10 Reasons to Study Your History

abraham-lincoln-bw13copyStudy your dance history that is!

As an instructor presenting you with a look at vintage American Cabaret Style, it has been a great opportunity for me to dissect and share with you my dance history, the history of my teachers and evolution.  More importantly it allows us all to look at our collective history as belly dancers in America. It connects us all in a way that helps you realize this dance is much more complex and textured with influences felt from far away places and long forgotten dancers than our singular experience with it allows.  Exploring rich cultural heritages and it’s people who  immigrated to our shores bringing music, dance and customs that have shaped our dance today. It is a portal where we can view some of the most fundamental principles of musicality, dance vocabulary and choreographic elements which are the backbone of this dance today.  It allows us to explore the robustness of movement, the exchanges between musician, audience and dancer, while it was still being performed in a cabaret with long, luxurious sets unencumbered by the ticking clock, sans choreography and truly an interactive experience for  all.
Years before it was plucked out of its organic setting, polished, perfected, refined and made suitable for the proscenium stage. Long before VHS, you tube and satellite TV or even instant cameras. As one of my teachers said, “Before the Egyptians came”.

Trains your ear...yes rhythm identification,  and maybe more importantly is learning instrument identification. Learning to name and personify literally, the traditional instruments allows us to focus on the fundamentals of  becoming the music. As the decades have passed we rarely hear single instrument verses in music written for dance or songs except in solos or taxims. We have groups of violins or herds of percussionists and or keyboard or computer generated music and loops.
Returns us to the basics…yes returning us to the basics.  With less complex music, we had a less complex vocabulary.  We had a dance step or movement  that wasn’t afraid to repeat itself…because the music was repeating itself. We had a dance step that could be applied to many rhythms…dancers had time to explore the nuances of a movement along with the takseem of each instrument.  Milking it, stretching it, filling up the music, filling the time and space around her with it and allowing it to organically unfold as the music did.
Keeps us grounded…literally and figuratively.  The movements were generated to move our hips, so that your could hear our coin belts and  see the fabric of skirts responding.  Our movements were usually flat-footed unless your were moving quickly through space or turning.  The movement vocabulary was long before Westerners studying this dance incorporated less grounded technique of lifting our center of gravity up towards our chest.
Explores the craft of  choreography The dance seems pretty simple in comparison to current trends in Belly Dance. Yes it is! Current trends only allow students 5-7 minutes of time to present their dance.  With those kinds of time limitations, it is common to “wow” the audience with everything you have with complex expressions of our dance. That’s not what American Cabaret or an Egyptian style dance are about at all.  There is plenty of time to explore and join basic elements of choreography into your dance. When I say choreography, I don’t mean to suggest you make a dance before hand!  You explore and play with the music while it is happening utilizing concepts of choreography crafting within an improvisation!  Fundamental principles like:
Timing and Tempo changes and contrasts like: slow, fast, rushing or dragging time within the dynamics of our dance vocabulary.
Level changes releve, lunge, floor work. The takseem for me is one of the best places to really go deep and connect with the music.
Exploring floor patterns not only is this a great tool for dance craft, but for me utilizing basic shape and geometry in space in your travel steps was a way for me to keep myself oriented to the band ,the audience and to a big extent the music! It allowed me to be center stage (even in a cabaret there is a center) when a piece of music ended  or a transition to another “part” as in 5 or 7 part dance. More importantly, I believe it connects the audience to our dance and the musicians in a profound way. Using universal shapes in space in patterns that are directly related to the phrasing of the music and share a relationship to the elements of the show, allows the audience to experience you,  your dance and the music without  having to think too hard at what is happening or where you are going next.  Not only is there a  great psychological security for the dancer with this use of symmetry and pattern but also for the audience, whether it is concious or not!
Reminds us of the power of simplicity when we use simple shapes in space that are orchestrated at sharing the dance with the audience and musicians. See above!
Finger Cymbals, zils, zagat! It keeps this skill alive and gives one of the biggest opportunities  for increasing your range of expression with this instrument. Finger cymbal patterns can duplicate the rhythm of the drum. They can complement the melody (syncopated, counterpoint, pauses) of the melody accompanying the rhythm. They can reflect and complement the movements; your dance and the music.  They also give us the chance as dancers to be an important part of the band.  Remember, in this era there were no drum machines or “Korg” keyboards programmed with a finger cymbal track.
Music Exploration of the ethnic origins of music and it’s elements which are part of our  current repertoire today.
Spinning..yes spinning as opposed to turning! At least in the West Coast in the 80’s, spinning was as commonly used as the vigorous shimmy of the time.  I think we owe that influence to when “Sufism” was introduced in the mid “70’s to America.  This is what I recall from one of my teachers.  I know she did not study it “over there” as it is not practiced by women in the Middle East.
Unites the participants..yes, everyone in the room!  Musicians and the audience.  Belly Dance, came from a long history of celebratory,  community rituals.   Gatherings that included baptisms, weddings, hennas and haflis. It is a recent phenomenon to bring it to the stage where the audience is a witness, instead of a participant.
So just as an Egyptian or Arab styled dancer learns the folkloric dances to inform her oriental dance.  I think studying the origins of American Cab Routine as done in the past  50’s through the late 80’s on both East and West Coasts (remember…this genre spread West)! is an important part of our (American) dancer training.  Chances are if you have an instructor who is active in the dance world for a respectable amount of time, she was influenced through her teacher’s experience with this genre and it’s influence has shaped her musicality today.  I know it has mine!

I think that’s 10!  Here are some links on YouTube to some of my favorite vintage styled dances!

Aida Al Adawi  Once a SF resident, Aida was and is a legend! Check out her videos and you will be transported back in time!
Dahlena I don’t think she has ever lived in SF, but Dahlena was and is one of America’s finest vintage Bellydancers!
Bal Anat While  this troupe is not considered cabaret, it was the training ground for many of the West Coast finest dancers. Bal Anat was a major contributor (actually the biggest or original) the Tribal era in America.
East Coast Sadly I can’t find all my links to the great East Coast dancers, but this clip gives you an idea of the era and styling.
Lesson: If you want to learn a choreography using vintage music and technique, this video is great!
Historical These videos were recently released to the public and  contain huge amounts of dance in the different historical and geographical contexts.
Alia I’d not heard of this dancer this dancer before, there is good reason!  A contemporary dancer who has embraced vintage style and is doing a fab job of it!