What can a troupe learn from Judy Garland?

I love Barbra Streisand and I love Judy Garland. Watch this clip and see if you don’t smile from the inside out.

This clip is also a wonderful teaching tool for bellydance troupes. What?! What could a bellydance troupe possibly learn from watching Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland sing this beautiful duet? What I’d like you to see is their easy interaction with each other. Notice how they remain connected even when looking or leaning away from each other? See how they smile with their eyes? Each singer is obviously enjoying both a personal & private moment in the music while at the same time enjoying sharing with the other and the audience. The are definately performing for an audience, but they are including each other in their presentation. The body language and facial expressions reflect the music, the moment AND the friendship. When they look at each other, they are sharing with each other- they are not looking to each other because they don’t remember what comes next. They know the piece inside out.  There is no uncertainty on their faces.  No faltering. They are strong individually and strong together. We, the audience, watch this interaction and are left breathless at the strength and beauty of the performance.

How can a troupe achieve this flowing interaction with each other? This ease of movement? How can they be strong together?

First, by being strong individually. By taking the responsibility to practice at home. By knowing the choreography inside out and not needing to rely on visual cues from the other dancers. When even one dancer in the group is looking to another for cues of what comes next, she is showing uncertainty on her face. Her movements will be faltering and slightly delayed. Believe me, the audience sees this. The other dancers are aware of her uncertainty. The energy of the group is tentative. The audience sees this, too.

Second, by being aware of each other within the dance. See your fellow dancers out of the corners of your eyes. Feel them beside you. Feel them behind you. Hear them breathing. Breath with them. Look at each other! It isn’t bad to look at another dancer in comradship – when it becomes “bad” is when you look because you aren’t sure what comes next. If you are both dancing in the moment, you both know your choreography, you both are strong individually,… then when you look at each other you are sharing a moment. The audience sees you share this moment and they feel the power of the two of you together. Or the five of you together. Or the eight.

Third, by keeping the audience engaged emotionally. How? Animate your face! Smile at them. If a big smile isn’t appropriate to the piece, then smile with your eyes! It’s called “smize” – look it up on youtube.  If you aren’t smiling with your eyes, than at least arrange your features into a pleasant expression – look interested, look aware. Never let your face be slack and expressionless. Look at old pictures of yourself taken at a performance. How many show you looking at the floor? Or uninterested? Or slack? Too many, I’ll bet.  Remember, the camera isn’t catching you at a “bad” moment. The camera is catching you at a “typical” moment – a totally random moment. If the camera catches you in a typical random moment, you want to see at the least a little Mona Lisa smile, alertness in the features, a smize in the eyes. This is something you can practice at home. Become aware of your expression. You can practice right now!  Smile at the computer screen while you’re reading this… look like you are interested in what you’re reading. In troupe, practice this with each other while you are dancing. And don’t limit it to troupe rehearsal – practice keeping an expression of alert friendiness while you drive downtown, while you walk to the bank, while you fold your laundry! Turn that frown upside down!

As you know, I play in a 16-piece swing band called The Big Band. On our regular practice nights we rehearse in a circle, all players facing in to the center. In a band, listening is critical. Playing in a circle allows us to listen and hear each individual player and part as we are playing. So I know what is happening in the music at all times. Then, when we play a gig and are set up in show formation and sometimes in poor acoustical surroundings, I can play my part with the security of knowing what else is happening around me even though I can’t always hear it very well. I know that what the audience is hearing will be balanced if I play my part the way I did in rehearsal. Practicing in a circle also gives critical visual cues. When we stop to work out a sticky measure or two, we can see each other which allows everyone to participate in understanding. As in dance, each player must also be responsible to learn his or her music. The audience hears it when the group is not playing together or is not in tune.

Just like in a band, the audience sees it when the troupe is not playing together or is not in tune with each other.

So there you go. Learn your part and carry your own weight inside the dance. Smile with your eyes at the audience and at each other.  Keep your expression friendly and approachable. Practice dancing with an awareness of who is beside, behind and in-front-of you. Trust your fellow dancers and be someone they can trust in turn. Relax and allow yourself to enjoy the moment. The audience will see this, applaud all the louder and remember your group all the longer for it.

Warming up for dance class

A question came through this morning on a list for bellydance teachers & troupe directors that I belong to. The question was  “how long is your warm-up?” I love questions like this because they give me the opportunity to share some of the teaching technique & philosophy that I have learned over the years. It is so important for experienced teachers to have the opportunity to share their knowledge with new teachers. Especially in bellydance, with no standardized curriculum nor governing body. We must govern ourselves and take opportunities to raise the bar wherever possible. This means mentoring the next generation of teachers. So here is some cyber-mentoring from Celebrations Bellydance!

