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Being able to convey emotion is fundamental to expressive dance.  Within different bellydance styles the range of emotion expressed varies.  I believe that within the Egyptian styles – both modern and older – there is an especially great range. From what I’ve read and been told of the Lorna of Cairo workshop on Oum Kalthoum (by the lovely Elspeth SwishandHips) there was a great deal of emphasis placed on the ability of the dancer to emote to her music.

As Tamsyn describes it, “Here was a dance in which the magic was in truly being yourself and giving everything from your heart in a performance. All the sorrow, the joy, the pain and the beauty — all of it.”

So my thoughts have turned to the process in which the ability to express these emotions is developed.  It’s no small task.  This notion of getting in touch with your inner self and being able to express it is called ‘congruence’ or genuineness within the field of Person-Centred counselling.  Many chapters in many books are devoted to explaining the concept in full and suggesting ways in which the trainee therapist may develop their ability to be genuine.

It’s especially true that in British culture the spontaneous and expressive nature of being genuine is a difficult thing to fully integrate into normal life.  We have rules around appropriate behaviour and they tend to focus on emotional containment – many of us believe in keeping stiff upper lips and in not showing emotion particularly if that emotion is ‘negative’ (e.g. fear, anger, hurt).  How then to overcome this cultural embargo on emotions?

It takes work, and that’s for sure.  I believe that the parts during Lorna’s workshops where she encouraged her students to try touching and expressing through dance the deep emotions that run through Oum Kalthoum’s music was inspired.  In the therapy books, one of the key experiences in the development of congruence is by an individual trying to be in touch with their inner selves and expressing that publicly, in a group setting and finding that this behaviour is accepted.  By giving time and space and encouragement to her dance students to deeply emote to the music Lorna is giving the dance equivalent of a Carl Roger’s style Encounter Group.

But how to progress this outside of Lorna’s workshop?  Continuing to practice listening to your inner world, and expressing it where appropriate and when you feel able to.  Usually you’ll find that in letting things out you draw people to you, rather than pushing them away.  Many of our innermost feelings are common to the entire human race, even the feeling that our most inner self is actually unlovable or somehow shameful and must be kept hidden.

In counselling training many people have found that the process of  trying and learning to accept yourself, warts and all, is helpful in being able to hear and express your emotions.  These two thing, self-acceptance and congruence, appear to feed into each other (with self-acceptance also feeding into one’s ability to be empathic).  The journey towards accepting yourself is one with many paths.  One that has been personally helpful, and I know has been for many, many others involves having at least one adult relationship where you are accepted, warts and all, unconditionally.  Why does this help you feel better about yourself?  I believe it is because if someone else can feel that way towards you it shows you that you are loveable, and that really helps you to develop that same love and belief in yourself.

I’ll finish with a word of warning – this is not for everyone.  The ability to be genuine and in-touch with yourself is not something you can turn on when you take to the stage (or therapy room) and then turn back off again.  It seeps out from there to touch all aspects of your life.  It is a door that once opened is difficult to close again.  This is not to suggest that you’ll end up blurting out whatever is going on for you regardless of the situation, but it does mean that you are more likely to be aware of what’s going on inside you more often, and for some people that is a place they don’t want to live in.

I recently asked Tamsyn, who is taking over my classes, if she would write up a blog post for me on something that interested her, and she has!  Note: given the subject matter some of the links are not safe for work (NSFW) unless your employer has a particularly liberal attitude towards nudity.  The embedded video links are as safe for work as any standard bellydance video clip. Enjoy!

Tribal Fusion and Velvet Hammer Burlesque

Meeting up with my friend yesterday, the popular burlesque dancer Leyla Rose, got me to thinking about something Donna Mejia (a choreographer, teacher, and lecturer at Smith professional dance college in Massachusetts) and I talked about when I was last States-side: the Velvet Hammer as one of the first influences for modern tribal fusion, starting back in 1995.

For anyone who doesn’t know the Velvet Hammer, it’s a burlesque performance troupe based in Los Angeles created by Michelle Carr. Focusing more on the “tease” in striptease than the “strip”, it emphasises the joy of style, strut and imagination in performances that are designed to be sexy rather than sexual. It’s been described by Princess Farhana, one of the troupe’s founding performers, as “a reproduction of old fashioned burlesque, filtered through a savvy, witty, post-modern feminist point of view, not to mention Michelle’s totally twisted, politically incorrect sense of humour.” Think modern day Mae West, Lilli St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee. The troupe is legendary for lavish costumes, over-the-top sets, and kick starting the “Neo Burlesque” movement with a healthy dose of punk, tattoos, glitz and thrilling excess. It was so popular, that by early 2000 neo burlesque was a full on craze throughout North America, inspiring events such as Tease-O-Rama, The New York Burlesque Festival, Miss Exotic World Pageant and Viva Las Vegas.

Looking at the glamour and pizazz in one of these shows, do you think the first tribal fusion dancers on the cutting edge of performance art just a bit further north in San Francisco didn’t catch the buzz? When there was a belly dancer on the show? Let me say those fishnet tights, pants cut like suspender belts, flamboyant head-dresses, theatrical staging and feather fans came from somewhere. Even the tattoos fit right in. Here’s a clip of Zoe Jakes with one of her feather fans in action.

