You are about to embark on a fabulous, exotic journey. Your guides along this path are movement and music that have been shared among dancing women and men throughout time and across continents. The purposes of belly dancing are as varied as the women that practice it. Certain forms have been used in ritual or temple dancing, for child birthing practice, community celebrations, intimate celebrations of women in seclusion, for public entertainments, to build a stronger physical body, to explore feminine artistic expression, for the sheer joy of moving through space to ancient rhythms.
Contemporary American Belly Dance is a hybrid of Egyptian, Turkish, Arabic, North African, even Flamenco, Polynesian and East Asian dance forms. Ours is a “global village” and we are free to gather to us the forms we find most pleasing. We make up our own moves. This is a great strength of American belly dance.
Despite American cultural bias, there is no ideal age or body type for belly dance. Life experiences (both joy and sorrow) add depth and soul to movement. We combine in our dance training for posture, body strength, balance grace in movement, brilliant costuming and the fun and fellowship of our sister and brother dancers.
|“The dream was always running ahead of one,” Anais Nin confessed.
“To catch up, to live for a moment in union with it, that was the miracle.”
Isn’t that that story of finding the dancer in you?
My first belly dance lesson was a bewildering 60 minutes in the company of my first teacher, Dunia, who had the grace of a cat, unlimited strength, flawless rhythm, and a sparkling smile. It was torture seeing myself in the mirror next to her–how can I achieve those moves, that confidence?
The early part of training is not particularly glamorous, the drills show you in each measure how far you have to go –the gap between teacher and student can seem so huge. Well, anyway for many of us it is so. After that first class, I decided to stay and watch the next intermediate group –Hint: this is my first tip for you, I wanted a glimpse of a possible future. The vision of those women whirling in their full skirts, coin belts, zils ringing, wordlessly traveling through space in unison like beautiful birds soaring in the sky. That vision sustained me during the six years that I wasn’t able to continue my studies. But the seeds of the dream were planted that night.
Training Tips for Student Dancers
1. Get inspired, capture a vision
Seek out a dance experience that absolutely knocks your socks off. Grab that vision and hold it in your heart. How? By watching the next class (if this is permitted!), or go to a festival, visit a restaurant where your teacher or other local dancers are performing. It need not be a celebrity model, it doesn’t have to be a formal presentation either–it may be someone practicing. But I do recommend that it be a live performance (not video) so you can absorb a real time/personal life event. It may be difficult to use yourself as the model, especially with that mirror feed back just now–but the dream dance you’re building will be a lot less mysterious with this in place.
2. Footwork First
Learn footwork first. Amira (Marilyn Hellman) is a very dedicated coach and awesome choreographer. She and I stood one behind the other in front of a doorway mirror in a closet sized space for almost a year. Only someone who really loves dance would put up with that! A great teacher, her earliest advice was Get the footwork pattern first (placement and weight change) before you do anything else with your body. This will save you hours of frustration. Notice how belly dance is always layered? Your feet are keeping the rhythm and timing, while traveling, your hips have independent suspension, your chest, arms and hands have their own jobs to do–and you’re breathing and smiling? Honestly, everything above the knees won’t be very natural if you aren’t sure about what you’re supposed to do with your feet! Trust me on this one. Especially those of us that go to workshops–wow fantastic body isolations and look at those arm position mechanics! But check the feet first. Don’t short change the foundation of dance– your feet. Not sure what’s correct? Then ask!
3. Accelerate your growth, listen to your Music!
Listen to your practice music constantly. In the car…in class…at home…Get to know it like your own breathing. Ask your instructor what music is used in class and shop for your own copy which you can wear out! Most beginning students work with a 4/4 beledi for moderate to fast workouts, and chiftetelli for slow isolations or veil work. Sometimes instructors don’t explain the rhythms, they simply choose a workable piece that allows you to dance your patterns in a steady fashion. If you’re shopping on your own plan on collecting some duds. It’s safest to ask your teachers, other dancers, talk with vendors (many are very willing to chat with you bout recommended play lists based on your style of dance..just ask). At festivals see how other dancers use music, then (after complimenting the performer of course!) Ask about the music they used. Try not to choose music that has complicated “breaks” or frequent changes in rhythm if you’re new to the dance. In your early dance career it may be disappointing to not be able to use the music easily or it can leave you completely baffled. In the early years, I was naive enough to think running triplets on zills was good for any “Middle Eastern” music! Ah well, that was long ago!
