Monday, 23 December 2013

What a Week!

It's been a roller-coaster of a week, or more accurately, a week and a bit.

A week last Thursday, I had my second interview for the technical writer job which I have been pursuing for the past few months.  I thought it went reasonably well and had very high hopes. I zipped off afterwards and picked up my prescription, and a couple of balls of navy yarn with a metallic thread in it, having decided to start on some fingerless gloves which have been at the top of the project list. (No, the interminable Autumn Leaves thing is not yet completed. I'm gradually sewing the leaf motifs together.  It's a learning experience - do not do this sort of thing in this way ever again!)  I also have a throw or blanket in mind of blue and green waves, so the yarn would work in that, too.

I'd had to reschedule the interview from its original slot on Friday, because I was helping out at my friend Rose's classes' Christmas belly dance gathering. It's a chance to showcase what they've been working on, and as different classes go out to change, I run belly dance games for those left 'waiting'.  It's all pretty light-hearted, like musical statues, where you try not to move and to pose nicely when the music goes off.  The dancers also bring food to share (including the stuffed vine leaves and baklava, thanks, they were lovely!), and it's a warm, friendly, festive atmosphere.  Then Rose and I went back to her place to leave my car, repack hers and head off to my parents, who were kindly putting us up for our annual trip to the JWAAD Fantasia weekend of belly dance workshops and show.

We set off at our normal time on the Saturday morning, which would normally have seen us getting into Chiswick in plenty of time to park, register and get to our first workshop, but it turned out that the last three junctions of the M4 were closed and we joined increasingly heavy traffic to crawl along into West London, arriving over an hour later than we had planned and missing our first workshops.  Fortunately the rest of the weekend went to plan, and we came away inspired and enthused, ready to upload what we've learned into our teaching for next year, chatting almost the whole way about various plans to increase interest in belly dance in West Wales.

Another friend has been in hospital for a few weeks, so I went to see her on Monday, hoping to cheer her up. It was rather a tearful visit as she was feeling depressed and I could understand why.  Her condition leaves her feeling like her life has been completely derailed into something closer to torture, and she cannot see herself coming back to sufficient health to dance again.  I think she was doing rather better than I would under the same circumstances. I grabbed a hasty sandwich at a garage on my way home, because I hadn't really eaten that day.

Early the next morning, I awoke with terrible stomach cramps and an urgent need for the loo.  A couple of hours later, I knew I was going nowhere, so rang the garage to rearrange my car's service appointment and retired to bed, feeling extremely poorly, weak and useless.  Just to add to the misery, the power was off all morning, so I couldn't even listen to the radio. I was still dodgy the next day, when I should have been going to the last somatic movement workshop of the year. I couldn't even rouse myself to send an apologies message before the workshop started.

I was feeling a bit better on Thursday morning as I took the car in for a service.  I knew I wouldn't want to go into town while they worked, so I took my knitting bag and lurked in their warm and comfy waiting room, happily knitting away and periodically discussing the work needed on my poor car. I made a start on the fingerless gloves (the pattern is Evenstar Gloves by audreym on Ravelry).  I found myself wondering if I had every actually made anything on double pointed needles (dpns) or whether I had just read the technique somewhere.  I decided that because I didn't have any dpns until a successful raid on a charity shop in the past year or two, then I hadn't, so this was a first.  I found it quite challenging, wrestling with a set of four dpns and a cable needle, so the tension was a bit tighter than usual, but a glove started to grow and I was almost at the palm by the time they came to tell me the damage.  New back tyres and brake pads, new timing belt, removal of old rusty sump guard (but not replacement), major service with all the bits that entails, not to mention labour. Over £600. Ouch. I went off for a quick raid on a heaving supermarket and went home.

On Friday, I woke up with a tell-tale sore throat.  A volley of sneezes scared the cats and shook the rafters. Oh no, the start of cold! Surely not! I did a few chores, had another sneezing fit and was just dosing myself with vitamin C when I got a phone call. I didn't get the job.  It had been very close and they had deliberated for a long time, but had chosen the other candidate. They are planning to expand and there might still be a place for me in the future, as I had been a high calibre candidate.  Oh, rats! Back to the drawing board.  I still live in hope that an opening might appear again soon, but that job seemed ideal and I am so disappointed!

After discussions with my friend who was having a little get-together in the evening, it was decided that it was probably better I don't come and infect people just in time for Christmas.  I also missed another friend's solstice gathering on the Saturday night.  Why do I always get a cold at this time of year?

Furthermore it means I can't go back to visit my friend in hospital, who has just heard they are sending her home for Christmas anyway. The weather is vile, with gale force winds, heavy rain and hail.  Nothing for it but to sit with a shawl and a cuppa in front of the TV and knit.  I've just started the second glove.

The Case for Reading, Daydreaming and Libraries

I recently saw an article in the Guardian which made me feel good about my love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy, and guilty about not using my local library more often. In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman, (one of my favourite authors) talked about the enormous importance of libraries, reading and imagination. I hope the article stays up, I'm sure I shall want to read it again!

Earlier this year I gained a level 2 qualification in supporting the teaching of essential skills (mainly language and literacy) for people who are 'post compulsory education' (in other words, 16+). I've always loved reading and can't imagine not being able to, so I was shocked when I learned of the levels of functional illiteracy in the adult population, but not surprised that it is linked to poor health, unemployment and crime.

I find it rather sad that so many are still leaving school with poor literacy and little motivation to improve it until they realise how badly it can affect their job prospects and everyday lives. There seem to be enclaves of people who took to heart the jibe that 'nobody likes a smart-arse' and happily stay in their comfort zone.  This appears to have been born out by the latest PISA test results, with Wales lurking ignominiously about two thirds of the way down the table.

I was very lucky to have parents who value education.  My mother started me off with letters and numbers before I went to primary school, and I can remember at six or seven reading the labels on packets, tins and bottles. Branston Pickle had intriguing ingredients; what is rutabaga? (It's what I know as swede.) And then being handed the dictionary and told to look up words I didn't understand (very difficult, when you see that some of the definitions don't really explain the word at all). We used to go to the library on Saturday mornings where I devoured books on Mary Poppins, Wurzel Gummidge, anything by Enid Blyton and I can't remember what else. By the end of primary school I had read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and most of Oliver Twist and my 'reading age' was at the top of the chart. Once at grammar school I went through all of the science fiction in the school library.  The town library was irritating; I found that until I was 14, I could not borrow anything from the 'adult' section and that the children's library books couldn't fulfil my need to read. Then O and A level English literature killed it completely, despite a stint in the sixth form as a school librarian, and I didn't read fiction for pleasure again until my mid 20s.

This was mainly because reading fiction was supposed to involve analysis, otherwise it was just reading for the pleasure of escapism. At the time, I didn't have the confidence to do what I would do now, which is to shout very loudly: So What?  If reading fiction for pleasure is escapism, then by the same logic, so is anything that you do for pleasure, any leisure activity which takes your mind off other things that you could be thinking or worrying about, or takes your hands or person away from everyday chores. How can you relax and let go of any stress if you don't escape once in a while? Watching the TV or a film is escapism.  Dance can be escapism, and belly dance perhaps doubly so. You can pretend to be someone else, a different character, wear different clothing and jewellery, lose yourself in the music and movement.

