Friday, March 29, 2013

Interview with Mish Mish - Part Two

This is part two of my interview with legendary dancer, Mish Mish. After sitting down with Mish, I had so much juicy content that I decided this was going to warrant two posts. So without further delay, diving right back into the interview.

Alessandra: With all your experience, you've got to have some funny stories from doing gigs. Any come to mind?
Mish: Bellygrams were really popular for awhile. I was hired to do a bellygram for Jim Nordstrom during the middle of a board presentation. I could tell he was upset and asked when it would be over. He finally walked over and pulled the plug on my cassette player. I've done a bellygram in the middle of a lecture hall at the North Seattle Community College. During one gig at the Seattle Yacht club, I had a man pick me up and start carrying me around. I had to warn him to put me down or he wasn't going to like the result! At a birthday party at a very wealthy, well-to-do house, the guest of honor starting chasing me and the other dancer around the house with a vibrator, and then came out with his wife's pantyhose on. And this was while his wife and children were there! Apparently they were used to it! I've done a bachelor party where when I walked in, all the men were watching porn. At another party, for a group of Russians, they were all in the hot tub when I arrived. And of course, I've had the usual belly dancer mishaps: forgotten music and costume parts, music that stops halfway through the routine, and a bra that comes undone. The latter becomes an exercise in how long you can dance with your elbows pinned to your sides to keep your top place!

Alessandra: (laughing) Those are pretty good. So what other dancers have inspired you throughout your dance career?
Mish: Jamila Salimpour has been a big influence, as she was the teacher that my teachers studied with, and I always remember being inspired by seeing her troupe, Bal Anat, perform. Bobby Farrah is another one. Aisha Ali was the dancer who first introduced me to folkloric dance. And Badawiya. She was one of the few dancers who was Arabic. She was exotic and sexy and feminine.  When you saw her, you never forgot her; gorgeous with wild hair, an incredible body and mesmerizing. I remember her saying once that you could achieve a natural high with dancing that was better than sex or drugs.

Alessandra: What events do you think have to combine and come together to create that natural high?
Mish: The dancer, the musicians, and the audience all have to come together. It usually only happens with live music, because it has to be a natural response to the music and not a thought-out reaction. The musicians have to be absorbed into their music, then the music is driving the dancer, and the audience is just taking in all the energy. It is an amazing feeling when it happens. I think belly dance is unique in this regard because it's one of the few art forms where this will happen. I think it's more creative than other forms of dance because it's a very individualized and spontaneous response to the music.

Alessandra: Alright, onto our last question, and the one I've been asking everyone. What advice would you give to a new student?
Mish: Take as many classes as you can. Have respect for the culture. Find your own style and perfect your technique. I would say a dancer needs two years of solid training, assuming the person has natural ability. Make sure that you have the basic, core moves down. And there really are only about a dozen basic steps, everything else is a variation.  Keep an open mind. Try different teachers. And most of all, have fun.
Alessandra: And what advice would you give to a new pro or dancer looking to turn pro?
Mish: Don't give up. Keep trying and be persistent. Eventually you'll get your foot in the door. Be seen! Get out and rub shoulders. Wear a sexy costume. It's a game and you have to fight and work hard.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Interview with Mish Mish - Part One

The Introduction
Mish Mish started taking belly dance lessons over 40 years ago and since then has introduced thousands of students to the music, dance, and culture of the Arab world.  She has had a long career dancing in Greek and Arab nightclubs, and has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran.  She was one of the first dancers to bring nationally known dancers to Seattle, produce big belly dance shows, and to showcase folkloric dance to the general public.

In 1978, Mish Mish started a trouped based on Bal Anat, Jamila Salimpour's famous seminal group featuring live music and a male dancer.  Currently, she directs Karavans, a folkloric group, and Khan Il Kahlili, whose repertoire ranges from contemporary to fusion. 

With a background in theatrical design, Mish Mish will be hosting a belly dance makeover workshop at Zamani Culture House on April 14th.

The Interview
We sit down at the table in Mish's dining room.  The same dining room where, not only myself, but many other dancers as well, have spent countless hours rehearsing choreography.  An hour and half later, I have so many pages of notes from our chat, that I've actually split this post into two parts.

