Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tribal Superstars: Performance DVD Review

not as described | 2 out of 5 stars
Available via: Bellydance Superstars Shop, Amazon

The BDSS website describes this as a "best of" collection, however what isn't made clear is that the content of this DVD consists only of what Copeland and Co. might consider to be the "best of" what they have previously included on their own releases. There is no new performance material included here, instead this DVD is a compilation of various Tribal style pieces spanning from the very first Bellydance Superstars to the latest Bellydance Superstars: 3D Volume 2. If you have seen or happen to own a number of BDSS DVDs, chances are you will already be familiar with all of the performances on Tribal Superstars:
  1. Rachel Brice, "Saraab" from Bellydance Superstars
  2. This is classic Rachel in all her dark, snakey glory. Unfortunately the camera work is classic to the original Bellydance Superstars DVD meaning that the angles may include prop items from the set partially obscuring the dancer, and shots are often cropped to exclude a significant part of her body.
  3. Zoe Jakes & Issam Houshan drum solo, Bellydance Superstars: 3D Volume 2
  4. Sharon Kihara, "Bear Hides and Buffalo/Proper Hoodidge" from Tribal Fusions
  5. Kami Liddle & Sabrina, "Inars" from Tribal Fusions
  6. Fat Chance Bellydance, "Tin Tin" from Tribal LA: Live in Los Angeles
  7. Elizabeth Strong, "Romski Cocek" from Tribal LA: Live in Los Angeles
  8. Mardi Love, "Whiskey Sunrise" from Tribal Fusions
  9. Tribal Superstars, "The Dude" from The Art of Bellydance: Live from Shanghai
  10. Samantha, "Wayward Farewell" from The Art of Bellydance: Live from Shanghai
  11. Tribal Superstars, "Saiidi" from Bellydance Superstars: Live in Paris at the Folies Bergere
  12. This was when the Tribal Superstars included Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, and Sharon Kihara. The other group piece included on this DVD is the newer incarnation of the troupe with Kami Liddle, Samantha, Sabrina, and Moria Chappell.
  13. Zoe Jakes & Elizabeth Strong, "Dope Crunk" from Tribal LA: Live in Los Angeles
  14. Kami Liddle, "A Necessary End" from Tribal Fusions: Volume 2
  15. Note: The music is cited as "Saltillo" by A Necessary End but in fact the song title and artist are reversed. I discovered this when I went to search for the song on iTunes.
  16. Moria Chappell, "Engrish Bwudd" from Tribal Fusions: Volume 2
  17. Note: The credits claim the music as "Ping Heng/Sleeping Somber" by Solace but this is definitely not the case.
  18. Urban Tribal, "Derivations" from Tribal Fusions: Volume 2
  19. Although this is from a newer release in the BDSS catalog, this particular recording also seems to suffer from a lot of periodic cropping which is especially egregious in this case since Urban Tribal rely so much on the overall composition and interaction of their troupe. You cannot appreciate this when forcibly focused on just the upper body of one dancer.
If you have not previously been exposed to these particular pieces, or if you enjoyed some of them but do not already own the original DVDs on which they appeared, this might be a worthwhile investment, but otherwise I don't think it is really worth the purchase price. I felt mislead both by the descriptions on the BDSS online shop and the Amazon website into buying it, believing it to have at least some never-before-professionally-released performance footage from the impressive roster of dancers listed on the cover. Although this is a very subjective assessment, I cannot help but feel this DVD really does not represent the best work of these dancers as captured in the pre-existing BDSS collection. I also get the impression that there may have been a rush to release this DVD, considering all the typos and incorrect information in the credits.

The only worthwhile, new material included on this release are several interviews with various Tribal dancers and Miles Copeland. These are substantial interviews too, not just a few stolen, hectic moments before a show in the dressing room — this section rivals (or exceeds) the length of the performance portion of the DVD. The dancers describe their influences, the challenges of being in an internationally touring bellydance troupe, and some of their experiences from the road among other things. I particularly enjoyed hearing Carolena Nericcio talk about how she came up with the cue system for ATS dance. Almost all of the Tribal Superstars discuss the fact that unlike their Cabaret comrades who have a plethora of bellydance fashion designers from whom to commission costumes for each show, the Tribal Superstars craft their own costumes and are responsible for their own extensive hair and makeup. Moria actually displays the belt and bra is is working on to coordinate with the color scheme of the other Superstars and tells the story behind some of the components. It was also interesting to see most of the dancers without stage makeup (Zoe, Kami, and Sabrina seemed to be only wearing very light makeup. Moria was interviewed still in her stage makeup and elaborately-done hair). The contrast is striking and it allows for a better realization of all the time that must go into preparing for a show.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Behold, we have video!

