain is clear on the instructions, the body does take some time to get it together and comply – that’s what drilling and practice repetition is for – but the brain has to get it first. This is an important step that I see dancers ignore. Being unclear, they fumble through an unclear movement or footsteps till they get to a part they are sure of. If you keep running through a combo with errors because you aren’t truly clear on what happens when, not only is it unlikely to resolve itself correctly, you may set and memorize patterns that are wrong. If it’s a group choreography, that is a real problem.

So how do you make sure your brain gets it?

In my experience, one of the best ways to thoroughly check your understanding of a movement sequence is to remove the pressure of the beat. Turn off the music and do a slow walk-through of the movements by yourself. Be patient. Don’t gloss over little ambiguities – those can get you in trouble. If you’re not sure why you wound up on your left foot when you’re supposed to be on your right foot for hip drops next, check it out. Did you take the right steps at the right time in the thing that came before it? Don’t just switch feet and move on. Track it back – was that supposed to be a 2 step pivot turn before the hip drops, but you took 3 steps? Well-written belly dance choreography is clear and uses logical and natural weight changes that set you up properly for the next movement. If a choreographer expects to keep dancers synchronized and looking clean together on stage, it’s a must.

Be proactive. Speak up.

If you find yourself with unclear gaps in your understanding of class material, ask specific questions. “I’m on the wrong foot for the hip drops and I can’t figure out why.” Sometimes I think students feel bad about asking questions. They apologize and for the life of me, I cannot understand why! When a student asks, I know they care about what they’re doing – they are really thinking about it. Almost always, the explanation benefits others in the class who just didn’t bother to ask.  I love questions. They also help me to improve as an instructor by pointing out where I could have explained something differently or more fully, or where students find something is trickier than I anticipated.

The bottom line is I am there to TEACH, not just to present something. Teaching is a two-way communication process and answering students’ questions effectively is an important part of the job.

The mental integration process.

Once you’ve done the tedious task of working through your understanding of the mechanics of assorted body parts, the next step is to get it organized in your brain for speedy recall. That’s the part we call “memorizing the dance”. It’s all in there, but can your brain access it at the pace of your music? You’ll need to be able to do that in order to build the muscle memory that will kick in later- brain before body, remember? Once muscle memory is in place, you can move on to beautifying your transitions and attending to the graceful details that will really polish your dance, but you have to bake the cake before you can decorate it!

Here are a few tools to help with belly dance memorization:

  • Train up. Make a reduced speed practice track using Audacity or other audio editing software. This is especially helpful if you’re working with fast music or choreography that has lots of quick, precise movement like in a drum solo. It’s your bridge between the take-your-time no music walk through I mentioned above and your final performance speed. Make a few speed versions if you need to take it in smaller steps. More on that here.
  • Let the music talk to you! There’s a reason we shimmy at certain times and travel in others. Yes, there’s lots of artistic license, but again – well-written choreography should reflect what the choreographer hears in the music. There’s usually more than one thing to choose from (I could go on for days on this point!) but there should be something musically that the movement relates to – the rhythm pattern, the melody line or texture of a sound. Find it and let the music remind you of why a movement is where it is.
  • Sing it! Although you may feel silly, singing cues to the steps is remarkably effective! The more senses we involve in the learning process, the better the results in my experience. Hum the melody line that hip circle reflects. Say “shimmmmmmmmmyyyy……pop! pop!”. Create cues that work for you.
  • Do the mental practice. When I need to memorize choreography (yes, the teacher still has to memorize what she’s written!) I run through it in my head when I lay down at night and upon waking up. Visualize the movement – you may even feel it in your body as you lay there. Hear the music in your brain. Note where the next step doesn’t come to mind right away.
  • Grease the groove. Do you have a stubborn spot where you repeatedly blank out about what comes next? Pinpoint it and take the last movement or two that you DO remember and the next one or two that you’re having trouble recalling reliably and drill that junction together over and over. Find a way to connect them – does the arm position or movement that came before create a frame for the next thing? Does it change direction? Find a way to relate your stubborn movement to the thing before it. Build the muscle memory for it with a targeted repeated drill of that specific spot.
  • Paint the big picture. Some dancers find creating a “story” out of the movements is useful as a memory device. Others find that having a spatial map helps them remember. For example, go forward, then back, then move in a circle. The description of the path can cue your brain to recall the steps for each section. “Big picture” constructs of that sort can help you organize the order of the movements.

One of the most useful things you learn over years in dance is to learn how YOU learn best as a student, and how your students learn if you are an instructor. When you find the tools and methods that are effective for you, put them to work consistently. You’ll take some of the frustration out of learning and teaching choreography and move along more quickly to the more fun parts!

