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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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

August 2015: My Philosophy Topic

This Project Band Thing - How Does it Work?

Step 1:  Improvise for me!

I select a piece of music for you and ask you to dance to it.  It’s that simple!  I’ll make sure it is music that you have heard before – although likely not STUDIED before (i.e. choreographed to before).  It may be a western music selection – e.g. Lady Gaga, Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, Bruno Mars, etc.  I just need to see how you move, how you hear the structure of the music, the tracks in the music, see your range of movement dynamics, if you have any current “go to” moves for killing time, etc.

Step 2: From watching this, I can design a plan for the following:

The Movement Path
All of us have a range/style of moving with which we are most comfortable.   If we do anything outside of this range, it is usually because it is DELIBERATELY placed there.   Deliberately placed, expansive movements don’t usually occur to us when we are improvising.  So our “improvisational range” tends to narrow unless we use exercises to retain deliberately placed, expansive movement.  
We need our "vocabulary” (i.e. the movements that “occur” to us based on the music we hear) to be diverse and extensive.  Only then can we feel confident that we can access relevant, interesting movement for an extended period of time for “performance improvisation.”

The Musicality Path
THIS is where many dancers have not explored enough before dancing to live music!  
It truly is not enough to index through the “rolodex of combinations” in your head as a piece of music is playing.  For a powerful, engaging, meaningful presentation, a dancer’s movement choices should be musically inspired.  They should have a relationship to the structure of the song (e.g. instrumental introduction, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, bridge, verse, etc.), the phrasing within the structure (not every phrase is 8 counts!), the instruments used (a melody played on violin and repeated on oud would seem to evoke different movement textures), etc.

Distinct characteristics of Arabic Music include repetition and improvisation.  As musicians play and as an audience responds positively to a phrase or section of a piece of music, musicians will tend to repeat that phrase or section.  Often times, each repetition will be slightly different – by choice of lead instrument, by degree of embellishment, etc.  This is why a dancer needs to have a firm grip on the song and the possibilities of where it can go.

Step 3:  Attend BOTH Private Lessons AND Project Band Drills Classes

The differences from one dancer to the next with regards to where they are on the spectrum of movement vocabulary and attention to musical structure and detail are VAST – to say the least! 

Private Lessons are designed for each individual.  Some will begin with mapping music, creating choreographies using movements WAY outside of their range.  Others will begin with improvising and working on “owning the errors” which is what happens when a dancer anticipates wrongly – usually based on a previous version of a piece of music lingering in her head.  Still others may need to begin with focusing on certain body parts that are overused or unused or paying strict attention to posture, traveling steps, etc.  And you can even take Skype private lessons from me anywhere in the world.

And there are some things that EVERYONE can work on…..eternally!!!  Project Band Drills is meant to increase overall strength, endurance, coordination, and allow dancers to see other body types and movement styles (other than me) execute these ideas.  In these classes, we – at some point – work on it all… just in a more general way and for shorter periods of time.  Often, a given dancer and I can tell what “next steps” need to happen for her based on the experience she has in a Project Band Drills class. 

The growing library of Karavan Online classes provides a tremendous amount of material already for Project Band Drills.  If fact, I even send local Karavan dancers back to previously filmed classes on Karavan Online to redo, analyze, etc.

Step 4:  Practice With The Band

OK… this all sounds good.  But, what if I live far away and can’t go practice with the band?

Nothing beats practicing to music created IN THE MOMENT.  THAT is the main reason for going to Houston. 

By the time we get to this point, a dancer has been working with a given piece of music for a while (the newer the dancer to this experience, the longer she has been working with the same piece), has listened to several versions of that music, has an idea of what variations are possible, has an idea of movement characteristics she wishes to employ in general, etc.  Dancing with the Byblos Band in Houston is a sort of “pop quiz” to see how it is all going.  There is NO WAY to know how they will choose to play the piece.

There ARE other benefits to dancing with the band in a Houston rehearsal – such as learning some of their cues for each other so that you can benefit from them also, getting a sense of their style, or (for more advanced dancers in this process) testing your ability to musically match the band in a strong enough manner to let them allow YOU to create accent points, etc.  But the primary benefit is getting a unique, IN THE MOMENT version of your song.  Those who are too far away to make the trip can still have this!!!

