Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Changing the way I teach

This Sunday was the final session in my Project Lift Off course before the summer break. As ever, we left the class exhausted, smelly and spent; our hair wringing wet against the napes of our necks, our muscles trembling. I like to think we also left with our adrenaline running high, our spirits lifted and our determination stronger than ever.

In Project Lift Off I’m trying to do no less than change the face of British bellydancing  (I’ve never been one for small challenges) and in our first, faltering steps I can see the beginnings of that metamorphosis. It’s not that I want to change bellydance itself - although within my personal remit is the desire to create a new style to live alongside existing ones - but to change the way ‘serious’ bellydancers view themselves.

I grew up as a dancer. From the age of five to twenty five dance was my central core - it was how I viewed myself, how I introduced myself. One of my earliest memories is of my first ballet lesson, aged five. I remember the large ornate, but slightly mottled, mirror in the classroom, I remember my pink ballet slippers, I remember struggling with the steps. But most of all I remember knowing that this was what I wanted to do. 

I lived, breathed and slept ballet throughout my childhood, until late adolescence when my ever-widening hips and chunky legs shattered all my dreams. But my disappointment led me to discover contemporary dance and, later, jazz - both of which are more accepting of larger body types. At college I studied Laban and contemporary dance and after graduating spent every day doing jazz and jazz-ballet classes in the nascent Pineapple Dance Centre in London’s Covent Garden. 

What all these dance forms have in common is a fierce discipline. The daily class is non-negotiable. Late arrival in class is frowned upon. The body is trained and stretched beyond normal limits and tiredness or sickness is just something to be worked through.

The daily jazz class at the Pineapple was taught by a fearsome black American. Entry was by invite only and those of us not yet admitted would press our noses against the misted up windows of the enormous studio, filled to bursting with dancers working their bodies to a state of exhaustion. Every so often one of us would pluck up the courage to ask if we could join. He’d look you up and down and usually say no. Then one day he might relent and you were in. But you could never rest on your laurels - one missed class you might get away with, three in a row and you were out, never to be allowed back. A holiday could be booked in advance, sickness wasn’t on the agenda.

I remember the joy and total fear I felt the day he said yes to me. It wasn’t yes, you can come tomorrow, it was yes, go and find a place at the back of class. I was finally in and I was working my body harder than it had ever been worked before. Forty-five minutes of press ups, sit ups, leg lifts, buttock clenches. Then half an hour of centre work - arms, legs, turns, jumps. And finally, for fifteen minutes at the end, the hardest, fastest, scariest jazz routine I had ever faced.

I started that class feeling out of place and not up to the job. My brain couldn’t compute the routine fast enough for my legs to keep up and my body felt weak and uncoordinated, despite years of dancing. But after a few months of daily class I was strong, supple and fast, able to manage a passable attempt at the routine and no longer feeling like I was about to die during the conditioning section.

The longest part of a typical jazz class isn’t the dancing, it’s the body conditioning, which prepares the body and gets it strong and flexible enough to dance. Ballet is the same - the barre and centre exercises form the majority of the work done. Actual dancing takes up only a short section at the very end of class. Contrast this to a bellydance class, where we typically do a short warm up and then we’re straight into ‘moves’.

This is largely because of hobbyist nature of our dance - most women who bellydance do it once a week for fun. They want to learn how to shimmy and undulate, not do the equivalent of a gym circuit for half the class. And I believe that my main job, for most of my students, is to give them a damn good time whilst learning to dance to wonderful music. After all, the vast majority of bellydance students have no desire or pretension to perform professionally.

But whether because of the hobbyist nature of the dance, or because many people view bellydance as a folk dance rather than an art form, even at the highest level we don’t treat ourselves like other dancers. We don’t work at strengthening our body, we don’t stretch it out. We might complain about our upper arms wobbling as we do a shoulder shimmy, but it doesn’t occur to us to do triceps dips in class to stop it happening.

And the truth is that for years I’ve only taught moves that are manageable for the least fit at any particular level. I have never expected even my most advanced students to do the splits or a deep backbend in class, because I know that few of their bodies are capable of either. And that goes for my own body too. But the result of my lack of dance conditioning in the intervening years between that daily jazz class and today, is that when I dance on stage I often find my legs don’t feel quite strong enough to carry me. And when I choreograph for even my most advanced students I give them what I know they are capable of, rather than what I would really love them to do.

So with Project Lift Off I decided that it was about time I started to work with bellydancers in the way teachers and choreographers work in other dance forms. To treat them like ‘proper’ dancers. To give them 45 minutes of tough, tough body conditioning in every class. To push them beyond what they think their limits are and then a bit further. To give them routines that their brains and their bodies can hardly handle. Because I know that that way we can all grow.

The truly remarkable thing for me personally, is the way my own body has responded. It’s been an inspiration and total revelation to me. I’m 54 years old and post-menopausal. I assumed I would have to direct the most demanding parts of the conditioning without doing it myself. I certainly didn’t expect my ageing body would get much stronger or particularly flexible. But it has responded exactly the way it did 35 years ago, and just as fast. Every muscle is building strength and length, I’m almost down in the splits and even my old creaking knees are responding to the demands I’m putting on them with a sigh of relief. In fact my whole body seems to be thanking me for making it work, as if that’s what it was made for.

And I’m by no means the oldest in my class. The wonderful, inspirational Ann Hall is challenging even the youngest in stamina, strength and flexibility. And I know she won’t mind me saying she’s racing towards her seventh decade.

And what of the impact on our dancing? Well, it’s early days yet - Project Lift Off has only been going a few months - but I’m already noticing significant improvements in everyone’s dancing, myself included. I’m noticing far greater flow and connection; stronger, more explosive movements as well as more beauty in grace and line; and much faster assimilation of complex routines from everyone.

We’re about to start on our next adventure - a big performance piece for the main Saturday night show at Shimmy in the City. It’s a challenge for me to choreograph for twenty dancers, most of whom have only been studying with me for a few months. But even more, to try and create something interesting and dynamic without putting impossible demands on the dancers at the stage they are right now. I've decided to create a lively sha’abi piece to a classic number which I hope will lift the audience’s hearts.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Heather and Chantel - two remarkable women

This has been a happy and optimistic week. Full of positive signs for the future for two amazing, strong women who are central to my story.

On Tuesday I got a text from Heather. Croydon has agreed to finance cyber-surgery on her brain tumour (see previous post).  She's had to live through weeks of waiting to find out if funding would be approved and I couldn't imagine what it must have been like for her - to know that a decision on her life was being made around a committee table. But now she has a date for the surgery and it's just two weeks away.  There's no guarantee it will work, but it's another stage in her fight, another opportunity to cheat the death sentence she has faced for five years now.

For the first few years of her terminal cancer diagnosis I would devise new bellydance challenges for Heather to focus on. A duet, a solo, a semi-professional booking. Anything for her to look forward to and work towards. And now there's something unbelievably exciting to stay alive for. To walk up the red carpet at a world premiere. To sit in the darkness and laugh and weep alongside hundreds of others for whom her story is fresh and new. To see that story writ large on the big screen; beautiful, funny, heartbreaking.

The seemingly slow progress on the film (and all those in the know say it's moving remarkably fast) clashes horribly with each new danger to Heather. I think to myself: "Can she last another two years? Three?" I so want her to be alive to see it. I can't bear the thought of the film ending with a dedication to her memory. So I push and worry and send fervent prayers, in the hope that one day I'll sit in a dark cinema with her, holding her hand. Marvelling.

Holding my other hand will be Chantel. Beautiful, talented, hardworking Chantel - the first of my students to go professional and the girl I think of as my daughter. With the looks of a supermodel, the work ethic of a captain of industry and a voice to shatter glass at a hundred paces there's no-one quite like her.