Alessandra: You've been in the belly dance business for quite a few years. What would you say are the biggest changes you've seen occurring with belly dance over time?
Mish: One of the big changes was the introduction of a more Egyptian style of dance to the West Coast by Shareen El Safy in the last 1970s.  Before that most of the dancers I worked with did a combination of Turkish, Greek, and Arabic style dance.  Plus we played finger cymbals during the whole dance and did a separate extended veil routine.  It was hard for me at first to switch from the five part routine using popular songs like "Mustapha" and "Hadouni" to the highly orchestrated, more sophisticated music composed especially for Egyptian dancers.  The posture and the focus were different.  The good thing about the Oriental style was it created better dancers overall because it forced them to work more on technique and to appreciate the Arab roots and emotion inherent in the dance.  The bad news was that in the beginning, so many dancers slavishly copied the style, that after awhile they all looked the same. 

Another major change came about in the 1980s when Fat Chance and the tribal style came along.  The good thing was it attracted a lot of new students and gave dancers who were not interested or comfortable with the cabaret style a place to dance.  The bad thing was it split the dance community and morphed into some pretty weird stuff.  I'm not against innovation or pushing the boundaries, as I remember when Tahia Alibeck was lambasted for dancing to Michael Jackson's "Beat It", but at what point does it cease to be belly dancing? 

Another thing that has affected dancers and teachers in the last few years is the economy, which has caused a big downturn in enrollment in classes, the number of workshops and shows, and the dancers interested in going to clubs.  When I first started taking lessons, I was out every weekend soaking up the local belly dance scene.  Plus, the popularity of Bollywood, burlesque, and zumba has attracted a lot of students who in the past might have taken belly dance classes.  The last major change I see is that the young, second generation Arabs are not frequenting the nightclubs.  They prefer DJs, hookah lounges, and the modern techno Arab music.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab families would come out to the clubs to dance and socialize.  The result is fewer places to dance, and less exposure to the general public.

AlessandraGiven the changes in demographics and the economy, what do you think a belly dancer needs to do to make it?
Mish: Network.  A dancer needs to network with club owners, musicians, and other dancers.  She needs to go out and be seen in the local community.  She needs to be willing to dance for free sometimes.  It's like an on-going "interview".  A dancer needs to look nice and have professional costumes. She should find new venues and set herself up as the main dancer there.  There will always be dancers that are more aggressive and know how to hustle, and therefore will be the dancers that get the most work.

Alessandra: Belly dance competitions have become increasingly popular. What's your take on them?
Mish: Sometimes I have a hard time with competitions because they are so subjective. I think for dancers considering entering a competition, a better perspective is to look at it as a way to challenge yourself, rather than setting out to win.  Remember that only a handful of judges have decided who is the winner.

Alessandra: A number of dancers, myself included, have gotten their start in your beginning belly dance classes.  When you're looking at a new student, how can you tell is she has potential as a dancer?
Mish: First and foremost, that she can follow and mimic my movements.  Having a background in other types of dance is always a big help.  And I need to see that the student likes to dance, and if she really enjoys herself in class that's a positive sign.  Plus if she's interested and continues to improve and take classes.

AlessandraMoving on from student, what qualities do you think a dancer needs to have to be successful?
Mish: There are three things that make a great dancer: technique, appearance, and stage presence.  Your costume should fit and be flattering.  Technique only comes with practice, but it's not about showing people how many steps you know.  Relax.  Get into the feeling of the music, make it it look easy and the audience will enjoy what you are doing.  You don't have to have the perfect body or the latest costume if you have confidence and a strong stage presence.  I have seen some plus size dancers with great stage presence and technique.  I encourage dancers to develop a style of their own so they don't look like everyone else, and to create a stage persona they are comfortable with.  It can be a reflexion of you, or sometimes a totally different personality.  Elena, Bobby Farrah's protege, was like a quiet little moth offstage.  Onstage, she turned into a magnificent butterfly.  You can be cute, sexy, earthy, coy, or shy.  At Tamalyn Dallal and Malia's recent student night, I saw elegant, vampy, slinky and enigmatic dancers.  To be a good dancer, you need two of those three attributes.  To be a great dancer you need all three.  And I would say there's a certain charisma that makes up the last 10% that really tells you someone is a star. When you see it, you will know.  The hair on the back of your neck will stand up because it is so perfect and so amazing.  That's what it's all about. You will just know.

