Monday, July 30, 2012
Thursday, July 26, 2012
“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
- Thomas Jefferson
Dancers dream about turning professional in the same way little girls dream about becoming fairytale princess…it all seems so dazzling and magical. In some ways, career in dance is similar to a fairytale, in that everything is not always what it appears to be. The life of a professional can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s also extremely hard work. Insane amounts of time and money- and the proverbial blood, sweat and tears- go into building and sustaining a successful dance career.
Business savvy is a must- essentially, you are running a small business, and the product is YOU. You’ll be doing all your own job negotiations, publicity, promotion, marketing and travel bookings. As the old theater saying goes, “The smallest part of show business is the show!”
You need great technique and stage presence, but you’ll also have to cultivate social skills and diplomacy. In any type of career, even in the arts, there’s always a lot of politics. It’s crucial to believe in yourself and your dreams, but you’ll also have to have a tough skin, because there will be a lot of rejection. Like acting, modeling, and the music industry, it’s a given there will always more talent than jobs; the competition is fierce even though it might be friendly. There will always be dancers who are younger, prettier and thinner than you are, with more technique, a bigger personality, and better costumes … and you’ll probably be up for many of the same gigs!
If you happen to be one of the lucky ones who breaks away from the pack and starts becoming well known, you can be reasonably sure there will be drama, jealousy and gossip …because no matter what, there always is! Some people just don’t know how to play nice.
Be prepared for difficult choices and making sacrifices, both financially and otherwise. For years, I ironically referred to my professional lifestyle as The Really Expensive Hobby I Laughingly Refer To As “My Career”! Though I was gigging constantly and teaching, I was barely paying my rent and bills, and had no free time whatsoever.
You’ll need to decide if you’ll keep your day job, go part-time, or try to support yourself on dance alone. If you are keeping your job, it needs to be flexible enough to accommodate your dancing. If you're quitting your job and just going for it, make sure you have saved up a decent amount of money to sustain yourself if the gigs aren't as frequent as you'd like them to be. Also- consider this: once you’re self-employed, insurance and benefits aren’t provided… unless you pay for them! Money will be tight, especially at first; you’ll be investing every cent you make right back into your career. Only a precious few ever create a truly lucrative career from their dancing.
Is your spouse or significant other supportive about your career decision? If you’re single, are you fine with remaining that way, at least for a while? Most professional dancers don’t have too much time for socializing, and in this profession in particular, you’ll pretty much be surrounded by women! If you have kids, whether you’re a single mom or not, you’ll obviously need to think about childcare for all those gigs, classes and rehearsals.
Last- but certainly not least: If you are a promising dancer driven with career aspirations- but live in small town without real opportunities-would you be willing to relocate to a larger city, a different state or even to a foreign country in order to work?
Question: Do you want to do this for love or for money?
If your answer was love, then you’re on the right track.
Dance because you need to, because you have to, because you can’t imagine life without it. If you are doing something you love and doing it well, the money will follow.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Finger cymbals might as well be the international symbol for belly dancing.
Cymbals and veils are usually what civilians imagine when they think of belly dance. Known as zills in Turkish, sagat in Egyptian Arabic and salahsi or zang in Farsi, many dancers assume cymbals are a prop, but they’re actually a musical instrument.
Cymbals make a variety of sounds, depending on how they’re played, ranging from bell-like ringing with an audible sustain to clicks, muffled claps, and quick-strike chunky tones. The pitch of the cymbal itself differs considerably, depending on the construction; the metal alloy (usually brass or bronze) the circumference or diameter of the cymbal, and the depth of the rounded dome that rises up from the cymbal’s rim. Finger cymbals are manufactured in a wide variety of sizes, weights and finishes, many with beautiful Pharonic or Arabesque designs stamped or cast on the metal.
There are four cymbals in a complete set, worn at or just above the first knuckle of the thumb and middle finger on each hand, attached with an elastic loop. Some cymbals have a hole to thread the elastic through, others have two slots. Often, dancers have a preference for the type with the slots; because they are easier to control- I much prefer this type myself. I used to think the cymbals with a single hole were just mediocre souvenirs, and that only a beginner would even think of using them. They kind of dangle off the fingers, instead of sitting firmly on the underside. Then I bought a gigantic set of cymbals in Cairo, the type that are used in Egyptian orchestras…and that set only had the single hole! Years later, Artemis Mourat set me straight, explaining that both types of cymbals were “legit”, and used traditionally.
