Thursday, 27 December 2018

Space and Sound: The effects of live and pre-recorded music on dance

Many dancers, musicians and performing artists have tried their hand at digitally editing performance footage at some time, perhaps from live gigs or 
for promotional clips. I've been editing for many years, and have several sound engineers in the family who digitally master music. We've found these waveforms to be quite revealing, highlighting nuances that are sometimes difficult to pick up by listening alone. To observe audio as digital waveforms is always fascinating, as they show the 'structural form' of sound.

In recent years, whilst editing dance performance clips, some interesting patterns and differences between
live music and pre-recorded waveforms have emerged, that have spiked my curiosity. The main difference is the syncopation of sound with visual performance footage that to live music, compared to choreographed work to pre-recorded cd tracks.

In 1998, when I filmed and edited "Bellydance Live" in Cairo, with an Egyptian band, where we demonstrated music-movement relationships, some of these differences became apparent. I was explaining connections between instruments and their naturally corresponding dance movements, and also filmed several Egyptian dancers at their shows, performing with live music. Simultaneously, I was editing footage for another project featuring s
everal professional dancers, and their various stage choreographies performed to cd tracks. During the edit process, the music-movement patterns made sense, depicted clearly through waveforms. Even though it was represented within a somewhat abstract format, the audio and visuals were shown as two separate digital forms, visuals stacked over audio for easy comparison and clean editing. However, the edit process also revealed a unique quality of movement generated from the live musical experience, compared to dancing to pre-recorded tracks.

For the 
"Bellydance Live" video, I filmed some of Cairo's well known bellydancers, like Lucy at the Pyramisa, dancing with her orchestra, along with other baladi style dancers like Doaa, Neni and Hendeya. Not only were these dancers very in tune with their live music, but there was a pattern emerging in the edit files. Every time the audio waveforms reflected a distinct pattern, the feet, weight and accents synched with a transition that followed it - either just on the tail-end of the beat or lagging for a few milliseconds or more. Visually, a millisecond is usually three frames. The earth beat was almost always expressed by a connection to gravity in various points in the body. The musical bass beats and body's gravity points synched up, characterised by a very small delay. Yet, with the dancing performed to cd tracks, there was no delay, and in some cases, the movement came before the beat, as if it was leading the beat - which was very interesting.

In both cases, the rhythm waveforms reflected a consistent matrix, and the dancers found ways to respond within the invisible structure with their own feel. The dancer's gravity points remained fairly similar in look and feel, but when dancing to live music, the movements were either just on the beat or a fraction behind - indicating responsive movement. To the observer they appeared more relaxed, and more about the dancer's interaction with the music.

Compared to footage of dancers performing to cd music, especially pre-choreographed works, there was a distinct difference in the timing and syncopation of sound with movement from live recordings; dancing to live music allowed a more relaxed syncopation with sound, and the music led the movement
, whereas pre-recorded, and particularly heavily mastered tracks, saw very little gap, and in some cases the movement was initiated before the sound. In the live music recording edits, there was distinct space between the audio and the visuals, whereas choreographed pieces tended to not only lack space, but the movement often appeared before the audio. I am guessing this is because of the 'known' factor, the preparation is more pre-meditated and anticipated.

In both live and recorded track performances, the higher frequency instruments affected the energies and movement higher in the body, the bass frequencies lower in the body, and when several instruments co-join within the same note range, the dancer usually turns. I conducted a worldwide survey a few years back which showed very similar results, suggesting a range of naturally occurring movement responses. 

In LMA (Laban Movement Analysis) terms, in my edits over the years, I have noticed that bellydance movements to live music, when responding to bass beats and gravity points, usually manifest with 'pressing', 'wringing', 'slashing' or 'punching' qualities - the four 'strong' or weight-sensing movements from Laban's Eight Efforts. Responses to melodic sounds and spaces between beats usually elicit off-gravity movement, such as 'floating', 'dabbing', 'gliding' or 'flicking' movements - which are the four light movement qualities from Laban's Eight Efforts. With live music, movements with both light and strong qualities seem to occur with a sense of more space and often less movement occupies the sound. In the live music scenario, the dancer's body will often unconsciously turn toward the instrument, particularly in taqsim - almost as if the whole body is actively listening and judging where in space the sound is emanating. In contrast, pre-choreographed dances have a tighter sense of space and more control of destination, which are often intrinsic, if not essential to stagecraft and group performances.

In recent years, I'm noticing the patterns within the spatial structure of various maqamat (Arabic musical scales) and how they relate to dance movement creation. Each maqamat creates a feel through it's unique matrix, and the dancer's body fills this form and acknowledges its space; the higher frequencies elicit movements from the levity centre, the lower frequencies and bass beats create the weight shifts from the centre of gravity. Music always informs the dance. However, only in the live scenario, does the dancer also inform the music.

If you have danced to both live and recorded music, are there any differences you feel within your own dancing?

Musical exploration is a part of the new A-Z Bellydance;  finding creative ways of making personal and meaningful movement through the layers within the music. The new courses include live Egyptian music and rhythms.

The Art of Mixing: A visual Guide to Recording, Engineering, and Production by David Gibson is a great book to read if you are interested in how sound appears as form in the digital space.

Friday, 25 May 2018

What is Somatics and how can it Benefit bellydancers?

