To Dance…that is the question

A dance newsletter came into my inbox this afternoon, and at the end there was a poll about dance names. I answered the questionnaire, which asked how you got your dance name (given by a teacher, a name reference, made it up, etc). I checked the box next to “I dance under my own name.” I dance under my own name because dance wasn’t isn’t about what I do, it’s about who I was am. I used to be am most honestly myself when I’m dancing, and have often said that if you want to know who I am, you must watch me dance.

Which is why I don’t have a dance name.

Which made me think again about why I don’t dance lately.

If I can’t dance anymore, is it because I no longer know who I am? Has the dance truly left me?

I just don’t accept that something that has been at the heart and soul of who I am could totally disappear from me like that. I think back to last winter and spring and the feelings of devastation and grief and loss-of-self that accompanied the depression. I think back to what was happening in my life leading up to that. I see how I could have tangled the dance up in my mind and began to associate it with fear and anxiety.

On the positive side, I also know that my creative spirit did not die…it simply shifted places and has been expressing itself in other ways. That’s how I know the dance isn’t dead. It didn’t die, it’s quilting!

But I hate it that depression has created this dead space inside of me where joy used to reside. I want that hole to go away forever! I want joy back. I want to dance again. Not to teach (not right away)…just to dance. Just for myself, because I don’t feel complete without it, even though it causes me anxiety and fear right now.

And so I have decided to do something about it.
I’m going to give myself a shot of immersion therapy.

The other day an offer to take an on-line dance class with Nadira Jamal arrived in my in-box. Instead of deleting without opening as I have been doing with all dance-related stuff, I read it. then, on a total impulse, I signed up for it.

I am putting dance into my path where I will stumble upon it everyday when the next lesson arrives in my inbox, with no expectations other than that I will read each exercise and be open to trying.

Instead of being a teacher, I will be a student.

I have no expectations of myself on a professional level …instead, I give myself permission to relax and let it happen. And if it scares me, I will breathe deeply, set it aside and look at it again the next day.

The course is about improvisation and the American Cabaret multi-part show style. Yes, this is stuff I’m familiar with, but it’s also an area that I always wanted a good refresher in. Am Cab, with its Turkish influence, requires an exuberance of spirit that is big and bold and unrestrained in a flamboyant way that Egyptian Classical is not. So it’s a form of bellydance that doesn’t come naturally to me – that’s largely unexplored by me. This is good. This is how I hope to reconnect with my dancing body.

As a dance geek, I know that, above all else, there is never anything that cannot be built onto, added into, enriched, re-sized, refreshed, re-examined or re-learned. When one stops learning and seeking knowledge from others, one ceases to grow.

Wish me well – cheers to growth, health and continued recovery!

Here we go!

I’m nervous. My classes for the fall 2011 semester start tomorrow…the first classes in the brand new schedule. After 10+ years of perfecting the old method, I’m embarking on something different. And I’m nervous! Well, I’m actually nervous at the start of every new teaching year, so this really isn’t new. But it feels new. I guess those butterflies are a good thing because they mean that I haven’t gotten blasé. They mean I’m still anticipating & looking forward to new things.

I’ve been putting a lot of time and thought into my lesson plans…probably more than usual because I really want to do it differently this time around. I don’t want to fall back into the same-old, same-old. I want to teach the things that interest me at the moment. How can my students not benefit by coming with me on a journey of exploration?

The first Special Topics class is going to be on finger cymbals. I love the finger cymbals, and I am actually quite a good player; however, I rarely play them in public. And in traditional classes, it seems we never had time to do more than the odd session here and there. I want to change that. I want to rediscover my love and ability with my zills, and I want to help my students to discover it for themselves as well. So we’re going to spend our first Special Topics class learning some patterns, watching a bit of video, and generally becoming familiar with having them with us while we dance. There is so much material to cover – so many ways to explore playing with the cymbals that I can promise you this will not be the only class on the topic. I expect we’ll come back to it a few times during the year. Maybe even in the very next class!  If there’s something you want to learn about, please let me know and I’ll see if I can work it in! How lovely to have this luxury to go in-depth and spend as much time as we wish on a subject!

The Repertoire class is going to learn a Reda-style Hagalla this term. I have always been fascinated with Mahmood Reda’s choreography and when I came upon choreography notes from a workshop I took a long time ago, I decided that I would like to spend time with that old dance, explore the folkloric theatrical Hagalla, learn as much as I can about the actual Bedouin tradition and share it with the class. 

