|The Gilded Serpent
Joy of Teaching
After a 12-year hiatus,
in 1996 I began teaching. I was a Jamila Salimpour
dancer circa 1972. The Bay Area was ripe with hippie belly
dancers in the late '60s and early '70s. As a mother of two
small girls, one barely walking, I was not that different
than others in the huge group with which I danced each week
at the small studio on Presidio Street in Pacific Heights.
This was the new renaissance of belly dance. Clubs abounded
and the Renaissance Faire was a magical venue for Jamila's
exotic troupe, Bal Anat. The Casbah and Bagdad cabarets
dominated the scene in North Beach. San Francisco's East
Bay was littered with clubs. Haji Baba even had a cable television
belly dance show. In 1973 I moved back to the Northwest.
Tucked away in the corner of the State near the Canadian
border, I began my teaching career at the local Free University,
an alternative school offering all of the usual "alternative" studies.
I started a dance troupe, Bou-Saada, more to have a venue
for dancing than from any burning desire to have a business.
I just wanted to dance and to share what I knew. From 1974
to 1984 Bou-Saada was the only touring dance and music belly
dance group around that included a full time musical band.
In 1984, with 2 teenaged daughters, I found my hands full and my attention
riveted on launching my two young ladies successfully into life. As the troupe
disbanded and drifted on, I dropped out of the dance, gratefully. It seemed
that there was nothing for me in the beads and chiffon of the changing dance
scene and it was easy to leave the competitive arena behind. I guess I was
never really a "solo" dancer, and dancing to taped music in front
of an indifferent audience was never my cup of tea. It also felt to me as if
there was a waning interest in the dance. I gardened, studied textiles, engaged
in a little selling, a lot of collecting, and a lot of learning. My daughters
left home, finished college, one became a ballet dancer and teacher and the
other went into the Peace Corps. They both grew up with theater in their souls,
one producing lavish stage shows, and the other dancing a Middle Eastern piece
composed for a class final that brought tears to my eyes. I spent my time saving
money in order to travel to Asia for a few weeks every couple of years to collect
textiles, jewelry and stories.
Eventually my eldest daughter opened her own dance studio, taking over an established
school for renowned flamenco artists Teo and Isabel Morca. She obtained the
lease on a huge wooden-floored former Moose lodge with plenty of room for expansion
and building the business became our family project. Her vision of a center
for dance became the extension of our wandering one. As soon as she started
making the schedule for her first season of classes, she asked me to teach.
I admit, it had occurred to me, but not as more than wishful thinking. I certainly
didn't want to throw myself into the competitive dance world I had left behind,
and I definitely didn't want to perform. But at the urging of my daughter and
Alia, a former troupe member, I started a small class. At the end of that first
night I came home wheezing and coughing. It seemed my muscles needed more priming
than they used to and though I worked out regularly at the gym, these were
muscles that didn't seem to have been moved for eons! By the end of the year,
one foot was in a removable cast and I was getting regular acupuncture treatments
to help with a series of minor physical ailments. Twelve years older and twenty-five
pounds heavier, my body rebelled at the abusive regimen I was trying to force
it to perform. I had to learn a whole new way of teaching. I loved it! I loved
teaching in a way I had never loved it before. Devoid of the pressure to dance,
the need to prove myself, and the need to "make a living," I was
able to express my joy and my love for this dance that had consumed my life
for almost thirty years. As I thought about what I was doing, why I was doing
it, and how I wanted to proceed, I discovered several things.
There really is an advantage to age. Once again, as it had in my shy youth,
this dance crept into my soul, renewed my sense of self-worth and now allowed
me to speak from a place of confidence and maturity. I am surer of what to
teach and how to teach it. I had time to really analyze movement, to develop
a way to articulate movements and pass my knowledge on to my growing body of
students. All the affirmation and approval I sought as a young woman was no
longer necessary and because I let it all go, all the fear, the hesitation
and the desire to please, what I received from my students far exceeded my
expectations. I no longer needed to hold onto my steps, my music, or my memories
and I felt such joy in sharing and giving that I laughed through my classes.
I indulged my theory that people learn more in a relaxed but firm atmosphere.
