Monday, January 31, 2011

January recap and goals for February

It's that time of the month-- the time when I look at what I wanted to accomplish and either laugh at the naivete of my goals or berate myself for failing. Just kidding! I do usually get most of what I want to do done. Sort of. Sometimes.

Let's see how I did in January.

-Don't get sick again
I only got a little sick. I'm feeling okay for the most part. Silver Star!!

-Continue practicing as daily as possible
I am actually sticking to this resolution unless I genuinely feel too sick to practice. Gold Star!!

-Clean up Draft 3
I get bonus points for this one. Not only have I done a ton of editing, I forced myself to go to a writer's group and then I groveled to all my friends for help reading the manuscript. I've been super busy integrating all of the changes everyone has suggested and it's been really helpful. Happy Octopus Sticker!!

-Write a summary of the book
LOL, no. That did not happen. "0%" written in red Sharpie!

-Start researching literary agents
I did a little bit of work on this front, so I'll give myself a pass on this one. Check!

-Work on a new choreography
I'm not sure how I managed not to do this, what with all the practicing I've been doing, but I didn't even start on anything! Mr. Yuk sticker!

-Clean my damn house
I cleaned it twice-- really cleaned it, like a normal person who isn't a slob might-- and then tried to do maintenance cleaning. And yet, it still looks like a superfund site. Printed out image of Sisyphus!

-Eat less refined sugar
Yeah, uh, "less" is a relative term. I did eat less than last month, but I'm not sure I deserve credit for not carrying on with a diet that would put most people in diabetic shock. Apple sticker!

-Drink more water
Oh, that reminds me. *goes to the sink*

So what are my goals for February?

-Choreograph a solo for the Bozenka show. ALL OF IT.
-Write an epilogue for my book.
-Write a plot summary. No, really. Actually write it this time.
-Go to some more writers' meetups.
-Stop freaking out about anything and everything that has to do with book submission.
-Come up with an action plan for preparing my novel for submission over the next three months.
-Try to eat like a sane person, not a third grader.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Persona and confidence

The real SKB.

My FLOW class will be working on stage presence and persona this weekend. As I've been preparing our curriculum, I've been thinking about my own dance persona and my goals as a performer.

I've realized that I don't really have a dance persona. I have a real life persona. The way I behave in my performances, especially recently, is a better representation of who I really am as a person than how I act in everyday life.
My inner universe is intense, although not particularly dark, and I feel I need to consciously dull down the display of my emotions for the sake of everyday interactions. I just don't feel comfortable being myself to my fullest extent all the time. I'm afraid of alienating people by being too loud, too obsessed, too manic, too angry or too confident.

It's sad, but more than any other emotion, I intentionally downplay my confidence in front of other people, especially my female peers. I learned to do it when I was in elementary school, and I keep doing it today because I feel weird otherwise.

The truth is, I think I'm a great dancer. I know people enjoy watching my performances. I think I'm smart and talented and interesting and funny. I think I'm pretty and I have great hair. I try my best to be kind and responsible and to live my life ethically, whether or not I always succeed. I wear cool earrings. I might even be an okay writer.
I like myself. No-- I love myself. I am fucking awesome.

I'm proud of myself for learning to be confident again. I was super confident as a little kid, but then the world taught me that it is not cool to like yourself too much. I've learned to disagree. Since I've learned to love myself, I have more empathy for other people and I can appreciate their successes more easily. 99% of the time, I don't feel the need to compare myself to other dancers, but I can still admire strengths that other dancers have that I don't.

Still, the norm is that people, especially women, cut on themselves in public to accomplish some weird kind of social bonding with their peers. It's like we can only understand each other through our shared weaknesses. When was the last time you talked to your girlfriends about how great your own work is? Can you even remember? What about the last time you talked about how fat you always feel?

Sometimes I feel really alone-- it's like I'm the only one who's not drinking the haterade.

What we're telling ourselves and each other with this behavior is that it's normal to hate yourself, and it's deviant to like yourself. It's stupid. I try my best to avoid these mutual self-flagellation sessions, but sometimes I catch myself participating out of force of habit, or social pressure, or I don't even know-- something equally inane. I hate it. It needs to stop. It should be vastly less embarrassing to say something positive about yourself among peers than it is to cut on yourself. Why, then, is it always the other way around?

But I digress.

At the beginning of this session, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted to learn in class, or to give me questions they wanted me to answer. Almost everyone told me they wanted to know how to look more confident onstage. All right. Here's my opinion on that.

Sure, there are tricks you can use to emulate confidence onstage, but there's no substitute for actually being self-possessed and thinking you are awesome. This is a hard thing to accomplish, to be sure, but it's more important than any dance technique, or really anything else in your entire life, so you might as well give it a shot.

Find your confidence and guard it with your life. Society is going to try to beat it out of you-- in fact, they're doing it right now-- but don't let them. Fight for your love. Endeavor every single day to show yourself that you love yourself, the same way you would if you were trying to woo someone else. Tell yourself things that you like about yourself. A lot. Be heartfelt about it. Find ways to make yourself feel comfortable and happy. And for the love of God, if you wouldn't say something to a friend, NEVER say it to yourself.

No one else can make you feel that love, but once you feel it, no one can take it away.

OK. So. You work on that, and I'll work on trying to lose my mild-mannered real life persona.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I need YOU

to help me accomplish my dream.
You. Yes-- you. Any and all of you-- however many of you are willing to help.
I supplicate myself before you and beg for your aid.

As you may or may not have heard, I have written a novel. I don't mean I have a half-finished idea for a novel, either-- in fact, it's about as done as I can make it on my own. I've put my heart and soul and countless hours of work into my book, and now my dream is to get it published. I have never felt this way about anything before in my life and I'm not sure I will ever feel this way again.

Soon I will be sending my book out to agents. As an unpublished writer, I know I need to expect that no one will be interested in it. Nevertheless, I'm going to do everything in my power to increase the chances that someone out there will at least want to look at the full manuscript.

