Archive | July 2012

Weekly Challenge for 7/30/12

Yay it’s another Monday challenge!  This week, we’re returning to:


We all know that we can play rhythms with zills, and that dancers use them as accompaniment to our dancing.  But zills are not just icing on the cake…zills are instruments in their OWN right!  (Want proof?  Watch this)  While it is difficult to dance and use zills as instruments (rather than just accompaniment), we can at least aim for it, can’t we?  Then maybe we could do something more like this than what we are all used to.


First, of course, we have to get comfortable with playing zills at all.  If you’ve never picked them up before, perhaps you should try this challenge first.  And no, beginners, you don’t have to bow out of this challenge yet!  It’s going to be baby steps for us all (including me!)

Beginner: In the previous challenge, you only tried 3s, but you’ll need to know at least one other zill pattern before you can attempt this challenge.  If you haven’t learned it yet, learn 3-3-7 (ask your teacher!).  Then, while walking (don’t stand still and zill!), do 3s for 16 counts and then 3-3-7 for 16 counts.  Basically, you will be alternating them.  What will be challenging is remembering when to switch, especially since there isn’t a whole lot of difference between 3s and 3-3-7.  If…and only if…you know beledi, you can switch between it and 3s.  Why do this?  Because this will get your brain working!  In order to think of zills more as instruments, we have to play them like instruments.  But it’s difficult if we only know patterns.  By practicing patterns and switching rapidly between them, we’re getting our brains ready for playing and dancing at the same time, while switching rhythms.  This will eventually become playing and dancing, while playing “notes.”  But baby steps first!

Intermediate: We’re going to shorten the count and add different patterns.  I don’t advise doing this in performance, because it probably won’t sound very good; this is just an exercise.  Pick 4 rhythms you know (likely 3s, 3-3-7, beledi, and saiidi) and only do 8 counts of each.  Keep the same pattern of rhythms for now (in other words, don’t randomly play whichever rhythm comes to mind).  Of course, as in the previous challenge, you will be dancing.  Keep the steps super-basic, because your brain is going to be working hard with keeping up with the patterns.  Warning: this is going to be hard.  Don’t get discouraged!  You’re keeping a lot of things in mind: dancing, the count of the music, which pattern you are supposed to be following, and finally actually playing the rhythm.  That’s a lot!  Don’t forget to smile!  This is fun, right?  Right?!

Advanced: Start thinking about other ways to play zills.  Playing rhythms and patterns is probably old hat by now, so come up with other rhythms (think drum solo!).  Check out videos on YouTube for inspiration (see link above).  Play a pattern on one hand and then on the other.  Play and have fun with the zills, but don’t forget to dance with them!  You can keep the moves simple for now, because your zilling is what you are going to be concentrating on (that doesn’t mean you should let your dancing get sloppy though!).  Think about how you could incorporate zills as instruments rather than just these loud things on my fingers that I play to get your attention into your dancing.  Don’t just slip back into playing beledi in a song because that’s what the rhythm is.  Think of yourself as an additional member of the orchestra and how you can fill in the music and not just copy the drummer.

Happy zilling AND dancing!

Weekly Challenge! July 23, 2012

It’s Monday!  This week’s challenge is going to be a bit different.

Watching other dancers

I’m going to be completely honest here, and toot my own horn.  If you haven’t been following my website or my Facebook, you might not know that I have a big performance this weekend (actually…two big performances…).  A REALLY big performance.  It’s a big deal, and I’m very grateful to those who are paying their hard-earned money to come and see me dance. (If you’re in Tucson, and want to come, check out my website for information on how to buy tickets.)

This, of course, has influenced my thoughts about what this week’s challenge should be.  Many of us dancers, once we get to the point where we want to perform, try to perform at every restaurant, hafla, show, street fair, Renaissance festival, or other event we can jam our little toes into.  In a close-knit or small community, it gets to the point where dancers all see the same dancers over and over, with the same costumes, the same songs, the same moves.  Newer dancers may not get a chance, because the experienced dancers have all of the connections to the event organizers and fill up all the available spaces before anyone else has a chance to try it.  That’s not always the best thing for experienced dancers, newer dancers, or the general public.  We get caught up in me, me, me, I want to dance and forget to help nurture and support other dancers–new or experienced.

What’s the solution to this?  One dancer I know is in a troupe that has a really awesome requirement: once a month, go to a belly dance show where you are NOT dancing.  When you are dancing at an event, it’s hard to watch other dancers.  Either you are backstage primping or frantically changing costumes, or in the audience being too nervous to watch or focus on anything other than your own upcoming performance (or even worrying about whether to eat now or later so you don’t throw up on your first belly roll or get too hungry to perform…).  And then don’t get me started on the dancers that waltz in just before their number (even though the event organizer asked all dancers to arrive at a specific time), stay backstage with headphones on, dance, and then leave… Of course, some dancers may have gigs before and after, and that’s fine, but that’s a different story.  Ahem.  Sorry.  Anyway…it’s difficult to be supportive of other dancers if you are focusing on your own performance.  I think it’s fantastic that some troupes require dancers to support other dancers by going to a show and only being an audience member.

