Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Are Dance and Competition Natural Enemies?

With the increased interest in competitive dancing on television (and especially after the dismal failure of Superstars of Dance), some of my friends have wondered if dance as an artistic and social form could be compatible with the competition formats. Competitive dance is often criticized for damaging the artistic integrity and the communal power of dancing. There is some truth to this, tho it doesn’t tell the whole story.

When a dance form moves out of its original social context to become a competition form, it must undergo regulation in order for dancers and judges to know what criterion are being employed in their analysis. This often means that dances are standardized by regulatory organizations, innovation is limited, and local variations are lost. In addition, steps and routines become more dramatic—faster or flashier moves get the attention of judges. There may be a loss of the subtle aspects of dance as technical virtuosity takes the spotlight. Separate categories for styles, genders, and age-groups are created, diminishing the communal aspects of the dance. And sometimes entirely new forms are created by these changes: the samba of Latin Ballroom competition bears only a passing resemblance to the native sambas of Brazil. But they each exist and are appreciated within their own contexts.

Does competition necessarily engender athleticism at the expense of aestheticism? Is this always the case or are there competitive contexts that can support both? I think the later is true, that there are competitions that leave room for innovation and individual expression as well as advanced technical skill. There are many such examples, but for now lets take a look at the history of competition clogging.

I first encountered Appalachian clogging when I was an undergraduate student at Livingston College in New Jersey around 1973. A group of us drove an old VW van down to western North Carolina for a bluegrass festival which featured a new team of dancers, the Green Grass Cloggers. Tho I didn’t know this at the time, this group actually represented a change in traditional, old-time clogging: they fused traditional precision clogging with square dance sets and figures, added taps to their shoes, and invented new steps such as the high kick. Their energetic, up-beat style was criticized by traditionalists, but it won competitions which helped establish them as leaders in modern clogging.

Competition team clogging began to appear in 1928 and the intensity of the competitive form increased with each generation. Previously, competition took the form of playful tests of skill between soloists in social settings. With the establishment of team competition, traditionalists worried that the sociality of dancing was in jeopardy. “What was being lost,” old-timers complained, “was the individuality and spirit of old-time buckdancing and freestyle clogging that comes from the heart.”

Last season, on MTVs America’s Best Dance Crew, we witnessed the latest iteration of clogging. Dynamic Edition, 7-time national champion cloggers, fused the exciting, high-spirited steps of clogging with hip hop formations and sounds. Competing against hip hop and street dance groups, these young Alabamans introduced something fresh and unexpected to the mix. On the final night of the competition, Dynamic Edition, Quest Crew, and Strikers All-Stars created a large group choreography that incorporated clogging with hip hop and stepping. And it was as exciting a moment as I have seen in modern choreography.

So, Does competition engender athleticism at the expense of aestheticism? Certainly, athleticism is a dominant element in competitive dancing, but not to the complete diminishment of aesthetic values. In fact, the spirit of MTVs competition dance program produced a new variant of clogging, profiting from both traditional and contemporary genres of dance, and expressing our present globalized communities.

Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America's Southeast and Beyond. Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside, eds. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1995

See also my post of 3/9/09 "Quest Crew IS Americas Best Dance Crew"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review of Rakkasah, America’s premier Middle Eastern dance festival

Rakkasah West Festival of Middle Eastern Dance is touted as the largest bellydance festival in America. It includes a week of workshops from some of the top instructors in the country and Europe. It concludes with a weekend of live dance and music performances and, of course, shopping. This year they celebrated their 29th year and for the second year it was held at the Solano County Fair Grounds in Vallejo, California.

Rakkasah, like most bellydance festivals, presented a wide range of performers. The stage is shared by internationally known professional artists and local semi-professional and amateur performers of various skill levels. The program represents the gamut of bellydance styles: classical Egyptian or raks sharki soloists (SITA); folkloric dances from throughout the Middle East; American urban-tribal groups; and prop dancing with cane, veil, double veil, fans, and chairs (which have become popular as choreographers stretch beyond the limits of bellydance and into American theater traditions).

