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Jul. 22nd, 2012 @ 11:49 am Middle Eastern Rhythms Workshop
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Hey, it's only been a month since I updated! For some reason I thought it had been longer. Part of that reason is probably because I'm not exactly the most reliable person in the world when it comes to personal blogging. I can talk about something like books every day of the year, but when it's about myself and my life, I never feel like I have anything interesting to say.

But enough about my bloggy failings! I went to a fabulous dance workshop yesterday, and I wanted to write all about it while it's still fresh in my mind. So due warning that this post will be really boring to anyone who isn't a dancer, and probably still boring if you are but weren't there.

Yonisha was brought in to do two workshops, one on middle eastern rhythms for drummers and dancers, and one more dance technique oriented. I could really only afford to go to one of them, so I chose the rhythms workshop. I figured I can get technique anywhere, but a focus on rhythms is much more rare, and it's so important to know them. How are you going to dance if you don't understand the music, right? Right.

So I arrived about 15 minutes early at Artlington, a studio I'd never been to before. It was an older building repurposed into a studio, and aside from the lack of air conditioning, it was really lovely. Lots of light and air, nice acoustics, and a sense of personality. I like a building with character. At any rate, there were plenty of doumbeks and Alexandrian tablas to borrow for the workshop, so I chose one and settled in for the rest to arrive.

It turned out to be a small workshop, which I suppose isn't really surprising since it wasn't the dance-focused one. Apparently quite a lot of people signed up for that one, but for the rhythms workshop there were two dancers (including me) and three drummers who'd come in. I hope nobody was discouraged by the number, because I felt having such a small group became kind of an advantage in the later parts of the workshop.

So to begin with, Yonisha had us warm up our hands and arms, then went over the very basics of the drum. How to hold it, how to get different sounds out of it, the best way to strike the drum so you don't injure yourself with the repetitive motions. I'm not sure this was more than a quick refresher for the others, but I'd never so much as touched a doumbek before, so it was certainly important from my end.

Once we had that covered, we started going over some of the basic rhythms. We covered masmoudi, maqsoum, beledi, ayuub, saidi, and ciftetelli, with variations on each one. Once everyone had the rhythm and we were able to drum it in sync with everyone else, Yonisha had us "pass the solo." Basically one person would start their own rhythm to go on top of what everyone else was doing and compliment it, and after a short while they'd rejoin the basic rhythm and let the next person know it was their turn with eye contact and small head motions. I... basically panicked the first time it was my turn, because my brain started going I only know how to make two sounds and this one rhythm and now I'm supposed to come up with something interesting to go on top of that? WHAT? Yonisha recognized my panic and guided me through it, just with some very simple strikes, and after that my brain quieted down and allowed me to actually, like, participate. She had me start by just tapping out the beat, just the 1-2-3-4 while everyone else was busy with their doums and teks. From there, she got me to fill it in a bit, 1-and-a-2-and-a... (DOUM tekka DOUM tekka).

We discovered the masmoudi and beledi were easiest to put a solo on top of. The ayuub is such a short rhythm there isn't much time to do much with it, and it's such a hypnotic, pulsing thing that you almost feel like you're taking away from it rather than adding to it. The ciftetelli was already so filled in there wasn't much space to improvise. Difficult balance to find something that's complimentary versus something that's just adding noise in that one.

Once we'd gone over all the rhythms, Yonisha invited the dancers to get their zills (finger cymbals). I have to admit, I was pleased to change over. For one thing, the drumming uses all sorts of muscles I'm not used to using, and I was starting to stiffen up a bit. And well, I'm at least moderately comfortable with the zills. Not so with the drum. The drum is really interesting, but as with any musical instrument, it takes practice, and you're not exactly going to master it in one workshop. So switching over at that point was a nice change.

We switched back to the baladi once the zills were brought out, and basically just tried out a couple of the basic zill patterns on top of that. Started with the beledi, then triplets, then 3-3-7. (Look, I'm sorry if you non-dancers aren't able to follow at this point, but I did warn you.) Yonisha invited us to dance in the middle of the drum circle at this point, and being by far the most junior dancer there (the other dancer has more years behind her than I do months), I figured I'd defer and let someone who actually knew what they were doing take it. Except then she paused and said "Oooh. I, uh, don't know if I can zill and dance at the same time." She gave it a couple of tries, but it wasn't something she was comfortable with, and then I kind of felt bad. I mean, I hadn't meant to put her on the spot or anything. Zilling and dancing simultaneously is something I've been working on, so while I can't promise I do either well, I'm at least comfortable enough to tool around with it, so I did a bit. At which point we decided it would be best to open up the circle for a bit more space, since we were going to spend the next part of the workshop working on drumming for dancers and dancing with drummers. Erinne is very tribal fusion, and while I'm a bit of a mutt in my dance pedigree, I've done more orientale than anything else, so we decided it would be easiest to take turns dancing rather than trying to follow each other.

Dancing to the live drums was interesting. I've never worked with a live musician before, and this was particularly interesting since we'd been playing drums with them just half an hour earlier. The communication between dancers and drummers was a tricky beast. We'd been communicating between drummers earlier, and while that's something you have to be aware of and watch for, it's fairly straightforward to figure out what's going on. Tempo and volume can be a matter of follow the leader, providing everyone is paying attention, and pass the solo is all about eye contact. The dancer, however, is trying to follow the music, entertain the audience, and work with the musicians all at the same time, and while the drummers are in a fairly good vantage point to see the dancer, there are so many things they have to focus on amongst themselves it's difficult to follow any cues the dancer might be trying to give.

I danced with zills for part of the time, although when they switched from beledi to ciftetelli, I gave it up. I can switch zill patterns while dancing, so long as I'm paying attention, but switching rhythms messed with my head a bit. I can dance it, but I can't zill it yet. Something to work on for the future, I suppose. It was kind of neat to follow what the drummers were doing in terms of tempo and volume, though. I don't think I used more than 4 or 5 different patterns, but because they were working on trying to cue each other, they kept speeding up, then slowing down, then dropping the volume to be very quiet, etc, and I found I could adjust the zills as needed, so that was nice. (Well, at least until they changed rhythms entirely.)

Near the end, we tooled around a bit at attempting to switch from one rhythm to another, and it was really difficult to get everyone on board with that, even when we knew it was coming and which rhythm we were switching to. Really difficult to get that one going in an improvised performance. I'm not sure if it's something done frequently with drummers or live bands, but we did give it our best shot. I don't think we quite managed it, at least not smoothly, but by then we'd run out of time (or had gone over time, actually) and so it was time to pack up and leave.

The short version? I learned a lot, I had fun, and I really wish we did more with a focus on the middle eastern rhythms out here. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while I was far behind on the drumming, I kept up just fine when it came to dancing and zilling. For someone who's only been dancing five months, that's something of an achievement.
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