Karavan Studio in San Antonio has been home to belly dance training for all ages and fitness levels since 1988. For the serious dance student, from beginners to the competitive performer, women of all ages learn the art of belly dancing in a structured, culturally respectful environment.



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Karavan Blog

April 2016: My Philosophy Topic

Project Band:  The Misleading Edge

Karavan Studio | Project Band | Byblos Band

This all started occurring to me when dancers who were NOT a part of Project Band sat in on a rehearsal at Café Byblos…. and later gave me their feedback.  Then I started hearing about similar experiences at our weekly Student Jam Sessions at Demo’s Greek Restaurant where some of the Project Band Dancers were doing the homework I had assigned them as their performance.  Observing dancers (not participating in Project Band) were confused about some of the choices made by their comrades on stage.  

“Hmmmmm”, I said to myself.  “Apparently ‘Project Band’ has morphed into something much larger and it needs a redefinition and some further clarification.”

I think I understand now.  Yes, I suppose one would think that if a dancer took a piece onto the stage, then she must be performing what she considers to be a finished product or something close to it. 

Yes, one would think that.  Unless one was involved in Project Band – where even a stage with live music can become a part of our laboratory.

These days, I have to remind myself that the Project Band Curriculum started as a way to help seasoned-recorded-music-soloists feel more comfortable and be more musically engaged when – at GBDAC in San Antonio, Texas ONCE every year – they had a chance to dance to live music.  Period.  It was meant for a) restaurant dancers who are used to tiny movements so that they won’t run into the waiters or b) consistent workshop attendees who are used to a 5 minute time limit in which they try to do every popular trick in the industry.  The goal was to try to keep these dancers’ movements relevant to the arrangement being played by the band and varied enough to stay interesting over an uncertain period of time because you never really know how long that band is going to play a given piece of music!  That was back before we started making the trips to Houston to actually practice WITH the band.

But over the past few years, it has developed into something more.  Project Band is now a powerful tool that provides a dancer (seasoned soloist or not) with the most accurate snapshot of where she stands with regard to immediately accessible movement vocabulary, listening skills, musicality, recognition of Middle Eastern music characteristics and cultural nuances, self-confidence, audience engagement, and much more - including her self-awareness with regard to all of these things.  And yes, it is worth it to me to pay the band to come back into Café Byblos on a Saturday afternoon to work with us to that end. 

Because we are talking about performance improvisation, a true test of ability seldom accomplished in the studio or to recorded music.  Much Project Band work is done in private lessons – and dancing in a room with a mirror and me is simply not the same as a stage – any stage.  Even group classes can evoke a different mindset from a dancer if she is invited to improvise for her peers as a part of a class. 

And any dancer who has been working in the Project Band arena for any length of time is developing her listening skills to such an extent that a recorded arrangement is really only fully useful the first time it is heard.  After that, it is our nature to capture and retain any exceptions to what we were expecting to hear so that we will be prepared when we hear it again. 

And so it happens that a dancer who is working on performance improvisation, by doing the exercises that she and I have deemed most useful, must put herself in an environment that feels more like a place for presenting a finished product than for homework.  She knows she is going to be uncomfortable for a while. She knows she could easily be misjudged by peers who are not familiar with this kind of work.  Her consolation is in her understanding that Project Band is a process and that, for improvisation, there is really no such thing as a finished product.  :-)

Karavan Studio | GBDAC2016 | 80-day Kountdown

So you end up with Dancer A who is trying to get beyond the comfort of executing a choreographed plan to a certain section of music that is 24 counts in length, thereby running the risk of missing any instrument changes, interesting musical nuances, etc.  So when we go rehearse in Houston, I ask Ahmed (on keyboard) to play those 24 counts many, MANY times so that she will get so bored of her own repetition she will be forced to come up with something else.  (BTW: those 24 counts are typically played 2 or 3 times and Ahmed played them 12 times for lucky Dancer A.)  Yep!  THAT will definitely force a breakthrough.  I’m really not sure if the other dancers realized this was happening.  But Dancer A will never be the same.

Or Dancer B who has a very emotional, organic, feet-planted movement style that continuously wafts about throughout a piece of music.  I have instructed her to travel in a very deliberate pattern every time a certain piece of the music plays.  We practice it in the studio to various versions of the music – and then she gets to try it with the band.  An observing dancer later tells me that Dancer B seemed to be just walking around at times.  I replied “YAY!!!”  Not quite what we are after, but definitely a step (ha ha…. pun) in the right direction.  The observing dancer is confused about why simply walking around while an awesome band is playing is considered a “good” thing.  I mean, after all, how often does someone get to dance to live music?  (For the Project Band Dancers, the answer is at least 4 times during the year.)  BTW: Dancer B is now much, much more aware of how resistant she really is to my instructions (something that wasn’t obvious until the band was playing live) and we are able to develop the next steps to make this more comfortable for her.

