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!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When Do I Have Time to Practice?

George Eastman House
Dance class is great, but the only way you're really going to get good is if you practice. Sounds easy, but if you're like most dancers, you've got a day job, family, other hobbies, errands, bills to pay, and a whole slew of other things until you're facing the end of a very long day and you realize you haven't practiced yet.

So how's a busy dancer supposed to fit in the time to dance? Well, how much time have you got?

Most people don't realize that they can usually free up to an hour a day. For instance, I'm sure you all know how much time we spend on the computer and watching television. But look at your media consumption. Do you really need to watch that half hour comedy? Do you really have to check Facebook again? If you're reading this and thinking to yourself, "Hey, I don't spend that much time watching TV or on the computer!" just try tracking yourself for a week. Carry around a little notebook, and write down your activities. Make sure you're honest, too, or it won't work.

You'll be pretty surprise at how much time you spend doing nothing at all. This is all time you can use to spend dancing! You may not free up an hour, but you can at least give yourself a little bit of time here and there to do some drills or go over a new choreography.

What if you have commitments that leave no free time a couple nights a week? Well, you can do things like get up earlier. Even getting up fifteen minutes earlier can give you some time to devote to dance practice. I used to do this when I was taking three dance classes a week, and it really helped improve my dancing that year. If you can't get up early, though, you don't need to practice every day.

Instead, look at your weekly schedule, and figure out where you have blocks of time. Maybe you're busy three nights a week, but the other two nights are pretty empty. Set aside a chunk of time both nights and use that for your dance practice. What if you don't have any weeknights free, but weekends are wide open? Then schedule out an hour or two on those days, and dance.

Okay, what if you have no time at all?


Take a good, hard look at your schedule. There is always something that you can drop, shift, or stop doing. If you're still having a hard time, sit down by yourself, no distractions, and write done what's really important to you. Belly dance should be on that list, but you'll also find that a lot of stuff you waste time on is not. Once you write down all the things that are important to you, look at the things you do every day that have nothing to do with your list.

Then, instead of stopping them all at once, pick one to replace with dance practice. Maybe you feel like you have to watch a television show every week. Try recording it (or ask someone to record it for you), and use that time instead to practice dance. Even if it's just half an hour a week, do that first. Small changes make a big difference, and I'll bet you'll find after awhile that you don't even miss that thing you used to do before you replaced it with bellydancing.

Above all, finding time for bellydance practice really boils down to deciding how important it is to you. If it's important to you, you'll find time to do it. Ask yourself what you want to remember doing when you're too old to dance (hopefully never!): bellydance, or some inconsequential thing you'll forget next week?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How to Dance, In 1000 People or Less

State Library of New South Wales
I spent this last weekend at an amazing conference in Portland, Oregon. At the end of the weekend was a closing party with a Bollywood DJ in a ballroom with a spring floor. When that DJ started playing music (and after a glass of courage), I got up on a stage with a couple of other people and started belly dancing.

In front of more than 1000 other people.

And it was awesome. It was definitely the largest crowd I'd ever danced in front of, and while they definitely weren't there to watch me, and most of them probably didn't even notice me on stage, the fact that I got up there at all makes me proud.

You see, I always doubt my ability to dance and look good at the same time. I've performed so many times now, and been up on several stages, by myself and with people, but I always feel like I'm just killing time until the next performer. Or I experience dancer's remorse, where I get off stage after spending three minutes trying desperately to come up with my next move, and suddenly, while I'm standing in the wings, a thousand different ideas hit me at once.

But this time, not only did I feel like I actually had it and could move with the music without looking like a vaguely rhythmic zombie, I also found American Tribal Style dancers in a crowd of strangers in Portland. I was also able to dance with them on stage, which, to me, is the core and beauty of ATS: the ability to dance with strangers to music you've never heard of and instantly connect.

If you've been having doubts about your dance, your ability to find a beat, improvise, even move to music, try just losing yourself in the crowd and the music. Get a group of friends together and hit the dance clubs. If you need a shot of courage, try to limit it just enough to slightly lower your inhibitions, but not enough that you risk hurting yourself.

Then get on that dance floor or that stage and move. Shimmy in ways you've been trying to master in class, sway your hips and let go. Forget isolations and performing, and feel the music.

Just dance. You're better than you think you are when you're in the middle of the crowd. Then, next time you perform, go back to that night you were an amazing dancer, and get up on that stage.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Survival: Your First BellyDance Festival

The Library of Congress

There are many bellydance festivals out there: Tribal Fest, Rakksah East and West, Tribal Revolution....the list goes on. My personal favorite, though, is Long Beach, California's Cairo Caravan, taking place every year on the first weekend of June. Three days of dancing and shopping on the Queen Mary--what could be better?

This June was my third Cairo Caravan. I first found out about it just a few months before attending, as my troupe was preparing to perform, and I definitely wasn't prepared for the festival and probably missed out on a lot. So, in preparation for your first festival, or even your hundreth, here's a few tips from my years of attendance.

How long are you planning to be there? The whole time? Just a day, a few hours? If you're going to be there more than a day or two, my advice is to get a hotel room near the festival. You'll save yourself a lot of hassle. Even if you're local to the festival, as I am with Cairo Caravan, getting a hotel room means you spend less time going back and forth to pick up costumes, drop off shopping, get dance gear, and you won't have to worry about traffic or parking. It's much less stressful to not have to worry about getting to and from the festival each day, and if you are performing, getting ready in a hotel room is much nicer than getting ready backstage with a dozen or more dancers.