Soma' is derived from the Greek word σμα meaning 'the Living Body’

Somatics is a field of body-mind inquiry that allows the body’s innate intelligence to guide movement for a deeper, more fulfilling and more conscious sense of connection with the moving body.
At its core, Somatics is about mindful movement. Key elements of Somatics are perception, heightened sensory attentiveness and familiarity with the visceral, or internal experience of movement. There are many modalities that can be considered Somatic practices, including various forms of dance, yoga, bodywork, martial arts, rehabilitation or therapies, which highlight the body-mind relationship, and are practiced with attention and inner-focus. Sensory terms may be used in Somatics, such as:
Interoception - awareness of sensations within the body

Exteroception - sensitivity to stimuli outside of the body

Proprioception - awareness of the body’s position and movement in space
Graviception - how the body connects with, or senses, gravity
In Somatic practices, ‘embodiment’ is a term often used, and with it comes a sense of richness and fulfillment. Somatics is more about the ‘noticing’ than the judging of movement – as this is when patterns of resistance and flow can be identified. From this authentic space the truth of the body’s bio-circuitry, sensory knowledge, even blockages from old traumatic memories, and their effect on movement, can be revealed. Only then, can a remedial approach be integrated, through movement and the body’s inner-knowing, to correct the energy flow, restore balance, refine movement and even improve health. Somatics provides bellydancers with a toolkit of user-friendly resources that can enhance their dancing, in terms of skill, movement technique, musicality and emotional connection. It is an opportunity to explore the dynamics or form and flow more deeply and personally.

At its heart, Somatics for Bellydance blends science and art, and is about mindful movement applied to the art of Bellydancing.
 Through Somatic exercises, dancers will develop a new vocabulary and be able to articulate their movement more clearly. They will enjoy enhanced mindfulness; the ability to take notice, be present, and pay more attention to the nuances within their body and the essence of its motion and mobility. All exercises should allow flexibility to suit the dancer’s own personal preferences, and eventually inspire a personal practice. These exercises or ‘flows’ reflect the key movements, shapes and postures that are the foundation of bellydance styles and genres worldwide. They can be considered the ‘roots’ of the movement. They allow the dancer to experience effective ways of tuning into their body’s innate “knowing” and to become familiar with the body’s unique energy flows. It also makes for a more visceral experience, or dancing from “within” which allows the dancer to connect more deeply with the music, and become aware of the energetic resonance between music and movement, which will enrich their sense of musicality. As dance becomes more responsive to its musical impetus, and movement is internalized before being expressed - lyrical movement flows with more ease, naturalness, confidence and interconnectedness.

Somatics supports safe dance practice and lessens the need to ‘drive’ or push’ the movement. Rather than use force, Somatic awareness allows the elements of gravity, levity, self and space to generate movement. Knowledge of breath work, the fundamentals of Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), Bartenieff Fundamentals (BF) and basic principles of physics for motion, provide an effective means of understanding the dynamics of movement, and their psychophysical relationships to the self. This is just one aspect of Somatics, and there are many more branches; for example, the internal experiencing of movement as researched by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body Mind Centering (BMC) can help the dancer discover the interconnectedness of body systems (such as circulatory, organ systems, skeletal, muscular, etc) which in turn can help to establish neural-pathways that feel easier on the body, as new movements are assimilated with the least resistance. The dancer can also use Somatics to learn more about the energy behind the movement and ways of allowing a state of flow, to clarify their technique. In my own practice I also bring in 20 years of music-movement connectivity, and several body-mind disciplines including Yoga, Meridian flows, breathwork and dance movement sequencing.

A regular Somatic practice can be as short as 10 minutes a day. After even the first few sessions you will be sure to feel the benefits! Some benefits of incorporating a regular Somatic practice are:

* Improved breathing when dancing
* More fulfilling and present experience when dancing
* Deeper visceral experience, feeling the dance more fully
* Ease of movement and flow – distinguishing gravity from force
* Enhanced weight sensing ability
* Improved confidence and skills for improvisation
* Better sense of musicality and rhythmic aptitude
* Refinement of technique and choreographic choices
* More effective ways of describing and understanding your dance
* Ability to bring more authentic expression to movement
* Better proprioception - less reliance on mirrors
* Being able to dance in an alert yet relaxed state
* Ability to identify energy ‘knots’ and how to remedy them
* Better sense of awareness of the interconnected systems of the moving body
* Psychophysical understanding of movement and practice
* Linking movements to support emotional issues
* Less injury, better self care and movement preparation
* Better sleep and more relaxed responses in everyday life
* Means of self support in everyday life

As Somatics is about mindful movement, there are also other practices that are relevant, such as Dr Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing exercises, to support mental health, trauma release and clarify the profound connection between body and mind. Many dancers report that these exercises have supported them on the emotional level, and provide a means of self-support when needed in many real-life situations, particularly when coping with the more stressful elements of life. Stress can affect our dancing, and this may be seen as social, mental or physical stress that occurs within the class environment, or if you are running a bellydance business or related service in the community.

Keti Sharif

For more discovery – the Somatics for Bellydance online course is available and includes a 14 day priactice.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Teaching Dance with Support for Participants with Autism, ADHD or Depression

“Adult praise, focused attention that communicates approval and positive regard … is an abundantly available natural resource that is (all too often) greatly underutilised.” 

Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham

Dance has the potential to support every learner in a variety of ways, including people dealing with several common mental challenges that affect many nowadays, including Autism, ADHD or depression. Unless asked, participants may be reluctant to share this information with the instructor, so it is often left unspoken. In any dance class, the teacher may have participants living with these circumstances, so it is important to be aware of, and understand more about these conditions.

