Restaurant, Nightclub & Stage Differences

 Belly Dancer Leyla Najma

Sometimes students ask me about the differences between restaurant, nightclub and stage performing and I thought it would be a good discussion for professionals or those starting to perform. After years of dancing at each venue, it became obvious to me that the stage is where I prefer to be and even though restaurant dancing made me a more personable dancer, the space, environment and dynamics of stages is what made me feel like an entertainer. Nightclubs were my secret desire, the place where I imagined legendary dancers performing and like every starry eyed dancer, I dreamed of following in their footsteps. Each nightclub performance was another notch on my belt that made me feel like I was successful almost like I had finally made it to Oz! Read more

The Art of Teaching Belly Dance

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It was obvious that with some of the emails I have been getting regarding my book that I felt I should talk about a topic that kept coming up which is, the art of teaching dance. The emails were full of dancers speaking openly about what my book, The Divine Unrest, did for them. Some changed studios, others left teachers that were abusive and limited. I was very surprised to get these emails and wondered what on earth was going on with teachers in this dance form. When did this start to become a common problem or has it always been in our midsts.

Years ago when I started out dancing, it never occurred to me to take class from someone who wasn’t qualified. Usually I heard by word of mouth about a dance teacher from other dancers and most of the recommended teachers were exceptional. If anyone I was paying to teach me, tried to intimidate me or belittle me in class, I would have said, “Hasta la vista baby.” Maybe it’s because I’m feisty to begin with but I wouldn’t take class from anyone who I thought was abusive. That being said for some strange reason there are women out there who are obviously get away with teaching aggressively. I have news for them; this dance form has nothing to do with intimidation or belittling. To be able to teach dance is an art and I’m wondering with so many women getting into belly dance if this isn’t creating a problem with inadequate and unqualified teachers. I’ve seen it happen in public schools because I had to face a few bad apples with my daughter through out her elementary and middle school years. The question is, is this becoming a trend and if so what can qualified dance teachers do about it?

I was watching a documentary a while back called “Miss Navajo” and was blown away by the requirements each contestant had to meet. They were judged on how well they were able to fulfill each requirement.  They had to speak their own native tongue. They had to kill a sheep and skin it because sheep are an important staple that feeds the tribe. The contestants had to then cook the meat and feed the judges and families watching. They were questioned on important dates and what different insignias meant for them as a tribe. I realized that a big problem we have is the fact that there are no tests or guidelines for teaching our dance form.

The bottom line, we need to seriously figure out a teacher training course for dancers who want to teach so that the art of the dance isn’t lost, forgotten or turned into a money making scheme. We can’t afford at this point and time in our dance history to allow anyone to muddy up the dance especially those who are not qualified to teach it to begin with. Maybe this is where certifications come in but if so there needs to be new guidelines set down especially for teaching learned content. One of the problems with our dance field is that anyone can say they are a qualified teacher, have business cards or a cheap website, and wham bam thank you ma’am, they are teaching.

Remember my issue with the teacher who stated she could make anyone a professional in less then a month? I feel sorry for anyone who buys into the delusion that learning any dance form is possible in that short a period of time. It’s a scam plain and simple but more than that she is adding to the problem by placing herself in a position of authority without asking her own peers especially those in Egypt what they think of her offer. The student who buys into any scam artists scheme, ends up not only misinformed, but sold a false education that in reality takes years of training to master. Who pays the price for poor teaching skills, the student, the community or all the above. My next question is why don’t more professional dance teachers and performers stand up and talk about this problem? Unqualified teachers will tarnish our image in many ways. The two of the biggest problems are, the uneducated dancers who become unqualified teachers and the uneducated dancers representing not only communities but cultures.

One email I received just recently really struck a cord with me. This woman was older, pretty much a senior citizen and she had been dancing for many years. She took from two teachers. Her first was verbally abusive so she left here and the second one while she really enjoyed studying with her, was smothering her creativity. What happens to a flame when it gets no oxygen, it burns out. If a teacher doesn’t allow students to create their own choreographies, they will never understand the relationship between music and movement. It can’t be learned by just watching, it has to be learned by doing it and not just taught choreographies. After the fundamentals are taught, it’s important to get students to that place where the creative juices are flowing. Her teacher wouldn’t allow her to perform in certain venues and her creativity was suffering for it. What kind of teacher doesn’t allow her students to express themselves? Her teacher never gave her a good reason why. Why do we give our power away to those who don’t deserve it?

