What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

Back in the early 70’s, when I was a baby dancer, I worked as a figure model for art classes, mostly at the Brooklyn Museum art school (sadly, long gone), and at Pratt Institute. There was one prof at Pratt whom I liked a lot, and I worked often for his classes. In addition to regular still poses, each semester we ran through a sequence of sessions for his Illustration class as he taught them to draw objects in motion. For the capstone of the series, I brought my dance gear to class, put on belly dance music, and danced in full costume while the class frantically sketched. It was a lot of fun.

One day during this class, a dark-haired student burst into the room. He took in the scene–the madly sketching students, the glittery dancer, the white-haired, bearded prof–and demanded, “Who is playing this music?”
I am, I said.
“This is John Berberian!” he said.
Um, yeah. Yes, it is.

I wondered if he were going to yell at me for dancing to this music. Instead, it turned out the kid was Armenian (as is John Berberian). He told me John was about to perform at an upcoming Armenian church supper. The kid eagerly invited me to the supper, because anyone who loved John Berberian was family. I loved John Berberian, so of course I went. My mother, who had introduced me to John’s music, also loved him–so off we went.

The church was packed, and food was everywhere (it was just like the Arabic food I was used to, and it was delish). My Mom and I were both kind of shy, but the kid from school soon saw us, thanked us for coming, and found us seats. Everyone made us feel welcome, even though we didn’t know anyone. My Mom and I sat in a happy daze with the food and the swirl of activity all around us. Soon it was time for the concert. Or so I thought.

When Berberian and his band took the stage—everyone jumped up to dance. The floor was awash with ecstatic people of every age and size boogieing down in in every way, shape, and form. As I watched, it slowly dawned on me—these people were all belly dancing!

Now, I am Levantine on my father’s side, but no one in my family danced. I had already been taking belly dance classes with Ibrahim Farrah, Jajouka, and Elena Lentini for a couple of years. I could dance—but I had never seen belly dance “in the wild,” so to speak. These folks danced alone, in groups, as couples—and all the things I had learned in class were their natural expressions of the music: hip drops, shimmies, undulations—the works. It was belly dance in its natural environment.  It was a revelation.

I didn’t dance that night—I just watched (I also bought John’s new album, which he autographed—I still have it ; ). But I learned a lot—and I never forgot.

You would think “what is belly dance” would be pretty obvious—you see the people dancing, the hip drops and undulations—and there it is. But you would be wrong about that.

The definition of belly dance is surprisingly contentious. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the history of the term, and what it has come to define.

An excerpt from the upcoming book, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?

Read part II here

Why we dance—the secret surprise (and how to find it)

Those little voices....
Those little voices….

You know those little voices that always rag on us to just quit and be done with it?  That we will never amount to anything? What does that even mean? Like we will not be world-class famous dancers with tons of money and fame? Why is that the benchmark of success in our dance?

Few of us dance solely for adulation or money. It’s awesome that dance gives us those things, but the dance is deeper than this. It’s the connection to the music we crave—the sense of oneness that we value. Yet all the emphasis is on the pretty girl on stage in a costume.

Most people who do this dance do not teach or perform. They dance with friends at home or at parties. Why would they do that? Dance around the house and play music, women of all ages. A dance of joy. What does that really mean?

This dance has power. We know this. And not all of it in the venue of performance. That in some ways is the smallest of it attributes. Because it is a dance of joy, that is why its performances have power—they bring joy, both to viewers and dancers. That is also why it is so popular offstage as well. Doing or viewing this dance lifts one’s mood. Joy is there for all of us.

I sometimes hear disdain for the “hobbyists.” You know, the ones who take classes, fill workshops, and pay the bills The ones with relatively normal lives who just want to dance and have fun. Because we all should be serious dancers who work hard.

Well, surprise. Maybe the hobbyists have the right idea. I’m all for performance. I am a performer. I love it. Many of us do. I love teaching. I’m good at it. So I get it. I’m not suggesting anyone stop. People feel called to open studios, develop professional companies, dance at birthday parties; I say YES to all of it. But this dance is a folk dance, done by folks, in their homes. And that is a legitimate, honorable relationship with the dance.

What if we stop beating ourselves up for notgoing anywhere” with our dance? Think of all the people who do yoga, or tai chi. They don’t look to be performers. Few even look to be teachers. Most of them just go to class, a workshop, a retreat. The activity is part of their life. It gives them physical and emotional benefits. Maybe a community. And they enjoy it.

The same with dance

The physical interaction with the music is pleasurable in and of itself. And the more in sync we get the better and more beautiful and delicious it feels. Think how lovely our 20 minutes could be if we focused on the sensuality of the moves and their relationship with the music. Right there is a good reason for pursuing mastery. For the pleasure of the activity all by itself. On our own or with friends.

That sounds radical, doesn’t it? Most of us don’t move for the enjoyment of it. We practice to get better. We work. What if we enjoyed ourselves instead?

Something to think about…



PS With the encouragement of my friend Mackay Rippey, of Lyme Ninja Radio, I’ll teach a free 4-week web series this fall called Belly Dance Foundation Flow–an exploration of belly dance movement for healing and joy. It will be a lovely, rich experience.

Update: Mackay and I recorded an interview for his podcast;; the web series followed. It is all archived–you can get the recordings here. This is a totally free series. All are welcome.

Music: Fun African mix: https://soundcloud.com/snyk-dk/ud-og-samle-svampe-i-afrika

Small Product Lab–phew!

What an intense couple of weeks. I made it through the Gumroad ‪‎Small Product Lab Launch and met all kinds of cool creators. I feel full of ideas from being around so many. And made a new thing–Ziltastic!– in only 10 days. Thanks to everyone who supported this crazy endeavor. Here’s a snippet: https://vimeo.com/135481234.

The SPL crew voted me a People’s Choice award! This is for being a helpful member of the team. Squee! So Ziltastic is in the Honorable Mention section of the July SPL collection. Check out all the cool stuff we made–you might see something you love. https://gumroad.com/smallproductlab/creators/july2015

Then Mackay Rippey called. He interviewed me about belly dance’s potential for trauma healing.  We blew through the interview and kept right on conversing for another hour. The interview will air on his Lyme Ninja Radio podcast September 13–more as we get closer. And thanks to this conversation, something wonderful came into being.  Announcing…

A Belly Dance Foundation Flow series this fall. We will explore foundation belly dance movement for somatic release to refresh the body and soul so joy can flow into our lives. This will be online, with no cost–a special gift. All are welcome. More soon.

Thanks, Mackay, the Small Product Lab, and all of you for encouraging me in this journey!

I’m off to New Mexico for Dunya’s Summer Movement Monastery–camping in the high desert for Sufi dance. I’ll be back with more soon!

Lots of love,

PS People are excited about Ziltastic. This makes me so happy! I love the material that is coming through.

I just watched Part One! It changed my entire relationship with my zils. I bought two pair a few years ago and i just couldn’t handle the ringing in my ears, couldn’t see the end goal and actually disliked them (but my guilt made me store them in a really cute bag). Now I know what I own, how to keep from giving myself a headache and know that I can play them with fun, musicality and improvisation as my goal. They are out of my cute bag now! And the cat stays in the room! Thank you Alia! Ziltastic! ~Anica

“I love looking and listening to you. I love watching you, your calm, connected style. It feels like I’m right there in the same room. I can’t wait to start playing.” ~Irit

Thanks to everyone who’s taken the plunge with Ziltastic! Our group is wonderful!

Want to be part of it? There are about 15 seats left for the special coaching gift. Grab ’em while you can! Right here: http:/ziltastic.com

Ziltastic! Fast, fun finger cymbal improvisation
Ziltastic! Fast, fun finger cymbal improvisation

Love and kisses,

How to choose zills the Goldilocks way


How to choose finger cymbals the Goldilocks way

When Goldilocks discovered the three bears’ house, she tried out every bowl of porridge, every chair and every bed until she found the one that was “just right.” Choosing finger cymbals (aka zils, zills, or sagat) is the same way. Too loud, too heavy, too big, too small–it takes time to find what you like. “Just right” is different for everyone, so it’s worth sleeping around to find your perfect match.

I found my go-to finger cymbals at Rakkasah West in California. Back in the mid-90’s, we didn’t have much choice. A few teachers sold small assortments of gear, but other than that, you were out of luck. Few websites. No sound files. No Amazon. And no Google. It was a lot harder to find what you wanted. So imagine the knee-weakening affect of Saroyan’s display–full sets of every zil they made, ready to play, laid out there for sampling. Every zil. That’s dozens of sets, even more if you count every gauge plus bronze and silver–and you have to, because they each sound different.

So yeah, pig heaven. I am proud to say that I played EVERY SINGLE ONE in search of my dream zils. I wanted something medium-sized with a low tone (I hate that high-pitched ring that hangs in the air). So I played them all, and I made a choice. It was pricey, too. Good cymbals are, because they are carefully made of high quality materials–often hand-cast bell bronze or German silver.

The main things to consider in a set of finger cymbals are size, weight, and sound. There is also price, of course. Expect to spend $15-25 for a set of student-quality cymbals, and $35-70 (and up) for pro quality (vendor links at the end of the post). A set is 4 cymbals, two for each hand. In general, opt up. Good finger cymbals last practically forever, and never go out of style. Buy the best quality you can afford. You won’t regret it.

Size matters. So does weight. I have cymbals ranging from tiny Saroyan Tinkerzills to 6-inch orchestra-quality monsters. Some feel comfortable in my hand, some pinch with with every tek. Some are so heavy my arms hurt, and some are so light that no one can hear them. Size and weight go together, of course–I mean, it’s metal. The bigger the instrument, the heavier it is. But there are also different thicknesses of metal, so two sets of the same size can have different weights.

Light and heavy are different for each person–you want to find your sweet spot.  The smaller and lighter the zil, the easier it is to play–but the thinner the sound. Too big or heavy, however, and your hands will be uncomfortable and tire easily. It’s fine to start with smaller, lighter, less expensive zils, and progress towards pro-quality instruments. Many dancers practice with heavier zils, then perform wearing a lighter set, so that the performance is easier. It’s all about finding your “Just Right.”

The mother of all concerns is sound. No one wants to sound crappy. Listen a lot, and find what you like. For me, the ultimate dealbreaker is that high-pitched ring that hangs in the air long after the cymbal has sounded. Yet other folks I know love that sound. So there you go.

There are two main styles of cymbal–Egyptian and Turkish. Egyptian sagat have a wide, flat lip around the bell. Turkish style zils have a narrower, often slightly upturned lip. Each type has has a different sound (and some different playing techniques). There are also specialty folkloric cymbals from various places. What matters most is that you like what you have. That is the bottom line. You can get fancy later. For now, just buy whatever you like.

There are also two main styles of cymbal attachment–single hole or double slots.
The single hole is old-style–all zils used to be made this way. Egyptian sagat still are. So are some Zildjians and many smaller makers (LOTS of crap cymbals will have a single hole. You really do get what you pay for, so beware). The elastic goes through the hole and is secured on the other side by anything from a large knot to a button or a washer (creativity abounds). They are more challenging to play, as the connection between zil and finger is smaller, but their sound is often superior.

Slots are new. The elastic goes in one slot and out the other. Most of the big makers do double slots. They are easier to play, because they sit more firmly on the finger, but they do tend to have that ring.

So how do you find “just right”?

Ideally, you play them in person. Reading descriptions on the internet, even listening to sound files is great. Feeling those babies on your own hands, hearing them with your own ears, that is better.

However, few of us have a large retailer right down the road. So we have to get clever. Listen to the zils you hear people playing. When you hear something you like, ask the dancer what kind they are, and where s/he got them. When you go to a festival, play all the cymbals available. Try out lots of options to help your body find its “Just Right.” Don’t even ask the price unless you like the zils.

When you buy sight unseen, do your research. Ask other dancers what they like. Listen to the sound files. Both Saroyan and Turquoise have sound files or videos for every zil they sell. Call the place up and discuss what you want–ask them to pay the zils over the phone. Take your time to find what you want.

Choosing a first set of zils can feel daunting. Don’t get crazy about it. If you enjoy playing zils, you will end up with many, many more–each set unique (my student zil bag is filled with zils I got that weren’t quite what I wanted). And even though I have some great finger cymbals, I am always on the lookout for more.

Get what you like. You’re the one who’s going to play them. Pick whatever makes you happy and have a good time. What did I choose from Saroyan that day? The German silver Tutankhamen Pro. I still play them almost every show. They have some of that ring, but for almost 20 years now they are my “just right.”

That’s how it is with finger cymbals.


PS a couple of Vendors: Turquoise and Saroyan make quality cymbals. So does Zildjian (and they are LOUD). Yasmin Henkesh sells Egyptian sagat (and she is a love, plus she knows her stuff)


I’m deep in Gumroad’s Small Product Lab–build and launch a new product in 10 days. Ziltastic! A video CRASH Course in Finger Cymbal Improvisation is what has emerged from this process. This is a snippet from that project. I hope you enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading!



PS here is me performing improv with finger cymbals




How to transition effortlessly between moves

You’re dancing along and suddenly you have a better idea. So you go with it. Then you have another. But that one’s not so good, so you switch to something else. Then another, and… It’s like a bad dream. In a spit second you are trapped in your head, worrying and thinking. How can we transition gracefully between moves during improv?

Structure, Timing, and Relaxation


Music has structure. Even a taqsim with no rhythm has structure. We make our transitions in accordance with this structure. We make them between the phrases. Between the measures. This is why we listen to so much music, so we can intuit the structure. This is why we want to know our songs, so we have an idea of when the changes come. It’s fun to dance blind to music we never heard before, but it’s all the listening we have done in the past allows us to do this.

Where is the most organic place to change? Every song, every section, every phrase, every beat has a beginning, middle, and end. There are verses and choruses, calls and repeats, rules  of 4, etc. And there is almost always a change at every 4 measures. That is the place to switch. (Some songs have 3 measure phrases, some two, and some have sections with longer phrases—it doesn’t matter.) The end of a phrase (or even a measure) is the best place to switch. You will always look in synch.

Timing (a quick lesson on music). So here comes the end of the phrase—what do you do? You switch on the and, usually between the 4 at the end of one measure and the 1 at the beginning of the next.

The rhythm can be broken down verbally to accommodate all these notes. For example, 1(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) 2(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) etc. In music, it’s often phrased thus: 1 a-and-a 2 a-and-a 3 a-and-a 4 a-and-a.

Music can have lots of notes per measure, but the base measure is usually 4 counts. (Most of our music is 4/4. There are many other time signatures—3/4 is waltz time, 9/8 is karsilama, etc, in which case the base count is different). Each count can also be divided up to fit many notes in the measure (see below for more).

Here’s the music for Ah Ya Zein. The horizontal lines show which note to play. The vertical lines show the demarcation between each measure.

Musical notation for Ah Ya Zein
Musical notation for Ah Ya Zein

 And here’s Ah Ya Zein in person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3tt_KvAz4o It’s being played as a 2/4. You can hear the ayyoub rhythm under the melody going dum, ka dum tek; dum, ka dum tek1 (a-and-), a2, and 1 (a-and-) a2 and. You would change on the final and (after the 2).

1 a-and








Here’s a maksoum beat: dum tek, tekka tek, dum tekka tek, (tekka). This translates to 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. That last and is the place where you change.

















A drummer will often play that last bit of the phrase differently. He may play more or fewer beats, speed up or slow down—for he is also signaling the change to the rest of the musicians. And if there is to be a change in rhythm, he will signal that quite vigorously, often with a series of dums, as he has to adapt as well. Understanding the rhythm helps us feel this most basic structure of the music (the melody brings us to the higher levels of structure).

While you wait for the moment, relax. Relaxation is the key to everything. The more we get chased by worry and stress, the harder everything gets. When we feel stressed in dance, it’s time to slow down and start Rhythmic Breath. Breathe with the music and slow down. Whatever you are doing, no matter how fast the music, intentionally relax. Remember to enjoy yourself. This alone is radical.

When we are relaxed, suddenly everything is possible. Everything is easier. Everything is more enjoyable. When we slow down before a change, we get to see the change coming. The space around the change between phases opens up like sunny day. It becomes easy to pass through the change, even gracious.

As you find the spaces in the rhythm, you can change even more frequently. Try changing with every measure, every beat even, as in stop motion. Tribal fusion does this a lot, and it can make for some nice accents. But remember the melody, too. The rhythm is the most basic part of the music. The melody is a heavenly palace of textures and warm breezes to waft you along.

Watch out for getting too busy! Changing too often (even on the beat) wears everyone out, including the dancer. The music repeats—so can you. Take the time to explore and enjoy each section. People want to have a good time. When the dancer relaxes and enjoys herself, so can the people.

Take your time. Connect to the rhythm. Express the melody. Enjoy your dance.



Music: Here are some drum solos to play with the rhythm:


And here is some melody, Adaweya style: https://soundcloud.com/baraa_nabil2/sets/adaweya

And here’s a breakdown of how to read sheet music: http://readsheetmusic.info/readingmusic.shtml

How can slow movement improve technique?

How can slow movement improve technique?

When we whip through a move or combination at speed, when we do it the easy way, we limit our progress. We might cut corners, or miss small errors, particularly in areas that are difficult or in the outer fringes of our physical abilities. The circle isn’t really circular; the curve has a divot in that area where our hip has a little hitch. The little hunch in our shoulders, the glitch in our balance as we turn goes unnoticed.

Slow movement, movement at a speed Dunya describes as “glacial,” allows us to deeply inhabit every moment of the shape we create. We engage and focus our attention at each moment, feel intimately each tiny increment. Where we might skimp at normal speed, we can anticipate hitches, see them coming, and adjust our trajectory, slowing down even further, so we slip unobstructed through the straits.

When we go slowly enough, we are less likely to trigger pain, so we can complete the arc more graciously. When we find a trouble spot, we can hold it like a pose, motionless, while our bodies sort out balance, line, reaching like flowers for the light of openness and effortless lilt.

We also build myelin, the neural manifestation of skill. Myelin (skill) is an insulating substance that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals (Coyle). And one of those signals is slowing things down. We learn faster and improve more quickly by slowing down. Myelin reinforces the neural pathways that we use—the definition of skills development. So whatever we do, that’s what gets reinforced. If we skimp, that’s what gets reinforced. If we make beautiful, elegant arcs, that’s what gets reinforced.

Breaking things into small chunks and practicing them out of sequence also builds myelin. Taking small, disconnected chunks of technique, feeling them deeply, inhabiting them, slowing them down, making them into a series of elegant poses, that reinforces those neural pathways. Doing the power poses regularly reinforces those neural pathways. And we need those certain signals. Doing things mindlessly doesn’t get us there. We need to be in the sweet spot at the edge of our abilities.

The brilliant thing about this practice is that we are always at the edges of our ability. We are always searching, discovering, intent, focused, spreading our feelers out from every inch of our consciousness. So don’t worry if this is hard. Hard means you are learning. It means you are building myelin. We focus now so we can let go later. We build skills now so that on stage, they will be there for us. Through effort, we attain effortlessness.



How to Fall Off the Stage (and how to get back up)

Vegas, baby

Yep, I fell off the stage at The Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive.

I stepped back one time too many–and down I went. I knew it wasn’t too far, so I grabbed the curtains-and they went right down with me. It was an epic fail.

So what did I do? 

I jumped back up on the stage–laughing. “That’s going to look great on the video,” I said, and went on with my show.

Yes, I was lucky. It was only about 3 feet. I had already been back there, so I knew where I was going. It was Thursday night, so the audience was minimal. Yes, I could have asked them to stop the music. I could have started over. I didn’t feel like it. I just kept going.

And people loved it. Because I laughed and kept going.

And that was Vegas. Intense.

I had never been there before. I had never even been in a hotel as big, cheesy, or loud as the Flamingo. The line to check in was WAY over 50 people–and this was a Wednesday. It took 40 minutes. The lobby is a cross between an large airport shopping mall and a casino. Oh, wait–it IS a casino! Yes, slot machines clatter and jangle every moment.  The Strip is like Times Square on crack with slot machines. Every possible way of squeezing more money out of the marks is in overdrive. A coffee in the lobby costs $3. A banana is $2.75. For the first few days, I was in shock. I did not like Vegas. Not one bit.

Then I started to get the hang of it. I laughed and kept going.  I got to hang out with old friends–Nadira Jamal, Rosa Noreen, and Dhyanis among others. I got to see a show–Nadira and I went to see Cirque du Soleil. I got to meet cool people I know from FB–Treasure Marshall, Mahin from DBQ, and Ustadza Azra. My class went well and everyone was happy. I took some wonderful classes, in particular Jill Parker’s Dancing Warrior. And I saw some performances that totally, completely blew me away. Silvia Salamanca’s triple sword, a virtuosic display of excellence, Helena Vlahos’s gracious radiance, and the best thing I just about ever saw in my life, Nicole McLaren’s Sufi whirling piece–which garnered a standing ovation.

And everyone associated with the Intensive is adorable. Samira Tu’Ala is a doll. Now I know why everyone loves this event.

Overall, it was a helluva good time.


(And the fountains at the Bellagio are pretty cool, too.)






How to self critique (without wanting to die)

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Have you ever cringed, watching video of your dance?

When I was 16 or 17, I danced at the local block party. It was my first performance, ever. My homemade costume took weeks. I made a grand entrance from the big doors on the parlor floor of our brownstone and danced down the stoop. I did floorwork in the street. Lots of people gathered, and everyone cheered. It was a big hit. A friend filmed the show (we didn’t have video back then). A few weeks later, we all sat down to watch the movie.

Imagine my horror when the film brought back every moment of worry. I was paralyzed by shame. All the fun memories were smashed by the anxiety ignited by the film. And this was only the first performance. In general, even when a show feels great, and I know I got great response from the audience, when I see the video, I cringe.


It’s taken most of my life to enjoy my own performances. I’d like to help you enjoy yours–now.


What is self critique?

Self critique means looking at our own work with the intention of understanding its strengths and weaknesses. We see what we are doing well, and where we could improve. Take special note of that last sentence—strength as well as weakness. The problem is, most of us have no idea about our strengths, since all we ever look at are our weaknesses.

Why self critique? 

Why not just ask our teachers and friends to give us advice? Certainly teachers who know more than we do could do a better job of diagnosing our dance and offering solid advice.

We might like doing it ourselves.

Self-critique gives us a lot of control. We can take our time and analyze what worked and what didn’t from our perspective, based upon what we wanted to accomplish. It happens on our own time, when we are ready to do it. While it is incredibly helpful to get honest, unbiased feedback from a mentor or peer, we don’t have to worry about inane comments made by folks who don’t “get” what we are doing.

We may not have reliable mentors/friends

Thanks to the internet, many of us have learned to dance through videos. We don’t have any friends or teachers that we can easily ask for feedback. It’s fine to ask a random pal what they thought, but they may not know enough about what we are trying to do to give us actionable feedback.

Or we may have plenty of dancer peeps, but we may have outgrown their level of expertise. Or their objectivity may be compromised by their own baggage. It’s challenging to get critique from someone who feels threatened by us, or is obsessed with minor issues of correctness.

Plenty of people will tell us what we did wrong. But not so many will celebrate what we did well. So we are going to learn to do this for ourselves.

The key is objectivity. 

This means we have a set of criteria that can be applied across the board to help us measure our accomplishments. AND we have to know which elements are most important—because, frankly, having a good time is more important than whether your hip scarf was tucked just so. Yet so many of us feel a dance was ruined because of some little glitch! If the dance reaches the audience, they never notice that hip scarf, except in the briefest of passing moments. So our tasks are

• Develop a set of objective criteria
• Rank these from most to least important (you may be surprised)
• Apply them as tools to help us focus and improve our dance.

Want to stop cringing? How about a simple system for self critique? Some great pals to help you grow as a dancer? 

It all starts this fall…


Why copying has its place (and how to keep it there)


Why copying has its place (and how to keep it there)

When you learn something new, you copy. When you learn to draw, you will copy and trace drawings. When you learn to write, you will copy other writers. When you learn a new move, you will copy the new move, and so on. So when does it stop? Because a lot of us only copy the work of others. We are afraid to do anything of our own. Because it might not be (gasp!) perfect.

