Thursday, April 15, 2010
In dancing of any kind, the dancer’s hands and arms are an integral part of her performance; both stylistically and as far as certain genre-specific or ethnic gestures go. Hand movements differ from culture to culture, running the gamut from simple and joyous hand waving in folkloric dance to the delicate wrist circles of Egyptian Cabaret to the almost aggressive, Romany-influenced gestures of Turkish dance, or the stylized, Flamenco floreo-influenced hand and arm positions of Tribal style. Many observers have the mistaken impression that hand gestures in Oriental Dance are comparable to the Hula, where the hands literally speak a sign language and tell a story. Though this is not true per se of belly dance, there are certain traditional as well as contemporary “meanings” to some of the gestures used. In Egyptian cabaret style dance, some of these hand movements may look flirtatious or even downright campy to the untrained eye, but many have roots in folkloric traditions.
Beautiful arms in belly dance are much harder to master than they would seem to be. Sloppy posture and arm positions such as slouched shoulders, "broken wings" or pointed, sharply bent elbows, lifeless, limp arms or even arms that move too much can really detract from an otherwise lovely performance. The same goes for the hands: closed-finger positions, claw-like clenching gestures, or hands that are flipping around too busily can look very amateurish.
In general, no matter what style of belly dance is being performed, the arms should be lifted from the shoulders, with the chest lifted and ribcage extended upwards; arms are gently rounded, with elbows and rotated slightly towards the back. This is a basic, classical and graceful position, which would serve any type of belly dance style. The arms should not be stiff, but have a bit of play, and should move through the air gracefully and languidly, with some muscular resistance. Even if more fluid movements and flowing wrist circles seem to elude you at first, you cannot go wrong with simple body frames and nice lines in the arms.
Arms are also used to draw attention and/or fame an area of the body. For example, when doing hip articulations, one or both arms may frame the area that is "working". Opposition works nicely here, with one arm framing the moving hip, the other extended upwards. Palms can face inwards or outwards, whatever is most aesthetically pleasing to the dancer herself or her audience.
The use of negative and positive space within the context of a performance area can really be amplified by hand and arm gestures. Arms extended out to the audience feel inclusive and welcoming; the dancer’s face shielded by her hand represents introspection; sharp and quick movements during a drum solo add to the excitement of the percussion, and so on.
Ideally, the arms should move gracefully through the air, and the hands should flow along with them, with energy extended out through the fingertips. A classic and pretty hand position is reminiscent of ballet dance, with the middle two fingers together, pointer finger and pinky separated, with the hand facing inwards or outwards, wrist ever so slightly bent. A variation on this used commonly in Oriental Dance is with the middle finger and thumb almost touching. The hand positions of tribal style belly dancers often slightly exaggerate the basic, classic hand position, with more tension in the fingers.
In most forms of Oriental Dance, wrist circles are a pretty, finishing touch, with the hands gently and slowly circling in or out, or both alternately. These circles can be soft and subtle, or take on the regal, definitive movements of Spanish Flamenco floreos. To practice wrist circles, hold the arm outwards, and SLOWLY circle inwards, pinky first, working each finger to stretch the tendons. Practice an outwards circle the same way, beginning with the index finger.
Hands can trace the lines of your body while you dance, wafting through the air, crossing in front of you for transitions, or pausing to make coquettish gestures along the face, hair or hips. Lightly circling your hands in time to the melody or to or the drumbeat your hips are following looks beautiful and finished. More energy in your hands than in your hips looks frantic, so is careful here- subtlety is the key.
Both Turkish and Egyptian-style dancers use hand gestures around the face and head in particular, with one or both raised to the forehead like a salute, almost like the dancer has a rather sexy headache. It is also acceptable to touch yourself in certain areas, like the heart, one hip, a caressing of the shoulders. It is this diva-like sensuousness that can sometimes seem to go a little overboard, so keep it clean and subtle.
Drilling hand and arm positions in front of a mirror will help to enforce them in your muscle memory and allow for smooth transitions and graceful gestures. Once you have the basics down and feel comfortable performing them, incorporate them into your dancing.
