Monday, December 9, 2013

The Power of the Shimmy

I recently performed at a wonderful local event called Snowflakes & Shimmies put on by Naya's Trance. The event was part winter recital for local classes and part professional showcase.  My class performed (and they were awesome) and I also performed a solo during which I started with a shimmy that I maintained for the entire performance; a period of approximately 3.5 minutes.

To a non-dancer 3.5 minutes of shimmying might not seem like long but I offer you the following challenge. Stand up and put your arms straight out to the side from your shoulders - straight, with your palms down. Now hold them there for 3.5 minutes keeping you arms straight, hands at shoulder level - don't let them drop, don't bend your elbows.

At about a minute most of us will begin to feel a warmth or burn in our triceps, at about two minutes some of use might start to shake or notice our arms involuntarily the time you hit three and a half minutes you are probably glad it's over.  You likely managed to maintain your arms the entire time (there's no way I'm gonna let these arms down before 3.5 way! I'll show her!) but it probably wasn't easy. My point being that what appears as a simple task often isn't. It is much the same with maintaining a 3.5 minute shimmy.

I did the piece in large part because at the beginning of each of my theatrical belly dance classes this session my students and I did a shimmy drill as part of our warmup.  We began with four minutes in the first class and through the session worked our way up to ten minutes.  During the drills we layered, we traveled, we changed levels, we stood on one foot and we undulated all while maintaining a shimmy.  It was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.  At the beginning of the session I am sure more than one doubted they'd be able to do it but they all persevered and in the end all succeeded.  My performance was greatly inspired by them.

After I was asked by more than one person how I managed do it (one even asked - is it Aziza's shimmy drill? And yes, more than a bit of inspiration came from there!).  I have used that drill to begin my practice when I had little focus and needed inspiration, I used it as a substitute for coffee (it works!) and I've done it just for fun. However like any practice you need to make it your own and you need to do it consistently so here are a few suggestions for building up your shimmy...making your shimmy last?  You too can super shimmy???:

Note:  Make sure you are comfortable with and strong in your belly dance posture.  Doing an extended shimmy with your butt sticking out and your shoulders slumped is a one way ticket to a sore lower back.  Make sure you have a neutral pelvis and that your chest is open and lifted.  At the same time, those parts of you that are not shimmying should be relaxed...and most of all, remember to breathe!

1.  Start small.  You are looking at repeating a rather intense movement for an extended period of time. When I began with my students we began with four minutes.  Start small also applies to the size of your shimmy.  Don't start doing choo choo shimmies right out of the'll find yourself shimmied out at the two minute mark.  Start easy and let your muscles warm up then go for the big, bad shake.

2. Increase slowly.  Start with three or four minutes and increase by one minute a week.  If you feel you can do more sooner that's fine but make sure you listen to your body.

3. Have fun.  The first class I did with my students we shimmied to KC and the Sunshine Band's "Shake, Shake, Shake..."  Waiting for the clock to tick off three, four or five minutes can be dull so pick some music that motivates you to move and that is approximately as long as you want to do the drill!  If you can work with drummer even better s/he can keep time so you don't have to watch the clock.  They can also vary the speed so you can change things up (plus then you have someone there who can say, "Woah, five are awesome!")

4. Change it up.  Start with a simple shimmy in your traditional belly dance posture.  Once you have settled into it try adding layers like a horizontal figure eight or a hip circle.  Changing levels is great too so go up on your toes or lower to the ground.  Try traveling in releve or flat footed with a grapevine step.  Undulate, add arms, shimmy fast or slow, small or big!  This is your chance to experiment and you have to fill those eventual ten minutes with something!

My habit is to do this approximately every other day (as a full time student I sometimes don't practice as much as I'd like but can usually squeeze in five minutes of shimmy).  I've also been known to do it at bus stops and while waiting for the walk light at an intersection.  So go on and shimmy - even if you never do a shimmy that long on stage it is a great exercise for building up endurance and it's a whole lot of fun.