So, what’s this week’s challenge?

Support a dancer!!  Easy, right!?  If there is a show this week, just go and watch.  Don’t bring your cards (rude!), don’t bring a costume just in case…just go watch a fellow dancer perform and actually sit and enjoy the performance.  Watch her (him!), don’t critique or think about how you might dance to that song.  Just enjoy it.

The rest of the week (and especially if there are no shows for you to attend this week), be a YouTube audience member.  Show support by liking or commenting on a video (please be nice…and if you can’t be nice, move on!)

Of course, if you do follow my blog, you know that I do not like comparing ourselves to other dancers.  It’s not helpful.  So don’t start it this week.  Don’t sit there and think, “I’ll never be able to do that!” or “Wow, what was she thinking…I’d never wear that costume.”  Just enjoy the performance, and know that you are helping another dancer and creating a stronger community!


Weekly Challenge for 7-16-12

It’s Monday, so it’s time for this week’s challenge!

About a month ago, we worked on weaknesses.  If you are new to the challenges or missed it, take a moment to read through this post because we’re going to use this again.  Last time we picked something–just one something–that needed working on and challenged ourselves to improve in that week.  Usually a week is not enough to show much improvement, but it does depend on what you are working on.  So, this week, we’re going to continue our work on weaknesses!

Working on weaknesses II

Hopefully you have continued to work on your weaknesses even if you haven’t been challenged to do so!  But I know it’s hard to work on things that are difficult for us, because we get frustrated or lose hope that we’ll ever get to where we want to be as dancers.  But this attitude won’t get us anywhere.  We need to work harder on what is difficult for us, and allow ourselves room to fail and be challenged (for followers of my blog, this should sound familiar!)

So, we’re going to check up on ourselves this week.  Rewatch that video you took of yourself and go through your list.  Now film yourself again and take another look at your list.  Did you improve?  Were you happier with the one identified weakness area or was it about the same?  Now think about how much time you spent on improving that weakness.  Did you do the challenge every day?  Did you continue to practice even after that week was over?

Even professional dancers must practice the basics over and over again, so you should not take the attitude that once you master something, you’re done with it.  If you did improve over this time, good for you!  Keep it up! Your challenge this week is to work on that same weakness again.  Drill it, think about it, whatever you need to do to keep improving.  Don’t think of it as going over stuff you already know; think about it as a chance to keep improving and to nail it!

If you did not see improvement, use this week to work on it again, but first sit down and think about what went wrong.  Did you not work on it as much as you wanted?  Did you get frustrated and stop?  Is the move/concept/idea/whatever just too dang hard for you right now (be honest with this one)?  Reevaluate where you want to be with this one weakness.  Did you set your goal too high last time?  That’s okay…reset your goal, but don’t think about it as failure.  Think about it as taking smaller steps towards your goal.  Now work on that weakness this week, at least for one whole song (or session, whatever time you have for it), and don’t get frustrated!

Enjoy your challenge!

Costuming II: Makeup

makeup supplies

My first blog about costuming was about mistakes people make in the costume itself.  Today I wanted to blog about the most forgotten aspect of costuming: makeup.  Little did you know that when you decided to become a professional belly dancer that you would also have to become a professional makeup artist as well!

Most dancers do not realize how strange it is to see a dancer in a lovely sparkly costume with no makeup.  Or not enough makeup.  She seems…unfinished, and, frankly, unprofessional.  But makeup can be overwhelming to the new dancer, especially when you’ve blown the bank on your first costume.  But makeup doesn’t have to be scary.  YouTube is bursting with makeup tutorials (my fave), and there are also professional makeup artists you can take sessions with to help you, or you can buy makeup DVDs or books and teach yourself.  There are also belly dancers who offer workshops for makeup for stage. Here’s where I will make my statement: I am not a professional makeup artist (so please don’t ask me to do a workshop).  Everything I learned was through videos, workshops, and hours spent practicing and doodling.  But I have performed a lot, and I know what looks good on stage.

Of course, merely the thought of how much makeup you need is also enough to make your wallet hide under the bed.  But there are ways to make it not so overwhelming.  There are six makeup essentials that I use consistently more often than anyother items I have bought.  These are the absolute minimum, but you will get a lot of mileage with just these products.