Here are some ways that you can help my chances go from zero to marginal, or from marginal to slight:

If you are a published author or you work in the publishing industry, it would be invaluable to me to have you read an excerpt and give me your feedback. I don't expect you to read any more than a thousand words or so. If your feedback is positive, I may ask you for a quote I can use in my cover letters. If you are local to RTP, I would love to meet you and talk to you about your experience in the industry. If you're not, I'd still love to talk by email or on the phone whenever you have the time.

If you know anyone who works in the publishing industry, especially anyone who has ever worked with speculative writers, and you wouldn't mind giving me their contact information, please get in touch with me.

If you have editing experience, fiction or non-fiction, I could use your help. I am willing to trade private lessons or graphic design work with anyone who is interested in such an exchange.

If you are also an aspiring author, I would love to do an editing exchange.

If you like to read, I am still looking for test readers, especially for the first few chapters of the novel. There's never been a better time to become a test reader; the book is much stronger now than it was when I started editing it. The first three chapters together are less than ten thousand words long (which isn't long at all).
I need your honest, unfiltered reaction to what you read. Criticism is much more valuable to me than praise.

If you don't fit into any of these categories, but you know someone else who does, you could always forward them the link to this post. Please do.
You can also become a follower of my blog in the column to your right.

If you can think of anything else you can do to help me, please tell me.

If there's any way I can ever help you in return, let me know. I want to help you with your dreams too. What I can give in exchange includes bellydance instruction, bellydance-related advice and criticism, graphic design help, illustration work, administrative work, and copy editing.
In short, and within reason, I will do whatever I can to make you feel like the effort you're expending on my behalf is appreciated.

Thank you so much for reading-- just that much is sincerely appreciated as well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

News on the writing front

Such that there is any.

I read through draft three and made line edits on paper; now I am busy typing them into the document. My biggest problem right now is that I love the end of the book and I'm still not sure that the beginning isn't crap. It's not that I don't like it, but I'm not in love with it-- and if I'm not in love with it I'm not sure I can expect anyone else to even tolerate it.

By the by, if you have asked me for a PDF of the novel, I will be sending it to you presently. No, I haven't forgotten you. I'm far too self-absorbed to forget when people are interested in my stuff. I just want to integrate all these edits first.

I've also started reading through some self-help books about finding agents. I feel they have given me a grounded and realistic perspective on my chances of doing just that-- which is to say, it'll be virtually impossible. Of course, I still hope that I will find a (non-hack, non-scammy) agent who will help me put my word babies into print, but do I expect to find one? No.

That's not to say I'm not going to try my hardest. I know said it would be virtually impossible, but that's not totally impossible, and ya'll, I watch Gurren Lagann too much to believe in failure. So, between my ESL appointments today, I went to Barnes and Noble and spied on the Acknowledgements sections of several "urban fantasy" genre novels to find out what agents are interested in this sort of thing. Wrote down some names to look up later. Felt pretty slick.

I'm also forcing myself to go to a writer's group for the first time this coming Tuesday evening. I find the idea of showing my work to other serious writers completely terrifying, but, you know what? Tough shit, me. No one accomplishes their virtually impossible goals by being terrified. As Facebook's Courage Wolf app told me a few days ago: "FEAR IS A REFLEX. CONFIDENCE IS A CHOICE."

Yeah. I'm not sure that's true, because I'm not feeling confident at all, despite choosing confidence over fear... but thanks anyway, Courage Wolf.

Here is the thing. If I don't try as hard as I can, and I fail, I will feel responsible for my failure. But if I really give it my best shot, and I fail, I will know I'm just a mediocre writer.
...wait, what? That's not motivational...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Accepting feedback

Feedback! It's not a four-letter word, but it is a compound word made of two four-letter words. Many people find it terrifying; others are junkies for it; yet others ignore it whenever possible. However you feel about feedback, you can't avoid it forever. It's not something that happens only to artists-- if you do anything, anything at all, ever, among other people, you are at risk for feedback.
Of course, feedback about creative work is usually scarier than feedback about things like spelling or one's ironing technique. Unless you are working in a vacuum, however, you need to prepare yourself to accept what people have to say about your art, or your dance, or your writing, or your avant-garde performance pieces. Or whatever. People will tell you what they think whether or not you ask them to. They're so helpful that way!
Unfortunately, taking a tidbit of input from another human being the wrong way (i.e. taking it too seriously) can seriously derail your creative process. A glowing review can give you an unwarranted sense of self-importance, while a snide comment can make you feel despondent and worthless. If you take everything you hear to heart, and you get mixed reviews (most of us do), you will end up in crazytown, too conflicted about the merit of your own work to actually work.
As you can imagine, this doesn't work!

Here is what I have learned from years and years of getting constructive criticism about my artwork, my designs, my dancing, and my writing about accepting feedback without losing it-- 'it' being my sense of self and direction.
I hope it works for you.

Part One. In Public with the General Public.

Accepting Hyperbolic Compliments that Glow with Radioactive Brilliance
e.g. "You're a better dancer than Rachel Brice!"
Step 1: "Wow, thank you so much! I'm so flattered that you feel that way!"
Step 2: Forget the compliment. Do not, under any circumstances, let yourself buy into anything you know is totally overblown. There is a 99.insane number of 9's percent chance that you are not actually a better dancer than Rachel Brice, or Bozenka, or whoever, and you know it. (And if you are, you need to get some better PR, because I should have heard of you by now.)

Accepting Enthusiastic Praise
e.g. "I absolutely adored your dance! It made me tear up a little!"
Step 1: "Thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!"
Step 2: Tell them a little bit about your motivation for the piece so that you can connect over something.
Step 3: Enjoy the shared connection. You made someone's life a little better. This was probably one of your goals in doing whatever it was you were doing, so you're entitled to be proud of yourself.
Step 4: Remember that you can always do better.

