Stuck in choreography? Wish your students could improvise? Wish you could improvise?
Dancers are often afraid to improvise, preferring the safety of choreography. Yet improv is a core skill for belly dance!
So how do we teach this? Can improv even be taught? Is there no hope?
Yes, there’s hope!
Alia Thabit is a specialist in improvisation and improv-based composition, and the coming months are a celebration of improvisation! From local classes and workshops to an online webinar and forum-based course, the time has come to open ourselves up to the music and see what comes out!
Here are our upcoming events:
Cairo Cabaret, July 14. 2019
Workshops in Northampton MA:
Effortless Improv + Micro-Movement 11 am-12:15 pm Improvisation is a core skill for belly dance, but so many folks just learn choreography–which makes it even harder to learn improvisation! Through tested strategies such as Micro-Movement, Rhythmic Breath, Slow Movement, and Creative Limitation, students will learn how to access limitless movement options, turn off anxiety and self-judgement, and turn on their intuitive response to the music.
Spontaneous Construction—complex, exciting easy-to-remember group dances–in about an hour. 1-2:15 pm In this class, we will learn how to build fast, fun, group dances–in about an hour. Dances that are complex, interactive, and easy to remember; dances that leave room for each dancer’s personal expression, with every cue drenched in feeling and meaning so dancers are free to embody the music in a more organic way. Full process notes will be included.
Full day- $70; Single Workshop $40 Bonus– all workshop attendees are invited to participate in an online book club discussion her book Midnight at the Crossroads. Still a few spaces left. Join here: https://www.sahinabellydance.com/workshops-with-alia.html/
Cairo Cabaret Show 5-8 pm at American Legion Post 275 in Chicopee (see map below) The show is hosted by Troupe Hazine and is open to the public. Cover is $8.
Webinar: How to Teach Improvisation for Oriental Dance
August 4th at 2PM Eastern. $15 includes includes notes and follow-up. I will be teaching a few classes for the Belly Dance Business Academy, starting with this webinar. It’s pointed at teachers, but students will also get a lot out of it. Signup coming soon. Info is here.
Raq-On Studio Classes
Aug-September, White River Junction, VT. Focus on improv. Sold out, sorry.
Effortless Improv: a 6-week online improvisation crash course
Sunday, August 25 through Friday October 4th, 2019
Effortless Improv explores improvisation including Dancing to Live Music. You can learn to improvise. You can learn to feel the music. It’s a skill, and you can learn it. Designed for those who want to learn or teach improvisation. Check it out here! Still a few early-bird seats left… https://aliathabit.com/classes/effortless/
It is so nearly spring here in Vermont that the weather changes every day. We are tired of winter–so very tired.
Apparently, dancers are tired, too–tired of the toxic environments, bullying, and negativity many belly dancers must navigate.
In a recent Facebook post, Yasmina Ramzy, yasminaramzy.com, wrote on Facebook of her dismay over these challenges. The post struck a chord, with almost 200 replies from folks who had such experiences, as well as many suggestions for change. The following quote is just a taste of the original.
RAQS SHARQI IS SO BEAUTIFUL, EMPOWERING, HEALING, INSPIRING, SOUL-ENRICHING AND FULL OF JOY. And yet ….
often when I arrive in a new city to teach a workshop, the host picks me up at the airport and at some point we share a meal and then the host breaks down crying while she asks what to do about feeling bullied by the BD community Or….
the out-of-town students in Pro Course who book a private and within 10 minutes they are in tears asking me how to cope with being bullied by other Bellydancers . Or….
the 2am phonecalls, I receive from across North America from past students in tears who can not cope with troupe members or students being nasty to her or to each other Or….or….or….
She listed many more such experiences and and asked what folks thought would help. I have a lot of thoughts about this, so I posted a response–which garnered a hundred likes, loves, etc, and 25 comments of its own. Wow! I saw that people are interested in this topic, so I decided to share it with you. Here it is. (I have edited it a little bit ; )
I have also heard the stories and been thinking about this.
I notice several elements in play.