The warm up I use in class is not typical.  I like to start my beginner & intermediate classes off by having them briskly walk a large circle around the classroom as I walk counter to them. Walking counter to them allows me to greet everyone, look into their faces and check & correct their posture as needed. I add large arm movements to include the shoulders, back & chest into the warm up, and then different step patterns – eventually adding appropriate dancing arm movements to the steps.  I do this through one or two Arabic pop songs. It gets the blood moving and the muscles warm, serves as a practice for simple travel steps for the  intermediate student and is a fun & painless way to start the process of coordinating arms & legs for the beginner. The students in the advanced class warm themselves up. Students at the advanced level should no longer require the instructor to warm them up. They warm up while I run to the toilet, etc. Many studies have been done on warming up as related to athletic performance and to  injury prevention and I believe (based on these studies and personal experience) that the most important thing warming up does for the bellydancer (besides start the body working) is to put her in a good mental state to focus and learn. In other words, the warm up provides the transition from the outside world to the dance class. Usually I follow this with gentle stretching.  You can think of a gentle stretch as being like what you do when you wake up in the morning. You roll your shoulders, move your back side to side, twist a little and tip your head from shoulder to shoulder. Don’t be more vigorous than that with a cold muscle. Stretching a muscle that has not been previously working (that is not already nice and pliable) can potentially cause injury. After this walking warm up, I start class off slowly, always with the basics, and building up into more complicated drills before we start learning new material. Yes, this is “warming up” the body with the same movements it will be using, but more importantly it is warming up the mind for dance. So where do stretches belong? I put more emphasis on the stretch at the end of the class. Typically I spend 10 minutes at the end of class doing floor stretches on the yoga mats. If we have time, we stay down on the mats and close with a taxim follow-me using hands and arms. It’s a nice way to finish the session. Students often tell me that the quiet time at the end of class where we are down on the mats doing our stretches is one of their favourites.

So my formula in a nutshell is: walking with large arm movements, adding foot patterns & dance arms as you advance. Include gentle stretches, keeping in mind that muscles are not yet warm. Follow this with easy drills that move along into more intense. Then add your new material. End with deep stretches on the mat.

Happy dancing!

10 years of hafla

Last night was hafla. I host a hafla to celebrate the end of each dance semester and to thank my students. It’s part of creating a bellydance community…so that students feel they are a part of something. I always enjoy hafla, and even though it’s a lot of work the students always pitch in and help out. And let me say how much I appreciate it! Last night the party was different than usual. None of the classes learned choreography this term, so we played “spin the ipod” and danced to whatever came up. It was funny. I got a drum solo (aaak!). Kim’s bra hook …unhooked. Someone’s 7-year old daughter got up and did an improvised ballet/jazz/belly dance. Amber set up her henna paints and created beautiful art on a variety of hands & arms. It was the smallest hafla ever, but maybe one of the most fun.

This dance year (September 2010 through April 2011) is the 10thdance year for Celebrations Bellydance. I know I’m not supposed to celebrate the birthday until the anniversary of the very first class, but my 10th birthday is at the end of my 10th year, right? That makes it the end of April 2011. Well, maybe it’s math “Nita style”. I don’t care. 10 years is a long time. I’ve actually been teaching longer than that – I taught during the two years that we lived away (in Manitoba & New Brunswick), and I taught for Lana’s dance troupe (Jewels of the Yukon), and I taught as her assistant even before that. So I figure, all things accounted for, that I have been teaching for about 14 years.

When we returned to the Yukon in 2001, I decided that I didn’t just want to teach a little class here or there – I wanted to be a dance school. You know, with a student handbook, with subjects & lesson plans, with goals & themes to teach around for each semester & each dance year. I wanted to introduce women to the magic of dance – to show them they could appreciate their bodies no matter what size – to facilitate their discovery of themselves as dancers. I wanted to teach progressive classes, beginner through advanced. I wanted to train a performance group to give public performances. I wanted to educate an audience and entertain them at the same time. I wanted to put Oriental dance on the same theatre stage as ballet and other “high performance art”. I obsessed over it. I wanted to create a bellydance community.

