Resources: Mahin’s Daily Belly Dance Quickies

Mahin's logoYou’d figure most people would know about this by now, but it is possible you haven’t heard about it yet. If not, head over to Daily Bellydance Quickies and subscribe yourself. You will get a daily email covering, usually via videos, different aspects of belly dancing, including things like musicality, zilling, props, technique, or travelling steps, and also including relevant cultural aspects. It is more oriented towards American Cabaret style, although a lot of the technique can be successfully translated to other styles.

Go sign up now if you haven’t, because even if you can’t do them, they’re good reference points.

My thoughts on ATS® – part 2

So, after the long intro explaining ATS®… what do I think about it?
I first approached ATS® because I wanted a solid grounding on safe technique and conditioning, which I felt was somehow missing from my Egyptian practice, mostly because they were either “fun” classes and attendees expected to just dance, or because they were practice sessions from the advanced troupe, and therefore were focused on choreography, and you were expected to get the conditioning and technique elsewhere. I had always loved the elegance of the arms that most ATS® dancers have, and wanted to learn how they achieved it. And of course, being me, I also had a soft spot for the costuming, that I thought from day one was amazing, and suited my goth sensibilities far more than the sequins from Cabaret.

To this day, I’ve been attending ATS® classes for about a year. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve stuck with it and now really, really enjoy it! What follows is my own individual experience, necessarily subjective and tinted by my background. The quality of the teaching I receive is, without a doubt, *superb*, and my teacher’s enthusiasm and respect for the form has won me over, even after the initial hard times. I feel physically safe, and during my first months injured I chose to stay with the ATS classes because of this. And I am constantly nurtured and challenged in equal measure, which is, I think, what a good teacher does. On the other hand, I do admit that I am probably a nightmare to teach, as my brain constantly tries to cash cheques that my muscle memory can’t yet deliver, I am verbose and convoluted, I constantly ask questions, I have to dissect everything to pieces, and simply put, sometimes I just fricking talk too much. But you’ve probably already guessed that if you are a regular reader of this blog.

I attended my first ATS® Level 1 class with nearly 2 years of Egyptian style under my belt. During it we learnt the very basic building blocks that are combined and expanded later on during Levels 2 and 3; the steps and technique were not that difficult, but the new stylisation did take quite some getting used to. I found the arm posture in particular nearly torturing, and I *still* struggle with it, even more if I have missed a class or if I’ve been doing some arm work and the muscles are tired. However, I do love how it looks, and doing proper conditioning work goes a LONG way towards helping with it… eventually you do get there!

Now, there was another thing that I found incredibly difficult, and it was the whole principle. I have a very strong sense of musicality, and having to submit mine to someone else’s was, during the first L1 and half of L2, challenging. To be perfectly blunt, I hated it. I found the whole concept limiting, and the group dancing sheer agony, coming as I did from a style where you are expected to embellish everything and pour your soul out with every gesture, and that is, at its core, a soloist style. Even more because my teacher, very wisely, decided to separate me from my friend, with whom I’d been dancing for quite a while, to allow me to develop the eye to to “read” other people, so we only danced together maybe a couple of times while doing Level 1. I clearly remember, during class 5 of 6, thinking during a shimmy step drill, “what am I doing here? I am not enjoying this”. And yet I knew there were things to gain, if only I persevered. So persevere I did.

Halfway through my first Level 2 term, things finally started to gel. It did help that we started expanding our vocabulary, thank goodness. And I finally realised why we were doing some things, and that dancing ATS® was not about *me* as an individual dancer, but *us* as a “tribe”; we are supposed to be individuals, but allowing ourselves to be part of a collective, by choice. We can still allow our individuality to show when we lead, but there’s also a beauty in following, allowing someone else to take charge and guide you within their own vision of how to represent the music. I still have issues, as I am stubborn and can try to “backseat drive”, by second-guessing what the leader might want to do next, or trying to go with a different flow, but I know it happens and I am working on not doing it. I also love the fluidity the conditioning has given to my arms, the strength my core has gained, and, I won’t lie, I still love the pretty costumes.

I would suggest learning ATS®, in no particular order, if you:

  • want to always dance in a group
  • don’t like working to pre-established choreographies
  • don’t want to study a traditional Middle Eastern style
  • are comfortable improvising, or want to develop the skill but want certain parameters to use
  • are comfortable with the idea of leading a group of dancers, or want to develop the skill
  • are comfortable with the idea of following a dance leader, or want to develop the skill
  • want to learn to use zills very early on
  • like the idea of using zills constantly
  • like the music used for it
  • prefer a very structured class, with clear lesson plans and goals expected for each level, and a good attention to conditioning the body to dance better
  • like the streamlined, long lined figure created by the typical ATS® posture
  • like the elegant arm work that is almost a signature of the slow ATS® style
  • are more comfortable within an environment that is primarily focused on drilling proper technique, to later be able to dance
  • like the idea of meeting with people with whom you’ve never danced before, and being able to improvise a dance on the spot, thanks to the common vocabulary
  • view the costume as more modest than typical Cabaret, and would prefer dancing wearing it

I am pretty sure I am missing quite a few reasons, but the above should give you an idea on whether this is something you might want to do.