What to do
If you've never been to this festival before, look up as many photos as you can. Even though I was told about Cairo Caravan before attending (lots of shopping!) I still couldn't fathom how big the event would be until I actually saw the space for myself. Ask your fellow dancers what to expect as well, though remember that their perception of the festival might be different from yours. Check out the website, too, to see if there are any special events: shows, workshops, free lectures and demonstrations, or parties. Then, knowing how long you have to spend there, lay out a loose schedule for yourself. It doesn't have to be a strict one, though if you're performing or taking workshops at a certain time, you'll want to stick to those, but make sure that if there's something you don't want to miss, you make an effort to schedule in.

With any great festival comes great workshops. But you don't want to overload yourself so you have no time to enjoy everything else--the shopping, for instance, or the performances. If it's your first or second festival, look at the list of workshops and pick 1 or 2 must-haves, then a couple of backups in case one is full or you have more time. It's good to go with something you really want to learn more about, but try to find something completely new and different to expose yourself to.

If you're performing, chances are, you don't get much say in where and when. But if you are just going to a festival to watch performances, then the sky's the limit! Figure out if there's must-see performers--for instance, is there anyone famous performing that you don't want to miss? A friend who got a slot this year and you want to support her? Find out when they perform as soon as possible so you can be sure to get a good seat, especially if it's a famous dancer. If you just want to see some dancing, watching performances is a great way to rest and recuperate, especially if you've been running around like crazy trying to fit everything in!

So those are the key things to remember for any bellydance festival. However, don't forget to have fun! Bellydance festivals are great places to meet new dance friends and learn new things, so make sure you make that the first item of your to-do at your next festival.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Burn Baby Burn: When You're Just Tired of Dancing

Harry Furniss, State Library of New South Wales
Sometimes, it can get to be too much.

Whether it's the drama, the back-to-back shows, the in-fighting, or just your life outside of dancing, you feel like you can't even find it in you for a good shimmy.

And that's okay.

It doesn't always mean you're not a dancer anymore, or you're ready to quit. Sometimes you just need a break. Sometimes, you need to take care of life. Sometimes, you just need to find a new troupe. But if you find yourself approaching burnout, you need to take a step back and figure out what's bothering you before you just want to throw up your zills and quit.

The last thing you want to do is walk away from dancing and regret the decision later in your life. So how do you keep that from happening?

First, recognize the signs
If you're supposed to be going to class and instead you're trying to think of anything to make you late or keep you from going, you're definitely trying to avoid class. Or if you do get to class but don't give it your all, there may be a problem. Are you just tired that day? Something in your personal life affecting it? Is this another night this month that you just don't feel like dancing? Are there dancers you're trying to avoid? Sit down and figure out why you don't want to go to class. This is an excellent time to freewrite in your dance journal. Just get out your journal and pretend you're five again: "I don't wanna go to class. I don't wanna dance. I don't wanna stretch out. I don't wanna do our choreography again. I don't wanna listen to Miss Perfect getting praised again. I don't wanna listen to them complain about everything." Keep your pen moving, and you'll start writing down the real reasons you don't want to go.

Okay, I know why I'm avoiding class. Now what?
Once you've figured out where the problem is, you have to figure out what you're going to do with it. Is your class preparing for a performance that you don't want to do? Are you tired of having to relearn the same things over again? Are you learning something new that you're having too much trouble with while everyone else seems to get it? These require a talk with your teacher. Ask if you can sit out the performance (and don't ever be afraid to sit out a performance!), or take privates with her to improve other areas and give yourself a challenge. Or ask if you can move to another class--maybe you feel like you're ready for the next level, or there's another class that's not going to perform. It never hurts to just ask.

If your problem is with the drama of your fellow dancers or teacher, then it might be time to find a new class. You definitely don't want other dancers impacting your enjoyment of bellydance, but it can happen. Ask other dancers for recommendations, or check out your local bellydance hub. It's hard to start over again, but burning out because of other dancers' drama is even harder.

If it's your personal life that's making you avoid dance class, talk to your teacher about taking a break. Work, family, kids, spouse--sometimes life just gets in the way.  Remember that the most important thing is for you to take care of you first. If it means taking a break from dancing, there is nothing wrong with that! If you're worried that you won't return to class after a break, discuss a potential restart date with your teacher, and mark it on your calender, then set a reminder a week before. When that reminder goes off, discuss with your teacher and/or family your return to dancing, and see if you need a longer break or if you're ready to get back into the swing of things.

Before the burnout
Again, the most important thing you can do is take care of you. If you really love dancing, you don't want to burnout early. Take a break, change your classes, but most of all, don't be afraid to speak up. The worst thing you can do is do nothing and then bellydance is no longer enjoyable to you no matter what you do.  And there's also your fellow dancers to talk to--tell them what you're going through, and I'm sure they'll be able to tell you of the time they almost quit, and how glad they didn't, and what they did to get through it!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

All I learned about bellydance I learned from dancing at Renaissance Faire

Ruth St. Denis, New York Public Library
I just finished a 6-weekend stint of dancing at the Southern California Renaissance Faire. While I definitely didn't learn everything I need to know about bellydance from dancing at the Ren Faire, I definitely learned a couple of things about performing.

