Monday, November 14, 2011

Your 20 Percent Time: Getting Creative With Your Choreography

Have you heard about Google's 20 percent time? It's where they give their engineers and programmers a day a week to spend on personal projects. An entire day, to work on anything they want, paid for and encouraged by their company. The bonus for Google is that these side projects often result in new features for the company: both Gmail and GTalk were born out of their 20 percent program. It works because employees are given a chance to do something that isn't work, to explore new opportunities and lines of study that wouldn't be open to them in their normal projects. The creativity required to build new things comes out of that 20 percent time.

So how does this impact a dancer? Well, have you ever seen a dancer perform something creative that's not quite belly dance? Every wonder how a dancer figured out that that kind of fusion might look good, or that that piece of music might have a great story to dance to it? Did you ever ask yourself, as you're drilling hip lifts and hip drops for the millionth time, how can I be more creative as a dancer? Well, the answer to that is the 20 percent program.

Sure, you should be drilling the basics and practicing your choreo and your cues, but if this is all you do, that creative bolt out of the blue that you need to make something new and different isn't going to happen. Sure, you can watch those dancers and figure maybe inspiration will strike you, but in reality, it doesn't happen as often as you think. The best way to make those creative bolts of lightening happen is by creating your own 20 percent time.

Your own 20 percent time can be anything you want. Have you always admired ballet or flamenco or hip hop but love belly dance too much? Try to find a class in something other than belly dance and study a new style on the side. Hear a piece of music on the radio that sounds really danceable but it's not a bellydance song? Practice to it anyway. If you're still apprehensive, just play something inspiring and move. It doesn't have to be belly dance--try acting out an emotion, or come up with a scene in your head and dance it out. Play with it, see what you come up with, and if it feels great, take it further.

Of course, we all have constraints on our time, so your 20 percent time doesn't have to be exactly 20 percent. Maybe it's a day a week, or even just a song. Spend at least a little time doing something different. Once you get used to experimenting, don't forget to try adding it to a choreo or your solos. You'll soon have other dancers coming up to you to ask where you came up with that idea.

By creating your own 20 percent time, you'll quickly find that you're more creative, and that you're a better dancer because of it!

(And if you'd like a more personal example, this blog is an example of how I utilize my 20 percent time)

Obstacles and Creativity

Ruth St. Denis, New York Public Library
Have you ever wondered how you can be more creative? Ever watched another dancer's amazing performance or choreography and wondered, "How can I do that?" Or, if you're like me, have you ever tried to choreograph something new, or improv to a song that felt really inspiring when you started, but now feels like an un-rhythmical mess? You've probably told yourself that you just aren't that creative, or maybe you're not cut out for performing, but in fact, there is a way you can help your creativity along.

There are a lot of suggestions from other creatives on how to get past your "dancer's block." Find an inspiring piece of music, watch other dancers, try a new style of dance, record yourself dancing over and over until you find what works--there are plenty of things you can do to spark your creativity. But one of the best things you can do is to limit yourself, rather than trying to step outside the box.

Psychological studies have shown that when people are given limits and obstacles, their imaginations soar. Our everyday lives are all about maximizing efficiency, and eventually we just try to find the easiest route (remember those one-class wonders who are professionals after one session?). However, when your brain is forced to operate within certain constraints, you are forced to come up with new ways to be original. Just look at ballet: a dance that has been around for more than a century, has strict rules on methods of movement, costuming, and music, and yet it's still one of the most beautiful art forms. Even instructors of modern dance, with all of its outside-the-box style, recommend that students study ballet first.

So how do you apply this to your own dance practice? Drill, baby, drill! Practice the basics, over and over, and then see what you can do with them. It's how the greatest fusions are born. Dancers started out in jazz or flamenco or ballet, started studying bellydance, and fused the two together because they knew the constraints of each dance and were able to take them to greater heights. But even if you're just sticking to bellydance, put on some music and practice the moves that form the foundation of bellydance. You're never too old to pretend to be a beginner. Or, if you're a little tired of drilling, find a difficult choreography and work on mastering it for a performance.

As for me, I'm going to start taking ballet next year. I've always loved it, and after going back and forth on different dances to try, I've chosen to stick with the classics. Of course, it is also the easiest class for me to get to--I don't want to make my obstacle too big!