Would I ever stop learning Cabaret/Egyptian for ATS®? No. They are different styles, they appeal to different sides of me as a dancer. I do enjoy the idea that, if I had the chance, I could go to a festival in Switzerland and once there, find my long-distance friend Natasha and have a dance or two together without preparation, simply because we both speak the same dance language. I also love that my Egyptian technique has improved substantially as my core and arms conditioning kicked in, and my camels now look very undulating, my arms a lot more graceful and controlled, my hips juicier, my posture has improved, and I can deal with props like sticks or veils in a much better manner as my arms are stronger.

Can I see myself stopping ATS®? Not for the foreseeable future. I enjoy the basic premise of group improvisation, and I really like how aesthetically pleasing it can be when done properly.

Would I recommend you do it, even if you didn’t answer yes to any of the points above? Probably. I think there’s a LOT to be said for the methodic approach, and even if you take just one term, it might give you some food for thought, or help you re-think your practice.

My thoughts on ATS® – part 1

If you have little information about ATS, and would like to know more, for once I’m going to suggest you view the video above first, then read what follows, then watch it again with the new information you have. And while you read what I have to say, keep in mind that I am no expert, have only been doing ATS® for a year, and therefore I don’t know everything there is to know about the style, and I might have misunderstood some of what I learnt. And of course, as this is a condensed version, I am probably missing a lot. Now, with the caveats in place, let’s get on with it.

What is it?
ATS® stands for American Tribal Style, and it is a fusion dance style that started in the 80’s in the West Coast of the US, developed by Carolena Nericcio with Fat Chance Belly Dance. It takes inspiration and moves from traditional belly dance, and other dances from the Mediterranean, North Africa, Middle East and even India, and combines them with modern knowledge of anatomy and even with some artistic ideas to create steps that display the dancer in the best possible way, in a physically safe manner. The most obvious influence that people tend to pick, aside from traditional Belly Dance, is Flamenco, in the overall arms and hands posture, and “floreos” (hand flourishes).

So it is not traditional belly dancing?
No. As I said above, it is a fusion style, and while most Middle Eastern people would be able to recognise individual moves, they wouldn’t recognise it as typical Middle Eastern dancing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a fusion style!

How does it work?
It consists of group improvisation to a certain agreed vocabulary (you might think of these as “steps”). The vocabulary includes slow and fast moves, done within established formations; moves are “cued” to other dancers using particular non-verbal signs, so they know what’s coming next. The dancer leading the group improvises, using the steps in the ATS vocabulary, and the other dancers pick these up and follow the leader; the idea is to make it so seamless and synchronised as to be confused with a choreography.

The formations are nearly always of 2 to 4 people; if there’s more than 2 people dancing in the group, some of them can stand aside in what is called a “chorus”, to either do simpler, complimentary steps to what the soloist central group is doing, or to play the zills. The soloists will change and rotate during a performance, and within each group, there will also be leader changes, so each individual dancer’s musicality will direct the dance. Therefore, no two performances will ever be alike even when having the same dancers and the same music.

What music does it use?
The fast vocabulary uses zills and is almost always done to a 4/4 rhythm, as the steps always have a count of 4. You can use nearly anything with a strong 4/4 beat, I’ve personally used artists as diverse as Rob Zombie, Depeche Mode and George Michael for drilling or practice at home, but that’s because I am weird, you wouldn’t find these used for a typical performance or class! What you will probably find instead is more what feels like traditional folk Middle Eastern music as long as it has a strong beat; Helm is a favourite band. Other popular options is Balkan Brass bands, and of course there’s the music with a more modern flair written specifically for ATS® like Phil Thornton’s Nexus Tribal.

What do they wear? any reason why?
The traditional ATS costume uses a choli (short top with an open back), pantaloons, one or more skirts, usually made of very light cotton fabric… These skirts nowadays have a bottom diameter of 25 yards (roughly 22 metres) and are tucked and wrapped in a lot of different ways, but at the start they were much smaller. These basics can have different extra adornments: a coin bra, a belt, a hip scarf, a tassel belt, fringe belt… The head can have a turban, a headdress, or more commonly nowadays silk flowers. Traditional Middle Easter jewellery is seen often, not just for the neck, hands and arms, but also for the head. Facial markings simulating tribal tattoos used to be popular, bindis and facial jewellery are almost always found too.

Sometimes the cholis have a front “apron” that covers the stomach; I’ve always worn body stockings when wearing my Tribal costumes, and I’ve even seen people wearing very tight camis under their cholis, so the costume itself can be very modest and offer a surprising degree of coverage.

Each element of the costume has been added for some specific functionality. For instance the open back on the choli makes it easier for the followers to view the movements of the back/shoulders clearly and pick up the cues better. The skirts can be hitched up in different ways to “bounce”, spiral and fly, and accentuate the movements when viewed from a distance. The pantaloons keep the legs covered and modest when doing turns and spins. The tassel belts accentuate the sharper hip moves like shimmies, and the fringe belts accentuate the full body moves like undulations and slower turns.