The Introduction to Bellydance – Fundamentals level 1 will be pretty much the same as it always was. There’s just a certain amount of information & movement vocabulary you absolutely need to have in order to begin your journey and I always look forward to spending time with brand new dancers. And hey – for the first time ever in 10 years, this class is NOT full! I’m not sure what to think about that! But it’s okay – the students that are there will get extra attention – yay! There are still 4 spaces open, so if you want to sign up, let me know ASAP as classes start Wednesday.

Hang onto your hip scarves, ladies – here we go!

Aunt Rocky

Morocco, better known as Aunt Rocky, has spent her entire adult life – over 40 years – travelling throughout Egypt & North Africa studying and documenting the dances of the region, and travelling throughout the world teaching them to the rest of us. Studying under Aunt Rocky on a handful of occasions, including two 4-day bellydance “bootcamps” hosted by Saqra have been powerful experiences for me. But more than fond memories…Aunt Rocky has acted as mentor and guide to me. She has taken the time to sit and talk with me, to offer her opinions and blessing. She has had a huge influence on me as a dancer and dance teacher. I would love to honour her in some way for the contribution she has made, not only to me but to the art of Middle Eastern dance throughout North America and the world. I would love to bring her to Whitehorse so that the dancers here could hear her stories and experience her teaching style.

A very well-written post about her is here:

While browsing her site, I came upon this note (posted on the reviews page) that I had written to a list serve that used to be active – one of the very first for bellydancers, called simply, “MEDlist”. Many of my students will recognize this story – it is one I tell often. Here it is:

From: Tue, 7 Sep 2004
Subject: The one move you had/have
the hardest time mastering
X-62355-Poster: “Nita Collins”

Let me also say thank you to Ruby for her beautiful phrase:
“Basics are rich and varied landscapes each of their own.”

I attended Morocco’s intensive in Seattle (hosted by Saqra)
last June and came home with a huge lightbulb glowing over my head regarding the
fundamentals – only I had a hard time verbalizing it.

Then I spoke to Ruby in an email and she replied with this
wonderful statement and everything became crystal clear for me.

What happened in the workshop was that Morocco first
demonstrated and then taught a dance (Nihna Wal Kamar Jiran) that was like a
revelation to me. Maybe a simplistic one – but a revelation on a very deep level
that the basics are indeed rich and varied landscapes.

The individual movements in the choreography were all basic
fundamental movements. No ritzy stuff. Nothing I couldn’t introduce to a level 1
& 2 class. When Morocco danced it I was totally blown away – I had to sit
for a minute and try to figure out what I had just seen and why I felt so

The dance was very beautiful. The grace and beauty of the dance
came out of the mastery – a “knowing in the depths of the body and soul” these
basic fundamentals and in her ability to express the yearning in the music using
only the simplest of simple movements. It brought tears to my eyes.

The landscapes of hip circles and simple shimmies, hip lifts
and drops, snake arms and undulations … almost without embellishment…l feel
like I’ve had a revelation on the spiritual level. Thank you Aunt Rocky for
opening that door to me and thank you Ruby for putting it into words.


Teaching Q & A: the Case of the Struggling Student


Do you have any advice for teaching a student who is really struggling? In every class, there is always a student who just doesn’t get it. I tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time with them, when the rest of the class also deserves my attention. How do I catch the slower student up without holding back the rest of the class?

Nita’s Answer:
Keeping in mind that each student is an individual with a different level of mastery, try to spend the same amount of time with each student, correcting each  to the level she is performing at – not to the level she “should” be at, nor to the level of the class she is enrolled in. If a beginner student has enrolled herself in the intermediate or advanced class, you must still correct her as a beginner.

I find that the difficulty with learning any new complex movement usually stems from a weakness in one of the foundation movements that it is built upon. In other words, if the rest of the class is learning a complex movement and one student just isn’t getting it, you will need to identify the weak foundation movement and offer a correction to that movement (not the more complex one.)

For example, if you are teaching the class horizontal figure 8 hips but she is still struggling with isolating the hips in a horizontal slide, than of course she is not going to be able to do the figure 8 correctly, hard as she might try. In this case, you should correct her on the weak fundamental movement (the hip slide) rather than trying to “catch her up” to the rest of the class doing the complex movement (horizontal figure 8).

Say something like this: “Lets break this down. We know that the horizontal figure 8 is built on the hip slide, so lets master that first. When you’ve got that, it’ll be a snap to build on it and do the figure 8”.  Give her the job of practicing the hip slide and quickly move on to the next person.  It is then up to her to take your advice or not.

You charge WHAT? for just DANCING?