Yet I still find that nothing fires my imagination like reading, where I'm free to create pictures in my mind's eye, read and re-read a phrase which amuses me or makes me think.  It exposes me to different situations and ways of thinking in a level of detail which films don't always have time to show.  Reading fiction is like installing a line directly from the author's imagination to yours.

Now I read before I go to sleep and love to lie with a book in a hot bath.  I should really try to go to my local library to get fresh input, but never seem to make it when they are open, for which I feel very guilty.  It is the start of a vicious circle.  If enough people don't make it, the library will eventually shut through lack of use.

We live in an age of information.  There is a huge amount of it freely available. To make your way easily, you need to be able to find the valuable information from the huge amount freely available, understand, and use it. If knowledge is power, then libraries as a collection of knowledge are very powerful things indeed.
To be illiterate is to be disempowered. We have relative freedom of thought and expression, ideas and communication. We are free to read pretty much whatever we like. Libraries are free and we should use them, rather than lose them, but I fear that they are fighting against the availability of so much information from the internet. At least most of them nowadays also have computers.  And there are also talking books, for those whose eyes are tired from all that reading!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sex and Sensuality in Belly Dance (Again)

A while ago, I found that I had inadvertently offended someone at a belly dance taster.  I was saying that for belly dance, tilting hip circles should be done with the legs quite close together and certainly no more than shoulder-width apart, and that 'burlesque dancers might do it with their legs open'. Okay, it's a generalisation, trying to make a distinction between belly dance and burlesque dance styles. I certainly have seen burlesque dance which included tilting hip circles done with wide legs, albeit still tastefully keeping the front arc of the circle very shallow so that the movement was downwards rather than thrusting forwards. I was upset to have caused offence and I commented about this to another dancer I know who is also an accomplished burlesque artiste. She said that she wouldn't do wide-legged hip circles and that there was burlesque and 'burlesque'. Essentially, burlesque artists have their own battle to distinguish their work as a performance art, with its teasing, erotic sensuality, story-telling or theme and humour which appeals to a wide audience of genders and ages, from the sort of harder-edged, more sexually-oriented 'strip and prance around in your knickers' approach to the genre. Yes, burlesque artists may (or, indeed, may not!) remove some clothing, bare their buttocks and twirl their nipple tassels, but they want to keep it from being seen as tawdry, lewd and dirty. I can understand that.

The same seems to be happening in pole dance. Some pole dancers are strong gymnasts who essentially use the pole as a vertical dance floor, working with their music and changing dynamics to dance, and want to distance what they do from the sort of strut-around, bump-and-grind-against-the-pole, buttocks-to-the-audience moves seen whenever an insalubrious lap dancing joint is shown in TV crime serials.  Others take the view that, whether a viewer finds it sexy or not, they are dancing primarily for themselves, increasing their strength and flexibility, feeling and displaying sensuality, and it's nobody's business to tell them what moves they should or should not do. The pernicious media view that pole dancing is inextricably linked to lap dancing and therefore to the objectification and exploitation of women with accompanying violence led to the banning of Swansea University's pole fitness club. Swansea University Students' Union's attempt at upholding political correctness was challenged by the pole fitness dance community. The wider dance and fitness community piled in when the issues were shared and discussed on social media.  There was a lot of interest from the mainstream media on the ban; rather less interest after a referendum result was 94% in favour of the club and it was reinstated. Oh dear, seems it is based on dance fitness after all and not worthy of reporting once the contentious issue is resolved.

As with so many other issues, there is evidently a fine line in place here as well, but the discussions made me think about our love-hate relationship with the idea of being thought sexy.  If you perform, you are the object of your audiences' views, opinions and prejudices. You can choose not to be an object, to dance for yourself  rather than perform, but you may still be subjected to the content of others' misinformed and fertile imaginations. I have known a couple of women who keep their belly dancing a secret, and a few who gave up after pressure (bullying!) from family and friends who found out. I find it sad that these women have to compromise in order to avoid what is tantamount to emotional abuse from the narrow-minded and ignorant people who theoretically love them.

As discussions picked up on Facebook, I looked back at my previous post on 'sexy' belly dance. Then someone posted a link to Ananke's well-written, thought-provoking article Is Belly Dance Sexy which prompted a response from Nicole Beckerman.

The consensus still seems to be that the perception of whether the dance is 'sexy' (or even dirty) is still very much a subjective opinion. Recently, I met a rather strict Christian who was horrified that I offered to dance as part of a charity fundraiser, as she considered belly dance to be pornographic (and would not talk about it to be persuaded otherwise. I bet she thought I would finish my piece naked and rewarded by a severed head on a platter). Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, I found her reaction quite extreme. Most belly dancers will, however, agree that overtly sexual body language has no place in belly dance. This means no bump-and-grind moves, twerking (good grief!), hip thrusting, touching and stroking yourself, pouting and pulling sex faces. From what I've seen of good burlesque and pole dancing, the same applies. As dancers, we have a responsibility to set and maintain some quality standards in the dance, so that our audiences appreciate and value what we do. They may well find the humour, passion, strength and sensuality that we put into the dance sexy, but it's still all about the dance, not about sex.

So Excited About This ...

... that I just had to blog about it!
A little while ago, I had an urge to look on the government jobs portal.  As I am 'underemployed', I am registered on it in the vain hope of something interesting and flexible being available, and every so often it automatically sends me a mail with a list of jobs which theoretically match my skills and CV. (The type of jobs it comes up with makes me doubt their software.)

Browsing through, I found a job for a technical author at a local firm which manufactures and supplies medical equipment. Despite the key words in my profile, it hadn't matched me to the job.  I read and re-read the job specification and felt really excited.  I was a pretty good match!  It was some stupid o'clock, so I slept on it, then woke early the following day to make sure my summary CV was okay, and sent off my application. Crossed fingers, I waited.

I read the job spec out to my Dad, who said 'Oh, that's YOU!' Yes, I think so too. A couple of weeks after the application had been sent and I still hadn't heard anything, I started to worry, so I sent an email to check that they had received it.  They had, all was well and I would hear in due course if I had been shortlisted for interview.

Waiting to find out was a curious form of torture.  I found myself obsessively checking one of my email accounts and lying in wait for the postman. After a month, I got a letter inviting me for an interview. The next morning, they called to rearrange it.  That afternoon, it was rearranged again. No problem!

In recent years, my wardrobe has evolved to match my lifestyle. It contains lots of yoga and harem pants for teaching in, loads of T-shirts ditto, velour and sparkly evening-type things for haflas, belly dance costumes, grotty clothes for dirty jobs and some summer skirts and dresses (which all got an airing this year, disproving the idea that if you haven't worn something for a year, you should get rid of it.  What a waste!)

I hurriedly ordered a jersey dress which I liked the look of and which would go with an existing jacket and boots (luckily the toe has healed and become flexible enough to get shoes on, even though it's not really any better than it was pre-op).  As it still hadn't arrived after a couple of days, I also found and bought another jacket, trousers and pair of ankle boots.  The latter all arrived, and became my interview clothes.  (The dress arrived the day after the interview and is a lighter jersey than I expected, but will be lovely as a dress for Christmas.)

On interview day, I arrived early, chatted happily to the interview panel, made a hash of the grammar and writing tests (which then kept me awake and I'm still kicking myself!) and learnt that I have been shortlisted for a second interview.  I'm so happy, but also thrilled and terrified in equal measure; excited and stressed.