Teachers can benefit from having some awareness of Autism and by teaching with compassion. Knowing that a participant has Autism is helpful for the teacher, so together, student and teacher can build their relationship with this insight. For teachers, it is respectful to maintain the confidentiality of the student's specific condition, whether given verbally as part of an introductory chat or via a confidential section on the enrolment form.

Dance is temporal, happening in real time. Emotions and mental elements play a key role in the learning process, and with a clearer understanding of Autism, ADHD or depression, less misunderstanding will arise between the teacher and student. As body and mind are connected in dance, the participant’s sense of “integrated self” can indeed serve to support them as they move through life. Remember, they are already dealing with their own process, and these conditions, especially depression, are particularly difficult to live with. Yet dance can be a positive, supportive force in their lives.

Autism is one of the most rapidly expanding categories of ‘disability’. It profoundly affects four areas of development: language, socialisation, sensory, and motor skills. The term Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is used to indicate that there are different types and degrees of symptoms associated with this disorder. Participants with ASD often have problems with attention and eye contact and have significant problems interacting with others. Signs of Autism may show up in movement patterns, such as rocking or fidgeting, or with repeating verbalisations or activities.

Dance students with Autism often have a strong preference for routines but may have problems with transitions and directional movement. Subsequent behavior difficulties such as distress can result from confusion or anxiety.
You can minimise these by providing well-structured dance activities with clear instruction and giving advance notice of transitions. It is also helpful to pre-frame the class content, and provide a program or schedule so participants know when activities are being scheduled. People with ASD are often visual learners, and it is important to support verbal instructions with imagery and modelling. Clear notes with images are also useful. Despite proficiency with language, participants with ASD may have difficulty in using and interpreting nonverbal behaviors, such as facial expressions and body language, as well as conventions such as taking turns to do movements in class, individually. As a teacher, you support students to develop their understanding of nonverbal communication, and spatial movement by being clear in your own intentions, and verbalise rather than assume people are ‘reading’ your body language signals.

ADHD or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a common disabling condition that adversely affects learning. It is characterised by inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity. Participants may have difficulty with following directions and may be easily distracted. Participants with ADHD may have difficulty waiting and often blurt out answers or interrupt, causing interpersonal problems within the class with those who are less tolerant. Dance activities that emphasise body control, musicality and focusing on changes between fast and slow, help support balance and foster a sense of self-control.

Depression is distinguished from ordinary sadness by the intensity and duration of symptoms. Psycho-physical complaints such as frequent headaches and stomachaches, irritability, and restlessness are common in adults who are depressed, or they may be lethargic, or have distressing ideas that they dwell on. People who are depressed may sleep or eat too little or too much, and are often withdrawn. Dance is a good way for people with depression to ‘get out of their mind and back into their body’ so as a teacher, encourage the student to move, but avoid pushing them to perform or do solos where they may feel vulnerable. Allowing people to go at their own pace and also letting people know that are free to leave at anytime, and will not be judged, is a useful way of keeping the environment safe. I have found that a focus on musicality before technique is beneficial for students prone to depression, as is the study of Somatics - dancing that is felt from within.

Several core principles may assist the Teacher with their relationship with their students dealing with Autism, ADHD or depression:

#1: Meet every student at their current level of learning, and move them toward achievement with realistic progress. Students with disabilities deserve the same high expectations for their own appropriate levels of achievement.

#2: Create a caring relationship in a structured setting, with the understanding that in our art form, there is a therapeutic aspect to our work. We have the opportunity to reinforce positive behaviors, social interactions, and help our students improve their self-image.

#3: Be aware of appropriate boundaries: over-involvement and ambiguous relationships are not helpful to students’ growth. It is important to maintain professionalism, especially when responding to challenging behavior. Do not take students’ behavior personally. Appropriate boundaries enable dance educators to be firm, fair, and respectful. Managing our students’ behavior starts with managing ourselves.

#4: Teach with clarity - articulate body parts, shapes and actions. Utilise tools such as imagery and motif symbols to represent and remember dance experiences. Descriptive language helps distinguish between contrasting movements, both as performer and observer. By making connections between dance concepts and the world outside the classroom, participants become more deeply aware of personal space and its relation to safety and well-being.

"Most importantly... Mean what you say, say what you mean, but don't be mean!"

To conclude, here is a Dance Activity Benchmark chart I have found very useful, by Sandra Stratton-Gonzalez.

By Keti Sharif (May 2018)

Thanks to Dr Delmonte, 
Sandra Stratton-Gonzalez, Blueprint for Dance NTC Education, Paul L King, Joan Finkelstein.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Creating Dance Products and Resources

Hi everyone,

I thought I’d talk a little about ‘creating a product or resource’ as an integral part of your dance teaching or event production. Many dancers who teach, or have an interest in a specific topic, are quite capable of creating a resource that can be of benefit to others. Even starting with a small audience, your product can become a useful addition to your dance enterprise, whether you run a weekly class or if dance related work is something you do full time, as a career. The creation of products and resources can also generate extra income, whilst enhancing your own collection of resources.

