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Monday, June 10, 2013

New Videos of Old Dances

I spent last Saturday at Rakkasah's Spring Caravan, a belly dance festival with a particular focus on fusion, where I danced as a guest artist.  I saw plenty of great dancing, although, as usual, some of the fusion pieces were more coherent than others.  But never mind what I don't like. I'm very sympathetic to the fact that artistic risk sometimes results in artistic failure. Ars longa, vita brevis, and it is better to have tried. Except, okay, I do want to say one thing: people, enough with the all-black costumes. Especially in this venue, where the lighting is not very sophisticated, you just turn into an indistinct flat smudge. You do yourself a real disservice by making your movements very hard to see, or, in the case of those of you who don't dance so well to start with, you put all of the focus on your weird stiff claw hands. I know you want to be “dark” and “alternative,” but texture and contrast really help to keep things interesting. Thanks for listening. I'm done now.

I have not been feeling up to working on anything new lately, so for my performance I pulled two pieces out of repertoire: a new-ish drum solo, and “Dream Waltz” from 2010. There's existing video for both of these pieces, but—and I kind of hate to say this—I think this new video is better in terms of the quality of my dancing. Both previous videos were just done straight to the camera, and I think the stark terror inspiration of dancing for a live audience really helped me to access a deeper-than-usual state of mindfulness. And the balance of this audience in particular was ideally inspiring, with a mix of fans and old friends at whom I wanted to beam love, new friends on whom I wanted to make a good impression, new-to-the-scene people who are learning more about belly dance to whom I wanted to show something exceptional, and, [sigh], [eye roll], a handful of determinedly unimpressed, aloof, and tiresome frenemies for whose benefit I always take a special satisfaction in unflappably dancing very, very well.
Vainglorious belly dancers gonna derogate.  I have this potato design on one of my favorite t-shirts.  One of its interesting features is that no one over age 50 can understand it. Illustration by Sarah Aquino.

Another positive factor, although it may not sound like such a big deal, was having a wooden floor. I dance on wood in my workspace at home, where I do the majority of my choreography and rehearsal, and adjusting to the higher-friction marley that's in most of the studios/stages where I film is always a compromise. Often, half of my attention is lost to compensating for sticky flooring tugging on my feet. Being able to flow and glide through steps in the way they were designed made me feel very comfortable on stage and really let me relax in a way many performance venues do not afford.

The drum solo follows below. If you follow this blog or my YouTube page, you may recognize the choreography from a video published in April. But, as I said, to my chagrin, I think this performance is better. Also, take a moment to appreciate that this is realtime, full-frame, uncut footage. I know that a lot of people respond more to atmosphere than content, so I really appreciate the beautiful camerawork and editing on the previous (multi-camera) video of this choreography, but I also take personal pride in demonstrating that it really looks like this in real life, with no secret blunders hidden by cleverly timed cut-aways. (Another person who notably felt this way was Fred Astaire, who specified in the terms of his contract that his dances be shown as-is, with no edits.)

For more information on this choreography, please see my previous post, The "I Hate Drum Solos" Drum Solo.

After the drum solo, I ended my show with a nontraditional piece, Dream Waltz

Background information on this dance can be found in a previous post, here.

A few years ago I was trying to build steam behind the idea of “Cabaret Fusion.” You know, like Tribal Fusion, except building from an Oriental movement vocabulary rather than ATS. But a bunch of people told me that the parallel was not immediately obvious to them and that the language didn't really make sense because cabaret and Oriental styles are already fusions. But if, hypothetically, there were “Cabaret Fusion,” I think Dream Waltz is what it would look like: sexy fantasy revisionist-retro, but with chiffon instead of combat boots. Really unimpeachably technically sharp, but with more glitter and less glitch. Is there any way I can make this a trend? Another of my Cabaret Fusion pieces, Raqs Europa, has the dubious distinction of being my least-watched YouTube video, leading me to believe this is just not in the zeitgeist. But if any one is vaguely on board, would you please get in touch?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This Is Not a Love Song

Filmed May 17, 2013, for Andy Troy's "Red Carpet Video Release, Birthday Bash, and Alternative Bellydance Show," at the Empire Room at 230 Fifth, NYC.  Special thanks to dance event coordinator Tanna Valentine.  The music is Amerika by Rammstein.   English lyrics translation here.  Spanish, Arabic, and some other languages here.

