Thursday, August 25, 2011

Organizing Your Belly Dance Notes

After I posted the "Hoarding" confession regarding my bellydance media and notes, dancer Naima asked:

So what is your recommendation on sorting notes? I have workshop hand outs, workshop choreos, my choreos, my notes, zill/music, etc. I just can't seem to decide how I want to organize them. Everything is in a big binder in order I obtained them only. I tried sorting once and got overwhelmed because I couldn't decide how to sort them.

That is an EXCELLENT question, and I would love to address it. Please keep in mind I am NOT the most organized person on the planet by ANY means, and what works for me may only confuse other people! But I've tried a few systems before, and I'll give you the rundown on five of what appear to be the most common. I personally actually use a combination of systems, with multiple copies of notes in multiple places, and organized mostly by subject matter, so I sort of blend all of them.

(FYI - When I'm discussing notes, I'm talking about printed copies. I'm very old-school and don't like searching the computer for digital versions of my notes. I like to see them printed out in black and white. However, a more eco-friendly approach would be to scan and digitize all those notes and organize them in your computer using one or more of these systems. That keeps the clutter down, prevents you from spending a month's pay on sheet protectors, and allows you to search your files by keyword, which I imagine would be infinitely helpful! Don't forget to back up your files or save them to Google documents, where you can access them from any computer.)

First let's talk about the types of notes we're dealing with:
  1. Class handouts describing what you're learning in class that week.
  2. Workshop handouts given by the instructor to either help you remember concepts or to give additional reference material to what she/he is teaching.
  3. The almost mandatory "list of bellydance moves I've learned" that every student at least attempts to create at some point in her education.
  4. Notes you've taken by hand at workshops or during classes
  5. Notes you've taken on DVDs (instructional or performance) or on live shows you've seen.
  6. Notes you've taken on your own performances or videotaped practice sessions, or from private lessons or other suggestions.
  7. Choreography notes: either yours or someone's else's.
  8. Notes you've taken on non-dance subjects, like music, culture, language, costuming, song lyrics, etc.
If you've never considered taking written notes on any of the above, now is the time to consider doing so. You can learn a lot from disecting and analyzing a videotaped practice session, or from taking notes at a show, or from making that "list of moves" that we all seem to acquire during our early years of education.

Now how to organize them? Let's look at a few different approaches:

1. Chronological
2. Instructor-based
3. Subject-based
4. Combinations and movements only
5. Personal practice system only


Any student who has been taking class for more than 6 months or so probably has a fistful of class handouts, maybe a few workshop notes, and that "list of bellydance movements." Keeping a file folder or binder full of those notes in chronological order is probably the first "system" that most students try. This works great for a few months or years, but at some point it becomes a lot of work to go back through those notes to find a meaningful bit of information.

Personally, I still have all the original notes I received in class or in workshops, (and also printed copies of the handwritten notes I took during those workshops) stored chronologically in a couple of binders, but really more for sentimental reasons. I think of it as my dance scrapbook, more than an actual USABLE resource. While I do believe that thumbing through your "dance scrapbook" can be a healthy experience, letting you see what you've learned and how you've grown over time, it's probably not the BEST system for making use of your notes, especially if they have expanded into larger and larger binders, or even into multiple binders (or in some serious cases, into their own room in the house!)

If you choose this system, I would recommend the following:
  • Separate the pages into years or months or decades -- whatever works for you. Use divider pages to keep the sections clear.
  • Make an INDEX page for the beginning of your binder. Don't feel the need to get overly specific, but general notes like "Stage presence and dynamics, see pps 12, 189, 200" or "Dancing for Lebanese Wedding -- see pps 34, 56, 78." Or "Saidi dance/music pps 12, 18, 145" (or if you don't do page numbers, you can use colored sticky tabs for each topic, or mention the instructor and the date/year.)
  • Make friends with paper flags, post-it-notes, highlighting, and any other attention-grabbing devices, and use them. Flag the important stuff (or what you deem important today.) Highlight the stuff you want to remember.
  • READ your notes! It seems obvious, I know, but who wants to read a bunch of notes when there's dancing to do! Seriously, get a cup of tea and some cookies and just sit down and read through them on a regular basis: once a week for relatively new students; once a month or once every two months if you have more experience, or as your note collection grows. Read through them daily if you're super-motivated or need ideas for your daily practice material.
  • If you attend a workshop or class, take hand-written notes on the material. This is a general rule and applies to all systems. TYPE OUT YOUR NOTES (or at least rewrite them) VERY SOON AFTER THE CLASS IS OVER. This is key -- don't be like me and wait until almost a year later to message your dance partners and ask "What was that funny Reda step thingie we did in Sahra's class last spring right before lunch, do you remember? I can't read my notes." They will usually not remember, or if they do, will get tired of you asking. Rewrite the notes no longer than a week after the class. Place the rewritten notes in chronological order in your binder, alongside any handouts you got at the workshop. (Many times your notes will help you make sense of the abbreviated notes on the handouts, so you'll want to keep them together.)
  • Keep your "list of moves" in the front of the binder, and don't be afraid to add to it on a regular basis, or abandon it as you see fit. (I made a spreadsheet on the computer and after the thing grew to over 3 pages, I abandoned it. But it was a great reference at first, and probably could be pretty useful if I ever would go back and rethink it.) But more on that later.


