Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dancing Without Fear

Strange Children, State Library of New South Wales
So, I've been dancing for six years now, right? I take classes regularly, I can do ITS and look amazing doing it, I know all the basic belly dance moves and frequently take workshops in new things to add to my dance vocabulary (whirling! modern dance! poi! swing!). So why is it that when it comes time to making up something to put on a stage, I don't feel competent?

Well, the answer is right there in the question. I don't feel competent. Yeah, I can technically execute moves I've been learning for years, with my shoulders back and my chin up and my pelvis tucked, but when it comes to feel the music, to interpret it and make it my own, I freeze up. Suddenly everything feels wrong, or I'm worried about how I like and how it doesn't feel like I'm Rachel Brice (again, the comparison!), or that I look like as uncoordinated as I felt during my first color guard practice.

I recently started taking a modern dance class. Modern dance is something I've wanted to try for around two years now, but I could never find classes for adults that were within a half hour's drive. Luckily, the new studio I teach at now has a modern dance class, so I started showing up to class at 9:30 on a Sunday morning.

Let me tell you, coming from perfect belly dance isolations and jumping into "and now you're just going to let your whole body fall to the right, spin to the floor and jump back up!" is a huge shock. I had such a hard time that first half hour, and I was back to feeling that I wasn't competent. However, my foray into modern dance happened to fall into the month where I tried every kind of dance I could fine, and after reminding myself that I had once thought I couldn't belly dance, I threw myself into the move.

And you know what? I did okay! I'm not as flexible as the teacher (who has been dancing a million kinds of dances since forever) or the co-student who is also in color guard or on the dance team and can probably do the splits, but I also didn't suck. And it was fun, to throw myself around with controlled abandon and know I wasn't going to fall or run into someone or look stupid.

I know that I can learn any dance I want, without worrying about how old I am or how flexible I am or how high I can kick my legs. What I'm learning now is to dance without fear. To dance without being afraid of looking stupid or executing a move wrong. To be able to release my body and just follow the music. Maybe I still don't look like the dancers I'm trying emulate, but I'm on my way.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dancing As Healing

Nijinksy, Library of Congress
Four months ago, my dance teacher broke up with her long-term boyfriend. She immediately threw herself into a new choreography with props and custom costumes, and planned an elaborate stage show I was lucky to be a part of.

Around the first of the year, I experienced my own heartbreak. The following night, I got on a stage with my troupe around me and danced. And then I danced on stage the next week. And the week after that.

For me, dance is a way of expressing the feelings I can't express, or that feel as though they are about to poisoning me. Though my heart was cracked that first night on stage, I still felt the love of getting my makeup done, even though my face was swollen from crying. I still felt the creativity and beauty as I put my costume together. I still experienced the excitement of getting on stage, the thrill of the music, the togetherness of dancing with my troupe, even as the one person I wanted in the audience wasn't there.

Since then, I have danced as much as possible. I've taken new dance classes, made new dance friends, and through it all, dance and music have brought me through. When I am feeling lonely, I go to class and my students or fellow dancers cheer me up. Last week after a particularly bad weekend, I settled into the slow taxeem of ITS and just felt as though I belonged. There have been mornings when I felt so low I just had to get up and out of bed and dance. In fact, some of the people who have been there for me the most, who have given me light, have been people I have danced with.

If you have been dancing long enough to feel comfortable doing it, the next time you feel low, experience heartbreak, or just need a pick-me-up, try putting on some music and dancing it out. Play a song that particularly speaks to you, a song that makes you feel happy, even something silly that just makes you laugh. Grab a friend or family member if you can, and just dance. The feeling of the music, of putting yourself back inside your body again, of slowly finding yourself again when all seems lost, they are things that can heal you. At the very least, it'll help you get your mind off your sadness for awhile.

Or go to a dance class.

To me, dance class is the nail shop for dancers. There's the camaraderie of women doing the same thing you are--learning the steps, the moves, the music, gossiping, talking about spouses and significant others, complaining about work and family. It's hard to imagine that the woman next to you in line at Starbucks ever experienced the same thing you did, but when you are doing the same choreography as that woman, or following her lead in improv, you have a better sense that she is coming from the same place--everyone has their own problems, everyone has their own heartaches.

