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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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.




Dance Bloggers Wanted for Guest Posts

Guest Posts Wanted!

A. Keyes Dance is looking for guest posts to keep the conversation going on belly dance in the 21st century. Do you have something to say about belly dance? Keep reading for guidelines.

 

A. Keyes Dance: Guest Posts Wanted

 

Submission Guidelines

Here’s what I’m hoping to get:

  1. TOPIC: How do you negotiate imperialism, colonialism, privilege, and stereotypes in your belly dance practice? Consider how you engage with Arab/Middle Eastern cultures, who you study with, what you read, how you train. If you primarily do a “fusion” form, how do you navigate that practice?
  2. Dancers of color and/or LGBTQ+ dancers are STRONGLY encouraged to contribute.
  3. Not primarily a belly dancer? Dancers in other traditions who are not from the culture of origin are welcome to contribute!

What will make me love your posts?

  1. 800-1000 words. No more, please.
  2. When referencing materials on the web, use embedded links.
  3. I prefer Chicago Manual of Style, but whichever style you choose, make it consistent. (Psst! I love the Oxford comma.)
  4. Coherent arguments. I’m not looking for PhD-level writing, but make sure your piece flows and makes sense.
  5. Stick to the topic. Rambling and unrelated subject matter won’t be accepted.
  6. Proofread it, please. Grammar matters to me.
  7. I don’t need to agree with you for me to want to publish your post.

If you’re feeling stuck, read my post on fostering non-oppressive practice and my post about Beyoncé and Orientalism.

Email your post in .doc/.rtf/.pages format to akeyesdance [at] gmail [dot] com. Include a short bio (150 words max) and a photo.

Looking forward to reading your work!





How Can We Belly Dance with a Clearer Conscience?

Author’s note: The purpose of this post is to encourage self-reflection and caution against reactionary responses to accusations of “cultural appropriation” in belly dance. It seems that when this issue is brought up in popular online forums, white-passing dancers react in questionable ways that fail to acknowledge the issues at stake. I do believe that belly dance as a practice is at a tipping point in North America, one where we should make some very important decisions on how we continue to engage or disengage from this dance and the culture from which is comes. There are so many more facets to this phenomenon than I can address in a single blog post. I encourage responses to be civil, recognizing that there are people with feelings on the other side of the screen.


 

One of the greatest questions I think facing the practice of belly dance in the diaspora right now is…

Is it possible to practice belly dance with a clear conscience?

The answer: Maybe…

Your Fave (And Mine) is Problematic

I’ve heard of multiple instances where students of belly dance have either left the dance entirely or felt discouraged from continuing after they had learned about this dance form’s problematic issues: Racism. Colonialism. Cultural imperialism. Orientalism. “Arab-face.” Gender Essentialism. De-ethnicization. Exoticism. Cultural appropriation (may I recommend this philosophical essay and this article?). And that’s heavy stuff if you are a hobbyist who was only looking for something to do after work, have fun, get some exercise, and maybe meet a few new friends. It might feel even heavier if you perform this dance form, and heavier still if you teach it. If you continually ask yourself and others the right questions, you can bear the weight and continue to belly dance.

Can we belly dance with a clear conscience?
The first time you encounter an article or blog post or discussion that suggests that belly dance—and by extension, you, particularly if you are white-passing—might be engaging in an oppressive dance practice that takes power and visibility away from already marginalized/colonized/oppressed peoples, it’s easy to be shocked. It’s easy to be angry when someone accuses you of thinly-veiled (see what I did there?) racism. It’s easy to get defensive. It’s easy to respond with “But… I’m not a racist!” and to make it all about you. It’s easy to say that you love this dance because it’s beautiful, it makes you feel empowered, you love the way the movements make you feel, it’s brought you “community” (or “sisterhood,” but I encourage you to re-examine the use of that word), that “it’s all dance” (yes it is, but don’t then turn around and explain how you love belly dance over ballet because you think ballet is all about body-shaming or isn’t meant for the “curves of a real woman’s body”), or that “it’s all fusion” (yes it is, but that doesn’t absolve some decisions from being questionable).

…and note how “I love Arab culture and music” isn’t in that list. (Spoiler alert: It should be.)