Perhaps in part due to the fact that Princess Farhana was on the show, the popularity of neo burlesque reached such heights that you can now find numerous examples of belly-burlesque fusion springing up all over the world, ranging from almost pure oriental performance with ostrich feather fans, to the opposite end of the spectrum with tacky costuming and only a camel or two and some snake arms to bear a passing resemblance to belly dance. One thing you can say about Princess Farhana: she may not be the best dancer out there today, but she is accessible, having fun, and very popular with a broad base audience. In case you missed it, here’s a promo clip for the documentary-style “Underbelly” featuring Princess Farhana, released in 2008. And to see an example of just how far the neo burlesque movement has spread, another clip which is practically belly dance goes Broadway!

Now before anybody jumps up and down about associating belly dance with stripping, let me just say that I see your point. Belly dancers spend enough time and effort managing ill-informed public perceptions that belly dancing is just about shaking it on stage, or is somehow akin to prostitution or stripping, that any reference to burlesque might well be regarded with suspicion. But I distinguish between raqs sharqi, or classic Egyptian and folk dance, and the rather more broad category of belly dance. In no way am I suggesting a connection between raqs sharqi and burlesque. Neither do I mean to suggest that general belly dance is any less about art than raqs sharqi – it just has new fusions and styles arising from it, while raqs sharqi remains firmly grounded in the style and sensibility of the Middle East.

And finally in passing, despite scanty clothing, burlesque is an art form itself, one involving slapstick humor, social parody, musicality, feats of magic and circus acts. Timing and audience appeal are crucial. Saying that a burlesque is merely stripping is like saying that a professional comedian just tells jokes – there’s more to it, and when you take costuming and theatre into account, a lot more to it! Talk to a burlesque dancer and they are as likely as an oriental dancer to bristle in indignation when an incompetent or beginning performer is held up as an example of an entire art form.

With that I’m back to thinking about my lovely, down to earth friend, and all the cool costuming ideas for the taking. Now I’ve got to run off and sew something glittery onto a bra.
Tamsyn will be starting her classes at the Yoga Room next week, and is also starting her own blog. For details of both visit www.tamsynbellydance.com

In Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA) there is a very lovely bellydance and yoga teacher called Lauryn Peterson. She works at Zanzibar, a great studio that I’ve mentioned before, here here and here.  In fact in the first of those links I mentioned a Yin Yoga and Shimmy workshop which was the very first time I had encountered Yin Yoga.

Tribal Fusion bellydance, via Zanzibar, first got me interested in yoga several years ago and I’ve now tried many styles – Flow, Power, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga and Swasthya are the main types that spring to mind.  Yin Yoga holds the poses for longer than the other forms I’ve tried (2-5 minutes is normal in Yin) and works on the connective tissue more so than muscles.  It prefers to work with cool rather than hot muscles.  I really enjoyed it when I tried it last year and was keen to do it again on this trip to the States.

Due to scheduling conflicts I wasn’t able to attend the Yin/Shimmy workshop Lauryn was teaching at Zanzibar so we made arrangements for a private Yin Yoga lesson.  She tailored the session to my specific requests and gently guided me through a practice I feel comfortable taking home and working through by myself.

The necessity or otherwise of yoga with bellydance is something I want to come back to later, but I do believe the body awareness and mindfulness that yoga encourages, in addition to the health benefits, improves my dance practice greatly.  And having now taken a full term of Ashtanga yoga I have found that the body awareness and mindfulness that bellydance can encourage has helped me there too.  The feedback between dance and yoga is interesting to me, and I do have a post more specifically about this currently percolating through my head.

But the bottom line is that I really enjoyed my private lesson and am definitely looking forward to continuing my Yin practice at home.  If you’re interested in this (or bellydancing) and in the Chattanooga area I thoroughly recommend Lauryn for both types of lessons, both public and private.  Her teaching style is respectful, knowledgeable and often fun.

You can get more information both on the Zanzibar and the Asala Center websites (and the other Zanzibar teachers are also wonderful, just so you know).

Hello lovely readers,

I have now done a big update of the Edinburgh Bellydance Calendar with all of the Autumn belly dance classes that I know about!  If you know of any classes that I’ve missed please let me know – shelley.dancing@gmail.com – and I’ll see about getting them added.

Broken down by style we have:

EDIT:  I’ve since been told about Egyptian style bellydance classes being held at the St Bride’s Community Centre on Monday evenings taught by Lara Yadgarian, though I’m not sure what type of Egyptian that is (modern or classic).  More info here.

EDIT: I’ve since been told about bellydance classes offered by Constantina at Leith Academy on Thursday evenings.  I’m not sure how she classifies her style so have not added it to the above list.  More info here.

Enjoy!

Oh, and if you want to join me in hosting the calendar do get in touch.  It’s a straightforward bit of code I can give you to cut and paste into your website.

PS – I almost called this the “Fall”  Term – being here in America makes their expressions very infectious!

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