4. Finger Cymbal (ZIL) Practice Patterns
To improvise your percussion accompaniment to your dance, these are samples to practice:
How to practice? Find time and space where no one can trouble you. Play without music at first. Practice longer than you think you can keep playing. Try to play fully 3 -5 minutes when you are comfortable with the rhythms you choose. Play your cymbals very loud. If you are afraid to use them, you’ll not have the strength or conviction to play confidently in public. Don’t judge yourself too much.
If you are a beginner you can start without dancing, simply move feet, as if stepping in place (a simple walk around the room will do–I spent hours circling the floor alone). Practice with your fingers cupped upward, not dangling down to the floor –work against gravity. As you progress, move your arms gracefully and continuously between different dance positions–the most difficult is arms extended horizontal to the floor, a good resting position is both hands over your head (less gravity pulling your arms). However, you must incorporate dance movement/foot work as early as possible, or you will not be comfortable layering the zils over your dancing. Start simple, but start now to use zils.
As you progress use music (4/4 is the easiest to start with). Play along with the music. Some music (i.e., raks sharki, cabaret pieces) have wonderful breaks, pauses and changes in rhythm you can learn use in time. Think of this like singing along with the musicians–you are really free to play as you like. You need to build strength in your hands and arms to make the most of this skill. It isn’t necessary to play zils constantly during performance, but if you don’t practice for strength and rhythm control you’ll have much difficulty making it a natural part of your style. Have fun! See your instructor for guidance on how these rhythms sound, the paper version can be a little confusing!
5. Dancer’s Life: Mixed Reaction from Audience?
The American public is a challenge. The general public does not know how to receive live art. Mainly because our culture doesn’t practice live spontaneous art. We are not a nation of dancers and singers. We are much more comfortable with darkened theatres or cds, and radio. Art at a distance, it’s safer to be anonymous in the crowd. If you perform, you must be a professional. Ordinary people aren’t expected to produce music or dance and most people can be intimidated by the presence of artists. I often see another parallel which are the wandering musicians that entertain at restaurants, i.e. mariachi’s in Mexican cafes. How this survives in the face of so much indifference amazes me.
Most Americans have little experience interacting with live artists and boy does it show! This is true even of people who know and love us a lot. The best course is to do what you did naturally. Keep smiling and share your joy of the gift and you will reach your public. What I finally decided that there are all levels of acceptance and discomfort in people in everyday living. A person is demonstrating their inner nature in how they receive the performance. Shy, scared, curious, embarrassed, jealous (yes!) enthusiastic, adoring. It’s a great study. I had to learn by example the etiquette for being a consumer of this form as well. You smile, make eye contact, shout encouragement or zagahreet, if appropriate, offer a tip!
It’s partially cultural conditioning. We have to be educators as well as performers to make help this art thrive. People may ask you what to do at a performance, they really don’t know. They may want to know what the dance means. Really, the public is like a lost child. So we offer kindness, and safety, along with beauty and excitement. It is a great responsibility to perform well. There have been times when I encounter someone who is really resistant (easy to read this body language, yes?) I’ll send energy to them with the intention to permit more love and acceptance into their lives–because, in my thinking, this is where the difficulty really lies.
And then there are times when the audience is like gold. They smile, they understand the art, they appreciate your skill and the respond to everything with joy. It’s fantastic. Some folks have an innate understanding and appreciation of art, some people learn to get to that place, others never will. It is always an interesting experience. Don’t doubt yourself whatever happens. It’s almost completely out of your hands, just enjoy the moment, and others will too.
