For many years I was a Bellydancer, then I was a Gypsy Dancer, and to some I might have become the American Tribal Style (r) lady, but to me, I am all those things, but I identify simply as a dancer. The danger of putting oneself in a box is that you are likely to grow only to the limits of that box, rather than taking leaps and bounds into all types of genre and performance that live as possibilities within your poetic spirit. At the contemporary dance intensive I finished last week, a guest teacher Craig Bary, gave all the participants this golden piece of advice. Don't call yourself a ballet dancer. Or a contemporary dancer. There will be other people who will want to put you in a box. Don't do it for them. Give yourself space to grow. Try lots of styles. You will learn from every style you do. I got thinking about this advice and thought about all the other boxes we put ourselves in that go beyond dance styles... particularly to do with age and abilities. I have some incredibly inspiring students with boxless thinking who probably respond to the fact that I have high hopes for every dancer in my classroom regardless of when they started and where they have been. As a teacher of American Tribal Style (r) Bellydance, I sometimes feel the need to be very purist about the style. But having seen its mutations and Australian twists, and the way each dancer and tribe imbibes it differently, I now feel very happy to celebrate my tribe's own flavour. I still feel like an ambassador, but it's like a beautiful technicolour coat I get to wear, not who I am. And I feel its my own. In this coat, i've included materials and decoration from my teachers (including my students who teach me so much), my values, my cultural heritage. One day I might find a way to bring contemporary dance into more than just my class warm ups, who knows. Or maybe I will keep them to separate, equally special worlds. I am coming to terms with the idea that it doesn't matter - as nothing is final; no style lasts forever without morphing and changing and being moulded by the hands that carry it. So stay creative. Stay open. Stay away from the box.
The last two weeks was full of sink or swim moments - and there was a fair bit of sinking. I did a contemporary dance intensive for professional and emerging dancers. There were days where I became so scared about the contemporary repertoire I was attempting that I retreated into myself, and began to question my identity as a dancer. I like to be in the deep end amongst incredible creators - but these challenges were so formidable that the negative self talk team were starting to get very comfy in my head. That was until today. Today, while doing a yoga session, I went further with an extension on balance - noticeably further. Now, sure it was a Tiny Breakthrough. But this Tiny Breakthrough unleashed such JOY and triumph within me that it obliterated all the preceding moments where I felt like I was trying to smash a rock with chopsticks. And why did I have awesome balance for once? Because in the process of being stripped bare, I had given up all expectations and judgments on myself. My only commitment was to that moment. I wasn't Rita the "insert descriptive words." Nothing was true or certain for sure. I was free. So my takeout is no matter what courageous path we skip down in life, no matter how unready we may feel, just keep going - because the tiniest breakthrough is all we need.
Have you had a magnificent Tiny Breakthrough?
Everyone once and a while, an artist will experience a moment that lights so many matches in the heart that they can become engulfed in flames. As a Gypsy dancer, I experienced such a moment when dancing onstage with Uska Kan Orkestar, a Romani Brass Band from Macedonia. It was the final night of the Woodford Folk Festival, a show named "the last dance".
I was performing with other dancers from the Silk Road Tribal Collective, and when we arrived backstage, the energy was ebullient. We agreed the other two dancers (Fiona and Dee) would take the first song, and I would take the last, but speaking to Demir Kanturovski, a champion trumpeter and centrepiece of the band, he said he had an extra Spanish Gypsy piece he would throw in. The order was loose, kind of spontaneous, and the thrill of this adventure took hold in my body.
The Unusual Suspects were on before us, a 25 piece Balkan band from Australia, and their music soared through the open space. Our stage was the Grande, situated in a natural outdoors amphitheatre. My feet were caked in dirt and dust as I manoeuvred my feet into my dance shoes. "What are you doing?" one of the musicians asked when I was doing my hip opening stretches... He laughed and mimicked me and laughed again, a bit like a hyena.
