Belly dance for fitness?

Greetings all, and I hope you had a lovely Christmas and new year. I’m going straight on to the meat of the post today (is it appropriate for a vegetarian to use that expression?) so consider all pleasantries duly exchanged.

I work for a university, and one of the positives in working for a large establishment is that you get various benefits. Use of the gym and all fitness classes for a very discounted price is one of these benefits, and I try to take full advantage. Anyway, last week I was browsing the university staff website and noticed a ‘free belly dance taster session’ was being advertised. It was taking place during my lunchbreak and, well, it was free, so I thought I would give it a go. I had ascertained that it was not one of the university fitness instructors or sports staff, so that was a good start – an ‘outside teacher’ they said. Who could it be? Not a local teacher, I know them all and would have heard something on the grapevine. But a chance to do more dancing, in my lunchbreak, for free? Yes, yes, yes. I booked a place.

Oh. Oh god. It was appalling. When I arrived at the class some faux-Arabic pop was playing (you know the type, a western dance track with a slightly middle eastern chord progression?) Didn’t worry me initially, it was the kind of music that would make for a good warm up. And to give the teacher her due, we did a very thorough warm up. This is where the good news stops. I have never seen belly dance butchered so mercilessly. For example, did you know that a shimmy is in fact called ‘shakey shakey’? And I’m sure you’ve all heard of the popular move ‘sexy arms’? You know, the one where you run your hands down your body? And crotch thrusting is a valid belly dance move, right? RIGHT?

WRONG. Sweet as she was, this woman was clearly a zumba instructor. I take zumba classes, they’re good fun, but my god do they vomit all over genuine forms of dance. It was her snake arms that gave her away. In zumba you do a similar move, also called snake arms, which is basically the same but involves a really staccato reach to either side. Its much faster and sharper, and it looks ridiculous. You can see a good example of zumba snake arms in this video at about 1:03.

Aaaarrrggggghhh, it was awful. I came away feeling cross, and a bit embarrassed because the people waiting to use the studio after us were all watching through the door and we looked like proper morons. I went back to my desk fuming. However, I have since decided that my problem was more with the way the class was advertised. Ok, it wasn’t belly dancing, but it was belly dance inspired fitness. Why not call it that? Bellyfit, or Bellyrobics, or some other smooshing together of two words. After all, its being offered by a gym.  That way there would be no confusion, no one would come away thinking they had ‘mastered the ancient art of belly dance’ (not my words, ugh). At the end of the class I felt sweaty and a bit tired, so there is no doubt that 30 minutes of vigorous ‘kick the ball’ (hip drop and kick) and ‘shakey shakey’ (shimmy) is a good workout. Is it too much to ask that the differentiation between learning to dance and keep fit be made?


December Larks, Laughs and Dancings

Tis the season to be jolly, and jolly I shall be! Its getting cold, and down here on the south coast we’re on severe weather warnings – one of my work colleagues got a call yesterday telling her that her ground floor flat is at risk of flooding and she should move her cattle to higher ground. Because everyone down here owns a large herd of cows, tugs on their forelock when the squire passes through and does a merry jig of a May day morn. Of course I wont be laughing if she does get flooded out. But still, cattle.

On second thoughts, let them swim.  They probably want to hurt you anyway.

On second thoughts, let them swim. They probably want to hurt you anyway.

I’ve got lots of things to talk about tonight! I went to a lovely hafla yesterday evening hosted by one of the local teachers, a very relaxed and informal sort of gathering. Unfortunately a lot of my class have colds and flu so we were a bit under-represented, but I think that those that did make it did a wonderful job! We performed two routines, a veil piece and a fun, upbeat choreography to Hou Hou Hou by Emad Sayyah. Emad is one of my favourites to dance to – all of his music is upbeat, a bit cute and nicely rhythmic. Great for haflas! This is the song (ignore the video, its nothing to do with me, although, nice tash!)