As a dance teacher, one of the key lessons I try to impart is the importance of putting one's work in front of the correct audience.

And yet, probably because I have failed to promote myself to the right people, possibly because such people do not exist, my own track record as a performer is marked by one failure of context after another. I'm not even talking about traditional commercial jobs where I know better than to try to deviate from the formula. I'm talking about concerts and showcases where I am sure it's appropriate to present the finely-wrought work I've meticulously prepared, but that plan ends up getting chucked out by an an audience (and, often, presenter) who isn't in the mood for anything other than seeing me mince around like some sort of hypersexualized monkey clown. Belly dance community: I'm talking to you too. In your eagerness to show that you "understand" how an audience is "supposed" to "encourage" a belly dancer, you've been some of the worst offenders, obliterating the best of what I have to offer with inconsonant whooping and ululating, uninvited audience-participating, and music-drowning off-tempo clapping. Dance, monkey, dance! Show us more tricks!!! Scrabble for our approval! Never mind that we can't catch the beat, let's all clap along! Whooooooooo!!!!! It's a party! More alcohol! Pulsing  lights!!! What's wrong, honey? Come on, honey!  Don't be shy, honey! Honey, you need to get the audience into it, honey. TURN IT UP!

I know... It's my own fault. I should just give up and be "tribal," even though that vocabulary doesn't match up with how I instinctively want to move and flatly going through the motions makes me feel artistically dishonest.  Or I should just shut up and mount a theatrical show, even though my lack of an outgoing personality guarantees it will be poorly attended and I will lose money that would be better spent on something practical, like food and shelter. Or maybe I should just give painting a try. Or archery. Maybe needlepoint?

But, wait....  Rammstein to the rescue!  Finally, everyone wins! While the cryptocomedy may be lost to many, everyone can go crazy for an EXTREME DANCE BLAST, and I get to gleefully express my true feelings of despair, futility, and alienation. Success without compromise! Honestly, I think I am more satisfied with this than with anything else I have ever done. I have a few outstanding professional obligations and half-finished projects, but I would love to end my career here and just have this be the sweet, sour, high note I go out on. If this is my last post, or if my entire online presence suddenly disappears and all your "Autumn Ward" searches just point to this video, you'll know what happened.

Photo by Brian Lin.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The "I Hate Drum Solos" Drum Solo

*******UPDATE, June 10, 2013:  There's a new video of a more recent performance of this same choreography. It's embedded at the end of the post.*********

Filmed March 28, 2012.  The music is Ismail, from Beata and Horacio Cifunetes.  Available for purchase hereEVENT SPONSORS:  I currently teach this choreography.  For more information on this and other workshops, please see my list of topics here.

When I first started to learn belly dance, I liked drum solos a lot. Most of my initial student efforts were directed at building vocabulary, and drum solos were the perfect showcase for my growing technical accomplishments. "This is great!" I thought. "I love this! This is like the ultimate dog and pony show of belly dance!" 

Dog and Pony Show

After a few years had gone by, the appeal of tricks and gimmicks began to wear thin, and my enthusiasm waned. Drum solos started to look hollow to me. Dancing drum solos no longer made me feel powerful, confident, and amazingly talented. They made me feel vulgar.

pony dog circus

"Ugh," I cringed. "Drum solos are the ultimate dog and pony show of belly dance." And I essentially dropped them from my repertoire.

But then a few more years went by, and I wondered if I had been too quick to abandon an entire mode of expression. For one thing, drum solos are unusually easy for general audiences to appreciate. (If you have any doubt of this, proceed to YouTube, and look at which belly dance videos get the most views and generate the most favorable comments. The preponderance are drum solos, along with balancing acts, anything that features fire, or pretty much anything done by someone with a scantily-clad, attractive, and youthful body.) While I try to be guided primarily by my own tastes and sensibilities, I can't say that I am entirely immune from the desire for popularity. Beyond that, though, the basic premise of a drum solo—to translate music to movement—is just the basic premise of belly dance. It could not be beyond my talent to create a drum solo that would meet my desire for nuance and sincerity.