  1. Good foundation – I can’t help  you with this one; go to a makeup counter and have them help (tell them it’s for stage, and they’ll know what to do).  MAC, NYX, and Ben Nye are going to be the best, but Revlon ColorStay is a good drug store alternative and it goes NOWHERE.
  2. Powder – loose or pressed, translucent is easiest
  3. Only 4 eyeshadow colors: pearly white (or off-white), gray, brown, and black.  Why these four?  Because these are what are going to look best on nearly everyone’s face and what is going to show up best on stage.  And the brown…it’s not for your eyes.  Use it as contour.  You might even just get away with black if you are a Tribal dancer or are going for a super dramatic look.
  4. Black gel liner – don’t bother with liquid or kohl (at least for now), they are often too hard to use or don’t show up well enough.
  5. Strong red lipstick – the most common color used, and will look fantastic on most people and with most costumes.  If you want, you can tone down the red and go to a pink, but be careful because pink doesn’t always show up well under lights.  Pick a violent pink that hurts to look at too long (I hate pink…can you tell?)
  6. Blush – pick another violent pink color, or ask your makeup artist what colors will work better for you

It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t.  There are, of course, other things you will want to add later, like a good concealer, eyelid and facial primer, glitter, other eyeshadow colors for extra glam, etc., but you can get away with just those above items for your first few performances.

So now that you have all this makeup, what do you do with it?  Practice, practice, practice.  Just like dance, you have got to practice your makeup techniques.  Putting on gel liner is easier than liquid, but you still have to learn how.  Mess around with your three eyeshadows (remember the brown is for contouring, not your eyes) and see just how many looks you can do with just those colors.  Watch lots of videos (here a fun tip: when you are stretching and holding to increase flexibility and can’t do anything else, watch a makeup video).

And here’s the mistake nearly every dancer makes: not enough makeup.  If you are dancing at a casual hafla, you may think you can get away with eyeliner, blush, and lipstick.  Think again.  In dim lighting, your face disappears.  In bright light, you will look like a large white (or dark) blob.  Not flattering.  Think of every dance opportunity–even haflas–as a chance to get good photos or video of yourself, and a chance to check to see how your costume and makeup looks under different lighting and conditions (like sweating).  That restaurant you dance in for fun now may be where you dance for pay later, so you also want to make a good impression on the staff by looking as professional as possible.  Do your whole face for EVERY performance.

Keep this in mind: stage makeup looks scary and unnatural up close in normal lighting.  So pack it on until you look like a freak, and then you just might have enough!  Here’s another tip: I watch drag queens put on makeup.

Weekly Challenge for 7-9-12

It’s Monday, so it’s time for another challenge!


Dun-dun-dah!  The dreaded word: improvisation.  Many dancers hate it.  But belly dancers thrive on it.  Whether it’s traditional or fusion, improv is the lifeblood of belly dance, so it’s a skill you really must cultivate.  ATS®/ITS ladies, this challenge will be a snap for you, but try a solo or two on your own anyway!

Beginner: You have probably never improvised anything before, and the mere thought of it is terrifying.  But that’s okay.  It’s scary for everyone.  I hated improv when I first started, but I made myself do it every single day.  Yes, that’s right.  Every.  Single.  Day.  And you will too, for at least a week!  Here’s how: pick two moves.  Just two.  Make sure they are ones your teacher has taught you and you know you can do well.  Pick a short song–keep it about 2 minutes if possible–and improvise using those two moves.  See if you can go smoothly from one move to the other and back again.  Don’t try anything else yet, unless the spirit really moves you.  Once you feel comfortable with those two moves, try traveling with them, or throw in a turn or two, just so you don’t feel like you are drilling those two moves.  There!  You have improvised for the first time!

Intermediate: Pick a song you like (and know backwards and forwards) and see what you can do with it.  Take a deep breath, know that no one else is watching you (well…maybe the cat…) , and dance.  Do make sure your moves are still executed correctly.  Don’t throw everything into the dance, including the kitchen sink.  Keep it simple and clean.  Do 8 counts of one move, then move on to another.  The biggest mistake dancers make in improv is trying to do too much in one song.  Hold back the mystery for the next song!

Advanced: By this point, hopefully you are comfortable with improvisation.  If not, it’s time to get there.  Improvisation is important to all forms of belly dance.  In traditional belly dance, you may be called to perform to live music, or just one drummer, and you can’t always have an entire show choreographed because the band may not know your songs!  Fusion’s dance mother is improvisational tribal style dancing (ITS and ATS®), so you better know at least a little bit of improv!  If you haven’t improvised before, try one of the other two challenges this week.  If you are a pro at it, challenge yourself.  Download (legally, please) a totally new song–one you’ve never ever heard before–and record yourself improvising a dance to it.  Did it look good?  What needs work?  What moves can you pull off at the drop of a hat, or what totally flubbed?  Be honest, but be gentle.  There’s no need to criticize; you’ve never heard this song before, so you can’t expect it to be perfect.  Keep these exercises in mind so that you know what you can do if you ever do find yourself surprised by a live band, or there’s a mix-up with your music, or some other musical catastrophe happens and there’s no way to fix it and the show must go on!  Keep to your strengths.

