Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bellydance fusion: the differences that make a difference

Misty and Kerry, two of my favorite local dancers, were the featured artists at a local bellydance showcase. Both are in their early 30s (I think) and were debuting some new choreographies. They were lovely, charming, and skillful. Their choreography reflected a very new variety of bellydance, a fusion inspired by historical and contemporary images of female dancers from both the East and the West.
Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature.
This new hybrid doesn’t have a name yet. Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature. If there is a name, it would undoubtedly include a combination of terms like urban, tribal, American, or neo-gothic-burlesque. Tho its smaller roots are too idiosyncratic for me to identify, its main roots can be traced to American Tribal Style and its daughter, Urban Tribal Fusion (a phrase I have adopted but which is not generally agreed upon). I’d like to take this opportunity to describe for you how they differ, how they achieve that difference, and what effect those differences have on the dance.

All of these bellydance variants are combinations of Middle Eastern and North African movement idioms with North American urban aesthetics. American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS), a distinctive form of group improvisation, was created in the San Francisco Bay Area around 20 years ago. It is characterized by its high energy, free flowing movements. The weight is carried in the lower torso with movement and posture driven from the pelvis. It calls for a high, open, and proud sternum with arms unfolding from the center, stretching outward or upward to frame the body. The temporal quality of the movement is quick and its spatial qualities are direct and confident. Arms and torso isolations can explode dart-like at times, and at other times sweep smoothly in arcs. Their taxeem (slow, unpunctuated movements) flows freely at a low intensity, sustained but direct giving it its languid, smoldering character. Combined, these characteristics produce a powerful, driving, grounded persona; a proud and confident female. It is altogether a joyous dance to watch or participate in. ATS costumes are also distinctive and differ from all other belly dance styles. They consists of a heavy layering of brightly colored pantaloons, skirts, fringe, and coin belts (up to 5 or 6 layers) with heavy emphasis on jewelry and ornate headdress.

Gothic belly dance drew its first inspiration from the movements and costumes of ATS. This second generation began to infuse ATS with rave and goth cultural elements, including a fascination with vampires and early Hollywood vixens. In addition, they promoted an athleticism and flexibility that is fashionable in most contemporary dance. As a result, they have produced extraordinary technical combinations of rolls, flutters, shimmies, popping, and locking.

The first thing you notice in gothic bellydance is that the flamboyant, bright colors of ATS are abandoned in favor of black with silver accents, spiked jewelry, body piercings, and dreadlocks (real or fake). The daughters of ATS (gothic and urban tribal dancers) generally carry the same qualities of weight (grounded in the pelvis), time (both quick and languid), and space (direct) as their founding mothers. But where ATS dancers have a high, proud, open sternum, gothic bellydancers close off access by holding the center tightly and rotating the shoulders forward and in. Movements are controlled and cautious but reach out assertively and even aggressively. Small, sharp joint isolations punctuate the viscous circular motion of the arms, torso, head. The Fosse-like joint pops are like valves opening to release their charged energy. Then, as quickly as they open, they are abruptly locked off again. Their eyes challenge you, daring you to watch. The result is a highly charged, dramatic expression of feminine sexual power.

Because they use strong, quick, and direct movement qualities, both ATS and UTF present the feminine as a powerful force. This is no less true for the newest style that Misty and Kerry demonstrated. The vocabulary of movements is drawn from UTF but it is performed with more lightness. Instead of black and silver, they wear browns and antique whites. The popping and locking is there but now it is less threatening, more playful and flirtatious. Their faces and bodies express pleasure and invite the audience to watch and enjoy them openly. It is lighthearted and teasing, but the women are confident and in charge of their own bodies.

The differences that make a difference are often subtle. A simple rotation of the shoulder changes the mood from open and inviting to cautious and foreboding. Like Geertz’s wink. In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published a landmark essay in which he reflects on the difference between a involuntary twitch of the eye and a socially meaningful wink. The wink itself has multiple meanings (flirtation, conspiracy, sarcasm, et al), and requires interpretation of nearly invisible facial cues within a specific historical and cultural moment. Did she just twitch or was she sending me a message? Was the rotation of the shoulder merely bad technique or a meaningful gesture? In the case of successive generations of tribal bellydance, the shoulder gesture changes the entire mood and meaning of the dance.

It is not in the nature of dance to stay the same generation after generation. I love the following quote from the cover notes of an old Weavers LP. It explains the living nature of art:

“For the essential and living quality of folk music is that it is never ‘fixed’ in a scholar’s treatise or on a phonograph record; it is always growing and changing. It is at once the voice of the past and the vigorous voice of the present. It adapts itself to any voice or instrument. It can not only weather, but can profit from occasional changes of text, the addition of new verses, an inspired rhythmic alteration. And that is actually the way in which knew folk songs have traditionally grown out of old ones. Always, to folk singers, a ‘new song’ meant new words set to an old melody, and if in the process a new variant or curve of melody appeared, that seemed so natural a process that they hardly paid it any mind.”