6. Dancer’s Life: Jealous Husband or Boyfriend? by Robert Beauford
Re-printed by permission Bellydancers Digest No. 100 From: “Robert Beauford”
Hi, I’m Robert, husband of Wendi, a pretty serious dancer out of Taos, NM. Some of you, I believe, know Wendi. I just thought I would lend a few suggestions on this topic. Personally, I love it when Wendi is on stage…a lot of times, I m.c. for the performances. No jealousy. Men fear losing what they are not sure they have. They do not fear losing what they know they have. I have seen a lot of women give up their men instead of their dancing… far more than I have seen do the opposite. (But then I don’t see the ones that give up dancing instead of their men… they aren’t dancing) Even when the lady gives up the dancing instead of the guy, the guy often still loses her before long because he has crushed her dream, her self-image, and her self-expression… a critical offense in a serious relationship. This sometimes leads to the lady giving up the guy and dancing both… a really sad outcome. If you really are serious about this guy, you might oughta let him read some of these letters… he may not understand the significance or the impact of his restrictions. Here are some ways to help him get ok with it.
Go to performances and watch them with him. Lots. Get up and dance for him during the open dancing afterwards (if they have it). Get him involved in your activities and events and in others (maybe he is a good m.c.?, maybe he could help do stage set up or take down, hang flyers and such with him, maybe he can drum… or maybe he can dance… the field could use more guys) make him a part of the group, rather than letting him feel excluded. Get him started in supporting other dancers with you. Support other dancers together. Help him get to know the other dancers in your group and in your area. Get him to some inside dance events, by that I mean small recitals or troupe or group parties… dance events that are for dancers… events where there is no outside audience and where it is primarily ladies and their families. Help him to understand the sort of sport aspects of it. Play belly dance music at the house… (good stuff) all the time… have belly dancing videos playing. Desensitize him… get him around dancing until his associations change.
The more he is involved, and the more it is his thing as well as yours, the less intimidated and threatened he will feel. Being open and communicating is everything. It is the center of a relationship and key to success in marriage (and life).
7. Advanced Student Note: Perfecting a Double Veil Cyclone
First, work on really solid stationary spin ability. Keep knees close together and continuous–the footwork padding under you lightly (balls of the feet should not grind in the turn). Practice spinning without the burden of veils. Getting comfortable here? Then we add veil manipulation technique:
I break the cyclone into 4 elevations:
- floor(ankle level)
Remembering that all effects take 8 counts to mature, give each elevation 2 counts. This way your rising veils have some discipline in shaping, and they keep their form. What is likely to happen is dancers raise their veils in a panic going from floor to shoulder level too quickly.
4 counts at floor, 4 counts at knees, 4 counts at floor (just a tiny rise)–finish well and stop the spin gracefully (slow the spin, take one retreating step away from your audience and, twist at the waist and stop.).
4 counts at floor, 4 counts at knees, 4 counts at hips, 4 counts at knees, 4 counts at floor (a bigger rise, but still under control going up and down).
4 counts at floor, 4 counts at knees, 4 counts at hips, 4 counts at shoulders, 4 counts at hips, 4 counts at knees, 4 counts a floor.
Practice a progressive cyclone like this.
Better still, but more nauseating is change 4 counts to 6 or 8 counts–if you can do this, you’ll have control of the fabric and that fascinating double veil cyclone.
8. Avoiding Injury to Lower Back in Middle Eastern Dance (an article)
Discover Belly Dance Journal
Vol. 4, #1, April, 2001
Letter from the Publisher – How does spinal health relate to belly dance?
Article: Avoiding Injury in Middle Eastern Dance: The Lower Spine – What happens to a dancer if she does not “tuck” her pelvis and instead allows her lower back to curve excessively?
