Thursday, December 18, 2014

TIPS FOR MIND-BENDING BELLY FLUTTERS

Photo by Maharet Hughes

The question I  probably get asked most frequently is how I get my abdominal flutters so strong, even, sustained and large enough to see from the back of the room- no matter what size the venue is. First of all, my flutters do not come from an ability to move my abdominal muscles in and out quickly.  I could definitely do that… but if I was engaging my abs by pulling them in and out super-fast, then I wouldn’t be able to layer belly rolls with my flutters, a movement that I call the  “flundulation”.
I’m going to share a few tips to my super-human flutters with you.  With a little ok, a lot- of practice, you’ll be able to achieve mind-bending flutters yourself.
The main secret for  "alien belly",wild-looking flutters is to keep your  abdominal muscles soft and relaxed, while your skeleton remains in standard dance posture- pelvis neutral with the tailbone tucked slightly towards the floor, ribcage lifted, and shoulders back and down. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is!
 Think about it: our abdominal muscles are constantly engaged, whether we’re conscious of it or not.  When enter in performance, our abs are always engaged- we’ve been trained to do that!  When we walk into a party or social gathering, we automatically pull up into a regal posture, without even thinking about it. Trying on a costume or an item in a store’s dressing room, we immediately suck in our stomachs. 
Letting our bellies remain relaxed is completely conditioned out of us by society, so it might take you a while to get the hang of keeping your skeleton engaged and your abdominal muscles soft. When I was training to do this- and I taught myself, no one showed me- I’d place my hands on my sides, actually hooking my fingers just under my top ribs, so I could really feel my ribcage staying lifted as I let my belly go soft.  It looks kinda dorky, but try it- it works!
After you’ve gotten comfortable with that, it’s time to discover your diaphragm, which is the place of initiation for all my flutters.  The diaphragm, the large, major muscle that controls our breathing, is strong and kinda dome-shaped, sitting in the lower middle of your torso. Though we’re usually not aware of it, the diaphragm contracts rhythmically as we breathe as we breathe in and out. But if you concentrate, you can control the diaphragm- like when you breathe in deeply, holding your breath before diving into water. Think of your diaphragm as an inflatable ball. It fills up as you inhale and deflates when you exhale.   So you can feel it in motion, place your hand on your diaphragm and breath slowly and deeply.
 Once you’ve located your diaphragm and felt it moving naturally, try it a few times with conscious control, breathing in and out slowly and deeply as you keep your skeleton lifted and your abdominal muscles soft and un-engaged.  Now, try exhaling sharply, cutting the diaphragm’s muscle movement off. You’ve done this correctly if you feel a little clutch or catch.  Repeat this a few times, allowing yourself a couple of moments of regular breathing in between so you don’t get all light-headed and dizzy.
 A word to the wise: while many people advocate catching your breath and “cutting it off” at the throat, I don’t advocate this practice. Not only are the little “catches” you make while doing that visible to the audience, the movements also can cause the tendons in the neck to pop out and look sort of stringy and ugly…even on younger dancers! 
Instead, try to visualize that little clutch or catch staying  just at the top of your ribs, directly under your cleavage…or, if you're a guy, directly under and between your man-candy pectoral muscles.
 Remember, the diaphragm is one of the strongest muscles in our body; it’s in constant use as we breathe. If you repeat these practice movements even just a few times a day, the strength in your diaphragm will build up at lightening speed…and soon, you will have a flutter that the audience can see from the back of the room!
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 If you liked finding out a bit about abdominal technique here, then you’ll LOVE my instructional DVD, “ABS-olutely Fabulous”- it’s packed with info on flutters, belly rolls, and undulations!  Get it here:


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

AVERAGE HUMAN...OR DANCER? TAKE THE QUIZ!

Photo by Maharet Hughes



 Some people say dancing is just “a lifestyle”…I say it’s more than that...it's life itself!  It's in the DNA! We  dancers are a distinctly different breed.  We are dancers foremost, and human beings  second. Sure, Whether you’re a performing professional , instructor or student,  dancers are not like everyone else!

