Using vehicles for solo entrances


I prefer to produce shows that are linear and follow a thread rather than simply a collection of dances with no relationships. I have also always been fascinated with dance theatre and incorporating elements of theatre to tell stories through dance. As the artistic director of Saba, when I choreograph our large YAC shows, I am most satisfied when I have been able to include small tableaux consisting of several dances woven together. However, this feeling of “story” can also be done very simply by using a vehicle to bring a soloist on stage with an interesting entrance that catches the imagination.

What do I mean by “vehicle”?  No, I don’t mean a Ford Taurus! A vehicle is an something that is incorporated into the dance and used as a transition between pieces.  It can be something very simple or more complex, depending on the effect you are looking for. For example, in Eshta, Samiya did a solo to a really cute and playful Greek song that I thought would fit like a little puzzle piece with a basket dance the troupe was dong.  To create this relationship,  I decided to use a “vehicle” to get her onto the stage. I simply had two other dancers enter with her during the opening strains of her music – three friends coming home from the market with baskets over their arms. They kissed and waved goodbye at center stage and left Alison in her dance.

A more complicated vehicle for introducing a soloist onto the stage was to use the scrim. In Eshta, Andrameda  danced a beautiful contemporary/bellydance fusion number that opened with floor veilwork. In this case, I put  Andrameda behind the scrim and lit her from behind for the opening veilwork on the floor. She then worked with the stage crew to time the rising of the scrim just as the veil swept underneath it, resulting in what looked like a flash of light thrown out by the veil. Beautiful! 

In Under a Cairo Moon, Zahara danced a fiery number with Isis wings. Now, the first time I saw her experiment with this number was at works-in-progress hafla and she really blew me away with it – it was obvious that she had been working very hard learning how to manipulate the wings in intricate and beautiful patterns. It was magical and I immediately asked her to flesh the piece out and perform it in our next YAC show, Under a Cairo Moon. I wanted to carry the magical feeling right from the very moment the audience laid eyes on her, which meant she needed to appear as is by magic.  Instead of using lights, I wanted to do something a bit different because I wanted to be able to use this number off the stage where we wouldn’t have the luxury of special effect lighting. So,  I had 8 dancers running criss-cross across the stage, trailing long lengths of rainbow silk during the opening strains of her solo music. This effectively masked her enterance– so that when they finally cleared the stage, Zahara was left spinning in the center – voila! – as though by magic, but quite simple in reality.

As artistic director, I am choreographing the show as a whole, and so I place the soloists into the show according to how their music/style of dance/costume, etc will fit into the vision I am working with. For the soloist, this sometimes means putting ego aside and working within a framework that I have given her, not one of her own choosing. This means that sometimes she may be told how to enter, what colour costume to wear, or how to manage her entrance.  It may mean that I have gone so far as to request a dancer to perform a particular song or genre. That is my job as artistic director -and that is also what it means to dance in a troupe!  The artistic director/choreographer ensures that everyone is on the same page and the show is cohesive. Using vehicles can be an excellent way of doing this.

Vehicles can be used to transition larger bodies of work as well. For example, our very first show ever, Arabian Nights, Northern Lights opened and closed with First Nations story, song & dance. We used the character of Raven to ground the Yukon audience, and then fly them to the Middle East to see how his people sang and danced under the hot Eastern sun. We ended the show by closing the circle, bringing Raven home again with FN song & dance, and our FN dancers in full regalia. (It was awesome! In fact, I plan to re-mount this on the YAC stage (someday) where we can make full use of scrims, lighting and sound and turn it into a truly awe-inspiring spectacle.) In this case, Raven and the story was the vehicle to transition from the opening to the body of the show and then back to the closing. This was more along the lines of dance theatre rather than using small vehicles to transition soloists.

My favourite use of vehicles was the tableau was at the end of the first act in Raqs Farrah, where the dancers all came onto the stage in ones and twos, carrying a carpet, pillows & stools to sit on in one corner of the stage. Short solos, duets & trios cam and went from the group, egged on and encouraged by their on-stage “audience”. We had live music (Saqra & the Mediterranean Raqs Band), and a sword dance to live mizmar where Wayne (mizmar) came out of the band onto the stage and “sang” me on with my sword. The dancers grabbed Saqra & Denise out of the band and they did solo & duet pieces. We ended with a rousing folkloric piece. It was wonderful fun and the audience loved it. In this case, the tableau itself was the vehicle.

A show can be held together by creative use of entrances and exits. Done well, they are entertaining and, most importantly, can help to keep a smooth and even flow.

When those who can’t, …teach

 I believe that a teacher should have a love of the dance that takes them beyond themselves. In a dance form that has no standardized curriculum or governing body and where a student doesn’t advance through a series of tested levels, it is imperative that teachers have a thirst that drives them to personal professional development: to study with as many teachers as they can find, take on-going classes if they can, and to search and practice endlessly on their own.  To always want to know more, and to NEED to share that because it is their hearts desire to share it with others. And make it an ongoing quest to learn how to share it effectively.

