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“Karşılama” – cutting through the confusion

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I see it so often: an American dancer with years of knowledge and experience refers to a performance as “karşılama” or “karsh” online. A native Turkish person or specialist in Turkish dance says “that’s not a karşılama”. The American dancer feels slighted. The Turkish person feels frustrated and unheard. What’s going on here?

“Karşılama” comes from the Turkish root word “karşı” meaning facing – it refers to a folk dance, typically (but not always) done to a rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, where the dancers are face-to-face.

Turkish music theory is different from Western theory, which has led to some odd conventions in how Western belly dancers talk about Turkish music. Most of the “names of rhythms” (i.e. “karşılama” or “çiftetelli”) that we use are actually the names of folk dances where the rhythm in question is typical. This makes it easier for us to talk casually about music and rhythm selections for performances, but it starts to break down when we dig deeper, or when we work with native Turkish musicians.

More significantly – “karşılama” in particular is used by many Western dancers to refer to any Turkish or Greek piece of music in 9/8. This is not correct. There are many classical, folk, and Romani pieces of music from Turkey in 9/8 rhythms that have nothing to do with the karşılama folkdance. In Turkey it has never been typical for Oryantal dancers to perform to karşılama-style music. So how did we get here?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the New York dance scene was full of dancers from Turkey. Özel Türkbaş, Nejla Ateş, Saliha Tecneci and more danced in the New York clubs, making an indelible impression on American belly dance. The musicians working in New York with these dancers, though, were primarily Greek. Greeks have their own tradition of juicy 9/8 (and 9/4) folk music, and also share a number of musical traditions and folk dances with Turks, due to their long, entangled history. The Romani 9/8s common in a Turkish Oryantal set wouldn’t be likely to be familiar to them, but they would absolutely know karşılama, or “karsilamas” as it is known in Greek. There are also Turkish songs of Romani origin (“Mastika”, “Rompi Rompi” etc) that are well known to the Greeks, but Greek musicians tend to play them with a brighter, more karşılama-style sound, and using the karşılama-style 9/8 rhythm. Thus, using a fast karşılama song for a finale became an American belly dance tradition.

More recently, Western dancers have developed a stronger interest in both authentic Turkish Oryantal shows, and in Turkish Romani dance. This has led to confusion as some dancers learn to separate Oryantal from Roman, and both from karşılama, and other dancers well-rooted in the American Cabaret tradition continue to use their own terminology which conflates them. There are some well-known dancers in the U.S. who really know their stuff when it comes to Turkish music, who still refer to a 9/8 piece or even a Romani performance as “karşılama” – why? If you’ve been in the belly dance world for any length of time, you’ve seen online debates over the use of the term “belly dance” itself. It’s neither an accurate translation of “raqs sharqi” or “oryantal dans”, nor an accurate description *of* a dance that is more hip-focused than belly-focused. When those who use the term are asked why, the answer is nearly always “because that’s what the public knows.” If you advertise a “raqs sharqi” class you are unlikely to get much response. If you advertise a “belly dance” class people know (or think they know) what they are getting. Likewise, “karşılama” is so entrenched in Western belly dance vocabulary that it is the shortest, most direct way to express what you are planning to present, even if it is a misnomer.

So what should you take away from all this? Maybe nothing more than a deeper understanding. If you are diving into Turkish style belly dance (“Oryantal”) and/or Turkish Romani dance (“Roman Havası”) you should know the difference between Romani and karşılama-style 9/8 music, and when each is appropriate to use. If you’re a vintage “AmCab” dancer, dancing to a karşılama song for your finale is a well-established Western belly dance tradition. My purpose here isn’t to declare either group right or wrong, but to help both sides communicate with more clarity. Hopefully, with knowledge of context and history, we can do just that.

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False lashes – worth the challenge

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I frequently hear other dancers lament how hard it is to learn to apply a strip of false eyelashes for performances. For me, they aren’t really optional – I have hooded eyes, which leaves me little to no space for dramatic eyeliner, AND low eyebrows, which leaves me not a lot of space for eye-popping eye shadow. If I want my eyes to be big and expressive (a must for performing) false lashes are essential. They do take some practice. Fortunately, they are re-useable, which means you can buy a pair and try putting them on several times in a low-pressure situation, instead of breaking them out for the first time when you have a gig. I started off with Ardell 305 lashes, which only go on the outer half of your eye, before working my way up to a full strip. These days I usually go for Eylure 121 lashes, which aren’t too long (I don’t want them to hit my eyebrows when I open my eyes, which is a thing that happens to me with some lashes) BUT the outer third of the lashes is a double layer, which gives them extra oomph.