In order to more fully research the “dance genome”, I’ve created a quiz. Get a pen and paper, and mark down the letter of the answer that best describes you:

1. You have a tough time differentiating between stage make up and every day make up. You use an inordinate amount of cosmetics no matter what, and frequently have to “tone it down” for daily  wear.…but you’re uncertain what that means or how to go about it!
a)  Every day make up?
b) This has never been a problem

2.You refuse to listen to music during a massage, because you start counting the beats and phrases
a) Huge problem…and I only listen to talk radio for the same reason!
b) What do you mean?

3. You seem to have pulled a network of muscles in your leg, shoulder or back… do you:
a) Ice the injury down for a few minutes, pop an anti-inflammatory and carry on with your day
b) Schedule a doctor visit immediately

4. You just met a new Special Someone… but  finding the  actual time to date is becoming frustrating.
a) What is this thing you call “dating”?
b) Are you crazy?

5. By some  sublime miracle of fate, you  have a gap in your weekend schedule; do you think to yourself:
 a)  Ahhh… so this is how the other half lives…uh, what should I do?
b) We all need some downtime!

6. Holidays mean nothing to you, because you’re always working or in class.
a) What, exactly, is a holiday?
b) Holidays are a time to celebrate with family and friends

7. You own costumes and  ratty sweats… nothing in between!
a)  Sometimes I dream about going shopping for a cute little dress, but then I get my act together and go to class.
b) I practically live at the mall!

8.You can never find a bobby pin or safety pin, no matter how many packages you buy.
a) I know, right?
b) WTF is up with that?

9. You always wondered  what that phrase “dance like no one is watching” was supposed to  mean…
a) What does that mean?
b) I wish!

10. Your feet are constantly dirty and calloused:
a)  In another life, my feet will be pampered and perfect
b) Eeeew, gross!

11. Your  purse is always filled with essentials like band-aids, ibuprophen, Top-Stik, and false eyelashes
a) Oh, and  hair spray,  an Ace bandage, sewing kit, extra jewelry, and five lipsticks!
b) What the hell is Top-Stik?

12. You can always be located: just follow the trail of glitter!
a)  So true!
b) Isn’t glitter just…like… a “thing” for an eight-year-old girl’s  birthday party?


 Ok, time to total up the score:
 If you got mostly A answers- and I’m sure you did-  it’s clear you are one of us with the Super Powers!

If you got mostly B answers:
 Not sure how it’s possible you read this far…but thanks! See you at my next gig, I’ll come on out after the show and say hi!


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 Purchase a  signed copy of my books “The Belly Dance Handbook: A  Companion For The Serious Dancer”  or my memoir “Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage And On The Road” here:



 Both books are available wholesale for teachers or studios- to make an inquiry, visit this link and click on  “email” in the top right hand corner:






Tuesday, December 2, 2014

THE ASSIUT QUEEN


 Assiut Queen Dawn Devine aka Davina: Photo by Alisha Westerfield


Quite a few dancers can brag about having a career  that spans a quarter of a century, but not that many of them can also claim concurrent and wildly  successful careers  as costumers,  art historians and  authors! The multi-talented  Davina, aka Dawn Devine  can…only thing is, she doesn’t gloat about it, she’s  much too  nice – and busy- for that sort of thing. Easy-going, sweet and funny, Davina is so understated about her vast accomplishments, that even if you know her, they might surprise you!

Dawn has so many college degrees, they practically form their own alphabet, and in addition to performing and teaching belly dancing and costuming classes throughout the USA, she also has numerous museums show credits.  She is an expert on antique textiles  (especially Assiut, but more on that in a minute!)  Victorian clothing, and vintage couture, with many lecturing engagements under her tasseled hip belt.  She also   a slew of informative, instructional   costuming books to her credit, including Embellished Bras, Costuming from the Hip, From Turban to Toe Ring, Bedlah, Baubles and Beads and Style File.

Rayah wears a vintage assiut shawl from the collection of Judeen Esau.  This gorgeous piece has a rich blue groundcloth and a golden hue to the metal.  Photo by Alisha Westerfeld
 As anyone who knows her can attest, Dawn is a walking encyclopedia on anything concerning belly dance costuming, but her favorite subject, and most enduring obsession is Assiut, the gorgeous traditional net and metal fabric named for the    Egyptian city of the same name.  All belly dancers, no matter what their preferred style, are in love with Assiut.  Spotting a vintage piece of Assiut on eBay causes dancers to bid like maniacs, eager to  part with their rent money. Merely mentioning it  on social media causes comments like “I’m drooling all over my keyboard!”  And in real life, a shawl of vintage Assuit at a flea market has been known to induce catfights.