I had already identified which dancers I wanted to see and which of the two stages they were performing on: Leila Haddad, Suzanna Del Vecchio, and my teachers in Santa Cruz, Sahar and Janelle. Together they represent several generations of bellydance history and style. Tunisian-born Haddad performed a folkloric dance that reflected a deep, organic truth and was altogether too short. Del Vecchio, an Egyptian oriental dancer, was a revelation for me. She entered the stage in bejeweled bra and a silver assiut skirt, walked majestically to the center of the stage and mesmerized me with an exquisitely sustained taxeem.

I know it sounds odd to have traveled two-hours away to see my own teachers perform, but we all do it. The whole festival feels more personal when we share the performances of our friends and teachers (and even more so if you perform there yourself). Sahar performed SITA, a solo improvised dance to live music by Mary Ellen Donald Ensemble. I have been studying with Sahar specifically to learn her SITA secrets. Floating onto the stage in purple and green skirt and choli, smiling, her eyes twinkling, she immediately evokes the joy of dancing. I was seated about three rows back of the stage, and as she crossed the stage she caught my eye. Looking directly at me, she danced a small combination that we have been working on in class as if to say “See how easy this is? Come and join me.” I was overwhelmed by her generosity and beauty.

Janelle was an advanced student in some of my earliest bellydance classes (and I made a point to stand right behind her whenever possible). She has since gone on to a career as soloist, company director, and now studio owner. I’ve only taken a few classes with Janelle as her training is rigorous (she’s strongly inspired by the Salimpour school). For Rakkasah, she showcased a salsa-inspired choreography for her company, Desert Dream. Janelle and a few of these young performers demonstrated some outstanding torso isolations, razor-sharp joint locks and pops, and organically flowing belly rolls.

Vending is a central feature of bellydance festivals, and at Rakkasah even the most ardent shopaholic would be challenged. With over 100 vendors to choose from, you can satisfy all your bellydance needs: elaborately beaded cabaret costumes, hand-dyed silk veils, gothic street and performance wear, and jewelry and textiles imported from the Middle East. You can spend a few dollars on a trinket from Pakistan or a few hundred on an Egyptian assiut dress.

Two years ago, Rakkasah moved from its former location in Richmond because, they claim, the fairgrounds in Vallejo offer more space. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like there is more space: it feels like less. The event is split between two buildings: the Exhibition Hall and McCormick Hall. Though one is larger (Exhibition Hall), they were similarly organized: A stage at one end with rows of folding chairs for the audience and vending stalls lining the walls and filling out the rest of the room (about 50 in each hall). The aisles are only about four feet wide and the seating area is inadequate. When a popular performer appears, the aisles quickly fill up with onlookers.

I arrived in McCormack Hall at about 2:15 to see two popular Rakkasah instructors, Suzanna Del Vecchio and Fahtiem. It was standing room only, and I found a place to stand just behind the seating. By the time Del Vecchio entered the stage, the crowd was 3-4 people deep. After their performances, I dashed back across the square to the Exhibition Hall to see legendary Leila Haddad of Paris and the Salimpour company of El Cerrito, CA. It was worse there. I tried to snake my way thru the seven-body deep crowd surrounding the seated area. I managed to find a peephole between two heads and if I stood on my toes I could see Haddad. When the crowd shifted momentarily and I lunged into an open space with a clear view of Salimpour … as long as I stayed in a deep plie.

Now, in addition to this being frustrating (especially for us short people), it struck me as very dangerous. If there had been (goddess forbid) any kind of emergency, people could have been hurt. The festival producers really should reconsider this location for the future. I heard these complaints after last year’s festival as well.

This year an even bigger complaint concerned the printed program which lists the performance schedules and contains advertisements. The pagination of this booklet was so badly botched that it was completely useless. I know that our local dancers had paid for a full page ad that wasn’t included. After 29 years of producing Rakkasah, this is seems inexcusable. The schedule on their website was equally confusing. I hope they are able to resolve these problems before the 2010 festival because they really have an effect on our experience.