One of my fellow Daughters of the Hip members uploaded a high-definition video of our performance to You Tube:
(Tribal Spirit's aforementioned performance can be seen here.)

I got started a little late during one part of the choreography section since my compulsive shaking was making it difficult to get my scimitar properly in place, and as I previously surmised, I definitely looked too stiff during the sword balancing segment. My range of motion is normally not that limited. The improv section was a little better and I did loosen up some, but you can still tell I was not really at ease up on stage. I can in fact layer a 3/4 shimmy over my Turkish but my body just wasn't cooperating that day.

I wish there was some way to simulate the presence of an audience during practice so I could work at surmounting my fears, but to my knowledge there is no such way other than actually dancing in front of live people. While there are strategies and exercises for overcoming stage fright and developing a strong stage presence, I think you can only truly "practice" performance by actually performing. There is no substitute for the real experience.

This brings up the dilemma of a dancer's readiness to perform versus his or her desire and intent to do so. A few other bellydance bloggers have posted recently about this issue (Tempest and Miischelle for example) and I think it is a worthy one. I agree with the other bloggers in that I do not think baby beginner dancers should be performing for the general public, especially without the explicit caveat that they are beginning or student dancers. In other words, beginners or even intermediate level dancers shouldn't be masquerading as professional performers.

However, once a dancer has gotten a fair amount of learning under her belt* and has the go-ahead from her teacher, I think it is beneficial to perform as a student at haflas or events for fellow dancers, friends, and family. Practice, both on and off stage, makes perfect, and amateur dancers should have appropriate venues to practice their performance skills so they can improve.

Just to clarify (and so I don't sound like a giant hypocrite), our performance at the DE Hafla was as a student troupe. Our non-professional status was noted as such both in the printed program and by the announcement immediately prior to our performance.

I don't think there is a hard and fast universal rule as to what the proper time period of study might be prior to performance at the type of events I suggest would be appropriate for amateur dancers — it would vary from dancer to dancer depending upon how long the dancer has been taking classes, how many classes per week he or she takes, how much time outside of class the dancer devotes to practice, the innate ability of the dancer to learn the movements.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sweet Relief

Yesterday was quite a day. My boyfriend and I arrived about an hour early (we anticipated that the drive to Delaware would take longer than it did) so we decided to take a walk on Main Street. It was a pleasant walk, however it had to be one of the hottest days I recall in this already sweltering summer so by the time we got back to the restaurant I was already drenched in sweat and exhausted.

I was told our performance went well and that even during the choreographed section the four of us were in-sync with each other. None of us dropped our swords and we did not miss our cues from what I can tell. I'd still like to see the video footage to critique my own performance though.

Danielle, Colleen, Kristin & I in mid-"swashbuckler" move. I'm all the way on the left.

Personally, I was so nervous that I was physically shaking — so much so that I feared it might be perceptible by the audience, but apparently it wasn't from those I queried afterwords. The shaking did make sword balancing that much more difficult though, even with the added stickiness provided by the hairspray on my head and beeswax on the blade that I did not use during the rehearsals. As a result I wasn't able to articulate as much as I would have liked while the sword was on my head and probably looked a little stiff. In addition to that, the space had a row of skylights which shed direct sunlight into my face virtually the entire time. I found that mentally I wasn't afraid of the audience and having them so close while dancing despite my body's reaction, but with sun being so bright I could not see them anyways. In most of the photos from the event, at least one of us was completely obscured by the blinding light. If you happen to be on Facebook, you can view my full album here and observe the phenomenon yourself.

I'm in the lead position here for the Tribal improv section of our piece. I think I was just thankful to be able to see for a moment.