It may be useful to re-frame how you see a product fitting into your artistic creations, and view it as:

1. An extension of your research and knowledge;

2. A way to clarify and propagate your vision;

3. A means of facilitating the educational process;

4. An educational resource or tool that provides opportunity for a more intensive learning experience.

A ‘product’ or ‘resource’ needn’t be commercial in nature, and in reality it doesn't need to sell massive quantities to be effective and successful. Many teachers use products and resources to supplement their live, real-time connectivity with people, to bring a new dimension to their student’s educational experience, and to supplement the developmental progress of students, participants and audience progress, through various forms of media.
It is through refining an idea or concept, that the product or resource is created, packaged and delivered for the student’s benefit. The dictionary meaning of product is: “An article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale”. The meaning of resource: “A source of help or information”. 

Products and resources can be inspired by the artist’s original ideas, or consist of innovative amalgams of various teaching methodologies, and usually reflect years of intensive research. These tools for productivity can be extremely functional for both the creative development of the artist/producer as well for their audience. Creating a good quality, original product is a way of archiving your work and giving you the means to share it with a wider audience. These items are useful, take-home works that support a class, workshop, concept or event. They provide a means of formally gathered information that references class themes and content, giving the student or viewer an opportunity integrate the learning more fully. Ownership of some kind of support material is often imperative to the full learning experience.

A product can be a stand-alone concept, or be an offshoot of your teaching, following though a specific line of enquiry or area of interest. Stand-alone products can offer clarity and insight into an area that requires further study, and perhaps venture into new territory for both you and your audience. Post-event, useful product media supplies definitive information that may have not been fully absorbed during the event. We often see this phenomenon wit the rapid learning that occurs during workshops or festivals, where the class is very exciting, yet the participant fails to retain information that seemed vital at the time.  This is because the nervous system can only process one thing at a time, and overload of information is common in the live experience.

Following a live class, course, workshop or exhibit, this additional material can be very useful. Usually, the products that work best are not those that simply recreate a learnt choreography, or re-hash the workshop content, but give the student an inroad into their own creative exploration. Students gain proficiency in creating and composing. They can experience deeper levels of discovery through material that extends their learning pathway. From discovering more about the spontaneity of improvisation and exploration of dance movement, to the formal structuring of movements into performance, there are many ways students can experience the interplay between creative process and creative products.

Copyright is an important issue to consider, as music is usually required. Gaining the artist’s permission in writing, promoting the artist in lieu of use of their music, and providing a link to their resources is a fair way of working with music if you don't have a budget for the outright payment and ownership of the tracks. Alternatively you can create your own music, electronically or live, or get it composed for a fee, and even hire musicians to play live to work within the project guidelines. If working with concepts, be sure to contact and credit the person who brought forth the original idea, and of course be sure to be clear on permission and guidelines.

Drafting your work in terms of title, aims, production phases, timeline of events and final delivery method is essential from the onset. It's a good idea to have a notebook dedicated just to the single production topic, as here are more factors that appear, than we initially envisage, with any project of this nature. 
The process is ideally clear and focused on a topic without digressing too much, as digression can lead to a watered down version of an otherwise powerful topic. Niches tend to work in the dance product world, whether they pertain to genre, style or creative or cultural influence.

If you have your materials, and have planned your phases to stay on track with incremental mini-goals and deadlines, the project unfolds relatively easily. Determining the delivery method in the early stages will assist with your overall planning strategy. Sometimes you will find that you need more time, so rather than rush a project, it is better backtrack, to slow the process and do it properly. The start up is the fun part, when enthusiasm propels you, but the follow through will often become tedious, as after the initial excitement, media projects inevitably take a certain amount of time, energy and focus to finalize. After the product is finished, the delivery must be tested properly before launch. These days digital delivery has a wider outreach, although hard copy resources like cds, dvds and books are still popular at live events and for those who prefer a tangible object. Notify your audience, and celebrate the launch of your creative new offering.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Cultural Appropriation & Enculturation in the Middle Eastern Dance Arts

Trio of Egyptian Dancers with the Milayah Laff - Photo Courtesy of Mahmoud Reda

Dear dancers, there has recently been much talk about 'cultural appropriation', both in our dance circles and in popular broadcast media. As bellydancers, we will be affected by this issue at some point in our dance-lives; both individually and collectively. Bellydance is largely an appropriated, and often homogenized art form, utilizing bits and pieces from various cultural dances, many of which cross over in terms of historical transfer, innate movement quality, cultural motif and design. So how and where do we need to create boundaries that distinguish ethical use of another culture’s traditions, verses non-ethical treatment of cultural arts, or even worse… how do we deal with total ignorance of the matter? How can we become more discerning as artists, performers and teachers, and establish common ethical ground to better handle the way we understand cultural transference, and are more discerning with the concept of appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a concept in sociology, dealing with the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is commonly understood as the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture.

This is a subject, which, by its innate nature and layering of cultural heritages, challenges us to make informed personal decisions during the developmental timeline of our own evolving dance practice. It has been a topic generating both debate and perplexity within the wider international Middle Eastern, or ‘bellydance motivated’ art and dance communities. Apart from site-specific cases, many of the arguments are either vague or disapproving in nature. It is a touchy subject between traditionalists and contemporary or fusion artists especially, and the concept of cultural appropriation has lately been confronted, defended, argued or rationalized… but more often than not, the issue has been selectively ignored. 