The roots of belly dance lie in the houses of women who danced for each other because they couldn't dance in public. They danced for birth, for death, for love, for life. No matter your style of dance, take a lesson from them. Use dance to get you through life's joys and sorrows, and remember that there will always be someone to dance with.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Dreaded 'F' Word

Margaret Barr's 'Strange Children' ballet, State Library of New South Wales
That's right. I'm going to use the 'F' word: Failure. Cringe, right? You immediately think of humiliation, shame, everyone pointing and laughing at you. Really, there are no better words for failure than failure.

But I bet there's a lot about failure you don't know. What it really means, how you can use it to make you a better dancer, teacher, and performer. It all lies in the way you look at your failures.

To other people

Failure is something to be swept under the rug. You never speak of it, never learn from it, and if you fail it means you should never try again. Some people do their utmost just to avoid failure, including never trying to do something. How many times have you avoided taking a performance opportunity, or turned down a teaching gig because you were afraid of failing? How many times have you avoided a risky choreography or a new show idea because you were worried about people hating it?

What failure will mean to you

Failure just means something that didn't work. Take another path. Try something different next time. It's not the be all and end all to your dance career, and you shouldn't let it be. Sure, there's people out there who will point out your failures and try to use them against you, but take a good hard look at what they've done, and I bet that they haven't even attempted half the things you have. As Princess Farhana has said, most people can't even leave a voicemail, let alone get on a stage and dance! Failure never has to mean the end of the road. It's just the option to go back and take another road.

How does failure make you a better dancer?

I'm sure we've all seen the articles about famous people who failed their first time around. But how does that compare to your career as a dancer?

It means you take more risks. Don't be afraid of trying something new on stage. Use that song you've been thinking about. Infuse those new salsa classes with your performance. Take that teaching position, even if you don't feel ready for it, or sign up to do that performance. Sure, you might fail, but you also might succeed. You could end up with new friends, a new dance gig, or at the very least, respect from those around you who are afraid to do what you just did.

I got my teaching job when the owner of a studio I once studied at called up to ask me if I could sub for a sick belly dance teacher. Teaching was on my horizon, but I didn't expect to go from a phone call to my first job as a teacher in 8 hours! In the last year, I've lost half my students who didn't like my style, but I've also kept two students who love dancing just as much as I do. They've progressed so much, and I've learned a lot about teaching on the way, and become a better dancer because of it. Sure, I failed in losing some of my students, but I succeeded in learning about what makes me a better teacher and dancer.

Don't be afraid to fail. It means you tried harder than everyone else around you, because you were willing to fail. If you never fail, you've never really danced.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Teaching the Same Choreographies

So, you've found yourself teaching your first belly dance class, congratulations! Teaching baby belly dancers how to do basic moves and watching as they grasp how to circle their hips or handle a veil is so rewarding. But after the first few weeks or months almost everyone has usually grasped the basics and are looking to you to provide more. But your new students aren't ready for a performance yet, nor are they ready for an advanced class. What do you teach them now?

They might not be ready for a performance yet, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't learn a choreography! Getting used to remembering a long string of moves will be helpful later, as well as give them an early shot at learning how to combine all those moves together in a 3-6 minute sequence. Plus, you'll be ready for a performance at a moment's notice, once they've got a good choreography under their belt.

But once you've got that first choreo down, then what? Do you just keep rehearsing it? No! Teach them another one. So they're still not ready for a performance? No matter, there's a huge benefit in having a group of dancers that all know a couple of the same choreos. Why is that?

Well, if you have a couple of go-to choreos, you will always have dancers that can perform it. You'll always be ready for student performances, and you'll give new bellydance students something to aspire to. A new bellydancer will see dancers in the classes above her performing these dances beautifully, and she'll want to work for the day when she can perform with them. Also, you have a crop of dancers who can help out the baby dancers and practice with them outside of class--you have a built in team!

And if you're introducing a new choreo, you can spend entire classes working on combos or breaking down skills needed for a specific move. Class planning at its easiest!

Also, you'll be following in the footsteps of many a professional dance company. Several dance companies are known for the dances they put on year after year, and the choreography that goes with them. They don't change it up very often--why should you? Don't be afraid to tweak it every so often, if you don't like a part or you just notice your dancers having a hard time with sections, but there's no reason to throw out all your hard work and start afresh. If you want something new, just add it to your repertoire!