Or Dancer C who has a degree in dance and a quite a bit of experience in Middle Eastern dance and needs to execute some of the “Wow!” moves that we know she is capable of doing, but is a little too reserved to do.  I first challenged her to find a place in her live drum solo to drop to the ground for a riff or two.  When she kept bouncing back up right away, we realized that the only way she could get more comfortable with 8 counts at such a drastically low level is to choreograph an entire drum solo to be done as floor work.  With the boundaries sufficiently expanded, we are betting that a few counts won’t seem like much.  The jury is still out on this one.  :-)  It will likely read as a modern dancer’s belly-fusion piece and any other dancer observing would think that she is crazy to “waste” an awesome live drum solo on the floor.

Or (last one! - and these are ALL great workshop ideas, BTW!) Dancer D who is dancing to a very complex classic and was confusing sections of the music that sounded very much the same to her when played by the Byblos Band (who, BTW, started her piece in a different place than she was expecting).  Our discussion about this revealed that a large part of her framework for the music was based on “section order” and not the characteristics of each section.  So we decided that my handy sound editor and I needed to cut various versions of the music (including the version played by the Byblos Band) into all of its sections and rearrange the order of them. She has not yet taken this public, but perhaps she will.  (And if she didn’t know that yet, she will after she reads this.  LOL)  An observing dancer who knows the music would probably think that her CD was messed up.  But she will be ready for her piece regardless of where the band begins.

Most of these things will likely NOT happen on the stage of the Josephine Theater on July 17, 2016 at GBDAC 2016.  They will likely not happen if/when any of these dancers get to dance to live music outside of the Project Band/GBDAC experience.  But the results of these things will be evident in absolutely every aspect of these dancers’ dance: from how quickly they grasp the next choreography they are taught to how fluently they express their next piece of improvisational work.  The Project Band Experience is about the long term gains.

"Sometimes when learning comes before experience, it doesn't make sense right away."
Richard Bach (author of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull")

Karavan Studio | GBDAC2016 | July 15-17, 2016 | Tickets - Recital & Performance

Karen Barbee Adkisson, Karavan Studio owner and professional belly dancer, has been teaching students in the art of belly dance techniques for more than 25 years.  Her expertise at the national and international level is technique and professional progression.  Karen's systematic approaches are found throughout Karavan's online video lessons, live classes, workshops, and events including the annual GBDAC Recital weekend held in San Antonio, Texas.

Her "Top 20 Philosophies" are also published as an ebook to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her annual "Give Belly Dance A Chance" recital. Click here for instant access to download the book today!

Posted by Karen Barbee Adkisson, Karavan Studio on 24th April, 2016 | Comments | Trackbacks | Permalink
Categories: Belly Dance Mentor, GBDAC2016, Karavan Studio, Karen Barbee, Project Band
Tags: performance, cultural nuances, self-confidence, audience engagement, belly dancers, listening skills, movement vocabulary, musicality, belly dance, Byblos Band, Arabic music, Interpretation, middle eastern dance, improvisation, training, live Arabic music, commitment

November/December 2015: My Philosophy Topic

The 'CCO'

Karavan Studio | Karen Barbee | My Philosophy Topic
I attended Southwest Texas State University (SWTSU now Texas State University) from 1979 to 1982.  During that period, SWTSU was known as the “Party School of the Southwest”.  Somehow, in spite of my German roots, I was not crazy about the taste of beer and oftentimes appeared to be the only person on campus with this problem. I’m not certain that I was consciously working to change that, but I did want to fit in.  I am proud to say that, before I graduated, I acquired a taste for beer.  AND I’ve refined it over subsequent years and am actually now a bit persnickety about it all (dark ales are my fave, btw.) 

I like this concept:  “acquiring a taste” for something.  It reminds me of the vinyl album that my sister and I purchased in 1972 entitled “Belly Dance for Arabian Nights” featuring the music of Mohammad Abbud Abdel Aal.  This is where I first heard the sound of a mizmar – another thing for which I had to acquire a taste.  Much like the taste of beer, I can’t imagine living without the sound of a mizmar in my life these days.

And now here comes the first of likely hundreds of references to my new favorite book, “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin:

  • “Experience with the music of a culture shapes our neural pathways so that we ultimately internalize a set of rules common to that musical tradition.”
  • “Mirror neuron:  neurons that fire both when performing an action and when observing someone else performing that action.”
    • “The purpose of mirror neurons is presumably to train and prepare the organism to make movements it has not made before.”
    • “Some neuroscientists speculate that our mirror neurons may be firing when we see or hear musicians perform, as our brain tries to figure out how those sounds are being created, in preparation for being able to mirror or echo them back as part of a signaling system.”