Thus was born the "I Hate Drum Solos" Drum Solo. My goal with this piece was to be as fast, crisp, and technical as possible while still choreographing primarily for music interpretation. Where I could find them, I followed pitch changes and melodic shapes with fluid movements, using pops, locks, and shimmies only where truly no other movement would do as well. Following the music very closely gave me a textured but extremely dense composition. I experimented with dropping material to open up more white space—with the intensity high throughout, some viewers probably hit capacity well before the end of the dance—but in the end I kept coming back to the full-strength version. Hypersaturated choreography has sort of become my thing, and it just seemed like I might as well take the project to its ultimate conclusion.

So what have I ended up with? Hopefully an artistic and exciting dance with a strong signature, enough tradition to be comfortable, and enough personality to stand out. But there's still plenty of spectacle left intact, and if that's the primary thing people perceive I'm okay with that too. In a context that's more to my taste, it's easier for me to see it as a strength of the idiom rather than a limitation. And regardless, a little spectacle is probably a good  counterbalance for the quieter work I've  been focusing on recently. Many thanks to the World Dance New York team for making this video available to you.

Screen shots and snapshots from the shoot:

JUNE 13, 2013 UPDATE:  Here's another performance of the same choreography:

For more information about this second clip, see

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Re-Enchanting Belly Dance

When making small talk with people I am unlikely to see again, I often waffle, obfuscate, or even lie about my life. “I'm a housewife.” “I'm a temp.” “I'm between jobs right now.” “I'm a chemical engineer. At a box factory. Oh, specialty boxes. Very specialized actually. Uh... polymerization. Polymerized coatings. Cardboard polymerization. Well it has to do with structural variables and a proprietary folding algorithm, and, um, would you excuse me?”

When I must genuinely introduce myself, I generally stall as much as possible, but when asked directly about what I “do,” I say that I am a dance teacher, or if I think the company I'm in will not find it too pompous, a “dance artist.” Then I equivocate some more, until the dreaded revelation can no longer be put off. “I'm a belly dancer.” 

I can show you contemporary examples of this sort of thing too, by the way, but I don't want to put anyone on the spot.
And then things spin into apology and meaninglessness. “But I'm really serious. Well, no, actually I'm not exactly a 'professional dancer,' because I do more theatrical work, and it's not lucrative at all. I don't really do the kind of restaurant and party dancing that's commercially viable. Oh no, I don't mean that I do cultural presentations or theatrical folklore. I'm really not very authentic, although I hate to say that, because it sounds bad, right? Oh, sure, tribal fusion is amazing and very serious, but I don't do that either. I do my own fusion, I'm artistic, but I don't like to say that because when you hear 'fusion' or 'creative' or 'so-and-so does her own unique style' that just sounds inherently terrible to me.  And I'm not terrible. I'm really very good. I'm you know, a really good dancer who happens to be a belly dancer. But, like, a good dancer. I'm extremely technical. I sort of take it to a serious place where it's not so constrained by its traditional context or conceptual framework. But it's not technical and 'experimental' like stark and awful and soulless... I'm still making dance that's about beauty but taking it really seriously, being really serious not only about clean lines but about the musicality and the emotional expression and trying to elevate it to an artistic or even spiritual realm...”

Here's the short version that I have not yet adapted to easy conversational patter: I work in a medium dedicated to the viewer's sensual gratification, but I do not pander, and I am deeply dismayed when I am lumped in with those who do; I work in a medium with low barriers to entry but I have uncompromising standards of excellence for my own work, and I am deeply dismayed by the preponderance of people who seem unable to tell the difference.