Once finger cymbals are added into the mix, you will want to drill often with them as well, so that every wrist circle, hand or arm gesture can be seamlessly performed while playing the cymbals, without losing the beat, and without compromising your hand and arm work.
Before dancing, and practicing belly dance technique, in order to gain strength and increase flexibility in the arms and hands, practice these drills which will help you gain control and limber you up.
Large arm circles going backwards and forwards
With arms outstretched, small wrist circles going backwards and forwards
Arms up above the head with fingers clasped together; palms facing the ceiling. Stretch upwards and slowly roll down, rounding the spine
Circular neck roll- slowly and gently, letting the weight of the head softly stretch the neck without forcing it into an unnatural position.
Rolling the shoulders- backwards and forwards, in unison, increasingly larger circles…then repeating the same type of movement alternating the shoulder rolls.
Outstretched arms forward, fingers flexed and pulled back gently for an easy stretch
Arms stretched to sides, and beginning by moving the little finger, describe slow, controlled “ finger fans” to aid in flexibility of the small tendons in the hands and fingers.
Photo by Dan Holmgren
To order Princess Farhana's Instructional DVD "Armed And Dangerous: Hand And Arm Technique For Belly Dance", click here:
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
My boyfriend and I live in a Hollywood canyon, in a ramshackle Craftsman bungalow house that is almost 100 years old. We definately believe that our house is haunted... both of us-as well as our neighbors- have experienced crazy paranormal type things, including clouds of mist, flickering lights, appliances turning themselves on and off, apparitions, and unexplained movements of inatimate objects. Since our canyon is one of the oldest in Hollywood, we have no doubt that we live among spirits.
Our house is surrounded by gardens, and we have a bounty of produce, including orange, lemon, fig and avocado trees. We grow herbs and tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins, as well as fragrant "volunteer" vines of Honeysuckle, Morning Glories, Passionflowers and Night Blooming Jasmine. The whole place is overgrown and jungle-like, the perfect playground for our four cats. In our yard are dense clumps of Birds of Paradise and Nile Lillies, and a big patch of Nasturtium, plus a grand old tree full of squirrels. We get big fat toadstools when it rains, and have beetles, ladybugs and large grasshoppers. The property is populated with families of skunks, opossum and raccoons, as well as humming birds, wrens, doves and lots of butterflies. My sister jokes that coming over to my house is like visiting Snow White!
In our yard, there's also twinkling strings of Christmas lights up all year, wind chimes and old-school garden statues... all of which some people believe will attract fairies.
My boyfriend swears he's seen fairies before, and though I have definately experienced the paranormal activities in and around our house, I have never had the pleasure of seeing ( as they have been referred to in various storytales, folklore and legends) "The Wee Folk" or "Them Ones".
Last night, our cats went CRAZY in our front yard.
Though they usually love to sleep with us, and spend their evenings hanging out in our living room, that wasn't the case yesterday around midnight. They were participating in what we call "kitty hi-jinks" : running around chasing things we couldn't see, pouncing at each other and at patches of weeds, and generally acting insane. Though we tried to call them in quite a few times, and they are usually obedient and come when called, they wouldn't come in last night...even after we tried our sure-fire methods of tempting them to come in by shaking bags of treats and offering catnip!
This morning, in the front yard, right where our cats had been galavanting last night, imagine our surprise when we found this tiny little cornflower-blue felt coat.
It was laying on the ground, not standing up as pictured. I "posed" it that way this afternoon, because we took it into the house to examine it.
Sure, it could be a coat from a doll a child dropped...but where was the doll?
What was it doing in front of our house?
And why was the little toggle-button undone, as though someone had slipped out of it?
I have STILL never seen a fairy... Have you?
Saturday, April 10, 2010
There’s almost nothing more spectacular than an oriental dancer performing a beautiful sword balancing routine… that is, unless there are two or more dancers onstage!
Sword work with a partner or group is not only a visual treat for an audience, but a wonderful and fulfilling experience for the dancers. In the process, the dancers will learn not only about each other, but also about themselves. Your dancing will evolve and improve through heightened awareness of everything from basic to technique, isolations, posture, speed and your partner’s proximity as well as fine-tuning your sense of spatial awareness onstage.