Please keep in mind that I work closely with the band leader to tell him – for each dancer – what I would like for them to have in their “pop quiz”.  For example,  Suzie Q is working to Lessa Faker.  She keeps running out of things to do in a particular section of the song that is almost ALWAYS repeated.  I would ask Ahmad (the bandleader) to repeat that section many, many times!!  Change instruments!  Embellish!  Drop it back to the most simple version, then do it all again!!  Did Suzie think about this while practicing?  Probably.  But having a piece of music that actually calls for it will drive the point home, serve as an excellent benchmark for how she deals with this LIVE, and allow us both to have a piece of music to use as a tool as we move forward.

Another benefit to dancing with the band in a Houston rehearsal is the reality that your Project Band comrades are all there watching.  We all enjoy watching each other grow in this experience (and believe me, we all have!!) and enjoy guessing what games I have been putting the dancers through based on what each one does with the band.  If this is something that a remote participant does not want to miss, we can certainly arrange for her to do her Project Band rehearsal with the band via Skype with several of her Project Band comrades sitting with me to observe!  That actually is not as scary as it sounds… as almost ALL online students start feeling like they know the San Antonio Karavan Dancers as they participate in class after class with them.  : D

So what actually happens is that I tell Ahmad “we have a couple of remote students and I need you to play their music.”  I will then tell him what special touches I might need based on what we have been working on.  I will likely dance to the music myself just so that the band will feel the energy of a performer in front of them and push out some extra power.  Gylon (that’s our camera man) will film the band playing the music.  I’ll have the link to this video.  We set a time for your “pop quiz” via Skype and after I get you online for that visit, I send you the link.  Depending on where you are in the process, we might play the video once together (I won’t be concerned about you memorizing EVERY nuance) and then you go!  I’ll capture your performance as another video as you do it and we will play it back together to see how it went… and move forward from there.

Step 5:  “Moving forward from there” is a repeat of Step 1: Improvise for me!  

Basically, THIS performance with the band becomes your new “Improvise for me” that I talked about at the beginning of all of this…. and the process starts its next iteration.  

We’ll see where we need to go – from a movement path and a musicality path.  We’ll see how much the work that we DID do stuck.  We’ll discuss next steps.  

Believe me, after that first “pop quiz”, the path begins to unfold quite clearly!!!  The Project Band experience is one year long – with the end being our annual show.  (And might I add… As a Project Band participant, you are ALWAYS welcome to come join us for that show and perform with the band!   And we always add extra musicians for this show!  And who knows?  We might even have another contest to fly a lucky participant in and pick up her expenses!  : D  : D )

Step 6: Reap the benefits of your experience!

Whether you are all in or asking "But I’ll probably never dance to live music.  Why would I do this?" -- think about the benefits:
  • Every good dancer is in a constant state of evolving her dance vocabulary and her listening skills.   Working toward TRUE IMPROVISATION is the absolute, hands down, bet my life on it, #menfromtheboys way to do this.  The lessons learned in this Project Band experience will permeate every aspect of your dance life – if not every aspect of your ENTIRE life.  Not kidding!   You will learn more about Arabic music, rhythms, music composition as well as your own body, mind, and soul!
  • I am super fortunate and honored to have been working with some of the best musicians in the business for over 20 years.  They are dear friends who are appreciative of dancers who want to learn.  They are excited to help me help other dancers.  It really is rare to have this kind of access to this kind of talent.  And then rarer for that talent to be so open in the sharing of their knowledge and experience.   We get to tap into all of that.  
  • Precious few dancers have the chance to dance to live music.  Even fewer have a chance to dance to live music on an ongoing basis.  But this I know:  My decades of working with musicians was the single largest growth spurt in my 40+ year career!   This project reflects my education during that time.  It was never laid out for me like this – but it happened like this.  I am forever changed -- not by that experience – but by my thoughtful, deliberate assimilation of that experience into my teaching and performance.  
I’m here to guide you with that assimilation.  You will be changed too.  : D

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 July GBDAC Recital weekend held in San Antonio, Texas.

Posted by Karen Barbee Adkisson, Karavan Studio on 26th August, 2015 | Comments | Trackbacks | Permalink
Categories: Karen Barbee, Karavan Studio, Project Band
Tags: Karen Barbee, learn belly dancing, learn how to belly dance, belly dancing San Antonio, choreography, performance, improvisation, improv, performer, Middle Eastern dance, audience, band, Project Band, Byblos Band, Skype, movement, musicality, private lessons, drills classes, Karavan Online, rehearsal, GBDAC, remote students

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