Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Renée’s Teaching Diary 9/10/09

First class at the Boulder Creek Rec Hall last Thursday morning. Had 3 women I didn’t know, plus Audrey for a total of 4 students! All of us over 40, at least. All of us with physical limitations. My goal for this class is to find ways to dance that respect those limitations while also developing dancing skills and confidence. Ultimately, I just want us to experience the sheer pleasure of dancing together.
Although I’d tried to prepare a syllabus, I really didn’t have much planned. I had a short warm up (which I ended up using as a cool down as well). And I decided on-the-fly to introduce the shimmy, Egyptian hip twist, ribcage slide, and chest lift. I finished with a lesson in grapevines and then jeni jol,  a Macedonian folk dance that incorporates a hip bump and a modified grapevine. I think everyone should be able to do a grapevine step.

I explained that the grapevine is performed in all variety of dance from ballet to bellydance and if you master it you will be able to dance anywhere in the world. I broke it down very carefully: cross right foot over left, step side left, cross back with R, step left again. Four steps equal one grapevine. All of a sudden one of my students stopped: “This is The Stroll!” she exclaimed. We did it like this…” and she proceeded to execute a cool little grapevine with a 1950s groove (if you can remember the song “C C Rider” you’re probably old enough to have learned The Stroll).  These are precisely the body memories I am hoping they will tap into. When I mentioned that a hip twist is just a formalized version of the Chubby Checkers dance, I saw a change in their level of confidence. What I hope they are thinking is: Oh, I can do this.

I’m also teaching ATS privately. We started with the basics: Egyptian, crescent, choo choo, and Arabic. Sort of the four major food groups of American Tribal Style. I do love teaching, especially dance.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Community of Dancers: Part 1. The Search for Community

I suppose I first began wondering about the nature of “community” when I left the one of my upbringing. Some of this was natural: I was a young adult, and I’d moved away from home, family, classmates to set my own sail. Some was more fundamental: I left the religion of my childhood. I was raised in a Baha’i home with strong ties to the (then relatively small) Baha’i community locally, regionally, and nationally. It was in that world where I established best-friendships and teenage crushes, where I shared in a common experience of both mundane and spiritual content, and where my intellectual curiosity was encouraged and developed. It was “my community” in ways more profound than the one provided by our residence in Rockville, CT. Growing up in a Baha’i home was a great gift: my decision to leave it behind was profoundly difficult even though I no longer felt a sense of membership in that community. And ever since that decision, I have been looking for a suitable replacement.

I looked in lots of different places for that sense of belonging. In the 1980s I tried to establish myself within the Hartford, CT modern dance scene but ultimately found it competitive and sometimes contentious. In the 90s I looked to wicca, a community in which I could satisfy some of my spiritual longings and through which I met many wonderful like-minded women. Witchcraft almost did it for me but in the end my pragmatism won out (and, oddly, I much preferred the New England witches to the ones I met when I moved to California). Sacred Circle Dance, which I encountered through my pagan connections, seemed promising since it overtly claims to be creating community through revitalized European folk dances. Unfortunately, I discovering that (for me) there was just no there there.

For the purposes of my dissertation, I took up the Japanese martial art, Aikido, in order to focus my scholarly attentions on the subject of community itself: what is it, how is it created and maintained, who can become a member. Aikido provided me with concrete social and physiological practices that lead to a sense of connection between practitioners—in short, a community. The stated goal of aikido is to achieve an energetic (ki) “connection” with each training partner through repeated tactile and kinesthetic experiences. This is coupled with a variety of social activities that bind members together: from dojo upkeep to serving on committees to participation in cyclical rites of passage. These dual “socio-somatic connections” produce a sensuous community of practitioners.* This was rich soil for a dissertation project, and it satisfied my intellectual curiosity about “community” as a socio-cultural phenomenon. But once I was finished writing, I found I had no desire to return to the training mat. I hadn’t found my community yet. Besides, I wanted to—needed to—return to dance.

I began to study bellydance after one of my UCSC anthropology of dance students (Crystal Silmi) demonstrated a modern variant called American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Over the course of the next 8 years, I studied ATS and many other styles of bellydance. Along the way, I cultivated a personal sense of belonging in the Santa Cruz County bellydance community. I work at belonging by attending performances, taking classes and workshops, and socializing at non-dance events like movie nights, crafting parties, or yard sales. This is work that must be maintained. It is a sign of my commitment to the community as well as the means by which I create my belonging. Indeed, our collective work is the very stuff of this community.

Look for my upcoming blog: “A Community of Dancers: Part 2. Why We Need Communities”

* Aikido Sensibilities: The Sociosomatics of Connection and Its Role in the Constitution of Community at North Bay Aikido in Santa Cruz, California. Renée Rothman, University of California, Santa Cruz, Dec. 2000

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Renée's Teaching Diary: Page 1

I am about to start teaching a course of my own invention that I haven’t invented yet (Bellydance For The Rest of Us). Its not like I don’t know what I’m going to do in general terms. Altho I haven’t taught a weekly dance class in mumble mumble years, I do remember the basics. Plus those classes in modern and jazz were 90 minute classes, whereas most bellydance classes are only 60. But just to brush up, I thot I’d look around at other beginning bellydance syllabi.

I looked around online but it seems few dance instructors are willing to share their syllabus. It makes sense, really. Teachers work hard to develop their courses and want to have control over their intellectual property. In addition to that, bellydance doesn’t have a universal language or technique so even when I do find a document that lays out a course’s development, I don’t necessarily know what steps they are talking about. For instance, Sitamun’s raks sharki syllabus calls for “thigh circles” and distinguishes between three styles of camels: Arabic, Egyptian, and Turkish. I’ve never heard of thigh circles and only do one style of camel (I think).

Dance steps, especially folk and street styles, often don’t have names although they may acquire them in their transmission. It makes communication easier if you can tell a dancer to do three grapevines and a hip drop. Some bellydance steps have names that are commonly known—like the shimmy—but which in practice may have local variations. Even within as contemporary a form as American Tribal Style (ATS), basic steps are reinvented and renamed by independent groups. For example, my troupe—Mountain Tribal—has an Arabic variation we call the “Hairy Eyeball.”  Its an Arabic 5 (a traditional step described and named by Jamila Salimpour) with three position changes cued (an ATS characteristic) with direct eye contact (hence its nickname). No other ATS dancer would be able to do this step based only on its name, though its various parts would be familiar to them.

Still, the basics are the basics. You can’t shimmy until you can lift and drop your hips in isolation from your upper torso. And you can’t do a Basic Egyptian (aka Egyptian Twist, double Egyptian, twisty hip step, and who knows what else) before you learn to bump the hip forward and back. So I guess all I can do is make a beginning and see how things develop. I’ll keep you posted.