There were a number of other great performances that took place that evening. Tribal Spirit did a delicious improv piece which included a lot of cute moves I don't think I've ever seen them do before. They seem so at ease performing and they give the impression that they are dancing not mainly for the spectator's enjoyment but for their own. I am jealous :) I'm hoping a video gets posted of their performance also.

Fatima Bassmah was the headlining dancer this month. I think she would make a perfect Snow White with her raven hair, red lips, and flawless fair skin. She danced twice that evening with a number of props. During one piece she balanced a bejeweled sword on her head while standing on glass goblets. I've never seen wine glasses used as a dance prop in person and was duly impressed. She later did an encore dance with an expertly weilded cane and then a final, upbeat dance to what I believe was a Sha'abi song.

Black Dragon Bellydance did a lovely skirt dance with lots of flourishes and spins. Naja Haje took the part of a serpent emerging from the snake-charmer's vessel: complete with huge basket, a bearded, flute-bearing snake-charmer, and a veil with a design evoking the brown and white pattern on a cobra's head. The music fittingly featured the ney as the prominent instrument. I wish I could have better seen the work of the dancers who immediately preceded and followed ours but I think I was so distracted about our own performance that I didn't get a chance to properly appreciate theirs.

I hope I have the opportunity to perform again in the relatively near future, though my preference would either be without a prop or with one that wouldn't impale my foot if I accidentally dropped it. I'm grateful to Vikki of Hipnosis who wrote the choreography and guided us through the rehearsals and for the three other ladies who danced with me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crossing my fingers

Tomorrow will be my second official performance. Needless to say I'm really nervous (just writing about it makes me anxious).

Three other ladies and I will be dancing a hybrid sword choreography/Tribal improvisation piece at the monthly Drum & Dance Hafla hosted by Lorelei in Newark, Delaware. We are dancing as Daughters of the Hip, the student troupe from the Tribal Bellies Studio. Later in the evening Tribal Spirit, who is sort of like the "big sister" troupe to Daughters of the Hip, will also be dancing.

Other than the workshop where we actually learned the choreographed portion, we've rehearsed four times. I think I have the choreography section down, but whether I can remember it when on stage will be another matter entirely. Being rather new to balancing and dancing with a sword, I've been trying to forge a friendship with my new dance partner, a Balady Scimitar, and hopefully we will get along well tomorrow. Almost everything about this performance is fairly new to me, which makes this one more nerve-wracking than the previous one. I should really be more positive!

From what I understand, two people will be videotaping the performance, so in the not too distant future there will likely be some YouTube footage to reference.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dance Styles, Class Styles

I am really enjoying taking two classes per week, each in a different style of bellydance. Pragmatically I need the exercise, but I find that Cabaret and ITS (i.e. Improvisational Tribal Style) classes balance each other out quite nicely. It is not just the more obvious contrasts between the dance styles that offer a pleasing variety, although that is certainly part of it, but the differing manner in which they are taught and the cultures that have grown around them. Each class style has its benefits and its frustrations. In the past when I have just taken one style of bellydance at a time, I either found myself craving more creativity or more structure whereas in taking both styles I am able to better satisfy both desires.

My Tribal classes provide a very consistent regimen: there are only a limited amount of movements we learn in a session, the drills are the same throughout the class, the order of and the general instruction style is the same. We even tend to use the same music throughout the course. Even if I do not know the move we will be learning that day, I usually know what to expect and in what order things will occur: warm-up, drills, zill practice, instruction, practice incorporating the new move, and a cool-down. The entire program of Tribal classes follows a very specific path with each class building directly upon the next. The whole number levels (Level 1, 2, 3, 4) focus on increasing the dance vocabulary while the interim levels (Level 1.5, 2.5, 3.5) focus on group formations, dynamics, and practicing the moves more in the context of the group dance.

My Cabaret classes on the other hand are more fluid. We do start with the same stretching routine and generally do some similar drills (we almost always do shimmy drills), and we end with more stretching, but the main bulk of the class is much more open. My teacher takes suggestions from students as to what we might like to work on that day and the instruction itself can end up taking different avenues depending upon the class's reaction or aesthetic reasons, for example if we are practicing a combination and the sequence or transitions are not flowing nicely the combination is altered to address the issue. These classes are not nearly as stratified and are usually just divided into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced level courses.