Be ready for anything
When I signed up to dance at the Ren Faire, it was with the understanding that I would be dancing ATS with a group. However, it quickly became apparent that there was plenty of opportunity for solos, and not just any kind of solos, but solos with props. As a primarily ATS dancer, I'm not used to dancing with props, but I had to learn how to handle a veil pretty quickly. By my last day, I was using veil in all but one of my solos, and now I enjoy veilwork. It's something I'm definitely going to explore as a solo dancer.

How to dance to live music
My main troupe dances to live music for most of our performances, but there's a world of difference between dancing group improv to live music and improving a solo to live music. With group improv, or even just ATS, you still have a set vocabulary to stick to. With an improvisational solo,  anything goes. Suddenly your mind goes blank, you have no idea what to do next, and the music feels like it just sped up and you're standing on stage staring at the audience. What works with ATS, though, also works for solo improv. Start with something simple and mindless while you're thinking about what to do next. Add a turn, start to travel with it a little, and remember to breathe. By my last show, I felt like I had eons of time to think about what to do, and I was able to get a little bit creative while I was dancing.

How to dance to fast music
I love the slow, slinkiness of dancers like Rachel Brice. It's actually really easy to dance slow once you've mastered control of your own body. It's a lot harder to dance fast. So when I was faced with dancing to fast, live songs, or even dancing ATS to music faster than I'm used to, I had a hard time keeping up. I mentioned this to my teacher, who came out and danced with us one day, and she said something that made perfect sense to me: halftime it. If the music is too fast for me, I don't have to keep up with the beat. I can halftime it, and still look like I'm with the music.

Co-existing with other dancers
When you've got a dozen or so dancers all in each others' space weekend after weekend, drama is bound to happen. Tempers will flare, egos will get stepped on, and bellydancers will be pitted against bellydancers. Luckily, most of the drama did not directly involve me, so I just stayed out of it. I did nearly found myself in the middle of it a few times, and was ashamed to say I didn't immediately follow my instinct and do what I felt was right at the time. In future, I will do what I feel is right and fair. I also realized that my opinions of other dancers were formed based on the opinion of a dancer I'm friendly with. After spending some time with those other dancers, I realized that I should form my own opinions for myself.

I am a dancer!
After 6 weeks of dancing to live music, I learned that I can actually dance. I also feel less intimidated by dancing solos, since I've now been dancing them almost every weekend for the last six weeks. It also helped that I had several audience members and even my teacher compliment me on my dancing. Surprising at first, but the compliments felt good. And now I'm a lot more assured of my ability to get on a stage and move my body to music.

All in all, my experience dancing at Ren Faire was a good one. I think I might go back again next year if I'm asked back. It's a fun way to spend the spring, and I know that next year, I'll be better prepared!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

You Have to Want It

Martin Rubenstein and Kathleen Gorham; State Library of New South Wales
What's the difference between a pre-professional dancer and a wannabe-professional dancer?

They both want to be a professional dancer one day. Both want to have their own studio, or travel around the world teaching and performing. They both want to write off makeup and hair product on their taxes and both want closets full of costumes. So what's the difference?

The difference is that the pre-professional wants it. She dreams it, breathes it, eats it. She wants it so bad that she gives up other things that aren't as important to her in favor of dance class, practicing on her own, cross-training, workshops, and anything else that will help further her dance career.

She wants it so bad that she knows she is never done learning how to dance, that each teacher, each workshop instructor, each fellow dancer, can and will have something new to teach her. She wants it so bad that she knows even the beginner dancers, the ones who have been dancing for six weeks, or a year, or even a day less than she has, will still have something new and exciting to share with her.

He wants it so bad that he keeps his mind open to every possibility. He tries a different style of dance class for cross-training or to see if he can learn something new to add to his movement vocabulary. He studies with teachers outside his style, and dances with dancers of different styles to see what else there is. He refuses to dismiss dancers or performances because they're not 'real' bellydance.

She wants it so bad that she knows the work is never over. No one is going to hand her the perfect gig, or the perfect costume, or the perfect stage lighting. She has to work with the best she's got, no matter what, and make it look like she didn't have to get ready in a broom closet with a broken light and six other dancers. She knows that if she wants a slot in the show she has to be nice to people, and help them out when they need it, or even help them out when she doesn't need anything from them. She knows that she has to act like a professional, even if she isn't yet, because she's always training for the job she wants.

A pre-professional dancer will become a professional dancer. One day, after a lot of hard work, money, classes, and Tiger Balm, she'll get her first paying gig, or she'll receive the keys to her new studio. She will smile to herself, maybe share a toast with her dance sisters or lover or family, then get back to work.

The wannabe-professional dancer will keep fantasizing about that day, and wonder why no one's given it to her yet.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I'm Just Not Creative!

Chorus Girls, 192-; New South Wales Collection

Ever think you're one of those people who just can't be creative? Do you listen to a song and think you could come up with the best moves to do with it, but when you try dancing to it, you can't remember any of it? Do you see other dancers' beautifully handmade costumes and wonder if you could ever make those costumes yourself? Or have you ever seen a really great stage show and thought to yourself "Where did they learn to do that? I could never be that creative!"

While just getting on a stage and dancing in public is difficult enough, really getting good at putting on a show might seem like an impossible skill. And it is hard: there's the music you have to pick, the costumes you have to put together, the choreography to come up with, your makeup and hair to do. Doesn't it ever feel like some of this stuff just comes naturally to other dancers? Don't you ever wonder if there's a secret to being creative?

Well, there is, and it's very simple: Practice.

