Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Soloists/Coreen

Coreen started her bellydance life as a gym rat who wanted a new ab workout (her words, lol!)So (several years ago) she and a friend signed up for their first dance classes as brand new beginners. They thought it would be fun…a bit of a lark. I remember the two of them in those early days! They were the life of the party and kept everyone laughing. And Coreen, well, Coreen was just hooked on the dance. She soaked it up like a sponge. And because she didn’t come with any previous dance background before joining my classes, I have especially enjoyed watching her grow as a dancer and am proud to be her dance teacher. 

So if you read the last post, you’ll know that I had purchased the chart for Sway but no longer had a dancer for it. I thought the song would be something that would suit Coreen, but I knew she had already picked out a piece. However, after thinking about it for a day or so, I decided to send it to her anyway, on the off-chance that her music wasn’t set in stone yet. Here I had this great piece of music and the unique opportunity for someone to dance with live music. It is such a fabulous thing to dance with live backup. Exihilerating! So I approached her and she loved the idea….the music spoke to her, and she even had the perfect dress for it! All right!

What I love about each of the four who performed a solo in the show is the way each ones personality shone through in her dancing. You can have all the technique in the world, but that secret ingredient that makes you popular with the audience is combining it with the ability to take a risk and let the audience see into your heart. Coreen’s personality shines through in her flirtatiousness and belief in her own feminine strength & power.


Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Soloist/Nat

Nat did a fabulously fun dance to a fabulously fun piece of music called “Chicky”. I was so excited for Nat because she was so excited (her excitement is contagious! Stay away if you don’t want to catch it!) She also bought her first “real” (her words) costume for this piece. A gorgeous bedlah (bra/belt  set).

Nat’s was the only solo piece I had to “interfere” with. She originally picked Sway. That is a really great tune and I was happy to have her choose it. But then! Oh no! I realized that Sway is actually a Big Band standard – and it would be really odd to have Nat dancing to a canned swing tune when there was a real live swing band sitting right behind her. But then! Oh yes! I had the great idea to buy the chart and have The Big Band play it live. Nat was willing, so I did that.  The band was really happy because they really liked that chart – especially our vocalist, Rebekah Bell. But then! Oh no! This version just didn’t work for Nat. Now this is not a big deal because the band would keep the chart anyway. And the most important thing for a dancer is the music. And if the music doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – nothing else needs to be said. But I felt bad for Nat, and Nat felt bad because I had purchased the chart already. But then! Oh yes! Coreen loved it and decided to dance to it instead (more on that next posting!). So all is well that ends well. And Oh yes! Even better than that!  – because Nat ended up dancing to Chicky and I honestly can’t think of a better song for her. She is a true joy: fun and funny and kind. And her happy personality just shone through. She shone! Yes she did!

Nat was the final number in the show before the New York New York finale and just after the Khaleegi piece. Chicky was the perfect piece of music to transition us from the Arabian Gulf back to swing music in much the same way that Andrameda’s music was the perfect transition between swing and sharqi. I just could not believe how everything came together that way.  Anyway, we needed to transition Nat onto the stage in a creative way that would fit in with the theme of the 2nd set. In the 2nd set, items magically “appeared” on stage to be discovered and then danced with (more on this also, later). So after the Khaleegi piece was over we all formed a circle (in the dark) and Nat snuck onto the stage (in the dark) and entered the circle. When the stage lights came back up, we were turning in a circle to the opening bars of her music and she was hidden inside the circle behind our thobes.  We dispersed and !voila! There she was! Magically appearing on stage to be discovered by the audience. What a perfect ending to the show. Thank you, Nat!

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Soloists/Amber

 Amber was in position number three in the line up. First the Big Band did a feature piece: “Land of Make Believe”, followed by Andrameda’s metal fusion with sword, and then a Sharqi number by Amber.  What a perfect and perfectly eclectic trio to open the show with! Amber came to us about 3 years ago as a new Yukoner. She has been dancing about 10 years, and came as a student to me from a contemporary of mine who I had the great pleasure of meeting on the occasion of attending Hadia’s teacher training levels 2 & 3 several years ago. Amber has a bellydance background similar to my own, learning mainly by self- study and practice between private sessions. She had her own classes and troupe in Fort Saint John, and loves taking classes and being part of Saba…no diva lives in this girl’s heart!  I will be first in line to say how much we love and appreciate her with her beautiful, happy temperament, sense of humour, “how can I help” attitude, grace under pressure and joy of the dance. Rockin’ the Casbah is her first big stage show with Saba. Very exciting! She had an OMG I can’t believe I’m dancing on this stage excitement around her – very fun! Amber is a lovely dancer, and performed a very cute piece that was choreographed by her former teacher – what a lovely tribute! Dance on, Amber, and thank you!

