Monday, May 30, 2016

Dance surprises in China (Blog 3 from teaching in China, May 2016)

Here are few of my China inspired dance related thoughts as promised!

- Tarab. In many places around the world dancers might describe a dance style or music style as Tarab, however, Tarab is a feeling, an emotion, rather than a category. Certain music might be more likely to inspire Tarab in the listener however it shouldn't be classed as 'Tarab music'. On trying to explain this in my Beijing workshop, I was attempting to describe what athletes know as 'the zone' and dancer might think of a 'flow'. When the end result is greater than the sum of all the parts involved. When you are lost in emotion brought on by the music. My surprise came when one of my students, and keep in mind China is a hyper conservative country, piped up with, " yes, I know what you mean, it's just like an orgasm". The breath intake from everyone in the room, myself included, was audible! So there you have it. In my mind Tarab will always now be thought of as a 'spiritual orgasm'!!!!

- Music over technique. To some extents this is not purely a chinese issue, however they are on the whole obsessed by rules and technique. The majority think that all they must do to improve their dancing is to learn new techniques and steps and drill harder the stuff they already have. They always ask me for 'rules' for linking the moves. When I encourage them to get rid of the idea that there are rules and to relax into the music, they visibly tense up! I knew this however before I came to China this time. What I hadn't realised was how little they actually listen to and are inspired by the music. The art form which itself inspires dance! Being able to hear the music and everything in it, emotions included and then reflect this to your audience, is in my mind crucial to being a dancer. Less about the move and more about what moves you!

- Food. I cannot eat before dancing. I need 3-4 hrs digestion time, otherwise I am in horrible pain. It's always been that way for me so imagine how surprised I am by the Chinese dancers idea of a 'light lunch' in between dance classes. Noodles, dumpling, rice, you name it, they eat it and in great quantities too. I cannot understand where they put it since most of them are tiny wee skinny things too! It doesn't seem to effect the effort they put into the dance though. Oh, and seemingly the way to look your best for a photoshoot the next day is not too drink too much water the night before as this can make you look puffy. Also, women should avoid all iced drinks, especially around their period as it is seemingly 'very dangerous'.

- Private classes. This trip I taught some private classes in addition to my workshops and was surprised how many girls will go to the expense of a one to one class without having given it any prior though as to what they want to learn. It seems that private classes in China also generally follow the fashion for technique and choreography, so the dancer is waiting for the teacher to decide what she should be taught. One girl however wanted me to trouble shoot her performance for the show that evening. Tweeking a dance  for someone is something I really love doing. Helping them be the best they can be is my reason to teach. In this instance it was a little politically difficult for me because although the choreography was exceptional, it was not her own, and the creator of said choreography was my translator. This meant that I had to really be careful not to offend the teacher in front of her student if there were things in the choreography I didn't like!! Private classes are an amazing way to really work on your dancing in depth, but do give it some thought what you want from a specific teacher before taking a class. If students come to me without knowing what they want, I usually ask them to dance for me,  then I pick out the things that I feel need work. This works well, but can be a little scary for less experienced dancers.

- Changes. I have seen a huge improvement in the level of dance all across China in the past 4 years of teaching workshops here. I have always maintained that the best cities/areas/countries for Bellydance are those who have enough teachers with direct links to Cairo. Ok, so as a dancer in Cairo for the past 10 years I am perhaps biased, however I really believe that to perform Egyptian dance well, you need to immerse yourself in the culture of the country it comes from. I am happy to see more and more Chinese dancers coming to Egypt to learn and also organizing holidays for their students to travel and experience it for themselves too. Long may it continue.

I love traveling and working in different countries. There is always something new to understand and learn. It makes me feel so alive! 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Being the surprised tourist in Beijing..(Blog 2, May 2016 from China)

I have just had the good fortune to Beijing for 4 days and although I knew I'd like the city, I did have a few surprises along the way... These are all very tourist based. The dance version is for my next blog entry (I thought I could combine them, but am surprised while writing them how many there are!!!!)

1. Blue sky! Yes, renowned for its horrific Beijing pulled out all the stops for me and I was lucky enough to have warm blue skies everyday! When the pollution in China is bad it swamps even the sandstorm days in Cairo, so I felt very relieved that you lungs were to get a break these days. Very unexpected!

