Dancing With Myself: Part 1: The Pros of Self-Study

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As I have mentioned before, I am a self-taught dancer. I didn’t exactly choose to learn that way. Lack of access to in person classes when I developed an interest in the dance drove me in that direction. However, I think it’s fair to discuss the pros and cons of self-teaching, as there are positives and negatives, and it’s a style of learning that works well for me. In making my list, I came up with a number of points for both sides, so I’m going to address them in separate posts. For this go round, I’m going to discuss the positives of self-teaching.

It’s Often Less Expensive

Unless you are like me, who buys nearly every DVD I can get my hands on, self-study is going to be less expensive than regular lessons. DVDs and online programs range in price, but generally fall within the $10-$30 (USD) range. You can get hours of study out of a good DVD for that one price, whereas regular classes can range $5-$20 a class depending on the teacher, the size of the class, the venue, and the city. There are also free online options for self-study if one wants to try learning without the investment.

You Move At Your Own Pace

With classes, you are locked into a certain pace, either dictated by the teacher, or often by the less experienced learners in the class. A lot of classes in smaller areas tend to be exclusively beginner level, which can be frustrating for more experienced dancers, or dancers who learn more quickly, as the pace of a class can be slowed by students who take longer to grasp some concepts. Self-study allows a dancer to move at whatever pace suits them. I like to be able to work on a concept as long as I want without feeling like I’m holding up a class, or move on from something I’ve figured out more quickly.

You Make Your Own Schedule

When you’re learning on your own, your learning schedule is whatever you make it. You aren’t bound to specific class times and locations. I have found this aspect especially useful for me, as I work overnights and have a bizarre sleep schedule. I can be studying at 06:00, 15:00, or 02:00 depending on the day and whenever I get a whim to dance.

You Aren’t Confined to One Style

With classes, you are limited to the style that the teacher dances. If there aren’t many PicsArt_08-17-01.48.43teachers in your area, then there may be only one, or possibly two styles to choose from. With self-study you can try out a number of different styles to find what suits you. I went through a number of styles before I settled on Egyptian. I just looked through lists of DVDs and bought the ones that looked appealing and eventually the one that felt most natural for my body finally emerged. I also enjoy the freedom of being able to pick up new styles whenever I want, such as Saidi, or Shaabi, because there are so many programs out there by wonderful dancers.

You Get to Choose the Style of Learning that Works Best for You

Everyone learns differently, and self-study allows you to choose the way that works best for you. I’m a visual learner. I’m more suited to the “monkey see, monkey do” style of learning, so I like to see a movement at full speed rather than a slow breakdown. My brain processes the complete movement more easily than the individual components. I also prefer technique programs over learning through choreography (mostly because I’m terrible at remembering choreography) and prerecorded programs allow me to work that way. Sometimes, I just need to watch a movement or a combination over and over again and then let it percolate in my brain before I try it.

Improvisational Skills

Perhaps I’m biased simply because this is how I dance, but I think self-study can lead to developing improvisational skills earlier in the learning process. Most classes I’m familiar with tend to teach through choreography. Improvisation tends to come later, particularly with studios that do troupe numbers most of the time. Since I was never taught through choreography, I have always improvised. This is a double-edged sword, however, but we’ll get to that in the next post.

These are some of the benefits of self-study that I have noticed over the years for myself. Granted, my experiences with learning via classes and workshops are minimal and only based in the U.S. I’m sure other countries teach differently, particularly in countries of origin. This is not a slam on classroom learning. These are simply positives of the type of learning I have chosen for myself. Next time, we’ll get into the cons of self-study, and subsequently the pros of group learning as a result.

Ma’as salaamah!

 

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Annoying the Entire Household: Learning Finger Cymbals

PicsArt_05-01-08.39.27Although I have been dancing for several years, I’ve never really picked up many props. Well, I’ve purchased a few, but I never really managed to acquire the skill. I purchased a veil and a set of finger cymbals (sagat, zills) at the same time, and never really managed to learn either one of them. My first real prop was the assaya, which I debuted last month. Now my newest project is figuring out the sagat.

My first set of sagat came in the form of the Moorish brass set from Saroyan. They were reasonably priced and the description said they were good for beginners. Lies! Lies, I tell you!

Okay, maybe not lies, just not really good for me. I always found the little things hard to handle, and because of that, I never really got around to mastering them. It wasn’t until the last couple of months, that I began to consider that maybe they were just too small for me. In the first zill DVD I purchased featuring Elsa Leandros, Elsa uses these great big zills. I also noticed Karim Nagi prefers larger cymbals as well. His mastery of that instrument is fascinating and super entertaining to watch, both live and recorded.