It isn't even that I find the meretricious gambolings of my less-invested, uh, “colleagues” to be that objectionable.  Belly dance is meant to appeal to the senses, I don't apologize for its sensual nature, and I don't apologize for those who focus more narrowly on one sensual expression than another.  If your primary motivation is to get attention with a skimpy outfit and you want to gracelessly flail in it, I admire your lack of self-consciousness. If doing some nonspecific wiggling enhances your self-esteem or enriches your inner fantasy life, go, sister, go. If you make more money at the the strip club with an I Dream of Jeannie act, I congratulate you on having found a competitive advantage in a difficult line of work.  Even if your intentions are high-minded but you're really just not a very good dancer, I don't want to be a judgmental jerk.  Not everyone's good at everything.

I stumble over the words “I am a belly dancer” because it weighs on my heart to throw my pearls before swine. I consider my work worthy of respect, so I am very tired of raised eyebrows, leers, uncomfortable silences, flustered attempts to not appear closed-minded, and weird uses of “folk dancer” or “empowerment” construed as polite euphemisms. Which isn't to say that everyone's rude or poorly informed. But I don't think I've ever met anyone whose first impression wasn't colored by the assumption of some inherent frivolousness or inconsequentiality.

And I get it. I understand that, when I identify myself as a belly dancer, all you can do is evaluate the nature of my work, not the work itself. There's no reason why you would arrive at the conclusion that I am creative, thoughtful, meticulous, and highly skilled; that my dances are sophisticated compositions, not a pretense for displays of skin; that my material isn't a genre-bound rehash that depends on borrowed interest from tired stereotypes; that only by the most extreme standards would my costuming be considered salacious or would my movements be considered obscene or vulgar; that my dance aims not to provoke lust, but to charm, to fascinate, to delight.

This is why I have spent the last ten years bending over backwards (in many cases literally), trying to be seen, first and foremost, as an artist. This is why my “dance name” is my name: Autumn Ward. As a concession to befuddled speakers of English as a foreign language, I have sometimes Arabized “Autumn” to “Fatima” (get it? F-Autumn-a?) or conflated my initial, middle name, and surname, “A. Leah Ward” to “Alea al Warda,” but I've never done work that I didn't want full credit for, or that would be enhanced by being left open to one-dimensionalization. This is why I make every dance look different from the last one I created, why I spend so much time on each new piece, and can only show perhaps three new dances in a good year, and in a difficult year complete none. This is why I have a blog dedicated to the critical analysis of each of my YouTube videos. With every entry, I cringe at what I know might seem to be ridiculous self-importance, but I see that people remain oblivious to most of what I am doing until I explicitly spell it out. This is why I am increasingly reluctant to put on a bedleh, the traditional 2-piece bra-and-belt bellydance costume, and why I bristle at characterizations of my style as “cabaret.”

And this is why I've been in the habit of trying to make every posed photo an opportunity to portray myself as someone with dance training, showcasing, if nothing else, my flexibility, the carriage of my arms or the lift of my alignment.

I am bending over backwards for you, figuratively and literally, trying to be seen first and foremost as an artist.

When I see photos of belly dancers with their hands in their hair or lounging on a carpet I have a knee-jerk reaction of being NOT impressed. Certainly the publicity posters of ballet and modern companies never feature their stars luxuriously reclining—they are shown gloriously athletically in motion. By comparison, belly dancers appear to be distinguished primarily as pretty ladies who are also owners/wearers of pretty costumes. Some accomplishment.

What accomplishment is on display here?  Which dancer's portrait commands respect for her dancing?  At left, Linda Celeste Sims, at right, Mia Leimkuhler.
At least that's been my attitude about such photos recently.

But here's the thing: I like pretty costumes and pretty pictures of pretty ladies as much as anyone. And I particularly like lush images that show a softer aesthetic: classically-styled pinups, golden age Hollywood and silent film stills, the “Oriental” dancers and chorus girls of the 19th century, fantasy art, fairy tale illustrations, Mucha, Beardsley, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, Parrish, John R. Neill.... I cherish these images. They inspire and transport me. In fact, they affect me exactly as I hope to affect others through dance: with charm, fascination, delight.

