Friday, 23 December 2011

The last post (for the year)

It's been a long, strange year hasn't it? Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful end to 2011 and a great start to 2012.

Playing us out, here's the Mirage Belly Dancers of Rochester, Michigan in a 2008 "hula-esque" performance. [EDIT in response to Tamsin's comment below: This dance is to hula what Julie Newmar's dancing is to belly dance.] This is to Bing Crosby's Mele Kalikimaka (there are no prizes for guessing what that translates to, sorry). It's the song I SHOULD have learnt a hula to at the Fantasia this year, but alas didn't. So this goes out with an extra serving of "aloha!" to Tamsin at Hawaiian Hula UK and to my dear friend Rachel, with whom I'm spending Christmas Eve and who knows all the words to this song by heart. And does a damn good version of it after a few festive sherries, too.

Joy and peace to all you occidental, accidental and oriental dancers out there! x

Monday, 19 December 2011

Christmas Special: Wookie Woo

By the man-bits of Chewbacca! It's almost the end of the year already and it's Christmas this weekend - can you Adam and Eve it? Let's get into party mode with this mad French ballet/disco homage to Star Wars:

Are you feeling festive yet?


Then how about some more disco Star Wars-style, with Kris Kristofferson and Donnie and Marie Osmond?

How about now?

I went to the last Hafla on the Hill for the year in North London on Friday night. It was so much fun - not least because downstairs there was some kind of men-only Irish rock party thingee. We got lost and a bit confused, and wound up there first, but the nice lady from the bar ushered us upstairs to the right place. My friend Nicola performed beautifully (and you can follow her on Twitter - search @CreativeHarvey) and there were great performances from Sunny, Hadassah Stars, Setsuna, Bellydance Belles, Arabian Dance Theatre (well, two of them!), Anna Zaremba and the night's organisers Dunya Belly Dance. Many thanks to Rosy and Michelle for putting the evening together, and for the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins and Christmas mince pies on the tables. Nom...

Based on the advertising for last Friday's event, it seems that there were a few last-minute no-shows (every event organiser's nightmare, I'm sure), so the performers deserve extra special kudos. Many of them stepped up to fill the gaps with unscheduled sets, some of which were improvised. Now that is the mark of the professional.

It would be remiss of me to wrap up this post without giving a massive zaghareet to Zara's Souk, because I won a hip scarf from them in the raffle to support Sure Start Camden! I never win anything so I was well made up. I've bought from Zara's online shop and had great service, so am only too pleased to give 'em some props.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Weird Wednesday Woo (Part 5): When Photoshop effects attack

Greetings, minions of Earth! I am Demonica, the Belly Dancer from the Eighth Dimension. Yes, mortal fools, behold the bizarre arrangement of my left leg and despair! Right leg? What is this "right leg" you speak of? I, Demonica, have only a fleshy, square plinth beneath my skirt, the better for balancing with.

The wonders of my body are what you with your pathetically limited number of joints and laughably extraneous number of limbs can only dream of. This foot is detachable, you know. Other anatomical differences between our kinds provide me with hours of mirth at your expense. The main joint for my right right arm is actually at the wrist, where it attaches to my skull, and I do not have a shoulder as such –  what you would consider the 'top' of the arm is actually the bottom of mine. It so amuses me to see your reactions when I deftly swing my scapula towards you like a club (a favourite party trick in Eighth Dimension speakeasys when foreigners are in the audience).

Your worship of the rounded breast confounds me, when plainly my own "twin soup bowls" arrangement is the pinnacle of desirability. Gaze deep into the shape on my chest that closely resembles a pair of outsize novelty sunglasses, and feel the shudder of fear you SHOULD feel when you realise that I am peering back at you with the eyeballs-cum-nipples my costume conceals. MWAhahahaha! While you are often compelled to say "My eyes are up here" to one of the many repellent males of your species, I, Demonica, need never waste my breath on such a fatuous instruction for I have eyes everywhere even in my barest suggestion of a navel.

Ah, I wish you could see as I do the looks on your repulsively mobile faces when I poke the two skewer-like digits on my left hand at your disgustingly moist eyeballs! Although it turns my stomach to be in such close proximity to you, how your yowling justifies my own permanent facial expression of malevolent glee! I, Demonica, the Belly Dancer from the Eighth Dimension, need never trouble myself with this "anti-wrinkle formula" and "Botox" your puny race is so enamoured of.

Your kind is so grotesque to me, and the light in this realm is so bizarrely un-nauseating, that out of sheer spite it is tempting to levitate out of the screen and clack my Zagats of Madness at you until blood streams from your nostrils. Instead I shall return to the infinitely superior Eighth Dimension, where I believe we are having Lobster Bisque for lunch.

