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Monday, October 22, 2012

Beginner's Class in Belly Dance Review Notes: Classes 1-4, Music Review

Alay'nya Studio Beginner's Belly Dance Class: Review Notes for First Four Classes, Autumn Quarter, 2012, Part 1: Music Review

Although I've posted extensively about the esoteric belly dance component and the energy-building practices (ch'i cultivation), our Beginner's classes in Oriental dance (belly dance) have recently focused on:

  • Music rhythms for Oriental dance,
  • Music structure analysis, including in-class work and take-home exercises to identify and analyze, and
  • Matching dance movements to the music.


Mideast Music Rhythms Used in First Four Classes

Music rhythms for Oriental dance include:

  • Beledi, an Upper-Egypt (southern Egyptian) rhythm, used in up to 80% of common "belly dance music,"
  • Sai'idi, a "reverse beledi,"and
  • Chifti telli, a Turkish rhythm.


Music Structure Analysis

Music structure analysis, including in-class work and take-home exercises to identify and analyze:

  • Musical measures: the basic "counting unit" (typically an 8-count),
  • Musical motifs: an identifiable musical phrase or set of phrases - a "building block" for that piece of music,
  • Pace and timing: overall fast, slow, or moderate?, and time (in seconds) for each motif,
  • Taxims: literally, an improvisational solo, typically with the Mideast instruments of a ney (flute-like instrument), kanoon (string instrument), or dumbek (drum), and
  • Transitions: most important in choreographing a good dance.


Matching Dance Moves to the Music

Matching dance moves to the music includes strategies and micro-choreography units for structured (motif), unstructured (taxim), and transition units:

  • Structured musical motifs: typically repeat two to four times, and the choreography for each "set" of motif repetitions should have some logical consistency; a common approach is to do a set of movements to one side, and then transition and do the same set to the other side (mirror image),
  • Unstructured phrase-based musical interludes, in taxims: at first, developing a dance interpretation to taxims seems unusual to Western ears, but as we learn to match our breathing to the musical phrases, a set of expressive movements can naturally emerge,
  • Transitions: these can take us from one motif to another, from structured (motif-based) music to unstructured and vice versa, and overall are essential to skilled dance; we're developing numerous strategies.


By now, students should have their first CDs of music for at-home practice, various worksheets to play with for their own "music interpretation" studies, and other worksheets detailing music structure and/or choreography notes.










Saturday, October 20, 2012

Autumn Lesson 4: Breaking Through Emotional Resistance

Autumn Lesson 4 in The Season of Cups: Moving Out of Stuck Situations

The primary focus of this ten-week series (from the Ace through the Ten of Cups) is on cultivating our internal energy and bringing it up our spines. The final stage of this series is actually the Ace of Cups, when we (supposedly) learn to "fountain" our energy around ourselves.


This is an important goal, both because being able to "fountain" our energy (actually, to do anything at all with our internal energy) is good, but also because this ability is a crucial predecessor to the really important energy exercises:


We will be doing the first two of these practices (Micro-Cosmic Orbit and Middle Pillar) over the winter, and the final one (Circulating the Body of Light) in the summer.


What we are doing now, though, is a structured energy practice that will lead us steadily to some of these more advanced exercises.


In the previous three weeks, we introduced the Season of Cups and basic exercises for this autumn quarter:

This week, we encounter emotional blocks that keep us from fully doing our energy work.


The Four of Cups; follow the link for a good interpretation.


The Four of Cups is a moment of stasis; we are so locked up in our present thoughts and conditions that we can't open up to new "good energy" that is being offered to us.


When we studied the Two of Cups, we realized that we were being directed to examine the Ida/Pingala energy streams at the root of our spine. At the Three of Cups, we included the Sushumna primary energy column in our attention, and did the first "interweaving" or "crossing over" of the Ida/Pingala streams. We did this at an energy nexus point on our spines that connects directly to the second chakra in front.


(Recall our energy anatomy: there are six "nexus points" on the spine, each of which connects via nerve bundles to one of each of six nerve ganglia on our fronts. Each of these physical nerve ganglia bundles corresponds to a chakra area.)


Now, at the Four of Cups, we're at the second crossing of the Ida/Pingala streams, which corresponds to the third nerve bundle on the spine and the third nerve ganglia grouping and chakra center on our fronts.


This third chakra occurs at our solar plexus. This is right where our upper diaphragm (the one separating our heart and our lungs from our abdominal organs) occurs.


