Why You’re Seeing Ads

Yes, it’s true. There are now ads on my blog.

Why, you ask?

I’ve been blogging for nearly 10 years. It is a labor of love, but in order for me to keep going and writing insightful and well-researched posts, I need to get a little something to help pay for the domain name, the professional WordPress template, and the broadband connection.

Instead of charging you for content that you’ve been getting for free, I’m going the ad route. I’m trying to make them as unobtrusive as possible so that you can read my blog with few distractions.

You can, of course, download and install something like AdBlock to prevent these ads from showing up. I can’t stop you. I use AdBlock just to stay sane on the rest of the internet.

But I ask that when you’re here, could you disable and “Whitelist” my site?

Every little cent helps keep this site alive and kicking.

Thank you for understanding!

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Obligatory ad, because you’ve been warned.




Why I’m Glad Belly Dance in the US Is Declining

What a headline, right?

Class numbers are dwindling. Festivals are disappearing. Bellydance Superstars is long gone. And who even watches an actual instructional DVD anymore?

Well, that’s right. I’m glad that belly dance in the US is on the out and out.

But, wait, you say! How can someone who has invested some serious time and resources into being a belly dancer, and who earns a substantial part of her income from teaching belly dance, say such a thing? Why would I celebrate what Laura Tempest Zakroff calls “The Toilet”?

Hear me out…

Belly Dance in the US Is Declining by A. Keyes Dance

We’re Doing Some Much-Needed Soul Searching

Of the dancers I have contact with, both in and out of the Salimpour School, there is a sense that it’s long overdue that non-Middle Eastern dancers own up to the fact that the popularity of belly dance was built on the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.

For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.

But many dancers are realizing that using belly dance as an escape from the troubles and toils of daily life is just not appropriate, and is, for lack of a better word, appropriation.

Owning Up to Orientalism

And while I still believe that the term “cultural appropriation” doesn’t really address what it’s really about (that is, cultural imperialism, the systemic imbalance of social and political power, and outright racism), related discourse in mainstream media outlets has forced belly dancers to take a good hard look in the mirror and decide whether or not we still want to practice this dance form. I might not agree with Randa Jarrar that white women need to stop dancing, but her article stirred up some much-needed discussion in a dance form rife with white-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

Those of us who are sticking around—and who aren’t from the culture or origin—have to do the difficult work of owning up to wrongs we might have committed, and that kind of work isn’t for the casual hobbyist who just wants to shake it with her “sisters.” (Also, gender isn’t a binary. Using belly dance as an “all women” space is inherently exclusionary and historically inaccurate. But that’s a post for a different day, and oh, hey, Kamrah already wrote it.)

Finding Other Movement Arts

Many former belly dancers are realizing that doing this professionally takes a lot of effort, time, and unpaid labor to practice responsibly. Some of us are sticking around, and others are deciding it’s not for them.

I’ve noticed that quite a few dancers who started belly dance in the early 2000s have moved on to other alternative movement forms, such as aerial arts, hooping, flow arts, burlesque, and niche fitness practices. That’s awesome! Many of these movement forms don’t carry with them the same cultural legacy and responsibility that belly dance does. (Of course, movement arts such as poi and fire staff DO have cultural histories in the dances of Polynesian peoples, but I leave that to practitioners of those forms to discuss those connections.)

Figuring Out Why We’re Belly Dancing

As a traveling dance instructor, I have the opportunity to talk to many practitioners in diverse communities throughout the world. My most recent trips and interactions have revealed a sense of “Why are we doing this?” and dancers asking the question, “Why do I care?”

When we ask ourselves these questions, not just about dance, but about any activity in which we are involved—be it a hobby, a job, or a relationship—this introspection can reveal much about ourselves. It can also give us clues on what to do next. Do we keep dancing? If so, why?

Dancers are reevaluating what they really want to get out of belly dance. For some, it might just be a once-a-week class, and for others they have made it a career. Either way, many dancers I’ve talked to lately seem to be reflecting on their desires and goals for being involved in belly dance.

Some people have figured out that belly dance isn’t for them. And, yes, means fewer people at festivals, workshops, and classes, which also means less money circulating throughout the industry and community. But it can also means that those who are continuing their involvement are very invested in it.

We’re More Invested in Learning

With the (temporary) fading of belly dance from the public eye, that means fewer students who are looking to feed their egos by teaching and performing well before they are ready.

From my view, the dancers that I’m teaching on a weekly basis are more invested in learning than performing. They want to know more about their bodies, technique, and, of course, cultural context. They’re not taking class to look cute in a sparkly costume. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get people excited about performing.

The dancers that we’re attracting at the Salimpour School are more mature, either in actual age or in attitude towards their dance practice. They are more humble with regard to whether they want to take the stage. They carry far less drama and ego with them into the studio classroom than students who are eager to perform, which is a relief and a joy.

Fewer Performances, Smaller Egos

Now many restaurants have closed altogether, and there are fewer restaurants featuring dancers, attracting smaller audiences, and the pay sucks. While this is shitty for the professionals (especially the pay part), it’s also less attractive to the 6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.

And, at least where I am, there are fewer opportunities to perform. That might just be a Bay Area thing. But compared to Washington DC in the mid-2000s, when DCTribal was hosting events, and DC Tribal Cafe happened every month, and there were several Middle Eastern restaurants that featured performers, we were awash in performance opportunities. And audiences packed into those shows.

It seems like it has become far less likely for a young person to take up belly dance to become a “star.” Thank goodness.

Preparing for the Next Generations

This current downturn seems to be much like the one we’ve already seen in the 80s. At that time, dancers who stuck around were more likely to invest time and money into digging deeper into the history and culture of belly dance than the ones who started dancing in the 1970s to get in touch with their sexuality and to shock their “Leave It to Beaver” parents.

Belly dance will, I’m sure, see another resurgence, but it might be in another 30 years. In the meantime, I believe that in the diaspora, the dance will be in good hands.