In the world of ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern cultural or heritage dance forms (and of course, to be geographically specific, this discussion is inclusive neighboring dances hailing from the regions of North Africa, The Levant, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and the Caucasus) we have seen a vast array of cultural appropriations as these dances find their way into the Western world, often instigated by people of the country of origin, then adopted by Western dancers. Due to the level of promotion these arts experience in the Western world, the increase in adaptation is exponential. Unless a researcher’s goal is anthropological study, the newer, progressive forms of the original dance will retain cultural elements whilst diversifying; which is a natural process in creative evolution. The purist aims for certainty, and is ethically bound to represent the original format, whilst the creative developer adapts the original forms to create a new collaborative: either cross-cultural or culturally inspired. The sliding scale at the point of cultural representation is vast in itself – even before considering the more indiscriminate or arbitrary use of cultural art forms.

In the field of traditional cultural arts, ‘enculturation’ is the process by which people learn the requirements of their surrounding culture and acquire values and behaviours appropriate or necessary in that culture.

As part of this process, influencers include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values, and rituals of the culture. We see this in areas of traditional arts within Egypt, for example in various styles of ‘Baladi’ urban woman’s dance, daughters learn from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and close female friends of the family. As the girls mature, they integrate current movement influences from MTV and television dance clips. The trajectory of their dance, and the follow through of in-house dance embodiment, is changed by the external influences – which essentially reflect Western and Middle Eastern entertainment industry fuelled cultural appropriation.
We see this phenomenon occurring in the Middle East, particularly where traditional and indigenous dance forms are represented on stage. In representational folkloric styles, the stage is usually a different platform and environment for true folk arts, with a new set of dynamics and inter-relationship – or division - between performer and audience.  In cultural traditions, the line between performer and audience is often blurred, as the social dance becomes an activity where one can be both participant and spectator. Most national 'ethnic' dance troupes advanced their own creativity and forged new directions through assimilating old (traditional) and new performance styles, with various degrees of cultural appropriation. The merging of cultural elements and new adaptations, usually arise from a blend of progressive in-house cultural growth, or incorporate Western stagecraft or theatre prerequisites. Often, the adjustment of local movement qualities is required to be appropriate for stage dynamics. Most national troupes (eg: In Egypt – the Reda, Khomeyya and Ismalia troupes) aim to retain the intrinsic qualities and integrity of the cultural styles they represent to the public, usually in a theatrical stage setting or within a cinema production, with modifications to complement the new visual environment. Their goal is to engage the public with elements they can relate to culturally – albeit through the lens of theatre – through appropriate cultural nuance and receptivity to the audience feedback cycle.

So how can dancers in the Western world, enamoured and inspired by the arts of the East, maintain a clear and fair sense of cultural ethics, applicable to their own artistic development?

The boundaries should be simple enough; time-honored traditional arts should be preserved to reflect their most original state and cultural integrity, through direct communication with the cultural groups from which the artistic modalities originated. These discussions are essential to the development of representational cultural works, and ethically, before the project is entered into, there must be discussion that fosters a deeper sense of awareness. From an ethical point of view, a strategy that is mutually agreed on, should be formed at the onset. If a representative of that culture is not available, as is often the case in vanishing traditions, it is necessary to follow through with anyone who holds a legacy and has researched the art and culture.

Or, on opposite other hand, when fusing various external cultural elements - it is essentially respectful and shows artistic principle to research, name and be discerning with how these cultural elements are integrated into new works. It is fundamentally an ethical issue as to whether dance exponents decide to educate themselves, communicating openly with those from whom they wish to 'borrow' cultural elements. If you endeavor to proceed with integrity, this is a conscious crossroad that will most likely be encountered at some stage in the Middle Eastern dancer or Bellydancer’s professional development. This approach entails an honest, upfront approach. It also means being prepared to be told 'no', or be given cultural guidelines by the originator, and respecting their decision. Farida Fahmy, for example is very firm with the way she believes the Milaya ‘Laff should be handled and represented on stage, as an accoutrement that represents a respectable urban Egyptian ‘baladi’ woman of a certain generation. Quite frankly, she is frustrated with its connection to the flirtatious bargaining and sexualization representing the fictional, street-savvy 'Banat Bahri'. To her, this is a form of cultural appropriation that has affected an integral part of not only an Egyptian theatrical artistic expression, but also Egyptian women's cultural identity. Farida writes about this in "Dancing with the Milayah Laff", and has written many articles which are freely available online for the dance community.

Where does one start with the decision making process about how cultural integration may apply to their own artistry, and gain clarity to avoid issues arising from negative cultural appropriation?

Clarity and communication are essential for ethical integration and cross-cultural or culturally based project development. Sometimes, a written analysis will support the creative development of a dance project’s direction, or at least provide the impetus for a more thorough understanding of the cultural collaborative effort, to give it more meaning in an artistic and/or anthropological sense. Mahmoud Reda’s field research was the foundational backbone of the contemporary Reda choreographies and costume styles he, his brother, Ali Reda and sister-in-law Farida Fahmy developed from the late 50’s in Egypt. In his communications and visits with provincial artists and local performers, he clearly explained that he wished to view and participate in local traditional dances, to inspire contemporary choreographies that maintained an integral link to Egyptian culture and artistic values. He then adapted the dance moves for stage, with Western elements, and created a legacy that, to this day represents the national arts of Egypt, and is respected, and emulated within his country and abroad.

If anyone has not yet purchased Farida Fahmy's UCLA Thesis on the Creative Development of Mahmoud Reda – it would be worth reading, to clarify this process. This document will deconstruct the process of cultural appropriation in an elegant, real-life cultural model of ethics and clarity of intention, when creating a new art-form, inspired by traditional cultural arts. Farida illustrates how the Reda Troupe maintained clear, respectful boundaries within the creative developmental process, and how they managed to integrate the intrinsic qualities of indigenous, social and area-specific artistic expressions, and present them in a fresh new way, in theatrical format.