Playing cymbals used to be practically mandatory for belly dancers (hence the public’s association) but in the early ‘90’s, when Egyptian style became popular in the west, performers hoping to appear “authentic” hung up their cymbals because Egyptian dancers rarely used them. What most didn’t realize was that the real reason Egyptian dancers didn’t play was because they didn’t have to! In Cairo, professional performers work with large orchestras that always include a master sagat player. I was guilty of this misconception myself, and in the midst of my early studies, blithely informed my first teacher Zahra Zuhair, that I wasn’t going to play cymbals because it wasn’t Egyptian. She looked disappointed, so I added,
“You dance Egyptian style, and you don’t use cymbals!”
She regarded me for a moment, then arched a well -groomed eyebrow and said,
“Well, the difference between me and you is…I can play them if I want to!”
I began the lengthy and often frustrating process of learning cymbals, but in the end, I was so glad that I did! Finger cymbals aren’t required for belly dance, but if you can really rock (or shall we say “raq”?) On them, they add a lot to a performance. Cymbals played in flawless unison by a troupe is really powerful; a solo dancer accenting her music artfully or doing playful call and response with a live drummer is always really exciting for an audience! If you perform often using recorded music, playing cymbals adds that special live energy.
Here are some tips that will help you become a zill-tastic dancer:
Cymbal Selection And Preparation
To start off with, you should purchase a set of good quality cymbals that will be easy for you to handle. For beginners, it’s usually better to get a smaller, lighter set of cymbals until you build up your strength and co-ordination, though starting with lager cymbals is fine. No matter what the size of the cymbals, they’ll always seem awkward at first…when I first started, I felt like I had a dinner plate attached to each hand!
Look for a set with a nice tone; if you’re shopping in person, you’ll be able to test them out and see which ones you prefer. If you’ll be getting your cymbals online, there’s no way you’ll be able to test-drive them, so ask your instructor or dancers who’ve been playing for a while which type they recommend.
Listening to dancers playing sagat live will not only help you to absorb the patterns being played, but to figure out which tones you like as well- and it’s all a matter of personal taste. I prefer a mellow bell-like tone, and like my cymbals to ring, but when I asked master musician and dancer Karim Nagi about his preferences he said,
“I would select something a little heavier that one could get good contrasting sounds from, anywhere from deep tones and to high crisp tones. Just like any instrument, chances are you would have to try a few out. Personally I would select something a little heavier- if a set of cymbals sound too bell-like, and I can’t get that chunky, tight sound that I like, I won’t use them.”
Preparing And Caring For Your Cymbals
Some cymbals come with a length of elastic, but if it isn’t supplied, you’ll have to buy it. Look for sturdy elastic braid about three quarters of an inch wide for the type with two slots. If you bought the single-hole cymbals, you’ll need a thin, rounded elastic cord. Next, you’ll need to sew the elastic on to fit your fingers. For the double-slot type, cut four lengths of elastic about three inches long and thread the elastic through the underside of the cymbals. Measure the elastic to fit your finger tightly, turn the raw edge of the elastic over to prevent fraying, and sew the pieces together. For single-hole cymbals you may want to thread the elastic cord through a bead or small button (which will sit on the underside of the cymbal) to add some extra stability. Some dancers mark the slightly larger-looped thumb cymbals by sewing a bead onto the top of elastic, and I sometimes decorate my elastics by gluing a small rhinestone to the top of each one. Yup, I like the glitz!
If your elastic breaks at a gig or in class, you can quickly repair it with a safety pin. Do not pin or knot your cymbals underneath- it ruins their sound by muffling the dome…imagine stuffing a pair of socks into a small bell and you’ll get the picture!
Finger cymbals should be worn very tightly- it’s a running joke among dancers that if you’re circulation isn’t getting cut off, they’re not tight enough! I also think the elastic on cymbals compares to the pointe shoes ballet dancers wear: they’re unbearable at first, then you get about a week of broken-in comfort, and after that it’s time to change them!
The cymbals should sit up near the top of your fingers and thumb- some dancers prefer the elastic to hit at the first knuckle, others like them just below the nail bed. When you put your cymbals on, they should worn with the underside facing each other and, as legendary dancer Helena Vlahos says,
“ They should look like a pair of flying saucers on each hand.”