When we are energetically and emotionally blocked or "stuck," then our diaphragm is tight, and we have a rigid hold on the muscles in our upper abdominal area as well as our sternums. The result is that we have a tight and rigid dance.



In Unveiling: The Inner Journey, I describe how one of my master teachers, Anahid Sofian, corrected me and another leading dancer on precisely this matter.


Across the crowded floor, a series of young women swayed like seaweed in the ocean. Their eyes on the diminutive teacher, they followed Anahid Sofian in her graceful yet precise movements...


“Leah,” she called out to a dancer, “you need to release – right here.” She gestured to her own sternum. We were practicing upper body undulations, one of the most beautiful and sensual moves in Oriental dance. “And Alay’nya,” she turned, scrutinizing me, “you need to do the same.”


Both Leah and I were well beyond the beginner’s level. ... Here we were, getting the same correction on one of the most basic moves. “What,” I wondered, “is going on with us?”


Suddenly it hit me; one of those “Aha!” moments. Leah and I both epitomized the “young-woman-on-her-own-in-the-world.” Having to make it on our own in essentially a man’s world, we had taken on the masculine attributes of body armor by using our muscles and ligaments! By stiffening our muscles, and holding them tightly, we created an impenetrable shield; we were “armored” against the world. What we were doing in our bodies reflected more the influence of Athena, Goddess of Intellect (as well as war; she is the ultimate Amazon), than Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. We were fully in our Amazon mode!


Releasing the muscles in our sternum took conscious attention from each of us. It did then, and it still does. The old tension patterns die hard. [from Unveiling: The Inner Journey, Chapter 14, "Locking Our Minds Out of Our Bodies," pp. 189-190]


For many of us, as we go into the autumnal Season of Cups, our attention is not just on practicing technique. Rather, it becomes a quest to release those tensions and blockage patterns that keep the movement from flowing freely.


Here's to your own "inner un-blocking"! Namaste - Alay'nya


P.S. Getting Your Own Copy of Unveiling: The Inner Journey

Do you want to continue reading Chapter 14, from which the beginning was excerpted above? You can have your print copy of Unveiling overnight from Amazon, or a Kindle version within minutes.









P.P.S. More Unveiling

A very important related section is in Chapter 9, "The Essence of Stillness." I have a nice long extract posted on the Unveiling website. Go to the Resources page, and look for the extract about Esther. Also, you'll have a chance to sign up for the Unveiling e-newsletter, and be given early information on:

  • Workshops: Whether my own, or those that I highly recommend (and will likely attend), be the among the first to know your options for putting your Unveiling studies into practice - topics will range from archetypal to dance to the "Fountain of Youth,"
  • Best-of-the-Best links and "insider info," which I custom-select, carefully edit, and share just with the Unveiling Community (free, but you must Opt-In using the Opt-In form on the website's first page) and
  • Weekly updates - so that you won't miss a thing!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Autumn Lesson 3: Unifying Our Energies

Autumn Lesson 3 in The Season of Cups: Unifying Three Essential Types of Vital Energy

In autumn, we focus on cultivating our intrinsic vital energy, or ch'i. The suite of Cups (from the Minor Arcana) is associated with autumn, and with the metaphysical element of water. Thus, when we put our attention on Cups (water) energy, we are really seeking to develop our internal cup, or energy basin.


Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies the second habit as: Begin with the end in mind.










We previously saw a visual depiction of our goal: Being able to bring our energy up and have it "fountain" or "flow" down around us. We saw this in the classic Rider-Waite interpretation of this card.


Our desire to "fountain" our energy is a normal and natural one, especially once we gain some proficiency with energy work. I learned about this energetic practice from Medea, my first teacher in Oriental dance.


"Medea had studied yoga. Her lover was also her guru. He had, she explained, taught her to bring up her energy during love-making - and to give it to him! Then they broke up. What, she wondered, was she going to do with her energy, if she wasn't going to give it over to a man? She finally figured it out. As she told us, 'Instead of giving it to him, I've learned to bring it up, and then to "fountain" it back down and take it in again!'" [Unveiling: The Inner Journey, pp. 402-403]


In last week's class, we got more specific. We began our energy-study in earnest, with an etude (study piece) cultivate the two vital energy streams that come up on either side of our primary energy pathway in our spine. That is, we focused on the Ida/Pingala energy channels. We saw these two energy channels symbolized by the picture for the Two of Cups.


In this Two of Cups picture set, we see a consistent theme - a man and a woman come together to share their energy.