DO NOT at any point try to belittle anyone's praise. Don't go "oh, no, I'm not really very good" or whatever. This does not make you seem gracious, it makes you seem like you're fishing, or like you don't give that person's perspective any credence. For some people this is a knee jerk reaction-- if that's true of you, you need to catch yourself doing it, try to stop, and ask yourself why you feel like you need to apologize for doing a good job.

Accepting Mild Praise
e.g. "Good job tonight!"
Step 1: "Thank you!"
Step 2: Interpret. This could mean one of two things.
Some people give everyone in a show compliments as a matter of course-- for these people, saying "Good job!" is the same as saying "I watched your dance!" That doesn't mean you shouldn't be gracious towards them; they're trying to be polite and that's not a bad thing. Other people will really only say anything if they actually enjoyed what you did. (I fall into the latter camp because I'm actually sort of socially nervous.)
Step 3: In any case, they probably didn't hate it, so whatever.

Should you counter-compliment?
In my opinion, only if you mean it.

Accepting Things You're Not Sure Are Actually Compliments
e.g. "Wow, that was really different!"
Step 1: Treat it as a compliment. "Thanks!"
Step 2: Take this as an opportunity to discuss the background of the piece-- maybe your motivation for doing it, or the history of the style, or whatever.
Step 3: Observe. The person you're speaking with may find this fascinating, confusing, or repulsive, or they may not care. What does their reaction tell you about your audience?

DO NOT make excuses for your work. Don't dwell on your mistakes when talking to people! (I'm a total hypocrite. I do this all the time.) Half the time, your audience will not have noticed the things you're so upset about. If you bring it up to them, their impression of your work will be colored.

Accepting Condolences
e.g. "It's such a shame that your top fell off during your performance!"
Step 1: "Yeah, I know! Well, there's always next time!"
Step 2: What else are you going to say?

Accepting Unsolicited Criticism
e.g. "I liked your dance, but I didn't think that the costume was appropriate for your choice of music."
Step 1: Evaluate.
If this is a known problem, something you're working on fixing or something you can't fix for some reason, nod your head and agree.
If not, here is a stock response: "I hadn't thought about that. Thank you."
Step 2: Evaluate some more. Can you use the advice? Do you agree? Even if you respect the source, don't just take what they say to heart automatically, but don't reject it out of hand either. Think about it and form your own opinion.
Step 3: Do not yell or cry or walk away. Don't make excuses or argue with them. You don't have to be grateful for what this person said, but you should at least try to be gracious.
Step 4: If you genuinely don't understand the criticism or why it was given, you have the right to ask. "Why do you feel that way?"

Accepting Jabs, Cuts and other Meanness
e.g. "I really hate that song."
Step 1: Evaluate.
If there might be any merit to the comment whatsoever, say "Thank you for the feedback."
If the comment is baseless, or delivered in a mean-spirited manner, assert yourself without being a jerk. "Well, thanks for the feedback, but I have to disagree."
Step 2: Refer to the above steps for Unsolicited Criticism.

Accepting Silence
I haven't figured this one out yet.

Part Two. In Class and Among Peers - Accepting Formal Critiques

Sometimes you will be specifically looking for criticism-- or, in any case, you will know to expect it for some reason, even if you don't really want it. Here are some tips for that particular kind of situation.

assume that everyone has your best interests at heart until and unless they give you good evidence to the contrary.
keep a constant balance between open-mindedness and skepticism.
remember that just because someone says something doesn't make it true.
remember that just because you don't immediately agree with someone, it doesn't make them wrong.
make notes of what resonates with you and do your best to integrate it.
remember that your work is not you-- your self-worth should not be based in the worth of your work.
ask questions if you don't understand what someone has said.
ask for specific kinds of feedback you know you need.
maintain a sense of humor.

make excuses for your weaknesses (or your strengths).
explain why things had to be the way you made them.
get defensive or angry.
feel discouraged if you get a lot of change-oriented feedback.

A few final thoughts.
Serious artists want feedback-- or, at very least, they know they need it, because no one can be objective about their own work.
The good news is, with practice, it gets easier to accept both compliments and criticism.
No one's advice is impeccable, nor is anyone's advice totally worthless.
Your job as the artist is to be responsible for your reaction to criticism. Don't let your critics (or your hangers-on) steer your actions, but don't tune everyone out, either. Let the input of others inform what you do without dictating your development.
And no excuses.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stagecraft class homework, week #1

Technically speaking, this is the homework for my Stagecraft for Soloists class (Saturdays from 2:30 to 3:45PM at World in Motion! And there's still space to join us, FYI!), but ya'll other people can play along with us at home. Join us in the comments if'n you like.

The goal for this assignment is to practice thoughtful, non-judgmental critique and to start thinking about some of the issues we will be exploring in the upcoming class session. If you are attending class, please come to the first class prepared to discuss your reaction to this assignment.

Before we get into the critique itself, let's talk guidelines.

We are looking for qualitative reactions to the source material that are free of value judgments. So, when you're approaching your critique, think about framing statements thusly:

(XYZ- your feeling or perception)
(ABC- a tangible element of the performance)

-I noticed XYZ about this dance.
-ABC stood out the most to me.
-When the dancer(s) did ABC it conveyed XYZ to me.
-ABC about the costuming/lighting/makeup/etcetera conveyed XYZ to me.
-This dance made me feel XYZ.
-I think that the goal of the dancer(s) was XYZ.
-I was distracted by ABC.
-I would have liked to see more (or less) ABC.

Here are some types of statements we're trying to avoid.

-I liked (or) didn't like ABC.
-This dance was too XYZ for me.
-This dance wasn't XYZ enough for me.

And finally

-Bellydancers shouldn't do ABC.

We are trying to really engage with the material in an intelligent way here, all right? Be serious, not snarky!
Got it? Good!

Your assignment:
Compare the following two drum solos using the above parameters. What affects your perception of each? What do they have in common? Most importantly, what can you learn as a performer from your reaction to each of these videos?