The only way a beginner can grow in any dance field is to learn the dance or studio curriculum by moving with dance, listening to music and then moving and listening to music at the same time. In the beginning it’s in the understanding of how a student learns to extend and restrain the body in movement and from this she be able to start to understand how to feel and react to music. But what if the teacher is afraid her students will eventually come up with something better then her? Limiting students will do one or two things, it will cause them to look else where to express their creativity or they will stay as limited as their teacher.

Dance teachers need to research, travel and explore their dance not only for their own sake but for the future education of generations they are teaching. This isn’t a self absorbed dance form, it’s based on community and keeping alive an ancient art form that has been passed down for multiple generations. It’s about going outside the comfort zone of the known into the unknown and finding that everything you learn is familiar to you already. It’s about relearning our heritage as women and understanding that it’s not about one person but about all of us sharing our joy of dance so we can go out into the world with a little more laughter, a little more light and an abundance of confidence.

What do you think?

 News Update: 

The Divine Unrest-My Stories and Personal Views on Belly Dance is out in paperback! The black and white paperback is only $12.99.  Here’s the link on

https://www.createspace.com/4181322

Remember to go to www.bellydancevillage and discover the wonderful art of belly dance!

 

 

Are Performance Skills Overrated?

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I knew if some of you read this, you might be wondering why I would even ask such a question, but I am asking because there is so much more to belly dance that as you get older and seasoned, you understand. Skills like anything take time to polish and shine and let’s not forget years to understand but does knowing how to extend and move with no effort come from skill? A thought can be so much more when the body takes it and expands on it. What of body language? Do we live our lives speaking verbally or do we express ourselves through a look, a feeling or a gesture? As a woman I know that I can get across a particular feeling to Daniel with one look. So I think body language is a natural evolution that comes with being human.

Performance skills are a very personal matter because everyone’s skills differ depending on what they value and deem important. And we have to remember that who we learn from in any aspect of instruction, shares their view on what skills are most important to them. We learn to train and practice according to what our teachers instruct and we take home the first component of skills that become apart of our dance. But what about natural ability and the creative license to dance an individual expression that takes the dance, say in this instance belly dance to a different direction than originally accepted? We have Goth, and Burlesque mixed in with belly dance along with jazz and tap. Performance skills can be unfair especially when a life long dancer comes in and trains with the Olympian speed of Hera and enjoys the fruits of her labor faster than the average student. It can get disconcerting studying along side this type of dancer especially when a student is putting her all into learning how to dance.  It’s hard not to compare oneself with someone who not only gets every move down but does them with a pros proficiency.

Personally as a dance teacher, I love life long professional dancers coming to class but then that is only because I have spent years learning this dance and I don’t have to compete with them. When I take workshops it’s another story, my right becomes my left and I look like a clueless zombie. I love learning new moves and combinations but as I have always stated, I don’t like learning a full choreography within a few hours. My skill level goes out the window and my ego takes a beating. I had a student who was taking a workshop class with me and she was able to get the moves instantly. I on the other hand fumbled through the choreography finally getting it at the end. She laughed at me as I gave her a cross eyed look but I have to admit I was really proud of her besides being impressed and a little envious. She came over to me and put her arms around my shoulders and told me that  because of all the drills and oppositions moves that I made her do, she was  able to catch on to choreography a lot easier. That did make me feel a little bit better and I realized something after I chewed on what she had said. I was so busy choreographing moves and combinations on a day to day basis that to move to music with someone else’s inspired ideas, felt strange to my creative process. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch and see how dancers put together moves but I realized that because I do this day in and day out, I had isolated my learning ability. At workshops, I would do the combinations asked of me but at the same time think to myself, “But wait, you missed this beat and oh, oppositions moves would work beautifully here.” So it occurred to me that I had to turn off my internal dialogue and just enjoy being in the midst of creative expression no matter who it came from.