 Davina’s  own Assiut mania began this way:

My love story began in a crowded antique store, filled with dusty cases holding tumults of vintage items. I turned and looked across a crowded room and my life changed.  In an instant the rest of the world disappeared and I only had eyes for one thing. My love story began in a crowded antique store, filled with dusty cases holding tumults of vintage items.  There were jewelry pieces and objects d’art. There were trinkets and baubles, the day-to-day objects that populated the lives of our ancestors, 60, 80, 100 years ago.  But there, draped gently over the edge of a photo frame, and laid delicately across a shelf was my beauty.  She was creamy and soft, with pewter-toned metal stitches.  It was Assiut, and it was going to be mine!”
 
                        1920's French silent screen actress Stacia Napierkowska in Assiut


 Since that fateful moment, she’s been hooked on Assiut, also known as tulle bi telli.  It became a hobby, moved into a personal mania phase, and then, it took over her life! Now, she’s spreading the love- and her vast knowledge.


Davina’s latest book, done with  photographer and belly dancer Alisha Westerfield,  The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut was just published.  The book is gigantic, highly informative, impeccably researched, and loaded with incredible  vintage photos of Assuit, as well as step-by-step instructions  for fabricating costumes.

Even before the book was a glimmer in her eye, Davina   spent years researching Assuit, not to mention fabricating high-end, custom-made costumes for herself and many other dancers.

She says,

“I committed myself to a massive interdisciplinary research project with one simple mission, find out everything there is to know about the cloth we call Assiut or tulle bi telli.  The result of years of research, months of writing, crafting hundreds of costumes, dozens of photo shoots, is my new book “The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut.” 


 In honor of the book’s publication, Davina has  complied a list of facts on Assiut exclusively for this blog, here it is:


1 - Assiut is made from cotton.  Frequently, antique Assiut is labeled as silk, linen, or a blend, but the truth is that vintage Assiut cloth is made from finely spun, high-twist Egyptian cotton.  

2 - Assiut can be spelled in a myriad of ways.  Arabic cannot be easily translated, so rather, it’s transliterated by ear from spoken Arabic to written English, with British and Americans sounding out the words and writing them down phonetically.  This leads to more than 50 spelling variations.

3 - Most people know that the phrase tulle bi telli means “mesh with metal”... but few know that this is a marriage of three languages.  Tulle is from the name of the lace-making capital of France.  Telli is from Turkish word Tel, which means metal.  Bi is “with” in Arabic. 

4 - Assiut is a single-stitch embroidery technique.  The stitch is made with flattened metal wire called plate, and the stitch is made using a blunt tipped double-eyed needle. 

5 – Antique Assiut cloth was made by the thousands of yards and was considered the essential souvenir for travelers down the Nile during the British occupation of Egypt.  British, American, Russian, French, And Italian women all collected and coveted Assiut cloth for it’s supple drape and metallic gleam. 

6 - Vintage Assiut pieces come in three sizes.  Scarves, narrow enough to wrap around the neck, head or hat to keep flies, gnats and mosquitos off of the face.  Shawl sizes, which were designed to be worn as wraps about the shoulder, were wide enough to envelop the body, but short enough to be easily handled by the wearer.  Opera wrap or piano shawl size, which was the longest and widest, designed to fit over a grand piano, or to wrap around the body, and still have enough left to elegantly drag along the ground, a shimmering train of exotic abundance.

7 - Modern Assiut should be pounded or rolled to press down the individual stitches.   Machine wash on gentle and tumble dry low in a mesh lingerie bag to keep the stitches from catching, and pulling.  Vintage Assiut should always be hand washed and dried as flat as possible.

8 - Assiut is associated with weddings in Upper Egypt. Some of the most popular motifs are directly related to wedding symbology. Camel figures with plants, stars, or even stylized men, represent the groom.  The female figures, often holding hands, or with arms raised, represent the bride and her bridal party.  Other common images that appear in Assiut wedding shawls include combs, for preparing the brides hair, perfume bottles for anointing her body, and diamonds, protective shapes with talismanic properties to protect the bride on her special day.