This could be a pretty useful system if you spent a lot of time studying from or attending multiple workshops with a handful of teachers, or if you enjoy training in multiple "styles."

I worked with this system for a while, and I still use it to some degree. I had individual binders for Suhaila Salimpour class, workshop, choreography, and general notes; Shareen el Safy workshop, choreography, and dvd notes; Ansuya class, workshop, and dvd notes; Tribal workshop notes -- etc. (Alternately you can section off one big binder into compartments for each "style.")

Currently I have a big binder that's all notes on "Egyptian Style" from instructors like Tito, Dina, Raqia, Shareen el Safy, Sahra Kent, Ranya Renee, Faten Salama, and my teacher Nashwa. (I suppose I should actually create a sub-section of the binder for just Reda Troupe technique, and maybe I'll get around to doing that someday.) I read through this one about once a month, and try to work through the concepts and practice the movements at least once a month.

The advantage to this system is that you keep all of your notes regarding special "techniques" or "methods" all together. This can help a lot if you are trying to focus on or specialize in a particular technique at that time. Having a binder for Tribal and a binder for Egyptian style makes it easy to create a personal practice session based around one concept or the other. I currently have one binder for Suhaila/Jamila material (and nothing but Suhaila/Jamila material) so when I feel inspired to work with her method, I pull that binder out and practice whatever I turn to.

The disadvantage to this system is that if you don't do extensive study with any one method or any one instructor, then you'll just end up with a bunch of mostly empty binders. Also, it can be difficult reconciling what two instructors tell you when that instruction differs. I have movement notes from one dancer that say "never start in the front" and notes from another dancer that say "always start in the front." This system is best left to the student who understands the variances in the "continuum" of a chosen style or method.

My recommendations for using this system:
  • Don't try it if you are a very eclectic student, studying from multiple instructors and in multiple styles or disciplines, unless you really really really want to be able to focus on each system individually.
  • Make use of that index page. Instructors like Shareen el Safy often teach choreographies and include detailed information about the music and the composer, or the first dancer to dance to that piece of music. You don't want to lose this info, so make a note of it on your index page.
  • Consider adding additional notes, comparing and contrasting different instructors and different methods. (Learning Reda technique is good. Comparing Reda technique to general Oriental dance technique, looking at what was changed and stylized, and anticipating what Reda would do with movements and choreographies you've already learned is even better!)


Sorting by subject can be a relatively organized system, but it's also the most unwieldy system when you're dealing with a lot of notes. I use a modified version of this system, with multiple copies of notes in different locations: I have a file cabinet full of individual file folders on subjects from Algerian dance to Zeffa, and several binders devoted to specific subjects: choreographies, Egyptian dance, personal practice notes, performance analyses, etc.

Consider the following when putting together a subject-based system:
  • Keep separate binders or files for subjects like costuming, ethnic or region-specific dances, music theory, music lyrics, Arabic language, and Middle Eastern culture. These subjects can easily grow into very very large stores of information, and if you can separate them out, it will help you access all the material more easily.
  • Keeping a binder solely devoted to choreographies can be a great resource when you need to plan a show or work on a piece you learned two or three years ago. I like to thumb through mine every now and then for an old choreography to "resurrect" for a hafla.
  • Make friends with someone who owns a photocopier. Or scan your original note sheets and print out as many copies as you need in order to file those notes in all of the appropriate places. I have Habiba's notes on Andalusian dance choreography in three places: once in the original chronological "dance scrapbook" binder, again in the file on Andalusian dance, and again in the binder full of choreographies.
  • Subject-based notes can be great for concepts and ideas that maybe you don't think about during every practice session. I have a binder I've named "Performance Study Guide" and in it are copies of all my notes on stage dynamics, presentation and performance skills, choreographic theory, improvisation, and anything I feel I need to consider when preparing a new dance for performance. Another binder is all notes on concepts that I want to include my classes: ideas on how to vary the texture or dynamics of a movement, exercises for improvisation, classroom games, etc.
  • Although you can make one binder for all of your "Notes on DVDs" it's probably more helpful to break down those notes into individual subjects too. If the DVD focuses more on concepts in dance or movement rather than specific technique tips, you might get more use out of the DVD and your notes on it if you filed those notes in your "Performance Study Guide" binder, or your teaching binder.
  • Don't let this system get out of hand. If you have a file cabinet or big book shelf and are comfortable with 100 individual files/binders on 100 individual topics, then great! But if you find yourself overwhelmed by multiple files/binders full of information you're not even sure what to do with, then consider just picking a topic or two and focusing on those for a while. It's not necessary to keep a detailed separate binder on Tunisian rhythms if you aren't currently working on Tunisian dance. Keep those notes in the original binder or folder, (or make one big file of "stuff to work on later,") put that binder on the shelf (or put the file in the cabinet) and come back to it when you feel ready. It is actually possible to over-organize. Don't let that happen!