How much do props help out with performance skills? I watched a dancer do a beautiful veil dance years ago, one that is probably the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Her articulation was amazing and it felt at times as if she was flying or floating over the stage. Once she was done with her veil dance, she did a drum solo. The performance of one versus the other was day and night.  I couldn’t believe she was the same dancer who I had been watching previously with the veil. She missed the boat on her drum solo and as I watched her struggle with her hip work, I realized that the first prop a dancer should master is her body. If we can’t showcase the skill and training with our bodies to the audience then it doesn’t matter how well we do with a veil, sword or candelabra, what a dancer lacks in ability will be magnified ten fold on stage.

I was at the ten year mark when I saw this dancer perform and I realized that I had to get back to the basics so that my body felt like my work of art, my creativity molded from one combination to the next. I didn’t want to do an incomplete performance especially since I was working with live bands at that time. This is where studying Taheya Carioca, Naima Akef, Samia Gamall, Suhair Saki and Nagua Fouad came in handy. I thought to myself, what was it that all these women had in common that not only made them stand out but become stars? After watching them for awhile I came to this conclusion, they had this amazing ability to bring their audience in with their movements and the subtle innuendos of their body language. Even if they were only moving their hips, they made it look like what they were doing was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. They lived in their movements, they emulated this joy on stage so that everyone focused and lived in their performance, impatiently waiting for the next move. It was within this ability to tell a story with their hips alone that made me realize movement wasn’t just a skill, it was a thought, a feeling of inspiration caught into a thrust, maya or figure 8. The movement had to come from the storyteller herself and how she emulated the move and expressed it to the audience, demonstrated what kind of storyteller she was. The mind set was, “I think therefore I am.” So it occurred to me that if I am true to my feelings on stage and I emulate how I live life in my movements, than half the battle has been won. Skill takes this thought process and magnifies the movements in a way that becomes a beacon to the audience. So I ask you, can it be so simple to think that thought felt in movement can make all the difference?

What does a professional have over a beginner dancer, confidence obviously. Isn’t confidence a thought or feeling that comes from experience and experience makes movement look skilled and flawless. So my question in the very beginning isn’t so much a cut and dry answer as it is contemplative. Performance skills don’t come from technique alone because  becoming a robot isn’t what most dancer’s have in their minds when they perform. We can follow each other to the best of our ability but eventually down the line movement has to become one with the body. When you have a technical dancer perform side by side with a storyteller, the difference is one feels her movements and lives in them while the other demonstrates verbatim a technical choreographed copy. Now I know there will be some of you who are technical dancers who won’t agree with me and I have seen technical dancers do beautiful dances on stage but the difference is in the pudding when you watch the old black and white videos of Egyptian dancers. Technique is needed and a major part of learning any dance form because it helps dancers lay down their foundation. As time goes by technique builds layer upon layer to strengthen a dancer’s foundation but at the same time it can take away from the spontaneous elements of feeling creativity.

Performance skills are in the eyes of the beholder meaning  the appreciative audience or the beginner student all the way down the line to the seasoned dancer. Let’s be frank, I’ll use myself as an example, some people think I suck at dancing while others think I’m the coolest thing since sliced bread. It all depends on their view of what performance skills represent and I am no different here. I have seen professional dancers that were lukewarm on stage while others gave me goose bumps.

So for me, I like to see technique in the background in performances and I prefer the story told by the emotional joy of a dancer up front and center. Performance skills represent the journey a dancer takes to get to her goals and aspirations. Skills take a dancer to the jump off point but eventually the dancer has to take a leap of faith knowing in the end she has always known how to fly.

Tell me your thoughts on this topic…I always enjoy different points of view!!

