Do you know what makes you unique as a dancer? Usually it is much clearer to our trusted friends, dance colleagues and teachers, because we are too engrossed in the inevitable highs and lows of being a creative person. But do you have those people in your life telling you what makes you unique? Do you know your strengths, celebrate them, work with them in your performances? Do you take the time to tell other dancers what you love about their performances? This is the greatest gift you can give another dancer. By telling them what you love about their act, you help them to forge their sense of self and identity on stage. Once a dancer has this sense of self and identity, they can choose what to do with it in performance. They can be deliberate in expanding upon their strengths or throw a curve ball by doing something completely different. And being deliberate is key. So next time you see someone dance, or if you prefer to reflect on your own dance experience, here is a list of strengths to consider (just a few):
Usually as we evolve and strengthen certain attributes, others will naturally take the back seat. As we go along our dance journey, our attention can be drawn to different aspects. This is part of becoming more well-rounded dancers. But integral to this journey is to know what we have strong now. If you don't know, ask your dance friends for feedback.
Have you ever wondered why some dancers flow like honey, and others can strike with precision? Dancers who seem like they are made of jello are in fact holding on to everything; and conversely, dancers who can hit moves with power and precision, are really good at letting go. How does this work? If you think about it, we can never become effective at striking movements with power if we cannot take risks and throw our energy 'outwards'. But inhabiting movement, holding on to energy, also takes commitment and trust. It is this sustained embodiment that that creates movement that ripples, swarms, lingers. So next time you try to become more fierce in your dance, practise letting go. And if you want to melt with boneless movement, practise holding on.
1. Move always with a connection to your centre and breath, rather than driving your arms and legs. It will turn your body into a storytelling vessel rather than a collection of moving limbs.
2. It's great to include vocabulary that you have learned but most of the time, the music calls for an elaboration of a motif rather than a string of moves.
3. Ground yourself by humbling yourself before performance, remember that we are all students striving to expand and explore our own art. Remember most 'stuff' out there that we laden and torment ourselves with is just a story - a story you can turn off.
4. In choreographed dance, stay in the precipice between the right and left brains. Stay attuned to the choreography, but trust yourself enough to wear it and not let it wear you. Remaining yourself is the key to expression and presence. This also means you need to know yourself (improvisation practice helps).
5. Embrace absolute stillness on stage.
There is a little concept talked about in theatre and literature called the alienation effect. It suggests that stories become most compelling when what seems familiar to us, suddenly becomes alien, estranged, distant. This is what I love about great dance choreography. Bangarra Dance Theatre's Lore is my latest inspiration: Butoh-esque men covered in blood dancing with she-oak to the tenderness of mystical turtles hailing from the Dreamtime. In these performances, ordinary activities take on supernatural qualities; and the audience is unsettled, disturbed even, by the treatment of familiar movements, conventions and storylines. Of course, there are beautiful dances that enchant us because they are nurturing, soft, natural, joyful. For some reason, I cannot do a straight performance like this. I actually rally against it. There always has to be an element of the uncanny; the twisted, the mystical. Contrasting ugly and beautiful; convention with radical resistance.
As tribal bellydance becomes more of a discipline and less of a folk art, with students spending small fortunes to study with international teachers and embark on gruelling regimes of body conditioning and drills, the expectations students place on themselves changes - especially when it comes to performance. Bellydance, once home to women who wanted to express femininity, fun and mysticism, is now a haven for perfectionists wanting to conquer their bodies. There exists an obsession to manipulate bodies into precise organisms of art. This is a product of the pioneers of tribal fusion, yoginis who have plundered every limit of their muscular range, and made precision and articulation the cornerstone of their dance. Dancers from the oriental world like Suhaila have also codified and explained ancient moves of the hips and torso into muscular terms. Interestingly, she is also American.
American Tribal Style ® sets foundations for good posture, lifted arm lines, and ways of moving, of travelling and spinning and dancing to any direction. It builds peripheral awareness, spontaneous musical interpretation, and spatial awareness amongst fellow dancers, attention to detail in following, courage and boldness in leading. It teaches reverence to tradition, to the lineage of teachers, to the 'tribe'. Some students love the cut and thrust of group improvisation. Others find it deeply uncomfortable. Some move away for that reason. Some embrace it.
As a dancer who spent a lot of time experimenting through solo improvisation, and experiencing other genres like contemporary dance and free spirited Gypsy dance, i come to ATS ® performance with some mixed feelings. So much of what is presented can appear formulaic, regimented, even cold. More often than not, it is because dancers are so worried about fitting the bill, having good technique, being in sync, that they forget to play, to have fun.
I noticed during my tribal performances for many years (and still sometimes today) that as soon as I switched to the playful and creative side of myself, my posture crumpled. But when I focused solely on strong posture and technique, I looked on edge. Of course, the audience picks up on that.