photos by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Soloists/Andrameda

I think I’ve covered all of the troupe pieces. Now to the soloists! Last fall I sent notices out to the troupe dancers to let them know that there would be room in the show lineup for soloists. Four dancers indicated that they would like to perform a solo – wonderful! I did not give them any guidelines for their solos, but was available if they needed help. I worked with two around music – their stories will come later. I really wanted to allow them to explore whatever area of the dance they felt drawn to. I made some private predictions (of course!) and they didn’t disappoint me. This show was set up for the unusual, so I wasn’t worried at all about how to fit the various pieces together.

Andrameda  is a founding member of Saba, and was actually one of my very first students back in 2001. I remember that her mom, Sally, answered my ad for bellydance lessons, and signed both her and her daughter up. When I phoned Andra to confirm a few days before the first class, she was surprised – Sally had forgotten to tell her! But she was intrigued and came to the class. And still comes. I honestly don’t know what she can possibly learn from me anymore! Andra has taken the dance into her heart and has gone on to study with Suhaila Salimpour, in addition to her other extensive dance activities. What pride I feel, to have been her first bellydance teacher. ♥  Andra opened the dance portion of the show. The Big Band played while Doug, our fabulous MC sat our on-stage guests. Then Doug welcomed the house and introduced Andrameda. Of all the soloists, I knew that Andra would be choosing something unique. I guessed (correctly!) that it would involve heavy metal music and fusion bellydance. I placed her in the opening position of the show as a way to transition from swing music into bellydance, as the next dance would be traditional Raqs Sharqi.  Andra did not disappoint! The transition could not have been better. The dance was mesmerizing: a beautiful interpretation of the music and the sword. And a bonus for her – all of her hard work in Pilates paid off in her beautiful floorwork segment. Andrameda is a passionate and powerful dancer who dances with every ounce of her being and pulls together all of the dance disciplines into the most amazing fusion pieces. I love watching her!

photo 2 & 3 by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Beni wa Benak

Beni wa Benak started life as a “tool kit” choreography for my advanced class. First, I had a handful of combos rumbling around in my head that I wanted to work into 3 or 4 consecutive lesson plans. Next step was a music hunt for something bright and fast-paced that would suit what I had in mind. When I’m doing this, I usually plop myself down in the purple queen’s chair in our family room with my iPod hooked into the CD player with a very long cord and start scrolling through songs. There will be a cup of tea at my elbow and a notepad on my knee with lots of doodles & notes jotted down. Usually of the kind that I can’t make sense of afterwards.

At the same time that I was working out the lesson plans & using Beni wa Benak as the musical vehicle, I was also working on choreography for Rockin the Casbah. I needed a piece of bright Egyptian pop music with matching choreography and, feeling tired and overwhelmed, I decided simply to expand on what I was doing with Beni  instead of creating one more new thing. At this time Beni was simply a string of combos, not what I would consider a professional choreography. Class choreographies are teaching tools, not masterful pieces. Their purpose is as a vehicle to put new movements into context, or work on specific elements such as transitions, musical interpretation, style or genre. This is why I call them “tool kit” choreographies.  

Beni wa Benak is basically a smoothed-over toolkit choreography with some icing on the top. There’s gotta be one in every bunch. It will be a crowd pleaser because it’s bright & cheerful & colourful & flashy, but the dancers may tire of it.

Fabulous lighting by Andrew Smith at the Yukon Arts Centre!

Look at those skirts flip!