For the past ten days or so, all this has been accompanied by an earworm since a friend reminded me about the Moody Blues. I used to have several of their albums on tape, and played them over and again on long-distance solo drives while I sang along at the top of my voice, until they were eaten by the tape player or otherwise destroyed. For some reason, I haven't replaced any of them, perhaps because they reminded me of the groove I left in the M4 from all the driving, which I hated. Now this song, 'Question', won't go away, and I keep singing bits. By 3 minutes 30, Justin Hayward's lovely voice has turned me into a gooey mess. Everyone sing now '... I'm looking for a miracle in my life ...'

I've had wonderful support from my Facebook friends, all rooting for me, wishing me well and praying for me. Now I need to calm down, get some sleep, do some exercises to get rid of the almighty tension headache brought on by all this stress excitement and try to prepare for whatever might be thrown at me on second interview, whenever that will be.

Monday, 25 November 2013

What's This Step Called?

Many dancers seem to get frustrated at some point that 'belly dance' does not seem to have a codified set of steps, such as you might get in ballet or ballroom dancing.  I have been challenged by dancers asking, 'I know this as/my last teacher called this (whatever), which is correct?' To which my answer is both/all and any, and neither/none. Names for steps are a handy reference when you want to describe a certain movement, especially if you want to use it when calling out prompts while learning a choreography. The difficulty is finding a name which everyone knows, agrees on and which doesn't have other meanings or connotations.

A few months ago (my, doesn't time fly!), a colleague asked me to cover her classes for a day, and requested I teach a particular step.  I then had to clarify exactly what she meant, because her name for the step was not my name for the same step, and I knew of at least one other name for it as well. Then there is the question of the arm frame/flow to go with it, is there a shimmy or anything else layered on it, is it done on the spot, travelling, turning, if so which direction, starting from where ...? Once you start to think about the variations, no wonder we want to name a step or a sequence/combination.

The issue of codified belly dance steps or moves raises its head from time to time in various fora, along with the questions, do we really need it, and if so, which language should be used?  Ballet terms are mostly in French because of its development in the court of Louis XIV. Once you know the names of the steps, you can take a class elsewhere in the world and still follow the teacher setting the exercises.

For dancers who are keen to improve their dance, a standard, named set of moves to work on is indispensable as a basis for recording and teaching the moves and combinations, and for assessment.  ATS and other Improvised Tribal Styles use names for the moves and combinations, although the same move may have small differences, depending on the format.  The names are also used in tribal fusion, where you want to write something short which everyone recognises in the choreography notes.  In ATS/ITS, you learn the combination and it goes into muscle memory. But the dance is improvised, so while you're following the leader, do you see a cue and think to yourself, 'Ah, this is a such-and-such'?  I don't, but perhaps some dancers do.

I'm on the  JWAAD personal development programme, and I like the way they have a standardised, basic set of moves. Whilst we may or may not use their names for the moves outside the JWAAD courses, at least they give us a common reference. Progress is monitored by assessing the quality with which the movements are executed, and since there is more to the dance than being able to do individual moves, the quality of your use of arms, spinning, musicality and flow is also considered.  While I struggle with my isolations and don't feel I dance well when improvising to unknown music during my assessments, I prefer to be assessed on this relatively level playing field, which makes some allowance to age and physical limitations.  Advancement is about a technical/biomechanical and effective ability to dance a standard set of more basic moves, rather than the need to demonstrate increasingly complicated moves such as backbends or a Turkish fold (i.e. kneeling with the knees apart and bottom of the floor, and then lying down), which become difficult, dangerous or just downright impossible with age. Older dancers may be able to dance extremely well and use their experience to bring expression to their dance, without necessarily being able to do floor work or other physically demanding moves.

I have a list of named moves, for any dancers who want one. It is scarily long, but useful as a tick list when trying to build a movement vocabulary. However, the more I tried to list and name belly dance moves in all their variety and permutations, the more I realised that belly dance is more than just a set of moves, it is a way of moving through the body, reflecting the music.  There are some core moves, such as hip figure 8s, but they (and more complex, compound moves) can be broken down into slides, arcs and circles, undulations, twists and tilts or lifts and drops, which are the basis for the body core movement with step patterns, turns and arm shapes and flows.

There is a trap in thinking of dance in terms of a set of moves, even when broken down into core movements, and that is in thinking that if you learn the moves and some combinations, you can dance and that's all there is to it. It's good to have a toolbox of moves and combinations which you can use in your dance, but if you use only the same combinations over and over, regardless of the music or style of dance, it's like dancing-by-numbers. Differences in styles rely on small differences in moves and their qualities, nuances which are lost by using a sort of one-style-fits-all approach.

Even more of a trap is thinking that if you can't remember moves and combinations, you can't dance. Trying to remember moves and think about which to do next often kills flow and expression during improvisation. Posture, personality, flow and transitions and the use of dynamics are all part of the dance, but you cannot consciously think of them all while dancing. Instead of trying to remember moves, set some rules (or just guidelines) and let the music move you.  The rules can relate to typical moves and dynamics for a style, or use the classical Egyptian formula of arms for ney flute, shimmies for qanun and oud, etc.

Most important of all is musicality. Listen actively to the music and dance to both the rhythm and the melody. The thing which makes the real difference is practice, practice, practice.  So don't worry so much what moves are called, but break them down into their core components, look at the details, practise them, and when the music calls for it, let the music take over your body, let go and just dance!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Joy of Movement

One of the most frustrating things I'm finding about my osteoarthritis (OA) is, amazingly, not the daily pain and limitations on movement (although that's bad enough), but the fine line between doing enough and too much.  It's unpredictable on any given day how much will be too much, but I still the need to move and exercise because I know that without it, I will seize up altogether and that will be even more painful. I had some physiotherapy for my knees, which woke me up to the need to strengthen my quad muscles and pay attention to my knee tracking. The Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT) Workshop last year changed my view of somatics from a word which I read and puzzled over, to something real.  It awoke my curiosity in how I and others move and the links between movement and context, environment, emotional and physical states and the senses.  The realisation of how my OA is going to be a permanent feature of my life started a grieving process, of a sort.  Once over the initial upset, I knew I would have to start to listen to my body and rethink movement, learning to move in a different way.

After the success of the SRT workshop, a new series of somatic movement workshops started at Penpynfarch studio.  Unfortunately, the state of my knees and the timing of the operation on my foot meant that I have missed four out of the seven so far. Now my knees and toe/foot are improving, I'm driving again, and I need to dance and move!

Somatics refers to the link between the body and mind and its influence on movement. During the 20th Century, it developed into a broad field of approaches to awakening awareness and gaining a deeper understanding of the whole body in motion, using various techniques such as breathing, visualisation and various sensory stimuli. Some of the methods aim to reduce or eliminate chronic pain.  I can see how this could be the case for pain caused by poor movement habits, which can cause imbalances and tightness in muscles over time, pulling the body out of alignment and affecting posture and gait. I'm not sure how effective it could be for pain caused by OA, but it will make me think about the way in which I react to the pain in terms of body movement.