In the central picture, we see that the man and the woman each are holding a cup, and are each extending their cup towards each other. We connect this to the first step of the Ida/Pingala energy raising. We note that the two persons seem just a bit tentative; this is their first experience of bringing their unique energies to "cross over" and join with the other. This is where Ida (left) and Pingala (right) cross over at the base of the spine, at the root chakra.


Now, "begin[ning] with the end in mind," we take a look at the final card for the Suite of Cups. The Ten of Cups similarly shows a man and a woman, and again each holds a cup.


The big differences? Their wrists wrap around each other, and their cups are upraised. There is energy flowing into and out of their cups (the rainbow). The signs of "cups" are all about them; the union of these two energies has resulted in a happy, positive overflowing abundance - complete success!


This is our end-goal for our Ida/Pingala energy-raising exercise, and in fact, for the entire Autumn Quarter, when we focus on Cups.


Keep in mind that when we look at imagery such as this - strictly in terms of how these images represent steps and challenges (and overcoming challenges) in our personal growth and mastery - that each person or being represents an aspect of ourselves. In the pictures showing a man and a woman, they represent our masculine and feminine psychological poles, and/or our different energies - in this case, specifically the Ida/Pingala energy channels, or nadis.


In this context - of knowing our overall goal for the quarter - we look at the Three of Cups.


Images for the Three of Cups traditionally show three woman, often dancing together. The middle image here shows them bringing their cups (energies) towards each other, and intertwining their arms.


This brings to mind what we learned last week; the Ida and Pingala are on either side of the primary energy channel, the Sushumna. This week, we remind ourselves that our deeper goal is not just to bring energy up the Pingala and Ida channels, but also bring up our primary energy (up the Sushumna channel); this becomes a kundalini awakening - a very advanced step. In our classes, we focus on prerequisites - on the "beginner steps" towards this very advanced goal.


One of the most basic, and important, practices for energy cultivation is pranayama. We introduced a "baby pranayama" exercise together with energy raising in the etude that we have set to Rasa's Gayatri Mantra. (Hereafter, for simplicity, we'll refer to this as the Gayatri Mantra energy-raising etude, or simply the Gayatri Mantra etude.)


In this Gayatri Mantra etude, we do three things:

  • Bring energy up our spines, where we anchor (drop our body weight) and allow our hands to come up each time we "bring up our energy,"
  • Coordinate the energy-raising with specific mudras (hand gestures) and with vibrating the words that go with each mudra, and
  • Coordinate all of this with a simple (baby-level) pranayama breathing pattern.


This is only complicated until it's not.


By the end of this quarter, we should be proficient with:

  • Bringing energy up to each of seven different chakra-levels (actually, six nadis on the spine and then our crown chakra),
  • Coordinating this with seven different mudras and their respective "intonations," along with the ability to do some baby-level pranayama, and
  • Some awareness of our Ida/Pingala energy channels, which interweave about our spinal column.


Also, by the end of the quarter, we should be much better at:

  • "Containing" our energy in our pelvic "energy cauldron," as opposed to spilling it out,
  • Minimizing "holes" in our "energy cauldron" (making it a "cauldron" and not a "sieve" or a "colander"), and
  • Protecting our energy boundaries (yes, "setting boundaries,") so that we don't unintentionally give away all this lovely energy that we're cultivating.


The end result is that we should approach winter solstice with a strong, vibrant energy - ready to share at our discretion as we spend time connecting with friends, family, and colleagues. We should be energetically "insulated" against winter, and be strong for the next aspect of our inner journey.


Most of all, we should be feeling "juicy." As in, downright fabulously "delish"! Here's to a great autumn season for all of us!


Namaste! - Alay'nya

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Filling Our "Energy Well" Using Oriental Dance

Filling Our "Energy Well" Using Circular, Rolling, and Snake Movements with the Chifti Telli Rhythm in Esoteric Belly Dance

Julia Cameron, in her book The Vein of Gold, talks about "filling the well." She writes, "As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing." (p. 21)









Water: The Energy of the Season of Cups

As we move into Autumn, the Season of Cups, we shift both our dance and our life-focus. Summer was the Season of Rods, and dealt with fire energy. If we had progressed in our energy cultivation path well over the previous year, we had plenty of "energy to burn" by summer time - and that's exactly what we did!

Now, though, with the heat of the summer waning, we are ready for something different. Our bodies - and our psyches - seek replenishment.