Cymbals can be cleaned with a soft cloth and ordinary brass or metal polish. Some dancers prefer bright shiny cymbals, others like them to have a patina or a slight amount of tarnish, for a vintage look; this is only an aesthetic consideration and up to you, because they’ll sound the same either way.
Before You Start To Play
Experiment with some of the many tones and sounds cymbals your cymbals make. Here are some for you to try out:
The quick strike of two cymbals together, creating a lingering ring like a bell
A strike with fingers of the hand cupped over the index finger cymbal, producing a flatter sound without any ringing
Strike only the edges of the finger cymbals together, with your fingers cupped or open to produce percussive little ticks and clicks
Put your hands together and strike all four cymbals together lightly against each other (almost fluttering the cymbals) with both hands open, to make a tinkling, sustained ringing sound
Practice Makes Perfect
Like any musical instrument, mastering your cymbals requires a lot of training. I myself think I bit through like...five layers of skin on my lower lip!
When you’re playing, you will always start on your dominant hand. If you’re right handed, start with the right hand, but southpaws will begin on the left hand.
Practice as much as you can so you can play your cymbals easily and switch rhythms without even thinking about it. Start off doing cymbal drills seated or standing, and then add in some basic movements. After you’ve become comfortable with that, start experimenting with more advanced technique. Eventually, you want to be able to perform quick shimmies, traveling steps, and multi-layered movements while playing. You should also be able to play cymbals with your hands and arms in any position they would be in if you were dancing without them, with palms up or down, arms outstretched, overhead, crossed or moving on paths through the air, and while doing wrist circles.
Getting to the point of playing really well (i.e. on the beat and not at the expense of your movement) will take dedication and regular practice. It can be frustrating, but it will be worth it in the end!
After you’ve mastered the basics and can dance with your cymbals on, there are many ways to play them: to the basic rhythm of the song, to the melody, or just as occasional accents. Los Angeles based Arabic percussionist Donavon Lerman says:
“ Think of your zills as a solo instrument. Just like every rhythm has a matching basic movement on the dancer’s body, every rhythm has a matching basic rhythm on the zills. They should almost never be used constantly. They ought to be mostly used to add flavor, for a solo, to accentuate the dancer’s moves, for playing back and forth between drummer and dancer.”
“ I would kinda correlate it to a dancer practicing a shimmy… they have to do it everywhere; in line at the grocery store, while doing the dishes, while eating ice cream… but then they choose not use it too much in performance. When cymbals are used while you dance, they should be strong and in the right place.”
Karim Nagi offers this suggestion:
“Remember, zills are an instrument, and you’re adding the instrument to the song, so be selective about when to play. With live music, don’t play for the entire song. Choose when to play based on the song’s structure, and if there’s a singer, don’t play when he or she is singing the verses. Another choice is to play for the choruses only. If you play for the entire song, then you’ll be distracting from the band.”
Basic Cymbal Patterns
Here are some basic, commonly used patterns for practice. Again, because most people are right handed, these patterns all start on the right, so just reverse them if you’re a leftie.
GALLOPS OR THREES:
RLR RLR RLR RLR RLR RLR RLR
123 123 123 123 123 123 123
RLR LRL RLR LRL RLR LRL RLR LRL
123 123 123 123 123 123 123 123
THREES AND FIVES:
RLR RLRLR RLRLR RLR RLRLR RLRLR
123 12345 12345 123 12345 12345
THREES AND SEVENS:
RLR RLR RLRLRLR RLR RLR RLRLRLR
123 123 1234567 123 123 1234567
RLRLRLR RLRLRLR RLRLRLR RLRLRLR
1234567 1234567 1234567 1234567
Instructional DVD from Artemis Mourat:
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Nadira Jamal is a Massachussetts-based dancer whose not just a hot performer and a nurturing teacher, but also the CEO of her own mini-empire. She’s got considerable nuts’n’bolts know-how on everything from structuring improvisation on stage to building a dance career. She shares this knowledge brilliantly through her belly dance podcast Taktaba, her numerous articles, and her instructional DVDs, “The Improvisation Toolkit: Volumes 1 and 2”. She teaches group classes in Somerville, Mass., travels to teach workshops, does online classes and also offers individualized video critiques for dancers from all over the world.