Dance in America is having a growth spurt. Old styles are adapting to new people with a rate of change that I have never witnessed. Funk, punk, hip hop, Broadway jazz, flamenco, bharatya natyam, Vegas showgirl, neo-burlesque, 19th century femme fatales, and Roaring Twenties flappers: these are just a few of the sources that inspire and inflect today’s bellydance. How far they can push this and still retain something recognizable as bellydance, is an open question. So for now, I say sit back and enjoy the show. It has never been so spectacular.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Passing of one of America's Great Dance Pioneers: Frankie Manning

You have probably never heard of Frankie Manning but you have seen his work. He was one of the original Lindy Hoppers of the Savoy Ballroom in 1930s Harlem. He was a performer, choreographer, and teacher of swing dance. Read more in the NYT obit and be sure to view the link to Hellsapoppin' for the swingingest Lindy on record.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle, senior moments, and other stuff I’ve been thinking about

I hope you’re not sick of Susan Boyle yet because I have to share it again. She has blown the music industry open. The entire incident revealed how completely intertwined the music and beauty industry have become. You must have noticed that contemporary singers are Barbie clones: skinny, skinny, and at least passing pretty. I’ll bet there are hundreds of Susan Boyles out there, and I for one am tired of being denied their gifts because they aren’t pretty enuff for “The Industry.” Screw them.

It would be all to easy to become cynical about Ms Boyle. The media can suck the life out of anything. But this unexpected, wonderfully surprising event in the midst of widespread social failure should be savored, not perverted. We are undergoing tremendous change in our social, cultural, economic, political structures. Its painful and its confusing. Why not take pleasure from the few moments of relief afforded us. In that spirit, here’s a wonderful dance video.


Senior moment:
I don’t know when I turned 57. Oh, I know the date of my birth but it turns out I’m not 57. I only found out by accident. I was at a doctor’s office reviewing my records and I pointed out that they had me as 56 and 11 months but I’m 57 and 11 months. We did the math: May 1952 from May 2009…56 and 11 months. Sometime in the past year, I added a year. How the hell did I do that? I know I’m a pessimist but really. So I’ve decided to take a do over. I’ll be 56 for 2009 then I’ll turn 58 in 2010…or maybe 55. Benjamin Button effect and all that.

A few words about technology and experience:
1. I have no photos to show you of my SITA performance. I don't know if anyone in the audience took snapshots. I had only a few personal friends there so no one had any compelling reason to take a picture of me. And that's okay with me. Here’s why.

A few weeks ago my husband and I drove down to Big Sur which is about a two hour drive south of where we live. Big Sur is one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and I'm not kidding. It's something that everyone should see. You can't help but pull out your camera and go snap-happy taking pictures: and it's hard to take a bad picture at Big Sur. (See example.) Its even more fun with the digital cameras because you can just click away without worrying about whether or not you're really getting anything good. It’s so easy, in fact, that taking pictures can become compulsive, a compulsion I try to moderate. Because if you don't stop and look, your experience will be completely mediated by the technology. As soon as I got home I uploaded my photos onto my computer and admired the nice pictures that I got. Later that evening, I realized that what I remembered of my trip to Big Sur were images from the photographs and not the place itself.

So when I realized that I would have no friends in the audience at Cypress Raks to take pictures of me performing, I also realized that that would mean that my experience of dancing would not be mediated by any photographs of me dancing or any video clips of me dancing. I danced. That was then. The next dance is to come. And I’m just as glad to leave it that way.

2. iPods as rehearsal source. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am learning how to hear music in a new way. As a result of anxiety and a lower level of development, I struggle to have a bodily experience of the music itself when I’m dancing. But I wonder if my listening-in-the-moment troubles are also affected by the fact that I've done a lot of my rehearsing listening thru my iPod.

The iPod is a very practical instrument for practicing. I can load only one piece of music and let it repeat over and over, playing directly into my head. It doesn't disturb my husband and whatever is he might be doing. And the music is so intimate it is easy to hear and discern musical layers. It is then easier to respond in movement. But then when I get out on the stage, the music seems remote shifting in and out of my awareness. So I wonder if using the iPod becomes a detriment to my ability to listened to music when it is physically remote.

I’d love to hear what you all think about these random thots.

Monday, April 6, 2009

My SITA Chapter 7: Solo Improvised Dance at Bellydance Showcase

I finally did my SITA performance at Cypress Raks, a bellydance showcase for local dancers. I'd done my work. I’d studied, watched, listened, practiced. I performed for my friends, at a local senior center, and at the open floor opportunities at festivals and showcases. Each performance improved my ability to improvise a balanced and entertaining solo. And even though there were a few moments leading up to this performance when I hoped I'd accidentally drop a cast-iron skillet on my foot, mostly I was excited about it. I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure I was listening and responding to the music, take time to feel my space, remember that I have some technique that I can rely on, and interact with the audience.

I spent the day primping, reviewing the DVD Secrets of the Stage Volume 3, and watching NCAAW basketball (where you can see many fantastic athletic improvisations). Once again I found Secrets of the Stage very inspiring and helpful. Amira’s performance is just simple and graceful and beautiful. Nanna performs a wonderful style that I've ever seen before; it may be something of her own. Its flat-footed and bouncy and I have become completely charmed by its folky style. And Shoshanna, with that curvy, hourglass figure just feeling thru her space ecstatically. I felt ready.

