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!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for writing this particular reflection. I know we talk about many of these same ideas and concepts in class, but it helps me even more to see it in writing. --Kelly