Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tips for Selecting a Teacher

Whether you are brand new to belly dance, or are looking for a new instructor, it can be difficult to wade through countless websites and advertisements to try and find a qualified instructor. You want the most for your time and money, but aren't sure which teacher can give that to you.   You desire a strong technical foundation and an accurate understanding of belly dance knowledge to go with it, but don't know whose self-promotion hype to believe. 

I used to feel the same way, and thus why I'm sharing this post this month.  From the time I've spent as a student and also working as a teacher myself, I've gathered a few key elements I look for in an coach and mentor.  Here's a cheat sheet of attributes to hunt for in a potential teacher to help you in your search.

  1. Teaching Credentials: While I've certainly studied with great instructors who don't have any sort of teaching credentials, the majority of my favorite teachers did seek out some sort of accreditation.  The possession of teaching credentials is typically a good indicator of a qualified instructor.  It shows that she has invested time and money into her art form to solidify her technique and knowledge, as well as learn the best, most effective teaching methods.
  2. Safety: First and foremost before any teaching happens, your instructor should provide you with basic posture and alignment instruction so that you stay safe and don't injure yourself.
  3. Knowledge: A qualified instructor is well-rounded with a complete set of tools at her disposal. She needs to know much more than just how to teach a Maya or a hip shimmy.  She should be able to explain the history of the dance, relevant cultural elements and their impact on the art form; basics about related folkloric dances; the famous stars of the dance, both past and present; various styles of belly dance; costuming; stage presence and how to put together a set, musical interpretation, and Middle Eastern rhythms. 
  4. Experience: Your instructor should have experience performing. I don't think that anyone can really teach a skill set without having actively done that skill set first.  Further, a history of performing demonstrates that the instructor isn't someone who doesn't have any dance experience, or has dance experience in another genre, and who one day woke up and decided to start marketing and teaching belly dance. A good instructor has years of experience performing what she's about to teach you.
  5. Explanations: Just because someone can evoke magic on the stage, doesn't necessarily mean that she is an effective teacher.  A teacher needs to be able to break down the movements and explain them in an easy to understand manner.  Additionally, since we all learn differently and the way a move is explained can mean the difference between understanding and executing the skill and feeling lost, I've found that the best instructors can provide multiple explanations for any given belly dance movement.
  6. Critique: Your instructor should be able to find a middle ground between telling you everything you're doing is wonderful and perfect, and between making you feel intimidated and discouraged.  To improve as a dancer, your instructor needs to be able to give you constructive criticism, but also make you feel that learning with her is a comfortable and "safe" process.
  7. Encouragement: Your instructor should be friendly and encouraging to you not only in her classes, but also in your overall dance career. You should feel like you can rely on her as a mentor and that she has your best interests at heart.  Of course any instructor, myself included, wants students to continue learning with them.  However, a professional instructor will also be open to you learning from other dancers.  Each teacher has her own specialties and typically one teacher can't provide everything that a student needs to really succeed and be a well-rounded dancer.  A professional instructor will realize and accept this without discouraging students from following their own path through this art form.
  8. Chemistry: Just like a good date, a successful student-teacher relationship needs a dose of chemistry.  This element is probably one of the most important, yet ambiguous, ingredients. But the two of you need to click! To get the most out of your classes, you should like your instructor, you should look forward to going to class, and you should have fun while you are there!
Photo Credit: www.goddesslife.com

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Stars of Dance Spotlight: Samia Gamal


This post is the first in a new series for this blog: the Stars of Dance Spotlight, which will feature bios, commentary, pictures, and videos on selected icons of the belly dance stage. I personally believe that part of being a dancer is understanding the history behind the dance, and therefore it's important for dancers to know the performers who have shaped the stage before them.  Kicking off the inaugural post in this series is a look at the beautiful and talented Samia Gamal!

Samia Gamal was born in 1924 in the small Eyptian town of Wana.  Her family later moved to Cairo where she eventually met Badia Masabni (the women considered to be the founder of modern Oriental dance, we'll do a spotlight on her later).  Samia was extended an invitation to dance with Badia's dance company at her famous casino.  Samia studied under Badia's star dancer at the time, Tahiya Karioka.  Samia soon became a famous and respected soloist in her own right.  She began adding her own fusions and modifications to the dance by incorporating both ballet and Latin influences into her dancing.  Additionally, she is credited with being the first belly dancer to wear high heels while dancing.

Samia starred in many Egyptian films, frequently opposite Farid Al Atrache.  Together they become known as the Egyptian Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In addition to being love interests on screen, it is rumored they were love interests off screen.  However, Farid refused to marry Samia due to her lower social standing.

In 1949, Egypt's King Farouk declared Samia "The National Dancer of Egypt", which combined with her tabloid marriage to a so-called "Texas millionaire" in 1950, rocketed her into international star status. Her second marriage was to the famous Eygptian actor Roshdy Abaza, who she also starred in a number of films with.

Let's look at a few video clips of Samia dancing.  The first clip is from the 1952 Egyptian film Don't Tell Anyone, also starring Farid Al Atrache.  I like this clip because I think it shows off Samia's overall style, which to me is very soft, rounded, light, and graceful.  There aren't many sharp stacatto movements or isolations.  She employs a lot of hip circles, various figure 8s, arabesques, and camels; all balanced on top of her signature high heels.

The second video clip is of Samia dancing in the 1955 Egyptian film A Glass and a Cigarette.   I selected this one for sharing as it's a beautiful piece that she floats through, and the ballet influence can really be felt in the arms and her overall grace. 

And another short movie clip from the 1954 American film Valley of the Kings.  This was a fun one because you see her acting side come out a bit more as she teases the stuffily-depicted Western woman.

And a fourth movie clip from the 1949 Egyptian film I Love You Only, which also starred Farid Al Atrache. I selected this clip because I like the creative stage setting and I also think it illustrates how Samia drew from other dance traditions, which can be seen in the overall choreography and footwork. In this one I especially get a sense of Hollywood influence, as certain movements, and even the attire, are evocative of Carmen Miranda.

Samia danced until the early 1980s.  She passed away in 1994 at 70 years of age, forever leaving her mark on the world of Oriental dance.