I actually performed the veil piece as a duet with the ten year old member of our class. I can’t think of a clever pseudonym for her, so I’ll simply call her Little Miss and say that she is adorable. Little Miss was very nervous, bless her, before we danced, but when we finished she was all bubbly with excitement and really looking forward to the next one. It was lovely to see, and really made me think about how lucky we as belly dancers are to have the idea of ‘the hafla’. Do other dance forms have anything like this? I know student showcases and amateur shows exist for any performing art, but haflas are pretty unique. Almost everyone there last night was both performer and audience – no stage, no separation, no pressure. We were dancing just because we like dancing (and a little bit because we like showing off). Wonderful. I would like my class to do more of this style of hafla, really. What my group calls a hafla is really more of a biannual student show, with a proper stage and seating. This is great in many ways as we are all used to reasonably large audiences, we are fairly professional in that we have a backstage area, we don’t appear in costume unless we are on stage, and we always smile. Its good training, and it makes us push ourselves to be better dancers so that we don’t look silly in a theatre setting. I would however like a bit more of a mix – perhaps a biannual show, plus a couple of informal little church hall haflas thrown in throughout the year? I would be much more comfortable trying out my first solo in a hafla setting with lots of supportive dancers around me.

Coming back to Little Miss for a moment, I’ve just remembered something she told me last night. Her school are presenting a talent show next year and she asked if she could show off her belly dancing. The teacher’s answer? No, its inappropriate.

This picture is always relevant.

Little Miss’s costumes are always very decent. I mean obviously, she’s ten. As far as I’m concerned a ten year old can’t be indecent. An adult can view them as indecent, but that’s their problem. Either her mum or her nan makes all her costumes and they usually consist of a long skirt, hip scarf and cropped vest-style top showing about two inches of belly. Her mum comes with her to all classes and events, and in any case, our dance is not indecent! I don’t think Little Miss’s mum is very happy with the decision not to not let her dance in the talent show, as she said, the teacher had probably never seen any belly dancing and therefore had some pre-conceived ideas as to what its all about. Fine. But s/he could have at least watched her performance before passing judgement. They could have been amazed, Little Miss is FIERCE with a cane.

Hmmm, any more updates? Oh yes, on Monday nights a few of us are now learning a more challenging routine. Its a very pretty oriental piece, can’t remember what the music is called off the top of my head unfortunately, but its going to be very flamboyant and extremely fabulous. Its hard work though – we’re really having to focus on our footwork, something we’ve not paid too much attention to before now, and we are using some more complicated turns and spins to really show of the veils. Oh yes, we’re coming on with veils, but then discarding them after the introduction. And by discarding I mean glamorously whisking it away with a ladylike flick of the wrist.

If I don’t update beforehand (and let’s face it, I probably wont), I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and a wonderful new year. Maybe something sparkly in my stocking please Santa…?

Are we bored of our dance?

I recently attended a hafla with loads of fabulous dancers, beautiful costumes and generally lovely people all round. I’ve got to say though…I didn’t see a whole lot of belly dancing.

Now, I’m not a fusion girl myself, but unique, clever fusion will always be interesting to watch, and like it or not fusion is here to stay. What I don’t get is the inclusion of bollywood dance at haflas. Not bolly/belly fusion, just pure bollywood. I like bollywood dance – I love the energy and the colour and the cheerfulness – but what exactly does it have to do with belly dance? One bollywood number at a hafla would be something a bit different, but when when you start seeing multiple bollywood performances, you do wonder if you’re at the right show! Why not Tibetan dance, or Japanese kabuki theatre, or the Charleston – they have as much to do with belly dance as bollywood does! Actually, not the Charleston, I have already seen that at a hafla. Trufax.

If I go to a hafla I want to see at least 75% belly dance. That can be any style of belly dance, I’m not picky. Belly dance, oriental dance, ME dance, whatever you want to call it, has so many variations, folkloric dances, props, music…how can we be bored?

Shimmy in the City and other bits and pieces

So yesterday was Shimmy in the City. Well actually, today is also Shimmy in the City but as I am not there I’m trying to ignore its existence. Damn you, overdraft.