Chantel has battled enormous adversity in her life. And her story is a beautiful and inspiring one. A tale of childhood suffering, of the hazards of adult love. And ultimately a tale of redemption through dance.

Her terrible taste in men has been legendary amongst her friends. But seven months ago she met a wonderful man. Thoughtful, caring and utterly gorgeous, he loves her with a passion. And on her birthday a few days ago he proposed. When she broke the news to me, when she showed me the beautiful diamond solitaire he had given her, I wept. I'm weeping now as I write this. Because nobody deserves love and happiness more than Chantel.

I had given up hope that she would find someone who could give her the support and the love that she gives others. She had given up hope too - had forsworn men, not trusting her own judgement. And then suddenly he arrived. Stable, loving, handsome and strong.

Cinderella has found her Prince. Love has triumphed. The story has a happy ending.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Heather's story

Heather had been coming to my classes for some time. A quiet woman in her mid forties with a habit of putting herself down, she stayed at the back of class and quietly got on with it. She wasn't a natural dancer - her emotional reticence showed in her movements, and she didn't have the easy grace and body awareness that makes dancing seem effortless for some.

But I found myself starting to notice Heather after a while. Her dogged persistence started to yield results: her movements became more accurate, and her natural reticence started to translate into a careful softness that drew you in and made you want to watch her.

We had a hafla coming up. A hafla is a bellydance party that typically includes performances and I wanted four students to do very short solos within a group number. I chose three obvious candidates and one who hadn't expected it. Heather.

I had thought it might be a special moment for her, but I had no idea how moving it would be for me. But as I watched her go slightly pink and then a bit weepy, I started to get an insight into how dance can have a profound effect on people's perceptions of themselves. Heather had never imagined that she was the kind of person who could dance, let alone perform. And a solo? That was beyond her imaginings. It was the sort of stuff that other people did, not her.

I went home with a full heart. Feeling very satisfied with life and how much good there is in the world.

Next week, we started to work on the dance. Heather and the others stayed late to learn their solos but I noticed that Heather kept holding her side as if she had a pain below her ribs. She carried on dancing though and I don't think the matter was discussed.

She was even quieter than usual the following week. And in the break I noticed a group of friends around her. I went over and sat down and then she told me. She'd gone to her doctor about the pain in her side and hospital scans had disclosed cancer. Bad cancer. The sort of cancer they couldn't cure.

She'd demanded to know how long she had left. They said maybe four months, maximum eighteen. She cried out that she had teenage children. She'd never see them grow up, never see them married, never see her grandchildren.

The hafla was just three months away. Heather might not see that hafla. Might never get her chance to perform. The speed with which the terror of death had hit her, suddenly hit us. And brought home the horror of what she was facing.

We all hugged her and cried and hugged some more. And she looked at me and said: 'I'm going to do that dance, whatever happens. I won't have any hair, and I may not be any good but I'm going to dance even if it's in a wheelchair.'

The resolve with which Heather said it sparked a symmetrical resolve in me. I'd make damn sure that once the show was over, I'd be giving her another challenge. Come hell or high water, we'd have some kind of a performance every six months. Just far enough away for her to aim at but not so far she thought she mightn't make it.

The hafla was a success. Heather danced with a proud lift of her head. No-one outside her own class knew that her new hairdo was, in fact, a wig. And I still have the card saying: 'Thank you for making me believe I could dance.'

It was her birthday that night and after she left the stage, laden down with her birthday cake, I announced that we would be doing a big public show in six months time. Later I mentioned to Heather that I'd like her to dance a duet in that show. And left before she could argue with me.

By this time Heather was undertaking regular chemotherapy sessions at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital. Each time she'd come straight to class from her chemotherapy session. Very occasionally the chemo would make her too sick to attend, but those times were rare.

The class, and the people in it, clearly gave her strength and support. Apart from her children, I think they were what kept her going through the dark days. She never complained, never sat out, never gave in to her illness.