Changes, they are a’comin (for Celebrations Bellydance)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin. Thank you for this quote, Amber. It comes at a very timely moment for me. I have been thinking a lot lately about what is next for me in my dance life, especially as concerns the school. Keeping in mind that I also work a full-time day job as an administrative assistant at Yukon College, I am also going to be 50 in July and I am feeling like I want need fewer commitments on my time. I would especially like to have my weekends back. I feel resentful when Kelly goes to the lake for the weekend and I can’t go, too. I don’t mean to complain, but I would love to just spend a Sunday together with my husband, or cleaning my house or walking my dog, going for a ski, reading a book, taking a class or working on a quilt….those Sunday things that the rest of the Whitehorse world enjoys. Saturday is my only day off and that is the day I do my lesson planning. I truly am not complaining – I love my students! They bring me such joy! I love teaching and definitely don’t want to quit, but I do want to cut back (or cut out entirely) the Sunday schedule. And I have been teaching as Celebrations Bellydance for 10 years now – that’s quite an accomplishment! But I am tired. Just plain old tired. Period. I am also tired of the same-old same-old. I want a change. And the school needs a change, too – some freshening up. Maybe a change is as good as a rest, like the saying goes. So I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. I don’t have any answers yet, but a lot of possibilities are running through my head. One possibility is taking a year off. Another possibility is offering one single mixed level Special Topics class on Sunday late afternoons (4pm?) Or maybe a junior student troupe/choreography intensive where students who want to learn a performance piece would come each week to learn & polish something up for presentation in a show. Or maybe a Thursday evening Special Topics. Or two special topics classes, one each on Sunday & Thursday. I will also need to offer an Intro class for brand new dancers. I’m thinking of a 6-week session. Brand new dancers would be required to take two 6-week intro sessions and could then come into the mixed level Special Topics. Maybe one of my advanced dancers would like to teach the 6-week intro. classes? And then there’s Saba rehearsals, too. And where to take Saba next. And the question who is going to renew their commitment to the performing group and who is going to take this rest period after the Casbah show to turn in her hipscarf and move on to other things. Another possibility for me that I have been thinking a little bit about is this: A Beautiful Spaces Workshop Series for Bellydancers…dream or reality? One thing I have thought about for a couple of years is teaching a series of workshop intensives in beautiful places around town. Imagine an in-depth look at the baladi taxim while surrounded by beautiful art at the Yukon Art Gallery, or an isolation intensive at Arts Underground. How inspiring! Learn basic finger cymbals & rhythms in a clearing on Kishwoot Island or at the suspension bridge. Examine film footage, participate in a discussion & try some of Samia Gamal’s or Suhair Zaki’s signiture movements at the museum. Take a “beautiful hands & arms” intensive on the banks of the river, or in someone’s private home with a view. Examine dancing with archetypal shapes in the Visitor’s Reception Centre. Learn travelling steps & combos as you move through the exibits at the Beringia Centre. Learn performance skills & how to connect with your audience in one small theatre space and practice improvisation skills in another. Veil in a beautiful lobby or atrium. A choreography intensive in the upstairs lobby of the Arts Centre. Taxim at the Archives. Study the various instruments you hear in traditional music & how to dance to them in a beautiful meeting room at one of the hotels. Learn about the folkloric dances of Egypt & their relationship to modern Cairo style sharqi at the Old Log Church. Learn some of the history of Middle Eastern dance at an outdoor brunch. A khaleegi workshop followed by a gulf dance party on the SS Klondike. I wonder if there would be funding to offer a workshop series like this? Some would be open to all bellydancers, all levels, all interests, others would be open to the general public, depending on the topic & experience required. This is an idea that makes me feel very excited. Anyway, consider the heads-up given – changes are a’commin’. I don’t know what the flower will look like when it blossoms out of the bud, but it’s bursting to get out and show itself. I am on the edge of my seat to see what it will look like.

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Dream a Little Dream

 Originally I wanted to do a solo piece accompanied by Fawn on vocals – a vocal/dance duet. One day when we were knocking the idea around, Fawn suggested the song “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” I listened to the Mama Cass version and right away knew that this was going to be a troupe, not a solo piece. We’d still do a duet, but not to this song! This song just begged me for the troupe.

Dream a Little Dream of Me is very similar in form to a piece called Nihna Wal Qamar Jiran that I teach a level 2 choreography to. Besides similarity of form, these two pieces also have a similar feeling about them and, ironically, both pieces are very similar in their lyrics … love songs that speak of the future. Both are also of a similar age.

 Nihna is also a very special piece to me for another reason. The dancer Morocco of New York City (Aunt Rocky to those of us lucky enough to have studied with her) taught a choreography at a workshop I attended that strongly affirmed my belief in the beauty of simplicity. The choreography she taught and danced for us was simplicity personified. The beauty was in the absolute mastery of each movement: in the nuances & the transitions. I had tears running down my face as I watched her dance it. Morocco did not include anything in her choreography that I do not teach to my beginner I & II students, and it was (and remains) one of my favourite pieces.

 I used bits and pieces of my Nihna Wal choreography in Dream. For instance, the opening is identical – which was my own private tribute to it. My level 2 class (learning Nihna Wal this term) had fun one day altering their choreography to fit Dream and were amazed to see the similarities in form.

 But this is a post about  Dream, not about Nihna!