I found a studio space to rent – a little tiny space in a converted garage in Porter Creek. It would hold 8 students if we were all friendly. 6 students if we wanted to swing our arms & legs. I picked a date in early October, put an ad in the newspaper for Tuesday night beginner classes and held my breath. I needed 4 students to pay the rent and 6 to make it worth my while. Then the phone started ringing. The class filled up. I reserved a Thursday night space. It filled up, too. I had held my breath to get 6 students and I ended up with 16. Three of those original 16 are still dancing with me.

Thanks, everybody for another fabulous dance semester! Raq on!

how long does it take to learn to bellydance?

How long does it take to learn bellydance? That’s probably the first question every potential student asks me. It takes a year or a lifetime…the answer depends entirely on what you want to do with it. 

I have been dancing for over half my life and studying Egyptian bellydance intensively for years. I dance professionally but will always consider myself a student.

Generally, the first time you take a beginner level class, you should treat it as an introduction and not expect yourself to master anything – rather, allow yourself to enjoy the experience of being exposed to something brand new and fun. The second time you take the beginner level class, you’ll know what to expect and can then work on getting the movements past your head and into your body. Thus begins your life as a dancer. First the discovery and introduction, then the journey. Sort of like a marriage. ♥


A year or so ago I received a phone call and email from a woman who wanted me to teach her bollywood dance. She wanted to show me some of her favourite bollywood movies and asked if I could then teach her the moves she wanted to learn.  It was an interesting question, and I probably could have done it. I could have studied some bollywood moves on TV and broken them down using my knowledge of movement, kinetics, and the bits & pieces of Indian dance I’ve done. Maybe I would do that, fooling around in the living room by myself or with a friend. But I wouldn’t be accurate. I would be imitating a 2-dimensional image. I wouldn’t know that a movement was led from wrist and not the elbow. I wouldn’t know that the weight should be on the heel and not the instep. I wouldn’t know how much weight to put in the free foot, and whether the pelvis should be tucked or relaxed. I wouldn’t know the meaning of the hand mudras, nor the story behind certain facial expressions. And therefore, I could NEVER take that imitation and teach it to anybody, nor could I perform it. That would be unprofessional and irresponsible. Irresponsible? Yes – to the student and audience who assumes that I, as a professional have obtained a level of mastery in what I am presenting, to the people of India to whom the dance form belongs and to the dance form itself (which has inherent integrity).

Nothing picks my butt more than someone imitating ethnic moves from this or that culture and then teaching or performing it with no thought or respect to executing the move correctly, nor to its origins. So no way would I pretend to teach an ethnic dance form whose movements I did not deeply understand and master.

But I thought it was cool that she called me. It gave me pause to think about my own ethics and feelings around cultural dance forms. Anyway, here is my response to her. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you learn something!

Dear –

In my dance travels I have taken one bollywood dance class, one Kathak dance workshop and one Bharatanatyam workshop where I learned some of the hand mudras. So my experience is very limited. Because of my limited experience, I have spent a couple of days doing some research to learn more about it to help me answer your question around why I (as a bellydance teacher) cannot teach you bollywood dance.

I study and teach bellydance, which is Egyptian cultural dance. Bellydance has its own specific movement vocabulary. It involves isolations and undulations of torso, hips and arms. There are no large movements of the arms and legs. Movements are very centered and core-intensive. There is a lot of isolated use of the hips. There is very little travel, footwork is very simple, and there is no jumping or leaping. Arms are quiet or move slowly, are never percussive and are used mainly to frame the movements of the hips & torso. Hands are graceful but do not tell a story.

Like bellydance, most people do not know what exactly bollywood dance is. Bollywood dance is a modern Indian fusion of two cultures: Western dance styles (mainly Hip Hop, Jazz & Salsa) fused with East Indian Classical, Folk, and Bhangra dancing. Foot patterns are complicated and precise. There is a lot of aerobic jumping, bouncing, knee lift and leg action. Arms can be either percussive or soft, with percussive and large arm movements being more common. There are very specific hand gestures in bollywood dance that originate from classical Indian dance such as Bharatanayuam and Kathak and have actual story-telling (translatable) meanings. Watching bollywood dancers, it is easy to see the hip-hop and jazz influences in the style.

None of these bollywood dance elements are found in Egyptian bellydance. There are times when a bollywood dancer may appear to be doing something similar to bellydance on the surface (such as a hip lift, torso or arm undulation), but at the same time she will be holding her body in a certain way or using her hands in a way that is very different from bellydance, and the movement may be produced differently (i.e. generated from the foot rather than out of the hip.)  

