Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Belly Dance--What Can I Say, I'm Old School!

I am excited to be teaching belly dance classes again, and to discover that it seems to be helping with my lower back issues. I decided to return to Tribal basics, which is what I began with when I taught my first class back in 2008. I had learned Tribal belly dance in Columbus after becoming interested in seeing it performed a few times, most notably by Angie Never's troupe, Sacred Shimmy. When I found out that Angie was going to teach Tribal through my teacher Laylia's studio, I was so excited!  I had taken classes for some time at Habeeba's Dance of the Arts and had learned what was termed Egyptian Cabaret, but which I later came to determine was actually American Vintage Oriental. At my first Island of Isis belly dance retreat in 2003, I had experienced Dalia Carella's Dunyavi Gypsy fusion style and had fallen in love with it. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Laylia perform at the Ohio Renaissance Festival and sought her out for a series of both private lessons and group classes. Each experience offered something unique.

The Tribal format I learned was primarily that of Gypsy Caravan, which Angie had learned directly from the troupe's director, Paulette Rees-Denis. Of the belly dance styles I had experienced thus far, Tribal seemed the most natural to my body, and it filled in gaps in my previous training. Perhaps most importantly, it got me dancing from both sides of my body, whereas Habeeba's technique heavily favored the left side. When I moved to my current location, Tribal was the style I taught first. Eventually I created choreographies that might be called "Tribaret", a combination of the Tribal and American Cabaret movement vocabularies and stylization. I also incorporated some Gypsy elements in both choreography and my solo technique.

I was giving private lessons to a friend last year, and after spending some time working on classic steps, my intuition told me to try teaching her the Tribal style I had learned from Angie. This seemed to click for my student, and she progressed more quickly and easily. I currently have four returning dancers and three new students in my Tribal basics class. The new ladies are picking the movements up very well, and the returning students are happy to be back in the Tribal saddle.

After much instruction in the Tribal style, I had taught my troupe dancers classical Egyptian belly dance, including the Baladi Taksim, Golden Era style, and drum solo technique, inspired especially by Island of Isis instructors Bahaia, Hadia, and Ranya Renee. The focus on Egyptian dance was more challenging and demanded individual response to the music and creative self-expression. It required reaching into one's artistic soul, simultaneously having control of one's movements while improvising in the moment, without anyone else to follow and with no standardized format in place. Traditional Middle Eastern music is also more complex, with the variations in rhythm, tempo, and emotion all in one song.

As an instructor, it was really difficult to take the Tribal out of my dancers and lead them in developing themselves as soloists. No doubt it was frustrating for them as well! But I knew that in good conscience I had to expose them to authentic Egyptian belly dance, in which over the years I had received such amazing training from the teachers at the annual Island of Isis retreat in Loveland, Ohio. I had also taken weekly lessons from Aegela in Toledo. My heart and soul were immersed in the full orchestral compositions of the Golden Era, and I had to be true to where I found myself as an artist. It was imperative to share my newly found passion with my students, and we all needed to grow and break out of our comfort zone.

I am now questioning whether it is wise to attempt another foray into Tribal. I live in a low population, rural area, and it hasn't been possible to offer classes in multiple styles of belly dance, to allow students to choose their area of interest. It arguably takes a couple of years of dancing together as a Tribal troupe in order for each dancer to attain proficiency in both leading and following. There is the problem of inconsistent troupe membership, and in my experience, I only had one student who could effectively lead. I came to the conclusion that Tribal just wasn't working well for my class as a whole. We kept the chorus line idea for one of our numbers but otherwise left Tribal behind.

So yesterday I was searching youtube for inspiration, and the Tribal videos weren't resonating with me. I viewed one of my favorite Lady Morrighan videos (A Lady and her Belly) and noticed something interesting in the comments. She says that while her costume is Tribal, her movements are old school belly dance. I typed the key words "old school" into google and found a NYC dancer doing an American Vintage Oriental performance. That's more like it, I thought. At the end of the day, I found myself soaking in video after video of Soheir Zaki in the 1970s. I went to bed happy, satisfied at last. And in fact, I had also begun to look again at my Golden Era favorites in black and white...

 Soheir Zaki

Tribal belly dance, with its particular breaking down of movements and consistent musical rhythms, lends itself nicely to introducing beginners to belly dance. It works so well for drilling basic steps and combinations. But do I really want to invest the next two years in developing dancers to master this style, only to have students come and go, and potentially to end up finding once again that we never really arrived? To be honest, the overabundance of the buzzy mizmar and clanking of zills often used in Tribal group improvisation grates on my nerves, and the "sameness" of the dance is simply not currently providing me with the personal inspiration I crave. I appreciate its simple beauty and the difficulty of creating dance as a group, in the moment. I love the sense of community that Tribal belly dance fosters.

But then I watch Soheir, Fifi, Naemet, Naima, Samia, and the other Golden girls, and I am spellbound, transported, and filled with joy. The question, I suppose, comes down to whether I can take my dancers with a base in Tribal and segue somehow to classical Oriental dance with a minimum of pain and confusion. It seems possible. After all, there are various elements of Tribal belly dance that are obviously inspired by the Golden Era. For example, consider that a chorus line of dancers backing up the soloist goes back to at least the 1940s. Unlike with Tribal chorus lines, however, the Golden Era variety was choreographed, and the dancers each maintained their individuality. Could something like this be done while allowing every dancer to have a brief turn in the spotlight, therefore bringing together the best of both worlds? Also, if I use Tribal only for the purposes of teaching basics and drilling sessions, could we not spend the bulk of time developing solo skills?

Well, it all remains to be seen, and hopefully I will retain enough students this time around to find out! For now, it's a tentative plan, and we'll get where we are going one step at a time.