Cultural appropriation does not only exist in the realm outside the culture in question, but also within it. This phenomenon often occurs in house, within traditional niches as well. Within the cultural niche model, ecological enculturation creates cultural patterns, which are amplified to create the formation of new pattern networks - a form of cultural pattern appropriation. Outside of the culture, when people uptake a cultural pattern that is not of their native culture, and tinker with the inclusion of personal pattern, it becomes known as ‘chance amplification’. In the positive, this process involves a feedback circuit with the original culture. In the negative, the cultural impetus is disregarded or ignored – almost like using a photo or text without getting permission from, or giving credit to the photographer or author. Therefore, the transfer of cultural elements retains its integrity when there is communication between the originators of the specific cultural art, and the artist adapting elements for their own use – whether a direct representation, creative adaptation or fusion work that includes elements of cultural nuance, that requires a knowledge of historical or anthropological heritage. 
Inquiry into cultural aesthetics and their perceived value can guide dancers in the decision making process of cultural representation. For example, are you portraying colloquial gesture, representing traditional artforms, or integrating 'sacred' or ceremonial elements?

In Australian Aboriginal culture, an Aboriginal woman elder must grant an artist the permission to portray elements of their cultural dance and movement patterns. This is because these sacred dance and movement arts are known as  ‘woman’s business’ and embody Aboriginal spirituality.  In other cultures such as the newer Indian Bollywood style, creativity is key – yet a dialogue or direct learning from a true source emanating from the culture, would be a respectful way to learn more about the art and gain familiarity with nuances. However, Bollywood dancing may become confused with sacred Classical Indian temple arts, for those who are simply amalgamating 'movements' for the sake of a fusion dance.

Gesture and cultural aesthetic is also something to be mindful of, as these may be subtle to the untrained eye, or unless being viewed within its own cultural setting. Stories of Egyptian teachers showing vulgar colloquial gesture as part of ‘shaabi’ street-style choreographies have been told, years after these very gestures have emulated by hundreds. If these gestures were used in performances for Egyptian audiences in the East or West--and many certainly were--often in front of more traditionally-minded or elderly people, the unknowing dance performer would have ruined an otherwise ‘likeable’ performance with an unsavoury aesthetic. Unbeknown to the dancer, those few gestures would have painted them as a vulgar, street-wise performer. When European ballet appeared on Egyptian theatre stages in the 60’s, the male dancer lifting the female by holding the crotch area shocked Egyptian audiences, because it was counter-intuitive to their cultural sense of aesthetic and beauty. It was seen as vulgar, transgressing the moral standards of the Egyptian, and consequently censored.
In conclusion, there are many nuances and complexities involved in integrating cultural influences into the Middle Eastern inspired dance arts, particularly the newer, creative and progressive streams such as fusion and contemporary stage-work.

As artists, we would be wise to follow simple ethical guiding principles. Seek direct dialogue with the people representing their cultural traditions (online or in real life) or at least take time to follow through the heritage, history and aim to understand the enculturation of the cultural patterns you will be incorporating before integrating into new work. Not only is it ethically respectful of artistic traditions developed over time, enriched by the spirit and artistry of people of the culture, but you may learn that the deeper you go, the more awareness you gain, and this process will in turn, give your art more meaning and cultural richness.

Keti Sharif

* For further reading of Farida Fahmy's Articles, visit

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Getting your Product or Idea Online


Do you have a creative idea or concept that you feel would reach a wider audience, and benefit more people by being presented as a product that is available online? Online products are a wonderful way to share your Highest Artistic Vision with the world, and as the process is largely automated, it will give you more time to enjoy life and keep creating. 

There are many ways of delivering a product online – yet the basic creative and logistic development of all online projects is similar. This process is most effective when the essential components are approached in a flowing order that allows for integration at all levels. The four main parts are:

1. Creative development of product
2. Product planning and production stages from start to finish
3. Online tech components (the working parts)
4. Marketing and promotion

Once you create a product, there are multiple working parts that must be interlinked to support the sales and promotion of your product. These include an email marketing program to grow your email subscriber base, a website domain, hosting and clear web pages, web links and lead pages. Efficient delivery systems, an easy to use shop page, simple payment gateways and effective social media are all part of this cyber set up. It can seem overwhelming when you look at the scope of tech components required to sell a product – yet when these components are viewed as a connected system of simple, layered steps, it is easier to do.

Everyone has a great idea or an area in which they hold a special interest. If this idea can become profitable, and also serve others – it is a great way of supplementing your income.  We are living at a time where this is easier than ever to do, and people are buying online every minute of the day, 24/7. The advent of social media changed the way we communicate, and can offer a great means of promotion. Its important to be sensitive to your community's needs and stay grounded, remembering that your product is primarily about service. You must communicate your skills, but avoid using the product as a platform for self promotion. Relentless and aggressive self-promotion is irritating and will repel potential buyers.

You only need an idea to start with. Even if you have no technical skills, there are people who can help. In the early days I used to hire people to assist me with tech set up, but over the years I found it was not so hard to learn to put the pieces together. One of my dear dance colleagues had absolutely no computer knowledge, but had some great ideas that were very easy to turn into online products. I set up a small online store for her, and that has turned over $40,000 USD clear profit for her in the last four years. So this has been a relatively easy way to showcase her knowledge, and bring in a small income. She has been able to set her ideas free, and people who are interested in her life work get access to her brilliant ideas. So everyone wins!