I love serendipitous coincidences!  As I continue my work to try and improve the function of my toes and knees, a fortnightly contemporary dance class started locally through Arts Care Gofal Celf.  It's really more of an extended warm-up and technique session for the youth performance group, but it is taught by a great young teacher who knows my background in dance and is happy for me to work differently at the back, playing with movements to adapt them to my capabilities, skipping those which would frankly be unwise. Each week I can safely test my limitations, explore the limits of my movement and do a little more.  I find that with a hot bath and an extra hour in bad the following day, I get a good 24 hours post-class reprieve from the worst of the OA symptoms and can feel the strength and flexibility creeping back into me, in a way that physiotherapy doesn't supply.

With the somatics workshops and the contemporary dance classes, there's a lot of floor work.  I'm suprised at how much I'm enjoying stretching, breathing, listening to and working with my body.  I've become fascinated with the healing process for my toe. Yes, it is highly subjective and apparently completely self-centred, but doing it with a group also provides insights into how others think about and experience movement. Who knew that rolling around on the floor could be so good for you?
False perspective, toe on window ledge; playing with extension of tree shapes

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Diary and Calender Time!

My diary this year was a lovely soft cover, day to a page, A5, with hourly appointments and ruled in a narrow feint so that each line represents a 20 minute slot. The feint ruling was broken so that the outer part of the page could be used for lists.  There was a pocket inside the back cover for loose papers and a matching page marker ribbon and elastic to keep the book closed.  I've become very attached to it. It was by Ryman, but unfortunately neither they, nor anyone else, have produced one like it for the coming year. Ryman still have a soft cover, A5, with elastic, day to a page Monday to Friday, but Saturday and Sunday are on one page and there are no times marked for appointments. I'm going to have to make do with another, hardback appointments diary, and it's left me feeling unaccountably grumpy that I can't get exactly what I want.

On a brighter note, I spent years feeling dissatisfied with the calendars generally available, with their boy bands, cute kittens and country scenes, but have found a way around that - buying calendars from friends who are artists. I don't know what it is, probably something to do with creative spirits, but a number of the dancers I know are also artists of one sort or another.  We all need support and it gives me great pleasure to promote their work!

My friend Gwen Davies produces a lovely Lunar Calendar, which shows the main phases of the moon month by month, the eight festivals, and is scattered with small seasonal flowers, fruit and so on. It's very pretty and reminds me of her lovely henna art. This year, she produced a time-lapse film on the making of the calendar. Enjoy!

Gwen is also the maker of a couple of my favourite pairs of earrings! You can also find her calendars, wheel of the year and cards on Etsy.

I've also treated myself to a calendar by Katherine Soutar-Caddick, Dancing Cat Design, another friend and artist.  She has been producing some gorgeous illustrations for books of folk tales. I love her work, which has the feel of myth and magic just beneath the surface of the real world.

There is so much beautiful art available, why go with the mass produced stuff? So much better to support artists directly and get something more beautiful, useful and special. The real difficulty is in choosing from all of the wonderful arts and crafts out there, and the artists working to make the world a more beautiful place!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Cold and Frosty vs Warm and Woolly

I can't remember whether I've had to deal with frosty car windows yet this autumn, but it seems to me that last Wednesday was the first 'real' frosty morning here.  If that's true, then it was really late.  Suddenly, any leaves which managed to cling on after the high winds a couple of weeks ago have turned more vivid colours. The temperature is dropping and the weather forecast is for a very cold snap in the next couple of days.  The cats look at me sadly when the radiators are off and/or their bowls are empty.  They are more reluctant to go out and quickly come back in, eager to dry their cold, wet paws on a warm human, preferably one with a warm towel to dry them off.

Time for thick jumpers, hats, scarves, socks, and all things snuggly, including an urge to knit!  Oooh, yes, I need some fingerless gloves, and a cowl, and I wanted to learn to knit socks, and another hat might be nice, and what about some sort of woolly earwarmer headband, and a hot water bottle cover, and legwarmers, and a knitted dress and there's that wonderful cabled sweater I was going to make ....

I love cables! It's the thing I have for Celtic knotwork. The sweater appears to be cabled all over, is quite long with a big collar and takes a lot of yarn. Cue browsing in a few online knitting shops. Eeek! Even in a fairly cheap wool, it will cost around £75?  Is it my imagination, or was knitting wool relatively cheaper a long time ago? There seemed to be a point in the late '70s where the cost of yarn to knit a jumper seemed expensive against the price of jumpers in the shops. I remember knitting a chunky jumper as a present for a friend in the early '80s, and finding the money for the yarn was more difficult than knitting the jumper! Perhaps I'll have to do some serious research into online yarn shops and find a wool mix yarn to use for that sweater.  My local yarn store specialises in Rowan yarns, which are gorgeous and out of my budget, even when on sale. Something in me rebels against using 100% acrylic for this and the other lovely cabled jumpers I've seen, even though acrylics now are often better quality than the soapy-feeling '70s yarns which pilled as soon as you looked at them and stretched after washing. The cabled sweater needs three or four sizes of circular knitting needles, which of course I don't have. And of course, if those sizes don't give you the correct tension swatch result, just change needle sizes ... which I still don't have! Rules of the stash - you have all sorts of things except that which you specifically need. I might have to treat myself to a set of interchangeable circular needles just to get a selection of sizes and cable lengths in one fell swoop.  I managed to find some 'sets' of dpns at a charity shop a while ago, but never see circular needles.

Yes, the stash, which reminds me of other projects on hold and which I should complete before I start any more.  I discovered an unfinished cardigan in 4 ply when I was sorting out a box this summer (in a shade of blue I would not normally go for and I don't know what size I was making. What was I thinking?). Not to mention a bag of fleece which needs dealing with, because I am going to learn to spin. So to satisfy my knitting urge, I've picked up my mohair autumn leaves thing again.  I still haven't decided what to do with it, because I'm very bored with it, but I feel like I've put in too much work just to junk it. I was thinking along the lines of a shrug, but I don't think what I had in mind will work. One of this week's jobs will be to take a few of the leaves and see what size they are after blocking. Note to self: just get over it and learn to do colourwork. Aran has always seemed so easy to me, and  Fairisle so complicated, but lots of people do it so how hard can it be?

I might have to have a go at some fingerless gloves too, because my hands get so cold (honest!) ... but only if I promise to myself to use yarn and needles from my stash!

Friday, 8 November 2013

How to Let Go

I often get stuck during choreography, as I start to over-think the movement and get too caught up in trying to make something work.  Sometimes it's good just to set a few rules, then let go and improvise.
I was flicking through my workshop notes and musing about some choreography (like I do), pondering intent, order, chance, improvisation and mindfulness.  I found my notes from a dance/movement workshop I attended in the middle of nowhere near Llandysul last summer.  Not belly dance (for once) and not just any old workshop either.  I had the great privilege to attend a small workshop on Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT), given by Robert Davidson, one of the seminal teachers of the technique.