But I don’t want to conclude this review on such a negative note. Rakkasah is a big festival and it is a joy to have such an event so nearby. For a reasonable fee ($18), you can spend hours watching the best that American bellydance has to offer, or cheering on your sister-dancers from the audience, or shopping for that new, must-have costume piece. It is a sensory onslaught of color and glitter, music and dance, elation and overload. If you have never been to a bellydance festival, look for one in your area and prepare to be delighted.

Friday, March 13, 2009

My SITA*: Chapter 5 Kitchen Ballets

I don’t know when I began dancing so fearlessly in the kitchen. I had never been on good terms with kitchens (ask my siblings), and I managed to marry a man who doesn’t seem to mind cooking. But since I am not currently working (involuntarily) and my husband is, I figured it was a good time to create a new relationship with my kitchen and I started cooking the evening meals.

In order to make this activity relaxing, and maybe even fun, I started listening to dance music from my iPod: Motown, Disco, Reggae, Rajasthani and Italian folk, Zydeco, Afro-Latin, Egyptian…anything that drives me to dance. While working primarily with the bellydance vocabulary, I find that dancing to this wide range of dance music brings out fresh and inventive combinations of steps and gestures. I’ve paid attention to what kind of music inspires me the most and what kinds of movements emerge from that music. (I pretty consistently prefer music with a sense of wit, humor, and a folksy rhythm.)

With no-one but the spatulas and cook pots watching, I completely give in to the music. No restrictions on style or genre; no technical standards to meet. No ego to satisfy or prove. No intellectual content or agenda. No audience to please. I dance while I chop the onions and while I wash the carrots. I do bodywaves over to the sink, discard the spoon to perform mayas with snake arms. I glide past the counter to the window where I perform some head slides for the birds outside. I spin, undulating as I opened the refrigerator, shaking my hips as I reached for the roast. I shimmy and shake, popping and locking all around the kitchen momentarily forgetting about cooking. Sure it takes a little longer to make supper, but Oh, the freedom I feel!

In my kitchen (and oddly, no where else in my house) I become wildly creative, drawing from 50 years of dance to express nothing more—or less—than the sheer delight of dancing. I have done some of my best dancing in my kitchen and hope I can translate that freedom and fearlessness into public performances.

P.S. There is no correlation between the gracefulness of my dancing and the quality of my cooking.

*SITA stands for Solo Improvised dance grounded in Torso Articulations.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Baker’s Dozen of the Best Dance Movies

Just for fun...this is a list of my favorite dance movies. I've listed them chronologically first. Then I've classified and annotated the list, tho I've only posted five of them here. I'll post the rest soon. I hope you will include your own favorites.
My list excludes filmed ballets or stage performances by dance companies.

To make it to my list, all of following criterion must have been satisfied:
1. First and Foremost, the movie must include outstanding choreographers and outstanding dancers.
2. Dance must be the featured art or at least hold equal standing to music and song.
3. The film must integrate dance and plot. Many early musical films did not have strong storylines or characters.

THE LIST (chronological)
Swing Time 1936
Singing in the Rain 1952
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 1954
Oklahoma 1955
West Side Story 1961
Cabaret 1972
All That Jazz 1979
Tap 1989
Strictly Ballroom 1992
Swing Kids 1993
Chicago 2002
Stomp The Yard 2007
Hairspray 2007

The following is an Annotated List with You Tube links for five movies.

The following movies are about the desire to dance, a passion so compelling that no other social force can withstand it. I love these love-of-dance stories. Plus, the producers of these films respected the art of dance enough to hire excellent dancers.

Tap 1989 Choreography by Henry LeTang, starring Gregory Hines and including an old Sammy Davis Jr. (this was his last movie) and a young Savion Glover (in his first movie). It also features a number of other senior and junior hoofers. Hines’ character must choose between a lucrative life of crime and dancing. (Guess which one wins!)

Strictly Ballroom 1992 choreography by John O’Connell is Baz Luhrmann’s tribute to Australian ballroom dancers. The protagonist is torn between conventional ballroom dance style and his desire to “dance his own steps.”