2. Sunburn! Ok, so this is linked to number 1, but even living in Cairo for 10 rarely got sunburn just from walking about. Great to see the sun, and get a start on my summer colour, but strap lines- not so great when I am performing in 2 days time (in Changsha). Oops!

3. Tourists! I should have expected it. I know I should, but for some reason I didn't expect to see SO many chinese tourists in China. There were a few other foreigners too, but they too were jostled roughly by large groups of home crowd, all wearing matching Tshirts or caps!   

4. Forbidden city treasures! It surprised me that the forbidden city was just SO huge (and that my 'guides' thought we would get round it all in 1.5hrs!!!) and SO busy. The style of tourism is rush in, get to the front, photograph whatever it is, maybe stand there to post it onto wechat and block the view for all, or jostle your way back through the crowd again. Elbows and phones everywhere. I was therefore amazed that the entrance fee to the treasure hall seemed enough to deter the majority of the crowds, despise being only 10yuan (about £1). This area was exactly what I imagined the forbidden city to be like, area of calm, no throngs of people, the chances to imagine what life would have been like 500 years ago! I felt so lucky to have this time. I still don't feel I have seen half of it and am already looking forward to my return journey!

5. Spiders! So, not all the surprises were good!! One evening I was taken to a street in Beijing, set up for the tourists I believe and here there were selling all sorts of local delicacies, pork shawarma (worth a mention for my friends in Cairo!!), cheese coated fried banana (???), noodles and tofu of every shape, size and colour, deep fried crab and lobster, snake, sliced and whole intestines of every animal you can think of, yellow bean soup (which smelt like sewers, no, in fact it was worse than the sewer!!) and then there was the creepy crawlies. Maggots, huge centipedes, cockroaches, scorpions and one I wasn't expecting at all, huge black spiders which were the size of tarantulas. Put it this way, they looked too big to fit in one mouthful (if you can even contemplate that idea, I felt sick looking at them!). Thankfully we were NOT eating there! Instead we went to a restaurant that was famous for its 'sheep neck' which I have to admit to really not liking the idea of, however it was delicious, and infinitely preferable to the alternatives! Everything I travel  to China people say "oh no, the food is horrible!" And I am always stunned because I have always had amazing meals here. In fact, I usually have to work really hard not to put on weight in my travels here. Now, after seeing this street, I understand where this idea has come from! Oh. But it case you think it's all bad- you have to try 'Rose pancakes'. These wee things are manna from heaven!

******CAUTION*****- scroll down v quickly past next photo if spiders make you squeamish!!!!

6. Christmas songs! It is May but I have heard an annoying little girl sing 'jingle bells' repeatedly (Bingo drinks advertising) and a pack of dogs barking 'decks the halls' (not sure what that advert was for!!). Whatever next? I will tell you what. A cat food advert on tv based around a man baking Christmas cookies with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his ash falling into the dough. I kept waiting for it to be a health and safety ad but no. They ate the cookies with smiles on their faces. All except the cat. Clever cat. And then there was Nat King Cole sings Christmas- the album, being played in Starbucks. I really had to double check a few times this trip that is wasn't actually December!

7. Don't talk politics! So on my first night in Beijing I went for Peking Duck which was amazingly delicious. Later I was told why it's special, which shouldn't have been a surprise but I just hadn't really thought about it; how they contain and force feed the birds etc. Knowing that has put me off somewhat now! The duck restaurant was right next to T square. I don't know much Chinese history, but I do know about some of the stuff that happened here and when I asked my Chinese friends they would barely talk about it. At all. A couple of days later I asked again a question which related to when all the culture was destroyed, the wall broken down in Beijing and books burned, amongst other things. Again, no one would talk about it. So I figured it really was a closed country and perhaps people were scared to talk. So imagine my surprise when on the way to the airport the taxi driver talked the whole way saying he wants a revolution in China, because in his opinion, currently there are no human rights! It's all or nothing it would seem!

...... And that's quite enough surprises for one blog... Next one is all about Bellydance!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Rules and Systems in China, and in Bellydance! (Blog 1 from China 2016...)

I'm just back from 3 weeks teaching around China!

I actually arrived in uk yesterday morning. Switched on social media on arrival, mid transit, in Amsterdam, first thing I saw was breaking news about Egypt Air flight going missing. I instantly felt devastated and horrified and decided I couldn't face it all yet so switched off the iPad again. Wasn't easy stepping onto a plane minutes after it either.....