Shimmy on!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Elements of Theatrical Belly Dance (a work in progress)

Photo by Peter Paradise Michaels 2013
This past summer I made a decision to recommit myself to my creative practice.  While I included in this all of the creative things I do (writing, dance, costuming, crochet and music) there was a particular emphasis on dance as this was an area in which I had been experiencing some creative struggle for the past year or so.

As I am someone who works better with some sort of structure I wanted to have a basic framework through which I approached reestablishing my practice.  After some thought I chose the five elements of earth, air, fire and water.  I chose these in part because I was already familiar with them and also because it felt right to recognize that dance, for me, is more than just movement to music; it is at times a form of meditation and at others a deeply spiritual act.  I spent most of the summer working within this framework and the result is what you see below.

Creation is a process and so while I have captured these words here, they are by no means set in stone. In fact, I view this as "a good start."  I am continuing to explore this approach and expect that over time it will evolve.  Also, you can expect future posts that will explore each element more deeply in how it relates to creativity and dance.  Finally, this was written to be shared with my students as I have decided to begin using this framework within my classes.

The Elements of Theatrical Belly Dance

09/12/2013 – Joie Grandbois

Earth (practice): Earth is the foundation of our dance. We begin our practice with a grounding exercise to bring our thoughts to the present and our minds into our bodies. Earth is our body and the work we do with it; the stretching to warm our limbs, the dance drills we do over and over again embedding the memory of movement into our muscles until the dance becomes as natural to us as breathing.

Air (inspiration): Air is the breath of our dance. To breathe in is literally to inspire. Just as when the body is tense it cannot breathe deeply, when the mind and spirit are under stress there is not room for inspiration to enter. By being present in our bodies and in our dance we let go of expectation and judgment so that we make room for The Muse.

Fire (energy): Fire is the pulse of our dance. It is the beating of our hearts as it moves blood and oxygen to our muscles. It is the heat and sweat of the work we do, the calories we burn, the process of digestion to nourish our bodies. It is the intangible connection our bodies feel to the beat of the drum, and the flow of melody. It is the vibration of the kinship we share with our fellow dancers. It is the joy reflected back to us when the audience applauds. It is ever present but we are often disconnected from it and so we teach ourselves to pause, breath deep and open our awareness to it and by doing so bring life to our dance.

Water (emotion): Water is the flow of our dance. A sea of emotion ebbs and flows within all of us. Our culture teaches us that to express emotion is a sign of weakness and so we seek to control it by damning it up, denying or trying to escape what we feel but just as we can learn to be present in our bodies, we can learn to be present in our hearts. We can connect with our deep joys and hurts, allow them to flow through us without drowning in them, and bring our heart fully into the dance.

Spirit (the storyteller): Spirit is the story in our dance. Spirit weaves together inspiration, energy and emotion to bring to life the tale we tell with our bodies as we dance. The stories we share are at once our own and universal. We pause, we move, we breathe, our blood pulses, the rhythm rises, we connect, our hearts open and we become the storytellers.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Theatrical & Exploratory Belly Dance - Fall Session

When:  09/12/2013 - 11/21/2013 (10 week session)
            Thursdays, 7:30 - 8:30 PM
            (no class 10/31)

Cost:    $100 full session/$60 half session/$13 drop in


Theatrical belly dance blends the emotion, drama and storytelling of the theater with the beautifully passionate and expressive art of belly dance. By connecting emotion with movement through combined use of dance drills and improvisational theater exercises we will explore the connection between dance, storytelling and spirit. 

In this session we will be working with the five elements of Earth (practice), Air (inspiration), Fire (energy), Water (emotion) and Spirit (the storyteller) as they relate to dance and creativity.  Classes are structured to build on one another but each may also be experienced as a stand-alone class. Class topics will be announced monthly and cover such things as:

- Creating safe space to explore and step outside your comfort zone
- Learn to use common belly dance moves to convey a wide array of emotions or to create a character
- Explore how to establish stage presence and connect with your audience

- Establishing a dance practice
- Discover and connect with what motivates you to dance
- Create and share stories through dance and movement
- Laugh, dance and have fun!

This class is intended for students who have at least one session of belly dance classes.


Theatrical Dance - Fall Session