"Uska Kan! you're on!" shouted the stage manager, and with a flick of a switch this rambling party turned into a slick Balkan music machine. Instruments out. Onstage in a flash and ready to play. My dance sisters launched onto the stage with Uska Kan's opening thunder. I watched those instruments shine and blare under the lights, amongst the stage fog and crisp night air. My dance sisters shone with joy in their beautiful tribal costumes. I noticed that wasn't scared or nervous at all. Just happy in my heart.
A few songs later, I heard a track that I thought was the Spanish piece, so I glided onto stage and announced my arrival with a dramatic twirl. I glanced at Demir who told me with his face that this wasn't the right song, so I shrugged and kept dancing. It turned out to be a beautiful Balkan Gypsy piece. During the trumpet solos shared between Demir and his father Usain, I swirled around to face them and became a vessel for this tremendous collective heart song.
The Spanish song did eventually come, and this time I transformed into a matador, the energy moved up into my being with such ferocity that I could barely contain it. My self was almost obliterated by the surrender to this incredible music. I looked into the eyes of the musicians as I moved about the stage. There was that knowing, that love, that commitment, that dedication to the music. THE MUSIC! that drives through generations, music to which the soul must capitulate. There were moments of synchronised showmanship and triumph. My spirit lived in complete freedom. When the song finished I made it to the top of the backstage stairs before my legs began to wobble. The energy by this point was coursing through me like rapids, and yet there was a beautiful lake, so still and deep welling in my heart. In between songs, I moved up and down backstage, to handle this energy.
Then came our final song, the famous Chaje Shukarije. I asked the other dancers to share this song with me. Demir sung with such heart as well as playing the trumpet. I began to feel overwhelmed emotionally, perhaps a part of me knew that this excursion to mountain tops was about to end.
That night my dance sisters had to shanghai me back to camp because I wanted to dance to that music forever.
Back in the real world now, there are memories from that performance, some I have not written down because they are too precious, that I will carry for my lifetime. A place for my heart song. My heart aches now. A place for my heart song. Perhaps I can dance like this again one day? A place for my heart song. A part of me wishes to never dance again so the memory of this stays rich. A place for my heart song...
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.
More and more we see dancers who are trained in a multitude of genres. But how do we meld those styles without looking like a mish-mash? Here are some lessons I've learnt along the way...
1. Be clear on your inspiration. When dancing within a genre, it is ok to make the music your inspiration. But when melding genres, the music is not enough. You need a theme or a story that infuses the whole dance.
2. Let one genre dominate the others. Each genre has its principles and rules. For example in contemporary dance, we are trying to use impetus and natural momentum as much as possible. It is ok to subvert or deconstruct a genre by breaking those rules or contrasting it with another style. But this works more effectively when one genre has been well established first.
3. When you do bring in your other genres, do it with commitment. Bring in their spirit. Bring them to life. Even if it is fleeting, let the audience know that your soul speaks different languages and tongues, not just your limbs. Consider what 'voice' these different genres bring to your piece. Having different voices emerge in our dance gives it textual richness.
4. Use an intuitive choreography process (mine involves filming lots of improvisation to the chosen song), not just a cerebral process. Sometimes the feeling of music demands something very different to its purported rhythm, tempo or melody. Your intuitive self can imagine seamless transitions between styles as an authentic expression of you.
5. Keep at it. It can be a very challenging and disheartening creative process full of "where is this going?" - don't let that stop you. Keep going. Just keep going.
You ignore that naïve dream of being a writer. A dancer - that’s not even a foetus of a dream. It would be like choosing to be deformed. You’ve got to make something of yourself. So you enrol in law. Move halfway across the country to experience the independence of university. Become the towering intellect you’re destined to be. That’s what you’re going to tell everyone. In reality you’re following a boy you met on the internet.
You get there and realise he wants a pretty little girl who’ll be his pretty little wife. You start hanging out with his friend’s friend who’s in the army and likes the outdoors. He takes you on a ‘romantic’ camping trip and forces himself on you. That night you dream you have a baby girl who turns into an apple and you eat her.
You move into a flat that’s only $80 a week because the walls are decorated in charcoal tissue paper and the bathroom has a pink neon light that looks like the sort of place where people do heroin. None of your neighbours speak English and your new ex-boyfriend won’t stop bashing on the door.