Video 1

Video 2

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Getting the most out of your bellydance classes

At this time of year, tons of new classes and new sessions of existing classes are starting back up. Lots of new and returning students are coming into the classroom. The season inspired me to share what I've learned about being a bellydance student. No-- not being a bellydancer, but being a student of bellydance. These are the things I wish I could tell all of my students before every class, but there's never enough time!

First things first. My philosophy of bellydance is thus:
If it looks good, is performed in correct posture and doesn't hurt, you're doing it right.
Bellydance isn't ballet or bharata natyam; it's not a dance with a formal, classical set of movements which must be performed with precision.
So, unless you are doing a more formal style such as American Tribal Style, or you are trying to accurately portray a folk dance from a specific region, relax and don't worry about copying your teachers' movements precisely!
Everyone's body is different-- we all have different proportions, levels of mobility and strength, and so on-- so even when you do a move correctly, it may still look different than what your teacher is doing. That's part of what makes the dance so interesting!

With that in mind, here are some things to consider during class, listed by skill level. This is a bucket list, not a check list-- no one expects you to do all these things at once!

New Beginner

- If you have a history of physical injury or other physical peculiarities, let your teacher know, ideally before the beginning of class.
- Pay attention to your body and don't do anything that causes pain! There is a difference between muscle 'burn'-- the dull sensation of lactic acid buildup in a muscle you are working out-- and bad pain, which includes sharp pain, shooting pain, pinching, twinging, grinding, and any sensations of numbness. Muscle 'burn' is totally okay, as long as it doesn't progress into bad pain. Bad pain is to be avoided at all costs!! NEVER work through it.
- If you can't do a movement without causing pain, tell your teacher. Ask them what you could do differently that would make the move stop hurting. If your teacher can't help you, stop doing the movement.
- Pay attention to how you feel after class. Sore muscles are okay and even good-- your muscles are going to be sore if they're going to get any stronger!-- but pulled muscles, joint pain, or (God forbid) sprains are probably signs that you are doing something wrong. Ask your teacher about any severe aches and pains incurred from class.
- Ask questions when you don't understand something. Most likely, if you are confused about something in class, some of your fellow students are as well. Questions can help prompt your teacher to discuss the details of a move in a way that will make it comprehensible for everyone. If you have a question you'd rather not ask in front of the class, approach your teacher after the class is over.
- Listen to your teacher's instruction; don't just watch their movements and try to mimic them. Many moves are designed to obscure their own mechanics-- that is to say, they're designed to look like 'magic' so that the audience can't figure out how the dancer is executing the movement. Too many new students make the mistake of watching the teacher when they should be listening to the break down of the movement components.
- Relax and try to approach class with a sense of adventure and humor. This is bellydance, not brain surgery. Don't worry about doing everything right on the first try-- no one can do that. Instead, get excited about the things that you can do correctly right off the bat.
- Work on establishing one aspect of posture at a time. It might be-- okay, it will be too much to remember every part of bellydance posture all the time. But don't give up-- instead, think about one part at a time. I think the engagement of the muscles in the low belly is a good place to start.

Continuing Beginner

- Start working on two or three aspects of posture at a time. Once certain parts of your posture become second nature, move on to other parts.
- Consider your posture at the beginning of class and before you start every new move. It's easy to lose your posture as you get tired, or because you're concentrating. Try to get into the habit of checking in with yourself regularly about your posture.
- Once you can execute a movement correctly while looking at yourself in the mirror, try to close your eyes and do it, or face away from the mirror if balance is an issue. This will teach you to memorize the somatic sensation of each movement so that you can perform them correctly without the visual feedback that a mirror provides. This is essential if you have any performance aspirations!
- Establish a home practice. Even something like ten minutes of dance twice a week outside of class will help you progress much faster than dancing only in class will. If you feel lost when you try to practice at home, see if your teacher can recommend any instructional DVDs.
- Don't be afraid to ask whether or not you are doing a movement correctly or if you are in correct posture. Especially if you are in a large class, your teacher will not have time to give everyone corrections for every move.
- Listen to "bellydance" (Middle Eastern) music outside of class. Becoming familiar with Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies will help you immensely if you ever want to perform.


- Get your posture on auto-correct. Start to recognize what it feels like to slip out of posture in one area of your body at a time. Be proactive about correcting your posture; don't wait for your teacher to do it for you.
- Get relaxed. Figure out what muscles need to be engaged to maintain posture and to execute a movement, and then relax the muscles you don't need. We often think we need to be tense in order to isolate, but excess tension actually makes it harder to isolate movements!
- Don't hold your breath (or grit your teeth). Many dancers don't breathe while they are dancing! Dancing is aerobic exercise. You need to breathe! Your isolations should not be motivated by your breath, but that doesn't mean your breath should be shallow. Breathe deep! And relax your jaw.
- Think about your goals as a dancer. Be realistic but open. Start thinking about what styles resonate with you, and what your bellydance aspirations are.
- Share these feelings with your teacher. This kind of feedback helps teachers provide content that clicks with their students. Don't assume that just because you're not working on certain things in class doesn't mean your teacher can't teach them! They might just not know that you're interested. If your current teacher can't or won't help you towards these goals, you might want to explore the other options in your area.
- Seek challenges without forgetting the basics. It might be more glamorous to study advanced topics such as layering and working with props at this point than it is to keep working on basic movements, but remember that you can (and should) always keep polishing the fundamentals. The fundamentals are the fundamentals because they're the basis of everything else; without a strong foundation, advanced movements will look spastic!
- Visualize what you want your dancing to look like. Even if you can't execute certain movements or combinations yet, try to imagine, both visually and somatically, what it would be like to do them. Visualize how you might want to dance to a song you really like. Remember to imagine YOURSELF doing the movements, not another dancer, even someone you really admire!
- Try to increase your practice time outside of class. The more you do it the more you will want to do it. Kill your television!!


