Thursday, June 26, 2014


Photo by Maharet Hughes, GraphicVibeLA   Costumeby  Hallah Moustafa


 Know your music inside and out, down to the smallest sounds. By memorizing your music fully, a composition which once seemed complex and foreign will still be all of that, but it will also become ingrained in your psyche, and you will feel more confident in your own personal interpretation and emotional reactions to the piece onstage.

During home practice, use your mirror for more than checking your bodylines and angles, “dancing” with nothing more than your own facial expressions. There are a few ways to do this. Stand close to the mirror, put your music on, and observe your own emotional reactions to the musical piece you’ve selected.  Alternately, you could set up a camera or make a video on your phone.  Though this exercise might seem unnatural or forced at first, it will truly help you connect to the music emotionally, which will help you to become a compelling and poignant performer to your audience.

The eyes are the windows to the soul, and there is no better way to connect with your audience than using your eyes to communicate with them! In a smaller performance space, making eye contact is much easier because the audience is in very close proximity.

On a larger stage, where the crowd is farther away, you can fake eye contact by selecting certain spots in the crow to beam in, simulating direct eye contact. Though this may not seem genuine to you, it will to the audience!

 While choreographing your performance piece or just practicing at home or in the studio, take cues from the music itself, stopping and posing or just briefly pausing for a moment when the music does.

Before you begin your performance (even in practice) remind yourself to move slowly. Being onstage gives everyone and adrenalin rush, and beginners –or those who are amped up before a show tend to rip around the stage very quickly. Once you learn to control your nervous energy and reign in a little, you’ll look relaxed and effortless, as though everything you are doing comes naturally for you. This ease is usually learned…so drill yourself on the concept of moving slowly, finishing each movement completely, pausing and posing, and letting your emotions shine through your performance.  

This encompasses  your emotions, gestures, make up and costuming!

First of all, as you  plan your piece, start planning your costume as well, and make sure it looks good under the lighting situation  where you will be performing. Obviously, your costume will fit and flatter you- if it doesn’t, start thinking about ways to make it work…or using, making or buying  a different  one.  Check with your show’s producer to see what the backdrop will be like; you don’t want to wear a burgundy costume against a burgundy backdrop!  Once you know the color, select a costume that will pop against your performance environment.

Use enough make up! You’ve heard me carry on about this in the past, but it is imperative…otherwise, the audience won’t be able to see-much less feel – the emotions you are portraying on stage.

 As you mark your choreography or your improvised dance, allot some quality time  during your rehearsals to  set dramatic, comedic or show-stopping gestures and expressions for your dance.

Nope, this isn’t “cheating” it’s called entertaining. You’re setting up everything your body does, so why would you stint on your emotions and facial expression? They are both crucial to building a beautiful, professional-looking, polished performance.

Sounds crazy, but many of us hold our breath when we are concentrating, and dancing involves a lot of concentration! Before you take the stage, remind yourself to breathe- it will send oxygen to your entire body and give you stamina. Breathing into your movements- for example, inhaling while lifting your arms, and exhaling as you bring them down - will also give an airy, buoyant look to your dancing, as well as make your physical gestures much more profound and emotional.

 Last but not least, sometimes  the context of a  performance, just stopping to take a breath can be very profound.

Above all, savor your piece when you are dancing. Feel the connection to the music, and let the music pour through you, body and soul. When you are dancing and truly letting the move you emotionally, your performance will move the audience will, too!


  Get an autographed copy of  The Belly Dance Handbook here:

Photo and Graphics by Maharet Hughes

Friday, June 6, 2014


 The BaLAdi Tour: Princess Farhana & Issam Houshan    photo: Chadi Chankour
Drum solos are a huge part of belly dancing. The interaction between the drummer and the dancer is exhilarating for audiences to witness because it's so exciting that sparks practically fly from the stage.

Even though I was among the last generation of Los Angeles dancers who “grew up” dancing with live music, it took me a while to get the hang of what, exactly was going on within the drum solos I was seeing-and often dancing to onstage.  As luck would have it, the first drummer I ever worked with was Issam Houshan.  Issam was an incredible tabla player years before he became internationally famous. As a baby dancer, I naively thought all Arabic drummers would be just like him…but little did I know, his magnificent playing spoiled me rotten!