“A guy calls the musicians’ guild to get a quote on a 6 piece band for a wedding. The rep says “Off the top of my head, about $2000”. He says”WHAT? FOR MUSIC?. “The rep responds ” I’ll tell you what. Call the plumbers’ union & ask for six plumbers to work from 6 to midnight on a Saturday night. Whatever they charge you, we’ll work for half.”

(From Absolute Underground TV via a facebook status)

I like that joke. It’s funny because it’s so true. People don’t question paying a professional trades person for their expertise, but they are always often thunderstruck when asked to pay a professional rate when hiring a musician or dancer. It’s just crazy-making! Why does this happen? Why does the public so undervalue the professional entertainer?

It can be really insulting, too, when someone calls to hire you to perform for their event and then changes their mind when they find out that you actually charge money. Money! “Well,” says a typical inquirer, “I thought you could stay and enjoy the party in return for dancing.” Or how about the restaurant owner who offers you a “free” supper in return for the evening’s entertainment. Or worse yet, the potential employer who cancels your gig because they found someone else who will do it for significantly less money. I even had one conference organizer who, upon being told my fee, asked me if I had a student I could recommend who would do it for free! This might lead you to think that I charge exorbitant rates – not true! My rates are similar to what bellydancers are charging for similar gigs in Calgary, Edmonton & Vancouver.I think dancers and musicians have in large part done this to themselves through a history of undercutting. Undercutting is when someone agrees to work for significantly less money than the current local rate. This results in the going rate going insultingly lower and lower until a professional can no longer justify working.

Sometimes this happens in all innocence – for example, several years ago I passed a gig along to a student of mine who I judged ready. She was excited to accept. When she discussed what rate she should charge, she suggested a rate about 50% of what I typically charge for the same event. “No, no!” I cried! “Don’t undercut me!” She was shocked – she hadn’t considered it to be undercutting. In her mind, she was my student and less experienced and therefore should charge less than me. Logical on the surface; however, I explained that once you enter the arena of the professional, you must conduct yourself as a professional in every way, including your rate. (How to determine your readiness to become professional is another topic.) The client has hired a professional, and that is you! Why should a client want to pay $175 for a bellydancer if they can get one for $75? Why should they want to pay $50 for a bellydancer if they can get one for tips and a meal? And so it goes.

Another example is when people accept a gig for very little or for free because they “just want to dance.” They want the fun and the experience. They aren’t thinking that they are getting their experience at the expense of those working artists who gig for their living, to supplement their income or support their art. These dancers may be ultimately shooting themselves in the foot, because when you undervalue yourself as a performing artist and don’t charge a professional level fee, everyone’s fee goes down – including yours on the day you decide you’re worth more than a plate of nachos.

And what is wrong if you just want to dance and don’t care about competetive rates? Nothing! Dance for your family and friends. Dance at public events such as fundraisers for good causes. Dance in the school recital with your teacher. Just be sure, when dancing in public, to let people know that you are an amateure, not a professional for hire.

I pretty much suit myself these days when it comes to what gigs I accept and what gigs I turn down. I enjoy dancing for friends – in fact, this weekend I’m helping to celebrate the birthday of an old friend by showing up in costume and doing a little performance. I take a paying gig if it takes place at a date & time I am happy with, and only if the client is happy to pay a fair rate. I am too old to want to beat the bushes for paying gigs at this point in my life, and I’m past the days of wanting to make a living gigging – fortunately I have a 9-5 that takes care of most of my living expenses. These days the dance pretty much manages to pay for itself, and that is 95% through the school. I dance for free a lot – donating my performances to good causes that I believe in. But even there, I set a limit. Often oganizations who are fundraising will have a small budget for honoraria, and I always ask if they do. I am happy to give a receipt for in-kind donation for records if they are non-profits. This also lets them know that they received a gift of some value, and that I value my time & talent. And let me stress that while I do donate performances to good causes, they have to be causes I am passionate about. I’m sure nobody would be surprised to hear that everyone considers their cause to be the best one! So I hope the phone doesn’t start ringing with people wanting free entertainment now that I’ve said that.