Many an academic article, blog post, and social media discussion has tried tackling theses issues. The authors of these materials range from the life-long scholars and practitioners with deep knowledge, understanding, and experience to those who are only looking to ruffle feathers, make themselves look like like they have the moral high ground, and use activism as performance. These expositions of belly dance often highlight the most egregious and offensive examples of the above issues, but rarely do they ever offer practitioners advice for how to engage in belly dance while avoiding perpetuating problematic issues.

Big Questions, Small Ego

In the 21st century, as the academic post-colonial discourse of Orientalism, critical theory, and race theory enters the common vernacular, practitioners of belly dance in North America need to ask themselves some big questions. (I speak to North America only because that is my personal perspective, and I don’t feel like I can address the issues that dancers in Western or Eastern Europe might face, although there is certainly some cross-over). These questions require humility and a big, scary ego check, and go far beyond doing this dance “correctly” or “incorrectly”:

  • When I feel under fire for my artistic decisions, how can I step back and reflect before reacting?
  • If I wish to continue, how can I adjust my practice to be as non-oppressive as possible?
  • How can I find a mentor who maintains and promotes a culturally-responsible practice?
  • If I am an instructor, should I continue to teach, or should I further educate myself before teaching again?
  • How will I listen to and make space for practitioners from the culture of origin?
  • When I see someone else making questionable artistic decisions within the context of belly dance, how can I call them in, as opposed to calling them out?
  • How can I continue to educate myself about these issues without burning out?

Asking yourself questions requires being deferential and humble. It requires that you set aside your ego and (possible) aspirations for constant performance and self-adornment for the sake of respecting and honoring the culture from which this dance comes, and more importantly, the people from that culture (these people who are not a monolith, who each have their own differing opinions about what’s offensive and what’s not). These are treacherous psychological and sociological waters, and there are no right answers.

No Clear Answers, aka Hybridity Is Messy

Being a dancer of any genre requires constant self-reflection, asking questions, research, and of course, conversing with dancers who have come before you. In our case, that means professionals who are from, have worked in, and lived in the Middle East,* as well as the many scholars whose life work has been the study of Middle Eastern dance. There are many instructors and professors who have a lifetime of experience in this dance form who will gladly mentor you, answer your questions, and give you guidance. We are practicing and performing a dance with an incredibly complex and tangled history and relationship with the embodiment of power, race, sexuality, gender, and self. You owe it to yourself to learn from those who have paved the way before you, even if their own artistic choices were problematic. It is a learning process, not a learning end-point.

This dance form is inherently hybrid, transcultural, and transnational. To essentialize it as only “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” or “Egyptian” denies it its cross-continental influences and history as a living, changing dance form. But we also must recognize that hybridity doesn’t allow us the privilege of turning a blind eye to aspects of our practice that, once identified, make us uncomfortable or that, frankly, are a little bit racist (and of course there are the people who will always think that a white-passing body performing belly dance—regardless of aesthetic, artistic, or emotional quality or cultural knowledge—is always racist). We must also accept that its 100+ years long hybrid history in North America does not absolve us from cultural responsibility, because so much of that history—from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, to the Little Egypt phenomenon, to the Hootchy Cootchy; to the self-Orientalizing American Middle Eastern nightclubs of the 1970s; to adoption of belly dance by second-wave feminists as an expression of independence, sexuality, and empowerment—has been an embodied fantasy of an exoticized (and often eroticized) Middle East. That is the legacy we have inherited. How will we continue forward?

Multiple Paths in the Name of Non-Oppressive Practice

A mindful and non-oppressive practice isn’t easy. I struggle with it every day. Admitting you might have been wrong, offensive, inappropriately appropriative, or oppressive isn’t easy. To hear someone tell you that you should perhaps cease practicing and performing a dance form that has brought you so much joy isn’t easy. Reflecting on your artistic and creative decisions isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you that this dance form is easy is trying to separate you from your money.

Cultivating a culturally-respectful practice is much like hiking a winding, muddy, sometimes treacherous path. Sometimes we will follow along another’s trail, using their knowledge and asking them questions along the way. Sometimes we are on our own, hacking through the proverbial foliage in our quests for personal authenticity and truth.

We will disagree with each other on how to navigate these potentially confusing directions. But we all have our own moral compass (except if you’re a sociopath, in which case, nothin’ but a therapist is gonna help you), but we must choose to use that compass to help us find our way. When we read articles or post on social media about how belly dance is problematic, we can not ignore our compass, turn away, and say that we are not part of the problem.