Swing Kids 1993 This is based on true events under Hitler’s Germany. Swing dance and music was prohibited as the decadent creation of American Blacks and Jews. In 1941, 300 Swing Kids (German: Swingjugend) were arrested by the SS and accused of political dissent. Many were sent to concentration camps where a number of them died or were executed for their crime of dancing. The swing dance sequences are exuberant examples of the social chaos Hitler was afraid of.

Stomp The Yard 2007 It opens with a freestyle and deadly serious breakdance battle and concludes with a highly synchronized and syncopated fraternal stepping competition. Interestingly, the winning crew injects into their stepping routine the spirit and style of breaking and the protagonist learns the value teamwork.

Hairspray 2007 Adam Shankman’s upbeat choreography is light-hearted but the story is based on real racial relations in the 1950s and how dance and music helped to reduce those barriers.

Billy Elliot 2000 the story of an 11-year-old son of a coal miner who finds it hard to accept that his son wants to study ballet.

Monday, March 9, 2009

My SITA Chapter 4 First attempts at improv

(SITA stands for Solo Improvised dance grounded in Torso Articulations.)

On my way to a night of bellydance movies and potluck socializing, I ran into Caroleena at the health food store. Caroleena is one of the earliest bellydancers in Santa Cruz and currently teaches at the University of California. She asked me if I would like to perform at her student end-of-the-term performance, as I’d done this last year. I thought about what Shoshonna said about finding opportunities to practice improvisation, so I accepted.

I arrived in time to take her class at the large dance studio at the East Fieldhouse on UCSC campus. The space is gigantic compared to the café-sized, move-the-furniture-back living rooms I usually practice in. After a quick warm-up Caroleena turned to rehearsing a group choreography that many of the girls were performing later. She put me in the middle of the line of a dozen of her beginning students, and I just followed the girls on either side of me as I learned the choreography. Several students later asked me when I had learned the steps and were mightily impressed when I said, “just now.” I explained that the steps were in fact the basic vocabulary of bellydancing and, aside from stylistic differences, all I had to do was learn the order. I was pretty surprised myself, though. I wasn’t sure my mind was as spry as it was 30 years ago when I was their age.

The audience (friends of the student dancers) sat in a long line against the wall. I performed with the group, plus 3 short improvised solos, two with live drumming, and one to recorded music. Caroleena finished with her own solo sword dance. I can’t believe she can still do Turkish Drops. My body was never that spry, at any age.

Even tho I had familiarized myself with my music (a beautiful Cuban timba piece called Danzon Barroco), I found that I couldn’t really listen and dance at the same time. I know how odd that sounds, but I had so much to think about: that big space, the new music, making eye contact (which I didn’t do very well). What moves should I do next? Am I boring them? Have done any upper body movements? Have I held my arms up so long that I’ll aggravate my tendonitis? Am I even on the beat? Is it over yet?

Of course, Caroleena was complimentary. When a student said she loved my solo, I startled her with a surprised “You did?”, like she was crazy or something. But she thought it was graceful and relaxed and who am I to argue. It was a good beginning.

I performed it next at a rehearsal with my company sisters, Kim and Audrey (together we are Mountain Tribal). We meet weekly to practice American Tribal Style bellydancing and were preparing for a performance with Helené at La Posada, a local retirement home. This was already much better than the UCSC performance. The space helped: Audrey’s livingroom is about ¼ the size of the university dance studio. Richer textures, more specificity. Definite ballet and modern moves coming thru. Nice turns and runs; some taxeem. Could pull back even more; pause and pose more; could do more repetitions. I keep thinking it will bore them. I need to engage with the audience more. And I did a better job of listening to the music. I know that the more I can relax and respond to the music and the audience, the more creative I can be.

Quest Crew IS America's Best Dance Crew!

The final episode of ABDC Season 3 was an outstanding display of dance, choreography, and team cooperation. The competition all season was tight and several crews could easily have come out on top. The final two, Quest Crew and Beat Freaks, tore up the stage last week with their final competitive performances. Quest Crew won the day.