Energetic Anatomy

Because we are doing esoteric belly dance, or Oriental dance (belly dance) with an energy component, the idea of replenishment has very specific and practical meaning for us. We focus on drawing energy into our "energy reserve centers," and to building and strengthening this energy.

As a first step, we look at one aspect of our energy anatomy - the various energy channels that come up our spine.

In many of our energy exercises, we draw energy up our spine. Very often, we bring energy straight up our spinal column.

However, in this lesson, we pay attention to the fact that the energy currents up our spine are more complex.

There are really three channels, or nadis (a Sanskrit term), as recognized in the yogic tradition. These are:

  • Pingala: The nadi carrying the "active" aspect or prana (this is our vital life-force, or ch'i)
  • Ida: The nadi carrying the "passive" aspect or apana
  • Sushumna: The nadi carrying the Kundalini energy

These energy channels have been recognized in our own Western medical tradition - in a very subliminal manner - for thousands of years. Specifically, the cadeceus - our emblem for the healing arts - is a stylized depiction of these energy channels.

The tantric tradition of kundalini yoga has been to awaken the energy flow through these nadis, culminating in a fully awakened and energy-vitalized state.

Relating Energetic Anatomy to Western Esoteric Tradition

In our studies, we use this time of year to "fill our well" energetically. In fact, we opened this quarter by giving attention to energy dancing with a water feeling.

Now that we've introduced our theme, we move from the overall feeling of water energy (the Ace of Cups) to the lesson in the Two of Cups. Margaret Wells, who has developed interpretations for the various Tarot cards, describes the Two of Cups as bringing forth "a moment of shared feeling."

Look closely at the imagery in this card, designed especially by Melvis, in a project organized by Margaret. See how the two cups are blending together? And they're both receiving droplets of water.

This is what we're doing. We're bringing "droplets of energy" to both our prana (Pingala) and apana (Ida) origination and storage points at the base of our spine. This is the starting point for our exercise.

Practicum: Second Week of Autumn

Pingala/Ida Nadi Tracing

We will return in this week's class to the Cabbalistic Cross exercise that we began last week, using the music Anahat (by Kairo by Night).

We are going to use the opening phrases of this music (about a minute or so, before the "melodic line" kicks in) to trace the Pingala and Ida circulation lines up our spines. This acts as a reminder to ourselves that these two nadis play a role. Even though many of our other energy exercises will bring the energy straight up our spines, we acknowledge the different "currents" or nadis as we begin our practice.

Please note: The Cabbalistic Cross is not an "energy-building" or "energy circulation" exercise. Rather, it is the first step in aligning ourselves with certain "realms of consciousness" (Sephiroth in the Kabbalistic tradition), and is a preliminary to an "energy boundary" exercise, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. We are inserting the Pingala/Ida here - because it works - and we'll insert it into other exercises/etudes as well. Keep in mind the distinction; energy-building or cultivation vs. energy circulation vs. protection/boundary-creation.

Other exercises for the Second Week of Autumn

  • Diaphragm stretches: We'll begin paying more attention to each of our three diaphragms, allowing them to release, so we can bring in more air. This is an important precursor to learning undulations, both upper and lower body.
  • Circular Movements: Hip circles and rib cage circles help us to "feel out" the fullness of the energy basin that rests in our pelvic girdle.
  • Snake Arms: We'll introduce some exercises that will help you move your arms and hands gracefully. These are necessary precursors to candle dancing, which is an optional study for Winter Solstice.

As always, we'll do veil work - both in place, and moving across the floor.


We will listen to and move with various chifti telli pieces, which are the focal rhythms for this quarter.


  • Lotus Flower: This is a Static Principle, and is the second one that we learn in our sequence. It is the natural corollary to the Anchoring Principle that we studied last week.
  • Expansion/Contraction: This is a Dynamic Principle that we'll study in greater depth over time. We use the Expansion/Contraction method, combined with breathing (even a little pranayama) to fill our energy cauldron (the "basin" in our hip girdle, where we build and store intrinsic energy, or ch'i). This is a natural accompaniment to - and adds to the energetic value of - movements such as hip circles.

Using Unveiling: The Inner Journey as a Study Guide for Autumn Dance Classes

Textbook References

The following chapters in Unveiling are relevant to this week's study:

  • Chapter 25, "Sex Secrets of Belly Dancers": All you need to know (and more) about our various diaphragms. Also a write-up on why we do those horrible abdominal exercises during our warm-ups. (Strengthens our internal and external obliques.)
  • Chapter 22, "Looking Like a Dancer (Even If You're Not)": Includes a very brief description of the Anchoring Principle, which I learned from martial arts master Peter Ralston, along with a brief mention of the Lotus Flower Principle (which I simply call "reaching up" in the text).

