I’ve been continuing my dance studies with the Fat Chance Belly Dance school, and as part of its student group, the Blue Diamonds, recently took part in my second gig. I’m mostly staying in the chorus (the sort of back-up, supporting dancers) these days, until I become comfortable enough with the many new moves and their sometimes subtle cues and their often mind-bogglingly complicated group formations. Since it’s an improvised dance style, yet one that is usually performed in a unified group, there’s a lot more to dancing than simply knowing the steps. Learning to read the cues that lead into the steps, and, more tricky, learning to give those cues clearly–even to remember what the steps are when under pressure in a performance–takes some getting used-to. The student performance group functions in a way that sort of eases one into each phase of the process with limited possibility for humiliation. We dance at parties and fundraisers, in restaurants that host live shows, and tomorrow, at Rakkasah, a local Middle-Eastern dance festival. Compared to venues and events that host Fat Chance, these are relatively low-pressure situations where we can work on our performance skills away from the scrutiny of the professional dance world.
First you dance in the chorus, and learn how to manage your costume, which brings its own world of beautiful inconveniences. For instance, how tightly do I have to tie my coin bra at the back, so that it doesn’t slip down and make my chest look droopy, while still being able to breathe? Can I wear two floor-length skirts and pantaloons without tripping, and how do I actually have to move my feet to avoid that? Which of my bracelets can I wear without them pinching my wrist or flying off when I move my arms? Can I wrap my turban so that it’s sturdy but doesn’t give me a headache? And if my arms bump into it when I do the Egyptian basic (a sort of emphatic hip-swish with the arms raised and framing the face), is the turban too big, or are my arms just too close to my head? How can I get in and out of cars and walk into a venue with grace with all of these skirts on? How do I manage the bathroom situation with multiple skirts, pantaloons, hip scarves with long fringe, and a dance belt?
After you’ve danced in the chorus a few times, if you’re comfortable, you can join the featured dancers as a follower. This generally involves warning the more experienced dancers about what moves you’re not comfortable with yet so that they know not to spring something new and terrifying on you. It also involves getting used to dancing without a mirror in front of you with which to check your posture, your position in the formations, etc. It’s easy to forget which way is which without the mirror’s help, and since many of the steps move within what we think of as an invisible box set at an angle against the “front” of the stage (whatever that may be, which is rarely a classic proscenium arch-situation), you have to be vigilant about learning the dance angle and the various moves’ attitudes without the mirror’s guidance.
When you have followed for a few performances, you can gauge how comfortable you would be to lead formations in the featured groups. Again, since it’s an improvisational dance style, albeit a structured one, the pressure of the performance situation shakes your ability to think on your feet. If you know ten moves, you will probably forget seven of them when leading the combinations, at least at first. Then there is the music, which you’re expected to become familiar with beforehand, and be able to fashion the moves to suit not only the varying rhythms, but shifting moods, of each song. This is especially tricky because certain moves are played out in a set number of counts, and they also sometimes turn the group to face the “back”–basically, you don’t want to be in the middle of a fast combination, and one that has a defined beginning, middle, and end that would be difficult to stray from, and be stuck facing the back wall when the music abruptly shifts to a slow tempo. Suddenly you can neither complete the combination gracefully, because the music has changed and the move that went with the previous tempo is now obsolete, nor just begin a new combination more appropriate to the music, because everyone’s facing the back wall and there’s an expectation that combinations will be played out completely before beginning a new one. And even if the person in the opposite leadership position (whoever is at the front left of the group in whatever direction the group is facing is the leader) decided to take over, he or she has to perform the Jedi mind-trick of corralling three or four dancers who are stranded in the middle of a truncated combination to all stop moving–and playing their zills–at close to the same time, immediately perceive his or her new status as leader, and gracefully begin a new, tempo-appropriate combination with their backs to the audience. If there is audience all around, that actually might be easier, because in that situation, all the dancers are attuned to not just the possibility, but the likelihood of a leadership change at nearly any point in a combination that turns the group around, because all areas of the audience have to be faced at some point. So the momentary failure to accurately align the steps to the music might more swiftly be dealt with by a near-instantaneous leadership change and, basically, ninja-level bellydancing on the part of both followers and the leader(s). But you’d still be yelled at for not knowing the music. Leading requires remembering steps, signaling them clearly, knowing their length and being able to place them within the given songs at rhythmically and musically-appropriate moments, all while smiling, maintaining beautiful dance posture, and not tripping over your skirts.
I’m only comfortable in the chorus at this point, but since this particular gig was small and only four of us were available to dance at it, I followed for one song (Sharia el Souk, the second one). Once again, the video is a big help. I can see that my floreos (hand-flourishes derived from flamenco, around 5:10) are a bit paddle-like, and that my hip bump (around 5:50), which is supposed to be a movement isolated to the hips, turns into more of a generalized full-body happy-dance. So I know what to work on in class. The songs are Kako Kolan and Sharia el Souk, by Helm, and Short Belly Dance Drum Solo, by Raquy and the Cavemen.
UPDATE: Recently, I danced my third and fourth gigs, Rakkasah and the kickstarter party for Fat Chance Belly Dance’s annual “Devotion” production: