This is the question I posted to each person who signed up for my 2019 Bellydance Bundle class, Intro to Effortless Improvisation. I’ve gotten over two dozen responses so far. And most of them mention some kind of freeze response.
Their vocabulary goes out the window. Only the most basic moves show up. No moves show up! At its heart, this is the fear of being judged and found wanting–and this fear causes us to have nothing at all to say.
It is true that improv is riskier than choreography. It’s messier. We don’t know what will happen. We have way less control over the dance. It won’t be as polished. It won’t be as fancy.
We might make <gasp!> mistakes.
But there are also benefits to improvisation
Improvisation gives us more time to feel the music When we improvise, we can take our time, enjoy the physical sensation of moving. As we enjoy our own dance, we make a space for others to enjoy it as well. The belly dance scene has way too much squinty focus on technique. Ours is a dance of joy. Let’s all enjoy ourselves and our dance a little more.
Improvisation allows for increased presence When we enjoy our own dance, we can be more present with our guests. We are not bound by a preset movement agenda. We can relax, enjoy the people, visit with them, chat and blow kisses. When we are present, there is more connection. Our dance becomes a collaboration between ourselves and everyone else in the room. Our response to our guests’ energy brings them into our dance. They feel our love for them. We enter a healing state that nourishes everyone in the room.
Improvisation helps us share joy Ours is a dance of joy. Is the dancer enjoying themself? Do they share their joy with their guests? Are they one with the music? These are marks of mastery in Oriental dance. As we learn to trust our bodies, the music, the moment–this is when, and how, the magic happens.
Choreography is generally designed to be the same every time. Our dance, and its music, are designed to be different every time. Improvisation.
We don’t need lots of moves We have micromovement, We can dance with only circles and make every one of them different, through dynamics such as force, speed, size, and decoration. We can relax, slow down, and take the time to enjoy each flex of the body. Make each movement have meaning, weight, resonance.
This is the beauty of improvisation It’s not about showing off and pushing yourself out. It’s about showing up and pulling your guests in. It’s about sharing joy.
Show up Be present Bring joy
Your dance is a gift of joy that you bring to your guests. This is what it is all about.
PS The next three FUN Classes are still available! Improv-based, follow-me classes, different every time. Each class is recorded, and the recording is available for a week. Check them out: aliathabit.com/shop/#live I’d love to see you there!
Last week, I inadvertently gave the impression that we should all turn off, tune out, and stop caring about the cruelty going on in the world. This was not my intent. I apologize for having done so.
I am concerned with the levels of overwhelm that swamp so many folks. There is a lot of bad news, and many of us feel powerless against the rising tide. This is why I stopped posting bad news and started posting good news, news about people who had made a difference. Because we can all make a difference. But marinating in misery doesn’t really help us do that.
Focusing on the good helps us step out of overwhelm.
Focusing on the good helps us have the space to take action. Taking action helps us make a difference. Even a small difference makes a big difference.
My small way of taking action has been to learn about trauma and how to heal it. My model of choice has been Somatic Experiencing (SE). I just completed their truly splendid three-year training program. Soon, I will be certified as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.
I’m pleased with what I have accomplished. But I’m more pleased with now having the tools and skills to help folks come back into their bodies. Into theirselves. Into their lives.
Trauma is a killer.
Most of the cases of depression on the list below are trauma-related.
Most of us have suffered challenging experiences whose effects still drag on us. Many toxic elements of the current global situation (not to mention our life experiences) are extremely challenging. They won’t stop. So we have to stop them from eating us alive.
We do this by creating safe spaces for ourselves.
We do this by consciously becoming aware of moments when we are not under attack. Feeling the sensation of safety. Sometimes it may amount to sticking our fingers in our ears and singing La la la. Or reading a trashy novel. It’s a start.
Yes, we can live in a constant state of overwhelm. Sort of. But it’s exhausting and unhealthy. When we feel stronger and more stable, we can do more, take more action, be there for ourselves, our children, and generally, the world. So it makes sense.
Focus on the good.
Focus on what works.
And take some action. Pick something. Just one thing. It can be very, very small. It still makes a difference. Taking action feels good, too.
I’m pleased to offer a short series of live, online Fun Classes.
They focus on–fun! Having fun with dance.
FUN classes are live online (video) classes designed for FUN for all levels. They are primarily follow-me, improv-strong classes with some combinations, technique, and a Dancemeditation section for stress release and joy.
Each class is recorded. The recording is available for one week only, then replaced by the next recording. We use zoom for the classes and Teachable to host the streamable recordings.
Let’s set aside one hour a week to marinate in joy.
6-Week session starts Thursday, Oct 17 at 7PM Eastern time. Sign up here. I would love to see you!
I read fantasy novels and play solitaire on my phone. A lot. I didn’t used to. Well, partly because I didn’t have a smart enough phone. But it was more than that. It started in the last year of caretaking my mother.
I don’t know if you have ever cared for someone with severe dementia. It’s stressful. Especially when it is your own family. It’s one of the most stressful things I have ever done, and it went on for years.
Because my mom could not be left alone, when we were at home, I was pretty much next to her. All the time. While she talked. Incessantly. Unless I had music or the TV on (and often, even when I did). And she expected me to listen. But none of it made sense. At all.
To cope, I resorted to the reading and solitaire. I even started playing audio books in the car. Thank god for the library!
This was fine. It helped. I could be there, yet be somewhere else. All good, right?
But it’s been over two years since she went into the nursing home, and I’m still doing it.
Somehow my coping strategy became ingrained. I had become habituated to this constant input. And when I was stressed, it skyrocketed.
I was no longer comfortable just being with myself.
Once I realized this, I began taking steps. I made myself read print materials. Restricted my solitaire time. Still, the compulsion of the screen was kinda scary. And hours went by…
The other day, I mentioned to Eva, my Somatic Experiencing (SE) therapist, that I used to be so content to just hang out with my own thoughts, and now I couldn’t.
(You all know I’m training to be an SE practitioner. In fact, the final leg of my training is next week. I’m very excited about this. SE trauma resolution is one of the best things I have ever done for myself, and the training is splendid. In fact, I just arrived in California for the last leg of my three-year program!)
She asked me to imagine just being present with myself. I felt an immediate clutch of alarm, a constriction in my chest and throat.
She asked what words went along with that. All I had was a fearful gasp.
She had me track these sensations, which means to notice them and observe how they evolve.
Trauma happens when we perceive ourselves to be in danger and unable to defend ourselves. Our defensive impulses become trapped in the body, which can prevent the nervous system from settling itself afterwards. SE helps these trapped impulses to discharge, so the nervous system can reset.
I reported their progress, and soon a wave of pulsing tingling in my hands and feet signaled some resolution. My eyes began orienting (looking around the room). This all happened in the first 15 minutes of the session.
For the next 45 minutes, I continued to experience waves of activation and settling. Eva just let me keep going, occasionally asking a question, or pointing out some shift in my affect.
Whatever I had been holding was very, very big.
By the end I felt relaxed and happy, but almost woozy. Eva had me walk a straight line before she let me go, and I spent another 10 minutes just walking around the block before getting in my car.
I had lunch and didn’t need to read while I did it.
I drove home (2 hours) and didn’t need to listen to an audiobook.
I woke up in the morning and didn’t need to play solitaire.
I’m on a bus to the airport and writing this because I don’t feel like reading.
Did I read some? Sure. Did I play some solitaire? Sure. Did I feel driven to? Nooo. Wild, right?
Will it last? Probably. SE is amazing. When trauma is gone, it’s gone.
I’m also glad I am about to be away for 2 weeks, as the activity will help to soften the habit. And that I’ll be at my training, as those are always uplifting.
I’m particularly looking forward to this one, as we’ll be learning SE Touch, which is very, very interesting. Once I’m certified, I plan to do a whole ‘nother year-long training in SE Touch Skills. Very exciting.
SE is gentle, and it works. Many challenges evaporate in one session. Some take longer. Life is complex. But SE helps. Its helped me, and folks I know who’ve done it. A lot.
Oriental dance, especially in the Sufi-based system from which I teach, incorporates a lot of trauma resolution principles. And SE turbocharges that process.
As we become more skilled at resetting the nervous system, we become calmer and more resilient in general.
So I have been pleased to incorporate SE into my dance coaching. It’s been very effective for dancers, around confidence, fears, procrastination, improvisation, and so forth.
I’m also pleased to be offering coaching at a special rate.
But what is coaching, exactly?
Coaching is largely about process. Unlike, critique, which is an assessment of strengths and weaknesses, coaching helps us uncover our roadblocks–in life as well as dance–and resolve them.
Is video scary? Trouble making practice a habit? Consumed by self-doubt or judgement? Stuck on a creative project? Stuck in general? Just feeling blah and uninspired? Coaching helps resolve all these issues and more besides.
I’m offering both individual and small group coaching this fall.
Small group coaching comes in the Artists’ Creative Expressions (ACE) Mastermind. In these Zoom.us group video sessions, participants identify their goals and we create processes to meet them, with group support and accountability. You will find more information on the ACE page.
Individual coaching offers an intensive focus on your personal process. This includes SE sessions. We start with a free video call to meet and discuss your wishes, then decide a time for our session. Sessions are conducted via Zoom video meetings. More information is here.
I hope that one of these offerings resonates for you. If you’d like to chat about what might be right for you, email me and we will make a time to talk.
I teach writing part-time at a state university. I’ve done so for the last 20 years. When I started, I was frustrated when the only thing I could say to a student was, “This sentence isn’t right.” I could tell them how to fix it, but I couldn’t explain why. Back in grade school, I just ignored all the grammar stuff. I always knew which constructions were correct, and how to fix the the wrong ones. My family spoke standard English and I read incessantly, so that was easy for me. Grammar rules, however, were confusing and annoying. I blithely ignored them.
But now I needed to understand the damn things. I engaged in a pretty rigorous study of how to teach writing, how to critique effectively, grammar, structure, and so forth. I brought piles of books home from the school library, and any that were boring or badly written, I threw aside, then picked up a new one. I mean, it’s writing. If some expert can’t write a book about it that is interesting, well…
I learned a lot in my home-made study course, and not just about writing. I’ve found that strategies for writing well (and for critiquing writing) translate very nicely into dance. One of the reasons is that writing is very much an improvisational activity. Even if we know what we want to write to write about, our actual putting together of words is done off the cuff–we may stop once in a while to think of a word, and we may revise quite carefully, but the initial act of putting words on paper is a creative improvisation.
Over time, I have adapted many models of writing, revision, and critique to dance. One that I especially like is the quick assessment model, Fluency, Clarity, and Correctness–in that order. This means when we assess a dancer, we look first to fluency. If we don’t find it, if the dancer’s movement is awkward, hesitant, off-time, or whatever, we stop there and work on that.
Let’s look at these concepts one by one, and how they work in writing as well as dance. Today, we will look at…
In writing, fluency mean the ability to put words on paper with relative ease. You understand the language and can easily craft suitable sentences. Freewriting, for example, increases fluency, as we write fast without stopping or judgement. We learn to write without constantly stopping to think about what comes next–we get into a zone, and we trust our pen/keyboard/body to come up with what we need. We don’t think about each sentence we write. We just write–and if anything needs correcting or polishing, we do that later.
In dance, fluency means we can dance easily, respond to the music, and generally enjoy ourselves dancing as we improvise. It’s about being able to easily transition, to trust ourselves that what we need will come out, and to be able to be in a zone and enjoy the moment.
One Skill at a Time
In both writing and dance, we will not get very far if we can’t create with ease. I’m not saying we don’t ever struggle to make our work shine–of course we do! But we have internalized that skill of allowing the body to do its thing without lots of agony or second guessing. In writing we learn to disconnect the editor from the creator. We just let the words out, and we polish them later. In dance, we also learn to disconnect the editor from the creator. When we dance, we let go of thinking and just move with the music. Both embrace a flow state, full engagement with the present moment.
As a teacher (of both writing and dance), my first goal is that students can comfortably create. I assign freewriting to my college classes, and to my dance students, I assign freeform improvisation. I don’t worry in the beginning if their work makes sense, if their movement is pretty, or even if they are belly dancing. The first skill is letting go of thinking and judgement; it is letting the body move intuitively with the music.
In the idea we’ve been discussing, One Skill at a Time, fluency is one skill. It’s a big one, and there are smaller skills along the way, but they are all in the same club. So we don’t get all exercised about the other stuff. I’ve talked before about that little pipe in our head through which ideas flow. As we begin learning, there is a lot of rusty crud backed up in there. As with an unused faucet, it has to come out first so the clear water can flow. Worse, getting all knotted up with thinking (or freaking out about the rust) cuts off the flow entirely. So at first, we just let it all out. One skill at a time. If we have to worry about how we look, whether we are doing “allowable” movement, we will just freeze up entirely and that will be the end of us.
Once we have mastered basic fluency, when we can follow the music without getting in our own way, we can add in another skill, like incorporating our dance vocabulary, or expressing more complex music, or whatever. But still, one skill at a time. Even if that time is only 30 seconds, and then we switch to keeping our posture for a while, or our pretty hands, or feeling our feet interact with the earth–we keep it simple. Because when we try to do too much at once…
It’s a DISASTER.
We practice in the studio so when we go to dance, we can just let go and dance. And one of the most important things we practice–is letting go. So we can dance. Effortlessly. Ahhh! Love, Alia
PS If you would like to just let go and dance, you might like Effortless Improvisation! It’s a great six-week improv crash course suitable for home dancers and performers alike. Registration closes on Sunday, August 25th, so please have a look right away.
I’ll be performing September 14, 2019 at Belly Dance Nights at the Main St. Museum in White River Junction, VT. We start at 7PM, and it’s only $15 for advance sales. This is the funnest show and dance party going (and there’s plenty of parking). Please come join us!
There was this story of folks who imagined themselves playing darts, and their dart game improved. Then there was a lot of flak about what a fake load of crap that was. But the truth is out. It works.
Thebrain can’t tell the difference between the real and the imaginary.
There is AMPLE evidence to show that imagining something is almost as good as doing it.
Here are some of the results of one such study.
“Volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes each day for five consecutive days. Their brains were scanned each day in the region connected to the finger muscles. Another set of volunteers were asked to imagine playing the notes instead, also having their brains scanned each day.
“The top two rows in the image show the changes in the brain in those who played the notes. The middle two rows show the changes in those who simply imagined playing the notes. Compare this with the bottom two rows showing the brain regions of the control group, who didn’t play nor imagine playing, piano.”—David R. Hamilton PhD
It means we can visualize our choreography or a challenging transition as a means of practice. But it also means we can lie on the floor and visualize dancing when we are not able to dance physically. Listening to the music and letting our bodies respond, even when we do not move is remarkably powerful. Small impulses slip into our muscles, activating them, connecting them.
But it also means more than this. What we think is powerful. The stories we tell ourselves, the words we say to ourselves, they have bigger results than we may know.
We say things to ourselves, and we mean them—even when they are, well, sorta mean. I know, people laugh at affirmations. “It’s just a lie,” is the most common complaint. But I would submit that the self-hating acid drip in which we daily bathe is at least as much of a lie, and far more toxic.
What if we told ourselves better stories?
What if we visualized our own success? In detail. And stuck to that.
One of the things I do is what I call Mapping. I pay attention to my body in certain emotional states. The joy of connection in dance. Feeling successful. Happiness. Things like that. I map my body’s posture and physical sensations while I experience these positive feelings. So I can recreate that state later on. So when I am going to perform, I place myself in a body map created from a generous expressionof joy.
And, Lo, I let that feeling infuse my body. I “Just Say No” to toxic whispers of doubt. This didn’t come easily. It took practice and perseverance to notice these feelings and learn to create them. But it was worth the effort.
I do a lot of little things. At night before I go to sleep, I relax my jaw. I make sure none of my teeth are touching. I relax my eyes, my mouth, my face. Habitually holding tension in various body areas doesn’t go away by itself. We have to take action. And we are in good company.
Olympic athletes visualize their success.
They visualize their whole event—their technique, strategy, competitors, the whole thing. They see it in their heads, their most perfect performance—and it’s serious business. They mean it.
If it’s good enough for Olympic athletes, it’s good enough for us.
Next time you have a moment of joy, I invite you to notice what you feel, physically, in your body. What sensations do you notice? What is the shape of that joy? How does your body hold itself when it is happy? What is on your face? Map that. Go there.
Practice feeling joy.
Smiling brings joy. Smiling at ourselves in the mirror, a real smile, makes a difference. Let’s make that difference.
PS Local VT/NH/MA folks, spots have opened up at at Raq-on.net. I will be teaching creative expression with a strong dose of improv!
Mondays 5:45 to 745 p.m: August 12th-September 23rd. Intermediate/Advanced class with Alia (2 spots left)
This class is for the serious student who has achieved a level II status. You must be willing to take constructive criticism from your instructor work as a team player with your peers. This is a 2 hr. class and is $150 for the 7 week session. By permission only. Please email me if you are interested in this class.
And now for something completely different! Astor Piazzola, a playlist. Tangueros have told me you can’t really dance tango to this music as it’s so complex, so feel free to let your imagination soar (or your body move as it wishes 😉 and have super-dramatic blast!
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.” This is supposedly a South African proverb; I don’t know that it actually is. Or that it is always true. But I do know that combining group work with personal work is a fast way to go far.
This is how I have always created my courses–a mix of group accountability and camaraderie combined with individual focus and experimentation. I have found this combination to be satisfying and effective,, both in the classes I have taken as well as those I have taught.
I know, everyone despised group work in school.
Largely because it is for a grade, so everyone hates the slacker who drags them down almost as much as the perfectionist who drives them forward (at one time, I had my college students categorize themselves as Early Birds, Slow and Steady, or Caffiends, and grouped them accordingly–which worked surprisingly well).
One thing I noticed, though–the more fun the task, the more agreeable the groups were. The more motivated people are, the better everything goes.
Fun and motivation are key.
I have been in many, many groups (you probably have, too), from boards to business to classes. I have found that a good group motivates me to show up, and that I learn as much from the processes of the others as I do from my own (sometimes more). Groups work best when we have our own things to do between meetings, and we come back together to debrief and choose our next focus.
As someone who has often danced in a vacuum, with no teachers near at hand, before the internet, I am familiar with going alone. It’s not my strong suit, even though I do it all the time. Why?
I’m an introvert.
Generally, I avoid people. I abhor groups. They make me tired. I don’t like to be seen. BUT!
I get a lot farther with others to help me prioritize, act as a sounding board, or generally be on the path with me. Sometimes it’s just one person, sometimes it’s several. But when we are all motivated and the task is rewarding the process becomes enjoyable.
This is how I structure my classes.
A long time ago I read that some students responded more in written conversations and others to in-person conversation. I immediately tested this in my college classrooms, and was delighted to find silent students become chatty and helpful in forum threads. Since then, I have used a mix of video meetings with private forums for my classes–and it works.
Here are some comments from a recent class…
I think the group encouragement helped us all come “out” and share videos, etc… without feeling we would be judged. I felt everyone’s beauty from the inside out. I got to know them because we interacted everyday online. The love I felt from knowing them and seeing their dance was so sweet for me to watch. I am going to feel lost when the course is over. I also feel like I have made friends. I felt like I could do no wrong, explore and try new things every step of the way.
In this course Alia always encouraged being “you” and how “you” feel. All the assignments were open to “our” interpretations to build “our” dances. Alia gave guidance and examples, not “do this” “like this.” And everyone including me shared their own experiences, ideas, twists, struggles, questions, learned from each other, inspired each other, supported each other. There was no right or wrong. There was no who is better than others or “this is good because it looks like the example.” There really wasn’t. –HT
The group made all the difference. Things that I was privately feeling or insecurities I had would be expressed by someone else in the group. This gave me the confidence to speak up, ask questions and not be afraid of what others thought. The group was very supportive and their questions and comments were very helpful. I did not feel alone. ..I got so many great ideas from others in the forum. I remember saying to myself on numerous occasions, “I want to try that!” We were all free to share and explore together. –KG
“Awaken people to their own beauty and power. Enable them to express their unique individuality through art.”
This is my mission. This is why I teach classes, write books and articles, and dance the way I do. This is why I am embarked upon the trauma resolution path, to help others transcend the ice of old fear so they can create the art of their dreams.
It is from this place that I present our fall calendar.
I have built these courses over time. I have built them to heal the divides I see in our dance scene. I have built them for you. Thank you for reading, for thinking, for being part of all this, for being you. You are my heart and soul. Let’s go far–together.
Fall 2019 Upcoming Events
Raq-On Live Classes, mid Aug-mid Sept
I’m excited to be teaching some of Amity’s classes between mid August to mid Sept. There are a few spots left in the intermediate to advanced class on Monday nights–join live in the studio or Skype in.
“Individual growth while focusing not just on technique and drills, but different styles, props, history, and performance methods. You must be willing to take constructive criticism from your instructor work as a team player with your peers. Please note, in order to join this class, you must get instructor permission.” If interested, please contact me.
FUN classes are live online (video) classes designed for FUN. They are primarily follow-me, improv classes with some combinations, technique, and an extended Dancemeditation section for stress release and joy.
Each class is recorded. The recording is available for one week only, then replaced by the next recording. We use zoom for the classes and teachable.com to host the streamable recordings. Registration opens in August.
Creative Expressions Mastermind
I am very excited about this new venture. This Mastermind is for small groups (+/- five people) who meet online bi-weekly for two months (five total meetings of about two hours per meeting). Each member chooses their own creative goals while the group provides accountability, cheerleading, and coaching.
Each person gets twenty minutes per meeting to talk about what they’ve done, what they want to do, and troubleshoot or discuss. Alia will provide coaching, and they will choose their new goals or next steps for the coming month.
What might you focus on? It could be any kind of creative goal, dance, improvisation, a prop, or anything you want to learn or get better at, painting, costume making, writing, marketing, establishing boundaries, whatever you want to work on.