 

Application tips:

  • Unless you are using demi lashes like the Ardell 305s, you are supposed to trim them the right length for your eyes. Hold one up to your eye so the outer edge of the band is at your outer eye corner, and make a note of where your eyelashes start to disappear close to the inner corner of your eyes. That’s where you should snip the band of the lashes.
  • Most strip lashes are longest at the outer edge. You can get more of a sideswept, winged-out appearance to the lash by applying it a littler further out on your lashline, or a more flirty, straight-up wide-eyed appearance by moving it in a little. (I like winged-out, but then, see above re: low eyebrows). Once you master getting the lashes on your lashline, getting a feel for how far out you want the placement is the thing that will take the most practice.
  • Many lashes come with glue. I still recommend buying a tube of Duo brand lash glue – the one that dries clear. If you have latex sensitivities buy the Duo latex-free.
  • Some people really like to apply lashes using a pair of tweezers, or one of those funny little plastic lash applicators. I prefer using my fingers. Try all three methods and see what works for you.
  • If you’re applying fresh, never-worn lashes, wrap them around your pinky finger or a makeup brush for a few seconds, and/or roll the lash band back and forth, to take the stiffness out of the band and give it a curve.

OK, here’s where my method is a little weird. Almost any video or article about applying lashes gives the same advice – apply the glue to the lash band, and wait about 30 seconds for it to get really tacky before trying to put it on. The idea is that it will grip better and not move from where you put it. Which is a valid approach, and if it works for you, stick with it. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it the way I do, which is: apply the glue (I’ve used both regular Duo and the latex-free, and they both work with this method) to the left lash and put it down. Apply glue to the right lash band and put it down. Immediately pick up the left lash (about 10 seconds should have elapsed). Tilt your head back so you can half-close your eyes and still see yourself in the mirror, grip the lash at each end with thumb and forefinger, and bring the lash band down on your own eye lashes, close to your lash line. Using your lashes as a guide, slide it up until you feel it hit the skin of your eyelid. Immediately do the same with the right lash. You can see why I don’t wait – if you let the glue get too tacky it will stick to your lashes and not slide up to the roots. Wait a couple of seconds and give the inner edge of the band a poke to make it lie flat (it always wants to pop up).

Some of you are probably wondering if my method makes it more likely that you will pull out your own eyelashes when you remove the false lash. I have not found this to be the case. I grab the lash at the outer corner and peel it off inward. Then if I’m not throwing away the lashes, I pick the excess glue off, give them a spritz from a spray bottle of alcohol, and put them back in the pack for next time. If you get false lashes wet they lose their shape and become unwearable, so go lightly with the alcohol. Eventually your false lashes will get raggedy looking and makeup-y, and you’ll pitch them and open a fresh pair.

A word or two on false lashes and mascara – some people like to apply their lashes and then apply mascara to “marry” the falsies to their real lashes. I have no idea how one gets mascara off false lashes without ruining them, so if you want to re-use your lashes I recommend skipping this. I DO apply mascara before putting on my false lashes, though – usually a tubing mascara that I know won’t sweat off. I don’t care if it makes my lashes look thicker or longer (’cause I’m putting on falsies for that) but – by the time I get to this point my own lashes usually have foundation, powder, and/or eyeshadow on them, and no longer look black. If I want them to blend in with my fake lashes I want to turn them black again – hence a swipe of mascara.

I love false lashes – with a little practice you can pop them on in no time, and they make such a huge difference to a performance look. Like all makeup, they are temporary, so go forth and have fun!

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“Whack-a-Mole” theory

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This weekend at Shimmyathon I got to introduce a bunch of new students to my “Whack-a-Mole” theory of teaching and learning dance. For those of you not familiar with Whack-a-Mole, it’s an old arcade-style game that is probably better viewed than read about:

The idea is, the mechanical moles keep popping up, one or two or more at a time, and you keep whacking them back down. The better you get at the game, the more moles you can handle at once.

I was not a dancer as a teenager, but I was a pretty serious huntseat equestrian. Starting out, there are so many things to remember at once – keep your heels down, keep your knees turned in, grip the horse with your legs, keep your hands low, give with your elbows to keep a constant connection from your hands to the horse’s mouth. You’d concentrate on one or two and the others would go out the window. My instructor’s approach was to call out, reminding me of the ones I’d forgotten, keeping my attention shifting constantly to cover all the points until some of them became automatic.

Confession: I’ve never actually played Whack-a-Mole. But I imagine it feels much the same – your attention keeps shifting from mole to mole because you can’t monitor every hole at once. Over time, you get a broader view. That one mole in the lower right corner becomes automatic – when it pops up, you whack it down immediately before it even registers that you saw it out of the corner of your eye. That makes it easier to focus on the moles on the upper left that you still have to think consciously about.