The varying class styles are largely a natural outgrowth of the two different approaches to the dance. Of course this is not to say that all ITS classes are as highly organized as mine have been or that all Cabaret classes leave as much room for interpretation as those I have taken, but there is an internal logic which guides the class style based upon the dance style.

ITS/ATS by necessity needs to be structured so that the students learn the proper form and timing to dance as a unified group without choreography. One of the things I learned in my Graphic Design classes in college was that the goal of a successful typeface was to create a "beautiful set of letters, not a set of beautiful letters" and the same is true for an ITS troupe and its component dancers. The format does not work if the cues are not clear and people deviate from the standard movements. The group formations are not determined just by what will appeal to a spectator but primarily to allow each of the followers to have a clear sight-line to the current leader. The downside to this is that ITS is some ways can hinder personal expression since the aim of the dance is to be a harmonious group. If a dancer puts too much of her own spin on a step it makes her stand out and distracts from the audience's perception of the group as a whole. (Carolena Nericcio discusses this idea a bit in one of her recent blog entries.) For those that primarily find the joy in dance by connecting with and interpreting the music, ITS may not be the best choice since the format does not cater to music with many quick transitions and tempo changes. In some cases the music in ITS may largely serve as an aural backdrop where only the main beat or phrasing of the music determines the movements (e.g. fast, slow) rather than the emotional content or the meaning of the lyrics, etc. On a positive note, the nature of ITS as a group dance fosters a unique closeness among those who regularly dance together. The constant group practice provides direct interaction with your class peers. Unlike in choreographed group dance as found in Cabaret style, you are not simply dancing with each other but in response to each other — you must constantly be aware of what your leader and troupe-mates are doing and react accordingly.

Since Cabaret is not restricted to a set vocabulary it is able to more easily accommodate the teaching of many variations of a movement. For example a basic hip lift can be presenting with various ways to frame the hips with the arms, it can incorporate a kick, twist, or level change etc. An educated teacher might also be able to advise what variation is more typical to Egyptian or Turkish style bellydance, for instance. Cabaret classes are free to explore these tangents and can afford to be a little more spontaneous. However, this same openness could potentially lend itself to a less effective learning environment where the presentation of so many possibilities may not allow time to adequately drill the core movement and ingrain it properly into muscle memory. Without a set class progression complete with a specific roster of movements per session, you may find that certain ones are either repeated or not discussed at all, and it can be more difficult to gauge what you have accomplished in that session. In addition, if the instructor tends to create combinations on the spot and you happen to like one in particular, you must be sure to write it down or commit it to memory as that exact same combination may never occur again. As this style of dance tends to highlight solo dancers, it is more encouraging of dancers to develop their own style as distinct from the whole class group and even that of the instructor. I have had numerous Cabaret teachers emphasize that the point of learning to dance was not to become a clone of the teacher but to gain the tools to hone one's own voice as a dancer.

I think there are more interesting parallels to be drawn between the style of dance and the way it is taught, and I find the contemplation of the similarities and differences between dance/class styles fascinating so there may be other entries down the line which continue to explore this topic. As I've only taken Tribal classes with one studio, I'd be interesting in hearing what others have to say about the setup of their Tribal classes and if your experiences are congruent with mine. I've taken Cabaret classes with four different teachers over the years so I have a better idea as to what might actually be dictated by the dance style and not just the individual teacher's own preferences, but I'd still like to know about those experiences too. I imagine a more specific Cabaret format like Suhaila or Jamila Salimpour's might more resemble the arrangement of my Tribal classes but that level of structure doesn't seem to be typical of most Cabaret classes.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Cabaret Classes

I started a new round of classes in AmCab style bellydance last evening with a new teacher.* Mirjana was offering both beginner and intermediate level classes Monday evenings and I agonized over the class for which I should register. At this point, I'm beyond hip slides and snake arms and would like some more varied material, but I'm extremely hesitant about considering myself an intermediate level dancer.