- Work on the stuff you've been avoiding. All of us have movements that don't come naturally, and many of us will avoid them in favor of things we do well. The longer you ignore them the more dreadful they become! It might help to do some private lessons with an instructor you trust, especially if you feel like you're at a loss for how to progress in certain areas.
- Work your posture. Don't assume you know all there is to know about alignment. As your body changes, your ideal posture will change with it. Correct posture is a continually moving target; you can always make your posture better.
- Make a mental map of your body. Start to develop your somatic awareness. What parts of your body are easy to visualize? Where do you have 'blind spots'-- a lack of awareness? (The more you bring your attention to these areas, the easier it will be to pay attention to them.) Where are you always tense? (Prompt yourself to relax these zones at intervals.) Where do you have chronic pain? (Ask your teacher or a bodyworker how you can work it out.)
- Turbo charge your basics. Forget what you think you know about basic movements and approach them as if you were learning them for the first time. See what nuances you might have missed the first time around and think about how you can get the most out of each movement. Sometimes it helps to do this with a new teacher.
- Polish the details. Pay careful attention to your arms and hands, your angle of presentation, your facial expressions, and the transitions between your movements. Yes-- even during class and practice! What comes out on stage is a faint spectre of what you practice. If you don't practice the details-- a LOT-- they will never make their way into your performances.
- Welcome feedback. No one is perfect. You have come a long way in your practice, but you still have bad habits that you're partially or completely unaware of-- we all do! Don't get offended when your teacher(s) give you constructive criticism. Maintain a sense of humility and humor about your dance.
- Practice smarter, not harder. Practice with intention and mindfulness. Remember that practice doesn't make perfect-- perfect practice makes perfect. Two hours a day of mindless drilling in lackluster posture will do you no favors at this point. Approach your practice as moving meditation.
- Keep thinking about your goals and intentions as a dancer. By now you hopefully have a good working relationship with one or more instructors; update them on how your goals change over time. Being open and honest with your teachers will help you maintain your relationship even if you eventually seek someone else's instruction.
- Develop a sense of gratitude for what you've learned and what you can do. Try not to compare yourself to other dancers; compare yourself to yourself, and be thankful for your progress in your dance journey.

Two final thoughts for everyone, at any level:

- Never follow anyone's instruction blindly. It doesn't matter how accomplished your teacher is, or how new you are to dance-- no one knows your body better than you do. If you feel uncomfortable doing something, or if something seems wrong to you, ask questions, modify the movement for your own needs, or just don't do it.
- Cultivate your own wisdom. If you work at it, you can become your own best teacher. Remember the things your teachers say that really resonate with you. As you progress, take classes and workshops with different teachers and make a collection of these thoughts. Over time you will create your own unique approach to bellydance-- the system that makes the most sense to you.

I hope this article helps you to grok the essence of your classes and become a happy, strong, relaxed and beautiful dancer!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The aftermath of giving up

I was just looking through my old morning pages journal for 2009 to find material for my upcoming FLOW class when I came along this entry, dated August 19- four days after my twenty-fifth birthday. It's pretty amusing. Here it is, unedited.
I'm super jazzed because I just drank a ton of coffee. I guess this week I'm supposed to explore my childhood experiences with creativity. (This was an assignment from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.)
I remember when I was three, one day I was finger painting and it made me think I wanted to be a fashion designer. I'm not sure how I thought the two were connected, but the thought just occurred to me. (I think I had the idea that I could create patterns for fabric prints via fingerpainting.)
Later, when I was in the second grade or so, I remember we did a project in Art class where we created our own versions of famous paintings. I did a version of the Mona Lisa. It didn't really occur to me to think of it as special, but when the art teacher put all of our drawings out to hang in the hall, all of my friends commented on how good my drawing was. I felt very proud of that. That was the first time I really thought I had any talent for visual art.
For a very long time, all through elementary school and much of middle school, I focused on becoming a creative writer and a musician (playing the viola). Those were the things I thought I was really good at. I know I did dance classes as well but I don't think I thought of them as being a vehicle for creative expression-- I viewed them more as a sport instead.
Writing was probably the most important thing to me back then. I really wanted to become a novelist. In high school, both music and writing totally fell by the wayside as I began to focus more energy on drawing and painting. I don't think I ever made the choice consciously to stop writing, but I did actively decide to stop playing viola.
Now I feel like I probably have little to no facility as a musician or writer, and whatever skill I had in drawing and painting is quickly diminishing. Honestly I dread the thought of attempting to pick any of these pursuits up again. I feel like it would be mostly a waste of time because I think that my growth potential in these areas is really limited.
I guess I am not interested in the idea of continually producing mediocre work and never improving. To be fair, it's not like I have ever made any genuine attempt to improve my writing, so my idea that that pursuit would be futile is largely baseless.
I must admit that it is far more appealing for me to work on dance, where I can really see myself improving and I don't feel so stuck or limited.
I'm not as afraid of mediocrity as I am of stagnation.

This feeling of stagnation and continual mediocrity was the reason I stopped drawing on a regular basis. Despite consistent effort and practice, I never felt I was improving. Over time I grew more and more focused on the technical aspect of drawing-- to be specific, the accurate representation of human anatomy in figure drawing-- and less and less satisfied with my abilities as a technician. Eventually I became so discouraged with my lack of aptitude that I gave up the pursuit. I was twenty-ish when I made that decision.
I have tried several times to start drawing again, because I've started to really miss it, and I feel inspired by different things now as I was then. Unfortunately, drawing makes my neck injury flare up, just as most other crafts do at this point. I can't do it much at all any more.
Pain was the main reason I stopped playing viola as well.

Pain, sickness, frustration, self-doubt and feelings of total failure were all major factors that led me to start writing again. When I started down that path last April, I felt that my health issues were closing off all of my other creative options, including dance, or at least my dream of being a dance professional. Fumbling around in that bleak atmosphere for something creative I could do that wouldn't hurt, I happened upon writing, and by extension, the book.

It's painful to give up. Letting go of something you love is heartbreaking and often terrifying.
However, I believe that in certain situations, it can also be the only way to overcome creative and emotional blocks.