So suck it, plebs. Enjoy your sandwiches. Demonica out.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas hells

Dear Jilly

My workplace is a very conservative one. It is in the legal/financial sector and everyone wears suits all the time. We do not have dress-down Fridays because our client base would not take kindly to it, and we have a company-wide dress code stipulating that women are not to wear long earrings or studs larger than a shirt button. Next weekend my company is having its annual Christmas party. Usually this is a smart affair in a nice restaurant we have booked out for the occasion, and we often have entertainment of some sort. To give you some idea, last year it was a magician, the year before it was a group of actors who got us to play charades.

However, business has not been very good this year and so the budget for the party has been cut. We will instead be having a meal in our in-house canteen after work on a Friday, although it will be catered and drinks provided. This has not stopped some people from feeling rather cheated and this is where my real problem lies. Senior management have asked if I will belly dance at some point between the main course and dessert. (Rather foolishly, I included my hobby on my resume when I applied for my current role. I thought it may give me some ‘edge’ over other candidates, because in my line of work I was sure it would make me memorable when it came to short-listing applicants.) I have declined, on the grounds that I don’t want to mix my hobby with my work, but my line manager has assumed that it is because I was not offered payment. In fact, I am concerned that my very straight-laced colleagues will make me the subject of spiteful, unfounded gossip.
My line manager has all but accused me of being selfish and greedy for depriving my colleagues of a bit of Christmas cheer. I did try suggesting alternatives – Andrew from sales is always looking to demonstrate his hand trumpeting skills, for example, and Danusha is a champion juggler – but this has fallen on deaf ears. Should I reconsider for the sake of my career? I do not want to be seen as someone who is not a team player.

The Pinstriped Pirouetter


Dear Pinstriped

You haven't got where you are today by being as dumb as a barnacle, have you? And I'm willing to bet that you've got gut instincts a ship's rat would envy. After asking around, it seems that refusing to dance for free at a work do is not a sackable offence. If your first thought was to leave your Bella at home then trust that feeling! Obviously, I've never been to an office party, but if what I understand from popular culture is true then at some point in the evening one of your workmates will dance for free anyway.

Hope that helps!

Jilly x

Sunday, 11 December 2011

A weekend of it

On Friday I was lucky enough to go to Amira's Christmas Hafla in Balham, London. Gotta say that it was the venue of the year so far: the sumptuous surrounds of the local Polish community's meeting hall, complete with gilt-framed mirrors, red curtains and Czech crystal chandeliers, are pretty tough to beat. It was also a night of fantastic performances - I can honestly say there wasn't a duff one in the bunch.

Although I tweeted the night's proceedings (oh, don't worry, that makes me feel a little squeezy too), here's the actual run sheet from the night:

First half
  1. Delilah
  2. Beckenham Improvers (Sakina, Jyl, Taneka, Anouf, Marrissa, Jill and Anna)
  3. Jenny
  4. Gilda's Students (Annie, Lani, Leah and Trish)
  5. Tooting Improvers (Jane, Carol, Danielle, Jo, Rita, Helen and Elaine)
  6. Desire [it's pronounced "Dez - ah - ray", actually]
  7. Beckenham Intermediates (Sue, Linda, Anna and Maddy)
  8. Amira
Unfortunately, Anais was unable to perform as scheduled.

Second half
  1. Nefiseh [Shamadan and zagat]
  2. Veil Dance (Jane, Sakina, Sue, Linda, Carol, Anna and Gilda)
  3. Maho and Students [ATS]
  4. Jane and Sakina [veil]
  5. Balham Intermediates (Jenny, Pauline and Rachel)
  6. Gilda [veil]
  7. Anna Kemper [of Small World Belly Dance, Brixton]
  8. Razia - in her last London performance until at least 2013. And she made sure we'll miss her, too!
Thanks to Amira and the organisers for such a fun night out.

This weekend also saw the Fantasia festival in Turnham Green. [Sidenote: aren't English place names the awesomest?] Alas, my plans to go and support friends in the competitions and attend a couple of workshops were thwarted by a combination of prior commitments on Saturday and generally feeling lousy today. HOWEVER, I do know that Hawaiian Hula UK had a splendid time, which makes me even more rueful because that workshop was on my wishlist, and that Rachael looked beautiful in the Isis competition (Facebook is good like that). Ahnemon took out bronze in the Palace Dancers competition, with only their second-ever performance together. This rounds out a great fortnight for Ahnemon's Maelle, who came second in her heat at Belly Dance Trophies last weekend. Phew! 

Next Friday, all going well, I'll be attending my last hafla of the year, Hafla on the Hill, where my friend Nicola will be performing. And then I suspect I'll be all hafla-ed out....

Friday, 9 December 2011

Faster. Higher. Stronger. Or not?