Dancers working together on a constant basis learn that there is an almost magical, intuitive sense that develops between them, through moving in tandem. This special relationship between dancers has been explored extensively in the mechanics of American Tribal Style belly dance, but the concept itself applies to dancers of any genre!
Though improvisation is usually a hallmark of Tribal style belly dance, intuition and awareness of course can also happen organically or be implemented in choreographed routines. Dancers develop a sort of second sense about what their partner(s) are doing, which is known as proprioception , which is a conscious awareness of your muscles, they way they operate with each other, and how your own body moves through space, especially in relation to others.
When performing a sword duet or group piece, whether improvised or choreographed, always be aware of your dance partner’s proximity. You will want to keep enough space between yourselves so that the sword blades or handles do not touch or clash with each other.
Each group member should try to sense the pacing of the other dancers, but don’t feel compelled to rush yourself or catch up. For this reason, when performing with a group or partner, you may find that using some sort of slow or even ambient music might make more sense than something that is very fast-paced or syncopated. That way , you and your group can progress through the dance by movements and not by counting exact beats.
Take as much time as you need to place your sword securely on your head or any other balance point. When doing sword transfers or pass-offs with other dancers, make sure your partner is comfortable with the balance point before either of you moves on. Using physical and especially verbal cues onstage between partners is a good way to gage this. Select a cue word ( or sound) signaling “ready” and use it as much as you need to.
This almost goes without saying- but I’ll repeat it anyway: always work with swords that are in top condition: perfectly balanced, and an appropriate size that is comfortable size for you, as well as in length and weight. When working with a partner, or group, make sure that all swords being used are of fairly uniform size and weight, if not exact matches.
If you feel your sword slipping off your head, take a moment to re-adjust it.
You may want to rub the sword’s balance point with wax, or glue a strip sand paper to that area, so that it will “stick” to your head by catching your hair and the sword will not slip around.
Do not experiment with new hairstyles, wigs, turbans or head-wraps before a sword show. Stay with what you have worn while you rehearsed . This same rule applies to your choreography when working with a partner : stick to what you know!
Never grab for your sword if it falls- just try to get out of its way to avoid cuts, puncture wounds or other injuries.
Before going onstage, warm up completely, but also take a few minutes to center yourself and focus on your piece by sharing a moment of quiet “personal time” with your partner or the other dancers in your group.
Princess Farhana's DVD "Twin Blades: Sword Work With A Partner" is available for purchase here:
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Okay, I've finally hit bottom and now I have to admit: I'm powerless over my addiction to beauty products. I buy them compulsively, use them frequently, and, like many other women, I hoard them. But the real problem is that I eat them. You name a product; it's a pretty safe bet that I've tasted it. I’ve eaten everything from Clinique's Turnaround Cream to Tiger Balm, Vicks Vap-O-Rub to Coppertone's Cocoa Tanning Butter - which I wouldn't recommend, it left my tongue numb for over an hour. In the '70s, I would literally drink Love's Roll-On Kissing Gloss by popping the rolling ball out of the glass tube and sucking out the gloppy gloss. To me, it was better than ambrosia!
I've tried every flavor, I mean, scent, of Victoria's Secret Luxurious Hand and Body Cream, my favorite being that divinely edible Pear Glace. I use that one up so fast that I've actually cut open the tubes with a scissors so I can lick out the hard-to-get remnants when the container is virtually empty. Once, at a raging party in Austin, Texas, during the South By Southwest Music Festival, I became instantaneously infamous for eating an entire package of jalapeno potato chips using Noxzema as a dip. Frantic revelers tried to stop me, erroneously thinking I'd crossed the line of sanity (not to mention socially acceptable behavior) and was doing something I'd surely regret, if not in the morning, then when I'd sobered up. WRONG! What those good Samaritans failed to realize was that I knew exactly what I was doing, and the fact is a jar of Noxzema is the perfect foil for jalapeno potato chips. It’s cool, refreshing minty taste was just what those hotter-then-hell morsels needed!
Of course, like most glamour queens, I've made jokes about the ridiculous amount of make-ups, lotions, masques, exfoliating scrubs, and other treatments I use on a regular basis. I used tell people I got my signature look by mainlining liquid eyeliner.