For those of you who might not know, Shimmy in the City is a whole weekend of belly dance workshops, shopping and performances. The line up was pretty good – Jillina, Tito, Anasma, Wael and loads of others – and the range of workshops on offer was excellent. But they were all pretty expensive, 35 quid a workshop. A bit much for my limited funds, hence why I didn’t make a weekend of it like I originally planned. But still, fun! I took two workshops, ‘Creative Veil Technique’ with Charlotte Desorgher from HipsInc in Croydon and ‘Oriental Style’ with Jillina. The veil workshop was confusing as hell for me at first – I don’t have a whole lot of experience with veils, but that’s the point of a workshop, right? It was actually my first time using a silk veil (I usually use chiffon because its cheap and I don’t do any fancy veil work anyway) and I loved it! Its all soft and floaty and lovely, and it actually flies in the air instead of flopping around like a gravy-stained tablecloth after Christmas dinner. We learned a few combinations then took the best bits of all of them and combined them to create a two minute veil piece. Charlotte was an excellent teacher, but I can’t believe how much she reminds me of Aziza! In her dancing style, yes, but also in her speech and mannerisms! I liked her. She reminded me a bit of my secondary school drama teachers too, and that’s a good thing believe it or not.

Now, Jillina. She was such a sweetie. From a distance she looks about 21 (up close she still looks youthful and gorgeous), and she certainly has the energy of 21 year old! The one thing I will say about her workshop was that it most certainly was not open level as it was advertised. I only just managed to keep up, and there were several people in the class that gave up and sat down. I really enjoyed the workshop, but I think the main issue was that the choreography we learned was very long. There were whole bits that wouldn’t stick in my head and there wasn’t really time to break everything down like I’m used to in class. It was basically pick it up first time or miss it completely. I went for the second option on several occasions. But! About halfway through the music changed, and I thought “Ooh, Saidi!” And it was! So at least I’m learning to pick up rhythm patterns on first hearing. The Saidi part was easier than the entrance part, but still – turn, turn, spin, spin, pivot, pivot, fall on your face…oops, no, that was just me. I’m still pretty terrible at spinning. I hit some poor girl in the face with my wildly flailing arms. Its becoming a workshop tradition for me, this accidental arm violence. Attending workshops at a higher level than I’m used to must be good for me though, right? Even if it is a bit soul crushing when everyone sails through something with ease and I’m left spinning helplessly (and dangerously) in the wrong direction.

The souk was a bit of a disappointment, but they usually are for me. Nothing is ever in my size, and if it was, well, I don’t have any money. Ok, I can’t blame that on the souk. There were a couple of things with cup sizes big enough for me, but to be honest I didn’t really like them. Its annoying that if you don’t fit into a regular size you end up taking whatever you can get. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Neon pink and zebra print with lime green plastic beads and ruffles? Ummm…but its a G cup you say? Well, I suppose…from a distance…in front of a blind audience…


Our hafla is in two weeks time! I am no longer doing my solo, and this both a relief and a sadness to me. It seems unlikely that I’ll ever do it now – I wasn’t entirely happy with it anyway, and leaving it will only make me dislike it more. I am never happy with my own work. Apparently there isn’t enough space for my solo now seeing as we have guest dancers from the Isle of Wight and a local hula hooping group performing as well. Boo. Well, at least it gives me a chance to sort out a new costume.

I need to clean the microwave so I’m off. See you later!

July Update

Hooray! Summer is here! A bit late, but better later than never. I have had a lovely day by the sea and now have that perfect, sunshine-y tiredness after a long day eating ice cream by the seaside. I also somehow managed to spend rather too much in the arcades, but as I have a plush cupcake called Sarah the Strawberry Sprinkle to show for it, I would say it was money well spent. Oh, and I should never, ever learn to drive if my performance on Daytona USA is anything to go by.

July has been a busy month for me dancing wise! The most exciting thing has been learning to dance with a cane. Ah, my cane. We have a love/hate relationship. I love it, and in return it smacks me in the face. As I go to class straight after work and the gym, every Wednesday I get the dubious pleasure of walking to work looking like a shepherdess with a crook on my shoulder and then asking the receptionist at the gym to look after my cane whilst I’m on the cross trainer. “Are you in fancy dress as Little Bo Peep?” she asked enthusiastically. I don’t think a blunt “No” was quite the answer she was expecting, but dammit I was about to do exercise, real exercise, not the fun, dancey kind, and I had no time to explain the origins of raqs assaya.