June 2, 2017 2 Comments

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” – A Book Review

"Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage"

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage”

“Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” is a collaboration by Sara Shrapnell, Dawn Devine, Alisha Westerfeld and Poppy Maya. All of these women are experienced belly dance performers and bring their own voice and experience to the content. This is one of the most unique things about this particular book – and one of it’s strengths, in my opinion. Reading it is like attending a panel discussion on entering the pro bellydance track. Through copious photographs to illustrate each point, useful checklists and illuminating sidebars and anecdotes, the reader gets to hear and see each of the author’s unique contributions and perspectives on being a working belly dancer on the scene.

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Dawn Devine and Sara Shrapnell in 2015 while this book was in the writing process, so I am thrilled to see it finished and out in the world  as a belly dance resource. You can watch that interview here.

This book addresses that tricky transition a serious belly dance student has to make if they want to start gigging and make a name for themselves on the professional circuit at any level – local, national or international. For many dancers, these are lessons learned the hard way – that is certainly how I learned most of them! Classes and workshops abound to teach us movement, choreography, specialty props and musicality, but how do you put your “open for business” shingle out there in the belly dance world?

 

Who should read this book?

“Becoming a Bellydance: From Student to Stage” does a very thorough job of answering the minutiae of that question in approachable, actionable and practical ways. Obviously, it’s target reader is the belly dance student contemplating going pro, but as a seasoned professional who trains up-and-coming dancers, I think it’s a valuable read to remind me of how overwhelming  the business facets of starting out can be – something I may have forgotten or taken for granted after being in the game a while.

A Reality Check

You need to know where you are before you can navigate to your destination. I like that this book begins with some honest self-assessment – it is time well spent for the blossoming student. It continues with advice on how to set clear goals and how to plan the intermediate steps to achieve them. This is key to using this book (or making progress in anything) and the best way to approach the treasure trove of actionable material in this handbook.

The Self-Made Bellydancer

We may not like to think of it this way, but a belly dancer for hire is a product for sale. And just like any product designer, considering their customers’ needs and how to fill them, the belly dancer embarking on the business track needs to decide who they are (and aren’t). The author crew walks through all the public-facing aspects of your persona – your “brand” – that signal to the customer who you are and what you do.  

Dawn Devine, a master costumer known to many in the belly dance world, does a thorough breakdown of the layers of costuming that build your overall look. And as I mentioned before, each author adds their perspective and experience. This book even includes 13 costuming projects from “no-sew” to relatively simple – all very handy additions to a dancer’s wardrobe.

Other pieces of the branding game include what to include in an effective website, creating marketing materials, and tips on photo shoots and getting flattering photos. “Becoming a Bellydancer” also includes guidelines on how to use social media to build your brand – a new skill that is very necessary for the current day dancer!

On With The Show

Performance opportunities run the gamut from short festival shows to full sets in a club with live music. Each one has it’s own set of considerations. What music is appropriate? How do you prepare it? Do you need a contract? And then there’s the “people” part of the equation – backstage etiquette, audience interaction, and the politics of the show lineup. These ladies cover all of these things beautifully because they have all been there and done that.

If you are a belly dance student with aspirations of someday going pro, whether as a paying hobby or if your dream is to be a full-time dancer, “Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage” is a valuable reference that you would do well to turn to often to help direct yourself toward your goal. If you are a mentor to dancers in this phase of their training, this book will be just as valuable to you in assisting your students on their dance journey.

 

For more information on the authors, please visit:

Sara Shrapnell’s site

Dawn Devine’s site

Alisha Westerfeld

Poppy Maya

 

March 24, 2017 0 Comments

6 Tips To Close The Deal On a Bellydance Gig

close the deal

Last week, I taught a private lesson that was very different than usual. My student, who has been taking both weekly and private lessons consistently for over 3 1/2 years now, is on the cusp of performing professionally.  An opportunity popped up, so the week’s lesson became how to handle a call from a client looking to book a performance rather than technique and improvisation. When you are seriously invested in the comprehensive training of a bellydance student that is looking to “go pro”, there is so much more than moves to learn!

I thought I’d share a few of the tips I went over with her in hopes that they will be useful for my blog readers here and on the “Bellydance Quickies”.