This Mastermind will run through September and October. Meeting times will be decided by the group. Meetings will be recorded and available via teachable.com.
There are only ten spaces available for the mastermind. If you are interested, contact me. Formal registration opens in August. However, if you are sure this is for you, you may partake of our special Trust the Chef pricing (there’s even a payment plan).
How to Teach Improvisation
Save the Date: August 4th at 2PM This is a webinar I’m teaching for the Belly Dance Business Academy. More info and signup coming soon.
Effortless Improv: a 6-week online improvisation crash course
This is one of my favorite classes. It is wild and crazy and oh, does it work! Get ready for transformation. Ten spots are available right now at a special early price (only 25 spots for the whole class). Info/Register
Focus on the Feeling How to Get and Give Great Critique for Oriental Dance
Who among us has not been told something cutting about our dance? Sure, maybe it’s true, but really–cutting? All of us want to improve; none of us need to be shredded in the process. Yet the only other option seems to be saying how good something was–when it wasn’t? Can’t we be honest, yet kind?
YES, WE CAN.
Focus on the Feeling helps us identify our strengths, prioritize our growth, build up our skills, and enjoy doing it–we even get to enjoy our own videos! Find out more here. FoF will run for 6 weeks, from Sunday, October 13 — Friday, November 22, 2019. Registration opens in September.
I saw a Frank Zappa piece back in the 70s in which the musicians’ scores were comic books. Zappa conducted, and the musicians played the comic books (I think they had the same comic, but I can’t swear to it). The audience had a part as well—he gave hand signs for specific responses—we shouted sound effects like RUNCH! It was a wonderful concert.
It took those musicians a long time to get the chops to do that—not just to play their instruments—but to play a comic book. And it was the goofy intention to play a comic book that came first.
It has been suggested that one needs 10,000 hours of effort to master a skill.
Even the Sufis say one needs 1,001 days (or nights) of training. If you figure 10-hour days, there you have it. For many things, including dance, I am sure this is true. But it is also true that you can get a handle on something in as little as twenty hours. You won’t be a master, but you will begin to develop competence.
Twenty hours is what we get in my Community College classes. We have 15 weeks, and we dance for up to 1.5 hours each week (the rest goes to lecture and discussion). By the end of the semester, the students–who range from young gals who have taken part in their High School dance program to folks with nary a moment of dance experience—all somehow manage to miss the fact that they signed up for a dance class.
By the end of the semester, they have danced for a little over twenty hours—and they can dance. They can improvise. The whole class develops a group dance, and can solo briefly on their own—and look good doing it—happy and free. They each have their own unique style. In 20 hours.
We can do that, too. In the 90 Days, we dance 20 minutes a day for 90 days. It adds up.
Developing one’s own style is often portrayed as an enormous undertaking.
One must study like a dog for years, copy slavishly, and then, maybe, if the moon’s phase is just right, they may begin the arduous, perilous quest for their own style.
My opinion, if they hadn’t spent all the time slavishly copying, but instead worked on expression and allowing their body to discover its own response to the music (along with technique), they would have their own style, and long before anyone who spends their time executing other people’s choreography.
To have our own style, we have to practice it.
I know one of the things that makes people nervous about this practice is that they might start whiffing and snorting and stamping and shaking on stage.At which point the belly dance police will cart them off to prison.
People also wonder why we bother dancing to all the alternative music, since they want to be able to improv to belly dance music.
Improvisation is its own separate skill.
It can be applied to any genre.
And: often folks’ relationship with belly dance music is kind of stiff, hampered by the conditioning of copying and choreography, of Lego block dance, and fear of making mistakes.
So we use a lot of different music to break up that pattern. And we practice all this weird stuff like Slow Movement and Rhythmic Breath to help us respond to the music intuitively.
Bottom line, the music has a lot to do with what we do.
I know I dance differently to different music. I bet you do, too. But belly dance music inspires belly dance movement. And Turkish music brings out different movement from Egyptian music. And classic Tarab songs bring different music, and moods, the, for example, the Anghami Modern Dabke playlist. Make sense?
Moreover, the venue affects our dance as well. If I am dancing for myself, my eyes closed, I dance differently than when I perform for my guests. The focus of the show affects what I choose as well. Even the lights and the size of the stage affect what I do.
Then there are various intentions, which may show over the course of a song or a show—joyous here, nostalgic there, mysterious, whimsical, whatever. These all color the dance in different ways.
As we learn to respond in the moment, we organically develop our own style.