Alessandra: You mentioned being shy as a persona.  I identify with shy, and maybe surprisingly, I think a lot of dancers actually do.  How can you work this to your advantage?
Mish: You don't need to  look at the audience or be smiling a big smile or make eye contact all the time.  Sometimes try looking down, or at the isolations you are doing to draw your audience's attention to the movement.  Doing the inherently sexy moves of belly dance, but using facial expressions that are subtle and coy can be really effective.  Leila, the belly dancer originally from Washington state who has danced in Egypt the last few years, really perfected this technique.

That concludes part one of our interview.  Check back next week for part two, including some wild  stories on gigs and performing that you won't believe!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The iPhone App Every Dancer Needs

I recently discovered the most amazing, most useful, iPhone app that it deserves it's own post. The app is called call Dum-Tek and is available in iTunes. Dum-Tek is a Middle Eastern rhythm generator for learning and practicing rhythms.  In the five years of studying Middle Eastern rhythms as part of my belly dance practice, this was been the most valuable tool that I've found for really understanding and cementing those rhythms.  Ultimately, it's a fairly simple app that's very easy to use, but I think the design is really genius because it combines auditory and visual learning.

Let's get into how it works. The app has 37 rhythms and variations, including ciftielli, kalagi, karsilama, malfouf, maqsuum, masmoudi saghir (beledi), samaii, saidii, and more.  You use the app by first selecting the rhythm you would like to listen to.  Most of the rhythms have the bare bones basic version of the rhythm, played only with the defining "dums" and "teks".  For those not familiar with the terms "dum" and "tek", these are essentially a shorthand version of verbally saying the sounds played on a tabla (a drum), with the "dum" being the low-sound and the "tek" being the high sound or pop.  Not having studied the tabla, I'm not sure if there is officially a Middle Eastern drum tablature, but in my mind, it's a way of describing and reading music without having to know how to read actual music, just like guitar tab or Western drum tab (for a full drum kit). Drifting into a bit of music theory.  Back to the app.  You can also choose to listen to the rhythm with what the app calls "filled with bridge", which is usually (but not always) the non-down beat ("and one"), or syncopated portions in the rhythm.  You can also adjust the beats per minute, or how fast the rhythm plays, either up or down.

Then the app adds in the visual component.  This is where it gets really cool for me. First, the app tells you the time signature (2/2, 4/4, 9/8, etc.). Just to insert a quick explanation for anyone who hasn't studied music and music theory, in a time signature, the first number is how many beats there are in a measure and the second number is what type of note gets a beat.  So in a 9/8 time signature, there are nine beats in a measure and an eighth note gets a beat. 

Okay, back on track again.

But not only does the app tell you the time signature, it also visually displays one measure with the "dums" and "teks" written in to show which beats they fall on.  Using the visual of the samai rhythm below, you can see that the app tells you it's a 10/8 time signature and then in the grid you can see that the numbers, representing the 10 beats (the down beat) in the measure, are written out from one to 10.  The "e-&-a" show the subdivision of each beat.  And finally the "D's" and "T's" show on which beat, or which subdivided beat the "dum" or "tek" falls on.  And as the last final icing on the cake, as the rhythm plays, the blue highlighter scrolls along so you can see exactly where in the measure you are.

As a classically trained musician, seeing the placement of the "dums" and "teks" in the time signature was incredible.  Most teachers teach rhythms by just speaking the "dums" and "teks", but for me personally, this isn't very meaningful as there was no correlation to meter or the time signature. To really be able to understand the rhythm, I needed to understand the musical structure and notation of the rhythm, which this nifty little app shows.

Cost of this wonderful app you ask?  It's FREE. However, I certainly would have paid for it. As a thank you to the creators, I would encourage everyone to leave them a nice rating and/or review.  And please leave comments below to let me know if you find this app to be as useful as I do!