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!