Hard as it is to believe (ha!), there are people in the world who hang out their shingle without the expertise to back it up (and not only in bellydance – I’m sure it happens in a lot of disciplines). Why does this drive me crazy? Because an unprofessional teacher can potentially:

#1)  injure the student by teaching a movement incorrectly, such as teaching an advanced movement that a beginner does not have the strength for, or by not taking the time to learn about body mechanics, posture & weight placement, and being unable to recognize what it looks like on different bodies.

#2) show disrespect to the student because students assume that they are paying for high quality, safe instruction. If you hang your shingle out, you are proclaiming yourself to be a professional. Students don’t know that maybe you only watched a few videos or took a few classes or are teaching because you’ve been doing bellydance for so long, you figure you might as well teach (without thought of preparation).  I’ve also sometimes heard, “but I’m only teaching beginners” or “I’m only teaching kids” said almost as an apology (I know I’m not qualified to teach , but beginners & kids are easy, right?…”  Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Don’t get me started! Each group has very unique needs with different approaches in the classroom. This is a topic for another post. lol!

#3) show disrespect to other (excellent) teachers already working in the field. This drives us bananas because we put a huge effort into our craft, hold the dance in very high esteem, and hold ourselves to very high standards.

#3) show disrespect to the dance form through ignorance and/or miss-representation. In my travels, I once had the opportunity to attend another teacher’s drop-in class (I won’t mention the city or teacher, so don’t ask!), and at the end of the class students were invited to perform a little impromptu improvisation.  So, of course (being me!) I took a turn and danced. In the parking lot as we were leaving, some students came up and asked me what style of dance I had done (Egyptian Oriental). They said they enjoyed it very much but noticed that it was different from what they were learning (ATS). Then they asked me “what kind of bellydance are we learning?” They didn’t know what style of dance they were learning! Arrrrgghhh! (I told them that they should ask their teacher). 

One time, a friend told me that while she would love to be in one of my classes, she couldn’t because she had taken a class from someone else (again, I will not divulge the name or city – so don’t bother asking!)  and “sucked”. Hummm (thinks me), so of course I asked some questions …and it turns out that she didn’t enjoy it (“sucked”) because her teacher started these brand new dancers off with some very advanced movements (which of course they were unable to do and became frustrated with) with no regard to the student’s personal fitness level – and (and!) no movement breakdown was given. What my friend took away from the experience was “bellydance hurts my back” and “I am a klutz” and “this is no fun”. Arrrrggghhh! The worst scenario ever and hits all of my pet peeve points! That teacher, without even realizing it, has taken potential students away from legitimate teachers, blemished the name of this beautiful dance form, injured her students’ bodies & self-esteem and denied them the future pleasure of truly learning and enjoying this (usually) empowering dance form.

Obviously, I don’t believe just anyone should teach. Teaching is a profession. It isn’t something to do for a lark or “just because.”  If you are considering teaching, ask yourself, “what qualifies me?” “Why do I want to teach?”  “How passionate about this am I?” (becasue believe me, passion is a must). Be honest with yourself. Does simply having taken classes for many years qualify you? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t – the answer depends on your accumulated body of knowledge, your ability to present it in a clean, efficient, fun, safe, accurate and professional manner, your humbleness in recognizing and acknowledging that there is a lot you don’t know and on your willingness to seek on-going professional development to fill in those blanks and learn how to do it well. You also need a lot of spare time for research and lesson planning so that you are prepared in the classroom.  

I’ll save the rest for another post!

The Bellydancer in my life, Part 2

I wonder what would have happened if I had not met my friend Donna? I was in my early/mid 30s and working at the Teen Parent Centre as a childcare provider when Donna came in one day. (Not as a teen parent! Wouldn’t she get a chuckle out of that!) I don’t remember why she was there, but whoever she was with introduced us, and then said, “…and she’s a bellydancer!” (People do that to me too – it is very embarassing because it is usually said out of context – for example: here I am, the administrative assistant at a President’s Committee meeting,wearing a business suit with my hair in a bun, sitting very professionally with my lap top ready to take minutes when the Chair introduces me, “…and this is Nita who will be taking our minutes – and she’s a bellydancer!” aaaak (thinks me) as though I am a circus performer or something that the rest of the world would like to gawk at, lol! I wonder, would they add that little tag if we had a different hobby? “This is our administrative assistant Nita – she’s a stamp collector!) Anyway, Donna started to give the usual response when being introduced to a total stranger with that interesting bit of aside tacked on (blushing,  embarassed laugh, etc) when I  raised my hand above my head, circled my wrist & undulated my hand & arm down my torso, and said “I do that!” I do that! I was so excited! This was the first clue I had that there was bellydancing in Whitehorse. At that point, I had not done any formal dancing in a class since high school, although I was still tapping out zill patterns on the steering wheel of the car or the handle of the shopping cart (some habits just never die), and whenever we were out for a drink and I had the opportunity to get up on the dance floor, my movements were more Eastern than Western and I still bellydanced around the house to whatever was on the radio. And Donna, she just about fell over when I did my little hand & arm undulation. “oh my god!” she said, “you have to come to my bellydance class with me!”