I had previously come across a mention of SRT when I was doing some reading into kinaesthetics. It is an approach to dance and movement training developed by Joan Skinner in the early 1960s. The following extract is a very good description from the Skinner Releasing website:

"Skinner Releasing Technique™ is a gentle but powerful system of movement training that encourages a deepened sensory and imaginative awareness of the body. Through its use of improvisatory movement, guided by visualised imagery, music and touch, it also awakens creativity and imagination. SRT teaches the fundamental physical skills and awareness that underlie almost any style of movement and dance.
We're all born dancers, with innate coordination and animal-like grace. As time goes by, we tend to lose touch with this natural ease. Muscles tense unnecessarily, and our alignment goes askew. The Skinner Releasing Technique™ (SRT) lets us practise letting go: letting go of stress, letting go of unnecessary holding in our body, letting go of preconceptions about what is supposed to happen, letting go of fear of awkwardness, letting go of the belief that we don't have the right body for dancing. We let go of habitual holding patterns and habitual ways of thinking in order to let something new happen. Eventually, we find energy and power. We rediscover our natural alignment, improve strength and flexibility, and awaken creativity and spontaneity."

Oh, so true!  I hadn't realised it, but the more my knees and feet hurt, the more I was holding myself, tensely ready to adapt or stop movements when it was painful.  Trying to dance with all that tension wasn't working in terms of avoiding pain; all it was doing was reducing flow and freedom of movement.

We worked with awareness of different body parts and qualities of movement such as sponginess, skating or gliding, leading movement from different parts of the body by imagining puppet strings attached to the head, elbow, wrist, hips and melting down to the floor and up again.  I found that I had let my tension build to the point where I could scarcely relax and release my shoulders and arms on demand! I discovered that if I let go of the tension and used a wall or corner for support, I could flow and melt down onto the floor without hurting myself or my knees.

It came as a shock to realise that it had been 20 years since I did any contemporary contact-style improvisation. I don't remember enjoying it as much as I did during the workshop.  I think I used to be too preoccupied with trying to get it right and create something.  It was still about me, and the revelation, the 'light bulb moment' from this workshop was: it's not about you.

As far as my belly dance is concerned, I've realised that there needs to be an element of release in the movements, as tensing and grabbing for a move often reduces isolation and flowing transitions from one move to the next.  When improvising, it's important not to try to think too hard about what to do next. It's not about you, it's about the music, so let that lead you. The heightened awareness of body and mindfulness in movement can result in self-consciousness and doubts as the inner voice emerges. You have to let go of all the self-talk and just explore your body's movement, and enjoy!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Salad Days - Rainbow

What, no meat?  It can't be good for you!

Okay, not really a rainbow, exactly, but I'm playing with food colours again, and why not? It takes so little to create a tempting plateful and for most colours, you're spoilt for choice. There's not much to choose from at the blue-violet end of the spectrum - perhaps in summer some viola flowers and Edzell Blue potatoes, if you can get the colour of the skins to stay on, and you can now get purple carrots too.  I didn't have any of that, so just went for beetroot. It takes so little to create a tempting plateful!

The weather is getting colder, so while raw salads are lovely and fresh, I'm starting to crave something warmer and more substantial. There will be another gap in the sequence while I look for more salad inspiration ....

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Salad Days - Salade Niçoise

In recent years, the mention of this salad reminds me of the sequence in Ridley Scott's film 'A Good Year', when Russell Crowe is serving an American couple in a French restaurant. 

"I would like a salad Neeswahzay with ranch dressing on ... I'm still on my diet, so I would like low-cal ranch dressing with no oil and could you sprinkle some bacon bits on top?"

It's probably very naughty of me, but the resulting head-on culture clash (let alone the irony of low cal dressing but with bacon bits!) leaves me giggling every time. I watched the film again recently and it was the inspiration for today's salad (except I forgot that I had anchovies in the cupboard, so didn't add any ... and the last one I had in France used a big, tasty beef tomato instead of cherry toms and some salad leaves instead of a wedge of iceberg lettuce). The cats happily shared the tuna!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Salad Days - Waldorf Salad

So called, because it was first presented at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The original recipe of apple, celery and walnuts on a bed of lettuce seems to have had plenty of variants over the years.  Years ago, I ordered a sandwich with Waldorf salad and what arrived was basically coleslaw with added raisins in a runny mayonnaise.  When I complained about the lack of walnuts, I was told that they could not serve a salad with nuts in, because of the risk of allergies!  I pointed out that surely, someone ordering a Waldorf salad would expect a salad with walnuts and what they served in no way resembled what I expected of a Waldorf salad, so I refused to eat or pay for it. The server just shrugged.  It was a catering firm and this was what their supplier sent them, described as Waldorf salad, what were they supposed to do? I didn't go back to eat there again, but don't expect they acted on my suggestion to sack their supplier, employ a chef and make their own food from scratch.

So, is it still a Waldorf if it doesn't contain celery? A friend took a little diversion to see me on her way back from a week away visiting various family members, and stopped for a light supper of herb and cheese omelet and salad (and with a gift of chocolate profiteroles on a bed of chocolate mousse for pudding. Oh my!).  She doesn't like celery, so I didn't put any in. I like shredded white cabbage in mine too.  But it must have walnuts and apple!

We chatted for hours, drinking, eating and generally catching up with the latest news. It was such a pleasure to cook for her, especially since the alternative might have been for her to try to get something at a motorway services. No problem if you like burgers from a well-known chain, but if you're after real food on a Sunday evening, you're probably out of luck!

For a late night TV snack, I added celery to the left-over salad and munched away, with my cat Greebo sat purring companionably by my side. He was probably hoping for a lick of mayo or something, but there really isn't anything in a Waldorf salad to interest him. Tomorrow's salad, on the other hand ....

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Salad Days - Prawn Cocktail

It's November, not the usual time of year for salads and the weather is pretty horrible. For some reason, (probably because I have been eating pumpkin soup all week!) I had a bit of a craving for a prawn cocktail salad, and they are so easy to put together (especially if you're not trying to be artistic with it).  A bed of salad, some prawns, a slick of suitable sauce (like Marie-Rose or, in my case, some light Thousand Island dressing) and you have something light and delicious.
They were so fashionable in the 1970s and '80s that all restaurants seemed to include a prawn cocktail in their starter menu, before they were considered a cliché and dropped out of fashion and off the menus.
I like the contrast of the tender prawns and the sauce on crisp lettuce leaves.  Here's my messy version, which  had a bed of little gem lettuce, cherry tomatoes and avocado and was delicious.  I could have done with some brown crusty bread to eat it with. Must remember that for next time!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Playing with Triplets

I've been doing a bit of choreography recently - nothing unusual there, as I usually have several on the go or under revision (lots of choreography UFOs!). I switch between them as the mood takes me.  As I found myself adding triple steps to one, I looked back at a couple of recently completed pieces and I started to wonder: Do I use triple steps too often? Do any of my choreographies not have a triple step somewhere? (Answer: Probably not.) Anyway, why not use them when they are so simple and flexible?

All this set me thinking about triple steps, or triplets as they're often called. Triple step/triplet is a general term for any dance move which involves three steps, alternating the feet. Left right left, right left right. As usual, when I say step, I mean transfer your weight onto that foot. It's simple and pretty much universal. Examples are everywhere: the 'step-ball-change' used in jazz, modern and tap; ballroom dances such as the waltz and cha-cha-cha; the bouncy pas de basque used in ballet and many European folk dances; and ballet's chassé and pas de bourrée.

Triplets are also a basic step in contemporary dance and classes often include an exercise travelling across the floor, exploring the permutations of direction and placement of steps, switching between a flat foot, with or without a bent knee, and the ball of the foot, creating moments of hesitation or suspension; done in place, travelling, changing direction, turning. I used to get lost trying to work out all of the permutations for contemporary triplets and ballet pas de bourrée variations.