Here's another journal entry, from August 9, 2009.
Prior to finding dance I had spent the last few years feeling incompetent, unaccomplished and unworthy of attention for many years. However, as a small child, I always felt like I was special, talented, and worthy of the recognition of others. For years, as an adolescent, I missed that feeling terribly. Somehow I felt both responsible for its loss, figuring my general slacker attitude was to blame, but also helpless to change due to my inability to cope with my chronic disease, fibromyalgia. I worked hard to become a competent and respected artist, but I never felt like I accomplished that goal.
...Looking back, I remember that I was actually being praised and rewarded and even paid for my artwork, but it didn't seem to matter. Because I was constantly frustrated by my own lack of progress, I never took any of this recognition seriously. I didn't feel good about my work even when other people liked it.

And another, from August 12:
I feel like as long as I keep dancing, I'll still be the same person I am now at my core. I'm afraid that without that anchor I will start to wither emotionally. I am not even talking only about this happening at the twilight of my life-- I'm scared it could happen now if I let it. I think the thing is, at this point I feel like this is my life's work. Were I to stop I would feel like I was giving up and abandoning something crucial to my self.
...I don't know why my emotional attachment to this dance runs so deep. I guess part of it is that I feel like it's the only reason I'm not still totally crippled by my fibromyalgia. But I also know that I have always longed to be really good at something. I'll always feel like that moment is on the horizon with dance, and it's wonderful to always have that to hope for.
...I think my real goal is just to keep trying forever. To never let myself get comfortable or complacent. To always keep pushing myself to do more and do better.

And yet another, from August 13:
Why am I so afraid of giving up?
It makes me feel like a loser. I have the idea in my head that if I give up, I'll never accomplish anything important, thus be a loser. Also, I tend to feel like giving up negates the value of what you've accomplished in the past because the future potential is wasted. Wasted potential is one of the things I fear most.
I know you can't go through life without making decisions which prohibit you from achieving your potential in a certain area, and I accept that to some extent, although that idea still makes me a little upset.
...I think I've felt since I was young that I really could do anything as long as I really tried. This is almost certainly untrue, but I probably hold it as fact anyway. Thus, when I fail, I feel it is an indication not of my lack of ability but rather of my shortcomings as a human being.

So right now some of you are probably thinking "wow, she needs therapy", while others probably see themselves reflected in these words. My point in posting this stuff is not to elicit sympathy, but rather to demonstrate something no one ever told me when I got into the business of doing art, and that is: sometimes it makes sense to give up.

It's hard to know where to get your sense of self-worth from. Some people base it on their social lives, some base it on their work performance, some on their appearance or their participation in an organization or group.
Most of the artists I know tend to base it on their work-- and often, by extension, the commercial success or failure of their work, or the critical feedback they receive about their work, or both.
By last year I had learned that people are fickle and so is the market; you can't use either as an accurate barometer of the value of your work. So, instead, I had decided to associate my self-worth with how much I was progressing as a dancer, and by extension how hard I was working to progress.
The result was not fun, and it was not a good mental working environment. It was impossible for me to fully enjoy working with so much riding on the results. The pathways to creativity were blocked with too much baggage.
The spectre of my physical limitations loomed over everything I did. Instead of being mature about handling my limitiations, respecting my body and avoiding things that caused pain, I pushed myself as hard as I could in an effort to prove that I could overcome (or ignore) my chronic illness.
I'd devised a battle in my head, with me and my dance on one side and the fibromyalgia on the other.
The fibromyalgia won.

I don't imagine that your creative struggles are the same as mine, but still, most of us are at war with ourselves over something, placing one part of ourselves on the side of Good and the other part on the side of Evil. Some of these fights are worthwhile and reasonable (i.e. struggling against addiction) but many, like mine was, are pointless and self-defeating.

Here is my advice for self-flagellating artists like myself:

Give up.
More work is not better work.
There is nothing sacred about working yourself to death.
Your work is not you; your worth is not the worth of your work. You're worth infinitely more than anything you could ever accomplish or produce.
The things you hate about yourself could be fuel for your creative efforts if you learn how to work with them rather than against them.
None of us can do everything. We can't even do everything we're good at.
Don't be afraid to stop doing something, even creative work, when it stops making sense. The work will still be there; time doesn't diminish it.
Get used to asking yourself what makes sense for you and what doesn't; what you need and what you don't.
Look inside and figure out what you need to do and then do that-- and only that. Anything more will just get in the way.
Love yourself for who you'd be if you had to stop working tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

December recap and goals for January

Let's see how I did with my December goals! This goal check in will be in report card format.

-Promote my January classes at World in Motion. NO, FOR REAL THIS TIME.
S for Somewhat. I did some stuff to promote my classes. I probably could/still can do more. Thankfully, the enrollment isn't as slow as last session's was, so maybe I am seeing the fruits of my anemic labor.

-Update and simplify my website.
O for Outstanding. I hadn't done anything towards this goal until January 28, whereupon I looked at myself in the mirror, gave myself a pep talk, and then went downstairs and did the entire site in a single day. (The fact that my sister-in-law gave me one of her Adderall didn't hurt. True facts)

BONUS! I also made a Facebook fan page for myself on the same day! Do I need pharmaceuticals to be an effective self-marketer? Maybe.

-Practice all of my choreographies from 2010 so I don't start to forget them.
N for Not Exactly. I practiced one choreography out of three and one improv performance. But I did start practicing daily again, save for yesterday when I was sleeping all day due to a sinus infection, so... good job sort of meeting your goals, Sara!

-Come up with some new combinations.
D- for my proximity to total failure. I made a class choreography and one four count combination for myself, which might be too short to count for anything.

-Prepare a performance for Blue Moon's Winter Hafla (i.e. avoid doing this two days before the actual performance).
Well, I decided to do an old choreo, so I cut out the need to prepare anything. But, uh, that also means I didn't choreograph anything new. Mediocre!