Passing the Torch to the Millennial and Homeland Generations

Millennials (a label I am loathe to use but it’s what we’ve got) have far less time and disposable income than younger Generation X dancers like myself, or the Generation X and Baby Boomer-generation dancers who taught me. They’re far less likely to take a dance class just because it looks fun or different. They want to put their money where their values are.

Of the Millennial dancers that I see involved in belly dance today, they are far more aware of the social justice issues inherent in a contemporary belly dance practice. They want to talk about issues of cultural appropriation. They want to know how they can be more responsible when they dance. They actually come to lectures about history and culture. Those who pass as white are less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin.

The even-younger Homeland Generation will be even better equipped to discuss and embody these complex topics, as they have grown up with social media that brings these issues directly to their personal profiles every day.

So just as fads come and go, so does belly dance. But before it returns to the popular spotlight, those of us who are still dancing must create the resources and foundations to empower the next generation.

Isn’t that a wonderful reason to stick around?

Want more about the heyday of belly dance in the 2000s?
Read my eBook – Bellydance Paladin: 9 Years of Dance Blogging




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7 Ways to Eat a Healthful Plant-Based Diet While Traveling on a Budget

Studies have shown that eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, type-2 diabetes. It can also lower bad cholesterol levels and help you keep off excess weight.

But anyone who follows this diet knows that it can sometimes be a challenge to stick with it while traveling.

As a world-traveling dance instructor, I’m on the road a lot. And in addition to eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, I’m also allergic to wheat. No wheat, no meat, no dairy. Impossible, right? Not at all!

So, how does a wheat-free vegan dancer eat when on the road without breaking the bank?

(This post contains affiliate links.)

Plant-Based Diet While Traveling on a Budget Post by Abigail Keyes

1) Plan Ahead

Because my diet is so restrictive (actually, it’s not, because there is so much to eat out there that doesn’t come from animals), I have to check out where I’m going to eat before I get to my destination.

Before you go, look up where you’re staying in relation to grocery stores, corner markets, any scheduled farmer’s markets, and, of course, inexpensive restaurants. I like to mark these places with a star in Google Maps, which syncs with my mobile phone so I can access them anywhere.

2) Bring Your Own Food

When I travel, I know that breakfast is going to be difficult and expensive. So I bring my own. Instant oatmeal is my breakfast (and snack) of choice because I can make it anywhere as long as I have hot water, a paper cup, and a spoon. I also love individual packets of nut butter, dried fruit, almonds, and rice crackers.

And don’t underestimate the power of a good nutrition bar. I just discovered GoMacro bars, and they’re are gluten-free, organic, and soy-free. Perfect for when I need a little extra pick-me-up while playing tourist or during long days of teaching dance.

But if you’re traveling to a foreign country, make sure you read up on what you can and can’t bring with you. Some customs regulations are quite strict about specific food items like dried fruit and seeds.

3) Get Thee to a Grocery Store

If you’re going to be in a place for more than three days, it’s worth going to a local grocery store to pick up some essentials. And it doesn’t have to be the leading natural foods chain grocer; even conventional groceries are carrying more healthful items.

If you’re lucky to be staying in a place with a kitchen (see #4), then get yourself some salad greens, hummus, tinned beans and/or lentils, non-dairy milk of your choice, and some fresh fruits and vegetables.

Even if you don’t have access to a kitchen, you can get breakfast cereals, fresh and dried fruits, rice cakes, and nut butter. No fancy health food store required.

4) Stay in a Place with a Kitchen

While having access to a kitchen isn’t always possible, it’s certainly ideal. An apartment-style hotel might have less amenities than the Sheraton, but it will have the essentials: refrigerator, microwave, kettle, flatware, dishware, cooking utensils, and more.

Being able to make my own breakfast, save and heat up leftovers, and brewing tea in the evening is also easier on my budget than going out for every meal.

Even modest hotel chains can have microwaves and refrigerators in the rooms. If there isn’t a microwave in the hotel room itself, check downstairs in the lobby.

5) Get in Hot Water

Even if you’re not staying in a place with a kitchen, most hotel rooms will at least have a way to make hot water, whether it be a coffee maker or a hot water kettle. Hotels with a restaurant will gladly give you hot water, or will fill your insulated water bottle.

With just hot water you can make instant oatmeal, soups, teas, noodles, rice, quinoa, and more.  Check out this ingenious post on how to prepare creative meals in your hotel room.

6) Be Demanding (But be nice about it!)

Don’t be afraid to ask about what’s in a certain dish or insist that you and your travel-mates go to restaurants and cafes that have more than one plant-based meal on offer. Hopefully, if you’ve planned ahead (see #1), arguments over where to eat dinner won’t be an issue. But if they are, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and your health.

That said, even the big box chain restaurants will have items that are vegan and gluten-free. Don’t underestimate the side dish menu, where you’ll find vegetables and baked potatoes. Plant-based dietician Julieanna Hever has even more great restaurant survival tips.

7) Be Adventurous

When traveling, whether it be in the United States or overseas, your best and cheapest options for meals are likely in “ethnic” restaurants. I’ve had amazing Colombian plantains in the suburbs of Atlanta, Cuban black beans and rice in tiny cities in Florida, and South Indian idli with coconut chutney in the outskirts of Paris.

And if you’re not sure about what’s in something, just ask.

When traveling in a country where English is not the dominant language, learn the words for “meat,” “fish,” “dairy,” “milk,” and other foods you wish to avoid. You can even print out a little card of terms in the local language to keep in your wallet or day pack to hand to the server to tell them what you can’t eat. If you’re polite, they’ll be happy to oblige.

What are your favorite ways to eat well while away from home?

Share with us in the comments!




How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Many of you have asked, “How can I learn choreography faster?”

Believe me, I’ve had my own struggles with learning sequencing, movement details, and full choreographies.