Today's burning issue: Should you do it just because you can?

The Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" has never been more apt. Olympic athletes today have more speed, height and strength than ever before. By way of example, the fastest man in the world today is Usain Bolt. His current 100 metre men's sprint record is 9.58 seconds (set in Berlin, 2009). Compare that with the first-ever official men's 100 metre record, set in Paris in 1891, when Luther Cary sprinted the distance in 10.80 seconds. To put that into perspective, if we could have time-travelled a peak-form Cary to Berlin in 2009 to compete in the final that Bolt set his record in, and have guaranteed that he would run the distance in 10.80 seconds, he still would have finished 0.46 seconds behind the slowest person in that race (who, for the record, was Darvis Patton at 10.34). That's right - all eight runners in that 2009 final were significantly faster than the 1891 world record holder.

Thanks to the virus my blog installed on your computer so that I can see you via webcam, I can tell you're wondering what on earth all this has to do with dancing.* It has A LOT to do with it, because the parallels are the same. Professional ballet dancers, for example, are now expected to be more flexible and have more stamina than the dancers of 100 years ago. This doesn't mean that the dancers of 100 years ago were terrible, but it's highly unlikely that a dancer of their standard would find work with a professional company today. Exhibit A.

It's not just ballet, either. You only need to compare clips of Egyptian Golden Age dancers with those of dancers like Randa Kamel and Suhaila Salimpour to see the difference. Crucially, however, there are still belly dancers who aspire to dance like the belly dance stars of fifty and sixty years ago. In large part, this is because belly dance has always had room for performers who can overcome their lack of training or limited physical range by connecting with the music and the audience (Egyptians, in particular, place a great emphasis on a dancer's emotional range, with some dismissing Kamel's style as "too Westernised". So cultural origins play a part too). Belly dance's roots are in folk dancing, which goes some way to explaining its continued popularity as a hobbyist pursuit, but in common with burlesque it has an element of populist "showbiz" that "high art" forms of dance can sometimes lack.

As far as sport goes, the changes in what's physically possible for humans to achieve is exactly what events like the Olympics are for. The measurements are wholly objective, even for sports with nominal elements of artistry like gymnastics and figure skating. In the context of dancing, the ability to execute technically difficult moves may well come at the cost of something less easy to quantify, such as emotional expression. There's not a lot of room for conveying nuance when your face is pinched with concentration.

It's a fact that art evolves, but I've seen student belly dancers do difficult moves badly, often for no other reason than to demonstrate that they "kind of" can do them. Quite often it will taint what is otherwise a really solid performance. It bothers me because it contributes to the idea that belly dancing is one of those undemanding pursuits that anyone can "kind of" do "well enough" if they have hips and the inclination.

The author demonstrates her "less is more approach" to costuming,
and how blogging has improved her strength and flexibility.
For many Western belly dancers (who, like me, often come to it as adults when the window for being moulded into a rubbery acrobat has long since closed), there is a perceived challenge to be seen as "real" dancers despite the fact that belly dance doesn't require the gravity-defying leaps and joint-straining positions of other mainstream dance forms. This is, of course, ridiculous. There are many professional, amateur and hobbyist belly dancers who work incredibly hard and are as or more accomplished than dancers in other genres. It's not the fact that I can't put my leg behind my head that makes me a bad dancer - it's that I don't breathe properly when I dance and have terrible posture that makes me a bad dancer.

Besides, there are belly dancers like Anasma who have come from other dance backgrounds to create something wholly new: belly dance, but not as Tahia Carioca would have known it. There are so many different kinds of belly dance now, and all so different from each other, that the fact there's still one umbrella term to cover all of them is frankly astonishing.

I say all this to clarify my position: I'm not anti-fusion. I'm not anti-physicality. And I'm not against people using belly dance as a spring-board for creative self-expression - though I still reckon that student haflas are not the place for that piece about how your mum gave you a gimp mask for your tenth birthday. My beef is solely with swapping out dancing in favour of nifty stunts.

A couple of years ago I saw an otherwise very good dancer attempt to do the 'bridge' yoga position in the middle of her choreography. Apropos of nothing in particular, she performed a perfunctory amount of floorwork and then pushed herself (with evident effort) into a back bend. It didn't fit with the music. It didn't fit with any of the other phrases in her choreography. The only possible reason she had for doing it was to demonstrate the flexibility and strength of her back. In the context of a dance, that's not a reason. In the context of a gymnastics routine, it's a very good reason. I have the same gripe about the splits. While sometimes it's a very useful tool, carrying the dancer fluidly from standing to floorwork and back again, more often than not it's done as a stunt - "Hey! Look at me! I can do the splits!"

