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.