My very first dance teacher had 4 or 5 choreos that she taught beginning students. I recently saw a video of her latest students doing a performance--they were still doing the same choreos I learned in her beginning class, but each dancer added her own personality to it. If you stick to a set of core choreographies, you won't ever look like the same tired old troupe. There's always new dancers, new costumes, new blocking, and new venues.

In short, having a set of choreographies is only beneficial to you and your students. You'll have an easier time planning classes, your students have something to work towards, even if it's not a performance, and you'll always be ready for a show. You can't beat it!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Collaboration or Competition?

Girls dancing, by Sam Hood. State Library of New South Wales
Belly dancers are a small group. We're not widely known (just remember the comments you got the last time you told someone you're a belly dancer), and we often end up in the same areas due to low resources of teachers, classes, and gigs. So it becomes a small world. You end up seeing the same faces at all the events, in your classes, the same teachers in the same areas. After awhile, you begin to feel like there's just too many belly dancers!

While having a small community of belly dancers can be great for finding new friends and dance buddies, you also run the risk of competing against the same people for jobs and performances. Tempers can flair, people can get catty, and you soon wonder if you just have to become a ruthless belly dancer in order to get anywhere in life. But you miss the community aspect of it still. So which is better? Collaboration or competition?


So it's no good trying to make friends with the local dancers. The next best thing is to compete against them, right? Well, if you've got some tricks up your Isis wings that they don't, this can work for you. Maybe you went away to a festival and learned a new technique that no one knows yet. Or you've got an in with a popular troupe who decided you were the best dancer to impart their new wisdom on. Or you're the only Bollywood-Flamenco-Hip Hop-Ballet Fusion Belly Dancer in the area. Either way, you've got a unique style and everyone wants to learn it or watch it. So you win, right?

Not always. Sure, it feels great to be the dancer in demand when the 'popular' crowd didn't think you were fit to fold their veils, but you lose a lot, too. If you don't have a skill or style that's in demand, or that people want to learn or watch, you might have the urge to resort to other tactics, such as undercutting other dancers, turning new dancers against your rivals, or even just plain old sabotage. Undercutting is one of the biggest ethical breaches you can make as a belly dancer, spreading stories about other dancers is plain rude, and sabotage is just outright wrong. And, in the end, you have to deal with all the stress of constantly staying on top of your skill, learning new things so that you can always be the biggest dancer on the block, and you might never have any dancer friends. Sure, you'll have tons of followers, but it's hard to be best pals with people who want to learn how to be like you. It's a lonely way to live.


So why is collaboration good for you? Well, it opens the door to learning new things from other dancers. If you collaborate with a group of fellow dancers, each one of you brings something new and different to the table. You have a better chance of producing something unique. And collaborating with other dancers suddenly opens up your network. Each dancer in the group knows people you don't, and it'll be easier to get gigs and performance slots if you know someone who knows someone. Also, even just teaching classes is augmented by having a group of dancers work together. You've got automatic marketing. Your collaborators can talk you up to their students, or if they have a student who doesn't fit in their classes but might fit in yours, they can send them your way, and you can do the same for them. Everyone wins, right?

Usually, yes. But with a group of dancers who always work together, you run the risk of becoming stagnant, and always doing the same thing. And if you've got shy members of the group, they might have some really great ideas, but are too afraid to express them for fear of getting shot down. You also might lose out on new blood if no one is willing to break into your group, if you make it too exclusive--you might even end up being the 'popular' kids on the block that everyone hates.

The Best Option

Which is better, than? Well, that's easy: both! It sounds crazy, but people who have studied group work versus solo work found that both styles, used together, work the best. Instead of brainstorming with your fellow dancers, brainstorm alone. When you meet up with your group, everyone reads off their ideas, and the merits of each get debated. Sure, if you all came up with something together, you might end up with a really great performance idea or new class to teach, but most of the time, people end up agreeing with the alpha in the group.

By brainstorming alone and debating in a group, everyone has a chance to have their say, and you'll see even the shy dancers coming up with really creative ideas that you know you'd never think of. And if you advertise yourself as being open to new ideas from other dancers not in your group, you can always have a fresh crop of dancers who might want to collaborate on a new project, and you get to be part of something really great. By having other dancers come in and out of the group, you'll never stagnate or grow old, and you'll be well-liked and known as a group of creative dancers who always pulls out all the stops.

