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!