Related Personal Pathworking Steps:

At the beginning of this post, I referenced author Julia Cameron, who talks about using images to feed our artistic souls. I build on her ideas in my recent book, Unveiling: The Inner Journey. (Look at the Personal Pathworking at the end of Chapter 3, "Bedtime Stories for Grown-Up Girls.")









Studying with Alay'nya

It is still possible to join us in the Alay'nya Studio in McLean, VA. Beginners meet on Sundays from 11:30 to 1PM. Learn about the Beginner's Dance Package, and email me for an invitation to join us for a complimentary introductory class: alaynya (at) alaynya (dot) com.

Related Posts for Using Water Energy in Dance

Monday, October 01, 2012

Stretching Our Arms Upwards - How This Impacts Our Dance and Our Bodies

Stretching Our Arms Upwards - Surprising Health Benefits (Along with a Beautiful Dancer's Pose!)

For the longest time, I've had this "gut feeling" that Oriental dance (belly dance) was for women the corollary to what the martial arts have traditionally been for men - a pathway for body/mind/psyche/energy integration. And just as T'ai Ch'i Chuan ("Grand Ultimate Fist") is the premiere "internal" martial art, there is an analogue within Oriental dance.

One of the most important things about an "internal" art is that instead of superimposing the movements on ourselves, we generate them from inside. That means (despite the practice and study involved) that essentially the movements sort of "do themselves." Minimal effort.

Of course, it takes years of practice so that we can do any moves with "minimal effort." That, in fact, is one of the characteristics of a real master. But that's also a subject for a different day.

Today's subject is one that I've never heard addressed - in either martial arts or dance circles. (Doesn't mean that someone hasn't discussed this, just that I haven't come across the discussion yet.)

The particular topic is: What happens when we raise our arms over our heads? What's the psychological significance, or emotional meaning of this gesture? And how does it fit in with a "minimal effort" approach?

By way of comparison, when we do the opening moves in T'ai Ch'i, we drop our weight and let our arms rise up. This is natural and gentle. But our arms only raise up to about waist-level. So what goes on when we raise our arms over our heads? This is more than "minimal effort"!

Let's look at the emotional language first. In the classic "belly dance pose," the dancer has her arms raised over her head, wrists crossed, and palms flat against each other. This is, without question, one of most sensual poses in the dance. And it makes the dancer look gorgeous!

At an emotional-meaning level, though, what does this pose say? Is it just suggesting a little B&D? (For those who've been reading Fifty Shades, that might in itself prove exciting.) But really, when do we ever - in our normal lives - raise our arms over our heads?

Often, this is a moment of exultation. Think of the pose with the arms open and hands outstretched to the skies. It's a "calling down the forces of nature" type of pose; a classic "strength" pose. It's also a "hallelujah" pose - a moment of ecstasy.

This is a pose that is very exposed and vulnerable. Opening up our armpits and the tender flesh on the inside of our upper arms is not something we'd do if we were feeling threatened or insecure. Much as a cat or dog only rolls on its back and splays its paws (note the paw-splaying, this is more than just rolling on the back as a submissive gesture), this is only something done when the animal feels relaxed and safe, and actually rather joyful and happy.

When we dance, we connect with the Divine. This is a significant "connect with the Divine" gesture, and thus, we use it carefully and sparingly in our choreographies. This is the kind of move that we'd work towards in our dance, as a climax for a certain section of music.

How does this impact our bodies, though? This is really an important question, because when we are very "connected" during our dance - and our energy is really moving - then our audiences desire to experience what we're experiencing; they want to map themselves onto us. So what we do in our bodies affects not only us, but our audience as well.

Many of us already know that certain leg stretches help stretch out the meridians in our legs, and are restful - this is why these "leg stretch" poses are good yoga moves to relax us before bed.

The "arms overhead" similarly stretches the meridians that go from the tips of our fingers to the core of our bodies, particularly those that go through our underarms.

From a description on the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to understanding energy (ch'i) meridians:

The Small Intestine Meridian begins on the pinky, moves to the underside of the arm, up to the top of the shoulder blade, the neck, and ends on the front of the ear.

The Triple Heater Meridian begins on the ring finger, moves up the back of the arm to the side of the neck, goes around the ear and ends of the eyebrow.