Since the winner was decided ahead of time by viewer votes (and the announcement delayed until the last minute of the show), the producers arranged for all the crews to return to the stage for the finale. And instead of working as separate teams, three crews worked together to create unique choreographies that celebrated the strengths of each group.

The opening group choreography included my favorites, Quest Crew, Dynamic Edition, and Strikers All Stars. The choreography was terrific, but when the whole team broke into a sequence of Appalachian clogging, I got chills. Honestly. It was a gorgeous display of American dance traditions and their future in the emerging 21st century fusions. I so admire these young dancers. They are technically and creatively superior AND they have a strong sense of integrity. They show great respect and honor for one another, for other teams, for their judges and teachers. At least on this program, they exhibit what anthropologists call "communitas": the spirit of group solidarity that is created whenever a group of people shares an intense struggle.

Thank you dancers, Randy Jackson, the producer, and all the judges: Shane Sparks, JC Chasez, and Lil Mama (whose 40s inspired wardrobe reflects the old-in-new sensibilities we saw in the dancers).

Watch for Taking the Stage, the newest performing arts reality program from MTV, which begins March 19th.

The new season of So You Think You Can Dance begins tonight on Fox.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My SITA Chapter 3: Secrets of performing SITA or What to do once you’re out there

While attending a festival organized by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of MECDA (Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association) in Palo Alto, I came across a series of instructional DVDs created specifically for bellydancers looking to develop their performance skills. Each volume contains video clips of a number of professional dancers who each narrates her personal take on the subject at hand. Secrets of the Stage: Volume 3 (Cheeky Girls Productions) features “Dancing to Live Music” and “Inspiration and Creativity.” The collective wisdom of these dancers and musicians regarding Technique and Dynamism in performance has aided my practice enormously.

Letting go of technique on stage is persistent theme among these artists. Sandra advises that when improvising, you should “lower your technical standards” and expectations. Nanna councils that your dance is not all about your technical skill: most audiences will respond to your personality. Be prepared for your mind to go blank from time to time. Musician Doug Adamz recommends that if you feel and respond to the music, your dance will come thru. If you have “fed the well,” says Luna, then your resources have become internalized: “Trust that the muse will come.”

“Don’t just do something, Stand there!”
I believe this quote originated with 20th century modern dancer Doris Humphrey (if anyone out there knows for sure please provide a reference). Several bellydance performers on this DVD alluded to this principle as well. Nanna warns not to “blow out” all your energy at the beginning. Sandra suggests we take our time and relax into the moment. Several artists remind us that we don’t need to move on every, single beat. This is harder than it sounds. I know intellectually that changes from stillness to motion add dynamism, but I find it difficult to control my adrenaline even when I should be doing a quiet taxeem.

Shoshonna’s advice was simple: get out there and try it and keep trying it. Sign up for student nights, dance during open floor sets, accept invitations to perform and embrace the process.

I find all of this advice encouraging and inspiring. Now lets see if I can put it to good use. I will keep you posted.

Monday, March 2, 2009

My SITA: Chapter 2: Practicing SITA

I am preparing for my SITA in a variety of ways: by taking classes that emphasis personal expression, reading about performance, watching informational and performance videos, keeping a journal, performing for students and seniors, and practicing what I call my “kitchen ballets.”

I started by consulting Helené. I’ve been studying with H since 2002. I performed with her company, Sisters of the Desert Sky, at local haflas (private and public dance parties), senior centers, and at the Desert Dance Festival. Initially, I had intended to ask H to help me choreography a solo. We met in her modest home in November 2008 to discuss what direction my solo would take. Helené had found some new music that she thought would be perfect for my temperament. It's called “Immortal Egypt” and is predictably dark and moody, mysterious and dramatic.

I worked with this music for several months improvising with a black veil, it being suitably mysterious. Unfortunately, because of hand and shoulder pain, I’ve never been able to sustain my study of veil work and soon had to stop. Besides, after President Obama’s inauguration I really didn’t want to do dark and moody anymore. I wanted to do happy and have fun. I needed something new to go with my new optimism.