1. We in the west have made this dance over in our own likeness -as a primarily performance art rather than a social dance -as a venue for stylization, choreography, and competitive perfectionism, rather than a playful dance of joy -as a taking rather than a giving
2. We have all been damaged by internalized sexism and patriarchy. In some folks this results in victimizing, shaming, and blaming (do unto others), and in others, in ongoing vulnerability to victimization.
-this is part of our dual addiction to perfectionism and self loathing, both of which, I think, are connected to the unresolved chronic stress of being women in this society. It is even worse for minorities of any kind, who get double doses of daily meanness.
3. Everyone is angry. Turf wars in a saturated market place, scarcity mentality, Internet anonymity’s decimation of decent manners, and the legitimate rage felt by those who have gotten the short end of the minority stick all conspire into a time of unprecedented bullying from every angle.
How do we heal our troubled dance world?
The fact is, we can only change ourselves. But we are leaders. Leaders go first. They show the way. So where we go, others will follow. That being said… one person can have a BIG impact.
A. Bring the dance back to its roots.
Value improvisation, with all its impermanence and messiness. Value live improvised music of the culture. Value social dance, playfulness, and joy. Dance is supposed to be fun!
B. Prioritize dancer agency.
This is a core strength of our dance. Empower student confidence. Engage students in the creative process. We do not need little dance automatons who are only concerned with following orders and how they look. We want our dancers to have something to say. Dance is communication, self-expression. Teach dancers to find their own true dance.
C. Focus on how the dance *feels.*
Patriarchy wants us to focus on our looks, our sexual attractiveness. It wants us to always be seeking approval. It undermines our felt reality. It’s time to take back our pleasure in movement.
Oriental dance is about expressing our feeling from the music, emotional, yes, but also the deliciousness of the physical action of dance. This dance feels good to the body.
When we improvise, we let the body respond to the music as it wishes. As such, the dance becomes a healing, stress releasing, and deeply spiritual practice. We have enough problems in life. Dance is for joy.
D. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.
We get what we pay attention to. Its time to let the haters go.
-Someone is a jerk? Unfollow them. Don’t go to their classes or events.
-Don’t bitch in class about anything–dance class is joy time. I don’t care how hard it is to to get respect, make a living, etc. Don’t put that on your students (or your classmates). You don’t want their pity. You want their enthusiasm.
-Find compassionate, generous dance folks and back them–especially teachers of the culture.
-Check your privilege. Most belly dancers are white women. For folk of other colors, sexual orientation, abilities, low socioeconomic status, etc, life is so much harder than we can ever imagine. Remember this.
-Take steps to be fair and kind, to provide safe spaces for your students. It’s okay to fire bitchy, troublesome students. Make your classroom a bubble of joy.
We may only be able to change ourselves, but we can build a nurturing creative oasis, and welcome others inside. The ripples spread, ever outward…
Saturday, May 18th: Boston area folks–Soumaya MaRose’s 7th “Thé à l’Oriental” with Tamalyn Dallal and Amar Gamal Garcia, and features a traditional Moroccan Iftar fest. Soumaya is a brilliant Moroccan Oriental dancer, and she does things right. This is a do-not-miss if you are in the area.
Saturday-Sunday, June 8-9: Cassandra Shore in midcoast Maine. Cassandra is exceptional. I can only remember one time she was in New England–and that was decades ago. Not to be missed! It’s hosted by Kay Hardy Campbell, so you know it will be good. https://www.facebook.com/events/1060567260783532/
For the last two months, I have been deep into the How to Create Dance Art course, createdanceart.com. One of the assignments is to note any feelings or images that arise as you listen to your songs.
“Any feelings–strong or fleeting, odd or mysterious, any and all wisps–record them in the spreadsheet where they occur. One line can have a markedly different feeling/image from the next; allowing the body to experience and interpret these treasures brings the dance to life.
All answers/feeling/images are correct. If you get nothing, that’s perfectly fine. This will be great for some of us and meh for others.”
To my surprise, I got SO many comments about about not being able to parse the feelings in songs. “Oh, I am not good at that,” people said. Then I noticed other folks saying the same things.
Like there were some hidden meanings they were supposed to be able to uncover. Like someone said somewhere that this passage is sad and that one is happy, and you are supposed to be able to figure out which is which according to some mysterious invisible rulebook.