News

I am excited to let everyone know that I am writing exclusively for Jareeda Belly Dance Magazine and that I am focusing all my interests and abilities in order to write the best articles I can for Mezdulene the publisher of Jareeda. I feel rejuvinated and inspired this year and I’m ready to shine my diamond a little bit more!! Remember, when you subscribe to Jareeda, you are supporting the longest running belly dance magazine in existence today.  Go to www.jareeda.com

Also remember my book is out, “The Divine Unrest-My Stories and Personal Views on Belly Dance” and it’s available on Amazon. Just click on the book cover button to the right. I am getting ready to do more interviews for Belly Dance Viillage so be on the look out for them down the line. If you haven’t checked out my instructional videos go to www.bellydancevillage.com and get the best for all levels pf belly dance instruction!!

Knowing How to End a Performance

Leyla Najmas Belly Dance Blog, Know How To End a Performance

Most of the time when music ends, it’s easy to know how to end a performance but in saying this, one must know how to hear music especially if it’s composed and based on various cultures esthetics, traditions and past history. There have been articles in magazines regarding how to approach a stage, where to position yourself and what kind of lights to use but for me I always wanted to know where and how to end. And I use to wonder, was there a protocol to ending a performance. It seemed like standing there at the end and bowing never seemed to be enough and yet I have ended this way with various performances. Read more

Homeward Bound to my Belly Dance Roots

A few weeks ago I ventured up to Taos, New Mexico and interviewed two very important and special women in my life. It was like going home and remembering where my passion started from even as naïve as it was. I went homeward bound to my belly dance roots because my dance journey really started in Taos. It was in Taos that I met Barbara Sayre Harmon and Sakti Rinek; the two women who would be instrumental in making my belly dance dreams come true.

On my trip up to Taos, I had forgotten how spectacular the drive was because everywhere I looked was breathtaking. Coming up from the canyon you are met with a panoramic view of the Gorge and the Taos mountains. They greet you like an old friend that has been around since the beginning of time. The view is always, fresh, new and awe-inspiring, no matter how many times I see it. In many ways, I said to myself, “I am home.”

The lingering memories of learning an ancient art form was almost like a pilgrimage going back to a place that transformed my life. From the day I saw dancers performing so many years ago, I knew belly dance had placed her mark upon me. Taos in many ways represents my temple of learning. Sakti and Barbara were the two women that took me by the hand and guided me into the poetic dance movements of ancient times. Sakti’s studio always had the feel of being an ancient sanctuary with a high priestess energy to it. As I entered her studio, I always knew I was there to study and to understand that the dance was a privilege to learn. Sakti’s curriculum was detailed and full of combinations that were easy to absorb and practice. To this day I find that Sakti is the one teacher through out my career that shared everything she knew about belly dance with me. Sakti always reminded me of a high priestess because she took belly dance and made it ageless. It was as if she took it from an ancient manuscript and brought it to life, always youthful with no apparent age to the movements. With ageless beauty emanating from her varied movements I knew when I saw Sakti dance that I wanted to be apart of this ancient heritage that was a rite of passage, the path of the enlightened and worldly belly dancer.

Every woman who goes into the farthest reaches of her heart knows that magic is alive and by proxy we are its ambassadors. Whenever I walk up to Barbara’s courtyard I am not only taken back in time but I think time stands still out of reverence. It’s a vortex of magical fairies, dragon flies, and an array of flowers of all colors and shapes leading up to her cottages that are alive with whimsy and delight. Walking into Barb’s studio is a piece of pure enchanting revival to the eyes. Everywhere there is a painting that leads you to another one and then another so that the senses are filled and slightly intoxicated with pure creativity. The colors seem to emanate off canvases that come to life telling their story from creative inception to completed masterpiece. For a dancer, the atmosphere can easily captivate the mind and stimulate the creative link between creativity and inspiration. With both studios apart of my up bringing and training in belly dance, it is no wonder that my dance persona is part enchantress and priestess. I think with most women, this is our rite of passage and one that we often forget.

Coming back to Taos was like coming home after a long pilgrimage where I ventured out looking for answers to many questions. I started off each adventure as a naïve novice and as time passed the proficient dancer emerged. As I was driving up to Taos, my accumulated experiences somehow looked me square in the face when I looked into the rear view mirror and I wondered if any of my experiences had amounted to much. I realized my fear was like a dress that shows off all my imperfections and magnifies them with no regard or consideration for my state of mind. I was wearing my fears of inadequacy with the details of a skilled seamstress.