So if you want to get more creative, give yourself an obstacle or limitation. Try to master a basic move you've had trouble with in the past, start taking a new dance style in addition to the one you have, or learn a new choreography. You'll not only get better at your new skill, but you'll also find your imagination expanding!

 Source: Need to Create? Get a Constraint

Own it! When Things Don't Go the Way You Planned

Once I was supposed to perform a group flamenco piece at the Orange County Fair. I had several other shows that summer and couldn't come up with the money for a flamenco costume, so I rented from another dancer who was the same size as me. Because I was renting the costume, we decided that the costume's owner would bring it to the show. Unfortunately, she thought I was bringing it. So, here we are at the show, I'm supposed to be on stage in an hour, and I have no costume to wear!
Luckily, we had ten other dancers who were performing a gypsy fusion bellydance piece just before our flamenco piece. With their help, I was able to borrow a skirt from one of the dancers and use a camisole and jacket from my practice gear and assemble a costume. In the end, no one even noticed I was wearing something different.

One of the reasons no one noticed was that I owned my costume. Even though I was wearing something vastly different than the other two girls I was dancing with, I didn't hide in the back or shrink away from the spotlight.

When you're on stage, it's important to own your stage, no matter what. When you own your stage, you can do no wrong. If you're in a group choreography and turn the wrong way or perform the wrong part, keep a smile on your face and a confident stance, and your audience will believe that everything happened the way it was supposed to.

Owning it helps in improvisational situations, too. If you're doing a group improv, sometimes things don't happen the way you planned. I've had my muscle memory kick in at the wrong time, resulting in my cuing a move I didn't mean to cue. Rather than derail the train I was leading, I followed through with the move and changed it at the first opportunity. The girls behind me didn't notice anything was wrong, nor did the audience.

Whatever you do on stage, do it with confidence. Strut your stuff with your head held high, and tell everyone you meant to do that.

Monday, November 7, 2011

But I Don't Feel Like Practicing Tonight!

I love dancing. I hear music and I start composing choreo to it. I flureo while on the phone. I do shimmies walking around the office.

But there are nights when I get home and I look around my messy house and my undone laundry and the pile of dishes in the sink and say, "Do I really have to go to practice tonight?"

Of course, the answer is Yes! I have to go to practice. I want to be a professional bellydancer. I want to teach more students, I want to dance on more stages. I have to go to practice if I want that. But sometimes, it's hard to remember my end goal, or even why I want that end goal in the first place.

In a case like that, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to get my body and my brain cooperating and off to practice.

How to conquer your practice resistance
Put on your dance clothes: When you feel yourself start to slide into the Don't Wanna Practice Blues, put on your dance clothes. For this to work, you should have special dance clothes--maybe a special top or practice skirt, or some yoga pants just for dance class. I have several skirts I wear just to practice that get me in the mood for dancing.

Watch some bellydance videos: Have a favorite dancer or troupe? Look up some of their videos on YouTube and spend a few minutes watching them. I always get inspired by watching the dancers I admire, and it always makes me want to jump up and start dancing myself. Watching other dancers also serves to remind me what I'm aiming for, and I remind myself that I'm not going to get good just sitting around watching videos.

Put on some music: Did you just buy some new dance music? Put it on and try out a few moves. Even if you're just walking around the house cleaning or cooking dinner, play your favorite dance music and watch the way your body reacts. Your body will just start dancing naturally, and you'll find yourself in the mood to move faster than you think.

Recruit a dance buddy: I introduced a friend of mine to bellydance, and now that she lives near me, we carpool to class. Whenever there's an extra class or workshop, I give her a call and we go together. It helps to have someone else go with you, and remind you to go to class. It adds the extra little bit of accountability you might need to succeed.

Set up prepayment with your teacher: Still having trouble getting to class? Pay for a month's worth of classes in one go, and have your teacher set up an expiration date. If you reach the expiration date and haven't used all your classes, you've lost them. Some studios will do this automatically, to discourage the one-class wonders, but you can easily do it to yourself if you're on good terms with your teacher or studio. Knowing that there's money riding on your attendance will give you the motivation to get to class.

If you've tried everything and you're still having trouble getting to class, maybe it's time to consider that something isn't working. If you come to this conclusion, don't despair yet! Maybe it's just the teacher's style, or the women you're dancing with. It's okay to admit that maybe you'd get along better with another group, or learn better from a different teacher. Really take a look at your situation, and if you really want to stick with bellydance, make sure you figure out what works for you and keeps you going to class.