-Blog more regularly about things that other people may actually find amusing.
TTS for That's Totally Subjective.

Go team!

So what are my goals for January? I'm glad you asked. I will share them with you now.

-Don't get sick again
-Continue practicing as daily as possible
-Clean up Draft 3
-Write a summary of the book
-Start researching literary agents
-Work on a new choreography
-Clean my damn house
-Eat less refined sugar
-Drink more water

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I had wanted my own dog for a long time, pretty much since I moved out of my parents' house, but I wanted to wait until I knew I could be a good dog parent before getting one. Last year I figured it was about time. My parents offered to pay the adoption fee at a shelter as a Christmas present. So, excited and nervous, I went out to find a shelter dog.

I decided I'd go to the Durham Animal Protection Society first. My husband had worked on their website at his previous job, which was full of charming-looking dogs. I was particularly interested in a middling-sized black shaggy dog who seemed like a sweet girl from her description. I went out to the shelter by myself; my husband was working and couldn't come with me. When I got there I was informed that the sweet-looking black shaggy dog had been adopted, but that I could look at the other dogs and see if there was anyone else I'd be interested in adopting. So I went into the dog area: a long cinder block hall of solitary holding pens, their floors slanted so that urine would flow to little canals to either side of the central walkway.

As soon as I went inside I felt the urge to cry. Some dogs barked at me, some came up to the bars and whined, some shivered in corners. They all looked confused and desperate to leave. The kennels all had placards with numbers on them, underneath which the dogs' names were posted along with a summary of their personality traits. I'd been instructed to remember the numbers for the dogs I wanted to meet one-on-one, so I started to make a list. It rapidly grew to an unreasonable size-- there was no time to meet with six, eight, twelve, all of the dogs. I had to pick three or four, even if that meant picking at random, which is what I did.

I went back out to the desk and told the volunteer which dogs I wanted to meet. They sent me to a visitation room where I met with four dogs. Two of them seemed afraid of me. One was desperate for every moment of my attention-- she'd just been abandoned at the shelter by her family due to someone's allergies. The fourth was adorable, a little timid, but smart and affectionate. She looked like Benji and knew several commands. She hid behind me when the man came to take her back to her kennel. Her name was Olivia.

I went back to the desk and said I was interested in adopting Olivia. I found out I couldn't start the adoption process on her because I was married and my husband wasn't there to cosign. I asked if there was any way to put a hold on her account so that my husband could come and meet her. I could have, but it would have prevented anyone else coming and adopting her in the meantime. I didn't want to take the chance that Dan wouldn't like her, so I decided not to put her account on hold.

I went out to my car and bawled my eyes out. Then I went home and cried myself to sleep in the mid-afternoon.

I returned with my husband, my sister and my mother two days later. I asked about Olivia at the front desk. She was gone; someone else had adopted her. I didn't really want to go back into the dog holding area, but we'd driven for forty-five minutes to get to the shelter so I made myself do it anyway. Most of the same dogs were still there, but a door at the end of the hallway that had been closed before was now open. Beyond it there was an area with smaller crates for puppies and small dogs. We went back to look, even though we didn't want a puppy or a small dog-- they're both far more likely to be adopted than larger adult dogs are.

There, alone in a kennel, was a little white dog with bug eyes, shivering and looking like the world was about to end. She was cute, but she looked kind of high-strung. Her papers said she was a Chihuahua mix and her name was Lola. Nothing was written down about her personality or whether or not she was housetrained. Her kennel number was P2.

The four of us went back out to the lobby and made a list by consensus. Dan and I weren't sure about the little white dog with the bug eyes, but my mom and sister wouldn't let us not see her.

I took our list up to the volunteer. She pulled the files out for the other three without comment, but when she got to P2's file, her face lit up.

"Oh, Lola," she said. "She's a sweetheart."

We met with four dogs. Two of them were pretty disinterested in us, didn't even respond to "hi doggie"; it seemed like they'd been strays for a long time. The third dog was a big black shepherd mix named Theodore who was heart-wrenchingly shy but still sweet. My husband eventually got Theo to let him give him a hug and we both started crying.

We'd pretty much decided that we were going to adopt Theo before they brought Lola in-- but then they brought Lola in. She looked over the volunteer's shoulder at us with her big black eyes, practically fluttering her little eyelashes. As soon as she got down on the floor she trotted over to each one of us in turn, leaning all ten pounds of her body weight against our legs and gazing up at us with gentle affection. She had a cold; she wheezed every time she exhaled. When she got around to saying hi to me, she sneezed dog snot all over my hand.

She didn't really know any commands, but she knew her name. When we decided to see what would happen if we stopped paying attention to her, she curled up in my sister's coat and started to fall asleep.

I was in love. We were all in love. Despite wanting to help Theo, I knew there was no way I could leave little Lola at the shelter, even though I was positive someone else would adopt her. No-- probably because I was positive someone else would adopt her, and I wanted her to be mine.

I went up to the desk and asked them what they could tell us about Lola. She was sweet, and she'd been a stray-- that's all they knew. Was she housetrained? Did she like kids or cats? No one knew. I asked to start the adoption process anyway. I didn't care if she peed all over my apartment. They said there was one complication: someone had shown up last week and tried to claim Lola, but they weren't able to prove that she belonged to them-- no vet records, no vaccines, nothing. They could start the adoption process for us, but they couldn't guarantee that these people wouldn't come back with proof.

I spent the next eight days-- and that's how long it took-- in agony. I went on their website every hour to check on Lola's adoption status. At first she wasn't even on the website; then she was on the website as an adoptable dog-- but she was MY dog!-- and then she was on the website as adoption pending. I called them at least five times to check on our status, and I went to bed nervous every night.

On January 7 we got a call letting us know that Lola would be ready to pick up the following day. On January 8 my entire family went out to pick her up. She seemed excited and happy on the way home, and really perked up when we turned in to our neighborhood. When we got her in to the apartment, she made a beeline for her dog bed and curled up inside.