Dance can be like that. First, all the components of a single move – keep your knees soft, pelvis in neutral. Slide your hip over to the left, then release that knee as you push the hip down. Pay attention to your obliques, your core muscles, whether your weight is forward, back, or center. OK, you’ve learned the maya. Now add a shimmy, graceful arms, and finger cymbals. That’s a lot of moles to whack.

In class, it’s the teacher’s job to stay one mole ahead of the student. OK, you can layer a shimmy on a maya easily? Next mole: add graceful arms. If you pile too many moles on a student at once, you run the risk of them getting frustrated and giving up, or sort of half-learning all of them and never really getting solid technique in their rush to whack 8 moles at once. If you just drill them and drill them with the number of moles they are comfortable with, they get bored and never really advance.

Workshops are different – you are teaching folks at different levels, and often offering a lot of material at once, more than can be immediately absorbed. Or, as I said this past weekend, “Here are a bunch of moles. Whack the ones that are working for you today. Write down the rest of them for later.” A suggested order for mole tackling is always helpful, but the rule of thumb is start with the footwork and build upwards from there.

In my classes and private lessons this makes for a great shorthand – “too many moles!” an overwhelmed student can say, and we dial it back. “Are you ready for another mole?” I ask when they seem to be getting comfortable. And my favorite: “You never run out of moles.” There’s always another nuance, another aspect to tackle. I expect I’ll be 90 and still finding new metaphorical moles to whack with my dancing. The potential is endless.

a mole
No actual moles were hurt in the writing of this blog post. I like critters.
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On the Importance of Habitual Good Posture

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I’ve seen it more than once – the dancer on stage has beautiful, strong, fluid arms, a lifted upper body, graceful neck and open chest. From the diaphragm up she is magnificent. And yet, something is wrong. Her hip movements are imprecise and unsupported. Her abdominal work is weak. Her footwork isn’t clean, and her balance isn’t strong. “What went wrong there?” I wonder.

Later I see her offstage, walking across the room to talk to friends in the audience. Her head and shoulders slump forward, her chest is collapsed, her upper spine curves over. Aha.

To realize your full potential as a dancer, good posture cannot begin and end at the studio door. Many students automatically straighten up in class and when their feet hit the stage, and think this is good enough. But it’s not just a matter of “remembering” to hold your body in alignment while dancing. Habitually allowing your upper body to slump creates muscle imbalances – short, tight muscles in the front, and weak, stretched-out muscles in the back. Those muscle imbalances don’t magically disappear when you straighten up to dance – the pressures they create go elsewhere in the body (the kinetic chain is a fascinating thing). The dancer I describe above overcame her habitual upper body posture for the stage, yes, but she spent her whole performance fighting against that tightness, compensating for that weakness, and her poor hip and footwork were the result.

Many students dance for fun and recreation, and prefer not to carry responsibilities from the studio into their daily lives, and that’s fine. But if you’re feeling frustrated with your dancing, and not sure what is holding you back, some analysis of your daily posture might be in order. It may be something you can work out yourself, or with your dance teacher. Or you might want to book a session with a practitioner of a bodywork discipline such as Feldenkrais or Alexander technique.

One of the best, most classic stretches for anyone with a desk job is the doorway stretch – back when I wrote software for a living, my physical therapist prescribed this stretch for me to do three times a day. It needs to be done often to work, but it’s easy and effective, and can be done anywhere there is a doorway. Enjoy!

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Selecting a cover-up

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Anyone who has studied with me can attest that I am a stickler about cover-ups. My students know that I expect them to wear cover-ups over their costumes when not onstage at an event. I was recently talking to a student about what to look for in a cover-up for her first performance. Over the years I’ve had lots of different cover-ups, and through my experience I’ve got a pretty good list of requirements and considerations for buying one. You don’t need a cover-up that ticks all of the boxes all of the time, but some of these may be points you hadn’t thought about.

  1. Opens in front so you don’t have to pull it off overhead. (**This is the single most important consideration right here. Seriously. Caftans that go on and off overhead are a pain.)
  2. Opens quickly – no messing with a zillion tiny hooks right before you go onstage (zippers or well-sewn snaps are good).
  3. Has enough closures to not fly open and show your costume when you are walking down a hallway (a single snap or tie won’t do this, unless it’s a wrap style). If you’re wearing it outdoors it needs to not whip open with the breeze.
  4. No hook fasteners, velcro, or general fuzzyness that could get caught on your costume. (I have a gorgeous unlined Egyptian caftan that is fine with beaded costumes, but I have to keep away from rhinestones because the soft loose threads inside will catch and make it impossible to get off quickly.)
  5. Light and breathable enough that you won’t sweat to death at an outdoor gig in the summer. (I found this to be more of an issue than being cold backstage – your mileage may vary. Or you may want a warmer cover-up for winter months as well.)
  6. Pretty enough that you could talk to audience members while wearing it (no raggedy bathrobes please).
  7. Long enough hem to hide most of your skirt/pants underneath (mystery is one of the reasons for wearing a cover-up).
  8. Long enough sleeves to hide costume arm pieces (not always a requirement but if I’m wearing gauntlets I feel like showing them gives away too much of the aforementioned mystery).
  9. For shows in theatres: black. This isn’t important at club or street faire events (and you may specifically prefer a colorful one for those), but in a theatre you want to be invisible like a stage hand backstage.
  10. Rolls or folds up small – doesn’t take up too much space or weigh too much in your dance bag.
  11. Washable or dry-cleanable. You’re going to get sweat on this thing, and wear it in close proximity to other people.
  12. Doesn’t wrinkle. I’ve never had a cover-up where this was a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind.
  13. Roomy. Don’t buy a beautiful close-fitting robe only to find it won’t fasten over your ornate bra or full fluffy skirts.

