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Photos byMichael Baxter
Gilded Serpent presents...
Perfectly Masterful Teaching:
Drum Solo Master Class with Jim Boz
Sponsored by Azura and Parri
Reviewed by: Rebecca Firestone

Sunday, December 10, 2006 in Santa Clara, California. The workshop scene as it exists today, is overflowing with teachers both new and established, all vying with one another to invent new specialties or come up with some new slants on the same material. Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending a master class workshop with Jim Boz of San Diego, CA.

If you see him in street clothes, you would never guess that Jim was a belly dancer. With his shaved head tied up in a bandanna, with a burly torso, powerful legs, and a thick neck, he looks more like a biker, a bouncer, or a circus strongman. Thus, his grace and posture is even more amazing.

In this 2-hour master class, he led us through a short drum solo choreography. Although the pace was fast, the instruction was clear and there was plenty of repetition. The combinations used a wide variety of nifty moves, including Shareen el Safy's famous "jewel".

He used a remote-control CD player that allowed him to choose precise spots in the music and loop them, making repetition of specific portions very easy to control, without wasting time cuing forward and back. This same player also could slow down the music without losing pitch; it was very useful, and really helped us learn the combinations quickly. I can still remember the entire sequence 3 days later. Sometimes, you really can take it with you.

He conducted his well-organized class efficiently, his demeanor confident and brisk, but not brusque. He courteously answered questions and requests for clarifications without losing focus. During the class, he sprinkled his commentary with humorous quips that betrayed a geeky sci-fi whimsy, joking that it would be a hard class: "Mwahaha, foolish mortals!" He even referred to himself a geek, I supposed he meant that he liked to get technical. He's smart and mentally agile, traits that no doubt aided him in his former career in Silicon Valley.

A master teacher, he was able to get right to the heart of each technique he was showing. His movement was very clean and well defined, making him very easy to follow even through some complex sequences. Many of his incidental remarks (on stage placement, pacing and direction of attention, final poses) were right on target.

The style he demonstrated in this class appeared to be modern Raks Sharki, similar to Astryd de Michele (another fabulous teacher), whom he praised highly during the class. He showed some very sharp yet delicately articulated hip work while his torso and arms floated bonelessly above. His arms were exquisite: I kept staring hard every time he did anything to see what he was doing with his arms. Even very simple movements like a horizontal hip 8 can look almost magical when done with this kind of precision. His dancing also had that "internal" quality, that inner power, that characterizes true Raks Sharki. His movements and explanations were so clear that it was easy to pick up even the most elusive nuances.

Apart from being clean and precise in execution, Jim had something more, a subtlety and maturity of timing that kept him from looking mechanical. This lilting quality is hard to describe, but it makes all the difference, and Jim was able to show it in such a way that it was also easy to pick up. He also mentioned that he has taken many workshops with Amir Thaleb; so, if you like Amir, you should definitely try Jim's classes as well.

He took the time to break down each movement according to which muscle groups to use, and observed that there are many different variations of every movement that actually use entirely different muscles to do the same thing. He had valuable tips for layering shimmies over other hip movements, such as using your torso to move your hips, which frees the legs for shimmies. Different teachers have different movement philosophies, and whatever works is good. However, regarding the techniques, some teachers’ methods just don't work for me. I felt that Jim hit the nail on the head every time when it came to body mechanics. It was nice to see someone who presented more options, and who didn't insist on “the one right way” to do everything.

If I lived in San Diego, I would definitely take his class on a regular basis. He appears to have a pragmatic and realistic view of himself as a teacher, and goes to workshops along with his own students. Many teachers won't do this because they don't want to expose themselves in front of their students; Jim is not afraid to make mistakes. He's not overly self-effacing, either, which can be a pretension all on its own.

Jim Boz is conscious of being a representative of a minority in the belly dance world, being one of the few men who's attained a high level of skill. His perspective in this area is very refreshing.

It seems to me that the best dancers employ both masculine and feminine elements, and are less one-sided than dancers who only do one style and disdain the other gender as beneath them. Jim's presence is masculine, but not overbearingly so. He appeared to have both macho and feminine nuances completely under his command, and could switch from one to the other literally mid-phrase.

My one complaint was that his all-black teaching attire somewhat obscured his hips and belly area, making it extremely difficult to tell what he was actually doing because so many of the movements were so small, localized, and filled with nuance. This was frustrating at times due to the pace of the class and the short time we had together.

Never before had I realized how much I rely on being able to see the instructor's skin right above the hip belt line and the belly button itself. I complained about this several times and he agreed, noting that he simply had run out of t-shirts. When I'm trying to learn new movements, I also really like to see how the torso is being articulated, and a form-fitting garment with some design on it really helps to show exactly which muscle groups are being employed all up and down the chest and back.

Over the years, Mr. Boz has applied keen powers of observation to glean some good home truths about the dance, and he sprinkled the class with a lot of practical advice from long personal experience. Here's what I recall:

  • When learning new routines or combinations, try to learn the feet first, and posture next. Then worry about the other details.
  • Don't try to learn everything all at once on the first try.
  • It's not stupid to practice your ending pose over & over, because that is what people will remember.
  • Know where the beat is, but don't always be exactly on it (This helps to avoid appearing mechanical and regimented.)
  • Develop whatever personal tricks or gimmicks that you need to "fix" your posture before and during a performance. Try to build these fixes into your routines.

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