This journey from the discipline of the left brain to the creativity of the right brain takes time. For starters, the primary goal of the ATS dancer ® is to incorporate good posture, technique, arm lines, and constant zilling into their muscle memory. Once imbued in muscle memory that posture doesn’t collapse once you start having fun. But here is the catch. One of the most effective ways to get good posture and technique into your deeper muscle memory, is to let those muscles experience good posture as unconsciously as possible. Visual cues presented by mirrors are excellent early on, but then embodying those movements away from mirrors, repetitively, slowly, quickly, freely, on the precipice of the right brain sphere where true improvisation lives, is where they will sink deep down. It is where our brain’s proprioceptive mapping powers can forge patterns in our own language. It is also amongst the spaciousness of the right brain that our peripheral awareness is most acute (essential for following).
This means that the ‘linear progression’ of getting technique right, and then learning how to let go and have fun, is a falsehood. These processes actually need to run at the same time. The sooner one can experiment and 'own' tribal moves through free improvisation, the sooner one's technique and posture will gel.
This leads me to the psychology behind pèrforming. In oriental dance, our goal is to entertain, engage the audience, bring the music to life. In tribal, there is more of a sense of doing the dance for ourselves and our tribal sisters - it has a social dimension. The strongest emotion carried in fast tribal is collective joy - like the joy experienced at a wedding. So while we might not play up the audience or be as cheeky as an Oriental performer, or even as sensual, we are joyous because we dance together. That joy needs to reach the audience. So rather than thinking 'will i be good enough?', the dancer needs to think 'what fun this will be!' or 'how can i have fun with this?' The tribal dancer can show off. They can play with moves, give them little twists. They can play with angles, levels, direction. They can enjoy the game of roulette. The beauty of tribal is the connection between dancers, its spontaneity, and the ebb and flow of synchronicity through different formations. The goal is not to be perfectly in sync all the time, but to have moments of it, woven in with graceful moments of chaos. Maybe that thought alone will help us to enjoy the dance more, and bring that joy to the fore.
If one needs a bit more help to let go of the fear and feel the joy, then channel gratitude before you go on stage. Be grateful for having dance in your life, for having dance sisters to share the journey with, for having an excuse to dress up, for having that space where you can be you - joyful you.
It is often said that more mature dancers create more enriching performances because they have more life experience, but is this true?
Is it the intensity and depth of one’s emotional experiences that gift a dancer with the potential to carry an audience, even change them a little?
TS Elliot when writing about good poetry, said that authors who treat poetry as a confession booth to channel raw emotions were destined to write bad poetry. He argued ‘it is not the ‘greatness’, the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.’ He writes that 'the mind of the mature poet differs from that of an immature one not precisely in any validation of ‘personality’, not being necessarily more interesting or having ‘more to say’, but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations’ (Elliot's essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919).
Of course, this is where experience and fluency of a dance form, and an eye and an ear for composition become important. We can advance this ability by dance practice, by choreography practice, by performance practice and by appreciating the arts. But this idea that we do not need to find some fancy feeling, but instead learn how to transmit ordinary ones in ways that demonstrate poetic technique, is interesting. It means age is no barrier. Life experience is no barrier (?).
There is a distinction between choreography and performance of course. While we might try to have some emotional detachment in the choreography process, it is possible to channel raw emotion while performing it - in fact, I would argue this is desirable (depending on the genre). That is perhaps where a sensual life full of ecstatic joy, tragedy and thwarted dreams becomes an advantage.
This article was first published here http://www.assiutandtie.com/tag/rita-markwell/
When asked why I am drawn more and more into contemporary dance from my original heartland of Middle Eastern dance, I start with why I dance.
I dance because I hunger to dance every day.
In dance, I have found ways to convey my most painful experiences, my deepest unspoken truths, and my intense elation in connecting with God.
There is freedom in contemporary dance to express complete ugliness, brokenness. One can be wild, unkempt, beautiful, triumphant, or destroyed. One can reveal their full story because there are fewer rules about what makes a contemporary dance compared to belly dance.
2. Use of the whole physical form
What I have learnt through contemporary dance is the use of breath, of flowing from a point of impetus, of embracing momentum and s p a c e. I love the possibility involved in using the whole physical form. Limbs and torso move counter to one other, together in unison, or a combination of both – like twenty matches lit at once. There are no rules about keeping one’s posture or legs together. The limits of one’s strength and flexibility are fiercely pushed. A variety of improvisation exercises, including contact improvisation are used to build the intuitive and proprioceptive parts of the brain.
3. Moving effortlessly from standing to floor
In contemporary there is a lot of floor work. There is emphasis on visualisation – we crumble into the floor, peel away from the floor. This demands upper body and core strength (something I am still building).
I am particularly drawn to female contemporary dancers, and the boneless and spherical way in which they move across the floor and in space. They dance as if they are not only embodying their physique but the air that is around their body. There is something deeply sensual about this. Often male contemporary dancers approach their form more athletically, seeking to cut through the space and create dramatic visual imagery. This is just my observation. There is so much diversity even within the contemporary dance genre.
4. Personal growth
The opportunity to once again be a floundering student, completely mesmerised, entranced, stumbling to speak the language with natural fluency. I am again uncomfortable, and out of my depth. I am creating pieces that I obsess about.
And how belly dancing has improved my contemporary dancing…
1. Joy, sensuality
Belly dance is a joy that comes with connecting with my Arabic cultural traditions, with my community of dance sisters. It embodies something deeply feminine, powerful, sensual, even erotic.