Forget that. It does not exist.
You don’t know what the composer intended–you only know what YOU FEEL. Your responses to the music may be…
Emotional–just straight up emotions like happy, sad, yearning etc
Physical–movement, but also other physical sensations, cold, warm, buzzing, heaviness, and in any part of your body
Images–people, locations, colors, land or skyscapes, anything
Meaning pieces–attitudes, postures, events, locations, characters, stories, or whatever
Or ANYTHING ELSE that comes to you as you listen to, draw, contemplate, or dance your songs
It’s YOU. Whatever YOU FEEL. That’s what’s important. Listen to YOUR body, your feelings. Discover your responses to the music. Open yourself to the music (and if you don’t feel anything, listen to better music ;).
People feel different things. If I am making a dance that others will dance, I will tell them what I intended, which would be what I felt from the piece. But the fact is, we feel different things. This is why this dance is predicated upon the dancer’s own agency and interpretation.
Maybe some instructor told you what they felt from the music. But you might respond differently. And that is OKAY.
If you want to know what the words mean, fine. Maybe they are in counterpoint to the melody. If the words are sad and the tune feels happy, then you have an interesting dynamic to dance. And vice versa. It’s all good.
Dance what you feel. What YOU feel. That’s the bottom line. “The dancer shows her guests what she feels from the music.”
That’s what this dance is.
Speaking of dancing with feeling, I’m dreaming of a holistic “belly dance to heal trauma” retreat, someplace lovely. Would you be interested? Where would be a good place to do this?
Also, the #basicbellydancerchallenge was great fun! You can see my efforts on my Facebook or Instagram profiles, and you can search either platform with the hashtag to see everyone else’s.
With all my love, Alia
PS Entrepreneurs! I’m very much enjoying Eric Maisel’s new course Mastering the One-Person Business. It’s practical and pragmatic, yet empowering–and it breaks everything down into doable parts. Recommended!
Recently in my practice, I enjoyed playing with The Most Beautiful Move. As the music unspooled, I let random moves appear, marveling over each one as The Most Beautiful I Have Ever Done. Continuing to follow the music, I let more moves come, and each of them was the Most Beautiful. It occurred to me, as I dusted a cloud of shimmering love over each move, that I could step up to The Most Beautiful Dance I Have Ever Done. I wondered what that would be like…￼
My posture changed—it became more lifted. My face changed. It became more more relaxed, engaged—dare I say benevolent? My chin came up, not high, but straight. It’s funny, that a normal, relaxed head position that brings the chin and face to level, should feel haughty. This is how beaten down we/I have become over the years. Just taking up our own space, allowing our bodies to uncompress and uncrimp, should seem haughty.
There was a study I heard about, decades ago, that measured how much women and men spoke in a conversation. Generally, the men spoke more. Oh, surprise ; ). But when a woman spoke as much as a man (an equal amount), everyone—men and women—perceived that the woman overshadowed the conversation, that she spoke far more than her fair share of time. I have no idea how sturdy or flawed this study was, but that sounds about right. And it is instructive.
Women in general are expected to shut up and let men talk. Let men do. Let men be the center of attention. Our dance reverses that. Despite every effort to subvert it into something done at the behest of men.
Our dance gives dancers agency, beauty, and joy.
So why do we still duck our heads and feel ashamed of our dance? In the West, at least, so many of us have been encouraged to never feel good enough. To hide our accomplishments. To believe that loving ourselves, believing in ourselves, expressing ourselves, is vain, arrogant, selfish. Our dance becomes an apology for taking up space. Or we are afraid to share our dance, thinking that we will be somehow shamed. Because we have been shamed so many times.
You know the adage, “dance like no one is watching”? I understand it’s supposed to make us feel free. But maybe it’s time to dance like someone is watching. Someone who loves us.
It is time we love ourselves. Believe in ourselves. Express ourselves. It is time we bring joy into our dance.
I invite you to dance The Most Beautiful Dance You Have Ever Done.
Indeed, I invite you to dance this every time you dance.