The interviews in many ways were a long time coming. Barb has been living the painters life most of her life along with Cliff Harmon her husband and comrade in arms. Barbara is one of the top female portrait artists in the US besides being a well received writer of children’s books. Sakti has been living the belly dancers dream, traveling around the world for over 36 years. She has been performing and teaching her unique dance style to hundreds of women from all walks of life. They both radiate a kind of accomplishment that not many women can pride themselves in, a life time of creative study that results in endless works of art. The creative process became a way of life for both Barb and Sakti so much so that they have become one with the essence of their own inspired design. It is because of this very reason, I felt it was time to interview them for my membership site and get their stories out to aspiring dancers and artists.

 

Its funny how we think the world views us like we view ourselves, it’s really not a realistic way to think. As I met with Barbara and Sakti, my apprehension just melted away and I had the best time laughing and talking non-stop the whole time I visited and interviewed both of them. When I was looking behind the video camera and listening to Barb talk, I realized that there just aren’t women like Barb anymore. Her eloquence and refined gestures made me feel like I was in the presence of a legendary actress. In many ways each painting is a script or a story that has individual meaning to whoever looks at it. If I closed my eyes, I could hear the whisperings from each portrait that was surrounding me. That’s why I love going to Barbara’s studio, it’s a magical place that transports me into a world that is always waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. There were a few times I wanted to pinch myself just to make sure I was really there listening to Barb talk about her early years or the tidbits of information about Martha Graham. I decided right then and there I didn’t need Google or Wikipedia because Barbara was a walking encyclopedia. The amazing thing about artists is that they are sponges for every topic they come in contact with. There seems to be no stone unturned by the curious artist and I realized that creativity demands a studious mind. Barb symbolized this with brilliance and genius.

Sakti was as vivacious as ever just as I remembered her. I really think she found the fountain of youth and is keeping mum about it. The studio had a new floor that her boys (obvious young men) Eli and Adam put down for her. It was even more beautiful then I remember and with the new sitting area with large windows over looking her pond, it was just enchanting.  As we began our interview it was so much fun to relive Sakti’s stories and adventures with her. Sakti did what every belly dancer dreams of doing; she not only made a living with belly dancing but she became successful with it as well. But the difference here is that Sakti was “living” the belly dancers life instead of just talking about it. In the end trains, plains and automobiles become as familiar as each hotel room. It’s a gypsy life that isn’t for the faint of heart but for those who pursue it, the end result is enriched memories of cultures, people and places. Sakti’s portfolio isn’t just full of shows, workshops and performances she has the memories of each experience that lives inside her. The difference between a professional hobbyist and old school dancer is how they live their lives and what they carry within them. Experience is the upper hand in this case. You feel the experiences as soon as you walk into Sakti’s studio.

The working dancer lives a novel life that is a daily script made with continual rewrites but that is why it is so enticing for the average woman; it’s a nonsensical way of life. If women were any less complicated it wouldn’t seem logical but because we are who we are, it’s the perfect way to stimulate the senses and reawaken the soul. As Mae West said, “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.” We either live our lives to the fullest or live to regret not birthing our dreams. And to me that’s the difference between women who go out and live their lives versus those who watch from the side lines, they make magic happen. So in my interviews prepare to meet two amazing women who made magic happen and to date are still living their lives to the fullest yet leaving room for new adventures, scripts not written and performances yet to be danced. It’s the blank canvas of life that allows us to paint masterpieces of our desires.

I will be eternally grateful to Barbara and Sakti who have imprinted upon my heart, joy; friendship, laughter, loyalty and the desire to succeed. They showed me this by example and it is only fitting after all this time I come homeward bound to my belly dance roots to thank the two women in my life who made all the difference and helped me become the woman that I am today.

If you are curious about my membership site, check it out and become a member. I have many videos to view and as you can see many more to come. www.bellydancevillage.com