In the last 15 years, I have had the pleasure of being able to share creative ideas, cultural research and dance/music methodology with many people around the world, thorough online products. It has proven to be an effective way of making viable career out of my hobbies, passions and main areas of interest. I have created over a hundred individual media products. One of the benefits is more free time, and less work hours. 


The process of online product creation is twofold; the creative side and the tech side. I have learnt some important things to be aware of in the earlier stages to allow the process to run efficiently. There is an order to work with, and it entails a layered process to save time and energy – otherwise you could be doubling up on activities. The projects that follow this basic sequential order have enjoyed the most success. I hope these tips are useful for fellow artists and creators who wish to share their work with a wider international audience.
Draft your initial idea and contemplate the format you envision your product to be translated into, eg: pdf, ebook, film, audio, e-course, or a multi-media project. Will it be part of a larger ongoing project or upcoming event, or contribute to a wider suite of works, and should it be available as a digital or hard copy item… or both? Does it reference your former work or idea, and can therefore be integrated into an existing system, or is it moving in a whole new direction, which will require more work and new infrastructure?
Do some market research on your target audience. What are their areas of interest, what problem do they want solved, what kind of products do they find useful. Study which formats they are already familiar with. Look at establishing a realistic budget and learn what this audience would be willing to spend on a product of this nature. It is an ideal time to do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities threats) of the product idea and its place in your live and online communities, or for your individual potential buyer.
In this initial planning stage, you will be working with the complete time frame from production to launch. Plan how you will get your product’s key message across with clarity, and how your sequential flow of information to the public will progress both before and after the launch. Create a schedule for product production and determine a budget, allowing 20% more in addition to this, in case it is needed. Decide on the over-all look and feel of the production, and become familiar with general pricing and delivery method. You can look at similar items to get an idea, but ideally, your production should offer something unique. Factor in time for delays, changes, challenges and re-doing things. I usually allow 25% more time than anticipated, just incase of delays. Remember to back up media at every stage.
Legalities are essential areas to finalise before production – so make sure that any music, media and IP (intellectual property) is yours, and is stated in a legal contract. If music is needed, liaise with producer of music and their terms to use it in your production, and clear this before starting. Or alternatively source musicians and pay them for their service in creating music for your project, and remember to sign legal copyright documents to use the music even after paying them.
If you need new artwork begin the drafting of the art, logo, font types and creative aspects of your product and related pages at an early stage. Even if photos still need to be taken, some planning at this stage will be useful, for example, the template can be designed and new photos dropped in at a later date. Sometimes, if you have older images or former productions that are referenced in this new product, choose the images and how they feature. Sometimes, if artists already have an established body of work, older images may be referenced, and the same logo and artistic templates can be used.
Draft your essential written copy and make a full description of your product’s aim and content. The content used needs to communicate directly to the potential buyer, so they understand the product and its benefits, and you must make sure that their concerns are addressed. Establishing the product within the wider context of your existing work is also important – so be sure to add a bit about your vision, past related work and how this product can be of service. Decide on various samples that may be included, and describe them. Copy for newsletters, social media, websites, pdfs, shop, etc must be drafted at this stage. As long as the main body of text is established, it is easy to tweak for various media portals (website, landing pages, social media, articles, marketing emails, etc). Get feedback , and if needed, you can enlist the help of a copywriter or editor.
Investigate delivery options and pricing for these. If the delivery method you plan on using offers a free subscription period (many offer a month), join up and do a bit of testing with a sample digital item to get familiar with the inner workings of the system. You may choose an e-shop that offers a payment portal, but also interfaces with a digital delivery system. This is an ideal time to be testing and setting up your ‘shop’ and methods to receive payment. Link your bank account at this stage, and organise any paperwork required for tax purposes (eg: business number, ABN, business name, etc) and set up your preferred payment gateway, eg: Paypal, Clickbank.
Organise a website domain and hosting if you do not have one already. Create an index page as the ‘homepage’ and several other pages which feature, with a common logo and menu. Create a social media link to drive traffic to your website, or create a sign up button on social media. If you don't plan to release a dedicated social media page, group or event until the actual launch date, then be sure to at least test run buttons and links that will become live at a later date.
For people to sign up to your email data base, you need a mail marketing platform, like the free Mail Chimp for smaller audiences, or paid versions like Madmimi, Constant Contact, Aweber and more. Set this up early and if you are already communicating with students or colleagues who may be interested, begin gathering emails via a newsletter or social media. Testing is essential to make sure all interfaces and newsletter boxes are sending traffic to the correct lists. This is where you can set up drip campaigns, where someone signs up and they receive several emails delivered at regular intervals.
Culminate your research on the topic, find suitable support material – images, music, etc, again, addressing IP and copyright. Practice your body of work, and become familiar with demonstrating or talking about it clearly if that is a part of the project. Make a plan with realistic deadlines, don't cram too much into a working day, and allow time in between tasks in the case of unforeseen circumstances eating up precious time. This is a time to stay focused, and also be aware on not getting stressed. You really need to clear out large chunks of time and say no to distractions. It is useful to prepare everything needed for production in this preliminary phase.
Production time entails a working schedule to complete the body of the project. It is also a time of enlisting the services of others, and executing your project’s main body of media work, which may require filming, recording, audio, writing – whatever forms your project takes. Maintain a budget, be aware of time frame and aim to work to a plan. Always take extra photos or document the work in progress, as this may be useful later. This is the most important time to stay physically healthy and mentally clear, especially if you are presenting the work. Be sure to record yourself giving a brief description of the work, or invitation to view, if you do feature in the production yourself. Aim to have some type of support or assistance at this stage, especially to take care of the more mundane things, as these small things use energy that is necessary for focused production work.
Post production is often a time of deadlines and budgeting, so aim to have a smooth schedule to follow with time for hiccoughs or unexpected changes in schedule to occur. Editing, final proof-reading, compilation, etc, happen at this stage. Always back up and make a spare copy of your material in case there are problems with media. This is the time that product artwork and design, and final copy and content, are to be completed – as this represents the final stages of your work. Trailers and final film edits, dvd authoring, audio mastering, and pdf formatting are finished now. Sometimes website graphics will need updating, even on pages that do not relate directly with the product, as you often need exposure on other pages, so do a web check now for maximum exposure of your new product.
This includes the place your product is stored for digital delivery, so now is the time to upload content. It also features your website, specific product web pages or lead pages with links, where customers can view and purchase the product. It is also where people sign up to your email data base, so you need a mail marketing plan, like the free Mailchimp for smaller audiences, to paid versions like Madmimi, Aweber and more. For all parts to work together, set up and testing is essential.
This is the stage to get from post production to the product in its final format – digital or hard copy. If digital, large MP4 movie files may need to be compressed, audio AIFF will need to be converted into MP3 and PDFs or ebook sizes may need to be minimized without quality loss. Hard copy items require pressing, duplication, printing, etc.
Organise your delivery method, which usually means joining or subscribing with a monthly fee. Some digital delivery platforms (also known as e-commerce platforms) include Sendowl, E-junkie, Pulley, Shopify - there are many. These handle all types of digital downloads and can also combine files of various formats into a ‘bundle’. They are great for courses. More specific ones are Vimeo (for video), CD Baby for audio), Pressbooks (for ebooks). There are also some course platforms like Thinkific, which take a percentage. Remember to shop around before this to get a feel for what would suit your item the best. For hard copy items, postage and shipping, or wholesale options need to be taken into consideration. If selling locally or internationally, work out postage costs, including packaging.
Test all products, finalise sequence for launch and be sure all aspects of the product entity are synched and working well, from web pages to social media links, product pages, description and email marketing, product delivery to payment gateways. Some people prefer to entice buyers with a free item in exchange for their email, and do a slow ‘drip feed’ or offer a free educational process, with a limited time offer. Others prefer to make a splash with a special product launch date, where people can get the new product, or perhaps offer a discount or pre-launch to their existing customers. At this stage, no matter what your launch process will be, testing is essential.
On the date you launch your product, be sure to have intro videos or webpage loaded, tested and ready to go. Keep copy and promotional launch content simple and well integrated with all aspects of the product launch to encourage good initial sales. For customer loyalty, you may have a pre-launch for existing customers and introduce a launch for new buyers or subscribers.
You may wish to do some post launch promotions in the days and weeks following the launch. I usually rotate the promotion of my products and group them into several categories. Work out ways of re-igniting interest in the product in time to come, and be sure to start gathering feedback and get testimonials. This is the time to ask for reviews, and get these onto your social media and website. If in the future you are looking at teaming up with affiliates, or people who will sell the product for you, and get a percentage, you will need to create the copy and pages or links they need to proceed with clarity and ease.