In belly dance, triple steps are used as one of the basic travelling steps and are very useful for travelling or changing the leading foot. With triple steps you can fly around, float, tip-toe in place, switch directions, weave to and fro, layer hip accents and shimmies and have endless fun playing around.  Here are some of my favourites:
  • Fly around the space with a 2/4 Malfuf rhythm. Stepping in time with the drum rhythm: Doum-tak-tak, flatfoot-toes-toes.
  • Float around with a 3/4 'Waltz' time, as if you are waltzing.  Pretty and effective with a veil.
  • With 4/4 rhythms, beat 4 can be used to add fluid or accented move, pivot turn, arm/hand gesture, whatever. You can repeat the same triplet on the other side, but use a different accent, or use the 'power of three' and do the same triplet and accent three times, then a completely different triplet and accent (or something completely different) for the fourth bar of four beats. You can travel and create pathways through the space, or stay almost on the spot.  If you want to be on balance for an accent or gesture movement on beat four, be careful not to take a large third step.
Here's a selection of triplets to play with:

Triple step A regular step with alternating feet, often done on the toes and stepping forward, together, in place, with the fourth beat used to swing the leg forward to take the next step. You can chant 'Tri-Ple-Step-And-Tri-Ple-Step-And' as you do it. You can travel backwards with them too, and add hip accents such as lifts/taqs, drops/chonks or twists. Another variation is effectively one and a half rocking steps - forward-back-forward, which can be done travelling forward or to the side, and layered with an undulation/camel so that you are doing two camels leading with one foot, then two with the other.

Side Together Side (faster and with a little jump after the first step, this becomes a chassé). Instead of stepping together (i.e. the second step to bring the foot to rest alongside the other foot), you could step across in front or behind.

Half grapevine/Opening the Gate/Link or Horse-shoe Step Finding a name which everyone agrees on is the most difficult thing about this step! Usually travels side to side with the lower body turning to face the diagonals. You step (alternating feet) across in front, to the side, then behind.

Back-Back-Forward Step back, second step to join the first, then forward again, toes-toes-flat.

Forward-Forward-Back Step forward, second step to join the first, then back again, toes, toes, flat. The tribal style 'double back' move is this triplet with a double hip drop accent at the end, the first drop happening as you step back.

3-Step Turn Is also a triple step and can be done travelling to cover space, or on the spot, sideways, forwards; in any direction you like really, but the trick is to take your first step and look in the direction of travel, and use some turn-out from the hip. Even if you are travelling, there's no need to take huge steps - keeping your feet 'under you' can help with balance.

Arabesque Unlike the ballet pose, standing on one leg with the other extended behind, in Middle Eastern Dance this usually refers to a pattern of steps with a quarter or half pivot turn. E.g. step across front, side, front and a pivot turn, in which the working leg may be extended behind, or just lifted from the knee (or other variations).  Can be done all on the toes, or flat-flat-toes. Be careful not to try to swing the lifted leg round to do the pivot turn.  The leg and foot should stay in place during the turn and then the foot comes down and through to step again. Turning the raised leg out slightly from the hip and pointing the toe creates a more graceful line.

So here's a little something to stimulate your creativity; a spot of homework, if you like. Over 8 bars of 4/4 rhythm, create a 32 beat sequence which uses all of these triplets, including two variations of the triple step. That's 8 counts of 4, 8 triplets with any move you like on count 4.

Want more?  You could double the length by adding some sort of static move in between each triplet, or repeating each triplet on the other side.

Go ahead! Experiment!  I know you'll create some lovely dance and you can show me the next time I see you!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Finding a Balance

My consultant's appointment eight weeks post-op revealed how stiff my toe is still, despite my efforts with my foot physio exercises.  As I posted before, I wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing, and the consultant agreed that I should have some time with a physiotherapist on an urgent basis. After nearly two weeks and several phone calls to chase up my referral, and then chase up the lack of appointment letter, I had my first session last week and my second session yesterday.  It was good, but hard work and painful at times. Before physio, I had no pain when I was just sitting doing nothing.  I was in so much pain by the time I got home after the first session that I took some painkillers, sat on the sofa with a drink and woke up a couple of hours later covered in cats.  There's a very fine balance between doing enough exercise for osteoarthritis and too much, and it's impossible to know where the line is on any given day. The following morning, I felt as though I'd been hit by a truck.  My knees ached, and the scar along my toe had gone from being a healthy, pearly flesh colour to being a dark pinky-purple slash, with a lumpy, shiny pink zig-zag running up it where the internal stitches are and a suffusion of darker greyish purple under the skin on either side.

It turns out that the exercises I have been doing are all good, but don't work the toe and foot hard enough. Also, it might still be early days, and it could be that the lump of bone which looked as though it was limiting the movement wasn't the only limiting factor.

The massage needs to include pulling the toe out to increase the joint space, and gently working it up and down. It feels good when the physio does it and I can't quite reproduce that for myself, probably because it's my foot, so I hold it at a different angle. I was already massaging the tendons involved in moving the big toe, but I should work a bit more where I can feel the stretch and tension when I try to move my toe.  Trying to bend and straighten, lift and lower the toe against resistance is really hard and painful, but it's only for a few repeats.  And I should hold a stretch against something solid (for which I use the end of the bath - the hot water makes it so much easier!).  This seems to be effective in a very small, slow way. I'm still trying to get back the small degree of flexibility I had before the operation, so every millimetre counts!

The real trick with all of this is to find exercises and work to a level which does not cause or increase symptoms of, in my case, pain, stiffness and inflammation, and it is particularly difficult when other joints are also a problem. I also notice that in physio, we only work the 'problem' side, but exercises should be done on both sides to keep the body balanced.

I was given a resistance band to do some leg exercises.  One end is anchored around the leg of a table, the other end has a loop in which I put my 'bad foot' ankle. Standing with my feet together so that the band is taut, I then do sets of 10 repetitions moving the leg out and back in a cross shape forwards, out to the side, across to the other side and backwards.  The resistance strengthens the working side, but also pulls on the supporting side which has to work to balance and to counteract the resistance pull of the working side. It's quite a stiff band, and the table starts to move across the tiled floor.  It is an easy exercise, but I found it really tough on my bad knees and almost immediately, my right knee went into flare. My left knee is better than it was after the flare which started in June, but still not great, so now neither knee supports my weight properly.  It's times like this when I start to become sleepless, partly through pain, and partly through worry that my dancing days will soon be over. But I'm not going to give up without a fight, so if three reps every third day is all I can manage to start with, that's what I'll do. 

The second physiotherapy appointment allowed me to have some fun (and muscles going for the burn) with wobble boards and a rebounder/trampoline (just bouncing a little stretches the toe joints), since I don't have those bits of kit at home. After that, both my knees were truly in flare.  

As physio is not supposed to cause or worsen symptoms, it was decided to switch to hydrotherapy. I had my first appointment yesterday.  The lovely warm pool was very much more gentle on the knees and I had a pinging sensation in my toe (in a good way) when I was doing a gentle jog up and down in the water. Even though I felt good afterwards, by the time I had done a small shop around the supermarket, my knees were agony and I was wiped out for the rest of the day. Just pass me the painkillers. Next week I have a hydrotherapy appointment first thing, then a drive and a somatic movement workshop.  I might be being a bit too ambitious, but I really need to be able to stand, walk and dance again.