You dress like a hippy bum but secretly you are getting high distinctions. You start a letter writing group for political prisoners. Another law student carries your books. There are no butterflies but being with him is like standing on a mountain and looking out. His well-to-do family thinks you’re a phase. Your sacrifice is worth it. You let him have you.
He pushes you to go backpacking solo like he did. You’ve never thought about it but you keep going. You can’t stop.
You start in Peru, hopping between islands of white people. The only memory from home is a mix tape from your boyfriend that you listen to on balmy nights from your acomodación para una. With time, you explore the cobble paths that lead to hut homes and two table restaurants serving guinea pig broth. You ride in buses that cling to mountain tops and trek though highlands laced with grenades and one-limbed men. You accept a massage from a Guatemalan masseur with a round belly and hairy back. He pummels you, releases you like handfuls of ash.
Whole seasons pass. You don’t plan ahead. You continue to shed. You give away your mixed tape and forget to ring your boyfriend. You arrive in Istanbul, and become engulfed by the ecstasy of eating. A Kurdish man looks at you like you are rosewater rice pudding. He mouths you with unspent passion and time perishes while you kiss in cafes, on mountain tops, amongst Roman ruins. He says ‘your cheeks are like apples’ and confides in you about the time he fell in love with a Belgian woman. They planned to marry but one day she went home for a holiday and never came back.
For the first time you feel the charge of your blood. One night, you stamp a Buleria on a rooftop, your torso undulating like flumes of smoke. Your hands swirl and pour with the power of mountains.
Your Kurdish lover sends you to the underground city of Cappadocia where you see valleys of phalluses and pink rock, famous for their fertility inducing powers. Your Cappadocia tour guide offers to take you on a private tour the next day and shows you his secret marijuana plantation and other sites of historical importance. You sit on a shrubby hill and he lays his head in your lap because he would like to do more but all his powers are gone. He takes you to his home carved out of a rocky mountain. His candlelit room contains an old mattress and books. You lie there with him talking about your families, studies – and in hushed voices, your views on ruling political parties. Your conversation devours the night, until you are both mesmerised by your fingers that dance like clouds.
You return to Istanbul and walk through the night markets with your Kurdish lover by the Golden Horn, eating mussels from steaming barrels. He declares his feelings for you and the world’s proportions start to skew under the pressure of this romance, this insurrection.
Not long after, you are on a plane to Vietnam, planning what you will say to your boyfriend. You see his grin busting through a fist of flowers. He bounces everywhere. Your insides turn to lead.
You arrive at a serviced apartment. ‘This is it!’ he says. He gives you a collection of music you used to like, all pirated copies from downtown. He gushes about your life together. What you will eat. Where you will shop. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t notice how spacious you are now inside, how every cell of your body has changed. He keeps talking and talking until you interrupt him with about five words that slice open his heart.
For your final days in Hanoi, you sleep together. Make hate together.
You return to the only place that will have you – your mother’s nest.
She drives you everywhere and you sit in the passenger seat and say nothing.
Your friends are busy climbing ladders. The evening news is about nothing.
Your mother’s neighbours drop in to look at you. It doesn’t matter who is there. You are trudging in grassy, glorious mud, guided only by laughing, pointing children, and the sun in your hair.
At night, you open your hands and they stare back at you as if cradling some incorrigible truth. It will be years before you understand.
Somewhere, in another universe, they are dancing.
You haven’t bellydanced in years but for some reason it’s calling you back. You ring up the local school and tell the teacher you’d like to join their intermediate class and she tells you that no one, not even Shakira herself, gets to join her intermediate class without going through beginners first. You’re a bit affronted but quickly realise you haven’t got an isis wing to stand on. Her classes are in front of mirrors and everything is new and shiny. You listen to the mixed tape she’s made for you that has three versions of Aladdin’s theme song on it. It's strangely enchanting.