As there is no universal standard of what distinguishes a beginner from an intermediate level class (a class with one instructor could be much more challenging and involve such different material than one with another instructor) it is difficult to gauge where one might be properly situated within a certain teacher's curriculum unless you are already very familiar with it. I did not want to assume that I would have the skills and knowledge necessary for an intermediate class. To be honest, there is also the fear of overestimating my abilities and constantly embarrassing myself in front of more experienced dancers should I choose the higher level class. I'm reminded of a quotation which was posted on the cork board at the Tribal Bellies studio which, to paraphrase, says: "Beginning dancer: knows nothing & is willing to learn from anyone. Intermediate dancer: thinks she knows everything & only wants to learn from masters. Advanced dancer: realizes that there is always more to learn, is willing to dance with & learn from everyone." Although this is only a generalization, it definitely does hold some truth in my experience, and I do not wish to find myself in the middle category.

So I wrote to Mirjana, explained my dilemma, gave her some background on my previous classes, and asked which class would be more appropriate for me. She recommended the intermediate level so the decision was made, but the anguish was not over on my part. After actually registering for the classes I had nightmares akin to those I had prior to the first day of school. I realized how much I had been working myself up over the "intermediate" issue, beyond the conscious and into the subconscious level.

I arrived to class, which strangely enough is held in a building which was once my father's elementary school, very nervous and unsure of what to expect. The room where the class was held looked like it was converted into a wrestling practice space complete with thick, plastic-coated padding covering nearly the entirety of the floor. I wasn't really prepared for that and during class my bare feet kept sticking to it, but where the chalkboards once were are now large mirrors which is a plus. The class itself was not as intimidating as I had feared. Most things I picked up quickly however there were one or two things I struggled with, but that also seemed to be the case with the other students so I didn't feel hopelessly inferior. It's hard to make an assessment after just one class, but for the moment I'm glad to say that my fears were probably just an overreaction.

* A few months prior I was taking Cabaret classes with Suffiyah Monday evenings and was really enjoying them, but the person she was renting the space from apparently was months behind on paying his rent to the landlord and was subsequently evicted so we lost the studio space. A few weeks went by and no suitable alternative was found. Most of the other students were able to move to Wednesday nights which wasn't an option for me since my Tribal classes are that evening, so I've been on the lookout for other Cabaret on Monday classes.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Serpentine: Belly Dance with Rachel Brice 2-DVD Set

On pre-order. Enough said.

Honestly, I didn't even have a choice in the matter. It was like the button clicked itself, and Paypal magically dispensed the money from my account of its own volition.

I'm surprised by the pairing of WDNY and Ms.Brice since she has been so closely tied with Copeland and BDSS productions in the past, but I for one am glad for the partnership. I have her first instructional DVD, Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, and it is good overall, but the production quality is not stellar (and the editing in the brief performance was awful). WDNY DVDs in my experience tend to have much better lighting, uncluttered sets, and just have a general clean, crisp appearance to them. Plus the pricing cannot be beat: on the WDNY website the 2-DVD set is only $24.98 with free shipping (at least to the US). You can't beat it with a bejeweled cane.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Costume in Progress

A few months ago I decided to take it upon myself to make a costume. Lately I've been really fond of pewter gray and decided that I would love to have a costume primarily in that color. I have not seen too many gray costumes (although Black Lotus Clothing and Dahlal [see "Lightning Strikes" by Hoda] have ones I adore) so I like the idea of having something slightly out-of-the-ordinary as most Tribal and Tribal fusion costumes have black as the base.

Since I've been taking both Cabaret and Tribal classes and have been finding that my own personal style lies somewhere in between, I also wanted to make a costume which could potentially be worn in either context. It will end up being more eclectic than standard Cabaret costumes but more glittery than standard Tribal costumes. Hopefully though it won't feel as out of place as a turban and a tassel belt among Egyptian bedlahs (or the reverse situation of a sparkly hipscarf and pink chiffon skirt among an ATS troupe).

Thankfully a belt-making workshop was held a little after this idea came to mind, so this time I had some initial help in designing and creating a sturdy belt base. The first belt I made was really an experiment where I had only a nebulous idea of what I was doing. It turned out okay nevertheless, but the workshop was exceedingly helpful and my previous belt would have turned out much better had I known some of the things taught in the workshop. For example, fusible interfacing is a godsend for reinforcing the base and making it easier to hand sew embellishments. Heavier fabric is not enough in and of itself. I also learned how to make a customized belt pattern which wraps around the hips without gapping, which is necessary for a girl like me with a curvy figure.