Who was teaching bellydance in the mid 1990s, you might wonder…Lana Dowie! Lucky Lana had her own dance studio down the Carcross Road and I phoned her up and arranged to come to a class. She was reluctant at first to accept a new student into the only class she had running at the time, which was the advanced class. She wanted me to wait until the next year when she would be offering a beginner class again. But I pleaded on hands and knees (well, maybe not on hands and knees) and told her that I had danced before, and she relented and said I could come to ONE CLASS and she’d see how I did.  No promises that I could stay (which I understand completely now that I am a teacher myself.)  I agreed. I attended. I showed her what I could do and I got to stay in the advanced class.

When I was dancing with Lana’s class and her Jewels of the Yukon dance troupe, things were very different than they are today. We were pretty isolated from the rest of the bellydancing world. I remember getting our first PC around that time, but not browsing internet until a couple of years (years!!!) later because I was …scared of it. lol! Anyway, Lana’s class felt very comfortable because she was using the very same LPs that I had been stealing from my mom (George Abdo & Eddie the Sheik) all those years ago. So I fit right in and felt at home. I remember my excitment and enthusiasm and how I always wanted to know more. It was never enough. Lana saw that and spent extra time with me, lending me her videos etc. I was in awe of her – she was “The Teacher” and I had (have) a great respect for her as such. I will always be grateful to Lana for recognizing a special passion in me and  encouraging me on my path. And I will always be grateful to Donna for leading me to her.

You’ve come a long way, baby! Here I am, Spring 1996. Home made costume of course! They all were!

The bellydancer in my life, part 1

When I was a young girl in the 70s, my mom started taking bellydance classes at Tacoma Community College.  I remember being fascinated by my mom’s dancing, by the costumes and especially by the music.  She had wonderful albums with tantalizing pictures on the fronts of them…George Abdo’s “The Art of Bellydance” and “Strictly Belly Dancing” by Eddie (The Sheik) Kochak. Bejeweled dancers in satin & chiffon, with green eye shadow shown lounging around tuxedo-clad dumbek players. The 1970s was they hey-day of what we now call “American style” or “Cabaret style” bellydance. Routines were commonly 5- or 7-parts and any dancer worth her salt always included finger cymbals, veil and floorwork into her routine. Costumes were largely homemade, and I remember my mother patiently sewing hundreds of gold coins onto a bra and belt that she had constructed herself. She bought yards and yards of chiffon and sewed harem pants, a circle skirt & veil – one outfit in pink and another in seafoam green. She had a long curly wig, and when she wore her dancing outfit and played her finger cymbals and came twirling into the room, I could hardly recognize her. She wasn’t my mom anymore – she was the bellydancer!

Here is a picture of my beautiful mother, dancing in July 1975 when I was an impressionable 14 years old. If you (reader) are one of my students, you will recognize this black veil from the “loaner bag” of veils that I bring to class. Yes – this is the very same black burned velvet veil that many of you have also danced with. See how things are a circle? Turn, turn, turn…a time for every purpose under heaven.

I loved to imitate my mom as she practiced in the living room, and I remember taking those veils and record albums up into my room where I would dance and dance. Mom gave me my own set of finger cymbals, and my thumb & middle finger still sometimes catch me unawares as I unconsciously tap out the RRRLRRRLR pattern of the beledi rhythm that became an ingrained part of me. 

When I was turning 16 and my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I asked them to take me to George’s Restaurant in Seattle, where a bellydancer performed regularly. I will never forget that night. We were seated in a special part of the restaurant that had been roped off (because I was a minor and in those days minors were not allowed on licenced premesis) just for us. I don’t remember what I ate, but I do remember having a Shirley Temple to drink. I don’t remember what I wore, and I barely remember my parents being there at all. What I do remember vividly and in full colour was the dance floor. And the bellydancer. I don’t remember what moves she did, just that she danced and danced and danced and I was completely and uterly and magically transported. Away. Later in the evening, men from the tables got up and danced Greek line dances and that was fascinating, too. But it was the bellydancer that I was there to see, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I wanted to take bellydance lessons so badly! Lucky for me, my grandmother also wanted to take them and she enrolled the two of us together. I don’t remember how old I was. My teacher was Diane Edrington – Kedijah was her dance name.  Here are a couple of photo of her.

My grandmother and I went for a semester, and then Grammy didn’t want to go anymore, and I didn’t have anyone to drive me, so I didn’t go anymore either.  And then I grew up and graduated from high school and went off to university and got married and only danced around the house. Until I met my friend Donna  who introduced me to Lana – and that is a whole other story for another day.

Dance in joy!