Friday, January 29, 2010

The Nature of Drum Solos

In a belly dance set, the dancer usually begins with a slow piece of music, and then she might speed things up, incorporate props such as a veil or sword, and almost always, she performs a drum solo.
A drum solo? What exactly does that mean? The name sums it up; it's a dance performed solo to percussion instruments. This can mean a couple of different things, though. If the music is recorded, the dancer can choreograph her moves. If the dancer is familiar with the song, then she can quickly choreograph the song while she is dancing, even if the song is being played live. So, kind of half choreography and half improvisation.
And then there is the improvised drum solo- a dance made up on the spot to music the dancer has never heard. To an untrained dancer, the task would be impossible. And yet, once you understand how the rhythms work, you can improvise almost flawlessly; the audience wouldn't be able to guess that it wasn't choreographed.
Some drum solos are basic; you just have to look for the down beat, which usually comes on every second or fourth count. In the first class of Jill Parker's "Demystifying the Drum Solo" workshop, she had us walking around and hitting every single down beat. The result was a little sporadic, and at times I felt like I was doing the funky chicken, but the lesson was helpful in training my ear to hear the down beats.
Other drum solos aren't so easy. Sometimes the musicians are nice and they will repeat patterns of four, so that by the second or third time you hear the rhythm, you've got it down. Other musicians aren't so nice; they like to show off, to one-up the dancer, and the rhythms will be all over the place with no repeating patterns. Then you really would look like you were doing the funky chicken.
The best drum solos are when the musician and the dancer work as a team. The musician will play according to the dancer's tempo and vice-versa. Lots of eye contact is required! Think of it like partner dancing. But in this case, you don't need to worry about stepping on anyone's toes, except maybe your own.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rachel Brice and Tutankhamun

Every Friday night, the De Young Museum in San Francisco hosts a free party, complete with music, performances, and activities. In celebration of the current Tutankhamun exhibit, the festivities have included whirling dervish, belly dancing by Rasa Vitalia, and an assortment of bands. Last night was the kicker, though, with Rachel Brice performing to live music by Ajyal (a local Bay Area band).
Rachel Brice is one of my belly dance heroes. She’s been studying, teaching, and performing for well over a decade, combining sensual yoga postures with slinky belly dance moves. Her body is as lithe as a snake’s, and her movements posses a fluidity that’s like watching a river; every pop, lock, rotation, and undulation is entwined together in continuous movement.
The crowd went wild for her last night. Her improvised drum solo had me in total admiration. The drummers were definitely not being easy on her- the rhythms changed after every fourth set, with no repetitions.
I had an interesting wake-up call right before Rachel went on. Pretty much everyone in the belly dance scene has heard of Rachel Brice; she’s world renowned- a house hold name in the dance studio. So, I actually felt surprised when a women went up to her and asked, “What’s your name, dear?” It seemed like the most absurd question in the world to me. But of course, lots of non-belly dancers don’t know who she is. I guess sometimes I forget that not everyone belly dances!
After being dazzled by both Rachel Brice and Ajyal, I submersed myself in the world of Tutankhamun. Also known as King Tut, Tutankhamun became ruler of Egypt at the ripe old age of nine. He was considered a deity by many, and died mysetriously at the age of nineteen.
His tomb was found in 1922 and was a hidden trove of treasures. I can't even imagine how the discoverers must have felt. All that gold! Gilded coffins, statues, sparkling jewelery, and intricate details on every piece. It was almost mind-blowing to look at the artifacts knowing that they were over 3,000 years old.
Also a little mind-blowing was that so much of the jewelery resembled the jewelery that belly dancers wear today. Fascinating that a 3,000 year old necklace could look so familiar. I even have a necklace with similar beading to a chest piece that Tutankhamun used to wear. But I bet there’s quite a difference in the price! I wonder if anyone would notice if I swapped my piece for King Tut's...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

C'est Mécanique!

In a tucked away spot on Pier 45 of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, there is a delightful museum of vintage music boxes, antique arcade machines, dioramas of circuses and carnivals, and a gypsy who will tell your fortune for fifty cents. Old-fashioned organ grinder music fills the space with haunting melodies. Combined with the salty smell of the bay, the wonders at Musée Mécanique transport you to a carnival of a different era- the only thing missing is the prizes and the cotton candy. They even have a miniature Ferris wheel.
Entry is free, but bring a pocket full of dimes and quarters if you want to operate the machines. There are little “theatres” that will show you an old-time execution for twenty-five cents. Kind of gruesome, but they’re only puppets. The dioramas are large and fantastic with twinkling lights, music, and moving parts; the whole scene will come to life. The overall effect is a little spooky, with the frightening laughs from “Laffing Sal” and all the mechanical noises in the air, but it just adds another element to the spectacle.
Of course, you don’t want to miss the belly dance peepshow. And for less than a quarter! Although, you should be aware that it’s a mini, puppet belly dancer that will be dancing in the box; if you want to see real thing, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than just depositing a few dimes into a coin slot.
By far, my favorite thing about Musée Mécanique is the music. As a tribal fusion belly dancer, I have a lot of freedom to step out of the bonds of traditional middle eastern music when I choreograph dance pieces. The result has been choreography done to rock, Balkan music, and 1930s jazz, to name a few. There are CDs for sale at Musée Mécanique that feature organ grinders, accordions, and other circus-like instruments. It makes me want to run away and join a circus, become a belly dance sideshow performer.
However, there isn’t much of a chance of that actually happening, and instead I’ll opt for surrounding myself with the mystique of Musée Mécanique. At least, for now.