Through belly dance we learn to love our dance sisters and treasure womanhood – the camaraderie.
Through belly dance we learn to use our central form, to flow between the pelvis and torso. To shimmy and move staccato. To visualise the small ball of energy that flows from one body part to the next to create indecipherable undulations.
Strangely, in the world of contemporary dance they are only just grasping the power of ‘centrality’ – using the torso, hips and pelvis. They are entranced by it, having traditionally been concerned with extension and contraction of the limbs and spine.
5. Audience connection
Sometimes contemporary dancers become so cerebral about their work it borders on self-indulgent. I believe composition still needs an aesthetic, something that can stir a feeling. Belly dance thrives on the audience connection.
6. Interaction with live musicians
As belly dancers, we lose our fear of improvisation with live music, interacting with the rhythms as they are played. This idea remains quite foreign to many contemporary dancers.
I no longer see myself as a dancer of a particular genre. I used to worry about the fact that these two worlds – Middle Eastern and western contemporary – appeared irreconcilable. For example, there isn’t much crossover or appreciation of Middle Eastern dance amongst contemporary dancers. Now it no longer worries me. That is just politics. The art is my business, and I’m fortunate enough to have opportunities to express the full force and direction of my creative self without worrying about that other stuff. The true heroines in my world are the dancers who see without pretention and rigidity, who welcome and cultivate creativity. The upcoming Melbourne show of Lumiere, produced by Antonia Gore and Brigid Morgan, is one such ‘light on the hill’ for genre-defying dancers everywhere.
Some people have asked me how i cultivate a strong stage presence. Here is an example of how i prepare. Of course, every dancer approaches things quite differently. Does this resonate with you and your practice?
1. Create a space where you can dance, and really let loose.
2. Put the music on. Dance. Film it. Do this as many times as you can before physical or creative exhaustion sets in. Stop intermittingly to watch the film and reflect on what moments really ‘soar’ (if any).
3. Lie on the floor in a heap and let the music wash over you. Visualise yourself dancing to parts of it. Visualise a limitless version of yourself dancing to it. Visualise dancers you admire dancing to it. Listen deeply. Hear the moments of stillness, of release.
4. Play the music occasionally in the car and don’t dance to it for days. Let the energy build. Pay attention to the feelings coalescing in your body. What moment/story/feeling/character comes to mind now?
5. Deepen your awareness of visual composition and character development. Read beautiful stories, witness visual art, stunning cinematography (visual detail is accentuated for us in foreign films), listen to epic classical music. Interpret everyday scenes into portraits of the human condition: for eg, sitting on the train observe the detail of other passengers, wonder about their stories, desires and conflicts. Practise feeling what it is like to be them, sit like them, and see the world through their eyes. Imagine a music soundtrack playing to this scene. Notice the beauty in random things and sounds. Craft visual compositions out of everyday scenes like a photographer would. Make your life artful so that eventually you can make your art full of life.
6. Do not avert your eyes from injustice and suffering. If you were bestowed with a difficult childhood or life, take time to feel it and know it is carving out the depths from which you can draw from as an artist. Giving you fuel for more intensity. Know what is like to be bottom of the heap and queen of the mountain. Similarly, look for experiences of joy, delight, innocence. Experience these emotions like a movie that you can start and stop.
7. Start your next dance session bursting with a desire to dance. Film immediately. Breathe. Settle. Practise looking into the eyes of your audience, let them see your soul. Do weird shit. Do virtuous. Do it all.
8. Repeat step above to different music, including other musical genres. See what sequences start to gel.
9. Watch the film of you dancing. Pick motifs in your movement that you want to play with more.
10. Start to approach your work more intellectually. Think about the directions you are facing, levels, more or less use of space, speed, the quality of your movement, the flow of your movement. Are you harnessing or ignoring momentum?
11. Ask yourself are you being true to the music? Are you capturing the moments where energy is building and where it is released?
12. Ask yourself are you building to a climax, do you progress or stay at one level of dynamic the whole way through? Give particular attention to the opening and the end.
13. Ask yourself are you revealing enough about your character? Do you need some non-dance moments? Body language, gestures?
14. Ask yourself are you taking people on a journey? Where they feel a little bit changed by seeing this dance?
15. Ask yourself what you might change to be less predictable?
16. Don’t tie yourself down to a chronological or linear approach. If you rather fill in each scene in random order (as inspiration comes to you) this is more natural.
17. When you are creatively or physically exhausted, stop. Believe in your ability to create the perfect amount for that time. Take time to rest, to nurture yourself.
18. Ask someone you respect to review your work and give feedback (private FB groups are great for this).
19. Practise it in whatever way feels natural and comfortable to you. Leaving it semi improvised is fine. Trust when you have had enough of practising it. Your body is letting you know to conserve energy – to start building energy (duende) for the performance.
20. When you go to perform it, let the choreography go. Trust in your ability to remember and tune into your intuitive, breathing, grounded self. Master your ego to magnify and intensify your feelings when you perform but don’t let your ego master you. Humble yourself. Let go of expectations that might weigh you down. Be open to the moment.
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