Understand–for this is vital—it is the feeling, the commitment, the conviction, that is important.
What you do doesn’t matter. How you do it, the intention, the love, the cherishing with which you do it–that is the important part. That is the beautiful part. To allow ourselves to feel beautiful, loving, joyous—and through us for our guests to feel the same—this is the gift of our dance.
Embodiment: Musicality for Oriental Dance helps dancers understand the music so they can relax and enjoy themselves. It’s just one of the many great classes available at two for 1+ over on the Sharegasm. You’ll find them all at https://aliathabit.com/holiday18
Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Everywhere there was fell to him. He did a good job, too, keeping the local culture culture intact. But his big love was conquering. When he got as far as there was to go, when there were no more countries to to invade, Alexander broke down and cried.
Sometimes it seems we can only go so far by twinkling at our pets, stuffed animals, and furniture. Where else is there to go? Yet many of us do not perform, or we have few chances. We need some real live interaction.
Well, here is an an idea.
Dance with the mirror.
Most of us have been trained to squint at ourselves critically. What if we danced instead?
I started by just smiling at and reassuring myself in the bathroom mirror. Then I moved on to a little mirror in my living room. Then when I danced in that room, I found I danced to myself in that little mirror—just my face. I would dance and smile and twinkle, and it was so much nicer.
The other day at Leila Farid’s improv class, people were asking about using mirrors to practice improv. This is generally a terrible idea, since we all squint and judge ourselves so much in the mirror, focusing upon what we look like and tweaking our visual.
I mentioned that I was developing a new relationship with my mirror, dancingwith rather than staring at, and I danced a little bit, twinkling at my reflection, enjoying the moment.
The reaction was interesting. Everyone’s jaw dropped. Clearly, no one had done this before. So I mention it today. What if we all reclaimed our self-relationship? What if we all used the mirror to reinforce our self-love and enjoyment? I think that could be one hell of a revolutionary gesture.
This also works on video.
I first noticed this when I was making 90 Days practice videos. I see what the camera does on my computer screen. I keep an eye on the monitor to be sure that I am in the frame, and I smile and send love out through the camera to to all of my guests. But I realized I was doing more than that—I was dancing with myself. Instead of squinting and judging, I was twinkling and smiling and playing!
Well! That was a fun surprise. I find it is becoming a habit. And what a nice habit! Because I smile at myself, it comes through the camera as though I smile into it, so it has a double benefit of love to myself and love towards my guests.
I usually position the cam so it is at waist height, which I understand as the best angle for recording dance, as neither half of the body is lengthened or foreshortened. I do all the normal video things, check the light, mark the space I have, remove any clutter, and then I have a good time dancing with myself! I even like the way the videos have been coming out. So it is a win-win.
Here’s another 90 Days Love Note. We’re counting down to the start of this year’s 90 Days with a Love Note a day through March 11th.
When I was a kid, my grandmother assured me she would pay for all my college textbooks. Not having any idea what books cost, and having been drilled in self-sufficiency, I said, Oh, no—no need. My mild, loving grandmother fixed me with a steely eye and snapped, “When someone offers you money, you take it!”
We could accept a few other things, too. Praise, for example. Thanks. Success. What happens when a student gets an award, but doesn’t tell anyone? A writer completes her novel (which took years of late nights after work and children). She puts it away in a drawer. A dancer finishes her show and runs off, leaving the audience to applaud an empty stage…
Why we reject the positive.
Many of us have been slapped for pride or vanity, those convenient sins through which others put us in our place. When we think well of ourselves, do anything for ourselves, enjoy life a little bit, plenty of folks are only too happy to cut us down. (Some take a lot of satisfaction in raining on everyone else’s parade. Maybe it makes them feel better about being dreamless, unhappy, finger-pointing grinches) In any case, it hurts. A lot.
After being kicked quite a bit, most of us are loathe to raise our heads again. We hunker down, keeping all our goodness to ourselves. When others compliment us, we deflect those compliments. We barely say thank you. We point out our flaws, instead. Because we are not going to be lifted up on false hopes, only to be dashed again to the rocks. We have been betrayed and disappointed in ourselves too many times for that. It’s safer, sure. But….