I asked around in the online community about whether larger would be easier to learn, and the general consensus was start small, but that still didn’t feel right to me. Small wasn’t working. Fortunately, while on a lunch break at the recent Nada el Masriya workshops last month, I mentioned the issue and another dancer pulled out one of her many sets and let me feel them out.

They felt good in my hands. A nice size, a nice weight. Not large, per se, but about a .25 inches (.64 cm) larger than my Moorish set. A week or two ago, I ended up ordering those same sagat, the Turkish Delight Professional brass set from Saroyan. I also learned the nifty trick of using tiny safety pins to secure the elastics instead of employing my sub par sewing skills and screwing it up. They are much easier to adjust, even if it’s not the way you’reĀ supposed to do it.

I have always had trouble with the numbering system for learning sagat as well. It’s the most common method. At least three of my DVDs that involve cymbal patterns use it. However, I don’t count when I dance, so numbers just kind of break my brain. I much prefer using the dum-tak-tik-tok method as the sounds translate much more easily to me than the numbers.

After studying with Karim last year, I really enjoyed his method and his performance. I love learning the proper Arabic terms for the music and rhythms. I love how he approaches it from a musician’s perspective and not only from a dance perspective. So this week, I grabbed his finger cymbals DVD, because, I don’t just want to learn to dance with the sagat. I want to learn to actually play them like an instrument.

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We’ll see how well I do. I’m definitely going to spend a lot more time on these before I try to perform with them than I did with the assaya. Wish me luck! And pray for the poor ears of my cats.

Bint al Balad: Hitting My Stride

When I initially became interested inPicsArt_04-06-12.56.00 belly dance, I was a sophomore in college, roughly seven years ago. At the time, and I suppose throughout subsequent years, I didn’t really have access to classes, so I began my study on YouTube. I found various little videos teaching isolated technique with very little context as to style or origin. I think most of what I found then would be classified as Modern Oriental. Eventually, I stumbled across Tiazza’s Free Bellydance Classes, which were the majority of my early learning materials. I remember her saying in one of her videos that she didn’t teach tribal because her body didn’t move that way. Although she has incorporated tribal style technique videos in subsequent years, that statement stuck with me.

In those early years, I had very little knowledge of Middle Eastern music and a penchant for alternative rock and metal, so I initially classified myself as gothic fusion. I feel a bit silly now for thinking that, but when you’re dancing to Disturbed, you can’t exactly call it traditional. But I was dancing to the music I knew instead of stumbling through the intricate Arabic compositions of which I was largely ignorant. When I tried to actually delve into tribal movement, I quickly realized that, much like Tiazza, my body didn’t move that way. It never felt natural to me. Slinky serpent, I am not.

Things clicked when I first saw baladi for the first time. I don’t know what dancers I initially saw, but everything about it intrigued me. It was just so earthy and beautiful, very natural. I loved the movements, the costuming. It took me a while I find the name of it though, which is frustrating. I wanted to find more of that style, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t have anyone to ask. Once I figured out the word, I ended up buying Ranya Renee’s Baladi program from World Dance New York. That was the beginning of my love affair with Egyptian dance.

I loved the music. I loved the beautiful dresses. I loved the big, loose, gooey movements. I loved the way she talked about it being the dance of the people. Something anyone could do. This was what I had been looking for since I started down this path. The sensuality, the joy, passion expressed in the movement of the body. It was a dance I could get lost in, and I took to it like a duck to water.PicsArt_04-06-01.01.34

The inclusive nature of baladi has always called to me. I’ve never been flashy. I’ve never been one to actively draw attention to myself if I could help it. I’ve never felt like I have a “dancer’s body.” I know that any body is a dancer’s body, but we all experience that insecurity sometime in our lives. But belly dance, and baladi in particular, is the first dance form where I really felt that the shape of my body was perfectly fine.

I see videos of homestyle dancers in Egypt, many of which who are shaped like me, and the absolute joy they exude is infectious. I want to be able to share in even the smallest piece of that. Baladi has become my style. It’s the heart of my dance, and I find myself falling more and more in love with it as I expand into the Sha’abi and Saidi styles. I love these dances that embody the spirit of the people of Egypt, the country that has ignited my imagination.

But that’s a story for another day.

Improvising to Ya Omda by Fatme Serhan, hearing the song for the first time. Sorry for the blurry quality.