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Purchase a copy of “The Cloth Of Egypt: All About Assiut” here:

 
The book's cover: I'm wearing an Assiut bra made by Davina & a pre-1919 white Assiut shawl
Photo by Alisha Westerfield



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ATTITUDE AND GRATITUDE

Baby kitty Carmen,  my little "street tiger"

I'm home from my 2014 travels, and mistakenly made the assumption that things would quiet down a  bit... WRONG!  Aside from finally unpacking my on-the-road suitcases,  my house was a wreck cause I'd been away   about four weekends a month  for the past three months.  And, unexpectedly,  after  my two beloved senior citizen kitties Smudgie ( age 21) and Ni-Ni, (age 14) passed away within a month of each other, I was blessed with two tiny baby kittens!  They are  little  feral "street tigers", a brother and a sister, who have been rescued,  tamed and are now living in the lap of luxury in the Royal Palace. Beeper and Carmen are a handful, but they are amazing!   I am so blseed to have them,  The Universe brought them to me at the most perfect time ever. And  now that I'm home for a while,  we can bond even more and  I can watch them grow. 

On one of their crazy "let's chase each other around the house" moments, they knock a diary of mine from off a shelf. I had to page through it, and was kinda amazed at what I found. The diary covered a trip to Egypt from 1991.  In addition to Arabic translation of commonly used words and glue-in tickets from Luxor Temple and The Sphinx, there was a gratitude list I didn't even know I was thinking that way back then, but apparently I was!

  Just some of the things included on the list were  ( obviously) colored by my trip to Egypt, like  "I am thankful I can travel", "I am grateful that I can read" "I have a  a healthy, strong body" and, funnily enough, "I am grateful for modern conveniences"... yeah, I'll say!

 But there were many, many more. And there was also a list  on how to out-flow energy  and love to  people, things like " Keep a good attitude, try to be optimistic and positive, look on the bright side" ,  "Be helpful and supportive to other people", and " Communicate  as much as possible;  if I love someone or something, I will say it. If I am not happy with someone or something,  or find anything unsatisfactory, I will say that too but in a kind  and positive way".

  Seriously, I do not remember being so enlightened... but I guess I was, even back then.  For the past   fifteen years or so,  I've made lists like this  at the year's end, or whenever I thought I needed to count my blessings.

Since Thanksgiving is approaching, I made a Dance List of everything I am thankful for.

Dancing literally changed my life. On top of the “usual” benefits, like giving me a strong, toned, flexible body, the emotional and spiritual impact dancing has had upon me is so significant, I can hardly put it into words. In my writing, I am usually a confirmed abuser of the exclamation point, but the amount of punctuation I would need to apply in this case is boundless, so I will spare you.

From the age of three, I wanted to dance, but for many reasons (the foremost being a ballet teacher who rejected me at an early age because my feet were flat ) dancing wasn’t in the cards for me until  well after I had already reached adulthood.

Maybe I had a karmic debt to pay, maybe my life just unfolded the way it was supposed to, but I came to belly dancing fairly late in life, after the age of thirty. Though I still sometimes wish I had been able to study dance since childhood, I no longer feel robbed, or the regret I used to experience about not having been a life-long dancer; now I am just thrilled with the way things turned out!

Mere months after I began belly dancing-almost as a lark- my life did a full 360 degree turn-around. Instead of picking my body (and all the individual parts) to pieces by visually and physically comparing myself to unrealistic and “ideal” images in the media, I began to love my body for the way it looked while I was dancing. Soon, that sentiment morphed into simply loving my body. As I developed more skill, I began to be grateful for what my body could do.

Dancing also helped me quit some very self-destructive behaviors I had for decades: substance abuse and an eating disorder. A hardcore bulimic for years, my love of dancing helped me cultivate a healthy relationship with food…and need I tell you that it’s impossible to dance for hours with a hangover or while high? Suddenly, I had a choice to make and I picked dancing over controlled substances and being unhealthy.

Dancing helped me get through-and over- a painful divorce. The feminine energy and sisterhood I felt with other dancers was healing and gave me hope. I see this theme repeated with many other dancers, and I hope I can pass this feeling on to others.