There’s a problem with this. Several, actually.
One is that the world is deprived of our voice, our contribution. We may feel they don’t deserve it, having been snotty to us in the past, but the world is so much bigger than our little corner of it! How many others suffer as we have done? How many would welcome a voice that validated their experience? As artists, we heal the world. When we refuse to share our wealth of insight and experience, we shut out change.
Another is that it’s rude. Our admirer is left holding the bag. Someone who was moved enough to risk coming up to talk to us just got the door slammed in their face. I don’t care how introverted, shy, or self hating we may be, it’s our responsibility to accept compliments.
A third is that it corrodes our souls. We are so hard on ourselves. Nothing is ever enough. We belittle our own efforts so routinely, we are astonished when anyone exhibits such poor taste as to compliment us. We assume that compliments are anything from empty politeness to stupidity, to the ravings of lunatics or perverts. So we deflect them. We ignore them. Or we sneer at them. And we cherish instead dissatisfaction, envy, resentment, and regret that destroy our happiness.
What can we do?
Say thank you. Genuinely. With all our heart. None of that eye-rolling dismissal. No qualifiers. We can’t know what our actions may mean to someone. Our words, activities, whatever, carry far more weight and importance than we can ever imagine. So every bit of positive feedback is to be treasured, respected, and acknowledged.
Accept thanks from others. Don’t just thank them back. Say, You’re welcome. Afwan. De nada. My pleasure. Take a moment to appreciate their gift. They want to express their feeling. It’s churlish to short-circuit this. It hurts us and them.
Celebrate success. Enjoying our own accomplishments is a vital step on the road to self-compassion. Like shutting out compliments, shutting out success leads to gray days and dark nights. It’s really okay to take pleasure in accomplishment! We are so often afraid of seeming vain or conceited. We don’t want to burden anyone. So we keep our mouths shut. But at what cost?
Wait, what if that so-called thanks or compliment is really a sarcastic snark? All the more reason to genuinely thank the giver. Graciousness is the best revenge. Nothing pisses off a detractor more than missing the mark. In fact, act really touched. Bring a tear if you can. It’s worth it. Lol, just kidding (a little). But do treat everyone as though they are genuine. Let god sort them out. Besides, sometimes the shock of kindness can change a person.
Gratitude conclusively upgrades our lives. Saying thank you, you’re welcome, and celebrating success help us appreciate the good things in our lives. Few of us are narcissists. In fact, many are hobbled by self-doubt. We could all use some more positivity and pleasure. Like the Spring Flowers method of Day 73, look for the good.
Find the good. Cherish it. Share it.
PS We’re doing the 90 Days again. It starts March 11th. In honor of this, I’m posting a Love Note every day from now to the 11th, each from one of the previous 90 Days.
It’s a funny thing about food, especially ethnic food. However your grandmother made something, that’s the way it’s supposed to taste. Unless you never met your grandmother, or she couldn’t cook worth a damn, of course. That happens, and I’m sorry. But for most of us, she’s the heaven to which we aspire, the yardstick by which we measure all other things.
My kids never got to taste my grandmother’s hummus, but I did, and they got to taste mine. Ironically, I learned how to make hummus from my non-Arabic mom, but she learned from my grandmother. So it’s not a matter of ethnicity, but understanding and valuing.
So the kids know what it’s supposed to taste like, and what’s supposed to be in it (and so will you, shortly). And oh my god, you should hear my daughter’s disdain for what she calls “hippie hummus.”
You’ve eaten it, I’m sure.
Bland, grainy, tainted by sun-dried veggies or roasted garlic, or even made with other legumes entirely! Like non-basil pesto with no pine nuts, such foods may be fine inventions on their own, but they are not hummus, which has a specific ingredient list and texture.
Hummus bi-tahini means chickpeas with tahini. So there are two essential ingredients right there. The others are massive quantities of fresh garlic and lemon juice, and some olive oil. In addition, a smooth, creamy texture is essential. Everything else is frippery.