And I appreciate that these images, like my dance, are works of creativity, thoughtfulness, and skill. With this in mind, it becomes obvious to me that a beautiful photo of a reclining dancer (or, for that matter, a nondancer in a dance costume) is an accomplishment of styling, design, vision, and craft, representing the real investment of a model and photographer, and whatever support staff they have (or may not have) behind them.

Only when viewed through a filter of snobbery is a model's prettiness, a quality that generally extends far beyond her genetics, not an accomplishment in and of itself. Posing, like dancing, is a real skill of intelligent physicality. What in the old days they rightly called the “artfulness” of one's appearance, the skillful and self-expressive creation of allure or smart style, is a talent clearly not given to all. And, speaking as someone who is not naturally slim, is not as young as she once was, and who owes her figure, skin, hair, and teeth at least as much to a lifetime of careful and disciplined choices and habits as to luck, I very well know that it takes real work to create and maintain an attractive face and body. These accomplishments are seldom vaunted or praised—our culture, while it rewards beauty, sneers at vanity—but I have no reservations about acknowledging their value.

Photographs can only hint at coordination, musicality, and fluidity—the qualities on which even the liveliest and boldest styles of belly dance rely.  Belly dancers waver, circle, spiral, and oscillate. Photos can no more capture these energies than a picture of a candle can capture the flame's flicker. The movement vocabulary of belly dance is contained, never creating the leg extensions and jumps that are the Kodak moments of Western dance. Softer styles do not “explode” on stage, but instead are virtuoso displays of subtlety. These are features, not bugs.

So what is the problem with sensually-posed belly dance photo portraiture? I have to conclude that the only problem is my double standard, that I am too wound up in my personal crusade, and that I'm ready to give it a rest. I can easily do what I ask of others, think critically, and see that the choice to primarily communicate sensuality is not in any way a shortcoming but its own legitimate expression. While some contemporary costuming trends are not to my taste, and some dancers/models lack artfulness, these are failures of content, not medium.

Offering someone the pleasure of looking at a beautiful image is not really so different from offering them the pleasure of watching a beautiful dance.  Perhaps a newcomer runs the risk of being thought not a very good dancer if her pictures emphasize something other than her dance training, but those who jump to this conclusion are unlikely to be belly dance aficionados.  Belly dance photos are not a job interview at the bank: to show sensuality is not unseemly. The fact is that beautiful images are accomplishments of joy, comfort, inspiration, and cheer. They lifts our hearts, soothe our spirits, and fire our imaginations.

Despite the value I place on work, despite the recognition I seek for my work, there's nothing appealing to me about evaluating the success of belly dance through the dour lens of a Protestant work ethic. Belly dance, above all else, is an accomplishment of mystery. Of all the reasons to dance, I can think of none more noble than undertaking belly dance as an act of re-enchanting the world.

Maybe it's time for me to get back in a bedleh. Maybe it's time for me to celebrate sensuality on its own terms and merits. I'm going to assume that at this point, if you haven't formed an opinion about my accomplishments in dance, new photos won't sway your opinion one way or the other no matter how they are posed.  The world can never have too many pretty pictures of pretty ladies.

(Did I really just work so hard on an essay about working hard to justify posting a picture of myself not working hard?  Oh yes I did.  The irony is not lost on me.)

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Interview: a Conceptual Influence from Beyond the Bellysphere

What is an example of a conceptual influence from outside belly dance? Any concept inspiration from any other area of arts or life...

[My segment begins at 5:23]

[A transcript of my segment follows below.]
There is a book I want to mention, a work of popular psychology, called the Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron, and her name is spelled A-R-O-N. In this book, Dr. Aron describes High Sensitivity as a relatively common personality trait—it's about 15-20% of people—and she discusses ways that people who have this trait can identify it in themselves and learn to use it constructively and regard it as an asset. When I first found out about this idea about this highly sensitive population, right away for me I made a connection to belly dance. [I suspect that a disproportionate number of people involved in belly dance have this kind of high sensitivity. ] Our dance is very emotional, very expressive, but subtle—very nuanced. Over and over again we use and we hear this phrase “poetry in motion”... We are not living in poetic times, so to have this poetic impulse, this interest in poetic movement, I think reveals a lot about the kinds of people who are drawn to this dance form.