Just do it!
The secret to getting better at being creative is to practice at being creative. You've going to have to work at it. Dance every chance you get, perform every chance you get. Put on music and try to make up something to go with it, even if it's just a 24-count section. If you're worried about someone seeing your attempts, lock yourself in your room or studio. You might feel uncoordinated or silly, but do it anyway.

If it's costuming you're having trouble with, just start pulling all your bellydance costuming out of the closet. Or, pick another dancer's costume and try to put together something similar using just the items in your closet. Just because you're not going to wear it on stage doesn't mean it's wasted time. You can even put the costume on and parade around the house in it, maybe film yourself dancing it a few times.

But I've tried to and I'm just not any good!
Have you really, though? Have you tried making up choreography or improv to a song? Have you done more than one performance? Have you tried dancing for your friends to see what they think? Have you gone out in public in that costume? You're better than you realize, but when you look at yourself through your own eyes, it's hard to see yourself as a great dancer.

Another thing that will help is to practice with friends. Put together a choreography workshop where you and your friends can work on individual pieces. It really helps to get feedback on your work sometimes, and you'll find that you're not as bad as you think you are. With your costume, get your friends together and do a costume swap. Throw everyone's things in the middle and start pulling pieces out and put costumes together.

Keep it simple
If you're still having trouble coming up with choreography or costumes, just narrow it down. Find a piece of music you like, and challenge yourself to use the same three moves. See what you can do with it. Record yourself if you can, and see what you can come up with during that time. Or, if you already know a choreography from class, just do the same choreo to the same music, and change the emotion. Do it sad, or romantic, or angry, and watch how the emotion completely changes the pieces.

With a costume, put together a 'dance uniform' and just add one or two things to it to make it different each time. Start with a basic skirt and bra, then change up the jewelry or belt, or do something different with your hair. Play around with your accessories.

Record, record, record
While you're playing around with choreography and costuming, make sure you keep a record of all the things you do. Pick up a cheap video camera, or record yourself on your phone. Take pictures of your costumes, either while you're wearing them or laid out somewhere. Keep them somewhere on your computer, and date them, so you can go back and watch yourself progress.

Before you know it, you'll have become much better at being a creative dancer, and you'll wonder how on earth you ever thought you couldn't do it!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Goal-setting you dance career

Corean Beauty, Cornell University Library
We all want to become better dancers, but for every dancer, 'better' is different. Some dancers just want to be able to perform every once in awhile. Some dancers want a fun way to get fit. And some dancers want to make a career out of it. We all have our dance dreams, the little fantasies we indulge ourselves with when our teachers compliment us or we have a good performance, but do you know how to make those dreams a reality?

What Do you Want?
To start, you need to know what you want. What do you imagine when you picture your ideal dance career? Do you want to make a living from dancing or teaching? Do you just want to be able to do a backbend? Do you want to perform a set number of times a year?  Write it down, and don't worry if it sounds stupid or you're afraid you'll never accomplish it. Just seeing it, written out in front of you, will make the dream that much more real to you.

However, just writing down your fantasy doesn't mean you'll end up accomplishing it. In fact, the best way to motivate yourself is by imagining your fantasy, then imagining the consequences of not pursuing your goal. By knowing exactly what it'll cost you to not move ahead, you'll be more likely to accomplish your dreams.

Making it Real
Now, give yourself a specific deliverable. If you want to quit your job and dance full time, how do you want to accomplish that? High-end shows, teaching workshops, making and selling costumes? How much do you want to make from this? If it's a physical goal, such as mastering swordwork, what does that mean to you? Maybe you want to perform a sword piece at a big bellydance show.

Whatever your deliverable is, make it as specific as possible, so you know exactly what you're shooting for.

Now that you have that down, you need a timeframe to shoot for you, and for this, you need to make sure that it's actually possible. If you want to do Rachel Brice-like backbends but are at the chiropractor's every other day, you might be shooting for the impossible--not that you shouldn't try, but you've got to work within your own constraints. On the other side of the coin, if you want to make two grand a night performing by the end of the year and you've only been dancing for 6 months, you may have to reconsider your deliverable for the short term. If you know you want to go for the gold but aren't sure how long it's going to take, try making your short-term goal smaller. For instance, instead of living off the money you make teaching in 6 months, set a goal to make up half your regular income from teaching and start there. Whatever your goal is, make sure it's manageable, and isn't so large that you feel like it's not worth it and give up.

The Last Step
Now that you know what you want, though, isn't that enough?

Not really, no. You now need to decide how you're going to achieve that goal. If you want to be able to perform a backbend without breaking your back, write out an exercise plan to improve your back flexibility and strengthen your core muscles. Look for a yoga class to take once a week, or try strength training with plank and pushups. How much time a week are you going to have to spend on working on your backbends? Figure out when you can practice and put it in your calender. Let your friends and family know that you are practicing and can't be bothered.

If you want to get paid to perform, start looking up places to dance at. Talk to other dancers who gig for money, and find out if they can put in a good word for you. Start working on sets, research how much you should ask for, and practice, practice, practice!

Now What?
Now that you know what you want and how you're going to get it, comes the hard part: the long, slow slog to accomplishing your goal. Here, it helps to have a partner in crime. If you've got a dance friend who is trying to accomplish their own goal, buddy up with them and help each other stay on track. Check in with one another and help each other get your work done.

Another thing you can do is talk to someone who does what you want to do. If it's a teacher you admire, ask them to give you some tips and help you work out your plan. If it's a professional dancer, contact them and ask a few questions on how they do it. Or if there's just another dancer in your community who can do something physically incredible, ask them how they did it.

