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.