How have I oriented (haha) myself in all of this discourse? I accept that that I am in a constant state of inquiry, and that my approach to a culturally-responsible practice will be in constant flux. I also believe that if you wish to study belly dance, and call it “belly dance,” (and especially “fusion belly dance”) then you must absolutely study Arabic music (as well as the Turko-Armenian American nightclub classics). This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever dance to non-Middle Eastern music or experiment; I’d be a flaming hypocrite to even suggest an absolute like that. But if you are a “belly dancer,” especially one who sees themselves as a “professional,” knowing Arabic rhythms and instruments should be a given. Understanding maqamat, knowing the great singers and composers, a familiarity with pop stars, is not optional. Physicalizing different stylizations, from sai’di to khaliji to Turkish Orientale, while understanding their origins, is part of being a well-rounded performer. Embodying Arabic music in its historical and political contexts is at the heart of understanding and embodying this dance form. In addition, if you are worried about being “appropriative” and wish to continue studying and performing belly dance, then you must accept that your practice will include continuous inquiry and engagement with the culture from which this dance comes. To divorce the culture from the dance (and all of its messiness), and take from it only what appeals to you for the sake of your own performance and self-promotion is the very definition of an imperial practice.

And no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend someone.** If that happens—and if you are white-passing it probably will—it will be up to you to examine your practice and ask yourself the hard questions: how can I reflect on and adjust my practice? At least acknowledge their point of view before writing off that someone as too “politically-correct” or “too sensitive.” Acknowledgement doesn’t always mean full agreement, and that’s all right.

You can always ask yourself more questions and question your assumptions. You can always look deeper into your artistic choices. You can always know more about the music, the poetry, the language, the aesthetic values, the history, the politics, and the people who have shaped belly dance and our perceptions of it. By admitting that you can always learn more is to ignore your ego, admit your faults, and foster a more culturally-responsible practice.

*Even the term “Middle East” presents Euro-centric view of the world. For this, a blog post, I will use it because it is the most common and easily recognized term for the region to which I refer: the Arabic-speaking world, North Africa, the Anatolian peninsula, and surrounding regions where solo, improvised, pelvic-articulated dancers are performed. Sometimes this region is referred to as the Eastern Mediterranean or West Asia/North Africa; however, these terms are far less common in popular discourse.

**It happened to me. And while I still disagree with the arguments and tactics taken by the accuser, I acknowledge their point of view. This person accused me of racist practice without ever engaging me in a conversation, asking me any questions, or even observing the work that I do. They used inflammatory language and protest methods to make my work look insensitive, ill-informed, and oppressive. You will encounter people like this, who will lump you and your work into the pile of Orientalist and exoticized belly dance that has become the dance’s main image in popular media.




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8 Reasons This Dancer Chooses a Whole-Foods Plant-Based Diet

Over six years ago, my now partner invited me over for a casual, friendly dinner. He cooked. Dinner. With dessert. It was delicious, wholesome, and healthful. We talked and talked for nearly six hours.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

What I didn’t mention was that it was a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based meal.

Since moving back home to California and moving in with my partner, I have kept to a mostly plant-based diet. Yes, my partner still cooks the meals in our household, for which I am eternally grateful… because I’m terrible at feeding myself. Before we moved in together, I was subsisting on microwavable Amy’s gluten-free mac and cheese, and other things that were ostensibly good for me because they were “organic.”

I’m not zealous about my diet, but I do try avoid straying too far for too long. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of imported Italian Parmesan with a Super Tuscan or Iberian Manchego with a Tempranillo. When I’m traveling, sometimes I have to choose between the meal with eggs and the meal with wheat (to which I am allergic). I also don’t judge my friends who order meat when we go out, nor am I offended by their meals.

plantbaseddiet

There are many reasons to go plant-based, both personal and global. Here are the reasons I stick to a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD).
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Beautiful items for sale!

 

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

(Psst… if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a special 10% off coupon for everything in my Etsy shop.)

I’m clearing out my stash of beautiful things. Lucky you!

Complete costume items, supplies, and prints of my art are all up for sale in my Etsy shop right now. Once these items sell, I will not be getting more of the same. Everything is from my personal collection, with the best intentions that they would end up on my costumes. There are a few items I inherited from my grandmother, including a gorgeous vintage Navaho silver and turquoise necklace.