And whatever you do, track your progress. Just mentally looking back on all you've done will not show you results. It's better to have tangible evidence of your progress. Start a dance journal, fire up Excel, videotape your practices. Even if it's just jotting down what you did that week to accomplish your goal and reporting on your progress so far, when you read back on it it, you'll be impressed. And there's no better cure for feeling down then revisiting your progress.

So, now you know how to accomplish your dance goals. Time to get started!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"I'm a Terrible Dancer!"

Lee Celledoni, 1947 State Library of Queensland
I have a solo performance coming up next week, so I've been busy planning costumes and songs and practicing to those songs in costumes. And, as it never fails, I've been feeling pretty terrible about my dancing.

I very much want to do more solo performances, but every time I prepare for one, I feel like the worst dancer in the world. My songs aren't right, my costumes aren't right, I look nothing like how I imagine myself to be in my head--everything is terrible.

Luckily, I remember the wise words of some wonderful dancers I've met. In this case, it's Princess Farhana: "People can barely leave a coherent voicemail, let alone get on a stage and dance!"

Most of the time, your audience aren't dancers themselves, and won't even know how skilled you are compared to the dancers you admire. To them, you're doing things they think they never could do. And other dancers will admire your courage to get up on that stage. I've even talked to members of my troupe, and they are sometimes surprised that I've taken the stage alone. It's something that scares them too much to attempt too often.

Then there's just the practice. The show I'm dancing for is a regular local show, with lots of opportunities for dancers looking to practice performing. In fact, the audience rarely gets above 25 people. If you're lucky enough to have a similar venue in your area, you should be signing up as often as you can. Each time, it'll get easier to get up on that stage, and even better, you can have someone videotape each of your performances, and watch yourself improve.

You're not a terrible dancer. Neither am I. There's still many dancing years ahead, and as dancers, we should take any opportunity to improve ourselves, and get used to performing on a stage.

For now, I'm not going to worry so much about my perceived lack of skill. The whole point is to have fun, and to share the stage with some great dancers. And, with any luck, I'll learn something from this performance!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Know Thyself: How a Dancer's Body Works

Don Athaldo, Powerhouse Museum Collection
One of the things I cherish the most about learning how to dance is the fact that I know my body better than I ever have before. For instance, before I started dancing, I didn't know how many muscles were in my abs, or how they worked. Or why I couldn't ever sit on the floor with my legs straight out in front of me. Or why I always got foot cramps. But now that some of these things can impede or improve my dancing, I've been forced to figure out those whys.

In the process, I've learned more about how my body works and feels, which I think is the most important thing for every bellydancer.

You don't need me to tell you how body conscious the world is. Everyone is always on a diet or trying out a new exercise regime, but does anyone really know their body? All of it, even the wobbly bits and the parts that stick out funny and the muscles and joints that ache at certain times? You might be able to point out the parts you wish you could change with your eyes closed, but would you even know where to start changing things?

Dancers need to know their bodies. But with over 200 bones and more than 600 muscles, not mention all the tendons, joints, and ligaments that come with it, where are you supposed to start?

I began with an anatomy book. There are several out there for dancers, though my favorite one is actually an anatomy book for yoga. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there's DVDs and Youtube videos on anatomy, as well as countless diagrams all over the internet. When you're learning a new move, or trying to figure out how to access a particular muscle, having a diagram that shows you what you're aiming for is instrumental, and makes things so much easier.

Then there's practice. Practice with mirrors, practice with a teacher, practice with a friend. You need to be able to see your body working, get feedback, and sometimes, you need to see how things work on someone else before you can do it yourself. Mirrors are great because you get immediate feedback--but sometimes your brain can lie to you and tell you you look better than you actually do. That's where your dance teacher comes in. My teacher encourage us putting our hands on her (with her permission, of course) so we can actually feel the muscles she's using to drive a move. And a good dance teacher will always be able to look at you and see that you're using the right (or wrong) muscle. And if you have a dance friend, dancing with them and seeing how they perform can help you, as well. You can see how moves look on different body types, and maybe learn a thing or two about how to emulate them.

Finally, there's just the knowledge that comes with time. You can speed it along a little by doing cross-training: yoga, pilates, strength training--even another dance class. Any of these will teach you how to access certain muscles you didn't even know existed, as well as strengthen them for use in your dance. It also helps to watch other dancers and see if you can figure out how they're performing a certain move. Or, better yet, ask! Most dancers will be more than willing to give you a quick breakdown of something (just make sure you respect their time).

If you really want to get good at what you're doing, you need to know your body, because most often, that's the only tool you're using on the dance floor. So grab a book, a friend, or just a mirror, and get started in getting to know you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What's Your Story?

Ruth St. Denis, Dance of Theodora, New York Public Library
This may surprise you, but most people don't actually care how perfectly you can dance. No one is going to worry about your isolations or that you arched your back just a little, or that you can't get a fully parallel backbend, and believe me, you don't need to care about the people who do. What's really important, though, is how well you can capture the audience.

Take a look at any dancer you admire. Sure, she's got a couple of 'wow' moves in there, but notice how she's impossible to tear your eyes from. After awhile, you will probably start to notice the things that make her not technically perfect, but for the big picture, they don't matter. You can bring the same thing to your dance by putting a little heart into your performance.