Now with the new information you have, try to view the Fat Chance Belly Dance video again, trying to figure out how the dancers communicate, the formations, and leader changes. Knowing it is all improvised gives it a whole new angle, doesn’t it?

Coming up: what I think about it.

Review: Khaleeji workshop with Tara Ibrahim at Orient Expressions

Dancer Corrosie wearing a traditional thobe

Corrosie wearing a traditional thobe

Tara’s workshop at Orient Expressions last year was the very first time I attended any type of workshop, and where I realised that I was at a level to benefit from them. I did enjoy it, so I was curious when she came up again as a guest teacher this year. The subject would be Khaleeji (or Khaliji, Kaliji and other variations). The word means, literally “of the Gulf”, and within the dance community, it refers to music and dances of the Persian Gulf. Tara worked there for a while, and while I wasn’t terribly caught by the idea of dancing with big thobes (check the photo to the right to see what I mean), I wanted to learn more about the style from someone that had experienced it first hand, instead of hearing every now and then something like “this is a bit of khaleeji” when what they really mean is “this uses footwork like that of Khaleeji”.

Tara explained to us the basic steps and moves that we would encounter, why they were so centred around the head, hands, and upper torso (easy, the thobes do cover pretty much everything else), although we did have some hip moves later on. She said we would work on a pop Khaleeji, and did mention that nowadays most people danced to it just wearing street clothes, unless they were dancing for heads of state or doing dance shows. She also read us the translation of the song we would be dancing to later, so we had a better idea of what it was about.

Dancer Mena and Shaira wearing thobes .

Mena and Shaira wearing thobes .

We started with a warm up that focused on the ankles/calves, hands, torso, and neck, and with a bit of hip thrown in. She then covered the basic footwork (rather simple) and some other moves that we could encounter, mostly including arms, “showing off jewellery” as she called it, or mimicking heart beating, floating in front of the body, or framing ourselves. Then followed turns and travelling that mixed all that we’d done up to that point. The style very often requires the arms to be extended away from the body (check the photo to the left for an example), and this is one aspect where my ATS training came handy, but it was still rather hard work! Then we covered the hair tossing and turning with it. This wasn’t as bad (read: disorienting) as I expected it to be, although I did make sure I was driving the move with my upper body instead of just the neck, but for some of the turns you just had no other option when bringing them back up… Think of it as hair tossing of the kind you’d encounter in a shampoo commercial, and you won’t be that far off the mark. I hadn’t danced with my hair loose in a long while and it was rather exciting to be doing all this moves with it, but as my hair is far longer now than when I started dancing three years ago, and it was hard work so it was heavy with sweat, it did take its toll, and I am still feeling some side effects from it. She did give us a quick primer on floor work, but considering the effects kneeling down without padding has on my knees, I opted out of it.

After the introduction to the basic moves, Tara guided us through a bit of a drill, and then let us do about a minute or two of improvisation so we could feel the music and get the right attitude for it before starting work on the choreography. The choreography was pretty, quite feminine and sweet, and Tara made sure to remind us of the lyrics so we could imbue each move with the appropriate feel, which was good… quite often that aspect is left out of choreographies and everything ends feeling a bit robotic. Tara also let us video the whole chunk of choreography we learnt by the end of the workshop, which will be good to have as a reference point if I want to revisit it in the future.

My *one* nitpick (and it is really a nitpick, not a real negative) is that we did seem to work on the choreography by going over the whole thing every time and then adding a new chunk, which means that each successive part got less and less practice time. So you have a fully polished first combo, as it’s been done so many times, but each successive combo has had less and less time dedicated to it, and is therefore less polished in comparisson. I know a lot of people work better this way, as they need to learn the whole sequence one after another, but I’ve always found it more efficient to practice each chunk/combo by itself the same amount of times, and then practicing the transitions between one combo and the next.

Final impressions: the workshop was a good balance of information, technique, and a choreography to reinforce the other two aspects learnt. It was a great way to get a good overview of the style with someone who obviously enjoys it.

Would I take another workshop on Khaleeji? No. This isn’t because of Tara’s instruction, which I think was very good. It was fun to learn about the style, but I just don’t think it “calls me” to do more research into it, or to dance it, although I suspect some of the gestures and moves might creep into my usual dancing.

Would I take another workshop from Tara? Very likely, depending on what it is. She’s fun, obviously very dedicated and encouraging, and explains things clearly.

Photographs above courtesy of Corrosie from Arabian Nights Belly Dance, and Mena

Inspiration: Costuming

No video of photo for today’s inspiration, although I will leave you all with a quote from Sachico Ito, a Japanese costume designer.

People place too much emphasis on looking thin. They say they want to look slender. But I think the physicality of a person’s body is a wonderful thing in itself. If an overweight person wears his or her weight beautifully, that’s great!

I try to create costumes that work with the person’s body. Costumes are more about the expression of the body than that of the clothes. So it comes down to how to present the body.”

Food for thought there. How do you plan your costumes?

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