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.
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.
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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