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!