This is the least helpful system to most advanced dancers, because at some point we realize that the list of moves we started during the first week of class has either (a) gotten way too ridiculously long, or (b) pretty much topped out at a total of 10-25 by just describing the movement shapes. For a new student, it's a great resource. But don't stop there.

Some instructors suggest that students make notecards of their movements, sorting them by "sharp" or "soft" or "traveling" moves. I think this is a great approach for learning choreography and improvisation. We do tend to grow out of a need for this after a certain amount of experience, though, and we want to explore more facets of the dance other than just movement.

If you ONLY keep notes on movements, you're missing out on the music and the culture and the real spices that infuse our dance and keep it fun and exciting. Consider keeping those workshop handouts too. Consider taking notes that aren't centered around the movements themselves. You'll be a much more well-rounded dancer in the long run, and you'll get a lot more out of your classroom and workshop experience.

If you like to keep notes on combinations, do you find yourself ever actually going back and reviewing or USING those combinations? If not, consider making a simple practice choreography using only the combinations from a particular DVD or from a single workshop. See if you can vary and change up the combination enough to make it really fit the music like a glove. That's what your instructors want you to learn from those combo workshops and DVDs. Don't collect combos like baseball cards -- USE THEM!


This one works for some people, but not me. Basically this theory is to throw away old notes on stuff you already know and only keep the notes on things/movements/concepts you haven't yet mastered. I hesitate to throw any notes away because I never know what I might forget (and also because I'm an information hoarder.)

So I modify this. I have my "Personal" binder, wherein I keep my notes on personal practice critiques, my analyses of videotaped performances of both myself and the classic dancers, personal practice goals, copies of notes taken on DVDs I'm working with (like Ranya Renee's Balady DVD and Nadia Jamal's Improvisational Tooklit), and notes relevant to whatever concept or choreography I'm currently working on. It's my "to do" list, sort of. But I still keep all the other notes in their original forms. I just can't bear to throw them away!!

So as you can see, I use modified versions of most of these systems. Yes, it means a lot of paper and sheet protectors. Yes, it means a whole file cabinet of notes and book shelf full of binders. But I like being able to go into my study and pull out the binder on Egyptian Musical Studies, for instance, and have access to all my notes on music in Egypt. I like to look through the binder on Suhaila method for inspiration in creating a Suhaila-style finger cymbal drum solo. I like being able to grab the "Egyptian style" binder to compare modern Egyptian dancers with my notes on those from the Golden Age, or to contrast all the variations of the "Jewel" step. And I like to thumb back through the years of workshop notes in my chronologically-ordered "Dance scrapbook" if only to giggle over what was just SO HARD in those first years, and puzzle over why I ever thought Hadia's "Tales of the Sahara" choreography was too complicated for me.

Anyway, this is what I've gathered over the years on ways to organize my dance notes. I hope this information is of some value to you dear readers, and especially to Naima, who inspired this blog post. And please, if you have a different system or found a way that works for you, leave me a note in the comments section!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Confessions of a Belly Dance Hoarder ...

Hello. My name is Amanda/Aziyade. And I'm a belly dance hoarder.

Not the costuming kind -- I have 6 costumes, I think, and that's just because I needed more folkloric looking ones for some of our troupe dances. I'm the information hoarding kind. You know the type.

I have every issue of Arabesque, all those of Habibi I could get my hands on, years and years of magazines like Belly Dancer, Chronicles, Jareeda, Aramco World, and anything else I could find on ebay or at swap meets. I have read them, taken notes on them, and filed those notes in a 4-drawer filing cabinet, organized alphabetically by both concept and country of origin.