Cane dancing is much harder than I expected. I had kind of assumed that once I got the feel for handling the cane, the dance steps would be pretty simple. Oho, not so. Thing is, I have spent the past year and a half lightening my step and making my movements languid and flowing, and now I have to scrap all that and let everything become a bit earthier. I’m still trying to find a nice balance between floating around like a little twinkletoes and clomping about the place like a morris dancing simpleton. It feels good though, Saidi dance. Sort of pleasingly heavy but with a controlled bounce. I think I’m going to enjoy it immensely. We have been asked to each buy a Saidi dress in any colour we like, and we will be wearing silver hip scarves. I’m thinking a dark red or forest green, something that will go with my skin tone and also with silver. Its a shame gold is out, I saw a fairly cheap gold and black dress that I liked the look of, but I’m firmly of the opinion that gold and silver together looks cheap. I’m not sure where we’re going to perform this routine once we’ve learned it – I’m guessing just at haflas – because of the drastic change of costume. I love Saidi dresses, but if we get asked to perform at a local carnival or fair we can hardly go for a quick costume change in the middle of a field. And I don’t think it would be appropriate to wear the dresses for an entire show. Like it ir not, when people ask for belly dancers they expect a bra and belt costume (or bra and skirt).

What else? Oh yes. Our troupe recently performed at a local festival in the gardens of a large estate. This estate is quite famous for hosting big food and culture festivals throughout the year, and has a particularly large festival in August. This one, however, was a new one showcasing the best of the Mediterranean. And Lebanon. You know, because Lebanon is in the Mediterranean. Or something. Anyway, I’m glad the organisers fail at geography because we had a wonderful time. Our teacher had chosen several Lebanese tracks in preparation, and we dressed in white skirts with a red overskirt and carried green hankies to represent the colours of the Lebanese flag. About half way through we realised we actually looked more Italian, but our teacher had taken the precaution of making little headbands with a Lebanese flag motif. So all was well. We performed four times throughout each of the two days and taught a little workshop in between. Mostly it was kids that turned up to the workshops with their reluctant parents in tow, but soon they were all getting into the spirit of things. I’m always delighted at how much little ones love belly dancers, the music, the sparkle, the pretty colours. Whilst we were teaching the workshop a tiny little girl with big round eyes sitting on her mum’s hip kept whispering “I want to see the lady”, so she would bring the little girl over, where upon she would go all shy and not know what to do, so I did a little shimmy and let her play with the fringed bit of my belt for a few seconds. She was a proper little sweetie. Anyway, at the end of the day we managed to get all the people that had taken part in the workshop to get up and perform what they had learned and they got masses of applause. And quite right too, they were very brave!

We also met some musicians at the Medfest, a keyboardist, tabla player and singer from Algeria (although I believe one of them may have been from Iraq originally). They were fabulous, really friendly and complimentary and asked us to get up and dance with them! My first experience of dancing with live musicians, although I was hardly peforming, more having a bit of a laugh and a boogie with my troupe mates. A great weekend all round.

My solo choreography is finished! It may need a bit of tweaking here and there – the main problem is that I don’t have anywhere big enough to do a proper practice – but it’s basically done. Whilst the steps are choreographed I’m adding ‘musicality’ to it, at least that’s how my little music-centric brain thinks of it. I suppose what I’m actually doing is smoothing the transitions and making it a little more elegant. I will keep you updated.

Time for me to go to sleep. It’s Monday tomorrow, how did that come around so fast? I will quickly add that if anyone knows where I could buy a pretty and inexpensive Saidi dress I would be very happy to hear from them. See you next time!

Arabic rhythms and the agony of choreography

Good evening one and all! I am feeling virtuous. My carpets are hoovered, washing is done and hanging up, dinner is cooked and eaten. Nothing left to do tonight except scratch and hum ‘A Wombling Merry Christmas’. How long has that been in my head now? Oh yeah, TWO WEEKS. Do you know what, I was going to link you to the video but I haven’t the heart. Don’t youtube it. Don’t.