I don't consider myself an ambitious person, especially not in work and social environments where I'm happy to remain relatively unnoticed, but in the realm of arts & crafts it is a different matter entirely. This costume is proving to be no exception. The other girls in the workshop with me created some lovely Tribal style belts with just an assortment of trims and accents like Kuchi buttons, etc., and their belts were almost completed with the embellishment phase by the end. Most of my work, on the other hand, really began when I took the belt home. The vast majority of work on this costume must be done by hand. In the photo above all the sequins, glass pearls, beads, crystals, Turkman buttons, Victorian-style buttons, etc. were all sewn by hand. Since this photo was taken a few days ago I've already removed the large beaded medallion in the upper left corner of the image (removing it took just about as long as beading it in the first place) and have replaced it with a large, round Turkman pendant which better balances the complexity of the bead and sequin embroidery flanking it. I've also removed a line of sequins because the iridescent coating on them ended up being too overwhelmingly pink and clashed with the rest of the design. I purchased some silver Egyptian beaded fringe to line the bottom which I need to figure out how to securely attach. And this photo only shows the left half of the back of the belt!

Once I finish the belt, I have to work on the corresponding gray bra base I commissioned from BelliPhat.

I now realize that I must indeed be a crazy person to have voluntarily taken on this project of making a costume. Even with help with elements like the bra and belt base, it's still an amazing amount of work. $600+ for an Eman Zaki or Pharaonics of Egypt costume might seem like a large chunk of change, but I think after all the labor and materials going into this costume are accounted for it will add up to at least that amount.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Catching Up

Although I've been quiet on the blog front lately, a lot has been occurring in my little corner of bellydanceland. I've taken a couple of workshops I've been remiss in writing about, added a number of new instructional DVDs to my growing collection, and I'm now taking two classes per week, each with a different teacher in a different style.

Back in November I took workshops with DC area dancers Asharah and Belladonna. Based on the extensive warm-ups and drills on Asharah's DVD, I was really expecting to be utterly decimated by her workshop, but it was surprisingly one of the less strenuous workshops I've taken so far. I'd like to pretend that's because I might be in better shape than I was for previous workshops (ha!) but I think it's more likely that Asharah was able to gauge the overall level of the participants and was merciful :) The particular workshop I took with her revolved around the sort of almost mechanized, hip-hop influenced movements (e.g. ticking, strobing, etc.) which are part of her signature style. Much of the main material was similar to what is taught on the DVD. It was very internal and involved a lot of fine muscular control. We did a great deal of working with the glutes and used variations of Suhaila's drills to help sharpen hipwork and make it look more staccato. For some reason that is unclear to me I've never had a problem isolating those muscles (quite the contrary actually), but I'm not used to contracting them in such a deliberate way while standing and simultaneously executing hip movements. Asharah was a very enthusiastic, almost bubbly, teacher and I liked that she frequently walked around to give attention to specific individuals during the workshop. I got to purchase a lovely headdress from her which she actually wore in the first Gothic Bellydance DVD which made my inner fangirl squee with joy.

Belladonna taught us one of her signature combinations, in this case a flirty, burlesque-influenced number. She primarily teaches a version of improvisational bellydance using longer combinations which may last for 16+ counts (an approach similar to Unmata's) in addition to the standard 8-count moves typically used in the ATS vocabulary. This one in particular cued from Arabic. It took nearly the entire workshop to cover the whole combination and the material was presented very quickly. I wish I could remember more of it, but my learning style and short term memory issues makes these types of workshops very difficult for me.

A week or two ago I got to take a short workshop with Jasmine, a dancer of Middle Eastern descent who performs in Las Vegas. She taught us a simplified version of debke and the beginnings of a cane choreography. I really appreciated learning about her firsthand experiences at family gatherings where debke is actually performed. The cane portion was honestly out of my range as I have zero experience dancing any sort of raks assaya while the other people in the workshop seemed to have prior knowledge. Of course it would have helped if I had a suitable cane. The only one I could locate on such short notice was an actual walking cane which was far too heavy and cumbersome to be of actual use.

I really want to touch upon the new weekly classes I'm taking, but I think I'll save that for the next entry.