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.

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