I have always been a musically-driven performer, whether it be in ice dance, in competitive figure skating, and now, in belly dance. But that really became clear to me when I was earning my MA and taking several modern dance classes a week. In those classes, the music often just acted as a backbeat, a time keeper, and didn’t inspire the movement. No, the live musician would watch the dancers and riff off of them, rather than the other way around.

In those classes, I had a harder time remembering combinations because I had no music to guide me. I had to find the movement in accompaniment, even if it was a struggle.

Thankfully, my main dance genre is intimately tied to music, and chances are that yours is too.

So, what’s the one thing I would tell someone who asks me how to learn choreography faster?

How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Learn. The. Music.

Of all the dance forms in the world, belly dance is one of the most intimately tied to melody and percussion. Our job as dancers is to interpret and transmit the music to the audience through our movements, expression, and sentiment. This requires refined technique, yes, but it also requires a sharp and perceptive ear.

Of course, learning the feet first will help you, but if the instructor is connecting the footwork of a dance to the music, then you must also be familiar with the music.

A recent study showed that people who were perceived to be “better dancers” were better able to predict where a rhythm or melody would fall. That is, they had a better musical sense. So, it follows that if you know your music, that is, you can predict what sections are next, then you will be better able to dance, and execute set choreography… and improvise. (Unfortunately, that study also revealed that some people are “beat deaf,” and unable to stay within the auditory rhythmic groove of a song.)

Following Along Isn’t Enough

Sometimes it’s easy to let the energy of the room and the other dancers sweep you away that you aren’t truly internalizing the movements and the music. We look at our colleagues and follow them, letting our mirror neurons do the work that our ears could be doing. Instead of listening to the music and letting that guide our movements, we rely on our fellow dancers.

And while we must be able to flock and follow, without intimate understanding of the songs to which we perform, we’re literally lost.

If you’re not inherently musical, this just means that you’ll need to listen to the music more often, without dancing to it. The more you know a song, can hum the melody or beat, or playback the song in your head, the better you’re going to remember a choreography to that song.

Let’s Map Out a Song

Often music is described as having sections to which we assign a letter. Section A, B, C, and so on. Whether we’re learning someone else’s choreography or creating our own, we must know the underlying architecture of the song to which we’re dancing.

We can easily hear the different sections of a familiar pop song. Let’s look at “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga.

  1. We have an intro of 5 counts of 8. 5 is actually an unusual number of 8 counts to introduce a song, so that adds some interest.
  2. Then we have the first section, which we’ll call Verse A, which lasts for 4 counts of 8.
  3. Then we have a pre-chorus, section B, for 4 counts of 8.
  4. After that, it’s the actual chorus—”just dance”—section C, for 4 counts of 8.
  5. A little 4-for-nothing follows before we revisit A again, but this time with different lyrics.
  6. We get another pre-chorus B, and then the chorus again.
  7. Then the song changes it up with a new section, which is the guest singer, Colby O’Donis, with his rapid-fire rap-like singing for 4 counts of 8.
  8. O’Donis sings a melodic variation of part B for 4 counts of 8, so I call this B var.
  9. Then we get a stripped down version of the chorus, C, for 2 counts of 8 (C var.), then the chorus resumes as per usual for the next four counts of 8.
  10. Instrumental time! 2 counts of 8.
  11. New section: E, which acts as a bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  12. And another section, F, another kind of bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  13. We return to C var., then the chorus, as in number 8, above.
  14. The song gives us the satisfaction of hearing the chorus C one more time for 2 more counts of 8, before ending on count 1.

Even a “simple” pop song like “Just Dance” makes more sense when we break it down. But now, if we were to learn a choreography to it, we have a skeleton and framework with which to work. These chunks will help us remember the dance, because now we have a better understanding of the musical structure.

A song might have lots of different melodic and rhythmic sections.  The original cinematic version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song “Gana El Hawa” has many different sections, with only one repeat of the chorus at the very end.

And note that you don’t have to read music, understand notation, chords, or any additional music theory to get started… although I recommend that you have at least a basic understanding of rhythmic notation if you’re considering yourself intermediate-level or above.

Great Choreography Will Echo the Musical Structure

Even the most complex choreography can be learned in small chunks. In fact, cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero, found that adult brains need new information to be presented in smaller chunks than children do. Adults have less time and less brain “real estate” to assimilate new information. (The good news is that there’s no “magic window” during which we have to learn new skills; we can learn at any age.)

When we approach choreography as smaller sections, we do our brains a favor and making the learning process easier.

A great choreography, in belly dance at least, follows the structure of the song to which it is set. This doesn’t mean always repeating the exact same movement every time a melodic phrase repeats, but it does mean that the movement isn’t random.

Let’s look at Suhaila Salimpour’s “Yanna Yanna.” The same melody repeats quite frequently, but the movement phrases themselves don’t always repeat. The orchestration changes, with different instruments taking the lead and being highlighted as the song progresses. But then, at the end, the dancers return to the counterclockwise turns with rib cage circles that they did at the very beginning of the piece. This section acts as a book end and reflects the arrangement of the song.

Choreography: Now In Extra Chunky

The next time you are learning a new choreography, don’t look at the dance as a whole. Look at it as little bits that make a whole. Map out the music yourself in sections, as I did with “Just Dance.” Listen to the music at home, in the car, or at work, so you can have a deeper understanding of its sequencing.

Even if you’re learning a short combination, approach it in parts. Chances are that the instructor will teach it to you in sections, so use those sections to your advantage. As you’re learning the dance, give each section a name. I like to think of each section by the step by which it starts, such as “Rib slides, rib circle” or “Circle-2-3-4.”

Map it out, work it out, and you’ll nail that new choreography in no time!

What tips and tricks do you have for learning choreography or dissecting a new piece of music? How do you like to organize your creative process into a dance?

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13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips You Should Know

Today’s post is brought to you by Angelique Hanesworth, dance instructor and photographer based in New York State. Originally posted to her Facebook page, I thought it could use a little extra visibility and love. 