Today, I am incredibly sad for the victims and also for this compacting blow to Egypt's tourist economy. I can't imagine waiting at an airport for a plane that doesn't show. The horror for those family and friends. My thoughts and love goes out to all involved.

I have now had some sleep and am more or less back in uk time zone so I feel a little more able to reconnect with the world again and, I will be posting some blog articles I wrote while in China and didn't have access to post (damn the great firewall of China!).... hope you enjoy!

Blog 1 from China...Rules and Systems in China and in Bellydance.

I might be stating the obvious, or falling for stereotypes, but in my experience it does seem that the Chinese like rules. By like, I mean 'really' like them.

In Chongqing this week, going to cross a road, I am told "No No No! you must never cross the roads in Chongqing, you must use the bridges and tunnels, it's too dangerous". A little extreme I felt, given my 10 years experience of road crossing in Cairo, but ok, if that is a law here, I will do as I am told. However, with rules, of course, comes rule breakers. The following morning I am made fun of by another girl when I am insistent that we should take the long way in order to use the bridge! She got her way, and we crossed with ease and without repercussion (although the vast majority of people it should be said, were indeed using the bridges).

I am writing this in my first moment of (unexpected) free time since arriving in China one week ago. My flight from Chongqing was delayed. No one advised any of us of this delay. This was an occasion where a system that should work smoothly, failed. No announcements and no message on the departures board. The result; chaos. Almost all the passengers were thronged around the gate and the two 'rabbit in headlights' flight attendants who were manning it. They didn't look like they knew what was going on either. Obviously, since I don't speak Chinese, perhaps they were reassuring people and asking for patience, however, that wasn't the impression I was getting from the faces around me. I couldn't find a single person who spoke English and after asking a couple of people, both of whom looked mortally embarrassed when they couldn't reply, I decided that rather than embarrass anyone else, I would just sit it out.  Two hours later than expected we were permitted to board and at last told why the delay. A tyre needed changed. I'd never thought of a plane getting a flat tyre before. What a frightening thought!!!!

I can't help thinking how these two instances in attitudes to rules and systems relate to Bellydance. I can't help myself!

I remember early days of learning technique and indeed of teaching it. "You must put your arms like this, your feet like that, you must move to this part of the music in this particular way".

This is like "you must use the footbridge to cross the road".

This way will always fit. It is sensible and safe.

Only once you have enough experience behind you  should you break these initial rules (eg dealing with traffic in Cairo or in this analogy have mastered these basic moves and steps). Sometimes when you dance you will still choose to play it safe and that's ok, but sometimes you will take the riskier, more exciting (aka adrenaline producing) route.

Thankfully in dance as opposed to road crossing, the benefits of doing this are much greater (for the performer and the audience) and the risks potentially much lower! Do keep in mind though that some of these 'rules' a dance teacher will give you are there to protect you from injury, so only bend these rules when you know you have the strength and control to deal with the consequences! Breaking some of the rules in dance can make space in which to discover your own personal dance style and be more creative and exciting. Even the top Egyptian artists don't all perform or teach even a basic hip drop in the same way, so keep this in mind when learning and exploring for yourself different ways to do even the things you previously thought were written in stone.

My airport story made me think of the choreography v improvisation debate.

There is a recognized international system for boarding a plane. You have your gate number and boarding time on your boarding pass and if there are any changes they will be shown on the board. Chaos happened today because the board was not used as it should, the system failed!

This to me is like a choreography. There are steps, in a specific order and if all goes well then you will succeed in achieving what you set out to do. Things will run smoothly.

If however the choreography doesn't go to plan, you forget it, or the stage doesn't allow you do perform the moves you wanted, or someone gets in the way, you have the 'board of Improvisation' to fall back on. Assuming you have practiced free-styling then hopefully that will take away the fear and uncertainty you might feel at this point and see you through to the end of the show or at least until you can pick up your choreography again.

However, if you don't have improvisational skills, you have nothing to draw on, it is just like today when that board stayed blank for 2 hours; chaos!

So, even if right now you think you will always choose to perform choreography over improvisation, make sure that your improv skills are up to scratch anyway, just in case that 'flight is delayed'. Who knows, you may even end up preferring that method of performance eventually anyway!

I'm airborne now, heading to Beijing to teach guess what.... improvisation skills! You'd never have guessed it, would you?!