But I really don't know anyone else who eats the stuff, and though I wouldn't recommend this unique and highly personal habit - maybe I should say fetish - to others, I can honestly say that it hasn't hurt me in the slightest.
This was always a dark, shameful skeleton in my closet...er, medicine chest... the fact that I was so focused on beauty products that even the mention of them sends my pulse racing. I mean, my favorite line in the film Silence of the Lambs is when the serial killer bellows,
"It puts the lotion in the basket!"
Recently, I had to admit that I was powerless over my addiction, the first step towards healing. I wanted to come clean, get it out in the open, and decided to put my cards on the (vanity) table and be upfront about everything.
The man in my life uses a Japanese hair pomade stick called Tancho, with an utterly intoxicating lavender scent. Not only am I obsessed with him, the smell of his hair drives me bonkers. In moments of high passion, I'd take a quick sniff behind his ear and be driven into a frenzy of desire. Soon, having located the source of my pleasure in his bathroom, I'd lock myself in, grab the Tancho, and hold it under my nose, inhaling its heavenly aroma. A few days of that and it just wasn't enough. I began actually wiping it on the end of my nose so I could smell it all day. In a dizzy downwards spiral, it was just a matter of time until I began eating Tancho, furtively scraping the waxy substance off the top of the stick, taking great care and making sure to smooth the surface so my boyfriend wouldn't catch on to the fact that I was devouring his hair pomade.
Alas, one day, I was caught in the act. Incredulous, he demanded to know what I was doing. In a scenario almost identical to the one at the party in Austin, I tried to explain that for ages I'd been eating all manner of beauty products, but he looked at me dubiously, with a mixture of pity and suspicion, the way you'd regard any common street junkie.
Trying to sound rational yet no doubt appearing completely insane, I gave him the history of my cosmetic consuming obsession, which dates back to early childhood… I guess it all started when I was about eleven years old.
My family lived in New England, where the winters are brutal and chapped lips are a problem. Ever vigilant, my mother armed us all with Chapstick. What she didn't realize, however, was that Chapstick freezes in your pocket when you're out all day sledding and making snow forts. The paraffin becomes so cold and stiff it actually does nothing to prevent your lips from becoming more chapped and cracked. At that point, I hadn't realized that either. So one day, when I lost my Chapstick and told my mom, she replaced it with Sea & Ski Lip Balm, in Orange Mint. Now, Chapstick, in those days, wasn't flavored, so not only was theSea & Ski Orange Mint a pleasant novelty, but it also had a different, softer, slicker formula - it didn't freeze. It remained soft, even in sub-zero weather.
I'd slather the delectable stuff on my lips, all satiny smooth, and it would smell and taste so good, I'd eat it right off. It got to the point that I'd be caking in on really thick just to taste it, then scraping it off my lips with my teeth, actually eating it.
Needless to say, the condition of my chapped lips wasn't improving. If anything, it was getting worse. One day, I just cut to the chase, rolled the entire contents up and began sucking on it like a lollipop. This was so unbearably satisfying, that unable to contain myself, I took a bite. In a matter of euphoric seconds, I'd gobbled up the entire thing. Of course, I needed more. That night at dinner, I blatantly lied to my mother and told her I'd lost my Sea & Ski. On her next trip to the grocery store, she replaced it....with Chapstick!
"But M-o-o-o-o-m," I wailed, my disappointment barely concealed, my uncontrollable urges starting to surface,
"I need Sea & Ski!"
Clueless to my by-now burgeoning addiction, she replied with the practicality only a mother can muster,
"They're all the same."
End of subject.
Ever crafty, I waited what I thought was a decent number of days, jonesing the whole time, until I thought the incident would be forgotten. I once again told my mother I'd lost my Chapstick, pointedly asking for Sea & Ski. Still oblivious to my growing needs, she replaced my "lost" lip balm with- shudder to think - more flavorless, hard, dull, boring, ugly old Chapstick.