Following proper dance class etiquette is essential for dance students at all levels. Some of you might know these tips, but we can always use a little reminder.

General rule of thumb: Be aware, be respectful, be kind (to others as well as yourself) and have fun!

13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips guest post by Angelique Hanesworth

Essential Dance Class Etiquette

1. Arrive on time. Arriving late to class is disruptive to the other students, the teacher, and can set up the potential for injury if you do not have enough time to properly warm up. If for some reason you must be late, contact the instructor beforehand to get approval.

Most dance classes, regardless of where they are or what style of dance they teach won’t allow you into class if you’re more than 10 minutes late.

2. Have a good attitude. Energy begets energy, and for a lot of students, this is their one hour a week that they get to leave the house and do something fun for themselves. It can be frustrating when we don’t get something on which we’ve been working, but remember, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
We all have our own challenges—every last one of us—and learning how to manage them properly will help you on the dance floor, as well as in life.

3. Turn off your cell phones. ‘Nuff said.

4. Try not to leave the dance floor for the duration of class. If an emergency arises, leave discretely.

5. Do not talk when the teacher is speaking. You might think you are being quiet, but if you’re talking, you’re likely not as quiet as you think you are. If you have a question for the teacher, wait for the right moment, and raise your hand. Make sure it is a question that you cannot figure out on your own.

6. Do not correct other students. That is the teacher’s responsibility.

7. Do not correct the teacher. If the teacher has made a mistake (which is bound to happen) and it is causing confusion in the class, it is fine to politely ask for clarification. If you have a difference of opinion or philosophical perspective, it is best to save it for after class. Give the teacher the courtesy of judging for themselves whether it is something that should be shared with everyone else.

8. Take correction well. If a teacher corrects you, congratulations! That means they are invested in your development. Perfection is a myth, so don’t let your ego get in the way of your progress. If you hear a correction being given to another student, pay attention! There is a good chance it applies to you as well!

9. Practice. You go to dance class to learn, but you’ll make your progress when you practice outside of class. Make sure to do all homework, and work on any combinations/choreography, so that upon returning to class, you can spend the majority of your time learning new material instead of spending that time on review.

10. Wear appropriate attire and mind your hygiene. Proper attire will vary from class to class, but as a general rule, you are training, not performing. Wear something you can get sweaty in and move comfortably in. Keep your jewelry to a minimum; it can be noisy and catch on clothing. Please wear deodorant to class. And many people are sensitive to scents, so please avoid perfume.

11. Keep it clean! No food or gum on the dance floor. A water bottle is fine. As a general rule, if you brought it in, take it out.

12. Use common sense. There is no way I can list every etiquette rule for every situation. Being respectful of the other students, the teacher, and being a hard worker will cover many of the bases.

13. Have FUN! Ultimately, this is YOUR class too, and you should be having a good time. Every teacher feels good when their students leave the room happy, so enjoy the process. Dance is an enriching experience, so be proud of your hard work, celebrate your accomplishments, and keep your eye on the continuing journey ahead.

Dance teachers: What etiquette tips would you like new students to know? What would you like to remind your current students? Share yours in the comments!


Angelique HanesworthAbout the Author

Angelique Hanesworth began belly dancing in 1997, training with top talent from all over the world. Specializing in a Salimpour interpretation of Modern Oriental dance, she holds her Level 5 certification in the Suhaila Salimpour Format and Level 4 in the Jamila Salimpour Format. She is a highly sought after performer, with experience in theater productions, festivals, weddings, restaurants, and more. Between regular classes and workshops, she has taught hundreds of students and is known for her clear direction and creative insight. Angelique can also be seen on her acclaimed instructional DVD, Advanced Layering Drills. Angelique holds a degree in Computer Science, and black belts in Wing-Chun Kung Fu and Ishin-Ryu Karate. She is an accomplished portrait photographer, as well as Mom to two feisty and wonderful girls. Visit her website at angeliquebellydance.com





Why You Should Foster a Mindful Dance Practice

What does it mean to foster a mindful dance practice?

Fostering a mindful dance practice blog post by Abigail Keyes

Mindfulness Is Good For You

Being mindful, according to experts in the field, is the act of noticing your feelings, environment, and physical sensations without judgement. It is the opposite of what we might call “checking out” or being on “auto-pilot.” Being mindful means ignoring our Ego and our “Monkey Mind.” And even though it has roots in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, it can be quite secular.

Some of the most powerful business leaders are investing millions of dollars on mindfulness workshops and retreats for their employees. Marc Benioff of the San Francisco-based company Salesforce famously consulted with Vietnamese Zen monks to improve employee well-being, and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program has a 6-month long wait list.

A number of scientific studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less likely to have a wide range of illnesses, from heart disease to depression. Those who exhibit trait mindfulness—that is, those who make mindfulness an inherent habit rather than just a deliberate practice—are even healthier.

Mindfulness also has a profound positive impact on our interpersonal relations, allowing us to observe our emotions and the emotions of others before reacting. It can even reduce implicit age and race bias. Whoa.

Dancers Are Already Mindful…

Dancers by nature practice a kind of mindfulness when we go to class. When we integrate new movements into our bodies, we must be aware of the present, listening to our bodies, observing our instructor… hopefully without judgement.

When a class is just challenging enough, we are forced to be present if we want to physicalize what is expected of us. Maybe it means remembering a full combination or doing a difficult technical element. We can’t mentally check-out if we are to integrate these movements into our bodies.

When it comes to mindfulness, dancers have a leg up. (Pun alert.) Afterall, dance technique is really just fancy habits, and habits are what we do without thinking.

…But Sometimes Not Enough

But what about those movements that we know? What about that repetitive drill that we’ve done a bazillion times or that choreography we’ve been running for five years? You know… those exercises that when your teacher asks you to do them, you might go, “But I know this already!”

It’s super easy to go through the motions and take a mindless approach to these elements of our dance practice, letting our bodies take the lead.

