Friday, 26 April 2013

How I learned to bellydance. The shocking truth!

This post continues from the story told here.

I was 25, not long out of college and I’d fallen in love. With a foreign culture and with a dance that seemed made for my body.

As a girl I'd been ballet mad, spending my Saturdays at the Lister School of Dance, the rest of the time reading and dreaming about ballerinas. I remember my first ever ballet class, aged five. I remember the pride and excitement of my first pair of pointe shoes, and the pain of the blisters that followed. I would paint my toes with surgical spirit and wrap lamb’s wool around them in a vain attempt to stop the skin rubbing off, but I have very soft feet and nothing would work. I also have a long big toe which made pointe work difficult and I really struggled with getting up and staying on those poor skinned toes during pirouettes and fouett├ęs.

However, these problems paled into insignificance when I reached adolescence and the terrible truth emerged. I had hips. Proper childbearing hips. A nice small waist yes, but that doesn’t count for much in western dance. No, the big problem was those hips.

All ballet girls hold fear in them as they approach adolescence. Because no matter how hard you train, how dedicated you are, there’s one thing you really can’t control and that’s your developing body. It let me down completely at the age of 14 when I contracted a bad case of glandular fever and was ill for months. Banned from dancing for a year, by the time I was back in class it was too late - my adult body was well on its way and I was never going to be a dancer. I was too tall, too wide hipped, too chunky.

But if you’re a dancer you dance. It’s just what you do. And I always held the dream that one day I’d find a dance that could accept my body. So I trained to be a teacher, with dance as my primary subject and later took daily jazz classes at London’s newly opened Pineapple Dance Centre; working the phones in a marketing research company to pay the bills.

And then, in an Arabic nightclub I saw my first bellydancer and I knew this was it. This was a dance that was made for hips! A dance that seemed to celebrate a woman’s body rather than wanting to starve it into submission. A dance that gloried in the sensuality and sexuality of the feminine form rather than trying to keep women as girl children, denying them breasts, bellies or hips.

I would beg my Libyan boyfriend to take me to those nightclubs, night after night. And I'd sit staring. Trying to analyse what the dancers were doing. How did they move in such a sensual way but not seem overtly sexual? Music videos and R&B dancing these days use highly sexualised moves, but bellydance doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) pout or thrust, there’s something far more pure about it, almost innocent. It’s as if the dancer is just letting her body be taken by the music. 

At the end of the night I’d go back to my little flat in Clapham Junction and try to make the moves work on me. I’d stand in the middle of my room in the very early hours of the morning, shimmying and undulating. Then drop down to the carpeted floor to writhe and shiver like I’d seen that fiery Syrian dancer do just a few hours earlier.

Then I broke up with my boyfriend and I could no longer go to the nightclubs. The world of the Arabic nightclub was not one that Westerners ventured into alone and it was most certainly off limits to a young Western woman. I knew I had to find out more about bellydancing, but I had no idea how - in 1981 there were no bellydance teachers in London, no videos and certainly no internet.

It’s so easy to learn stuff today. Type bellydance into You Tube and you'll be presented with videos of dancers from every country in the world. A quick trawl of the internet and you’ll discover countless instructional DVDs and online courses, teaching you everything from absolute beginning moves through to the most complex specialist bellydance techniques. But when I started there was nothing. Even CDs hadn’t been invented!

I took a trip to the HMV record shop in London’s Oxford Street and there, in its then tiny World Music section, I found a single cassette tape. The Joy of Bellydance by George Abdo - a Lebanese singer living in America. With his long drooping moustache, sideburns, velvet bow tie and heavily frilled shirt, George Abdo was the very essence of 1970’s sexual allure. And the music, played by his band ‘The Flames of Araby’ was everything a young English girl wanted bellydance music to be. Exotic, sinuous, magical.

On the cover of the cassette a bellydancer, barely clad in skimpy chain-mail costume, posed dramatically, her nails long and silvery, eyes heavy with makeup. I dreamed of that dancer while George Abdo’s mellifluous voice transported me in my imagination to a perfumed tent in the desert. To be ravaged by a dark eyed sheik.