The beauty of all the improv practice, the beauty of learning to allow your body to respond to the music in the moment, is that all of this becomes easier the more we practice it. Because it is your body, your interpretation, it will perforce be unique and special.
Of course we need technique—we need it so we dance safely, have nice lines, and can execute our movement vocabulary. But improv dance is like slam poetry. You just let things come out of your mouth. You have to practice letting things come out as poetry, and that takes skill, but so does everything. Well. Most things worth doing well. Letting dance come out of your body takes skill, too. It’s all about TRUST.
So I invite you to cross train your improvisation.
Freewriting is good. I’ll talk more about that later.
I’m a largely improvisational cook—I’ll combine whatever I have with basmati rice and cook it for half an hour—voila, dinner.
I sing goofy little songs about what I am doing.
I’ve danced television shows for my practice time.
Try ours! We’ll be having weekly FunClasses over the summer. These live classes are via Zoom. They last about an hour and include follow-me, features, and Dancemeditation. Sign ups open next week; classes start in June.
When my ex was going to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was struck by the way they counted days of sobriety. If you fell off the wagon, you started over. Back to Day 1. That seemed rather harsh to me, that ten years of sobriety was out the window after a single beer. It took a while, but I got it:
Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Not like it votes for Bernie Sanders, either. In this case, it means that even when one does not drink, the disease progresses. If you stop drinking for ten years and then start again, you’re as bad off as if you never stopped. And one beer increases the likelihood that next there will be two beers, and then… So they want people to stay sober, since backsliding can be disastrous.
Dance practice is different.
Habit does have a lot to do with it, and not practicing today may make us less likely to practice tomorrow, but it’s not a life or death thing. Still, folks manage to make it a chore, and to beat themselves up if they miss a day. Many of us are so hard on ourselves, we take any opportunity to tear ourselves down. This is not cool.
All of us are at a different stage in our development. We are in a progression of healing and becoming (unlike alcoholism’s decline) Part of health for us is the development of self-compassion, of self love. We’re not all ready to to do this every day. And that’s okay.
Part of our practice is the development of self-compassion.
This brings me to this book presentation I attended a while back.
I loved the author—tall, skinny, gray pony tail, plaid shirt and blue jeans. Diffident, sweet, and brilliant. The presentation was during my nap time, and I was falling asleep at the beginning, but once he got going, I snapped to attention and listened in awe. I’m glad I went with friends, as all of us were equally blown away.
It was a long talk, extremely well-designed and beautiful organized. Even though I took (terribly tilted) pictures of many of his slides, I can’t begin to recreate its complexity.
The book’s premise is that our sense of God stems from an “innate neonatal model” of—Mommy.
Yes, this is genetic. This is the God is Love side. Mommy is always there. She loves us. She protects us. If we call her, she is there for us. As God is believed to be. The devotion to Mommy (or whatever caregiver), is innate, so it doesn’t make a difference if we had neglectful or absent caregivers; we still have this yearning for Her unconditional love and acceptance.
The OTHER side of God, the punishing, judgmental side, is the Social manifestation of God. God in the image of man, demanding obedience, sacrifice, atonement, etc. This one is a social construct—it is learned. The Love side is innate—we are born with it. Nature (Love) vs “Nurture” (Social), so to speak.
I’m having a hard time writing about this because it is so huge.
Here’s a (badly tilted) slide that looks at the social vs neonatal faces of God
Please note that when I say religion or religious I do not mean Christianity, but religion/spirit in a general way. Spirituality is important to me (or whatever I can call it without pushing new Age buttons). And apparently to women in general. This is one of the puzzles of religion.
Worldwide, women are more religious than men.
Wathey suggests that if the true root of our spiritual longing (our wish for the Beloved, in Sufi terms), is a wish for Mother, that it may help explain women’s religious leanings. Women give birth, so they have innate protective impulses.
I do not suggest that women are innately better suited to clean a house, wear a dress, or bat their eyelashes. Gendered behavior is a social construct—something we learn (like the angry God of righteousness). Men and women both can be excellent (or terrible) caregivers. But in animals that care for their young, particularly those in which mothers feed their young from their own bodies, there is instinctive behavior that feeds, that protects, etc (or woe betide the babies). It complements the neonatal impulse towards the mother.
Gerda Lerner suggests that, in part, the rise in patriarchy came as folks figured out the babies didn’t just magically appear—that it takes two to tango, as it were. And then all that righteousness took center stage, and women were reduced to breeding, housekeeping, and childcare (don’t get me started on this…).