I realize this is a bit draconic. But this is the way I learned. I’m Levantine (Syria, Lebanon, Paelestine). So if you’re fam is from somewhere else and the ratios are different, that’s fine. But I have been to a ton of old school restaurants and they all make the same hummus, so I’m not just being nostalgic. It’s a real thing.
Belly dance is also a real thing.
It has a basic recipe. It varies by region, but like chickpeas and tahini, there are basic ingredients and textures that one changes at one’s peril, and with each variation it becomes further removed from its own truth.
What are the basic ingredients of belly dance?
For me, there are three basic ingredients, though each one expands to encompass several other things. These include the basic movement vocabulary, the music, and three conceptual frameworks: the feeling in the moment, same but different, and bring the joy.
The further you get from these basic ingredients, the further you get from belly dance as a cultural jewel, the closer you get to white bean dip with sun dried tomatoes and soy sauce calling itself hummus. That is to say, it won’t make sense to its own people.
Most of us are familiar with the movement vocabulary, less so with the music, and often not at all with these textural concepts. Let’s take a closer look at them, with the music in context, since the music and the dance go together like chickpeas and tahini.
1. The feeling in the moment
This is the dancer’s feeling from the music, which she shares with her guests, both its emotional timbres and her body’s enjoyment of the movement itself as it follows and interacts with the music. The goal is to embody the music, to be connected to it and to any guests in a visceral, immediate way.
Most of us are trained to judge how we look and ignore the pleasure of the movement. What if we flip that and get back to enjoying how the dance feels?
2. Same but different
Musicians of the culture pride themselves on never making a song the same way twice. The melody and rhythm may stay the same, but the feeling and the ornaments change. In addition, musicians tweak the notes themselves to better express their feeling in the moment.
Dancers who improvise make their dance different every time. Even with choreography this us possible, allowing the body to react from its feeling today differently from yesterday. In addition to this, we have micromovent, with which we tweak the dynamics of our movement, their force, speed shapes and textures.
Why spend all our energy on perfecting choreos? We have all this agency as dancers. What if we take this back, teach this, and give dancers this confidence? Even groups of beginners can do this. And it’s beautiful.
3. Bring the joy.
The arts of the near and middle east tend to have the intention of meditative entrainment. You see it in the music in the concept of tarab, musical ecstacy. We’re talking joy. The dance is always characterized as a dance of joy. It is meant to bring joy, to the dancer, musicians, and any guests.
Yet so much of what I see is dancers working hard or showing off. When our goal is to engage a room in joy, to give joy rather than to get approval, our dance changes. What if we dance to experience and to share our love and joy?
These are important questions, important skills worthy of the time and effort it takes to change our focus. So we might need some food to sustain us…
Here’s my Grandmother’s Hummus Recipe
You’ll need a blender or food processor.
1 can of chickpeas, up to 20 oz.
Freshly squeezed juice of five lemons (nice juicy ones).
An entire bulb of garlic (nice and fat. Really).
Tahini to taste
Salt to taste (if any)
Olive oil to drizzle on top
If all that garlic scares you, put it with the lemon juice and blend that first. Blend the hell out of it.
Then do the same with the chickpeas. Add them to the liquid and blend until it is liquified, smooth, smooth, smooth.
Add tahini to taste. This is a bit subjective. Too little and the hummus stays watery and gross. Too much and it gets bitter. Just enough and it suddenly becomes creamy and pale and delicious. It usually takes a few tablespoons. (Please note, this is how I cook. It’s a little slap dash, but it works.)
Olive oil drizzled on top, and or mixed in. Tastes vary.
Serve with pocket bread, marouk (super flat mountain bread) or even veggies. I can live with fresh veggies, lol.
So there you have it. Belly dance and hummus. Let me know how it goes.
It’s been raining a lot recently, when it should be all pretty and warm and lovely in a late summer kind of way. Rain often makes me feel frazzled–helpless and overwhelmed. There are just so many drops, all falling on me, all cold, all wet. Ugh!
Sometimes dance practice feels the same way.
There is so much much to remember, so many things to improve. When I tried to do it all at once, I just felt harried and overwhelmed. So I stopped. Because I realized there was something important that I wasn’t practicing: having fun.