Nearly twenty years later, we are working together regularly again, having recently embarked upon our BaLAdi Tour, so named because we both live in Los Angeles. It is amazing to teach and perform alongside him; to me, it feels like coming home, because the way he plays is literally engrained into my soul. Still, I learn something new from him every time we practice or do a show. The only real difference between working with him in “back in the day” as opposed to 2014 is that now I understand all the ingredients that make a terrific drum solo!

The following thoughts and ideas are things that Issam and I share in our workshops… whether you improvise your drum solos or do choreography only, whether you're working with a live player or  a recorded drum solo,  try out some of these tips and see how they work for you.

 Identify The Root Rhythm
Whether I’m planning choreography to teach or having fun improvising onstage, I always identify the basic rhythm that is being played at any particular time. Sometimes, when the drummer is doing all sorts of fancy embellishments in the course of a solo, it might be a little difficult to realize that what he’s going so crazy on is just plain old Maksoum (also known as Baladi) or the Greco-Turkish Chiftetelli.  Listen carefully to the drum solo you’re about to work with and note what each root rhythm is in its most basic form.  If you don’t know your Masmoudi Kebir and Saudi from your Malfouf or Samai, then it’s time to learn…cause being able to discern the unique Arabic time signatures is the key to an amazing drum solo!

Look For Repetition
Issam almost always repeats each rhythmic pattern at least four times. Almost every drummer worth his or her salt will do that too. The concept, in Issam’s own words, goes like this:

 “First time, the dancer will hear that I’ve done something new. Second time, she knows what to do to the new rhythm, and third and fourth time, she nails it!

Obviously, if you’re working with a recorded-as opposed to live- drum solo, you’ll listen to the track over and over so you’ll be able to nail it every time! But it helps to know this idea when you’re working with live musicians, and an experienced drummer knows work with repetition so that both of you will have a great show. Some drummers even repeat each phrase more than four times.

Listen For Signals And Transitions
 Make sure to really listen to the segues the drummer makes between the various rhythms being used- a typical drum solo has lots of variation!  Once you really can hear the transitions, it will make your dance transitions that much easier. Again, if you’re working with recorded music, this will be a lot easier than it will be if you’ve just jumped up onstage and are partying down with a live drummer.

Go “Organic”
 Whether you’re listening to your iPod or rehearsing with a real live person, just have fun and improvise to the drum solo. Chances are, your body knows what to do even if your brain is in a dither, wondering what isolations you’re going to employ.  If you just take a few passes through the drum solo just for the hell of it, you’ll probably start to see some natural and organic physical responses to each new pattern.

It’s also good to realize that not everything you do needs to be a complicated string of mind-bending technique… a simple movement or series of movements done precisely on the beat can often be every bit as effective as a multi-layered extravaganza!

Divide And Conquer!
When you’re in the midst of learning a new drum solo, divide it into nice, easy-to-digest bite sized chunks.  Work on each section until you’re happy with it before you move on to the next section. This will also help you to feel really comfortable with each part of the drum solo, as opposed to trying to get the entire thing down in one big piece.  Run each segment until you know it by heart, and then when you move on, the parts you worked on previously will flow better and more naturally, they’ll seems like old friends.

  Let Your Feet Do The Walking And Your Hips Do The Talking
 After I’ve done a few improvisational passes on the new drum solo, I like to quit actually dancing to it and just walk it a few times. I forget about anything else except my feet, and just stay really conscious of stepping on the doum, the Arabic word for “downbeat”. I get hyper-conscious about my weight placement, and really feel my directional work, my turns, and things like that. I like to make sure my feet know exactly where they’re going before I start in on what my hips…and everything else: hips,arms, torso, head angles, etc. are doing. Walking through the solo always  helps to make me feel more grounded and in sync with the drum sounds and different rhythms.

Silence Is Golden
Issam and I are both adamant about acknowledging that the silences, or pauses in a drum solo are every bit as important as the actual sounds the drum is making! Many dancers don’t realize this, and feel as though they have to remain in constant motion. Pausing or standing still onstage is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the most effective.
 If the drum stops, you stop.