The other exercises mainly involve balance challenges, which, I've discovered, are an important component of rehabilitation following lower limb injury or surgery.  They make the feet work harder, but also involve working the whole leg and the core muscles quite intensively. I'm finding them very difficult because of the pain and weakness in my knees. My balance has deteriorated noticeably over recent years. I've decided that I need to do more, and add more balance challenge exercises into my classes. This made me look back on my notes about balance and do some more reading, which will be the subject of another post at some point.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with these exercises, in that they are useful and effective, but I find them difficult and don't really enjoy them.  In theory, the starting point is 5 minutes, building to 15 minutes, but like the 10 reps starting point, I would start lower.  If you want to do these too, set up a space where you won't hurt yourself or damage anything else if you fall over, although the idea is that you don't let yourself fall - have a chair or stand near a kitchen worktop which you can use for support. Or heap cushions and pillows around you so that if you do crash land, at least it's soft!

Standing on one leg
It sounds simple, doesn't it?  Part of the trick is to start the balance by checking/correcting your posture, then transferring your weight to your supporting leg.  To start with, lift your working foot only a little way from the floor, and lift your arms to the side to help your balance.

As you get better, you can make this more of a challenge by:
  • Closing your eyes.
  • Lifting and lowering your arms.
  • Passing a small ball around your body.
  • Lifting one leg and passing the ball under your thigh.
  • Bending and straightening the supporting knee.
  • Moving the working leg to the front, side, back (away from the centre line of the body).
  • Standing on a cushion or something spongy.
  • Rising onto the toes of the working foot.
Any exercise done on one leg involves some degree of balance challenge, but sometimes it's good to play with being deliberately off-balance, extending and moving legs and arms around while tightening the core muscles and trying to find counter-balances.  It doesn't matter if it looks ungainly, you are working hard!  I used to do this in contemporary class and was reminded of it in a workshop by Galit Mersand at Fantasia last December.

I don't think I've ever truly appreciated ballet barre exercises until now.  The barre is just there as a light assistance to balance.  The exercises work the legs and feet intensively. I use the kitchen worktop as a barre, and do just a few demi pliés and battements various, an odd stretch and feeble rise here and there. Just a few, until my knees start complaining that they would be so much more comfortable were I to lie down. I can currently cope with about five minutes.  Still, it's better than nothing and good to start low and build gradually, however depressing it may be that I feel so utterly and pathetically puny. This month is going to be physically tough!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Tie Stash Milestone

Soon after my previous post in which I mentioned progress with my stash of ties, I popped into a favourite charity shop and came away with more.  I couldn't resist it.  I look at the colours, textures and patterns  rather than the fabric type. Most of them were silk, including another Liberty print. I wondered whether someone well-off had recently decluttered their wardrobe. As I added the details to my stock inventory, I saw that it took the total to 150.  That's right, I had just purchased my 150th tie. Not only that, but it is an Ermenegildo Zegna.  Recognising it as a 'designer' tie, I looked it up.  The cheapest I could find for sale was over £50, as they tend to be in quite a heavy silk.  This one is black with diagonals of different textures, beige lines and white dots.  I had to go an have a lie down to boggle at the fact that I had reached 150 ties, and ponder whether it might be better to sell the EZ to someone who will give it a good home (considering that I do not have a significant other to give it to) rather than use it.  I'm still thinking about it.

I felt pleased that I had started processing them with a view to making some articles which will hopefully sell and allow me to feel that I'm not just an obsessive hoarder. I noticed when I was going through them that I had several which had no labels showing their fabric type.  I settled down the other evening to unpick them and take fibres or a small snippet of fabric to burn test.  Of them all, only two looked like silk.  The rest, including one which had a brand label 'La Seta Italiana' (meaning Italian Silk) formed the shiny black beads which indicated synthetic fibres.

Since then, I have unpicked and washed all of my synthetic fabric ties (just over half the total).  If I thought the interlinings were dirty, the tippings and tie fabrics themselves were even dirtier. There are some stains which will not come out, including a yellow mark from the degraded glue on a sticky price label from an pink tie which looked as though it had been left in the shop window too long.  In between hand-washing batches of them, I had a little Google for items made with recycled ties.  There were a few tutorials for making things such as rolled and folded roses or pouches for phones or iPods.  I'd already played with making a rose from a whole tie and decided that it was too bulky with the interlining. Most of the ideas seemed to involve using the ties just as they were.  Having seen the colour of the water as I was washing them, all I have to say to that is, Eeew, yuk!  There is only one tie in my set where I could see that someone had tried to clean it - and the scrubbing had pulled threads and created a fuzzy, frayed patch right on the main part of the tie.  Judging by the smell of socks and old after-shave, most of the ties came straight from cupboard to shop.  Now the idea of using a second hand tie without taking it apart and washing it is unthinkable.

It is certainly not the easy or cost-effective option. By the time that I have unpicked, separated, washed, dried, pressed, selected for use, fussy-cut and finally created the article, I cannot charge enough to repay fully the time spent doing all this, as well as the time spent visiting the shops in the first place.  No wonder many craft-makers prefer new materials, but I like the idea of recycling these fabrics into something new or different. There's the thing with arts and crafts.  The time spent by the artist in learning their craft, acquiring tools and techniques, researching, designing, experimenting, failing, practising and creating is never truly paid for by the buyer.  Whether it's a performer, writer or creative artist working with any medium you can think of, they are working at least partly for love.  It is said that money can't buy love, but it seems to me that if you watch a performance or buy something handmade, not mass produced and possibly one of a kind, then perhaps you are buying some of the love that the artist put into their creation.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Freshest Bread ...

... is one you make yourself.  I love bread and am very grateful that I can tolerate gluten, unlike some of my friends.  I had a craving, yearning for that warm, yeasty smell again recently and making my own bread was the only solution.

When I first moved to Wales, I made bread pretty much every couple of days and worked out my own recipe of a combination of flours, oil rather than lard or butter, dried yeast and lukewarm water.  We had a Rayburn and the solid state oven baked the bread beautifully - all I had to do was adjust the length of cooking time, depending on how hot the Rayburn happened to be at the time.  I sat the dough on the plate rack above the Rayburn to prove.  More than once, I left it too long and it started to escape the pans, but in general, I thought it was pretty good.

When I moved into the cottage, I had already given up making bread regularly due to adverse comments and the lack of time while working; besides which, the old gas oven was just not up to it.  It would have been a perfect time to get a bread-maker, but I didn't have the counter or cupboard space for one.  Then the old gas cooker packed up and had to be replaced.  I've had my lovely new oven (and no-one to criticise me!) for over a year, so I thought, why not?

I've forgotten so much - one of those 'use it or lose it' things.  I've made focaccia a couple of times and forgotten to cover dough on its second rise, to keep the crust soft.  I couldn't find my previous recipe, so used a different one, with different brands of flour and yeast, and was not very impressed with the results.