Or maybe it just reveals a lot about me, but cultivating an appreciation for my sensitivity has been very valuable to me, and it definitely affects the way that I construct dances. As I said, we are not living in poetic times. If you look at the way we interact with technology, the way our TV and our movies have this fast short-attenion-span camera work and quick editing, the way our food and our medicine are industrialized, I think it's very easy to become accustomed to this superficial way of just passively skating along. You know, people say that this is why there's so much interest right now in zombies in popular culture, because we intuitively have this sense that there's a dark side to this quick-fix gratification, that it can degrade us. But belly dance, I think, can be an antidote to that. It has this amazing capacity to be a vehicle for poetic expression, poetic experience. It can be a doorway into the extraordinary, into this beautiful, tender, transcendent, other realm of experience. Or it doesn't have to be profound, it can also just be simple and happy and fun and joyful, but it always has, or, always has the potential to have, this extraordinary romantic quality. Working with this in mind—understanding and engaging with this poetic aspect of belly dance, I think is.. has [made] a big contribution to why my dances look the way that they do, why they have this unique look. It sounds trite to talk about heart and soul, but I don't know how else to describe it. I am dancing from my heart, through the whole thing. From the dreaming up of the ideas to the sequencing together of the choreography to the actual dancing, the actual performance. Even in the way that I kinesthetically click in, in the way that I align my body... I dance from my heart.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview: What Prompts the Evolution of your Dance Style?

Filmed January 2013I know many of the readers of this blog are outside of the US.  My international fans continue to dazzle and humble me with their foreign language skills—most of you speak English better than I do—but for those who do better reading than listening or who just want to plug the whole thing into the google translator, I've also included a transcript.

What prompts the evolution of your dance style?
[My segment begins at 1:20].

Well, over the past few years I've been very fortunate in that I've had several opportunities to do nontraditional work in video and theatrical settings, so on the one hand I have been trying new things like crazy, but at the core of how I'm dancing, I'm not actually sure that my style has evolved that much. In terms of pure aesthetic, I think there's a distinct signature to the way that I move that really has stayed quite consistent across everything that I've done. I've always been very invested in training for precision, and taking care to articulate through as full of a range of motion as possible. So in all my dances no matter what the conceptual idea is, the technical qualities I think are always very consistent—there's a basic clean supple look that's always there.

If anything has changed, though, beyond style and technique, I think it is probably that the presence of my personality in my dances is more apparent now than maybe it was... What I have always loved about belly dance is its softness and subtlety, but I used to really struggle with the fact that for many audiences, at least Western audiences, in nightclub and restaurant settings, a lot of that subtlety is totally lost. So, as a result I started focusing more on prop work, fast finger cymbals, adding high-energy and acrobatic elements into my dancing... Which was a good development, to a point, because it really increased my technical range, but it was maybe not the most artistically honest direction to take my career.   I'm not a party person.  I don't have an uproarious personality.  So it was not a good choice for me to focus on these loud dances. Now I'm very much back to lyrical work, still using some of the flashier moves, but for texture, where it's contextually called for, not with the same kind of shock-and-awe, attention-demanding, approval-seeking motivation that maybe was there once.

I think we all have a tendency to devalue our natural gifts, and it was incredibly useful for me to realize, and to remind myself, that anyone can do splits and backbends and... Not anyone. Other dancers, athletically elite dancers—can do these tricks and these gimmicks—but there's really no one else who can create work that is like mine in terms of lyricism, intricacy, details, delicacy.  These [qualities] are... That's where my passion is. That's what I take pride in, that's what I want to be known for, and that is the creative imprint that I want on my work. So again it's not really an evolution because I feel like my career sort of went in a big loop and left me back doing the same things that I always wanted to do when I started out, except hopefully now with a little more polish. But, what is behind that I guess is just the desire to be honest, and perhaps having greater courage to be honest. I don't... I won't spend time on projects unless they genuinely appeal to my artistic sensibilities. Which sometimes are a little different from maybe what's in the mainstream.