Her dancing improved and improved. She earned her place dancing that duet. I paired her with Janine, another woman in her forties with no dance background, but who was becoming a beautiful dancer. The two of them shared similar body types, similar colouring and the same calm style threaded with a core of steel.

In our big public show they danced a traditional stick dance from Luxor. Performing in the style of the Ma'alima, the village boss woman, each wielded a long staff; alternately thumping the floor, then twirling it high.

The calm power Heather displayed in that performance mirrored that with which she was conducting her life. We all felt the same awe watching her dancing. And watching her navigate the most frightening thing anyone can experience, with her head held high.

Thumping the ground and refusing to give in.

People often ask me what happened to Heather. Remarkably she is still alive, five years later. Advances in cancer treatment are keeping up with her illness and although she says 'one day this thing will kill me' it hasn't got her yet.

Heather's story will be a central one in the film and she can't quite believe that one day she might be portrayed by a famous actress - it's the most exciting thing she could ever imagine. The only request she has made is that she isn't portrayed as 'the sick one' - an object of pity. And we have already made steps to ensure that won't happen (several Hollywood writers wanted to do just that, but were turned down.)

I've kept Heather updated every step of the way along the film's journey. Always keeping her involved, always ensuring she has something exciting to look forward to in the future.

And then in January she went quiet. She stopped answering her phone, stopped responding to my texts. I feared the worst and I wasn't far wrong.

She's been diagnosed with a brain tumour. It's in the cerebellum and is impossible to operate on. She heard last week that she may be able to have a cyber-surgery on it - a futuristic sounding operation which may work. But of course it's expensive. She has to wait six weeks to hear if Croydon will fund the operation. But in this era of cutbacks I'm really concerned for her. If nothing else, I just want so much for her to be alive when the film comes out. To join me in walking along the red carpet to the premiere. To see herself immortalised on celluloid.

Heather is the reason why on Sunday I will be leading a group of bellydancers around the 5 kilometre route of Cancer Research's Race for Life in Lloyds Park, Croydon. Every year I get up at the crack of dawn for several Sundays in a row to teach thousands of women to bellydance as part of the warm up for the Races for Life in several London locations. I always do it for Heather (and for my husband Paul, who also had cancer, and survived.)

I'm telling you this story now because I'd like to ask you to help the work of Cancer Research by donating towards my fundraising for Race for Life. I know we can't even begin to raise the funds that would be necessary to enable Heather to have that life-saving surgery, but we can at least help towards the work of Cancer Research - a charity that receives no government funding (everything comes from donations) but that has made a major impact in the fight against cancer. So many people, like Heather, are surviving this frightening disease and living much longer than anyone thought possible even five years ago, because of the work of organisations such as Cancer Research.

I have set up a Just Giving page, which makes it very easy to donate. To get to it, just click here. Even the tiniest amount will make a difference - as Cancer Research says: 'Together we CAN fight cancer.'

Thank you so much for reading.

Heather's name has been changed in this story (although many of you know her and know who I am writing about.)

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A film of my life story!! How did I get to this point?