At first she didn't eat much. She didn't really want to play, either; she was afraid of the squeaking noise her toys made. In fact, she didn't seem to know what toys were. At one point she carried them all very delicately to her dog bed and laid down on top of them as if they were puppies. She was mostly interested in finding the softest location in the vicinity and falling asleep. She never barked. But she was housebroken, and she started to respond to "sit" and "stay" when she felt like it. I was sad that she wasn't more outgoing, but she was sweet and well-behaved and very easy to care for, so I figured I couldn't ask for more.

She came out of her shell bit by bit with every passing week. We found out that she did like to play-- she just didn't know how to play with toys. She was, however, a big fan of play-biting our hands, growling and acting tough, and then running laps around the living room. She got more and more affectionate, and wanted to spend more time on our laps or burrowed next to us. We taught her how to play fetch and tug, and she started chewing on her bones and eating way more than enough food for a ten-pound animal, as well as things that may not exactly qualify as food.

We found out that she loves beer (we don't let her drink any, but she tries to go for ours whenever she gets the opportunity), she has bad back legs, and there is nothing in the universe that is sweeter than she is.

Today is our one-year anniversary. I know Lola understands what we did for her-- I can see she understands, in her sweet little buggy eyes-- but I'm not sure she understands how much she's done for us.

According to the ASPCA, two thirds of adoptable shelter dogs are unnecessarily euthanized every year.

The APS has a wonderful article about why to adopt a shelter dog. Shelter dogs are every bit as good as any dog that you could purchase from a breeder-- and there are millions out there that need your help.

If you are looking for a dog, please don't buy one from a breeder. Adopt one from a shelter or a rescue organization instead. There is one out there that you need as much as they need you.

P.S. Theo was adopted the same week as Lola. I hope he's with a family with a nice big yard.

What am I doing and why?

I've been thinking a lot lately (not unusual) about the dire and sweeping problems humanity faces (also not unusual) and wondering how tiny individuals like myself fit in to times like these (all right, so, full disclosure, this is really something I've done all the time for a while. It's not a new thing at all). Within the larger questions I have about life lie many smaller ones, stacked like fractal nesting dolls.

One I've been stuck on lately is:
what am I doing with my life and why?

I know what I want to do for myself. I want to be paid to write novels (a dream) and also to teach the stuff I already do-- ESL and dance (a reality). But when I look at the rest of the world, at those dire and sweeping problems-- climate change, the growing divide between rich and poor, our disintegrating global economy, the increasingly insane political climate of the United States, not to mention all of the other senseless acts of violence that we humans commit towards one another and our world on a daily basis-- what I want often seems petty and selfish.

I vacillate between feeling
1. that my ambitions are not actually selfish-- they may amount to positive change in the long run and it will all be okay;
2. that it doesn't matter that my ambitions are selfish because I have no idea how I would change anything anyway;
3. that I am a self-centered asshole.

I can't seem to console myself with the idea that I am an artist and therefore my work is important. It's not because I don't think of myself as an artist; I have learned to think of myself as one without feeling self-conscious pangs of anxiety. However, I don't believe that art is inherently worthy of our time and energy, nor that art is always a force for good. Art can be a vehicle for pretty much anything, for blessings and for curses, as well as for pretty much nothing at all.
I know I can dance until my spine collapses and my toes fall off and it will do just about nothing to fight the problems I've just enumerated.

What am I doing and why?

I have some mildly convincing arguments which, at times, me feel kind of better about my life choices. Here are some of them.

One of the problems that I have with American culture is our rabid and insatiable desire for more stuff. If nothing else, what I am selling (experiences) doesn't take up any space, and won't hang out in a landfill once you're done with it.

I am empowering people to find meaning in their lives outside of the relentless pursuit of more crap. We are all capable of producing our own beauty; we don't always need to purchase it at a store.

I hope I am helping to undo some of the damage that the mass media has wrought on the minds of the women that I teach in regards to self-worth and self-image, without making glamour into a dirty concept (glamour being one of the things I hold sacred).

I know that the artistic work of others has added more to my life than I can possibly understand. I'm not sure I would want to be alive were it not for the work of some of my favorite artists. I don't flatter myself to think that I am what keeps people going, but who knows? I might at least make life more enjoyable for a few people, to make some of us feel a little less alone in the world.

Who am I kidding? I can't stop. I've tried to "grow up" and be a normal cog in productive society, and it sucked. Art is probably the only thing I'm good at, and without it I will shrivel up into a husk of a person.

There is a glittering mirage I can see far, far in the distance-- a beautiful dream, a vision of having influence. Perhaps at some point, I will have conned enough people into listening to me at once, into taking me seriously, and I will be able to force them to do my bidding, and we will start a zero-impact commune in the mountains somewhere-- wait no this is sounding like a cult.

Never mind that last one for now.

I'm not going to change course. I'll keep working, and I'll keep feeling conflicted. I'll probably still feel conflicted on my deathbed, looking back at my life and wondering if I made the right decisions, if I maximized my potential, if I made any lasting difference in the world.

I'm sure that many people would tell me to stop thinking so hard, to stop feeling so guilty, to let things go and let bygones be bygones or whatever. But it seems like I'm made to ruminate just as much as I'm made for anything else. From my perspective, it feels right and sane to ask myself these questions, and to hold on to my questions more dearly than I do to my beliefs about the world or my place therein.

What I did in 2010

I found a tiny white dog, my sweet Lola Bee.
I developed a new kind of hip scarf design made of recycled materials, and I sold a few of them too.
I choreographed three new solos.
I made a new costume for myself without breaking my ban on buying new craft supplies.
I wrote a novel about vampires.
I played too many roleplaying games.
I met a giant octopus.
I went to England and California.
I started this blog.
I hosted a workshop with Mira Betz.
I went to lots of doctors.
I drove out to Sanford more times than I care to think about.
I figured out what I want to do with my life.

I face 2011 full of hope and excitement.