This past weekend I had the privilege of studying with legendary dancer Helena Vlahos, while she was in Seattle for the first time, sponsored by Roxy of Oriental Bliss Productions.
Helena started her belly dance career in the 1960s. She became a wildly popular performer, leading to multiple television appearances and the opening and operating of two belly dance schools. Helena became famous for her abdominal quarter rolling act; an act for which she holds a Guinness World Record for abdominal dexterity. You can see a video of the act below. Helena is also an accomplished zill player, a fact I can personally testify to, and her zills have been recorded as part of the musical instrumentation on multiple albums. You can learn more about Helena at her website.
Helena presented four different workshops over two days, covering over ten hours of material.While all the workshops were great, I wanted to focus this post on her workshop regarding the six part vintage routine. Having danced it myself many times, I've had plenty of exposure to the vintage routine and what it comprises (which some dancers say is five parts and some say is seven). However, it was the way that Helena described each part that really stuck with me and got me thinking about it in a new light.
In discussing, each part of the routine, Helena really highlighted the key attribute or feeling of each part. This in turn, got me thinking about what one word I would use to define the performance quality of each of the six parts. The result is the summary below, which is a combination of some of Helena's commentary combined with my key word and additional commentary.
Part One - Fast Entrance
Defining Characteristic: Confident
Key Steps and Props: Zills, traveling steps and turns
Common Rhythms: Ayub or Malfuf
Description: This is the part of the routine where you set the stage. You are in effect introducing yourself to the audience and letting them have an initial glimpse of who you are. Just like when you met someone in real life, you get to know them before you give away all your secrets, so too in belly dance. As a dancer you don't want to give away all of your tricks too soon in your show, so hold off on the power shimmies and intricate isolations for later in the performance.
Part Two - First Slow Section
Defining Characteristic: Ethereal
Key Steps and Props: Veil
Common Rhythms: Bolero or Rumba
Description: This is the part of the routine to really highlight graceful artistry, especially through the inclusion of veil work. You've already laid your foundation, so now is the time to begin casting your spell over the audience. Like a goddess working her magic, think of evoking the mystery of the dance.
Part Three - Medium Section
Defining Characteristic: Friendly
Key Steps and Props: Hip drops and twists, moves with grounded beledi feeling, audience interaction
Common Rhythms: Maqsum, Saudi, Baladi, Masmoudi or Persian 6/8
Description: This is the part of the routine to cement your connection with the audience. You've established your rapport with them, so now is the time to be friendly using lots of eye contact and smiles. Start moving in closer to them, possibly even engaging one or two as extras in your show. Think lots of loose and bouncy moves.
Part Four - Second Slow Section
Defining Characteristic: Intensity
Key Steps and Props: Floorwork, sword balancing, mayas, hip circles, figure eights, camels and other smooth, rounded movements,
Common Rhythms: Chiftetelli
Description: This is the part of the routine to bring the sultry intensity. Slow down and milk those luscious, juicy movements. Be sure to bring the intensity into your facial expressions as well. The friendliness of the last section has now been left behind. Think of making your gaze so powerful that you're looking right through the members of your audience.
Part Five - Drum Solo
Defining Characteristic: Playful
Key Steps and Props: Shimmies and staccato isolations
Common Rhythms: Large variation with frequent changes
Description: Now is the time to bring the wow factor. The routine has been building to this point. Now is the time to pull out all the stops and really show your audience your technique and what you can do. Lots of exuding lots of high energy while playfully "ticking" and "tocking" your isolations along with the drum. Movements should include lots of shimmies, combined with fast and sharp isolations punctuated right in time with the music.
Part Six - Finale
Defining Characteristic: Pride
Key Steps and Props: Similar to entrance with zills, traveling steps, and turns
Common Rhythms: Reprisal of your entrance music or Karshilama
Description: You made it! This is the last and shortest section of the routine. This can be a short minute or less section, or a bit longer if a dancer wants to go out for tips. (Helena mentioned that dancers used to go out for tips in part three back in the 1960s, but current day practice is more commonly during this ending part of the show.) But regardless of the length, now is the time to hold your head up high, because my goodness, that was one heck of a show!
Photo Credits: Top - Helena Vlahos; Bottom - Helena with Sequins and Shimmies author, Alessandra