Anyway, here’s my point.
We’ve all internalized a lot of angry righteousness.
We apply it to ourselves indiscriminately. This is the tearing ourselves down for every perceived error. Yet Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, say that we have all been each others’ mother or child in one life or another—that we must look at each person with the love that we have for our own mother.
My mother’s relationship with her mother was not so warm. She preferred to view each person as her own child (she liked us ; ). Another friend reimagined her entire childhood, giving herself loving parents who were there for her and cared for her. We Westerners, with our complex, difficult family relationships, may find these approaches helpful. But I’ll go a step further.
Last week we talked about feeling safe. What, I ask you, is the deepest root of feeling safe, if not the love of a parent? Even if we had sh*t parents, we still yearn for that love.
I suggest that we give ourselves that mother love.
That we give to ourselves the caring, love, and compassion for which our biology has prepared us. That we provide the loving protection, the comfort that we needed in the past and did not get. Our own mothers may have been wonderful—or not. That’s not the point. The point is that we have been encouraged by society to judge ourselves and find ourselves wanting—we can balance that with self-compassion and care.
How do we do that? Hold ourselves close and send ourselves love. Cuddle that difficult inner child. Tell her you love her. Remember when she didn’t get the love and protection she needed. Be there for her now. Just love her. Tell her you are there for her forever more. Mean it.
So that’s why I say props to you no matter what. Because you, me, all of us, as human beings, are worthy of love and care.
This weekend, April 27: Aisha Ali in Vermont!This is a RARE event! Asha Ali did field work back in the 1970s with the Ghawazee in Egypt and the Ouled Nail in Algeria (at great personal risk). She is an excellent teacher and the real deal. There are a few spots left–if you can make it, this is HIGHLY recommended:
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. Do not miss! Hosted by Kay Hardy Campbell, so you know it will be good.
Sunday, July 14: I’ll be teaching improv and group composition in Northampton MA (and performing that night at Cairo Cab). Limited space!, Registration is now open.
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!
We think we know what’s real and what’s not. But do we?
The brain can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
That’s why we can be frightened, even traumatized, by scary movies or video violence, why we weep at a heartwarming film (I cried my eyes out at Field of Dreams, big heaving sobs). This is all why we are so easily drawn into what the SE folks call the Trauma Vortex, all the roiling chaos connected to the various events that left us helpless and frozen, angry, or worse.
But there is another vortex associated with trauma, and it is completely different, in its content and affect. It’s called the Counter Vortex. Like it’s name, it contains everything that counters the trauma—all our Resources, the strengths, skills, and other positives that got us through the traumatic event. And we did get through—because we’re alive to read this.
We survived because of our our resources.
But often those resources go uncounted, unacknowledged, unspoken, unseen. Part of wallowing in the good is about recognizing those resources and putting them to work. The Counter-Vortex includes all the dissociation and fluffy pink clouds—or the running like hell and murderous rage—or whatever else it took to survive the moment. Resources connect us to organization—not of our closet space, but internally, the organization of a healthy nervous system.
Trauma disrupts the nervous system, disorganizing it. Focusing on resources, on the here and now, on the good, helps us return to regulation (and if you want to think of old trauma like poop that has to come out for us to be regulated, you just rock on with your bad self ; ).
The great part of regulating the nervous system and discharging trauma is that our capacity for regulation and recovery increases, every time we do so. It is like the way developing a Growth Mindset and struggling to learn challenging skills increases intelligence. Sign me up, right?
So, what’s a good way to focus on resource? Making ART!
“Studies show that the arts help children regulate their emotions, a critical skill for well-adjusted children and adults.
Infants who participated in a six-month active music group with singing and dancing had better emotional regulation behaviors than did infants in a passive music group, where music was played in the background while infants did other activities.”
Oh, who’s doing that? We are!
“In another study, children were asked to think of a past negative event. Some of those children then were instructed to draw a house to distract themselves; the other children were instructed either to draw the negative event or to copy another drawing. The children who drew to distract were better able to improve their mood compared to the other children.” https://www.arts.gov/news/2015/arts-and-early-childhood-development-focus-new-nea-research
A distraction is something that takes your mind off that damn red dot. And an equally important concept is that it’s OKAY to take your mind off the dot. We are often so caught up in suffering that we feel it is our duty to do so. Eff that. Our loved ones want us to be well. And our enemies? Living well is the best revenge.
Next time you feel down, I invite you go draw a house (or do some dance, or play some music, or, hell, just imagine you are ; )