Brought to you by: Jennifer James-Long – Publisher Ann “Roxann” Sabin – Editor
Jennifer James-Long, Publisher, DiscoverBellyDance
Voice Mail/Fax: (509) 271-0197
Read the fastest growing ezine on Middle Eastern dance
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According to Dennis Mitterer, an occupational healthand safety consultant, back-related complaints ares econd only to the common cold as a reason for visits to the doctor. The University of Maryland Medicine, states that as many as 8 out of 10 individuals will have some sort of back problem in their life.
So how does this relate to dance? Belly dance has the ability to serve as a form of therapy to someone suffering from minor back pain. However, you can develop problems if you dance with the wrong posture. So be sure you are using correct posture when you practice and perform. If you teach, I’m sure you take this issue very seriously, as your students rely on you for the correct information.
It would be interesting to find out if the dance community has more, less, or the same rate of back problems as the general public. So I have created a poll on Bhuz.com on back-related injuries. It consists of six questions and should only take about 3 minutes to complete. Have you ever had a back injury caused by dancing? Have you had a back injury that was cured by dancing? http://www.bhuz.com/poll/back_injuries.asp
The editor found a great link for those of you who would like to look up the muscle groups that Hadia lists in her article (thanks Roxann!) http://eduserv.hscer.washington.edu/hubio553/atlas/content.html#201
This page has many links to different resources on spinal anatomy, general overviews, symptoms/diagnosis, prevention/screening, rehabilitation, treatment, specific conditions/aspects, directories, organizations and children. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/backpain.html This article has several diagrams and describes how the back is constructed. When I clicked on the live animations and waited for them to download, I got a notification that the links were out of date and unavailable. So don’t waste your time on those. But the rest of the article and links to diagrams were interesting http://www.pp.okstate.edu/ehs/modules3/back/index.htm I found an article on Angelique’s site that you might like to read. It appeared in the Arizona Networking News http://www.angeliqueandfriends.com/good.html
Avoiding Injury in Middle Eastern Dance: The Lower
I would like to introduce myself to the readers of DiscoverBellyDance.com. My name is Hadia and I have been an Oriental dance artist, instructor and choreographer since 1972. After completing my degree in Theater and the Performing Arts, I devoted my life entirely to dance until undertaking a second career in massage and manual Therapy. I completed my training in Vancouver Canada, at the West Coast College of Massage Therapy, I was trained in a wide variety of manual therapy techniques and through this training, I began to understand the internal, anatomical nature of my external movement patterns. For example, what a dancer calls a Sohair Zeki side lock became to me a combination of concentric contractions of ipsilateral external/internal obliques, transverse abdominus, quadratus lumborum, serratus inferior, lattisimus dorsi and erector spinae, which is resisted by eccentric contractions of contralateral latissimus dorsi and lumbar erector spinae; supported by concentric contractions of ipsilateral hamstrings, adductors and gluteus medius/minimus. I also learned that our joints are designed to perform certain movements, while other movements may injure them. For example, the facet joints of the lumbar (lower) spine are designed to permit flexion, extension and side bend, but they resist rotation. Therefore, our twisting rotational movements of the hips should be assisted by flexion of the knees and a slight pivot on the ball of the foot, while the thoracic (upper) spine relaxes to absorb the rotation. This new understanding of body bio-mechanics has not only refined the quality of my own dance and facilitated my teaching skills, but has allowed me to prevent dance-related injuries in myself and my students.
This is the first in a series of articles wherein I will share some information and offer suggestions pertaining to dancer’s anatomy and injuries.
I. The Lower Vertebral Column — The Lumbar Spine The Vertebral Column consists of 3 segments with a total of 24 vertebrae. These 3 segments are as follows:
1. The Lower or Lumbar Spine
2. The Middle/Upper or Thoracic Spine
3. The Neck or Cervical Spine
The entire spine contains three natural curves with the lumbar section curved into a hollow posteriorly, the Thoracic rounded slightly posteriorly and the neck copying the lumbar with a hollow posterior curve. This “S” design allows the spine to act like a large spring to absorb the body’s shocks. Also, in this orientation, the weight of the upper body is distributed evenly between the main anterior body of the vertebra and it’s two posterior facet joints. This tripod distribution of weight lends enormous stability to the entire spine.