How do you give heart to your performance?
Give yourself a story. Now, I'm not talking about acting out an entire monologue, or writing a play, but you want to tell yourself a story about the dance you're doing. Give yourself a reason for being on stage, whatever it is, and then use it to fuel your performance. Your audience will connect more with you when you have a story, then if you were to just go on stage and dance.

But I just like this music!
So how do you give yourself a story? Start by listening to your performance music and writing down what you see in your mind's eye. How does the music make you feel? Do you see a setting, a costume, props, colors, certain backdrops? Even if all you picture is you on a stage somewhere, go with that. And remember, nothing that you picture while listening to music is wrong!

When you're preparing your performance, remember what you felt and saw while listening to your music, and use that to inspire your movements. For instance, if you imagined a sad scene, think of what you feel like and do when you're sad, and translate that with your dance. If you imagined a joyful celebration, think of a time when you were sharing happiness with others. No matter what you are trying to express, you can always find something from your own experiences to help you.

How a story can help off stage
Giving yourself a story can even help when you're not prepping for a performance. Sometimes you'll have bad dance days, or you're just not getting a new combo. You find yourself thinking that you're a terrible dancer, maybe you should quit--instead of telling yourself that, though, tell yourself the story about the kind of dancer you want to be. You'll find that you're much more willing to continue when you can tell yourself a story then if you told yourself you're a bad dancer (by the way, this little trick is also known as cognitive behavior).

This worked for me as recently as last week: I was having trouble adjusting to a new formation, and was ready to pack it in for the night. Then I remembered what kind of dancer I wanted to be. Suddenly, I felt like giving the formation another try, and I was able to grasp it before the end of class.

When you're contemplating your next performance or you're having trouble in practice, just ask yourself, "What's my story?". Then, dance with that story in mind!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Happy Anniversary (or, My Bellydance Story)

Ruth St. Denis, New York Public Library
Five years ago, around this time of the year, I wandered into a consignment store on Lighthouse Ave. in Pacific Grove, California, and asked the tall blonde lady at the counter if I could come to her bellydance classes.

At the time, I had very little dance experience: I'd done the requisite tap and ballet classes as a child, and then performed on the colorguard in high school but I'd always had a hard time keeping up with almost everyone, was chastised for my claw hands and inability to do a hip circle, and forget school dances! I always tried to hide in a crowd of friends because I had no idea what to do on the dance floor.

My first ever bellydance class was an advanced one--I can't really remember how I ended up in it, but I do remember how hard it was to keep up. Even though I'd studied some of the basic moves using Youtube videos, I still couldn't make my body do what I asked of it. And yet, for some unknown reason, I kept going back.

I kept going back even though I was asked to perform a scant five weeks later, and I kept going back even though a 3/4 shimmy remained a completely foreign concept to me, and asking me to move my hips in conjunction with my arms was like asking me to move a mountain. But I faithfully went to class twice a week and became so enamored with bellydance that when I moved back home and away from Pacific Grove less than a year after my first class, one of the first things I did in my new place was find a bellydance teacher.

Everything I am today stems from that first bellydance class I took. I have danced on stages when I was so terrified I couldn't feel my legs and kept smiling, I have met women and men I've admired from afar and discovered that they are no different than I am, I have made amazing new dance friends, and I have stopped being so afraid of being myself. This year alone, I am doing things that I would have never imagined myself doing, and because of my desire to be a better dancer I am in the best shape of my life. Bellydance has so changed who I am that one day a few months ago, I was driving home from the bellydance classes that I now teach (who'd have thought I'd be teaching?) and realized that, at that very moment, I had never been happier before in my life.

So, for the space I have to dance on, the music I have to dance to, my teachers and my ancestors, and most of all, all the dancers I have to dance with: thank you for the last five years, and here's to five times many more!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You Can Be Just As Talented As Rachel Brice

Petipa, George Eastman House
How do you usually practice?

You'd think that practicing at all outside of class is enough, right? As long as you put some music on and shimmy while you're doing the dishes, as long as you dance to a song or two while you're drying your hair, as long as you practice zilling to the top 40 in the car, you're still practicing, right?

But then you get to see all those beautiful dancers who are so flexible and so sharp and just so good, and you tell yourself that they're just really talented. Natural-born bellydancer, right?


First of all, nothing you do in bellydance is natural, except maybe a hip shimmy, which is really just exaggerated walking. And yes, some people are taller or shorter or heavier or skinnier than you. But apart from that, there's very little difference between you and that dancer you envy*cough*admire. Just the one thing, in fact.

They use deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice? Well, it's right there in the name. You are practicing deliberately. "Well, isn't all practice deliberate?" you say. "I'm not just accidentally doing chest lifts here!"

To practice deliberately, you not only need to take the time to practice, but you also need motivation to practice, an understanding of your vocab of moves, self-awareness, and repetition.

So how do you get these things?

Well, motivation is the tough one. If you're not motivated to practice or even dance, you should ask yourself whether or not this is the thing for you. But even if you know you want to be a dancer, motivation can be hard to come by when you've had a long day and you're tired and sore and you feel clumsy. For those days, put together a motivation pack. Get some music that gets you dancing, even if it's not your typical bellydance music. If you've got a great DVD that really inspires you, save it for the tough practice nights. Or get a list of YouTube videos that make you want to move and watch those just before practicing. Another way to motivate yourself is to sign up for a performance--nothing will get you practicing faster than an upcoming performance.