We dancers often rely heavily on “muscle memory” to get us through a rehearsal or performance. It can be easy to let our body do the work, and it should. There is a certain amount of automaticity that must happen in our bodies for us to do our job. But sometimes that doesn’t always mean transcendent mind-body connection. A recent study compared practitioners of Vipassana meditation with a sample of dancers, and found the meditators had a greater integration of mind and body.

I’m sure you’ve noticed when a dancer is not being mindful in class or rehearsal. Maybe there’s that one who doesn’t know how long their arms are and keeps running into you. Or maybe there’s a fellow company member who keeps making the same mistake over and over again. Or that one who just doesn’t integrate a doable correction, no matter how many times the instructor or director reminds them.

These dancers could benefit from taking a moment to reflect and observe their bodies.

Chances are that if you noticed these mistakes, you made a judgement call on them. Maybe a little mindfulness could help you, too!

Dance is Always New, Even When It Feels Old

Every day we step into the studio or on the stage, we must take a moment to take account of our bodies. Every day is different. Weather, hormones, a bad day at work, a fight with our significant other can all affect our movements.

When we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge those changes, and, most importantly, accept them, our time in class and rehearsal can be more productive and more positive.

A mindful dance practice also allows us to find the newness in material that might no longer interest us or challenge us. Every dance form has those movements and techniques that we must do over and over again, whether it be a part of our warm-ups or performance. But as performers, we cannot afford to get bored, because our audiences will feel that lack of engagement. They’ll know that we’ve checked out and let rote muscle memory do the heavy lifting.

And as a dance teacher, I can tell when my students are checking out. And I can tell you that it sometimes gives the impression that they don’t care about the work. Ouch.

Small Ways to Be More Mindful While Dancing

Many dance classes have repetitive warm ups, or at least movements that repeat every time. Instead of just going through the motions, observe yourself as you do these exercises. Are you putting your full attention into them, or is your mind wandering? If it wanders, breathe, and focus on the intent of the exercise.

Personally, I like to focus on different body connections as I dance. What is the relationship between my fingers and my toes? The crown of my head and my sacrum? My right and left halves? What about your facing in the room? Taking account of how these shift as I move gives my Monkey Mind more than enough to chew on, allowing my more active thinking to focus on the task at hand.

The next time you learn a combination or new dance, how can you best be mindful not only of your own body but the space around you? Maybe you are that dancer with the long arms who runs into fellow students. Notice when this happens, and observe how much space you need without popping someone else’s space bubble.

At the end of class or rehearsal, take note of how you feel. Were you happy with yourself or frustrated? Did the teacher give you feedback? Did a fellow student’s behavior affect you? How did it make you feel? Do you think you did well? Reflect, but don’t judge.

I feel that I’m just beginning to integrate mindfulness into my dance and teaching practice. Is this something you do, either as a teacher or student? Tell us in the comments!





Why Don’t Belly Dancers Warm Up Before a Performance?

Greetings, dear readers! Please enjoy this GUEST POST by Parya, fellow instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and member of the Suhaila Dance Company.


Ballet and modern dancers do it. Athletes do it. Actors do it. But why don’t belly dancers warm up before a performance?

Parya Guest Post: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before Performance

A Proper Warm Up Is Essential

This is a bit of a generalization, of course, as I’m sure there are some belly dancers who do stretch and warm up before a performance. However, in my years of performing belly dance in festivals, fundraisers, restaurants, and other gigs, I’ve seldom seen a belly dancer warm up.

I often feel alone in the middle of the changing room or the hallway of the gig, inhaling and exhaling before a show as I lunge from side to side, roll my shoulders, loosen and tense glutes and hamstrings, and sometimes start with jumping jacks or a brief high-kneed jog.

For me, warming up is a vital part of a performance. In order for me to be able to physically express my emotional state and physicalize the music, I need not to be concerned about my muscles functioning properly. Warming up before a performance is not only about my body, it also prepares my mind.

The warmup is like a meditation to center myself and calm my nerves, to think about the story I’m about to tell, and why anyone should care. It’s a time for me to reflect on the state of my body and wake up the muscles I’ll need in my performance.

A proper warmup helps me to increase the elasticity of my muscles, improve efficiency of the signals along my nervous system, enhance my range of motion, and minimize the chance of any potential injuries (knock on wood).

Creating Your Own Warm-up

It can be difficult to know what to do when you’re warming up before a performance. I’ve had dancers ask me about the movements I do or even follow me in a group warm-up prior to a performance. Having to figure something out right before a performance can be frustrating, distracting, and time-consuming.

So I highly recommend having an active routine that engages all major muscles and even minor muscles that you may be calling on during a specific performance. By active, I mean warm-ups that include movement and that contract and release the muscles sequentially as opposed to a static hold. Essentially, you want to elevate your heart rate by moving your body through a range of motions.

Different performances might need slightly different warm ups. For example, if you’ll be performing a khaliji piece with a lot of hair tosses and head rolls, activate and warm up your smaller neck muscles before you go on stage.

My Basic Pre-Performance Warm-up

It’s evident that no amount of warming up will ever take the place of years of technique and drilling; however, it will help to maximize your capacity when you set foot on the stage.

Give yourself a minimum of 10-15 minutes before each performance to warm up. Begin with 5 minutes of aerobic movements to increase your body temperature, such as jumping jacks, marching in place, or skipping (Abigail and I run back and forth in the hallway and high-five each other before an Enta Omri performance). Then, add movements such as side to side lunges, alternating runner’s lunges, and arm swings along the various planes of the body. After that, warm up your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves with quick tendus, dégagés, and battements to the front, side, and back, or calf raises. Follow these movements with head, shoulder, ribcage, pelvis, ankle and wrist circles (especially if you’re playing finger cymbals).

Finally, round off the circuit with some deep breathing to focus on your kick-ass performance.

I hope this routine helps you stay healthy and give your all every time you take the stage. Break an eyelash!

How do you warm up before a show? Share in the comments!


Parya Saberi: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before PerformanceAbout the Author

Parya has a Doctorate in Clinical Pharmacy with a specialty in HIV care and a Masters in Clinical Research. She is an Assistant Professor at a top ranking Bay Area university where she conducts clinical and behavioral research. Parya began her love affair with dance at the age of 7 studying Persian dance and later trained in New York Style Salsa and belly dance. She is currently an instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and has been a member of the Suhaila Dance Company (SDC) since 2014. She is currently Suhaila and Jamila Level 3 certified and is working toward her Suhaila Level 4 certification in July 2017. Read more at www.parya.dance.

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What You Need to Know About Morton’s Toe

On my last post about feet, one of the comments was about Morton’s Toe. Morton’s Toe, also known as Morton’s Foot—named after one Dudley Joy Morton—or “Greek Toe,” likely affects about 20% of the population. It challenges the body’s balance and can cause muscle and joint pain, but with the right tools it is manageable. I suspect that many people (like myself) who are told that they have high or fallen arches actually have this condition, but don’t know it.

What to know about Morton's Toe blog post by Abigail Keyes

6 Facts about Morton’s Toe

1. Even though it’s called “Morton’s Toe,” it really refers to the bones behind the toes.
In a “normal” foot, the first metatarsal extends more forward than the rest. This causes the big toe to hit the ground first while walking, running, and dancing. (Cue “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.) For those of us with Morton’s Toe, the second metatarsal makes contact first, throwing off our balance, and putting pressure on the second toe and middle of the foot.

Common callus areas for feet with Morton's Toe

Common callus areas for feet with Morton’s Toe.

Some people with this foot structure have second toes that are visibly longer than the rest, like the feet on the Statue of Liberty. Others might not. An X-ray will show for sure.

2. Symptoms include pain in the ball of the foot. If you’ve had pain in the ball of the foot, you might have been told that you have “metatarsalagia.” A fancy word that isn’t really a condition, but just a description of discomfort and inflammation.

Additional clues can be where your foot develops calluses, particularly on the outside of the big toe, underneath the second metatarsal head, and on the outside of the foot right behind the baby toe.

Morton’s toe can also make you prone to plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

3. It can create trigger point and referred pain all the way up the body.
If your second metatarsal is sticking out more then the rest, it can make your foot feel wobbly. Indeed, your body is trying to balance on a single point, where people without this condition can more easily place their weight on either side of the ball of the foot.

This constant balancing act can cause the shins, calves, quads, hips, and back to overcompensate. These areas are bracing and stabilizing so much that it causes muscle and joint fatigue. Your body has to work overtime just to keep you standing, let alone the extra balance and muscular engagement it takes to be in relevé!

If you’re prone to shin splints, calf pain, tight IT bands, and lower back pain, it might all start in your feet.

4. It’s not the same as Morton’s Neuroma, although the two are sometimes related. Apparently podiatry attracts a lot of Dr. Mortons. The neuroma is named after one Thomas George Morton. Totally different guy.

Morton’s Neuroma occurs when nerves between the metatarsal bones are trapped and become inflamed. It can lead to severe pain as well as numbness. Some people with Morton’s Toe do develop the fibrous neuromas, but not all. Those with the neuroma should avoid high heels and constrictive shoes.

5. Special insoles can help mitigate pain and improve balance. I’ve been able to manage the discomfort through regular self-massage, exercises, and insoles. A few years ago, the pain in the ball of my left foot was so awful, I couldn’t put weight on it. A (not-so-great) podiatrist told me I must have had a stress fracture, but the X-rays showed nothing wrong. Thankfully, a fellow dancer referred me to her dad, a trigger point massage therapist (shout-out to Chuck Duff). He worked on my calves, shins, feet, and hips, and within a few hours, the pain had disappeared.

Chuck also suggested I try out the insoles sold at mortonsfoot.com. I don’t get any kickback for linking to them, but I will say that their insoles have saved my dancing. They have thin insoles that I wear in my jazz shoes if I know I’ll be an intense workshop or on my feet for an extended amount of time. Their thicker insoles fit right into my regular boots and street shoes.

6. Massage can really help. Massaging the muscles between the shins, the calf muscles, and the soles of the feet will help loosen the muscles and joints in the foot itself, allowing it to relax. Use a foam roller, stick roller, or a lacrosse ball. I like to use a lacrosse ball on my shins and calves, because it’s a bit more precise than the foam roller. For your shins, place the ball on the floor, then kneel on the ball, as shown in this video. Find the tender parts, and don’t put too much weight on it, but just enough to relax the muscles. The same technique works for your calves.

Also you can massage the muscles between metatarsals with your fingers or a soft pencil eraser. This will help the toes spread out more, distributing your weight more evenly throughout the ball of the foot. The website of Bonnie Prudden, a pioneer of trigger point therapy, has lots of great exercises to mitigate the pain of a long second metatarsal.

7. It’s not a deformity, and if you have it, you’re not a freak (unless you want to be). This kind of foot structure is pretty common, so if you have it, accept it, discover ways to manage it, and give some extra love to your feet. They deserve it.

If you have Morton’s Toe, how have you managed it? Share in the comments!





Countering Orientalism: Learning from Past Transgressions

As I put together my eBook of past blog posts from my now-defunct Bellydance Paladin blog, I came across an entry that I wrote telling the story of how I got into Middle Eastern studies and belly dance.

Countering Orientalism by Abigail Keyes

An Orientalist Childhood

In that post, I reveal that as a child I was always fascinated by things that appeared to be “Middle Eastern.” The tales of 1001 Nights. The “Arabian Coffee” divertissement in The Nutcracker. Magic carpets. Scheherezade. Genies. Disney’s Aladdin. When I look back with the hindsight of over 20 years of academic study—a degree in Near Eastern Studies, and a second degree in Dance Studies—I see a childhood rife with Orientalist fetishism.

There’s even an image of me, age seven, in a genie costume, complete with billowing sheer pantaloons and a pink face veil. The year was 1987. My mother, while being a self-taught expert on Western European and Californian history, knew little of Orientalism, and wanted to make her daughter happy. She made the costume because I wanted it. I wanted it because… honestly, I don’t know why. I just know I wanted to be that genie every damn year. Today, that costume would get a lot of side-eye.

Now, I’m sure some people will read that post and attempt to call me out on it.

But I’m going to call myself out.

Calling Myself Out

I fully admit that my early interest in the “Middle East” was based on Orientalist fantasy. Every image and idea I had of the region was filtered through the imperial gaze.

When I started to dig deeper, however, I realized that the images and archetypes that I had seen were, in fact, not real. I even felt a little betrayed.

At around age 13, I became very interested in the art of animation. When Disney’s Aladdin was released, it was a perfect combination of my latent Orientalist fascination and my love of the expressive and moving drawing. Disney released a companion book, Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film, which I immediately bought for myself.

In the chapter on the film’s overall look and feel, one of the background artists, originally from Iran, traveled to Tehran and Qom to take sketches and photographs. The author also tells of how the other artists were inspired by the sweeping swirls of Islamic calligraphy.

As a young teenager, just beginning to learn about the world, I had no idea that Islamic calligraphy, let alone Islamic art, was even a thing. I had heard about Islam in passing, but I knew no name for the intricate geometric designs and flowing script until then. And I wasn’t completely unaware of it before; being southern Spanish, I was somewhat familiar with the Alhambra and “Moorish” art. Keep in mind that I was only about 12 years old.

But when we can name a thing, we can contextualize it, and learn more about it. And it took a film—one so obviously problematic, and that rightfully got a lot of flack from the Arab community upon its release—to get me there.

Using Orientalism as a Springboard for Deeper Inquiry

Because I had an insatiable curiosity, I decided to dig deeper. I began researching. When my parents and I made our annual trip to Washington, DC, to visit my grandparents, I insisted that we visit the Freer and Sackler galleries, where a temporary exhibition of illuminated Qur’ans from the Mamluk period in Egypt were on view. The beauty of these rare codeces captivated me so much that I bought a copy of the exhibit’s promotional poster, which I still have.

Through Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, I began discovering music from the region. When I bought Passion: Sourcesrecordings of songs from North Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia, and Central Asia—I listened to that CD (remember those?) over and over and over again. In my junior year of high school, I bought Shaabisation, a somewhat subversive recording of music from Morocco. Soon after, I picked up a copy of From Luxor to Isna, by The Musicians of the Nile. This was before I even started learning belly dance.

Through music, I began learning about the different cultures in the region. Teenage me learned, one song at a time, that they were not one big monolithic conglomerate, as the imperial Orientalist gaze would have.

20 Years Later…

Back then in the mid-1990s, the internet was barely a thing. We still called it the World Wide Web, and time online was billed by the hour, if you were lucky to have internet in your home at all. Researching anything back then was much more difficult, but I feel that I did what I could with the resources I had.

Back then, the US had just emerged from the debacle of the first Gulf War, and still reeled from rash of attacks on commercial airliners. The failed truck bomb attack at the World Trade Center had just happened. Most people in the US hadn’t heard of Al-Qa’ida. But they soon would, and Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who looked “exotic” would bear the weight of a new, violent American Orientalism.

For the average (white) American, the Middle East was shifting from a passive land of sensuality and sand to a nest of radicalized and irrational terrorists. Unfortunately, that image has not changed much, despite our greater connectivity to information and other cultures.

Whether it be the lack of visibility of Arab culture in the United States at the time, the rising fear of Islamism, or the failure of the US educational system to expose junior high students to the rich cultures of the Middle East, 12-year-old me did not have the resources to understand the region the way that 37-year-old me does today, or that 47-year-old me will in the future.

Moving Away From Orientalism

Today, I can look back and see that that my early interest in of Middle Eastern art, music, and culture, and realize was all filtered through an Orientalist lens. While I cannot change my past, I can make more informed decisions in my present and future.

Since then, I’ve made efforts to learn more, understanding that I am forever a guest in Arab and wider Middle Eastern cultures. I have seen the late Edward Said speak in person. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve visited many of the sites that captivated me as a teenager: the Alhambra, the Great Mosque in Córdoba, the Citadel in Cairo, Topkapı Palace. I’ve become an Ambassador blogger for ArabAmerica.com, which seeks to share Arab culture with readers around the world. I’ve made efforts to demystify the Middle East for other non-Middle Eastern people who might not know where to start. I’ve scowled at Bernard Lewis in person. I stood beside my Arab and Muslim friends when they received threats after September 11.

I am still learning.

I am not perfect, and I am absolutely not a savior. My point is that we can, particularly if we belly dance, give back to the culture from which our dance comes.

And, of course, I will never know what it’s like to be Arab or Middle Eastern in North America, particularly in today’s political climate. I leave that to my friends of Arab descent to tell their stories.

Admitting Mistakes and Learning From Them

If you are a belly dancer not from the Middle East or North Africa, chances are that you’ve had similar experiences as mine.

Like me, you probably made some artistic choices that are a bit, well, cringe-worthy.

It’s important to be able to look back at our decisions and not only understand that some of them might not have been the most sensitive or educated, but also that we can learn from them. Instead of getting defensive and saying that what you did was “in the name of art” or that it’s “personal expression,” maybe take a step back and see how what you did might seem hurtful today. Would you make that same choice now?

Also, as you explore and self-reflect, understand that not everyone is at the same point in their journey as you are. Some people might just be learning about Orientalism. Some might have the lived experience of being Arab in North America. Some might be experienced historians, anthropologists, or sociologists in the field.

Respect where others are on this lifetime of exploration, and allow others to join the conversation. Allow people from the culture to speak. And when they do, listen.

Stay humble, and keep learning.

Do you have resources to share with dancers who might just be learning about these issues?

Share in the comments!




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Minding Your Feet: The Key to Clean Dancing

Your feet are the key to clean dancing. If you’re a belly dancer, as most of my readers are, you might be consumed with learning and refining your pelvis and torso articulations, but how much attention are you paying to your feet? It seems so obvious, but chances are you’re not paying as much attention as you should be!

Better dancing through your feet
The Feet are the Foundation of Dance

Most dance forms are performed upright and on the feet. There are a few exceptions, of course, like breaking (which also does feature footwork like the 6-step, but mostly features acrobatic floorwork), but for the most part, most dance traditions rely on the timing of the feet to determine the rest of the dance. The feet are our connection to the floor and the earth beneath us. They need to be strong, supple, and if we are performing to music, they need to be on the beat.

Most of the time when I see dancers who are struggling with the technical and musical elements of dance training, it’s because they are not entirely connected to their feet.

We learn to move our feet at a very young age. Most children start learning to walk at two years old. That means, most of us have been balancing ourselves on our feet since we were toddlers. In fact, that’s where the term “toddler” comes from, right? As we learn to walk we “toddle” around, finding our balance and our own personal rhythm.

For dance forms that are inextricable from music, the timing of steps and footwork are essential. Just as a house must have a sound foundation on which to build a house that will stand for years, our feet must provide that same strong base for our movement.

Core and Distal

In modern dance and when we teach movement to children, we often talk about the relationship between the head and tail, the right and left sides of the body, and the upper and lower parts of the body. We instinctively learn these elements when we are young, as we build our proprioception and our awareness of our own body in space and time in relationship to the world around us.

When we talk about feet, we’re also talking about the distal ends of the body. Your hands and the crown of your head are also your distal ends. Your abdomen, pelvis, and ribs are your core, sometimes referred to as “proximal.” In the dance teaching method called “Brain Dance,” the core-distal relationship is considered one of the essential movement distinctions we learn as children. The dance teacher in this video explores core and distal with her young students.

When you’re practicing, it might feel like your fingers and toes are the most difficult to keep mental track of, and that’s because they are farthest away from your core. When you are fully aware of your distal ends, you might feel that you have a greater kinesthetic sensation in these parts, which you must harness to keep your feet on time.

Releve or Flat? Choose One

In the Salimpour School of Dance, we place a lot of importance on the position of the foot, specifically whether or not it is flat or relevé. While this is not the case with all approaches to belly dance, nor all dance forms, I have observed that the stronger a dancer’s foot placement, the more secure they appear, the clearer their hipwork becomes, and the more free they are with their upper body.

When it comes to being in relevé, or demi-point, the foot must be as high up as it can go on to the metatarsals. Anywhere in between flat and demi-point becomes a kind of kinesiological no-man’s land. I’ve noticed in my years of teaching that when a dancer allows their foot to be somewhere in between releve and flat, they sink into their knees, and the rest of their entire body responds a bit slower, their hip work less clear, and their posture less upright. We jokingly call this in-between place “flat-evé.” When a dancer’s releve is strong, high, and solid, their entire body is more free.

Indeed, when a dancer is flat-footed, a similar principle applies. When a dancer distributes their weight evenly between the ball of the foot and the heel, their body feels more secure. When you are dancing, pay attention to your heels. Are they on the floor when when you are flat-footed? Are they pressed as high as your flexibility will allow when in demi-point?

Whether or not you are flat or relevé, imagine your whole foot as being supple and flexible. We might think of the foot as being one unit, but there are 26 bones in the human foot, all working with each other to keep you balanced.

Learn the Feet, Learn the Choreography

When I see dancers who struggle with learning choreography, often it’s because they feel overwhelmed with the intricate parts of a dance. They might want to get the correct position of the arms, or the hip work. They might also struggle to look like the instructor, following along as best they can.

But I can assure you that if you focus on the timing and placement of the feet, the entire choreography will start to fall into place.

When learning a choreography in a form such as belly dance, which is driven almost entirely by the music, the feet must connect to the rhythms and pulses of the songs to which we dance. Once you learn the footwork, the rest of the dance will be so much easier to remember and perform.

Get Your Feet on The Beat

When you are dancing, your feet are your metronome. In ballet, this is obvious. At the barre work on our tendu, elevé, relevé, pas de bourree, all on specific counts in the music. This detailed and meticulous attention to the timing of our footwork is essential for ballet, particularly when dancing in an ensemble. The presentational nature of ballet requires that we dance in unison with our fellow dancers. But in ballet class, often we are working on our barre and center work to solo piano music. In belly dance class, the music to which we drill often has more than just on instrument.

I’m hardly one to imply that ballet is the ultimate dance form. That’s hardly the case. Many other dances also rely on the timing of the feet to drive the movement of the entire body. Partner dances from Salsa to ballroom to Dance Sport all require that the feet be on a specific foot at a specific time. Even improvisational social dance forms like Lindy Hop have specific timings for the feet. When both partners can tap into the rhythm of the music, they can create extemporaneous dance magic.

House dance features complex footwork, often inspired by Salsa and other Latin dances. Check out “Kapelson” Kapela Marna physicalizing Azaelia Bank’s rapping with his feet. You can practically hear the rhythm of her voice through his sneakers!

Embody the Rhythm Through Your Feet

The next time you learn a choreography, or even the next time you drill your technique, find the beat with your feet. Imagine that the drum beat of the song to which you are dancing is actually driving your steps. Whether or not your feet are stepping in a chasse, or on the eighth or quarter notes, or even in 16th notes as in a Choo Choo, the music must be the impetus of when the sole of the foot makes contact with the floor.

When faced with a choreography that you find difficult to learn or retain, start with the feet first. Listen to how the feet reflect the music. What instrument are they physicalizing?

Once you start truly embodying the rhythm and pulse of a song through your feet, you’ll find that the rest of your dancing will take less effort, and hopefully allow you to connect with the music even more.



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