 

Did I miss any points? Let me know in the comments. 🙂

 

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Exit Music – Knowing when to exit a live show

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Just a short post today, folks, on the biggest gap I see in dance students’ educations when it comes to live music: exit music.

I attend a lot of live music events. I maintain the Facebook page and Google calendar for Mike Gregian’s Open Zills at the Athenian Corner in Lowell, MA, which is, for many dancers, their first experience dancing with a live band. And the most awkward thing I see, over and over, is those who don’t know when it is time to leave the stage. You can see the panic in their eyes – “When do I make my exit? I’m stuck up here and I don’t know what to do…” The band is wondering how to signal them to leave. Dancers in the audience are wringing their hands in sympathy and wondering how to help. Non-dancers in the audience can feel the awkwardness and aren’t sure what the cause is.

What is actually happening: the band has played your final song, wound down so you can take a bow, possibly called for a round of applause for you. As you straighten up from your bow, they begin playing lively music again. This is where many student dancers, confused, begin performing again. The band isn’t going on with the show; they are playing your exit music, so you aren’t walking off the stage in silence. You might want to take a few moments here to circle the stage, gesturing your thanks and appreciation to the audience. I encourage my students to follow this with a “Vanna White” – stand to one side and grandly gesture to the band. Then, get the heck off the stage. I like to grab my discarded veil with a flourish, and play my zills as I disappear from view.

You can see a video of my exiting to exit music here:

Now you know. 😉 Go forth, have a good time, and keep dancing to live music alive!

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When things go wrong on stage

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Something that’s been floating around in my head for a few years crystallized recently after a couple of conversations with my students – it’s about what to do when something goes wrong in your performance, or, more accurately, how to change your mindset about how to react.

We often find that if something goes wrong, especially something that our audience sees, or that makes us look foolish, it’s very hard to overcome the desire to shrink away, to look sheepish, to apologize. And the reason for that is because, in our culture, that is what is normally required, in a normal social situation. We have sort of an unconscious “societal contract” that that is how we behave to be accepted again: to look sheepish, often to apologize. And then everybody says “Oh, it’s OK” and you get on with your life.

It becomes easier to let this behavior go when you remind yourself that, as a performer, this is not the contract you have with your audience. Letting go of any embarrassment you may have isn’t about you, isn’t selfish or arrogant; it’s about what you owe your audience. You owe it to your audience to let whatever happened go, and still knock their socks off. Your audience does not expect you to look sheepish or apologize – they expect you to blow it off, continue to be larger than life, and put on a great show. This is the audience-performer contract, and you owe them the best show you can put on, regardless of what happens.

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Quantum Learning; or, what sexing chickens has to do with learning to dance

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The “observer effect” in quantum physics refers to the fact that observing a phenomenon changes that phenomenon.

Likewise, observing your own dancing changes your dancing.

If you haven’t read the article “The Mystery of Expertise” then I recommend you check it out. There’s a section about Japanese poultry workers learning to tell apart male and female chicks, and likewise a section about British World War II plane spotters being trained to tell German bombers from British planes at a distance. In both cases, the “how”, the visual cues, were so subtle that the only effective technique for learning to make these distinctions was to make the attempt, and receive a “right-or-wrong” from the supervising instructor. And yet, effective it was.

Sometimes in your dance training, you know your movements are a little off, but you can’t quite explain how. It’s easy to feel lost if you aren’t harnessing your conscious mind to make a specific, definite tweak to your technique. And yet, so much of dance is held below our consciousness.  I’m not advocating throwing out the feedback of your peers, or ceasing to seek out qualified instructors with an eye for detail. But it is always worth your time to simply observe your own dancing, whether in a mirror or by filming your practice in short increments. Without a goal, simply turn your attention to your practice. Without striving for a particular outcome, continue to repeat the technique you’re learning. Mindfully. And have faith that below the level of your consciousness, your dance is sprouting and growing.

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