*The story of how the museum began is a worthwhile read on its website:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Warming up on the Spot!

Sometimes, the unexpected can happen when you go to a belly dance class. Like being in a rush and finding out when you arrive that you need to lead the warm-up. I've taught warm-ups before, in my own classes, but this was Jill Parker's class- meaning it was packed with over thirty women. And, of course, I had nothing prepared. Nerves almost got the better of me, but twenty-five minutes of stretches and abdominal conditioning went by faster than I thought it would. Also, I kind of got my wish....
I met with Jill Parker for lunch last week. After being away for four months, I was feeling disconnected from the dance scene and wanted some advice from one of my mentors. Well, subbing for her warm-up on Saturday was a great way to reconnect with everyone. People came up to me after class and thanked me for doing a good job. People introduced themselves and asked me my name. And Jill was grateful that someone had been available to fill in for her last minute. Having your car break down while you're on your way to teach a class has got to be stressful!
It was my first time leading such a large class, and I was thankful for the experience. And i
t made me miss teaching my own classes. Performing and teaching are entirely different from each other. You don't need to be in character when you teach. You can pause, take breaks, and not worry about remembering the choreography. And you get to talk. I am such a talker, and half the fun of teaching a class is explaining things. There is so much history behind the movements in belly dance. There are so many ways in which the movements can affect your body.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

30 Years of Rhythm and Motion!

When I arrived in San Francisco six years ago, the first dance studio I went to was Rhythm and Motion. Back then, the studio was located downtown, just south of Market St., in a slightly rundown building. There were just three studios- small, medium, and large- and the flooring was in need of repair. And yet the casual vibe made Rhythm and Motion so inviting; it felt old school, unpretentious, and accepting.
Everyone was sad when the studio closed a few years ago, but were optimistic about Rhythm and Motion’s relocation to ODC Dance Studios in the Mission District. And while I have fond memories of the old Rhythm and Motion, I have to say that the new flooring, large studios, change rooms, and common space at ODC is much more conducive for a dance environment.
Plus, Rhythm and Motion is still going strong as a company. On December 30th, the company celebrated it’s 30th anniversary. There were free classes all day long, wine and an assortment of delicious food served at 5:30pm onwards, and performances from 7pm-9pm. After the show, a DJ spun an eclectic mix of songs and the studio was turned into a dance party.
I kicked off the festivities with a belly dance class by my mentor, Jill Parker. I have never seen the studio that full. There must have been at least fifty women getting their shimmy on. My friend, Mei, was in attendance. It was one of her first belly dance classes, and there seemed to be a lot of other newcomers there, too. Thankfully, Jill Parker had the talent and expertise to pull of a multi-level class, and it was cool to see people progress throughout the lesson. It’s like riding a bike: once you get the hang of it, you never forget. But you might have to suffer a few bumps and bruises before you get it right.
Jill Parker was also one of the performers that night. If you haven’t yet seen her sultry, seductive dance choreography, then you’re missing out! She has the kind of snakelike movement that all beginning (and even advanced!) belly dancers covet. It’s one of the reasons why she’s known worldwide in the belly dance community. Plus, she picks great music for her choreography. That always helps.
There were several other performers, as well. One male and female duo in particular stood out. Two members of the RAWdance company performed a piece entitled “The Beauty Project”, which consisted of strong poses, balance, strength, and almost constant contact between the dancers. The piece lived up to the company’s name. It was raw, powerful, and beautiful. The strength of the dancers was impressive; you could see the tension in their muscles throughout the movements. The physical intimacy and exposed skin (just underwear and sports bra) was arousing; like watching two people have sex.
Watching other dancers perform always leaves me itching to dance. Needless to say, I joined the DJ dance party and got a little crazy with my friends. I mean, belly dancing to AC/DC? Turns out, it totally works. Especially when you throw in multiple hair tosses.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Belly Dance Pin-Up

I love posing nude for the same reason I love to dance: self-expression. Belly dancing and artistic nude modeling have more in common than you would think. Both require poise, endurance, and playing with facial expressions. And more importantly, both emulate the beauty of the female body in a non-derogatory way.
A few weeks ago, I did a photo shoot with West Side Photography. When being photographed in the nude, it is important to find a photographer with whom you feel comfortable. I’ve responded to plenty of ads that were requesting an “artistic nude model”, only to discover that the photographer really just wanted to shoot some porn. If that’s your cup of tea, then that’s great. It’s just not mine. And no matter how much sweet talking you do, you're not going to convince me that it is.
West Side Photography is a safe haven when it comes to feeling comfortable in front of the camera- no porn, no creepiness, no hidden agenda. Just beautiful shots of strong, empowered women. Now that’s my cup of tea.
When I talk to people about nude modeling, many exclaim that they do not have the confidence to take their clothes off for the camera. For me, it has been the opposite: posing nude has given me confidence. It is so empowering to embrace your body and bare it all to the world in a way that highlights your strengths and not your flaws. Plus, there's always Photoshop.
There is also a surprising result that occurs from seeing yourself in nude photographs. Even while looking in the mirror, I am not able to truly see how my emotions are reflected in my body language or in the expressions on my face. But after looking at a series of 400 nude photos, I can’t help but notice how much my body reflects how I feel inside.
I did my first nude photo shoot while I was recovering from a traumatic event. Despite the confidence portrayed in the pictures, there was a faint trace of frailty in every shot. Juxtapose those pictures with the ones from my last shoot, and the contrast is striking. At this point in my life, I am stronger and more confident than I’ve ever been- and it translates in the photographs. Although, I’m sure holding a sword had something to do with me looking so fierce, too.