Understanding your bellydance vocab means getting to class and learning. And it doesn't just have to be your regular class, either. Check around and see if there are any workshops or new teachers coming through your area. Or plan a road trip with your troupe and visit another studio. Never stop learning new things, and bring them to the table every time you practice. And if you learn something new that doesn't quite make sense to you, don't feel bad about asking for a better explanation.

To be self-aware while you're dancing means getting feedback on your progress, whether it be from a mirror, a video, a friend or teacher, or even just the way the move feels on your body. If you've been dancing long enough, you'll know when you've done something right or not. And it doesn't hurt to ask your teacher or a dance friend to tell you when you need to work on something. Make sure you videotape your performances, and every once in awhile, trot out the camera for your practice, too, so you can check to see if there's anything you need to work on. Another good idea is to keep a dance journal and write down what you're working on and how it feels. That way you can go through it and see where you're improving and where you're lagging behind.

Repetition is the easiest one--you've already been doing this. Just keep practicing it!

Next time you practice, pick at least three things you want to work on, and make sure they are moves you know how to execute. Then, throw on your favorite piece of music, turn on the video camera or grab a friend, and spend fifteen minutes practicing those three moves. When the fifteen minutes is up, watch the video or ask you friend to see how you did. Take notes on what you need to work on, put it in your dance journal, and then use it to structure your next practice. In no time, you'll be just as talented as those dancers you admire!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Bellydance Hangover

Reginald J. Cross, Galt Museum
You wake up, the morning after a performance, and everything hurts. Your head is pounding with the beats of last night's music, your feet are cracked and swollen from when you stepped on someone's beads, your eyelids are stuck together from the eyelash glue you were too tired to clean off, and you can't stop phantom zilling, even though you have carpal tunnel.

You have a bellydance hangover.

Yes, a bellydance hangover actually exists. It's not recognized in the medical world, but ask any bellydancer and they'll tell you that they've experienced this at least once before.

At best, you'll just need a good soak in the tub to take care of sore muscles. You'll also want to make sure you've given your face a good scrub--that stage makeup will clog your pores faster than you can shimmy! However, if you've actually injured yourself, whether it's an injured muscle or a cut foot, you'll need to take things a little more seriously.

For pulled muscles, ice and heat are your best friends, and try to get in an appointment with your massage therapist as soon as possible (you do have a massage therapist, right?). Don't forget a trip to the doctor to make sure you didn't do any serious damage, and take it easy for the next week. If it's an open wound, clean it out, remove any debris that might be stuck in there (glass, dirt, sequins, beads), and bandage it up. You'll also want to check that your tetanus shot is up-to-date, and make an appointment with your doctor.

As for taking care of the phantom zilling and the headache from the music, spend a quiet day catching up on your favorite television series or reading a book. Relax and stay hydrated. You deserve it, after a great show!

A little overindulgence in bellydance isn't a bad thing every once in awhile, but like any indulgence, make sure you don't do it every night, or you'll burn out fast than you can say "hip work". And, if you've got a lot of dance sisters and brothers, a bellydance hangover is a great excuse to spend some more time together, and maybe even plan the next event!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

You Are Exactly Where You Should Be

Original Ballet Russe, State Library of New South Wales
"Most people can barely leave a decent voicemail, let alone get on a stage and dance."

For some dancers, getting on stage your first time can be even harder than making the decision to sign up for dance classes. Everything feels right when you're alone in your home or at the studio, but as soon as you think about other people seeing you, suddenly it's terrifying.

The first time, sometimes even the second, third, or even tenth time you psyche yourself up to get on stage, there's probably a lot of thoughts swirling around your head: I haven't been dancing long enough. I don't have enough flexibility. My song is stupid. I'll be too boring on stage. I can't do all the moves I want. I should be better than I am.

And you are wrong. You shouldn't be anything more than what you are. You just agreed to put together a costume, find music, spend two hours doing your hair and makeup, and choreograph/improv a 2-6 minute song. If you took a random sampling of people on the street who were prepared to do that, you would be in the minority.

If you're dancing for the general public, they'll be so jazzed about seeing a bellydancer they won't even notice your shimmies aren't sharper. And if you're dancing for other dancers, they'll be so proud of you for getting on stage in the first place they won't even think of criticizing your arm placement.

Don't look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I should be better." "I should be different." "I don't look good enough." You got on a stage, in front of people, and bared your soul in front of total strangers. Do you know how hard that is? Just by walking into class, or saying, "Yes, I will perform,"  just by getting on that stage, you have done more with your life than most of the people you know or will ever meet.

You won't be perfect. Bad photos will be taken, your posture will do something funny, and there will be video evidence of it. But if you falter, just remember that you have already done amazing things as a dancer, and you can make yourself even better. Remember all the classes, all the tears and sore muscles and late nights in the studio rehearsing, and know that you are exactly where you should be.

So what are you waiting for? Get on that stage and dance!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Bellydancer Can Beat Up Your Bellydancer

Billy Wood, the Library of Congress (Creative Commons)
Most bellydancers trying to make it in the big leagues barely have enough time to practice, teach, choreograph, and get a costume together for their next gig. Who has time to do anything else that's not sleep, eat, and work? But strength-training can actually help you get better faster.

Now, I know what you're going to say: "I don't want to lift weights." "Won't I get too muscular?" "Only body builders lift weights."

First of all, strength-training does not mean you have to lift weights. You can do exercises using your own body as weight to strength-train. For instance, do pushups, or squats, or pullups. All of those can be done from the privacy and comfort of your own home.