Belly dancing also lead me to other forms of dance, and  for that, I am eternally grateful. It’s what directly lead to my career in burlesque, not to mention studying and performing other types of dance as well, like jazz, ballet, Bollywood, samba, contemporary, hip-hop and many other genres. Whenever my schedule ( or my creaky ole body) allows, I take dance classes.

Dancing has also allowed me to meet thousands of incredible, beautiful, intelligent and talented women the world over… that I may never have met normally during the course of my everyday life. Through dancing, I have made life-long friends with many strong women of all ages, shapes and sizes who are veritable super-heroines; they are giving, driven,  talented, and usually very witty to boot.

I’ve met dancers who are emergency room nurses, teachers, criminal attorneys, children’s advocates, speech therapists, accountants, trauma counselors, ranchers, authors, film festival curators, architects, coal miners, political activists, rock stars, explosives technicians, police women, sitcom actors, college professors with PhD’s… not to mention mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers…and all of them are serious dancers!

I am thankful that I live in a country where women are free to dress as they please, to dance for joy-or professionally if they choose- and where dancing is considered an art-form.

Every day I give thanks that dancing, something I have always done only for love is also what I do for work, and how I make a living. I never take this for granted, sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure my life is real. When I walked into my first belly dancing class, if anyone would have told me that within a fairly short time I was going to turn professional-not to mention have a career  over twenty years later- I would’ve laughed so uproariously, the walls of the studio would’ve blown apart!


My dance career – my performing and teaching- has taken me all over the globe and I have loved every moment of it. It was a far-fetched wish, and that wish came true. The only thing I might add here (and believe me, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek!) is the old adage about “being careful what you wish for”. Had I known that my wish was actually going to come true, I probably would’ve added in a clause allowing me to have a luggage valet and a personal massage therapist travel with me!

I am so thankful for all the wonderful women who have sponsored me to teach and perform. Sponsors are super-human, and in addition to paying for my travel, feeding me, housing me, fulfilling my backstage requests, and staying up til the wee hours talking shop, many of them have also gone wa-a-a-ay above and beyond the call of duty. They have taken me sight-seeing, brought me to amazing shows, given me gorgeous gifts, taken me hot-tubbing, booked me massages- even brought me to the emergency room, or dealt with my tearful grief when I was thousands of miles away from home and my beloved kitten disappeared. You ladies know who you are, thank you so very much! In general, my sponsors have gone so far out of their out of their way to make me feel comfortable when I am on the road, I cannot thank them enough; most of them have become life-long friends.

I am very grateful for my teachers and dance-mentors, women  ( and men!) who were dancing professionally long before I even  thought of starting to dance…all of whom were very generous with sharing their knowledge of not only technique, but also practical application, not to mention costuming ideas, crowd-control skills and career- building know-how.

My students, whether on-going pupils or one-time workshop attendees, make me feel such gratitude, I can’t even verbalize it. I learn something new from them every day!  The  drummers  and musicians I’ve worked with  are amazing and  love what they do… and  aside from learning a lot from them,   I love them for  caring, cause our shows have always been fabulous!

I would like to thank The Audience too- where would any dancer be without you? There is almost nothing more fulfilling than hearing an appreciative audience and seeing smiling faces in a darkened theater, just ask any performer! And of course,  all the behind-the-scenes people, those who never get enough thanks, like the artful  lighting and sound technicians,  all the harried- but unbelievably competent stage managers ( many of whom  are volunteers)  the  talented photographers and graphic artists I’ve worked with….and of course,  my long-suffering  friends and my boyfriend; all patiently waiting  for me to:
  a) get off stage  b) get my bag  packed up  c) stop talking about dancing!

Last but not least, I also gotta say that I am so very grateful for having a job that has the best, most amazing “uniform” EVER- what could be better than a blinged-out costume?


Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and yours!



Baby kitty Beeper helping  to organize my Belly Dance Handbook orders!


 In honor of the Holidays,  and to say  thanks to you,  I’m having a Thanksgiving-through-Monday, Dec 1  sale…  my  books "The Belly Dance Handbook" and  "Showgirl Confidential", and the new BaLAdi Tour CD by Issam Houshan will be on sale for big  discounts here:

http://www.princessfarhana.com/shop.html