Worse, that not-having-fun was bleeding over into my performances. I was working to hard and it showed. Since then, I have changed the way that I practice. If too many things is too much, then what if I do just one thing at a time?
Welcome to the Mini-Snack Method. It’s light, fun, and it has a lot of benefit!
Wait, what’s a Mini Snack?! It’s little bite-size snacks of assorted practice themes. I graze through my practice like a bee in a snacktastic flower garden, alighting as I notice something I want to refine or explore, or a technical puzzleI want to solve.
With Mini Snacks I focus on just one thing at a time (well, maybe two). Just my posture. Just my arms. Just my gaze. So I can be in a state of enjoyment, but also hone some little element. This way, I never get overwhelmed and I can practice having fun, too. That’s right–
Mini Snacks let me dance around enjoying myself while I flip from one focus to another. My focus on joy can stay constant as I only have a little bit of other things to include. When I notice my posture is off, I switch to that, and I dance with my beautiful posture fore for a while. When I notice an arm is lagging, I switch my focus to my beautiful arms for a while. I go in and out of these focal points and little by little everything gets attended to, yet I never have to spend my time squinting at myself or despairing over my ability.
And, you know what? Mini Snacks have serious benefits.
One of the hot topics in learning science is interleaving. This means practicing many things in short bursts, coming and going from the practice. The benefit comes from the coming and going–in fact, leaving something until you are a little rusty and coming back to it is especially beneficial. It’s the spaces in between that heighten the learning.
So there you go! A great way to practice a lot of things in a short amount of time while having fun. What more could you want?
Last week, the toilet in my house backed up. It wasn’t the toilet, exactly, but some obstruction between it and the septic tank. Which hadn’t been pumped in over twenty-five years. Which is generally a Bad Thing, but it has worked perfectly all this time. The simple solution was to open the tank and snake backwards from there to break up the obstruction (and pump it, because, why not).
There was only one problem.
I only had the vaguest idea where that dang tank was (it had been decades since I last saw it). On top of that (so to speak), two feet of fresh, heavy, wet snow covered everything. We managed, but it took three guys several hours of intense effort to do the job. It would have been a lot easier if we’d known where to look.
Finding our authenticity is a lot like this.
We know we have an authentic self down there somewhere, but danged if we know where (or how) to find it. Why is that?
I wonder if it is connected to how the dance is currently taught.
Most of us are taught through choreography. We focus on how we look rather than how the dance feels in our bodies. We learn stylized versions of each move and copy the teacher as we fit them together in chains of movement. Chains is an apt metaphor here, because when we are constantly doing what we are told, what does that make us? Yeah. Not cool.
So what’s the alternative?
One of the key aspects of our dance is Agency. We belly dancers don’t need no stinkin’ badges. We are not anyone else’s to direct. We have all the power–we make all our own decisions in the moment. This is pretty heady stuff. But when all we do is pre-set choreography (even our own), we don’t have much time to engage with the moment–we are too busy remembering and executing an exact set of steps. For many of us, this pushes us away from power, confidence, and the authenticity that comes with them.
When we do our own creative heavy lifting, however, we regain our agency. We have creative control in the moment, at every moment. We become skilled improvisers. But improvisation often scares dancers raised on choreography. And why is that?
Perfectionism is the bane of our existence. Yeah, yeah, we all want things to be good. Blah blah. Whatever. I’m not talking about quality control. I’m talking about the serious problem of dancers hating on themselves to the extent that they are afraid to take the tiniest risk for fear of Making a Mistake.
First off, there is no true learning without mistakes.
It just doesn’t happen. No one can be Little Miss Perfect all the time, try as we might. Remember that thing about omelettes and broken eggs? Yeah. Can’t have one without the other. There’s a reason it’s called a Comfort Zone. Going outside it is uncomfortable.
Though you may feel frustrated at first, after a while, you get used to the feeling of learning and start to welcome it. And yes, you can do all this on your own, but it’s nice to have (or be) a teacher who empowers students’ artistic growth. But how to do do that?
Teachers empower authenticity by providing Opportunity, Scaffolding, and Practice of creative agency.