I headed down to the Cypress Lounge, located in downtown Santa Cruz. The place was formerly and more famously known as the Javah House, which was, at least during my time at graduate school, the place to drink coffee, meet TAs, or study. The current owners have maintained the locale’s very friendly, open atmosphere. Its somewhat cavernous architecture helps this as well. For this event they pushed the dinner tables back into several long rows opening up a good size space. There was also space along the front of the counter facing several luxurious lounging couches arranged for good viewing. There was no shortage of space in any direction so it was also a good stage for dancing with veil or Isis wings. Next to a small passage that leads to the restrooms, they set up a wooden screen where the dancers could change and have a place to wait before or after their performance.

I was third in a very diverse lineup. Tatseena and Zurah Malika, cabaret-style soloists, opened. I was followed by the amazing Raks Araby, a modern, urban style with Crystal, Amber, and Jessica. Then came Rebecca and Julia who performed with veils, Tribal Moon (American Tribal Style), and finally our hostess, Aruba, who finished the evening. As I sat on a barstool watching the other soloists, I scoped out the space. My eye caught the corner of one of the couches and I thought, Well that's just a prop waiting to be leaned on. It called for something luxurious and sultry. I saw too, that the wooden screen by the performer’s area had potential for something playful.

For my music I decided to use Bela Fleck’s Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, a light and very playful jazz piece with banjo and harmonica. I had been bellydancing for about a year when I first heard this music and knew instantly that I wanted to dance to it; I just had to figure out how. At that time I didn't have enough technique or confidence to attempt it, but my time had come. And even after so many years, the music is still so much fun. It appeals to the ham in me and expresses humor, a characteristic that is very important to me and my heritage.

I'm not sure I could describe what I did. I was dancing so I wasn't really trying to remember anything, plus I enjoyed a little 420 and a glass of wine before I went on. One of my strengths is my musicality. I like to respond to the music, mimicking it in my body in some way. It feels right to me to parallel the sounds that the musicians are making. This audience seemed to appreciate my ability to hit a percussive moment with a hip pop or to undulate to the melody.

The moment I put my hand on the couch I heard people making complimentary oohs and ahhs. So I knew I could play with that as much as I wanted and I did. I stretched out along the curved arm, reclined, threw in a little hand floreo in the air. As the music wound down I headed for the wooden screen, executed some flirtatious looks, and exited with a vaudeville-like disappearance behind the screen.

Afterwards, I sat behind the wooden screen with my performance left out on the floor and the audience applauding and the next group getting ready to go on, and I felt overwhelmed with joy and pleasure and satisfaction. I'd really, really let myself go; I went for it and I did it and tears came to my eyes.

Later I told Aruba (and everyone else I spoke to) that it was one of the best performance experiences of my life and that I was totally hooked. I can't wait to try it again and I promise that I will out there at every opportunity. I feel like I am only at the beginning, that I have so much to develop, so much more that I can learn to do. And it's a really a wonderful thing to be in my late 50s looking forward to developing myself as a dancer instead of back at what I once did. It was all quite liberating.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My SITA* Chapter 6: Presentation of Self or Who Am I When I’m Dancing?

Borrowing the model from my martial arts study (aikido), I’ve decided to think of SITA as a practice rather than something one masters. It seems to require a knowledge of self, and like most martial arts today, supports a kinesthetic inquiry into self knowledge. I am not suggesting that bellydance is the same as the Japanese budo: paths toward self-realization thru corporeal discipline. But for me, right now, in this time and place, the kinesthetic study of SITA is causing me to turn my attention on my sense of who I am. And perhaps by treating it like budo, and by seeking that mystical union of mind, body, and self in action, I can discover, cultivate, and present a fuller sense of me thru my dance.

In order to improvise intelligently within the tradition of SITA, I need to be knowledgeable of the dance vocabulary. I’ve been a student of bellydance since 2001 (with frequent breaks due to joint injuries). I began with American Tribal Style but quickly explored other varieties bellydance including Tunisian and Egyptian SITA. And having studied all kinds of dance over the course of 50 years, I’m pretty confident that I embody sufficient technical information. But, in order to access that knowledge, I need to get out of my own way, and that’s all about Self.

This where I, me, my body, and my self become all muddled together. I am afraid my body will betray me, either by not remembering how to move or by revealing my self to all the world. I have this strange notion that no-one really knows who I am and that, based on the principle that “movement never lies,” when I dance I am revealed. And I worry that I have nothing to offer. But bellydancer Bahaia advises that you must find confidence from within. Present who you are remembering that you have something to share and remind yourself that your dance is good enough. In order to perform SITA, I must learn to trust myself and embrace the possibility of revelation. And if I treat this whole process as a kinesthetic exploration of who I am when I’m dancing, maybe I can get out of my own way and let the dance lead me to self knowledge.

*SITA Solo Improvised dance featuring Torso Articulations