Books -- got everything on ME dance, music, and women's culture that was commercially available, except Nelly Mazloum's book, which is $75 and somehow I draw the line there. Again, read ALMOST all of them, made notes, and filed those notes.

YEARS of old MEDance mailing list posts are archived (but not actually organized) on a separate hard drive, along with selected posts from tribe, oriental dancer, bhuz, and some of the lyrics forums. I'm not sure exactly what to do with some of this information -- do I really need the list of the "Top 40 songs on the radio in Cairo in 1995" ? Do I need to keep those ancient (although recurring) debates on where shimmies come from, or how to do a "jewel," or the analyses of hip drops we've often gotten into on the forums? YES -- I have to keep all of that until I can find a good reason to throw it away!!

Now let's keep in mind that INFORMATION is taking up less and less space these days :) I have pdfs of almost every article in 2 volumes of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, but they're all on one DVD. All those forum posts are in word documents and pdfs on another dvd. (The books and magazines take up the most space, sure. But they have pictures!) So it's not like this stuff is piling up in my house! Well.. then there's the media library...

I did a physical inventory of my Instructional (not performance) DVDs and Videos last month. Ya'll ready for some crazy? I have 381 instructional dvds and vhs tapes. Well actually, I have more now since I just ordered Nadira's Improv Toolkit 2 and bought a couple of newer Raqia Technique dvds off another dancer. But last month I had THREE HUNDRED EIGHTY ONE of the buggers!! How the heck did that happen????

(That isn't counting the 200 + performance dvds and videos. I have so many of those, and they're spread out all over the house and with my students, that I haven't yet gotten around to counting them all. I think some of the old bootleg footage is probably repeated here and there so sorting these is going to be more work than sorting the instructionals.)

Some of them are beginner instructionals that have little to no value to most dancers. But I bought them because I thought as a teacher I could learn from them -- new ways of describing movement, new little tips and tricks. Most of the older out-of-print ones I bought off a dancer who was quitting dancer, and many of them I got when vendors decided to quit vending and sold their stock 1/2 off. (Almost my entire collection of Little Egypt videos came from a vendor retiring.) Of course, I used to vend for Dahlal also, so I took the opportunity to use my 15% off and bonus money to expand my inventory. And ebay was a great source for used older tapes and dvds for a while.

I bought a lot of them because I didn't have access to a weekly class and because I was somehow incapable of creating a decent practice session for myself without the structure of the video. I'm much better at that now, but I admit I'm still inclined to just throw in a dvd when I'm feeling intellectually lazy. (Or do an online class -- which I don't count in my inventory.)

So those tapes and dvds have their own bookcases and shelves, and they probably take up the most room. Unless you count the now over 500 Middle Eastern, Turkish, and Flamenco CDs in the library ... :O

Music is one place where I just can't give in and go all digital. I HAVE to have the original liner notes. I can't stand downloading full albums from iTunes because I need the security of the liner notes and the jewel case (wherein each CD has a big post-it note with my personal notes for each song. If you ditch the case, where do I put the notes???) (Plus I swear I can hear the diff between an mp3 and an aiff file). I haven't been able to toss the cases and put the individual CDs into binders. I just can't!!!!! So yeah, those are sort of leaking over into the rest of the house. And the garage. And the studio at work. ...

My friend says my home studio (where most of this stuff is stored) is like the Library of Alexandria but without all the Romans. :) I laugh, but then I look around and wonder when it's all going to fall over on top of me (metaphorically -- I really don't have stacks of DVDs lining the walls. Well, not anymore. Not since we got more shelving.)

If information hoarding is a crime, take me to jail. Slowly but surely I'm organizing and digitizing as much as I can, and trying to figure out a way for all this stuff to be put in a searchable database on the computer, instead of in manilla file folders and plastic binders. (Did I mention I have all of my workshop and class notes in binders? And all of the online class notes? And all of the notes I've taken on various instructional and performance dvds? Yep, all in binders in the bookcase with the Habibis. I DO get those out and read through them a lot, so it's not like the information is forgotten.)

So, I'm a hoarder. But I use MOST of my hoard. I write little articles about music for my student newsletter. I study my notes and create class exercises and educational material out of them. I share that with other instructors who ask for it. I share as much as I can -- with the caveat that I'm always learning and refining, so be prepared for me to revise what I once told you.

Am I crazy? Maybe. But you know something: I never get bored. And I am very rarely "uninspired." Some days all I have to do is just flip through a few CDs, or pull out a random DVD or file folder, and I'm energized and excited again about dancing, music, practice, performing -- whatever. Knowing I have access to some of the world's greatest authorities on our dance -- well, that's pretty darn inspiring, you know?