Often, these natural curves become exaggerated in oriental dancers with the pelvis falling forwards, the buttocks protruding and the upper back slumping anteriorly with the shoulders rounded. Another variation is to have the upper body hanging backwards off of the lower lumbar region. Not only are these positions aesthetically unflattering, they also hinder the correct execution of technique and may seriously and irreversibly damage the spine and it’s delicate structures. In the lumbar spine this exaggerated curve causes the weight of the upper body to shift away from the vertebral body and to rest on the small facet joints.
The small muscles surrounding these joints will then go into protective spasm to prevent excessive friction and injury. This, in turn, hinders the movement of these joints, causing the larger superficial muscles to overwork and tire easily. This would be like opening a door with a rusty hinge. Also, if these joints remain compressed, the spaces between the vertebrae decrease.
The spinal nerves that exit from these spaces become compressed, causing muscle spasm, pain, numbness, tingling etc. through the buttocks, thighs, groin, legs and feet (e.g. Sciatica). Therefore, in order to safeguard against such consequences, Oriental dance students can take the following precautions:
1. Develop an awareness of correct posture and alignment. The knees should be very slightly flexed, with the lower back relaxed and open to allow the buttocks and pelvis to hang between the hips, while gently engaging the lower abdominal muscles.
2. If a dancer wants to occasionally perform a backbend, the lower back can be protected by bending the knees, tightening the anterior thighs and abdominals and then lifting and opening the chest, while releasing the head.
3. It is also imperative to choose instructors who exhibit correct posture and alignment, both while teaching performing. Bad habits are very difficult to unlearn.
If, however, you have already developed such postural deviations, they can be corrected by using the following program:
1. Stretch the muscles of the lower back for at least5 minutes, 3 times per day. One easy way is to extremely contract the lower abdominal muscles, as though trying to push the navel through to the back wall. Hold for 2 minutes, relax and repeat twice. If you have a theraball (a , lay face down on it, with arms and legs open for balance, and relax.
2. Stretch the muscles of the front and inner thigh (quadriceps and adductors), as these muscles can pull the pelvis forward.
3. Stretch the iliopsoas, (the deepest anterior abdominal muscle) especially if you have a job that requires long hours of sitting. The easiest way to do this is a lunge position on the staircase with the upper knee bent, the lower leg stretched and the groin as close to the stairs as possible. Hold for at least 2 minutes.
4. After following the above stretch program for several weeks, you can begin to strengthen the lower abdominal muscles. Slow, self-resisted pelvic rotations and undulations are wonderful, especially if we concentrate on an internal lift of the pelvis towards the navel. These movements will also alleviate chronic lower back pain.
5. Crunches should be done with the hips flexed to avoid working the iliopsoas and the knees should be raised and lowered, while the upper body remains on the floor. This will strengthen the lower abdominals and avoid needlessly stressing the neck muscles.
6. Finally, stretch then strengthen the hamstrings. They can become shortened from working in a flexed position and are always weaker than the powerful quadriceps.
This program should decrease an excessive curve in the lower back. However, it is important not to adopt a position of excessive pelvic tilt. This will flatten the back, rendering the shock absorption “S” design useless, while also placing excessive pressure on the vertebral bodies and disks. This can eventually lead to a ruptured or herniated disk, which is a very painful and serious condition.
In my next article, I will continue with the Thoracic and Cervical Spine.
Hadia is an Oriental dance artist, instructor and choreographer, as well as a registered massage therapist, with a degree from the West Coast College of Massage Therapy in Vancouver, B.C. Trained in Neuromuscular Therapy, Myofascial Release, Muscle Energy Technique, Swedish Massage and many other aspects of massage therapy, she conducts weeklong intensive workshops in dance refinement, body awareness and injury prevention and management.
9. Footwear for Dancing
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