Though I’d admired her from a far online for quite a while, in October 2011, I got to meet her in person- and spend some quality time with her- at MECDA’s Professional Dance Conference And Retreat.
I was struck by her dynamic American cabaret performance, great zills, and easy command of the stage as well as her intelligent and articulate thoughts on dancing…and the business of being an artist! We also spent a lot of time bonding in the hot tub, along with the other instructors and students; suffice it to say that those late night soaks in the Jacuzzi were kind of like an executive summit on the art of belly dancing- just some of the other hot tub hotties included Zahra Zuhair, Amara of Texas, and Julie Eason, founder of the Belly Dance Business Academy.
Soft-spoken when she’s not performing, Nadira’s a real firecracker when she glides onstage…so here, in her own words, is the way she preps for her shows:
“I don't really get stage fright, but I can get pretty insecure! So I do everything I can to step out of my everyday self and into Nadira. I even have a separate perfume for performing. As soon as I smell "Nadira's perfume", I start to feel more confident. (I even get a little lift the next day when I smell it on my coat.)
As I'm getting ready for a show, I listen to my "psych-up mix" of songs that put me in the right mindset. I start with Katy Perry's "Firework", and then put Jimmy Lunceford's "Tain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)" on repeat. After a few times through it, I stop worrying, and trust that I know what I'm doing.
And just before I go out, I jump up and down, make funny faces and blow bubbles! It looks really strange, but it helps release pent-up tension and relaxes your face. When your face is relaxed, your mind takes it as a cue to relax as well…I include the funny faces and bubbles in my classroom warm-up for that reason. “
Nadira’s Taktaba poscast-“Rock the Routine” :
Nadira’s instructional DVD series:
Nadira will be teaching again at the second annual MECDA Professional Dance Conference And Retreat in October 3-8, 2012 in Newport Beach, CA. Register here http://pdcr12.eventbrite.com/
Photos: Nadira looking pretty in pink
Nadira in action at MECDA's PDCR-photo by Lee Corkett
Friday, July 6, 2012
Many dancers are at a complete loss over what to include in their dance biographies. For some, just the very idea of writing fills them with dread. Already nervous about putting pen to paper and self-effacing about their accomplishments, they’re diffident about writing anything about themselves that sounds even remotely self-aggrandizing. Others go off in a totally different direction, using florid prose, strings of adjectives and listing every single accomplishment they ever achieved.What you want-and need-in a biography is a happy medium.
Writing your own bio doesn’t need be stressful. A professional dance bio gives the reader a concise overview of the dancer’s career, including her training, specialties, awards and notable achievements. Your biography doesn’t need to be any longer than a full page, or about three hundred words long. A shorter, half page bio is actually better.
Personally, I always have three or four biographies on hand at any given time, which I use for different purposes and diverse target audiences. There’s always a long version, a shorter one, a bio used only at dance events, and a bio that is more suited for the general public.
For example, the bio on my website is on the longer side, so people can find out everything about me, but the biographies I use on printed materials such as show programs or on other websites (for dance festivals or studios where I will be teaching) are much shorter. If I’m submitting a bio to a dance festival, I usually list my teachers and training, but if I’m performing at event that is not dance-centric, I omit that part, because the general public not only has no idea who the prestigious teachers or big names are in the dance universe, they don’t care.
Professional artist biographies are usually written in the third person, but that doesn’t mean they need to be stiff, bland or boring. It’s always good to include a sense of who you are in your bio, and using a little bit of humor also makes you seem accessible and engaging. Don’t get too cutesy; keep the tone professional or people won’t take you seriously. Make sure to include your contact information and website URL on the biography so people can find you.
While you should definitely mention the city or town where you are based, you might want to think twice about including too much personal information- stick to the subject at hand, which is your dancing. Only include items that are relevant to-or that compliment- your dance career.
Keeping your bio updated will also make the biography itself-and you-seem more significant and interesting. Make sure to include recent accomplishments, such as headlining a major show or being featured on the cover of a magazine; the release of new DVD or an appearance in a music video. If you have just won a contest, formed a troupe, produced a show, started teaching a new class series, or will be doing workshops at a festival in the near future, make sure to add that, too.
In addition to recent accomplishments, include your specialties; some ideas to use are mastery of any props or certain styles, the fact that you make all your costumes or are an authority on Tunisian folk dances, or that you are a hula performer in addition to belly dancing, that sort of thing.