The subject doesn’t come up very often, but when it does I just want to throw a little tantrum – which, I guess, is what I’m doing in this blog post. I have spent countless hours practicing technique. I have spent a lot of money on my dance education and training. I am a professional dance artist. I teach classes and have spent hours and hours (and dollars!) attending professional development classes and workshops learning how to teach dance and how to teach adults in general adult ed. It takes a couple of hours to prepare for a gig. Am I dancing at your wedding or at your convention? Am I doing a little solo followed by a fun bellydance lesson for your baby shower or your women’s retreat? Costumes are expensive, and the client expects a professional performer to show up in a professonal costume. But there’s more to it than that – it also takes a good chunk of time to put on makeup and do the hair for a performance. It takes time and expertise to plan the gig – what numbers I will dance to, making the lesson plan for the workshop, putting the music in order. Arranging my day to accommodate the gig (which is often at an inconvenient time). Waiting around in the kitchen or the closet or hiding in the guest room for the right moment when the birthday boy will be surprised by my entrance. Helping the bride plan the right moment for the dancer to entertain the guests in phone calls before the event. Isn’t having a professional arrive on time, prepared and ready go, adding pizzazz to your event in a seamless, no hassle way worth the price? It should be.

Changes, they are a’comin (for Celebrations Bellydance)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin. Thank you for this quote, Amber. It comes at a very timely moment for me. I have been thinking a lot lately about what is next for me in my dance life, especially as concerns the school. Keeping in mind that I also work a full-time day job as an administrative assistant at Yukon College, I am also going to be 50 in July and I am feeling like I want need fewer commitments on my time. I would especially like to have my weekends back. I feel resentful when Kelly goes to the lake for the weekend and I can’t go, too. I don’t mean to complain, but I would love to just spend a Sunday together with my husband, or cleaning my house or walking my dog, going for a ski, reading a book, taking a class or working on a quilt….those Sunday things that the rest of the Whitehorse world enjoys. Saturday is my only day off and that is the day I do my lesson planning. I truly am not complaining – I love my students! They bring me such joy! I love teaching and definitely don’t want to quit, but I do want to cut back (or cut out entirely) the Sunday schedule. And I have been teaching as Celebrations Bellydance for 10 years now – that’s quite an accomplishment! But I am tired. Just plain old tired. Period. I am also tired of the same-old same-old. I want a change. And the school needs a change, too – some freshening up. Maybe a change is as good as a rest, like the saying goes. So I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. I don’t have any answers yet, but a lot of possibilities are running through my head. One possibility is taking a year off. Another possibility is offering one single mixed level Special Topics class on Sunday late afternoons (4pm?) Or maybe a junior student troupe/choreography intensive where students who want to learn a performance piece would come each week to learn & polish something up for presentation in a show. Or maybe a Thursday evening Special Topics. Or two special topics classes, one each on Sunday & Thursday. I will also need to offer an Intro class for brand new dancers. I’m thinking of a 6-week session. Brand new dancers would be required to take two 6-week intro sessions and could then come into the mixed level Special Topics. Maybe one of my advanced dancers would like to teach the 6-week intro. classes? And then there’s Saba rehearsals, too. And where to take Saba next. And the question who is going to renew their commitment to the performing group and who is going to take this rest period after the Casbah show to turn in her hipscarf and move on to other things. Another possibility for me that I have been thinking a little bit about is this: A Beautiful Spaces Workshop Series for Bellydancers…dream or reality? One thing I have thought about for a couple of years is teaching a series of workshop intensives in beautiful places around town. Imagine an in-depth look at the baladi taxim while surrounded by beautiful art at the Yukon Art Gallery, or an isolation intensive at Arts Underground. How inspiring! Learn basic finger cymbals & rhythms in a clearing on Kishwoot Island or at the suspension bridge. Examine film footage, participate in a discussion & try some of Samia Gamal’s or Suhair Zaki’s signiture movements at the museum. Take a “beautiful hands & arms” intensive on the banks of the river, or in someone’s private home with a view. Examine dancing with archetypal shapes in the Visitor’s Reception Centre. Learn travelling steps & combos as you move through the exibits at the Beringia Centre. Learn performance skills & how to connect with your audience in one small theatre space and practice improvisation skills in another. Veil in a beautiful lobby or atrium. A choreography intensive in the upstairs lobby of the Arts Centre. Taxim at the Archives. Study the various instruments you hear in traditional music & how to dance to them in a beautiful meeting room at one of the hotels. Learn about the folkloric dances of Egypt & their relationship to modern Cairo style sharqi at the Old Log Church. Learn some of the history of Middle Eastern dance at an outdoor brunch. A khaleegi workshop followed by a gulf dance party on the SS Klondike. I wonder if there would be funding to offer a workshop series like this? Some would be open to all bellydancers, all levels, all interests, others would be open to the general public, depending on the topic & experience required. This is an idea that makes me feel very excited. Anyway, consider the heads-up given – changes are a’commin’. I don’t know what the flower will look like when it blossoms out of the bud, but it’s bursting to get out and show itself. I am on the edge of my seat to see what it will look like.