And then I found a book. A book on bellydancing. In a health food cafe in the scruffy south London suburb of Balham. I was riffling through the books on yoga and vegetarianism and there it was: How To Bellydance. I remember the moment I found it. Picked it up, flicked through it, saw the black and white line drawings. I couldn’t believe it! Beside myself with excitement I took it home and read it obsessively. I discovered the names of the moves I’d been trying to copy: figure of eight, snake arms, ribcage isolations. I learned how to do a bellyroll, how to do a backbend into a laydown. And how to use finger cymbals.

So yes, it's time to come clean. Time to admit the terrible truth. I might pride myself on my technique and my standards. Indeed, people tell me I'm one of the most respected bellydance teachers in the UK. And I'm proud to say that some of the best dancers in London come to my classes to learn from me.

But I can't deny it - I learned to bellydance from a book!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sweat, struggle and wild imaginings!

I’m 54 years old. I’ve got arthritis in my knees, my toes, my right ankle and my spine. I currently have a torn cartilage in my left knee which is so painful it stops me sleeping at night. Yet later on today I’ll be leaping in the air, spinning like a top, then dropping to the floor, to roll over and then rise back up through an extended backbend.

I’ll be doing it vicariously of course. If I actually performed any of those feats right now, my torn cartilage would probably never recover. No, I’ll be doing it via five of the most exciting dancers I’ve ever worked with. Five young bellydance professionals who are giving me wings and enabling me to fly.

When I was younger I felt sure I could never teach dance - I thought I’d be insanely jealous of anyone who was better than me, or prettier, or more able to descend into the splits. I couldn’t imagine standing by and watching a lovely young woman dancing in my place, let alone helping her develop the ability to be better than I could ever be.

But the last twelve years have shown me how wrong I was. I’ve realised the intense pleasure of imparting knowledge; of seeing the joy and satisfaction women gain from moving to music; of helping bellydance students improve and become richer in their abilities; and now, of stretching excellent dancers further than they had ever expected to go.

I suppose I always had it in me. I have four siblings and although one of my brothers is older than me, I was very much the older sister. And as any big sister will know, younger siblings are terribly useful things - the ability to use them as actors in whatever game you wish to play goes some way towards compensating for all the responsibility that’s heaped on your shoulders throughout your childhood and teenage years.

My sister and younger brothers willingly played supporting roles in the plays of my childhood. Me as an eight year old blushing bride (my six year old brother as the groom, wearing an old raincoat, a flat cap and smoking a pipe.) Me as teacher, my three pupils sitting dutifully in front of me as I lectured them for hours. But most of all, me as director of countless musicals and plays which relatives were corralled into watching whenever they came to visit. When we knew a visit was forthcoming my siblings were expected to spend days rehearsing my vision for our latest show. They were remarkably dutiful and obliging so I got very used to the idea of expectant young faces looking up at me, awaiting instruction.

The girl guides were my next training ground. After a few years in the brownies and guides, I was made patrol leader (Chaffinch Patrol, 6th Cheltenham Girl Guides if you’re asking) and now had several teenagers under my command. They expected knots and flags; they got song and dance routines. The guide leader was a piano teacher and more accommodating of my artistic leanings than others might have been, but I blush when I think of those poor girls rehearsing Chattanooga Choo Choo week in and week out. Spending their precious evenings being bossed about by me as I tried to fashion non-dancing adolescents into a highly trained dance troupe.

So by rights I should always have been a dance teacher and choreographer/director. In fact, teaching is in my blood and I had grown up expecting to be a primary school teacher, like my mother. I went to an excellent teacher’s training college but it took just two weeks of teaching practice to make me realise I just wasn’t cut out for it. I was a truly dreadful school teacher - intimidated by the children, depressed by the surroundings. The tiny chairs, the smell of wax crayons, the chipped mugs in the staff room. My heart sank like a stone when I tried to picture myself there.

So I swapped my teaching degree for one in dance and decided I would be a dancer. The trouble was, I was never quite good enough or committed enough. A professional dancer needs to be practicing every single day. Nothing stands in the way of that practice, and nothing gives a dancer greater joy than performance. But both were a struggle for me. I have a fully equipped home dance studio these days but my computer is a far stronger pull than my ballet barre. Worse though, is the horrible truth that I hate performing.