You meet another woman at a hafla who’s a bit of an oddball and says she also teaches not far from where you live. You are drawn to her. She’s one of those low-key characters that know everything about everything and you wonder sometimes whether she is even real. She starts teaching you steps from the Oulid Nail, Romani, Egyptian, Ghawazee. You’re always in a hall somewhere without mirrors. She has long black hair and might be a witch.
This reminds you of when you went to bellydance classes with your mum. Back then you danced in studios, halls, lounge rooms. You weren’t the only kid in the class. There was this tiny red head with a mean belly roll – your first experience of envy. Each class ended with a meditation lying on the ground that was all about goddesses and you counted how many cracks there were in the ceiling. Your mum danced like an octopus. It looked she had more arms and legs than she actually did. But she loved all the sisterhood stuff that came with bellydance. She’s pretty happy you’ve got back into it. ‘It’s in your blood’ she says. But you’re worried you’ve inherited the octopus gene.
One day your friend who’s the women’s officer at university, asks you to start performing on campus and next minute you’re teaching a little class of your own. Your teacher is happy for you. She dances at your hafla. Years later you’ll look back at the video and wonder why you didn’t make her the big star.
One day you visit her house. It’s full of sparkly material and feels like Merlin might live there.
At your last hafla you reveal you are having an identity crisis by doing one serious tribalesque piece and one jazz inspired burlesque piece with your boobs half hanging out. You’re glad that Facebook hasn’t been invented yet.
Fortunately at this point you head overseas. You find a teacher who tells you to not bother coming back the next week unless you have fixed your armlines and you spend the next week practising in the reflection of your bedroom window.
She lets you perform with her advanced students at a Gypsy event and you blank out. She does an improvisation to a trumpet solo where she moves in an unedited, wild fashion – sprawling, ticking all over the floor. You’re in love.
Several dance teachers later, your technique isn’t as octupussy and you’re living in a different city. An opportunity comes up to teach again and this time you make your own genre. Gradually you learn how to teach by experimenting on a steady trickle of women who come through the doors. Note to self, do not ask beginners to seduce each other. Do not be too silly. Do not be too serious. A small group hang around long enough to see your style blossom and perform with you. You start improvising with musicians every chance you get. You learn to use space, to spin. You teach yourself a bunch of stuff through repetition and performing endlessly when you’re not ready.
The school where you teach is a hub for contemporary dance, contact improvisation, and world fusions. You see a lot of people in track pants rolling around on the floor and walking in random directions. You see people picking up suitcases and putting them down again. For five minutes. You see people just lying there, looking like someone died. This has an effect on you. You remember the time your mum took you to the Opera house to watch a woman and man wearing body suits roll around each other for what seemed like 6 hours. Maybe it was just an hour. You were intrigued by how seamless it was. Where are their sequins?, you thought. You labelled it ‘sausage dance’ in your head and years later find a burning desire to sausage with other adults.
You join a contact improvisation class and constantly apologise because you’re not ex ballet, tap, jazz kid and you can’t do the splits. They don’t care. You secretly like dancing with men, rubbing backs, being lifted. You decide there is nothing better in the whole world than rolling on the floor. Apart from spinning that is. You decide to incorporate it into ‘your style’ of dance. You get used to awkward, stunned faces from audience members. Remarks like ‘you’re so creative.’ Or ‘I love how you express yourself’. You hope one day someone will think you can dance. Fortunately you’ve had years of experience of experimenting on audiences, so you keep going.
One day you find yourself speaking in a performance with an eastern European accent. You ask random men in the audience for massages and try to crowd surf. You ask men to come onto stage and pretend to be furniture for you to sit on. You have fiery arguments with strangers. People like this. They like it even more than your dancing. You keep going.
Be outrageous. Roll on someone. Spin. Turkish Drop.
Occasionally you break out a more solemn piece to Bjork. You lose half your students because it’s too dark. More wide eyes. You keep going.
Then you move again. You find a school that teaches a style very similar to yours. You buy a house next door to their studio. They invite you in. You learn and discover new things and continue to study contemporary dance. You start moving into a no-woman’s land – in between the east and the west. It’s too late to go back. To look back. Just keep going. One day, it will make sense.
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.
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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