April 2016: My Philosophy Topic
Project Band: The Misleading Edge
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. :-)
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")
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