 So! I wanted to present this piece with an old-fashioned “doo wop” feeling between Fawn and the dancers. To accomplish this, I put her in front of the dancers who did a very simple choreography behind her in a sort of “Diana & the Supremes” fashion. The choreography used some hand & arm motions to mirror the lyrics and moved in small steps side to side in doo-wop-girl fashion. The dancers were in dream-like outfits – all white chiffon with long gloves and feather boas. Fawn contrasted them in deep red with a full white boa. And boy, can this girl sing! Fawn has one of those rich powerhouse voices that gives you goose bumps. The audience loved her!

photos by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Dust & Feathers

Workshops are great places to get new music. I always like to buy the CD of music used by the visiting instructor. I’ve never bought one that didn’t make me want to jump up and dance.  A couple of years ago I attended a workshop with Tito of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. He taught a dance with the Assaya to a piece of music that I immediately wanted to dance to. It opened with an energetic, surprising and cute travelling spin & cane lift done to an exuberant vocal “yaaaaahoo!” followed by a driving bass beat.  I loved that entrance! (I loved Tito and I loved the workshop, too! ) Anyway, about a year later I was invited to choreograph a piece and teach it to the MAD students at the Wood Street School.  I wanted to do a piece that would interest the boys as much as the girls. I also wanted up-tempo pop music to keep their interest for this, their first introduction to Middle Eastern Dance.  So I chose a cane dance … and I remembered that great piece of music that Tito had used for his cane workshop. And of course (are you surprised?) I used his fabulous opening with the travelling spin.

After that, the piece went through several incarnations before settling into something that I felt the troupe could add to their  repertoire. We performed it a couple of times, but not to large audiences. Since it was relatively unseen, I decided to incorporate it into Rockin the Casbah.

To stay with the loose theme of the 2nd Act (I the waitress am cleaning up & mysterious things keep happening), 2 dancers in aprons & feather dusters appear.  The two “maids” are dancing with feather dusters (instead of assayas) and I am dancing with a tray..  We made some adaptations to the original choreography to accommodate the new “canes” and tray. It was really cute. I wanted the girls’ outfits to be reminiscent of a 1950s housewife, so I sewed matching aprons for the three of us. I had them wrap all around to the back with a big ruffle so that the hip movements would be more visable. I also added some yellow trim across the top of the hip line for visual contrast. They wore their black dresses from Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps with flats on their feet and pearls around their necks. They were adorable and it was a lot of fun.

There are some definite challenges to dancing with feather dusters. High five to Valery & Amber for modifying them for easier twirling. You wouldn’t believe the wind resistance!  They added weights and took weights away until they each had just the right balance.

I like how you can see through to the wing in some of these photos. What goes on in the wings is food for another post, to be sure!

photos by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Orange Coloured Sky

I went through a lot of Big Band music before settling on Orange Coloured Sky, including a Count Basie piece called “Hayburner“. I actually spent a fair number of hours working with Hayburner before abandoning it.  I kept a piece of paper in my music folder, and at Monday night band rehearsals I would scribble quick notes as we worked through various pieces. Sometimes I’d mentally leave rehearsal and stop playing as I worked this or that dance combination through in my head & jot notes to try at home. Not fair to the band, I guess…but they never suspected my mental absences (I hope! I’m leaving myself wide open here, I know!) I finally decided that Hayburner would be great fun to do as a solo, but was going to take more time than I wanted to devote to it to set it onto a troupe.

I don’t know why I didn’t settle on Orange Coloured Sky sooner – it is a super fun piece. Rebekah has to sing really fast, and that’s always good for a chuckle if the band runs away with the tempo. It has lots of great accents and runs along in a pretty straight-ahead manner. I also like it because it has a great Q&A quality about it, which is what I also like about classic raqs sharqi orchestral music. Who would have thought of that particular similarity, eh?

At one point I found myself really stuck in a “writer’s block”. I struggled and struggled and I just hate that. I hate it when choreography becomes a chore – but there is bound to be a certain element of that in just about every piece.  Finally I put it down for a couple of days and just let it stew. I went to youtube for inspiration and was watching the Radio City Rockettes one day when voila! Inspiration struck! I just love those Rockettes! I loved the military-ness of their routines. And the glamour. And how they all are identical. and so precise! I just knew that that was a look that would suit Orange Coloured Sky. I started playing around with some jazz steps as well. In the end, what I had was a bellydance routine that leaned heavily on a jazz dance feeling and with some actual jazz and some jazz-inspired dance steps.