On Sunday, I found that I had forgotten to buy bread and didn't have any left in the freezer. I was yearning for fresh bread, so I decided to make a white loaf, shaped like a cottage loaf as I have lost my bread pans.  I used a new recipe and found the amount of water, albeit only 68% hydration, resulted in an enormously slack dough. Not just slack - really wet and sticky, somewhere between dough and batter.  Knocking it back was a nightmare which gave me flashbacks to my earliest attempts at bread making in my teens, where I would have dough stuck up to my elbows, in my hair, on my face and on every surface, except where it was supposed to be.  Eventually I gave up trying to knock it back and just let it slump into the oiled pan I was going to use, covered it with oiled film and let it think about rising again.  It didn't do much, so perhaps I left it too long on its first rise.  Wondering what it would turn out like, I threw it in the oven and remembered this time to take five minutes off the cooking time (I burnt the last focaccia).

The resulting bread was lovely, quite dense and with a beautiful crumb.  I don't aspire to be an artisan baker, but I think I'll be doing more bread making from now on.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Fanning Creative Sparks

I heard an extract from a piece of music a few weeks ago which stuck in my head and refused to go away.  It snuck up on me and replayed itself in my head at odd moments.  I found myself watching for the advert in which it was used.  I had to look it up, then buy the music, and since then I have been playing it over and over.  It's a bit obsessive, I know, but it's a long time since I found a piece that arouses such an intense desire to dance to it and makes me want to scream with excitement! Not that I feel able to dance and do it justice, yet, but it is providing a much-needed motivation and inspiration too!

Suddenly, several things are coming together; an idea I had for a choreography and for a workshop, and a costume which uses some ruined assuit belts (the coins corroded and rusted to the fabric - it remains to be seen whether I can save it), and a commission for a piece of jewellery from my lovely friend Katherine over at Crafty Miss Kitty/Miss Kitty's Monsters to match, and my need to get dancing again.  As usual, I also have several other projects on the go, so I'm nibbling away at them all, feeling stimulated and happy, but frustrated too. I want to dance and my body won't let me!

I was feeling so frustrated, I was in two minds about going to a show/hafla in Pontlliw, put on by my friend Aliah and her Zahwah Belly Dancers, featuring Ozgen as the headline act. Another friend was offering a car share, so I would have been being absolutely stupid not to go.  It was great being able to chat and catch up on the journeys. The show was great, there were so many friends and acquaintances to catch up with and another two of the Imago dancers decided to come at the last minute too. Ozgen was as marvellous as ever. As I said goodnight, he asked how come I wasn't dancing and I explained about my foot op and osteoarthritis.  I wasn't going to go to his workshops the following day, but he said no, come and watch me teach, take notes.  Bless him, he's so lovely! So I did, perched on an exercise ball, stretching my toe, periodically bouncing up and down to the drum solo work and copying arm flows in his flamenco fusion workshop.

At the end of the weekend, I had new fan veils, lots of notes and fresh ideas for the drum solo and zambra pieces I've had on the back burner for ages (but after a few more notes will probably stay there pro tem). It's like oxygen on burning embers, fanning the creative sparks.  All I need now is some space in which to dance and play. And knees and a foot which work. And a lot less pain, please.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

This is something quite close to my heart, as life is too short to be unhappy.  I have a few friends who are quite depressed at the moment, and some others who become sadder and feel the urge to hibernate as the season changes and the days grow shorter.
Depression is a deep and difficult subject. Whatever the cause, it doesn't respond to the advice to 'pull yourself together', often given by those who probably don't have a clue. I realised yesterday, with a little help from my friends, that there are some things I have been doing and which, over the years, have helped me mellow considerably, remain optimistic and become happier.  So, while I finish my breakfast and before I scrub my hands and start dealing with metres of fine silk, I thought I would share.

It was Friday 13th yesterday, and although I'm not superstitious, I should have known better than to think things would go to plan.  I dashed out in the afternoon to go to the bank, but the journey took longer than anticipated because of lots of traffic, all sensibly taking the rainy, greasy roads at a reasonably slow pace.  Having arrived in town, I found the bank's doors locked - they now close an hour earlier than they used to. Then I remembered I was going to do the recycling while I was out, but forgot to put the box in the car.  A 22 mile round trip for nothing, I whined later on Facebook. A friend responded 'But you're still smiling. I like that about you.' Actually, I was, because it seemed like I was the butt of some celestial joke, probably designed to teach me not to get distracted, thinking about the moth caterpillars which were stripping another friend's weeping cherry tree when I should have been getting my own butt in gear. Spooky how he knew I was smiling, but his simple statement made me all feel all warm inside. Actually, I still feel all warm inside from it.

So here's the first couple of things:
  • Smile.  Grit your teeth if you have to, but find something to smile about.  Smile at yourself in the mirror.  You smile at friends, don't you?  Surely you must be your own friend? And ...
  • Say something nice to someone (or yourself) to give them a reason to smile.
Another friend posted: If you keep your food in a refrigerator, your clothes in a closet, have a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head, you are richer than 75% of the world's population'. Whether this is true or not, it's about counting your blessings and feeling gratitude, which itself is about focusing on positives and not taking things for granted.  I used to find this difficult when I was feeling depressed, until I started to tell myself things could be worse, I could be living in a war zone (or substitute your worst nightmare). So:
  • Be grateful, for anything or anyone at all.
And lastly for today:
  • Be kind to yourself and give yourself something to look forward to and feel excited about.
This is particularly important if you feel stuck in a rut and/or swamped with things you have to do.  It could be anything, however small.  As an exercise, make a quick list of several things which you like, just the first things which come into your head. It doesn't need to be a long list. They could be the simplest things, and it may only be things which you feel like at the moment - next week's list could be different. (But if you are struggling to find more than one or two things, please, go to see your GP as soon as you can about your depression.  Seriously.)  Not things you would like in an ideal world (like winning several million on the lottery).  These need to be SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.  What does that mean?  Well, take the first thing on my list below. Specific: not just toast, but hot, buttered, white toast. Measurable: how much toast?  Well, one or two rounds would do. Achievable: yes, I have the bread, butter and toaster. Realistic: I'm supposed to be watching my weight and I know wholemeal bread would be better for me, but a couple of rounds of white toast is not going to hurt much in the great scheme of things, so yes. Time-bound: in other words, when? Well, today, while the bread's still fresh, but not necessarily every day.

Here's my quick list:
  • Hot, buttered, white toast
  • A nice cup of tea
  • The smell of lavender
  • Fresh sheets
  • Cuddles with my cats
  • The warmth from a hot water bottle
  • Flowers
  • Butterflies and moths
The next thing is to do them.  In fact, not just do them, but really appreciate, enjoy and take pleasure in doing them, whether one at a time or several at the same time.  For example, I could snuggle with a hot water bottle into fresh sheets smelling of lavender with a nice cup of tea and some hot, buttered, white toast while cuddling my cats.  Or just have the toast, which in fact is what I did this morning for breakfast.  You could aim for one a day, or one a week. Let them inspire you to other things which you would enjoy. The bit about flowers and butterflies might seem non-specific, but I paused on my morning stagger around the barns to appreciate a few butterflies out on the buddleias in the morning sun. While I was thinking of my list, I had a flash of another friend's 'happy' list and I decided to use some ribbon (that I'd been wondering what best to do with) to make her favourite flower. I shall very much enjoy creating that and sending it to her as a surprise, which, I hope, will make her smile.