Ok, hands up who likes to choreograph? Well, I don’t. I am rubbish at it. Hopefully I’ll get better, but as it is I just don’t have the experience or confidence. I never had dance lessons as a child (except that one ballet lesson when I was seven where they angered me by saying I had to take the part of a cowboy) so dancing is new and frightening territory for me. It also sometimes still feels as if dancing is something waaaaaaaay out of my league – at school only the beautiful girls took dance classes, and as a teenager I looked like a chicken nugget, greasy and unappealing. If you had told me I would one day be dancing on stage in chiffon and sequins I would have howled with laughter, or (more likely) eyed you suspiciously and gone back to listening to Pantera. But! No matter! I am choreographing my first ever solo, and not doing too badly so far. The piece of music I have chosen is ‘Alf Leyla Wa Leyla’ by Oum Kalthoum, a very commonly used, but stunning piece of music. Its pretty old, and the original goes on for over forty minutes! Rest assured, I will not be dancing for that long. I have chosen a section of the music that is about two and half minutes in length. This part, in fact. Up until about 2:15.

Nice, right? And the full length version is even better.

It took me a while to get started on my solo because what I felt like doing, what the music was telling me to do, seemed too simplistic. I spent weeks just trying to think of what I could do with the strong ‘123’ beats at the beginning of the song that wasn’t just ‘right left right’ with the hips. After hours of trying complicated turns, chest isolations and drops I decided to go with my instinct. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a bad decision, but I figured it was best to go with the music. Better to execute simple moves well and with feeling than to chuck in a load of complicated moves which I will probably get wrong and don’t speak to me in any way. So, thus far I have choreographed up to the part where the music slows. I’m not really sure what to do for this, something graceful and snakey with the arms, but I can’t think of anything interesting enough. I have the ending all planned out, gentle, flowing camels on the diagonal to the left and then to the right, ending in a beautiful pose. The beautiful pose I haven’t yet thought of, suggestions welcome.

I’ve started thinking of costuming for this piece already, and I want gold and earth tones. I’m thinking either gold and a dark red, or a deep green and copper. Really, I would like to wear my hair loose to add to the softness of the piece, but for that I need to grow some hair, or get some good extensions. Hmmm. We’ll see.

Hooray! Yesterday I had my first ever lesson on Arabic rhythms and how to dance to them! I’ve been excitedly waiting for this class ever since it was announced because I just didn’t feel like a proper dancer without at least a basic knowledge of this subject. I had done a bit of research on the interwebs, but just reading about music is a bit sterile. You need to be there! So, we all turned up with our drums, the quality of which varied wildly. Some people had proper tabla drums, others had bongos, one had a child’s brightly coloured plastic mini tambourine. It didn’t matter, it was just something to hit, but it amused me greatly. We learned about four commonly used Arabic rhythms (we only had an hour, so even four was pushing it a bit really), maqsoum, saiidi, malfuf and ayoub. Saiidi I already knew a little bit about, but the others had until this point been just a list of confusing words that only served to highlight my lack of knowledge. But not any more! So, a maqsoum is very similar rhythmically to a saiidi and a beledi, depending on where the ‘dum’ falls. The ‘dum’ is traditionally where your ‘down’ moves should fall – hip drops, any heavy, earthy steps. The ‘tec’ is a less pronounced beat and can be used for ligher, more decorative movements.

Its funny, the minute this workshop began I felt at home. Dancing is a completely new thing to me, but music? Music is an old friend. My background is all music, whether it be singing lessons, playing bass guitar, singing in a choir or studying music technology at uni. Music doesn’t intimidate me in the way that dancing sometimes does, probably because I have more confidence in my musical ability that I do in my dancing. So this workshop was great for me, and very exciting! The beautiful, unusual music was one of the things that first interested me in belly dance, and now I have a bit of knowledge I want more! I wonder if this could be one of my strengths? Musical interpretation? When I think back to work I’ve done in composing soundtrack for film, I never had any problems interpreting what I saw on the screen acoustically. The problem was always the technical side of things, how to produce what I was hearing in my head! Its the same with dancing, I’ll hear a piece of music and immediately visualise all of these beautiful movements that I have no idea how to execute. Hmmm. Is this a strength or a weakness? Maybe both.

