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Creating a Foundation

Creating a Foundation

Body Awareness, Carriage, and Strength

By Bàraka

The challenge for almost every Oriental dancer is to be taken seriously as an artist. The reason? The always-present connotation that in one way or another belly dance is a skin game closely akin to stripping. Whether this misconception is historically accurate or not, it’s a stigma we must recognize and counteract to the best of our ability.

Like the old adage that women work twice as hard to be perceived as half as good as a man, we must bend over backward to be respected as artists, craftswomen and dancers to counteract those perceptions. To my way of thinking, that means putting emphasis on dance, working within the format “Oriental.” And that means having good basic dance skills.

The truth of the matter is that many people come to Oriental dance without a background in movement or a knowledge of body mechanics. Whether you’re a beginner, amateur or pro, your health, your technique and your overall dance will all benefit from basic dance skills. And what are the absolute, bottom-line, critical necessities? Body awareness, carriage, and strength. Simple enough — but how to achieve them? How do they translate into Oriental dance? How do you create them in your own dance?

What are dance basics?

First, you need to know about your own body. Not everyone wants or needs a graduate course in anatomy, but a basic knowledge of musculature tells you where your movement must be generated to be fully effective. When you can visualize the full length of a muscle movement, it becomes smoother and more easily controlled. Understanding how your body is supported by its skeleton helps in balance and in making the most of your body’s capabilities and resources. The interworkings of muscle and skeleton are the physical building blocks of dance. Use them knowledgeably and they will serve you well for many years.

Second, carriage is literally the way you carry yourself. Because much of Oriental dance focuses on the pelvic area, many of us neglect everything else. You should be aware of every nuance, from the placement of your feet to the tilt of your head, to present a total image of dance.

Third, you need strength to focus and maintain the quality of your movement. For instance, a turn in arabesque position requires strong feet and arches to maintain the turn, strong legs to support the movement, and upper back strength for graceful arms and torso. To gain strength, muscle groups must be exercised beyond the range of dance class.

Where to learn about basics

1. Body Awareness: There are many ways to learn about your body. If you live near a medium to large city, you should be able to find classes in a variety of body techniques such as Pilates, Alexander, Rosen Method, White Cloud, Tai Chi, etc. Check your local phone book for bodywork, massage, or alternative medicines. If you have a New Age center, they may be able to refer you to a variety of bodywork practitioners.

If you are in a more remote location, check your local bookstore or library for works on body awareness, anatomy, physical fitness or physiology. There are charts available which show the musculature and skeletal bodies if you are comfortable with this type of visual aid. Even a “Visible Man,” which is a small-scale child’s learning tool, can help you understand how you are put together.

2. Carriage: The very best way to improve your carriage and your overall body presentation is to take a basic ballet or modern dance class. Despite ballet’s reputation for stiffness or formality compared with Oriental dance, it has much to offer. Modern dance is a bit freer than ballet, and may be easier for the older dancer.

These dances will give you graceful footwork which supports you firmly and improves your balance. You will learn to turn without getting dizzy. You will gain control of your movements. You will appear taller and thinner (a real plus!). And working within another form can give new life to your primary form. Remember, Oriental dance is a different form of dance. Bring to it your own insights and ideas from other forms, and it becomes transforming.

3. Strength: While it may seem self-evident that strength comes from exercising muscle groups and building stamina, as Oriental dancers we sometimes neglect this aspect of dance training. It means that not all movement in a dance class is dancing per se. Work the entire body, concentrate on areas that need improvement, and maintain strength in primary muscle groups.

You will need to take a critical look at your own body. Very few of us are perfect specimens, so don’t be discouraged. Decide what needs improvement and set realistic goals for yourself. Whether you join a gym, work out at home with videotapes, design your own workout program alone or with others, make it a regular part of your routine. You will see improvements, and be encouraged to continue to improve.

Bàraka

How to use basics in Oriental dance

We use our body awareness as Oriental dancers in the way we interpret music as movement. For instance, the flute may be interpreted through arm movements or sinuous walks, the kanoon with freezes and torso, the percussion with pelvic isolations. Body awareness gives you freedom to use your entire body as an instrument. You become more proficient at isolations and layering movements. New avenues of interpretation open up as you become more comfortable with your body. Movements flow into one another more smoothly.

Carriage, when incorporated in Oriental dance, lends grace and elegance. It is the blank canvas on which you create a character or mood. Carriage is the difference between a duchess and a milkmaid. Each can be beautiful, but each also has a distinct aura which is imparted by carriage. To experiment with this concept, use a basic step or combination, and dance it as different characters, such as a young girl, a woman of the world, a grandmother remembering her youth – use your imagination.

Strength in Oriental dance becomes evident in technique. Hip locks that really pop, precision in turns, graceful back bends or floor work, strong shimmies that can go on forever — these are the places where strength tells. Strength counteracts sloppiness in dance, because it concentrates your energy and directs your focus.

Creating your own dance

Who you are and what your vision of Oriental dance is are the determining factors in how you use basics. They become the tools of your trade, and become almost intuitive after repetition. They are incorporated into everything you do, naturally and idiomatically.

Your newly-achieved body awareness allows you greater freedom of movement, greater choices of movement styles, and a wider range of interpretation. Carriage enlarges your ability to project your vision. Strength gives power and grace to your performance. And you become a better dancer and more satisfied with your art.

One aspect of dance which should incorporate all these basics, and which should be a part of every dance occasion (practice, class, performance — everything!) is a complete warm-up. The body needs to be prepared for strenuous work, and is work, when properly done. This means that every major muscle group should be stretched and relaxed, that joints are loosened and your circulation is enhanced, before you get down to serious work.

Getting down to it

How can you improve your basic dance skills? Student, amateur, pro or teacher — there is always room for improvement. First, assess where you are and what your goals are. Nowadays, the most common tool for this is video. Look critically at your taped performances. Watch your hands, arms, feet. See how you use your dance space. See anything that could be cleaner? More graceful? Better executed? Stronger? Make notes of those things you’d like to improve.

When you have your goals, analyze what is needed to achieve those goals. Let’s say you feel that your upper body needs to be less constricted and more graceful. First, you should learn what muscles control your upper body, and how your skeleton supports that part. This helps you to use the correct muscle groups to best advantage, without putting unnecessary strain on joints. Work within your fitness program to strengthen those areas. In your dance classes or when learning from videos, concentrate on really feeling that part of your body. And watch yourself. Use a mirror to “pose” the effect you want, and then concentrate on feeling what muscles are doing the work, memorizing the way the correct position feels. This helps to achieve the same look in performance through kinetic memory.

Dance basics will improve every aspect of your dance. Every time you perform, you are giving your audience an image of Oriental dance which they will then share with their friends and family. When you perform at the peak of your ability, when you take yourself seriously as a dancer first and an Oriental dancer second, you garner respect for yourself, for your art, and for other Oriental dancers as well. It benefits all of us, through physical well-being, greater skill and greater respect for our art.

Bàraka was crowned Miss America of the Belly Dance 1993. She has also been First Runner-Up in both the San Francisco Festival ’92 and the Egyptian Category at the ’93 Southern California International Belly Dance Competition, and Second Runner-Up at the ’93 Belly Dancer of the Year. She performs, teaches and coaches in San Francisco where she is employed at a well-known publishing house. baraka@stanford.edu

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