Your Turn

Do you have experience with collaboration or competition? Which did you like best, and why?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Chorus Girls, State Library of New South Wales
You don't know it, but every dancer out there has it. Anyone can catch it, no matter how long you've been dancing. And once you have it, it's difficult to get rid of. What is it?


Comparitis is comparing yourself to any other dancer. It doesn't matter if she's younger than you, been dancing longer than you, or does a completely different style then you, you'll ultimately end up comparing yourself to another dancer at more than one point in your dance career. You'll see her on the stage or in a video, and think, "Why bother? I'll never be as good as her."

I nearly caught Comparitis last week. I've been practicing with Rachel Brice's new online studio, Datura Online (check it out--classes for every dancer!), and as I tried and failed at the combination that Rachel (of course) made look like a child could do, I started to get that feeling again. For me, it starts as a sweaty, panicky feeling. Then the worry starts in the back of my mind: "What if I'm not good enough? What if I never get this?"

Luckily, Rachel had already taken to Twitter to help other dancers beat Comparitis. After someone mentioned difficulty learning a combo from one of Datura's new videos, Rachel replied that it had taken her days to memorize and learn the combo, even though she was the one who created it!

When you find yourself coming down with Comparitis, take the following remedies to hold it off--maybe even make you immune forever!

1. Remember that every dancer, including the one you are comparing yourself to, started out somewhere.
2. Every dancer is unique, especially you. You have different bodies, different background, may have done different types of dancing, had different teachers--the list goes on. No dancer takes the exact same path as you.
3. Realize that the dancer you're comparing yourself not only had to come up with what she's doing, but she had to practice it, drill it, do it until she could do it in her sleep. You're seeing the end result of months and years of hard work.
4. You're comparing your insides to someone else's outsides. The dancer you're comparing yourself to has probably looked at another dancer and said the same thing: "I'll never be as good as her."
5. Keep practicing!

After working with the new Rachel combo for 30 minutes, I was confident enough with it to think about adding it to a performance I'm doing next month. But first, I'll have to practice it a couple times!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Structuring Your Practice

Ruth St. Denis in the Cobras, New York Public Library
Now that you've figured out how much time you have to spend on dance practice, what do you do with that time? What's the best use of it, and how can you make sure you get in all the practice you need?

Fifteen Minutes
If all you've got is fifteen minutes, then it's drill, baby, drill! Make sure you warm up first, so do a minute of jumping jacks or jump rope or something to get your blood flowing. Then pick three short drills. For instance, maybe you can do 3/4 shimmies, chest lifts, and head slides. Put on your favorite music, and drill for about fifteen minutes. Then cool down by stretching out for a minute or two after.

Thirty Minutes
Thirty minutes gives you a little bit more time. Spend longer warming up, about five minutes. You can drill here, and you can even practice combos. Or, if you're getting ready for a show, just dance out your music for half your practice time. Thirty minutes give you plenty of time to throw in a couple of drills and then experiment a little. Finish up with five minutes of stretching.

Forty-Five Minutes
You've got forty-five minutes! What's a technique you've been wanting to learn or practice? Start with a five-minute warm-up, then drill your basis for about ten minutes. Then you can dedicate a solid chunk of time to working on a specific technique.  Fifteen or twenty minutes, and make sure you don't over-do it. Then you can throw in a couple of creative things, maybe put on a song you've wanted to solo with and see how your body responds. Finish with a nice long cool down and stretch out your muscles--you'll need it.

One Hour or More
If you have an hour or more, you can really spend some time in the warmup and cool down. If you're a yogi, do a couple of yoga stretches to warm up your muscles. Some sun salutations will get you all ready to go. If you can't tell your downward dog from your cat pose, then some jumping junks, lunges, pushups, and squats will get your muscles nice and warm, and will help you build strength. Once you're all warmed up, you'll want to keep things interesting. Drill for about twenty minutes, then switch to technique, then go to creative, then maybe go back to drilling. Or, if you have a bellydance technique video, put that on and do some of the exercises. You can even try to learn something new by watching YouTube videos or performances. When you're out of time, do a nice yoga cool down. You've been working hard, and you'll want to avoid any soreness the following day.

No matter how little time you've got to practice belly dance, you always have time to do something. Now you have no excuse to not practice, so figure out how much time you've got, and get out there and dance!