Happy dancing!

Weekly Challenge!

This week’s challenge is back to basics!

The maya

Don’t know what a maya is?  Some people also call it a vertical hip figure 8 up to down.

Beginner: If your teacher hasn’t taught you this move yet, ask her (him!) about it.  This move (to me) is so fundamental to belly dance but many people don’t learn it right away.  Just remember to keep your heels on the ground, and keep your posture correct.  This move can easily injure the lower back if you push it too far too fast, so go slow and have your teacher check your posture and help make any corrections.  Your challenge is to practice the maya for at least one FULL SONG every day.  Again, don’t push it too far too fast.  Keep them small until you build up the muscle range so you do not injure yourself.  If you feel any pain in your lower back, stop, and have your teacher reassess your posture.

Intermediate: You hopefully know this move by now, so see what you can do with it!  Can you walk with a maya?  Try a walking maya and practice for a full song every day this week for your challenge.  Remember not to let your arms drift inwards/downwards as you concentrate on moving both your feet and your hips.  Keep the movement small, and travel gracefully so that it still looks nice.

Advanced: Go wild with your mayas!  Make ’em big, make ’em small, travel, or try the X-maya (R hip twist forward/maya, L hip twist back/maya, R hip twist back/maya, L hip twist forward/maya; basically you are making an X shape with your hips while you maya).  Add a shimmy on top.  Whatever you do, make them interesting.  This move is a staple belly dance move, and it can be even more beautiful with some additions.  Whatever you pick, practice it every day this week for one full song.  Then practice it on releve for another song.

Enjoy the challenge!

Reaching for the Stars

I’ve been posting lately a lot about challenging yourself (see those weekly challenges!) and about failure.  It’s important to understand that, as artists, we don’t always succeed.  But that does not mean we should just give up.

Why do I take the time to think up and write up all those weekly challenges?  Why do I bother?  Because I do them, too.  Because I try to improve myself all the time.  If we do not challenge ourselves, we stagnate, get bored, and then quit.  Or we wonder why we haven’t magically become better dancers.  You CANNOT grow unless you challenge yourself.  Sorry, law of the universe here, can’t be helped.  Enlightenment doesn’t just come from sitting under trees.  We must go through trials first, then we can be pleased at our growth.

If you find that you are not growing, that you are not as a good a dancer as s0-and-so (and I dislike making those types of comparisons), or that you aren’t where you want to be with your dance, maybe you should challenge yourself more.  Don’t be afraid of trying something new, different, or hard.  As I said in my previous post on this subject, humans are afraid of failure.  Unfortunately, we also want to be masters of everything we do, right NOW.  NOW I say…how about YESTERDAY?  Now?  How about now?  No one has any patience anymore, and growth takes patience (ask anyone who has tried to grow a garden…you don’t get pumpkins in three days now do you?)  Yeah it sucks to think about how long it might take you to get where you want to be, but the journey is important.  Think about how much fun it will be to challenge yourself every day to be a better dancer.  Think of the relief and elation that comes when you finally master that move that’s been your nemesis for the past three weeks.  Shouldn’t that be delicious?

Again, I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to take belly dance classes because they think it might be too hard.  After much reflection, I have to say this, and it won’t be very nice: that’s a really poor attitude to take.  You don’t even want to try something because you don’t want to even take the chance you might not be a genius at it the very first time you try it?  I apologize for being mean there, but I think a lot of us need a kick in the pants, not sweet words, to shake us up a bit.  You cannot master any form of dance–belly dance included–in six weeks.  Sorry, it just doesn’t happen.  If your current teacher isn’t challenging you, maybe you should ask for more.  Or find another teacher.  If all you ever practice are the moves you already excel in, why bother? (of course, as a side note, all dancers should practice even basic moves often, but not to the exclusion of all else).

I like this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.  Even though he was talking about something quite different, it still applies: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Here’s another, from Robert Louis Stevenson, “We must accept life for what it actually is–a challenge to our quality without which we should never know of what stuff we are made, or grow to our full stature.”

Rise to the challenge, reach for the stars.  Grow, change, evolve.  Don’t stagnate, don’t be afraid of failure or of challenges.  How can we know what we are made of, if we don’t reach out, fall, get up, and keep going?  If it’s worth it to you to be a better dancer, then you have to be willing to pay the price…challenge and growth.