Wrap It Up
Know your ending pose- plan it in advance. Finishing with a bang  in a beautiful pose will make your drum solo look really polished.   For recorded music, obviously you’ll know when the end is nigh, but in a live situation, this might not always be the case.

If you’re working with a live drummer, watch the drummer’s body language, and make eye contact- these are two things that should be done throughout the drum solo, but they’re crucial towards the end.  The drummer will be hitting a big frenzy, and you probably will too, but direct eye contact will allow you both to finish together. Once the audience starts applauding, make sure to gesture towards your drummer presenting him or her to the crowd… and then take a bow together.


Our BaLAdi Tour CD with fifteen tracks, including some majorly hot drum solos is available here:

Issam’s The Dancing Drum, Vol. 3 features eleven tracks of commonly used belly dance rhythms- a must for the informed dancer! Get it here:

Next dates for The BaLAdi Tour
 With Princess Farhana & Issam Houshan:

 June 7 & 8, 2014: Cairo Shimmy Quake, Glendale Civic Auditorium, and Los Angeles, CA

July 12 & 13, 2014, Arabesque 2014 El Paso, Texas

To book The BaLAdi Tour for November/December of 2014 or in 2015, email us here:

Monday, June 2, 2014


RRRRRRROAR! Maria Sokolova by Michael Baxter

 Maria Sokolova is a rising star in the world of belly dance. Every time I watch her perform, she takes my breath away with her precise technique, which is powerful, showy and full of pizazz, yet still extremely Oriental,  soft and subtle. Not only that, she’s  gorgeous, has terrific stage presence  and costumes that any belly dancer would give their right hip for! It’s no wonder she  won Belly Dancer of The Universe, Belly Dancer Of The Year and was a finalist  on  Michelle Joyce's  “Project Belly Dance: Season Two”- cause  she’s got it all!  She’s also one of the sweetest and most humble dancers I’ve ever met, truly a joy to hang out with backstage!

 Born in Moscow, Russia, Maria first became enthralled with belly dancing while travelling in North Africa.  She  now lives in Santa Clara, California and was trained in belly dance  by  her mentor, Sandra, as well as  international stars like Randa Kamel, Raqia Hassan, Tito and many others, including the  Russian  greats when   she visits her homeland. Currently, she  performs and teaches  throughout the San Francisco Bay area, directs her student troupe  Almaz, and travels internationally for workshops and shows.

Many of us dancers  get nervous and flustered before we go onstage, so I  love to find out about backstage rituals  from dancers I admire, and  have them share their secrets here for inspiration!

 Here’s  how Maria preps for shows, in her own words:

“ Waiting is the thing that can make anyone nervous, so most of the time I try to arrive late enough that I only have time to jump into the costume and run on stage right when music starts. Many dancers dislike that, saying it makes them feel unprepared, while for me it's much better than to get dressed, get ready and wait, cause waiting makes me doubt if my makeup is in place, if my skirt slit in the right place, if extra pins are needed…or wondering if I have to step on stage with right foot first or left?

I like to spy on the audience I am about to perform for, so when I’m done with fixing my eye make up  and hair a hundred times,  I go take a look at the  performance area while staying unnoticed.

If there are hundreds of people in the audience I'll tell myself to get relaxed - "It's easy, just like dancing for two tables at a restaurant!”

But if I’m really a restaurant, if it's only two tables then I pretend it's a stadium of people to make myself work harder. Thus, my best shows are often the ones for half empty restaurants!

Sometimes to add more confidence before stepping on stage I try to imagine who I want to be today….depending on what skill I need to access at the moment. I close my eyes make a deep breath and think "I'm Tito!" and run on stage pouring all possible stage presence; or I can think "I'm Sandra!" and flow out on a dance floor with all sensuality; on special occasions "I'm Randa!" when feeling ambitious, or "I'm Dina!" when  I  feel  daring… It helps, I swear!”

 Maria’s website:

  See  Maria  on Project Belly Dance, Season Two:

 View her instructional mini-workshop on RaqsTV, “Refining The Dance”

 Maria will be  teaching and performing  at “From Russia With Love” in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada  on June 14  & 15, for details, contact:


 Get your  autographed copy of  “The Belly Dance Handbook: A Companion For The Serious Dancer” here: