People love belly dance all over the world. Yet many dancers see only the shiny costumes and sensual movement. They often dismiss—or never discover—the dance’s ethnic roots, its core values. There is much more to the dance than steps and bling!
Traditionally, the feeling is more important than the steps. Intuitive response, close contact with the audience, and physical enjoyment of the music are prized. A dance is never done the same way twice—each performance is a unique expression of the artist’s feeling in the moment.
In contrast, dancers today learn choreography and stylized movement. They often perform a dance exactly the same every time. Many do not compose their own dances, only learning from others. Many dancers never even learn how—or are afraid—to improvise.
Dancers like choreography because it is familiar. It frees them from responsibility and creates a sense of security. Everything can be prepared in advance. There is no onstage decision-making or risk.
But with great risk comes a miraculous reward—the soul of the dance.
Belly dance is magical. It bestows limitless artistic, physical, and spiritual gifts. How do we find these gifts? Embrace and celebrate the soul of the dance:
Breathe in time with the music
Revel in the movement
Take risks on stage.
Love the audience and love yourself.
Embody the music. Bask in it.
Practice these things.
Bring them into your heart.
In this way, we find our selves, our dance, and our joy.
Two more weeks on the Kickstarter.The book is going to be beautiful. And the rewards are pretty good too. A dollar keeps you in the loop. Ten gets you the e-book—twenty five for a printed book. Check it out—you will be glad.
How do we bring this ancient heart into modern times? The reality of the day is that we often perform on large stages in front of many people with recorded music. As teachers, we have students who want to dance within the security of a group. How do we reconcile these elements with a tradition of solo extemporaneous dance to live music?
The first thing is to step back from the focus on highly stylized, memorized, step combinations, away from rote movement and towards functional movement.
What is this Rote? Rote means “mechanical or habitual repetition of something to be learned.” Rote learning is flashcards, times tables, any kind of memorization-based learning. Rote movement applies to activities we do in a mechanical, repetitive way. Running, for example. Or calisthenics. Or choreography. Six hip drops, turn left on seven and and pose on eight. Great. Why are you doing that? Because the teacher said to. Huh?
The purpose of rote learning Rote learning can really stick in the brain—my mother, with fairly severe dementia, can still recite from memory most of the poem Jabberwocky. We remember what letter comes next in the alphabet by singing the alphabet song. We know how many days in a month by reciting 30 Days Hath November, and we can do simple calculations quickly because we have drilled them, over and over in grade school. We don’t have to think and discover, we can just remember, because we repeated it so many times in the past.
What’s wrong with that? For many things, like the times tables, or French verb conjugation, rote learning is perfect. For others, it is not. In Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, memorization is the lowest level of knowledge. But it’s not the memorization factor that is the problem. We all have stuff we need to know. It’s the mindless, mechanical aspect that is the problem.
When we do things in real life, those movements have a purpose.They are functional. We open doors, pour coffee, etc. But when we run for exercise, or do calisthenics, there is no real, immediate function to those movements. We are doing them because of some abstract goal. We can run on a treadmill with our earphones in while watching TV. This is the poster child for rote movement. This is mindless repetition to the max.
Look, actors need to know their lines. But those lines have a function—they drive the plot forward, they reveal character. If the actors do not understand the meaning of their lines, and embody that meaning with every fibre of their being, who’s going to watch them? By the same token, dancers need to know their choreography—but if there is no purpose to the movement, it’s just a lot of meaningless flailing.
The problem with rote teaching of choreography is that much of the time, the dancers have no reason to do any of the things they are doing. They don’t always understand the connection of the movement to the music—in fact, there often isn’t much of one aside from the most obvious rhythmic connection by which they count. Even so, most student dancers of belly dance can be seen counting their steps as they dance alongside the music, while trying to remember which step comes next.
Over-drilling, over-stylization, removing the motivation of the music from the move, these are how we lose the feeling. These are how we hide from the joy of dance. Making the body do stuff is just another layer of control, a way to keep ourselves from feeling. Stylization is control. Repetition is control. All of these are intellectual pursuits that prevent the body from directly experiencing and responding to the music.
Besides, mindless repetition is how we get hurt. RSI, anyone? Carpal tunnel? Doing things past when the body starts to complain, over-practicing moves that in performance would only be done one or twice, can cause series damage to the body. Most classical dancers are not in touch with their bodies—they are in control of them. They make their bodies do things that normal bodies would not do. Utter control, practicing until the toes bleed, that is success? Not in my book.
In the martial arts, you rarely see students aimlessly stumbling through their katas. No, because katas are the epitome of functional movement. You are blocking someone here, punching another person there, kicking someone else through the door in the next move. There is purpose in every step, every moment. We dance teachers need to build this level of involvement into our student dances.
Create characters, backstories, motivations for the action of your dances. Tie each move inextricably to the music. Articulate the connection. Sing the steps to the tune of the song. Give your students multiple mnemonics to make the dances easier to remember, more memorable to watch. Engaged dancers who believe their stories, create heart-rending beauty on stage.
Why meaning creates emotion (and how functional movement creates meaning)
Imagine a real smile, crinkly eyes and all.
Those crinkles are so remarkable, they even have a name—and they are very difficult to fake. You must mean that smile to get the crinkles. What’s more, when you see a real smile—even a picture of one—instinctively, you smile, too. A real smile. The meaning in a smile creates an emotion in the viewer. Their emotion inspires their smile. Meaning creates emotion.
What does this have to do with dance?
Humans make meaning. No matter how random and unpredictable life might really be, we humans are out there creating scenarios that imbue its events with meaning. It’s what we do. So when we see art, we look for meaning. When we dance, we make the music visible—but the music exists on deeper levels than just notes and rhythm. The music has those emotional timbres. We feel the emotion, and we make meaning with it. We radiate this meaning, and help the audience to feel the emotions.
Does this mean we have to smile all the time?
No. But it does mean we have to be fully engaged, authentic, and honest. If we just make a face, or place ourselves in a an empty arrangement, the audience will feel this dishonesty. The secret ingredient is our willingness to open ourselves emotionally to the music and the audience.
Dance is an interpretive art.
We convey to the audience what we feel from the music. If it is a joyous song, then we will smile. But the brilliance of Oriental music is in the infinite shades of emotion. In the dialectic between pleasure and pain (and every moment of song, every inch of movement is a microcosm of this most fundamental spectrum), there exists every emotion, from love to hate, anger and joy, fear and comfort. As we train ourselves to respond in the moment to these timbres, we create rich tapestries of meaning.
Even negative emotions have power to unite.
Most of us feel so alone in our pain. We turn inwards and waste away. When we see the pain of human existence expressed as art, we feel our connection to the world. We know we are not alone. Every member of the audience has felt sorrow, sadness, loss, grief. Negative emotions in art allow us to see that we are not alone. When we express these emotions in the context of art, we unite the audience. The love and camaraderie of the world help us to bear our burdens, to access our buried feelings, and maybe even to let them go. Art is a catalyst for catharsis, the “purification of emotions that results in renewal and restoration.”
The rise in theatrical approaches to belly dance have taken it far afield from the dance of joy and celebration at its heart. Many dancers explore what I will call dark themes: from anger, power, and tragedy, to vampire fusion and other esoteric themes. As artists, it our privilege to explore the themes that draw us, those through which we may express that which tugs at our souls. Some of it is in fun and some in earnest; what’s important is that we invest our work with genuine emotion and have at its core the determination to bring the light.
Yes, there are artists who seek dark and terrible places, born out of their own tragedy and damage. They desire company in the crevices of their ravaged souls, glorifying illness and presenting it as health, glorifying self and presenting it as service. Beware of this, in yourself and in others.
As dancers and artists, we are in service to art, in service to love, and in service to the world.
We make the party. We give the audience permission to enjoy themselves. We create meaning, make space for emotional release, and open the way for joy and love. This is our job as artists. Even if our art is dark and ferocious, when we present it with humbleness and in service to love, we help ourselves and others feel connected, release pain and suffering, and walk in the light.
This is our highest calling as human beings.
Please check out and share the Kickstarter for this book: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alia/midnight-at-the-crossroads-has-belly-dance-sold-it
There is nothing wrong with being precise; generally, it’s a valuable asset. But there is a danger in valuing certain kinds of precision to the exclusion of elements that are more central to the ethos of Oriental dance.
1. External: Memory and retrieval
The focus on choreography shifts the dance from one that is improvised and created in the moment to one that is created off stage and recreated later. While it is true that we have more recorded than live music, and it makes sense to pre-record our dances as well, the current trend values memory over feeling. Too often this means the dancer is not in the moment at all, but is working hard to remember and recreate the dance that, sadly, she may not have even made for herself, but which is often created for her by a teacher or choreographer. So the dancer’s agency may be stripped away as well as her discovery of the music in the moment.
2. Excessive: Too much, too fast, too hard
With the focus on choreography, we also have the tendency to make the dance as hard as possible to demonstrate the ability of the dancer. A dance steeped in sensual abandonment and enjoyment of the music becomes a vehicle to showcase athletic ability. The feeling of the music becomes superseded by a determination to articulate every single note, ornament, nuance, and trill, a game of how many moves can one dancer cram into 8 counts. The audience can’t relax and enjoy the dance when every moment is filled.
3. Exclusive: Step up or get out
Valuing memory plus athletic ability raises the bar for excellence to a superficial level. Because Western dancers are trained to remember choreography, stylize their movements for accurate repetition, and display dizzying feats of physical prowess, Eastern values are left in the dust. Visual perfection in body, face, costume, and execution become the stock in trade; qualities of content, richness of emotion, stillness, and simplicity are scorned. It’s not just the dance is evolving—every living art will. It’s the willful disregard of the elements that make this dance special and great that is so sad. The dance welcomes all body types, all ages, genders, and ability levels. These new values disdain these qualities, and seek to turn the dance into one more competitive arena for perfectionist overachievers. Everyone else can go to hell.
4. Extreme: Make your body do stuff
And here we come to the saddest and most destructive of the new trends. One of the most brilliant, beautiful, magical elements of oriental dance is the training of the body to respond intuitively to the music. Sure, you have some vocabulary to learn, and that takes some effort. But the basic vocabulary is fairly simple. What takes one’s entire life is the level of artistry that is attainable with these few movements. To hear improvised music and to express physically the texture, pitch, speed, and emotional timbre is a stunning accomplishment. We give our lives to this. But it is not just artistry.
Current research shows that trauma resolution is largely accomplished through allowing the body to move as it wishes. When a dancer is in the moment, allowing the music into her body, allowing her body to respond intuitively, the dances magic suffuses her body and soul, bringing with it healing, radiance, and joy.
The focus on recreation, stylization, repetition, and precision movement destroys this magic, and with it the mystical, healing, spiritual heart of the dance.
With mystical heart as a value, where do we put our attention? How do we aspire to greatness? There is one kind of precision to which we happily aspire: Timing.
Timing is the bleeding edge of superior precision. This is what we practice to achieve greatness in Oriental dance. Yes, we need beautiful lines, posture, strength, presence, endurance. And we practice them. But timing is the queen. And it must be intuitive, open and fresh, ready for anything. Our hearing is one of our fastest senses; the body is capable of responding to what it hears almost before we are aware w shave heard anything. In the wild, back in the old days, intuitive response to sound saved many a life. In the dance, we hear and let the body respond, let the body choose the movement. We practice and practice to have the physical skill so that the body can execute whatever it needs to articulate the music in the moment.
This is the heart of the dance.
(and back later with a few more kinds of precision ; )
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 bodyto 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.
This is one of the questions I hear most often, and with the most anguish.
One dancer struggles as another effortlessly repeats. Why?
I learned to dance through improvisation. In Bobby Farrah’s classes of the mid 70s, no matter how many times a week you went to class (and I often went three times a week for two hours at a time, 1973-1977), we did something completely different. The format of each class was fairly consistent: there was usually an extended combination, moves across the floor, and often we followed him as he improvised. Cymbal class was much the same, with zils on. However, the content varied widely–what we did was always new and different, class after class, week after week. I learned to dance, very quickly, and with a wide range of options. I learned how to use a stage, how to interpret music, and how to create on the spot.