  1. Open it up. Start the conversation about booking by asking a simple, open-ended question like “Tell me about the party you are planning.” The key to making a good booking at a good price is getting good information. You don’t want every gig you get an inquiry for – trust me. Bachelor party? No, thank you.  This is where you initially screen the booking to see if it’s a good fit for you.
  2. Now shut up. Listen more than you talk. Your client will most likely tell you more than you thought to ask about the nature of the occasion if you get them started and give them a chance. Clarify specifics briefly as needed, but let them tell you all about their big plans. It is just as important to understand the size and formality of an event and the vibe they want to create as it is to know how long the show will be and at what time.
  3. Take notes. Take notes while you are listening to the client describe their vision for the party, wedding or corporate event they are planning. You will, of course, need to get more specifics like the exact address later to write up the contract, but you can gather much of what you need from being a good listener and asking a few well chosen questions. I keep a small notebook in my purse just for this in case I get a call while I’m out and about. I use the same notebook for calls I take at home, that way I can keep all potential client information in one place. I  put the date I received the call on the page too, so if I haven’t heard back from a client in a week, I call to see if they are still looking to book. You’d be surprise how many say, “I’ve been meaning to call you this week – thanks for checking back!”.
  4. Don’t jump the gun!  Clients are sometimes (often) in a hurry to get a price out of you. Make sure you have all, and I mean ALL the information you need before you give a price. Usually the first time I get a “premature ask” I deftly redirect with a question about other specifics I need to set an accurate price. What is the address? If I’m at my computer, I run it on Google Maps while I have them on the phone. There may be a travel fee. For example, here in the Phoenix area, if someone is in north Chandler, it’s a 20 minute drive from my house. If it’s south Chandler it could be over 45 minutes. During rush hour it could be 90 minutes!  Is this a wedding? Toasts, speeches, receiving lines… wedding receptions almost always run behind schedule. Figure extra time into the cost. And those are just two examples of the many things that could affect your quote.
  5. Paint the picture. Even if your potential client isn’t pushing you for a price, it is in your best interest to delay pitching your price. The more you can help the client build a mental picture of the lovely and exciting show you will plan for them, discuss the logistics of music hookup and how to get in and keep it a surprise for the guest of honor, the closer you are to sealing the deal.
  6. Keep your mystique. This is one paradox of   the bellydance biz . Remember that what the client is seeking is exciting, glamorous entertainment for their event. They saw your gorgeous, elegant photo on your webpage and thought, “I want HER to dance for our wedding!”  Yes, you need to be thorough and professional in your business dealing, but if you are “all business” and too cold in discussing the details, you can blow the magic your photo created. It may not work in your favor for getting booked. It takes lots of practice to finesse the client call with just the right balance of business and charm so they stay excited to have YOU grace their event.

Keeping all this in mind as you guide the client through a booking call takes practice, just like your choreography! The more you do it, the more situations you have to navigate and different types of events you have to organize, the better you’ll get at it. Honesty, I didn’t fully realize how much I’d learned over 16 years of taking bookings until I spontaneously had to give a “booking call lesson” last week and it all came spilling out!

If you are also starting to book professional work and would like more comprehensive coaching on how to handle client calls, I do offer lessons on Skype or Google Hangouts. I can take you step-by-step through an initial client call, booking and follow-up, including role-playing exercises (where I can play the indecisive client, the “price shopper”,  and a total pain!)  so you can learn to close the deal like a pro! Email me for more information.

January 13, 2016 3 Comments

Thoughts on “Bad Musicality” in Belly Dance

At a bellydance event, I recently overheard one dancer remark to another that she thought that the performer they were watching had “bad musicality”. Putting aside questionable politeness, was does that mean  anyway?

Cairo Caravan 2012 - Performance Portraiture and Stage Photography by Lee Corkett

We have discussed musicality in the Daily Bellydance Quickies many times and in many ways. Loosely defined, it is the ability to illustrate the music with movement. It can include larger elements such as instrument sound textures down to the tiny details of accents and momentary pauses.

Ignoring everything else and going just with the beat could be considered the absence of musicality in dance. But at the other extreme, hitting every tiny thing with an almost literal conversion of music to movement can be, as Ranya Renee once said,  “too clever”. I agree entirely. I find that as unappealing as ignoring the musical features. I prefer to see discretion and artful choices.

Choices – yes – there are many to be made. You make them in slow deliberate decisions when you write choreography and in the flash of a instant in improvisation. What are you reacting to in your music? The rhythm, the phrasing, the sharp accent, the lilting melody line or the tension of a violin note – they are all valid possibilities.  The choosing of one over the other in any given point in a performance is like a painter choosing red paint or blue for the flowers that are about to bloom on the canvas.

We all hear a piece differently, despite the fact that the same sounds come rushing at us from the band or through our earbuds. I even find I hear different things in the same familiar piece of music at different times. I call this my “coffee pot theory“. So what makes for “bad musicality”? Is it that a dancer completely ignored something you consider top priority and un-ignorable and opted for a different musical element to grab on to and dance? That just means two dancers have different artistic sensibilities – and thank goodness that is so. Otherwise, we would all dance the same and bellydance would be filled with “rights” and “wrongs” – another idea that could take a step back, in my opinion.

When I look at a performance and consider the musicality, what’s the bottom line for me?

Can you show me how you’re hearing the music?
Show me how to listen through your ears.

If I can, then I’m happy – even if it’s not the same choice I would have made. I like surprises and seeing different points of musical view.

What do you look for? Share in the comments below…

April 13, 2015 3 Comments
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