If starting out, and you have an ebook and video, that you wish to sell - you can get a free website, get free email marketing from Mail Chimp, and link it to paypal. Paypal take a small percentage of each transaction. You can get a minimal digital delivery quota from Sendowl for around $10 per month that houses and delivers your product for download to the buyer. So your digital costs to run an automated business can be as low as $120 a year. Ongoing costs depend on what your requirements are. I use Sendowl for digital delivery and Madmimi for email marketing, I like them both. Plus I have web and domain hosting plans with other providers. Remember, that all these monthly expenses are 100% tax deductable.

An affiliate sells your product and gets a commission. This widens your market and works for them too. Or you may allow the use of various parts of the project, in return for promotion of your product. It is also possible to team up with other complimentary producers and create a joint venture, by discounting both items as a package for the buyer.

I believe it is achievable for most people to initially sell 50-100 units of product a month with relative ease, even newbies, if it is the right product for your market. Of course, some people can sell thousands of units! The great thing is that these online platforms work for you internationally, 24/7. So you can earn an income throughout the year, even when you are away on holiday. The cyber world does require attention and clear communication, however the benefits are that you have more time available, and your work can be purchased easily. The buyer can receive their download immediately, which is satisfying for them. Making time for regular communication with your community, both online and in person, is essential because the cyber world is still about relationships and listening. 

Good luck with creating your online product! People get access to your ideas and expertise, your product will educate or inspire others, and you create an income flow in the meantime. Its a step by step process - go slowly and you'll find that each step is quite simple in itself... and it is the assembly of small steps that create your final Vision!

Related resources at 

Artist’s Web ($30) 
Grow your vision from the ground up, referencing the Tree of Life as a model for project planning, from its roots to the final web-ready stage. Keti shares an integrated physical/spiritual approach to creating products that reflect your Highest Artistic Vision, and express them in the world. Features 10 video tutorials and a comprehensive project workbook.

The Business of Bellydance ($8)
Tips for success with Bellydance teaching and ventures.