However, I did not learn any choreography. Consequently, when I started attending workshops (Morocco’s was my first), and even Bobby’s later classes, I was at sea. I quickly developed a strategy of not giving a damn about the choreography, just cherry-picking steps, attitudes and some combinations, and I was happy with this. But I did feel stupid when I saw other people learn so fast. On the other hand, I usually didn’t like their dancing, so I just snobbed over this little problem.
Then my students wanted me to teach them choreographies. Okay. I had been exposed to enough of them. I started making dances for my students. I went to more workshops where there was nothing presented but choreographies. I watched movies such as A Chorus Line and saw dancers repeat complex combinations after seeing them ONCE. And I paid attention to the differences in values between oriental dance and western dance. And this is what I saw.
In traditional Oriental dance, the dancer creates the dance in the moment.Oriental dance values intuitive movement and expression of emotion. Technique is the servant of expression. The most important thing is the feeling. These are the values of the music as well.
Western dance, however, distinguishes between the dancer and the choreographer (even that word is hard to type!). Dancers are trained to remember and repeat. Movement is stylized, specific, and exact. So are movement strings. The dancer is the vessel for the vision of the choreographer. The dancer’s job is to manifest that vision physically. So how do these dancers remember all that choreography?
Dancers remember choreographies because they practice. It’s as simple as that. What do they practice? Remembering choreography. In the dance school setup, children as young as three begin this practice. They go to class and learn choreographies. Their parents buy the cute (expensive) little cossies and have pictures taken, while their babies go on stage at the annual recital and toddle charmingly through their steps.
By high school, these kids have practiced this at least 800 hours (an hour a week for 15 years), repeating precisely stylized movement, combinations, and choreography. If they are at all enthusiastic, they go more often than once a week, and they practice at home, too, running through their choreographies endless times, not only with their bodies, but in their heads. They have gone to dance camp, this camp, that festival, the other workshop, spending many, many hours a day honing their technique and learning to repeat. We could be talking thousands of hours of practice here.
How much time have the rest of us spent? Learning to remember choreography? Not dancing, not improvising, not creating dances. Remembering. Probably we looked that other dancer and just felt stupid. Then we gave up, and said, I’m not good at learning choreography. I’m stupid. I’m slow. At that point, Resistance’s work is done. We have given up. And even though we struggle, we know it’s no good, because we compare ourselves to the other. But I bet you have spent quite a few hours practicing other aspects of your dance. And I bet there are even more things you never thought about practicing, things that would have a much bigger impact on the quality of your dance than remembering choreography. Like being in the moment. Loving the audience. Enjoying yourself onstage. Laughing at your mistakes. Developing your emotional response to the music.
We do much better at whatever we practice. So if we practice feeling sorry for ourselves because some little twerp has a better memory for choreo, we will get better at feeling sorry for ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve been reading Talent is Overrated by Shawn Colvin. Colvin’s premise is that much of what we think of as inborn talent is in fact the result of effort and practice. He tells the story of SF, an otherwise unremarkable guy, who learned through 250 hours of training to be able to repeat a string of 80+ numbers, no small feat. Prior to this, memorization and repetition of such long strings were thought to be outside the range of human ability. A pal of SF’s later went on to repeat a string of 102 numbers. The researchers concluded that there was no upward limit to the length of number strings that humans could remember. 250 hours is not a big investment to change the course of history.
Colvin mentions retrieval structures, one of the most important elements of memory development.These are the strategies we use to remember things. SF cast his numbers into groups that represented running times. We will create choreographies with rich structures so that we will have myriad retrieval strategies in place. And we know that intelligence is malleable and can be grown, that anyone can develop skills with practice. So we can use the techniques of deliberate practice to learn whatever we want more effectively.
We may never put in the hours to learn choreo in one click.But as Colvin reports, ability in one area has nothing to do with ability in others. Sf could only remember numbers. Chess masters could only remember games. So don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. You have much better uses for your time.
Ask yourself, what makes a great dancer? Is it remembering choreography? I didn’t think so. Make a list. Leverage the skills you do have. Leverage your new ability to learn new things.