That last fact will probably come as a surprise to many people, but performing makes me bad tempered and miserable. Not only that, but I have never experienced the fabled post-performance high; only an immediate, cruel, come down which can last for days. I don’t suffer from stage fright - I was pretty much brought up on stage (my first proper stage performance was at the age of eight) and when I’m on stage, walking through my choreography or standing waiting for the curtains to open, I feel like I’m at home. But the trouble is, I’m not as good a dancer as I want to be. I know I'm not and I never will be. Especially now I’m 54 years old with arthritic toes and knackered knees.

When I started bellydancing in 1981 there were no bellydance teachers in London. I learned by watching the dancers perform in the remarkable Arabic nightclubs of the time, going home to my little flat in Clapham Junction in the early hours of the morning and practicing, bleary eyed, until it was time to go off to work. In those days there was no concept of technique, it was just about trying to analyse how they did the moves and most of all, getting the feeling right. So, as a young performer my bellydance technique was very rough and ready. I would flit around the stage, shimmying and undulating and playing zills like a demon, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

When I came back to it twenty years later everything had changed. The internet and videos had opened up an amazing world of bellydance and introduced us to the strong teaching technique of dancers from the US. I soaked up everything I could learn from workshops with visiting teachers and from the remarkable bellydance forum

But although I worked hard and despite having trained non-stop in dance from five to twenty-five, it was too late. By the time my bellydance technique was good enough for me to be up there with the very best of professional dancers world-wide, I was in my late forties and my body was letting me down badly. Twenty years of sitting at a computer desk had resulted in arthritis of my upper spine, the natural ageing process had stiffened my neck and all those early dance years had taken their toll on my knees and toes. The truth is I just can’t do the things a twenty year old can do. A backbend, head spin or big rippling undulation is actually not possible for me any more.

At times that’s been very hard to accept. It’s not just having to come to terms with the sight of my wrinkles on video footage of my dancing (we all have a fantasy image inside our heads of what our bellydancing self looks like - mine is 25 and gorgeous. Those videos lie I tell you!) No, the most difficult thing has been the fact that I have a incredibly strong idea of what I want my bellydance style to be. It’s thrilling and fabulous and unlike anything that has been done before. It’s just that my body won’t let me do it.

So that’s why I started to do the work I now do every Friday afternoon. In London’s Dance Works from 2pm until 6pm I work with five wonderful dancers who can realise my vision for me. I push them harder than they’ve been pushed before. Their bodies are young and strong and supple and I’m getting them to leap and spin; to drop into backbends and splits and become the fantasy bellydancers that have been populating my imagination for so long.

The unexpected result is that, over the past few months, I’ve felt as if I’m in some sort of a mania. Suddenly the half-formed ideas that have been floating around my imagination have flowered into vibrant life. And instead of seeing myself moving in my head, I’m visualising my dancers, who I know are able to do whatever I want and more. At times I’ve thought my head was about to burst with the noise and the images spinning around. Indeed, many nights I’ve been unable to sleep for the music and the pictures in my head. Then, in the morning, the first thing I see are more pictures, as my brain brings forward what it worked on when finally I slept.

It’s as if I’ve always been a choreographer but it’s all been bottled up inside me for fifty years and now it’s desperate to get out. And, far from being jealous of the abilities of my young company of dancers, I’m unbearably excited. My adrenaline is flowing right now as I think about the work we’ll be doing today. And while we’re working together I feel absolute joy. I know they feel the same way - last Friday was Good Friday and a holiday, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We were all there in the classroom working as hard as we could ever work.

I know that they hurt after our classes. I know that their bodies are sore and exhausted. But from what they tell me, they feel alive and deeply satisfied. That they are stretching themselves to the limits; that they are helping create something new and exciting; that they are pushing the boundaries of what our dance can be.

We’ll be premiering our work for the first time at Shimmy in the City in September - just one dance as a taster of what we can do. Raqia Hassan will be there and I can’t wait to talk to her about what it’s like to create a new style and have wonderful dancers executing it on your behalf. But mainly we’re working towards an exciting high profile show in January next year.

My five dancers will form the core of that show, which we hope will blow the audience away. My Project Lift Off girls will be dancing too - in three big group numbers. I just hope I can do them all justice with my choreography. I’m excited and I’m frightened in equal measure - I want so much and I really hope I can deliver the goods.

Oh, and I promise to spill the beans on who these wonderful dancers are very soon!