Oh and by the way: that necklace with the series of half moon shaped pieces that you often see the Ghawazee wearing? It's called a "kirdan" (according to Habiba/Barbara Siegel.) Didn't know that? Now you do. Welcome to my obsession :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Workshop Review: Sahra Saeeda and Roxxanne

I admit that I have gotten out of the habit of doing workshop reviews. Why? Because every one I go to is awesome, and I feel like my readers will be bored hearing about another awesome thing I went to. But I realize even if the reviews are all "Loved All The Things", telling you what those things are might help you decide if you can't attend every workshop ever (and who can).

I have studied with both instructors twice now. I would study with either of them 100 thousand times, in fact I would move in with them and cook their meals in exchange for the knowledge (hint, hint).

If you pass on a chance to study with Sahra please send me your address so I can come to your house and SHAKE YOU! Talk about knowledge. If you want to know about Egyptian dance and particularly if you want historical and cultural insight, then this is the lady you need to see. Sahra applies here degrees and experience in cultural anthropology (that may not be her exact area of study but close) to really delve into the history of bellydance in Egypt. She takes you through all the famous dancers of Egypt from Reda to Dina, supplying you with not just their movements and styling but their motivation for choosing those movements. As in instructor, I find it invaluable to tell me students about Samia Gamal, show them how she danced and have the background to tell them where she came from and why she danced this way.
Sahra also shares with her students the stories and perspective that only someone who spent the time training and working in Egypt as she has can. My long term goal is to attend her entire Journey Through Egypt series. Location and timing wise, it has not her been in the cards for me. If I haven't found a way to attend in the next year then I will plan on going to one of her regularly scheduled classes in California. That will be the farthest I have ever traveled for a workshop.

I first met Roxxanne at last year's Camperet. She is just a really fun person. At Camparet, she taught classes on Debke and Khaleegi. I just want to give a shout out that those classes were awesome. I also took a private lesson with her on Lebanese style which was very insightful.
This past week-end her workshop focused on dancing for an Arab audience and putting together a traditional show/set. If you don't know about Roxxanne, her father was Lebanese and she grew up in his night club in California (where Sahra was a regular performer). The first part of her workshop was lecture and Q&A. She gave us all valuable tips including dos and no-nos. She was very open, honest and not afraid to hurt someone's feelings in they did not like what she said (luckily she didn't at this class). I even resigned myself to be more open to performing in shoes. We went through what sort of questions to ask of the people hiring you, how to work with a band/drummer, and a whole list of better safe than sorry plan ahead ideas.
In the second half we listened and dance to some traditional opening piece songs and talked about how to choose music that is right for you and how to set the tome of your show.
The workshop went well over time and no one cared. We have a 4.5 hour drive home and still would have stayed several more hours to pick Roxxanne's brain.

Both these women are amazing dancers, and amazing educators. If like me you are a nerd first and dancer second then I can't recommend enough that you get yourself to one of their workshop.

And finally - a shout out to Kira's Oasis. Located in Dayton, Ohio, Kira's Oasis is the nicest studio I have ever been in. Every time we took a break I fantasized about one dance owning my own studio. It is clean, gorgeous and just really perfect in every way. The location is also really nice. It is in a suburb near a large mall with plenty of places to stay and eat. I also think it is an easy part of town to get around and very close to the interstate. I think despite the long drive, I will keep an eye on her schedule and try to attend some more events up there.

Roxxanne, 'Azraa and Sahra

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let's play the alphabet game

This was actually Amanda's idea, but I am going to blog it anyway.

How many letters of the alphabet can you fill in with the name of workshop instructors? Here is mine:

A - Ava Fleming, Ansuya, Ahmad Hamad, Amani Jabril, Aziza
B- Bahaia
D- DaVid
E- Elena Lentini
F- Frank Farinaro
G- Gina
J- Jim Boz
K- Karim Nagi
L- Leila Gamal, Linda
M- Malin, Momo Kadous, Mohammed el Hosseny, Michelle Joyce
N- Nourhan Sharif
P- Princess Farhana
R- Raksanna, Roxxanne, Ranya Renee, Ruby
S- Samara, Shahira, Shana of Little Rock, Sahra Saeeda
T- Tito, Theresa Tomb
Y- Yousry Sharif

Not bad. I am attending Bahaia's Camparet again this year and will be able to mark off C and Z with Conchi and Zafira.

Play the game. Leave your alphabet in the comments.