Do you see the Radio City Rockettes inspiration here? I did put in a chorus line. I did! And my girls LOVED it!  I also thought it would be appropriate for a dance coming out of the Yukon – a little tip of the hat to our local Rendezvous Can Can tradition.

I had some ideas about what I wanted to see for the costume as well. But I also wanted the dancers to have a say and so we brainstormed as a group for the final look for the piece. As in Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps (scroll down a few blog postings), I wanted the costume to bridge between the Big Band and the Bellydance. Where in Perhaps we were in little black dresses with top hats & canes – a western dress, in Orange we were in a bellydance outfit (of sorts). The pant & top are a generic dance outfit and the scarf is bellydance. But put together with the wigs the decidedly jazzy attitude and the fabulous lighting design by Andrew Smith, I think we successfully bridged the gap between the different musical & dance styles.

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – like dancing in-front-of a full 15-piece swing band. They blow right through you.  It’s exhilarating!

The piece ends with a dramatic “bow” in the band…a short, clipped musical fall. The dancers end with a fall as well. Wow! You should have heard the audience! Whoop!

photos by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

A picture speaks a thousand words. Look at those gorgeous girls dancing out in front of a live 15-piece swing band! As you see, I had fun with costuming this dance. I told all the girls to buy the little black dress of their dreams. Some already had one hanging in their closets. Others went shopping and had a blast at the after-Christmas sales. Another found the perfect little black dress at Sequels. So much fun! Nat & Coreen joined forces to come up with the cute little hats with face netting (you can’t really see it in this photo).

photo: alistair maitland

This dance also has a story. This is a dance that had a mind of it’s own. Originally, I had wanted to put a skirt dance into the show.  We had spent a fair bit of money on beautiful dancing skirts a couple of years ago and have only worn them on the theatre stage once. So I thought that I’d like to choreograph a piece for this costume. I also really liked the band’s version of Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and so decided (intellectually) that I would pair the skirts with that chart. Well, I fought it and I fought it. And it fought me back. It was a wrestling match! I just about gave up. And then instead of giving up, I gave in. I actually had a moment of clarity, standing in the middle of the “studio” ( a 6 square foot area at the end of the family room between the pool table and the writing desk) and let my mind go blank. It was almost an out-of-body experience, if I can exaggerate a little. I actually asked the question out loud (it is very strange to talk to yourself this way!): “what DO you want to be?” Then I looked at my umbrella stand of canes, picked one up, gave it a twirl, nodded, and started taking notes. Why did I resist the cane for so long? Maybe because it just didn’t seem right, somehow, to use such a traditional folkloric dancing item in such a modern off-the-wall fusion. So then I had to still my own misgivings by blending the two in as respectful a way as I could. And I believe I did that – I am my own worst critic and hold myself to some pretty unyielding standards when it comes to authenticity. And I am comfortable with what I did with the piece.
I think probably when you watch a dance (and probably even my dancers when they are learning a dance) aren’t aware of what goes into a piece that is outside just choreographing the movements. This time there was an ethical battle over blending styles, but sometimes there is a great desire to pay homage to a teacher or composer, or to tell a story or relate an emotion to the audience.

Sometimes when you look in from the outside you can see into the heart of the choreographer. For example, when I watched Yasmina Ramzy’s production of Oum and saw the white hankie flutter down at the end, I saw into her heart. I knew exactly what she intended, and it literally brought tears to my eyes. So what was I thinking about when I put the raqs assaya to Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps? I was thinking of the great artist Tahia Karioka from the golden age of bellydance, who introduced latin rhythms into the bellydance. She was an early fusion artist, bringing western rhythms into eastern dance. That was the spirit I choreographed with. I used popular, recognizable assaya movements and combinations. In fact, one combination used in the dance was even taught by the renowned Egyptian teacher Aida Nour. You can’t get much more authentic than that! So the movements were very authentic and true to the assaya. The music was very authentic and true to it’s latin roots. As a nod to the fusion, I did put a little chachacha step into the figure 8 hips. Yes, of course I did! It’s latin music! What would latin music be without a swivel in the hips? But I have seen Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal and other “greats” do this very same little chachacha step. So that, too, was authentic. I used the costume to tie the two together.  A raqs assaya in a latin dress…no! A bellydance costume with big! But those girls out there in their little black dresses, top hats & silver canes? yes!  That was the glue that bound them together. More pics as soon as I get them! Meanwhile, here is a picture of Sally (cropped from the larger picture) with Rebekah Bell singing in the background. Fabulous!

photo: alistair maitland