First task: Perfect. Let go of that idea. Nothing is perfect. Everything has room to develop. This life is is about becoming. We learn, we grow, we change. Otherwise, we are dead.

Second task: Examine your mindset. Many of us were raised with the idea that we are born with a certain amount of smarts, and that’s it. If we are smart, everything is easy. If not, it’s hard. If something is hard, we are just not smart enough. Except, surprise! That’s totally wrong. Advances in neuroscience now tell us that intelligence is highly malleable. We increase our intelligence by learning new things. This is a real shocker for many of us. Used to being the smartest person in the room, we suffer shame when confronted with difficult tasks, avoid anything that might make us look stupid, and give up rather than face failure.

In reality, learning new things is the best way to keep the brain in good health (and if there isn’t a struggle, there is no learning). Learning develops new neural pathways. Learning wraps those pathways in myelin. Myelin is a white, tape-like structure that cements learning in place. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and several other diseases, destroy myelin, so we forget how to do things, and what things are. Pretty soon, we are loading the laundry into the freezer and pouring soy sauce into our coffee. Nobody wants to be like this.

The more we place ourselves in positions where we constantly learn, problem solve, and figure things out, the more we protect ourselves from these illnesses of demyelinization. A major study by Stanford University concluded that dancing regularly was the best defense against Alzheimer’s and dementia. By a LOT—76% more than any activity studied, cognitive or physical. Dancing makes you smarter. But not just any dancing. Based upon the other most protective activities, Richard Powers, who teaches ballroom dancing at Stanford, suggests, “Involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.”

Split-second rapid-fire decision making. Yes, we are talking about improvisation. When we improvise, we make innumerable calculations and adjustments, in the moment. We are not even aware of them. Powers refers to the follower in ballroom dance, who must interpret the invitations of the leader, and choose their next move with intelligence and intuition. So duet or group improv can bring even more benefit.

We copy to learn, we take classes, study others, and practice. But there comes a time when we must hop out on the branch, launch ourselves, and fly. Taking such risks benefits us in so many ways, some understood and others yet to come. Will our first efforts suck? Of course they will. Fail early, and fail often. That’s how we learn what works—through trial and error, persistence, and trying again.

We have been so brainwashed into thinking that we have to be perfect or stay home. Women especially are tyrannized by the expectation of perfection. That’s just a myth designed to keep you sad and powerless. It’s not about being a perfect copy. It’s about you. Being you. 100% yourself, with all your beauty and variety and personality. The world needs your individual glory.

Fly your freak flag high. 



Got Jitters? (and how to cure them–quickly!)

Getting on stage is always a thrill–but sometimes it’s a bit scary, too. Whether as dancers, public speakers, or just getting up to recite nursery rhymes for friends, some days can be harder than others.

Whether you have stage fright, some nerves, or just want to go into the performance mindspace, here some things to help.

  • Rescue Remedy: This is Elena Lentini’s go-to solution for any kind of pre-show anxiousness. It’s flower essences, very gentle. Every health food store and a lot of drug stores carry it. Try it in advance first, though, just so as not to be surprised.
  • Dunya says, Breathe. Slow down: Inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 8. It won’t take many breaths before you feel calm and centered.
  • Put one hand to your forehead and one to your chest. Sit quietly and feel the energy. After a while, change the hand from your forehead to your belly. Just breathe and feel the energy connection.
  • Run in place. Breathe in time with your running. Exhale with each step.
  • Tap with your hands all over your body to ground in the present moment.
  • Remember what you are here for. Alli R said, “Today my husband is having one of his MS flare ups (he is already in a wheelchair) and I was saying, “I wish I could find something helpful to feed you, to do for you.” He replied, “Well, you can do your dance practicing, so I have something to watch, ‘cus I enjoy that.” I have been drilling and rehearsing next to his chair daily (while I thought he was watching TV) and I skipped today because I was feeling down because HE was feeling ill. He has been a huge inspiration for my dance already, but man… Next time you need a reason to push you to dance, think about dancing for those who can’t!”

This is the gift we bring to every audience. This is the level of love that underpins our performances. Remember, every time that you  go out to dance is a gift to the world. This is the light you shine into the darkness. The right people will be there, and they will see it. It will be a beacon to them.



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