This means they make space for student creativity in performance. They provide opportunities and create a series of baby steps to walk the student through the process. And they do this over and over again, tweaking the process and providing practical, productive feedback along the way.
Practice doesn’t make perfect–it helps us recover more gracefully from mistakes. That graceful recovery, where we surf over all the weird, effed-up random stuff that happens in a show (or in life), while laughing with our guests? That’s where we want to be.
I’ll be teaching a one-hour video class on Empowering Authenticity for the Belly Dance Business Academy’s Online Teaching Summit, May 22-26, 2017.
The Summit will run 25 classes in 5 days with leading experts in the belly dance community. You can participate from your computer anywhere in the world. There will be 30 minute versions of each class available for free during the summit, but you can also purchase the entire package at a ridiculously cheap early bird price. Then you OWN ALL the classes and can watch at your leisure, AND you get bonus interviews and pdf extras from each teacher.
Many of you know that Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah is one of my major influences. I attended his classes in NYC often several times a week for several years. One of the things I have become aware of over the course of writing the book was just how well his teaching methods prepared me for improvisation and performance to live music. Here is a short piece I wrote for his neice, Tarifa Salem, for his birthday last year.
What Bobby had was firstly a deep understanding of the soul of this dance. He realized the dance is about expression of the dancer’s feeling from the music, that it is about embodiment and timing more than steps or combos. He encouraged personal expression and style in all of his classes. But he did so much more than this.
Bobby’s classes, especially in the early days, were models of learning science.
One of the hottest concepts in learning today is interleaving. This means that rather than sticking with one thing until you get it, you keep the brain always reaching. You do different things so the brain never knows what to expect. You cycle through things and make them different every time.
Bobby never repeated. You could go to his class three times in a week for two hours at a time (and I did). He never repeated. Every single time, he would do something completely different. There was a fairly consistent format of options—for example, a combination, traveling across the floor, following Bobby as he improvised—but it was never the same combo, the floor crossing was always different (and sometimes different for each person), and the impro—well, that, by its very nature, was different every time, even to the same music.
The result of all this multiplicity was that we learned.
We learned musicality, how to combine moves, how to transition between them, how to improvise, how to interpret music, how to compose, how to use a stage—without him ever having to say anything about it. And we learned how to present ourselves, even though we giggled to see Bobby swan across the floor, beaming at himself in the mirror. We learned. It was hard, but it was worth it.
Even in his later years of choreography, the dances were deceptively simple. They embodied this deep understanding. They didn’t beat the music to death. They made space for the dancer’s own special sauce. For her feeling. For the love she brought to the guests. For the expression and communication of her feeling.
You can tell a Bobby dancer by the way she uses the stage. He marked us all, in the best possible way. It took me years to realize what gift he had given us, what a world-class education I had received. It took watching a lot of dancers, many famous, and slowly realizing, Huh. I can do that. I get it. I see it.
Bobby taught me to own the dance.
He taught me that I had something to say. He taught me how to say it with dance. I am proud to carry on his legacy.
Every month, Nadira interviews a belly dance luminary about something cool, interesting, and useful. This time, it’s me.
We’ll be talking about how a performer’s emotional resonance enriches both herself and her guests.
Here’s Nadira’s description:
My guest, Alia Thabit, will talk about how the gift of sharing your feelings with your audience can enrich not only your performance, but their experience.
Imagine a world with less fear and detachment. A world with more joy and connection.
As artists and performers, we have the ability to share our emotional responses to the music with the audience, inviting them into our experience. Amid the glamour, the flash, and the hip drops, we have the amazing power to spread joy and cultural understanding through our dance.
– The power of dance as a personal practice
– The gift of connection in dance (for you and for the audience)
We’ll also have some discussion time, so you can ask Alia your questions.
This free call will take place TONIGHT, Monday, February 27th at 8pm Eastern time.
There will be a recording and Nadira generously makes these available to everyone. Clubhouse membership, however, does give you some great perks: you can join the monthly conversation live, get notification of call recordings, and an invite to join the private Facebook group where you can interact with each month’s guest (and fellow dancers from all over the world). If you are already a member of the clubhouse, check your email for the details. If not, it’s free and easy to join.