Given the extreme differences in the dance styles, my lack of experience with bollywood dance and my firm believe in respecting and honoring the dance forms of other cultures, it would be unprofessional of me to attempt to teach it to you. I am a professional instructor who is dedicated to sharing my love of Egyptian dance with anyone who wants to learn, and I would be very happy to have you in my beginner bellydance class in this capacity (bellydance student). Since you are anxious to work with the bollywood movies you have for the choreography styling, I recommend that you also take adult hip hop and jazz dance classes. This way you would learn isolations, torso, hip & soft arm movements from Egyptian bellydance, percussive arm & leg movements from hip-hop, and some floor patterns & footwork from jazz dance. If you are travelling outside for a business or holiday you could take a private bollywood lesson in a bollywood dance studio while away to help you put it all together.

teaching thoughts: improvisation

As a student dancer, I learned to dance (like the majority of students do) through the vehicle of choreography. Later, as a “mature” dancer, I had to struggle hard to become comfortable with improvisation. Now, when I perform, I am probably 75% choreographed and 25% improvised within any given piece. I almost always do have choreography (or at least a skeleton of one) that I follow, and I deviate from it as I please according to the needs of the performance. For example, on a theatre stage I am less likely to deviate from the choreography whereas in a party setting, I am less likely to stick to it at all after the first few bars. I’m also fairly comfortable just jumping in and improvising extemporaneously. This skill was hard won. I don’t want my students to be disadvantaged by a fear of improvisation in the same way I was – and yet I see it happening. Looking back at my teaching career, I see that over time I have put more and more emphasis on choreography and less & less on simply dancing. Developing improvisational skills is included as a unit in the occasional lesson plan rather than as an integral part of my teaching curriculum. So, after a lot of thought, I have decided to push my own boundaries and experiment with my teaching methods by not teaching choreographed dances to my classes this semester. Instead, I want to focus on technique, short combos, and “putting it all together” (developing a tool kit for improvisation skills).

To quote David Geer in Taken by Surprise: a dance improvisation reader.

“…virtually all improvisation takes place on a firm foundation of training and practice – think of JS Bach’s public improvisations on the organ – through which a vocabulary of conventions and possible variations is committed to movement memory and deeply explored. Call it magic, or spirit, or skill as you wish, but the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labor. Without the fuel of training, the spark would have nothing to burn.”

Just think for a minute about what he is saying here. When we think of improvisation, we generally equate it to the equivalent of “aimless noodling” We think airy-fairy movement, weak & slushy movement. We think “la-dee-da” movement. We think that those who can’t dance, improvise instead. Oh, so wrong! Good improvisation –  improvising WELL –  requires that you be on the edge of your seat as a performer. Having all your tools at hand and ready to call upon at a moments notice. Being poised and ready to be surprised, to accept the surprise, internalize it and express it within the vocabulary of your dance form. In this case,  beledi (or sharqi as you please).

“…a vocabulary of conventions and possible variations is committed to movement memory and deeply explored.” …What does this mean to the bellydance student? Well, this is exactly what we do in class each and every week. We build our tool kits. We drill and commit movement to muscle memory. We learn conventions: holding our pelvis in a certain way, holding our wrist in a certain way. We explore variations. For example: how many ways can you trace a circle in your body? When was the last time you did that in class? Last week, maybe? J  How big does your tool kit have to be? Well, that depends on your performance venue. If you want to dance at student dance parties & haflas, you will drill and practice those movements and variations that you have learned up to now in class – and if you are a beginner or intermediate level dancer, you may be counting them on two hands. However, nothing prevents you from practicing and drilling and putting those handful of movements into your muscle memory, and then calling on that muscle memory in improvisation. Advanced students will do the same thing, only they will be counting their tool kit in the dozens instead of on their two hands. If you are a professional performer, you will naturally have many years of training under your belt, and a very large kit to call upon. Your audience will have a much higher expectation of you than they will have of the student. An audience will be very generous with the student performer, but will naturally expect to see the results of years of hard training in the professional.

“…the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labour.” What does this mean to the bellydance student? Practice practice practice. And then practice some more. Practice your movement vocabulary. Practice it to different rhythms, different tempos, different elevations, in different postures, in different moods, at different volumes.

What does this mean in my classroom? Well, we’ll have to wait and see – it will be a bit of out-of-the-box teaching for me, along with a good solid on-going dose of consideration & thought. Hopefully my students will come away feeling more comfortable with improvisation and I will come away with sharper honed teaching skills. A challenge for all of us!

Mr. Greer says it best: “Without the fuel of training, the spark would have nothing to burn.”