Secondly, it's pretty much impossible for a woman to get "too muscular." You will get some lovely definition in your abs (excellent for a bellydancer), legs, and arms. And you'll probably lose some inches in places--great incentive if you've been eyeing a new costume. But you won't turn into Miss Bodybuilder USA just by doing a little strength-training--impressing the stage crew when you're able to move that 50-lb piece of equipment on your own, however, is a nice little side effect.

Last of all, all kinds of people lift weights. With Crossfit becoming so popular, chances are there's a group of unlikely people you work with who spend their mornings in a no-frills gym sweating their way through a workout--not that you have to join them.

Now, why should you strength-train? Well, most obvious of all, it makes you stronger. Stronger helps your bellydance. You'll find yourself with more stamina, more able to perform those crowd-pleasers other dancers do, and you'll also find that you suddenly know your body so much better than before.

After starting a bodyweight program, I began to notice that I could do lower level changes much easier and faster than before. No more precarious balancing on my toes as I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to get back up! I could also dance for longer and wasn't as exhausted at the end of class, and, I looked better in my costumes. My proudest moment was being in a room full of bellydancers and seeing that my arms were far more defined than everyone else's. 

Sure, strength-training isn't dance practice, but I bet you that if you start just doing a couple of push-ups and squats before you start shimmying, you'll gradually notice an improvement. There are tons of strength-training programs out there, and what most people don't know is that they can usually be used by both men and women. Try what you can and see what works for you.

Then make a date to perform and show of your progress, and be proud of being the strongest bellydancer in the room!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who is Your Muse?

A muse has been described as many things: elves that live in the corner of your room, beautiful women who whisper into your ear, your dance steps flying towards you on a gentle breeze or wild gust of wind. "Sing in me, muse, and through me tell me the story," says Homer's Odyssey.

While a muse may never be something you'd consider as a dancer, it's actually a huge benefit. For one thing, it takes the pressure off you. Say you're just having a bad day in dance class. Instead of telling yourself what a terrible dancer you are, and how you'll never perform again, you just remind yourself that you still showed up to class and gave it your all, and your muse just happened to take the day off.

Or if you choreograph a beautiful performance, and everyone in the audience is coming up to you after the show to congratulate you on your genius and insight, etc. etc., rather than take all the glory for yourself and fan the fires of your ego, you tell yourself that your muse happened to be particularly inspiring that week, and you can't take all the credit (but out loud, just smile and say "Thank you").

Just because you're interpreting the music or dancing someone else's steps doesn't mean you can take inspiration from somewhere outside yourself. After all, dancing without inspiration might as well be not dancing at all, for all the lack of emotion it conveys to your audience.

Until recently, I've never considered having a dance muse. Sure, I've admired other dancers for their skill, flexibility, dance background, and creativity, and I've certainly been inspired by other dancers, I've never actually chosen a muse. However, as a writer, I find the idea of a muse not only plausible, but sometimes necessary. I've even seen writers who physically embody the spirit of their muse in a figuring or stuffed animal!

Your muse, of course, can be anything you want, whether it's a spirit that lives inside your head, a long-dead or distant dancer, or your favorite pet. But every time you put on some music to dance to, remember your muse, even if all you're doing is drilling.

If you're a frequent visitor to this site, you'll see that I use a lot of photos of early modern dancer Ruth St. Denis. I enjoy her work (what little I can find of it), as well as how beautiful she is in various costumes and photographs. She seems to capture so many different emotions, depending on the photo.

As I get more serious about my dancing, I'm relying on a muse to inspire me. For me, this is the spirit of Ruth St. Denis. I like the idea of a dancing ancestor whispering words of inspiration into my ear (or ignoring me completely!), and while I admire plenty of other more modern dancers, having someone a little less solid, perhaps, than people I can still have a chance at meeting in real life, makes her more a spirit of genius. When I dance from now on and I'm at a loss for what to do, I will ask myself, "What would Ruth do?"

Who is your muse?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bellydance Makes You Smarter!

Ted Shawn and Denishawn Dancers, New York Public Library
Let's get one thing straight: bellydance is hard. Once you get past the basic "this is a hip circle, this is a rib cage circle, this is a shimmy," you have to start layering moves and walking and turning and executing a 3/4 shimmy while moving your arms. And then there's choreography to create and memorize, or if you do improv, you have to come up with moves while on stage, leading a figurative train behind you and working to keep it on track.

Well, rest assured. Not only will all that practice make you a better dancer, but it'll also make you smarter and lower your risk for Alzheimer's and dementia. A study done by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that senior citizens who danced frequently greatly reduced their risk of dementia.

And you don't have to wait for your retirement years before reaping the intelligent benefits of dance, either. Dancing forces you to think creatively, and try alternate paths to a solution. Working out a difficult choreo, whether it's creating it for your students, making up your own for a solo performance, or just trying to memorize it before your troupe's show, will force you to create new paths in your brain to access the same thing: in this case, your choreo.

Or if improv's your style, there's a lot of creative thinking there. Just being the leader provides plenty of opportunity for creative thinking, since you have to come up with your moves on the spot. And if you derail the train of dancers behind you, you have to think fast to get it back on track and still make it look like you meant to do that. Even following behind the leader requires creative thinking, if you're a step behind or miss a cue.

All of this brain work we dancers have to do while practicing and performing our art means that you'll never see a stupid bellydancer. And the more frequently you dance, the more benefit you'll have. It doesn't matter if you're fifteen or fifty, any dance you do will be beneficial to your mental health.