I promised to answer any questions about the film in this blog and last week Manon Claus from the Netherlands asked how much involvement I would have in the making of the film and whether or not I would have any control over the finished product. I thought the answer would give me an opportunity to explain a bit about what happened in the run up to the present day. How did I actually get to the stage of having a Hollywood film company want to make a film of my life story?
Well, the story is based on a large body of writing I’ve done over the past ten years. My husband Paul, and Andro, a very dear friend of ours who is a writer, always loved the stories I would tell them of my students and bellydance friends. They found them inspiring, funny and uplifting. Sometimes they found them heartbreaking. They nagged me for years to write the stories down.
I had always believed that the tale of teaching the ladies in my tiny Kentish village to bellydance would make an amazing film, and I’ve worried away for years about how I might make it happen. Writing the stories down would at least give me something to work from in the future, so I followed their advice. I kept the stories private – only showing them to Paul and Andro, who were always supportive and encouraging.
Two years ago a local sculptor who had seen my first-ever show in our little local town, introduced me to an independent film producer, who agreed that the story would indeed make an amazing film. The sculptor put together a small production team (which included me and the producer) and we started to work together. 
In the first meeting the other members of the team were very excited and, in their enthusiasm, started to make up all sorts of fanciful stories about me and my students. I came home seriously concerned that the story would go off on a crazy tangent, so Paul suggested I take a few weeks off teaching and write down everything that had happened to me – from the first moment I saw a bellydancer in 1981, right up to the present day. It was long, hard work, but at the end of the process I had a 13,000 word document which told my story and that of my students in my own words. I copyrighted it, signed it, sealed it and posted it to myself by recorded delivery (to give me a confirmed, dated record of my story).
I then sent a copy off to the producer (alongside the essays I had written) who loved it and said there was enough material in there for more than one film and that it would also make an amazing West End show. Everyone was terribly excited and convinced they had a potential hit on their hands, but as the months went by I became increasingly unhappy. I found the other members of the team overbearing and often felt bullied (not an easy thing to do to me!) 
The original idea was that the producer would introduce us to a film company to make the film, but it soon became clear that the team members wanted to do everything themselves – casting, choosing the director, raising the finance, even undertaking the advertising and publicity. I felt that they were all playing at being film makers and I just couldn’t see the project ever actually seeing the light of day. I was increasingly convinced that, even if it did get made, it would disappear without trace. So, when the writer we hired to write the screenplay had to pull out at the last minute, I decided to take matters into my own hands. 
A film script has two stages. A story outline – called a treatment, and a working script. I took it upon myself to write the treatment and on holiday in Turkey last July I did just that. And that was when the magic started to happen (see blog post here)
I want to explain what happened next at a later date, when I can name the film company (it’s a beautiful, magical sequence of events) so I won’t go into any detail here. But just to say, I ended up with my story being taken on by one of Hollywood’s biggest and most famous film studios.
And here is where the answer to Manon’s question comes in. The first team was very collaborative and democratic (albeit overbearing at times). Everyone was going to have an equal stake in the production company, any profits would be shared between us and we would all have a say in the script, choice of director, casting, everything.  
Now that I’m signing with a big studio I have far less say in the process. I don’t mind that too much. My attitude is, these guys make hit movies for a living - they know what works and what audiences will pay to go and watch. However, what they don’t know is the bellydance world. They don’t know how to go about choosing music and they don’t know where to buy bellydance costumes. They don’t know sha’abi from saidi, Bella from Eman or a hipdrop from a camel! Which is where I will come in.
My initial role will be twofold. As the story is based on my life and that of my students the writer will need to spend a lot of time with me in person and by phone and email. She’ll be coming to my classes, spending time in my village and meeting the people who fill my life. Of course, she will need to fictionalise certain things (this is a feature film, not a documentary) so some characters will undoubtedly be composites and some stories will be wholly or partly made up. And I really don’t want to interfere in that process – as I said earlier, they are the professionals. Of course, if there is something that is just plain wrong then I’ll say so. But I won’t have final say on the storyline. And neither do I want it.
Likewise, the studio chose the writer and the producer. I wasn’t involved in that decision, although I am thrilled with the choices. Together with the producer, they will choose the director and the cast. I’m sure if I have a strong desire for a certain actress to play me or a central character, I can put that view forward and it will be considered, but I certainly won’t have the right to demand anything. Locations and so on will be chosen by the director.
If and when we get to the point of filming (and, with a lot of luck and a fair wind, it might be this time next year) I’ve been promised I’ll be retained to do the choreography, teach the actresses to bellydance and advise on music and costuming. Those are the elements where I believe I can really bring something to the table. But as for the rest of it, I have to be prepared to sit back and let the professionals take over. 
I don’t know how hard that will be until I’m going through the process. I’m sure there will be many private tears shed on Paul’s shoulder. But as long as the final result is a great success and gives me, my team and the world of bellydance an exciting time and a higher profile in the future then I’ll be very happy.