Ooh, before I sign off, I was told by an Arabic speaking friend that malfuf means ‘cabbage’. Why are we dancing to a cabbage rhythm? Any answers?

Well, I shall leave you now with an example of a maqsoum. If you sit there chanting ‘dum tec tec dum tec’ along with the video, you’ll be doing what I’m doing. Bye for now!

Bits and Bobs and Bellymania

Evenin’ all. I’ve been on leave from work since Wednesday but now its Sunday night, which sadly means that my days of sitting on the sofa eating toast are over for another working week. But for now it is still the weekend, so I shall throw caution to the wind, put another piece of Hovis in the toaster and stay up for at least another half an hour. Don’t ask me why, I’m just crazy and out-there like that.

So, a couple of weeks ago I went along to Bellymania 2011, a local all-day event featuring workshops and a souk, then a performance in the evening. To be completely honest with you all I am not sure exactly how to review this one. There were some very good parts and some truly – hmmm, lets go for ‘interesting’ – parts. We arrived at about half one in the afternoon, which was a bit early, so we went looking for a newsagents, which took about half an hour as we were in the middle of a housing estate, in the country, in the middle of nowhere. The woman behind the counter served us with an amusing mixture of suspicion and confusion which left us a little bewildered.  Maybe buying a cornetto is an unusual occurrence in that neck of the woods? Who knows. But anyway, what am I talking about, you’re not interested in my cornetto, which was delicious by the way, strawberry flavoured, nice crunchy cone, weird bit of chocolate at the bottom, and I had some Refreshers too, and a Dime bar, which were also nice.

Wait, what? Dancing.

I took three workshops in total throughout the day, and whilst some were better than others I think I managed to learn something new from each one. The one that really stood out for me was a tsiftitelli workshop taken by a Greek dancer called Unaneyia. Here she is in action.

Isn’t she good? I thought so. Very natural, very expressive, plus she looks frighteningly like every woman in my family. I’m fairly sure I’ll look exactly like that in about ten years.

I’m going to admit here that I am still a little in the dark about what tsiftitelli actually is, but I gather that it depends on the style of music you dance too. This was, I believe, a Greek/Turkish tsiftitelli which we were told has its roots in the dances of the gypsies in Turkey. The workshop was largely improvised – Unaneyia demonstrated a few basic moves and then we all kind of danced around in a circle. I loved it. Certainly it felt like more of a folk dance, very joyful and brimming over with attitude, with far less finesse in the execution of movements than I am used to learning. There was a lot of dancing with the side of the skirt gathered in one hand and being swept from side to side as you travel, and the focus was on feeling and interpreting the music, not on isolation. In fact, as Unaneyia pointed out, if you shimmy the top and the bottom moves too – never mind! In her words “its all under the one skin”. Those words stuck with me – not that I am about to ignore isolations, that would be foolish. But maybe there are times when precision and accuracy are not the most important things in this form of dance.

I chickened out of taking a Tribal workshop. How silly is that? I was really interested as I have only studied Oriental style, but all the attendees looked so…tribal. I convinced myself that my inexperience would hold everyone else up and I would stick out like a big, glittery fairy. Silly me. Funny thing is, the tribal workshop was actually being taught by someone I have known on the internet for a good few years, before I even started dancing. Its a small world after all…

Want to see her in action? She’s really rather good.

All in all, a very nice day out. I especially liked the bit where we had a dominos pizza delivered to the car park. Very nice indeed.

I’m supposed to be talking about other bits and bobs, right? Ummm…Scheherazade is one hold at the moment because we don’t seem to have any dancers. It’ll still happen, just maybe later than we had originally planned. We have done a few community events over the past few weeks, all outdoors, all freezing. I managed to get stuck in my devil-possessed veil whilst dancing in a wine bar and consequently did an impromptu piece of avant-garde performance art until I could recover. I don’t think anyone noticed.

Right, bed beckons. Work in t’mornin. Nighty night!

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