Here’s something I learned in my pre-dance years, when I was a working journalist- it might help you decide what facts about yourself you’d like to include or omit. Most of the time, when a writer profiles an artist or public figure, there’s roughly a 90% chance that they will lift full sentences- if not entire sections- directly from the artist’s biography! This shocked me; at first, I thought it was just lazy writing but the practice was so widespread because of deadlines, and it was extremely commonplace at most of the publications I worked for. Keep this in mind, and make sure that whatever content you use in your is worthy of being repeated multiple times!
If you are still at a loss for what to include, refer to examples to get your brain in gear. Do a bit of research and read the biographies of dancers whom you admire. Analyze what works and what doesn’t, what is personable and what seems pretentious. Don’t plagiarize, but do get ideas on tone, structure, and for how to frame certain attributes or accomplishments.
You can also ask your colleagues, peers or teachers to describe certain things they like about your signature style (your innate sense of musicality, your air of playfulness on stage) and incorporate what they said into your bio. Chances are they will come up with plenty of accolades you were too modest to think of!
Monday, July 2, 2012
Who wants to see a beautiful belly dancer using rumpled, wrinkled veil onstage? Nobody! Here are some tips for keeping your veils stage-worthy:
I like to keep my veils stored together with the costumes they compliment, but many belly dance costumes are so covered in rhinestones, coins, sequins and other types of bling-bling that they may snag the veil.
For local gigs, I have found that carefully folding or rolling a veil and then packing it into a gallon-sized plastic food storage bag works well for keeping my veils protected; I then slide the veil, in it’s own bag into my costume bag. If I am going out of town, or if my veil is going to be sitting in a suitcase or gig bag for hours, I roll the veil around a small cardboard tube, the kind that comes from the inside of paper towels. This seems to alleviate many of the fold lines and creases.
To cut down on wrinkles in 100% silk veils, many dancers wrap them layered with acid-free tissue paper, but even with this precaution, they wrinkle so easily, they will still probably have to be steamed or pressed before use. If you have veils that correspond with a number of costumes, you may want to store them separately. I fold them neatly and stack them into plastic containers , categorized by silk , chiffon and embellished or specialty veils. My friend Najah, a belly dance costume designer, taught me this trick: use over-the-door plastic shoe bags to store rolled veils, belly dance jewelry, finger cymbals and hip scarves in the compartments instead of shoes. This not only is a good use of space in your overly full costume closet, it makes it easy to see what color veils you have at a glance, as well as protecting the veils and your accessories.
Most veils can be hand washed- or dry cleaned if you prefer- but be wary about dry cleaning unless you know for sure that your cleaner can deal with costume pieces safely- sequins or beads can become discolored or even melt during the dry cleaning process.
It would be wise to do a spot check on the fabric beforehand, to make sure it won’t run or fade if washed. Many veils are manufactured in foreign countries, colored without wash-safe dye, and veils that are made of 100% silk are often hand-dyed. If your veil is embellished with sequins and beads, they will not be harmed when immersed in water during hand washing. Use cool water to wash your veils, and a very mild detergent- I use baby shampoo. I recommend using the bathtub to wash veils in, so the fabric will not wrinkle or get bunched up. Fill your bathtub with cool water, and swish the veil around gently with your hands. Drain the tub and rinse a few times, and then hang the veil to dry.
I have also successfully used Dawn detergent or commercial stain removers like Resolve, to get lipstick and even food stains (ah, the wonders of dancing at a restaurant!) out of my veils. Once again, do a spot-check to make sure that the chemicals in the stain remover will not harm or discolor your veil.
If your veil isn’t embellished on the edges, you can also safely use a clothes dryer after you wash it. Put the dryer on a cool setting, and throw in a clean towel or two to absorb the extra moisture.
Veils without bead or sequin embellishments can be ironed easily- just make sure you use a heat setting that is appropriate for the fabric so you don’t scorch the material. For plain or heavily embellished veils, you can also use a clothing steamer instead of an iron to get wrinkles out.
If you opt to iron an embellished veil, you should press around the designs, so as not to flatten or melt the embellishments. A trick that also works for ironing a veil is to lay a light towel or flannel baby blanket over your veil, and use the iron on top of the towel or blanket.
Photo by Lapis
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