Realizing that to argue would be utterly pointless, I asked for an advance on my allowance, which was the pricey sum of a quarter a week. I figured, quite rationally, that I'd just buy the Sea & Ski myself. What I didn't realize until I stopped at the pharmacy on my way home from school was that Sea & Ski was twenty-nine cents a tube, a full four cents more than my weekly allowance. Confronted with the horrible reality of the situation, up against a wall, I made the split-second decision to take the Sea & Ski, my first foray into shoplifting. Well, I got away with my petty crime, and got an adrenaline rush from the danger in the act of stealing. Like most junkies, I entered the world of larceny to feed my habit. I stole all the Sea & Ski that the pharmacy had in stock, then began accompanying my mother on her weekly trips to the Grand Union or Stop'N'Shop to steal more.
Clearly, I was enslaved to my habit, eating the stuff in the bed at night, slipping into the girl's room at school to take a discreet bite between my fifth grade classes. I was out of control, but the sheer magnitude of the situation didn't hit me until, in one colossal embarrassing incident, I hit bottom. My mother had sent me and my two little sisters (twins, four years younger) to the Palace Theater to see Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Barely twelve, I nevertheless had a handle about what was going on in the movie, but my sisters had no idea. They'd been disrupting everyone around us by asking multiple questions in rather loud voices. It was getting towards the movie's dramatic climax, when Juliet comes back to life inside the Capulet tomb and sees her beloved Romeo dead, lying on the floor. The entire theater was weeping in unison.
"WHY IS EVERYONE CRYING?" my sister Meghan practically yelled, as half the theater turned to glare at us in annoyance.
"Because it's sad," I hissed. "Now, shut up!"
"WHAT'S JULIET DOING WITH THAT KNIFE?" Meghan asked urgently, her voice rising with hysteria, desperate to know what was going on.
"Just be quiet!" I said, through gritted teeth. "I'll tell you later!"
Convinced (and rightly so) that most of the patrons were about to band together to lynch us, I decided to de-stress by getting a calming fix of Sea & Ski. Alas, my container was nearly empty. I could see from the flickering light of the movie screen that there was a little bit left down at the bottom, and tried to wedge my pinky down into the tube to scrape it out, but my finger wouldn't fit. Hit with a moment of inspiration, I took a bobby pin from my hair and proceeded to use it as a tool to get the rest out. Since she couldn't understand the movie, my sister took an instant interest in my furtive actions.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"Nothing!" I stammered, horrified at being caught.
"WHAT IS THAT?" Meghan asked loudly, as nine more sobbing people turned look at us in outrage.
"It's Sea & Ski," I whispered, hoping beyond hope that my answer would placate her.
"OH........YOU EAT IT WITH A BOBBY PIN?!?" she screamed incredulously.
Mortified, I slunk as far down into my seat as I could go. To this day, I have no idea if she was astutely trying frame me, or if she really thought that was what you did with lip balm - eat it with a bobby pin while watching a sad movie! I was so awash in abject humiliation that I don't even remember leaving the theater that night, or if Meghan tattled on me. I do know that the Romeo and Juliet incident didn't even put a dent in my habit, it simply continued.
My boyfriend took this story in stride, and, in fact, I was under the mistaken impression that he'd forgotten all about it, until a year later. We were at a seafood restaurant with some friends and he was ordering oysters, trying to get me to indulge along with him.
"NO WAY!" I proclaimed, wrinkling my nose in distaste.
"Come on," he cajoled, "Oysters are an aphrodisiac!"
"Oysters are like snot!" I cried.
"The only reason they're considered an aphrodisiac is because if you eat them, you'd eat anything!"
For a moment, he regarded me harshly, then said,
"Oh yeah, you won't eat oysters, but you'll eat lip balm and hand lotion and hair wax!"
He went on to regale the entire table with a list of all the beauty products I've consumed. Needless to say, the burning shame I felt in the darkened movie theater visited itself upon me once again.
Well, by now, I guess you could say that I've come to terms with my addiction. I try not to eat every cream, massage oil, or facial emollient I come into contact with. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But even if I try just a little dollop, I still don't wolf down the whole jar, and I don't beat myself up about it. I talk about my problem, it's no longer a dark secret I keep to myself.
I just take it one day at a time, you know?
Photo: Illustration for Harper's Bazaar, an early work by Andy Warhol
If you liked this story and would like to read more, you can order the short story collection, "Escape From Houdini Mountain"