As I became increasingly aware of the new and growing dance scene, I also became
aware of how much mis-information has been spread, how the quality of the dance
seems to me to have fallen. I assumed that the new dancers would be better,
stronger, and more knowledgeable. They're not. I ran right into new "dance
wars". "Well, do you teach cabaret or tribal?" I didn't know
there was a difference. I just teach that old conglomerate of steps that I
accumulated through years of study and years of dancing. And in reality, isn't
that what it is? There really isn't one style. Belly dance is not like ballet.
Middle Eastern or belly dance is one style of dance that allows a broad range
of movement and accepts a huge variety of steps as "legitimate" (so
to speak). It's a hard thing to define, really. When I was actively dancing,
my troupe did cabaret sets and folkloric sets. Our folkloric sets were more
elaborately and authentically costumed and the dances and melodies were usually
pretty close to traditional styles. I have studied this dance for so many years,
watched so many dancers and films! I've traveled to see dancing, and I like
to give my students some background and perspective on the steps they are doing.
I am, after all, a history major. I like the division and diversity. I like
the differences between East Coast and West Coast styles, and I'm fascinated
by dance movements that appear to have migrated from one country to another.
When I started dancing,
club dancers had to perform incredibly long sets. Keeping
one's creativity throughout that is challenging, to say the
least. Dancers improvised and added their own movements within
the framework of the rhythm and melody. What we call belly
dance is really just a collection of movements all borrowed
and passed along from mother to daughter, dancer to dancer.
How do you codify that? So, as Rhea so wisely instructed
me nearly thirty years ago, I just taught what I knew. In
the process of doing that, I discovered my own language.
I am proud to acknowledge my teachers and name steps when
I can and even give multiple names when I know them. I think
I do all of this without confusing my students. I like to
give them a sense of history and tradition and dancer stories
are part of our colorful and exotic past.
I discovered the importance of body placement. This is something that was seldom
described or imparted to me when I first started dancing. Americans are obsessed
with health and some of that is good. There is a growing trend in ballet to
teach healthy eating, foot care and injury prevention. As I have grown older,
I am more aware of the pluses and minuses of dance upon my body. Because there
was little explanation or emphasis placed on physicality by my early teachers,
I am suffering some of the ravages of "sports injury". Through my
own daughter's more enlightened approach toward healthy dancing, I have integrated
some of her concepts into my classes. On the plus side, I think dance of any
kind keeps one young. One has to use so many parts of the body and the work
it does is so subtle. Dance exercises one's mind, demanding that one make connections
between muscle and imagination. I think this keeps the dancer alert and clear.
I concentrate on different things in my dancing now. I understand why placing
one's body in a certain position makes a movement more effective and I am able
to communicate that from an experiential viewpoint. I understand even more
clearly the connection between the dancer and the music. Yes, the dancer is
the visual representation of the music, but the dancer is also a musician and
an actor. It is the dancer's job to feel the music, to interpret the music,
to be versatile enough to dance the rhythm and the melody and to enhance the
melody with his or her own feeling of soul.
Dancers need to go beyond the "tricks of the trade" and connect with
the audience, whether they are in a club, at a faire, in a concert, or with
fellow dancers. I have learned the value of simplicity. I teach a wide variety
of movements, but I emphasize knowing a few steps very well. From an infinite
array of movements we will pick some that fit us. While we know others, we
never use them because they don't resonate; they don't speak to us in the place
where we respond most unconsciously to the dance. As I have said before, a
few steps danced from your heart are worth more than a clever, complex choreography
danced from someone else's repertoire.
So, I love teaching again. I love it like I never did before. It is a gift
to have the opportunity to teach. Corny as it sounds, I just want to give it
all away. Some weeks I struggle with the why and wherefore, but when I find
myself slipping into that destructive competitive mode; I take a deep breath
and stop. I don't have to teach, I don't have to dance and I don't care whether
my classes are the biggest or the smallest. If people want what I have to offer,
they will find me. In the meantime, I teach because it gives me pleasure and
I love the camaraderie of looking out and seeing someone "get it".
I love sharing it with a new generation and seeing that flame ignite in them
as they discover personal power and joy in this exquisite art.
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