Is everyone still with me?  Regardless, here is what I gleaned from Mr. Levitin’s words:  “If you want to genuinely and respectfully embody and express Middle Eastern Music, you would be wise to work toward internalizing the musical rules of that culture.  Furthermore, if you know where professional musicians from the Middle East are playing this music and where people from the Middle East are listening and reacting to this music, GO TO THAT PLACE OFTEN !  Once there, PAY ATTENTION!!!”

I knew it!  I couldn’t explain why…..but I knew it!!!  NOW, thanks to Daniel Levitin, I know why.

The dancers participating in Project Band are familiar with the acronym “CCO”.  It stands for “Culturally Cool Opportunity” and yes, I made it up to make this point that I couldn’t explain.  It’s that part in the music where the native-Arabic-music-enthusiasts in the audience will respond, if not go wild – or where the wonderful Rami Ghafour (usually playing riqq with the Byblos Band) will give us an impassioned audio cue on the last two counts of the preceding phrase.  (We actually have coined the term “ramiscream” and I feel like it’s Rami’s way of screaming “NOW, American dancers who might miss this if I don’t help you!  Do something cool!”  Ha ha.  We love Rami.) 

I am proud to say that I do a pretty good job of recognizing the CCO nowadays - sans ramiscream.  The dancers in Project Band would like for me to give them the formula for CCO recognition……but there isn’t one.  It comes from watching the band, listening to the band, and paying attention to the audience that was raised on this music – over and over and over and over and over.  In other words, it’s acquired.

Think about it.  Garth Brooks is singing “I toasted you, said ‘Honey, we may be through……but you’ll never hear me complaaaaaaaaiiiiinnnnnnnnnnn………’” and thousands of people start pseudo-singing “Cuz I got friends in low places”.  Why? 

Explain that to someone who was raised on the other side of the world.  Or, all I have to do is say “You know you make me wanna……” and you say “Shout” and throw your hands in the air.  Why? 

Explain that to someone who has never heard of John Belushi.  Or everyone singing “do doooo” as Jagger belts out “Sympathy For the Devil”.   Never mind the gesturing to the Village People’s “YMCA”, the need to play air guitar to the solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.  

And one more for my Latin friends:  “Y volver, volver, (everybody ready?) voooooooolveeeeeeeer.”  OK, you get my point.

There is no formula for what pieces, parts, words, notes, key changes, instrument changes etc. we collectively choose to be a point of cultural cohesion.  It just evolves.  It just happens.  Then, if you know it, you’re “cool”.  If you don’t, “not cool.”  If you’re on stage, Rami doesn’t scream, and you don’t react for 8, 16, 24 counts until you realize that the audience is reacting – or maybe not even then …. also ”not cool.”

Just as there is no formula for CCO recognition, there is likewise no better way to grasp this idea than to listen to, watch the creation of, and appreciate the organically informed reactions to live Arabic music.  Western Dancers (and particularly American Dancers) who have this opportunity would be wise to seize it while it still exists.

Finally, lest my suggestion of “people watching as performance fodder” be mis-classified as “cultural appropriation” or misinterpreted as a proposal for some sort of insincere mimicry, I would like to close by saying that I am now sincerely craving a Shiner Bohemian Black Lager, a toast to Acquired Taste, and – as always - another 200 mile road trip to Houston’s Café Byblos.

**Those of you who are not near a nightclub that can offer this experience:  it is worth asking for advice on how to tap into existing resources to simulate the scene and assimilate what is observed.  I can help.  :-)

Karen Barbee Adkisson, Karavan Studio owner and professional belly dancer, has been teaching students in the art of belly dance techniques for more than 25 years.  Her expertise at the national and international level is technique and professional progression.  Karen's systematic approaches are found throughout Karavan's online video lessons, live classes, workshops, and events including the annual GBDAC Recital weekend held in San Antonio, Texas.

Her "Top 20 Philosophies" are also published as an ebook to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her annual "Give Belly Dance A Chance" recital. Click here for instant access to download the book today!

Posted by Karen Barbee Adkisson, Karavan Studio on 28th December, 2015 | Comments | Trackbacks | Permalink
Categories: Project Band, Karavan Studio, Belly Dance Mentor
Tags: improvisation, dancers, dances, Interpretation, Arabic music, Byblos Band, middle eastern dance, melody, perform, performance, american dancers, live Arabic music, neuroscience, middle eastern culture, culturally cool opportunity, Rami Ghafour, Daniel Levitin, mizmar, performance improvisation, learn how to belly belly dance, music, musicality, musicians, learn how to belly dance

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