It's fine to have a signature move, but not if it gets shoe-horned into every performance whether it needs to be there or not. This is never more evident than when you see a dancer who has made a demanding move a core part of each of their choreographies. I'm not just whinging about this because I have all the bend and flex of a concrete lamp post, although I'm not too proud to admit that I am impressed by the very flexible.

The loss of originality, grace, expression, artistry and sheer pleasure from dancing is a real risk for dancers who focus solely on their athleticism. Having said that, conditioning, strength and flexibility all make for better dancers, because they help to extend the range of motion and, hence, dance vocabulary. Knowing when to keep the party tricks in the box is as much a skill as being able to perform them.

Recommended further reading:

Ballet postures have become more extreme over time (via Science Blogs)

Simukova in a Nutcracker that's way ahead of its time

*Just kidding - you look great.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

She dreams of 1969*

When Israeli metal band Orphaned Land (gotta love that name) performed in France earlier this year, they were joined on stage - as usual - by Johanna Najla (also known as Johanna Fakhry). Johanna is a Lebanese belly dancer. Here is Johanna talking about her career and being on tour with Orphaned Land to French Metal in an interview posted online five days ago (clip is en Anglais):

All very interesting - what it was like to grow up in a conflict zone, what it's like to belly dance to metal and yaddayaddayadda. Search Johanna and Orphaned Land online, however, and you get a story that she doesn't even mention:

Yes, earlier this year she and the lead singer of Orphaned Land waved the flags of their respective countries of birth at a bunch of French metal heads. Peace, love and battle jackets, man. [Sidenote: does the lead singer of Orphaned Land know that he looks a bit like Jesus? Does he heck.]

Unfortunately, since The Lebanon and Israel are still officially at war, it is illegal for Lebanese citizens (even those who, like Johanna, have not lived in The Lebanon for a long time) to have any public dealings with Israelis. When the above clip hit the internet back in July, Johanna got death threats from her compatriots. How seriously she took those is probably indicated by the amount of time she spent discussing them in that recent interview.

*Today's post's title comes courtesy of Phil Oakey and The Human League:

The makeup! The shoulder pads! The hair! The earnest politics! God, '80s pop was fantastic.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Another weekend, another hafla

In a couple of hours I'm off to Wembley for round 2 of Bellydance Trophies. As with the hafla I went to last weekend, I'll be tweeting in between performances if you're remotely interested in finding out how it's going.

From its website, the venue looks the set of an early 1980s sci-fi show (i.e. worth going to whether there are dancers or not).

UPDATE (Tuesday 6 December): For those of you who did follow along on Twitter, I apologise for the misspellings of names! An especially humble apology to Zana, the heat winner, whose name I just couldn't catch no matter how I angled my ear trumpet towards the MC. My companion, the beautiful and patient Christina, receives extra props and abject expressions of thanks for spending the time between performances staring at my ear as I hunched over my phone.

For those of you who didn't follow my inane tweets, the Round 2 contestants and their placings in the heat were as follows (the numbers before their names are their competition numbers):

08 Amy

09 Bianca = THIRD PLACE

10 Chloe

11 Firuza

12 Maelle = SECOND PLACE

13 Keisha* (originally meant to perform in the March heat but swapped places with Saffron)


The judges were Nawarra, Anne White, Shafeek Ibrahim and some random dude from the audience. A huge congratulations to all seven dancers. They put on a terrific show and all of them looked like they belonged in the final. I think the judges made good decisions and I don't envy them being the ones to make it!

Heat 3 is, I believe but don't quote me on this, 15 January 2012. How nice for the dancers in that heat, to spend all Christmas and New Year in a state of panic. It will again be in Wembley, in the same tatty venue with its carpet of old black chewing gum. Ah, belly dancing. It's a glamorous business, innit?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Hair be drag-ons

Having broached the sensitive issue of depilation earlier in the week, it was total kismet that lead me to this:

I've seen London's Hurly Burly Girls* do a variation on this - while Polly Rae crooned I Must Have That Man, upstage a sailor with "his" back turned to the audience slowly stripped naked while most of the women present bayed like banshees. At the song's end, "he" whipped off "his" cap (spoiler alert!) to allow a cascade of blonde hair to fall down her back before turning around with her hands strategically placed in front of her crotch. It was the only truly "burlesque" moment in the whole show.

As for this piece - well, although I like the element of Crying Game-esque surprise, it could be meta. (Link supplied for younger readers who don't get the aged pop-cultural reference.) Who else thinks this would be awesome if we were seeing a woman dressed as a man in drag? And is it so wrong that I'm tempted to make it a reality myself?

(Please do excuse the lousy double-whammy of puns in this post's title. It's Friday and I'm a little low on inspiration.)

*Link NSFW. But I'm sure you'd figured as much.