Beguiling Beginnings

This is a guest post written by Jennifer, one of Ishra’s Intro students. 

Hi there.

My name is Jennifer and I just finished my first year of belly dancing with Ishra and Invoketress Dance. My experience with Ishra and belly dance has been quite life changing and full of personal and physical growth. Today Im going to share with you my story.

I started belly dancing with Ishra and Invoketress Dance in September, 2014. I took 4 classes in the fall before I broke my ankle on a canoe trip in October 2014. It took me about 3 months to be able to walk normally again, and during that time I was pretty much homebound. The 6 weeks in a cast were especially limiting since my full-time job had been serving at a restaurant and my hobbies included dancing and yoga. It was quite difficult to go from being completely independent to being completely dependent. When I finally got my cast off, it was very slow going. In any case, I managed to keep myself somewhat occupied with my part-time job teaching Spanish twice a week, and I was determined to keep up dancing to some degree.

For the six weeks I was in a cast, I would practice the body isolations I had learned from Ishra. Every day I would sit on the coffee table and prop up a full length mirror on the back of a chair so I could see myself. I would practice arm isolations (shoulder-elbow-wrist, shoulder-elbow-wrist become my mantra). I would practice moving my neck side to side, chest circles, and I would also practice chest shimmies. One day I wanted to make sure my breasts were moving properly in the shimmies so I removed my shirt and recorded myself. Sure enough, they were moving! A while later, my sister stumbled across that recording and we had a good laugh about it. By the end of the six weeks there was a visible improvement in my arm, neck, and chest mobility. It was exciting!

Through physio twice a week and swimming regularly, I eventually learned how to walk again and by mid-January I was back dancing. I was determined to make up for lost time so I ambitiously joined three of Ishras classes. I discovered that my upper body isolations were on par with the other girls, so I was pretty happy about that. Belly dancing thrice a week also greatly helped me regain my ankle strength and mobility.

It also helped me gain confidence as a dancer and embrace my femininity. For the first time ever, I actually felt sexy and felt that I could move sensually. I was not used to looking at myself in a mirror with other people and at first I felt very shy about it (I still feel shy sometimes). In time, I got used to watching myself in the mirror, and I found it very interesting seeing the progression of the body isolations and the different moves Ishra was teaching us. I would be practicing something over and over again and it was so exciting when mind and body would click and I would see my body moving the way it was supposed to. I began looking at my body affectionately instead of critically and seeing myself as beautiful.

All year, Ishra was stressing the importance of facial expressions. She wanted us to bring out our flirty looks, our sexy looks, our cheeky looks, our Xena looks and our boss lady looks. This was one of the most difficult things for meI felt so silly and embarrassed! It was one thing to look at my body moving, but now I had to consciously use different facial expressions while dancing. Sexy look? Whats that? I dont have a sexy look!I would think to myself. Slowly, my unknown-to-me sexy look began surfacing and eventually I was able to look at myself in the mirror with my sexy or my flirty or my Xena look and not feel embarrassed. I practiced smiling so much that in one of the classes Ishra actually told me to tone it down!

By the time June rolled around, most of the choreographies were pretty well finished, and all that was left to do was practice, practice, practice in preparation for the Belly Blush student recital. Having chosen to participate in 3 choreographies, I was somewhat unprepared for the amount of practice (during class and on my own) that would be required. I had never performed before so I was quite adamant about practicing at least three times a week for at least an hour and a half each time in preparation for the recital. I wanted to know those choreographies like the back of my hand just in case my nerves tried to get the best of me.

I also decided last minute (2 weeks before the recital) that I wanted to make my own bra for one of the performances. I had never been creatively or seamstressly inclined but I was about to become so and it ended up being a very fun experience! I actually ended up working until about 2pm on the day of the recital, so I was quite rushed to get ready for tech rehearsal and the recital itself. On top of that, my dad was visiting from New Brunswick and my Aunt and Uncle whom I hadnt seen in about 5 years also came to visit as well. Needless to say, it was a bit of a crazy day for me!

The experience of the recital itself ended up being one of the most exciting and exhilarating things I have ever done in my life. I was a combination of excited and nervous as well as happy that my family and best friends were there to support me, all of which created an incredible feeling inside of me. The performances went flawlessly which made me even happier that my practice had paid off. I honestly couldnt stop smiling the whole nighteven after I went home. The crowd was amazing, the solidarity among the dancers was infectious, and being on stage was invigoratingI couldnt wait to perform again! I did end up performing twice more during the summer at the Flying Dance Festival in July and August.

Now, I cant wait for Ishras classes to start back up again in September and to continue learning and growing through dance. Belly dancing has helped me learn to love and appreciate myself and my body and be gentle with myself rather than critical. It is an ongoing process but with Ishras help and encouragement and the support of my fellow dancers, I think Im off to a good start! Im so glad I discovered and had the courage to explore, the art of belly dance. 

Photo by Dennis Novosad.
Photo by Dennis Novosad.

Bellydance and Developing Personal Style

One of the things I love most about the Invoketress troupe is our diversity.

Somehow, through all our different dance and life backgrounds, we can come together and cohesively dance as a single, powerful energy.

But that’s not to say we don’t have our individual styles, quirks, weaknesses and strengths.

Before entering university, I was taught to believe that with all forms of art, your technical skill must be mastered before you can express and develop a personal style. But now, in dance and other artistic endeavours such as painting, I’ve been appreciating the well of possibilities that comes from exploring your own personality and uniqueness while learning your art.

Recently, for example, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to facial expression in Bellydance, as it’s an aspect that can complete a performance and elevate it to another level of sophistication. Of course, there are times when concentration is key (especially for beginners like myself) and finding a “look” can be difficult and just isn’t on your mind.

Then again, there are also times when raw emotion can’t help but make its way into your expression. I’m learning that it’s okay to let this happen and show the audience glimpses of your pure joy, sorrow, excitement, solemnness, etc.

I think it’s important to let these moments happen, because they are unique to your own experience while dancing. Different moments in the music and choreography (and of course, improvisation) will stand out to different dancers. This is the beauty of Bellydance as well as one of the keys to developing personal style.

To be clear, I don’t believe personal style is about pre-planning exactly every expression or feeling during a dance – that’s an impossible feat. However, I think that (especially while still learning the basics) personal style should be at the forefront of your mind as you learn, not an end goal.

Take the time to pay attention to what your face and body does naturally during a dance. How can you showcase this to an audience, or pull it back when needed? What kind of feeling or expression are you presenting to an audience who hasn’t seen you dance before? How can your personal tendencies help or hinder a performance? What ARE your personal tendencies? Is there something you see in others that you would like to explore in your own style?

These are just some of the questions I have asked myself about Bellydance.

Simply paying attention to and recognizing the natural development of your personal style as you continue to learn and discover dance, I believe, is an important feature that allows for improvement and a deeper connection to this beautiful art form.

~ Alaina, Invoketress dancer

Some great examples of expression in our troupe:

Ishra, our inspirational leader. Photo by Shannon Dore.
Ishra, our inspirational leader. Photo by Shannon Dore.
Ishra's Sapphire class at Belly Blush 2014. Photo by Shannon Dore.
Invoketress at Belly Blush 2014. Photo by Shannon Dore.
Invoketress Bollywood at MOSAIC - "Time in Motion" 2014. Photo by Dennis Novosad.
Invoketress Bollywood at MOSAIC – “Time in Motion” 2014. Photo by Dennis Novosad.