Other items you’ll find:

  • Kuchi beaded tassels
  • Central Asian beaded medallions
  • Crystal and other assorted beads
  • Miao Chinese hair sticks
  • Reproductions of my own art
  • Two handmade costume bras
  • Costume skirts from Tombo Studio

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter and get your coupon!

Giclée print of my pen and ink art





6 Travel Tips for Dancers: Staying Well on the Road

As a child, going to the airport filled me with wonder and excitement. The smell of jet fuel and the hustle and bustle of the airport still means, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “I’m going on an adventure!”

As an adult, I’ve spent a big part of my dancing career traveling to cities at odd hours to teach and perform in places I’ve never been before. It’s a fantastic job, and I am grateful for every moment of it.

With all my years of travel, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve also learned that as I get older, my body doesn’t recover from travel as quickly as it used to. I’ve come up with survival techniques to keep limber and agile, even after being on a plane for 10 hours straight.

So, even if you’re not a dancer, or if you don’t even travel all that often, but just don’t want your body to feel like crap when you arrive, these little travel tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

Heads up. This post contains affiliate links.

Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

6 Travel Tips for Dancers (and other people with bodies)

1) Rollers and other self-massage devices. This might sound dirty, but self-massage devices are the best thing for a weary traveler. No, not that kind of massager. I’m talking the kind that you roll out your cranky and sore muscles.

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

My favorite is the TP Therapy GRID roller. It’s short, and hollow on the inside. I can fill it up with small clothing items so it takes up very little space in my luggage. Plus, if you happen to pick up a bottle of your favorite libation while on the road, the GRID roller doubles as a protective carrying case… Not that I’ve ever done that before.

Other small, but effective, tools include lacrosse balls and stick rollers. I love this Gaiam spiky stick roller, but you’re best off packing it in your checked luggage.

2) 4-Wheel Spinner Luggage. Nothing frustrates me more than a bag that won’t stand up on its own, and worse if it’s difficult to maneuver through crowded airport and train terminals. After a trip to Europe when I had to manipulate two unwieldy, unbalanced suitcases full of costumes and products for sale, I resolved to replace my bags with upright spinners as soon as I got back to the US. Because I refuse to be stingy when it comes to luggage and shoes (see #5 in this post), I’m still using those bags, seven years later.

A quality spinner will be nearly effortless to move, and your body will be grateful for not having to drag your stuff along behind you. If you’re on a budget, because luggage isn’t cheap, check out your local Ross, Marshall’s, or TJMaxx. There’s no reason to pay full price for name-brand luggage.

3) Water water water. This one’s obvious, but flying can make us feel like human raisins. Muscles, fascia, and tendons need constant hydration to stay at tip top shape, so don’t be like me and make the mistake of not drinking enough water while traveling. Most of my injuries can probably be traced back to not staying sufficiently hydrated.

Bring a refillable water bottle (empty, so you don’t get busted at the TSA checkpoint, or you’ll find yourself chugging 16+ ounces of water very, very quickly), and don’t be afraid to ask restaurants in the terminals to fill it up for you. Some terminals have filtered water stations (San Francisco International marks them on airport maps as “Hydration Stations.” How very Silicon Valley of them.)

If you need extra hydration, pack along some Emergen-C or other electrolyte formulas. The ones that come in tablet form travel best, but individual packets of powders work well, too. Make sure your bottle is rugged enough to get beat up. I travel with an insulated bottle that I can fill with cold or hot drinks.

4) Snacks. Snacks on a plane! Haha… ha… nevermind. Anyhoo… Like many 21st-century Californians, I have dietary restrictions. I can’t eat wheat because it triggers my chronic inflammation, and I avoid dairy, eggs, and meat.

Even if you can eat anything without feeling like someone is stabbing you in the large intestine, you might have noticed that plane food is expensive and unsatisfying. If you’re lucky to be flying out of an airport with decent restaurants (i.e., not Chicago O’Hare which has almost nothing for the gluten-free traveler), eat a large-ish meal in the terminal before you board… and be prepared for the rest of your trip with ample snacks.

I bring nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and chocolate (of course!). I also bring along my favorite tea bags to keep some semblance of normalcy and comfort when I arrive at my destination (which I brew in my insulated water bottle). Remember that you can’t bring liquids or pastes on the plane, so leave that hummus at home, you fellow food weirdo.

Merrell discontinued these boots, so I bought an extra pair. Looks like Amazon still has some, though!

5) Shoes. I have a lot of feelings about shoes and travel. Our feet are our first line of defense against gravity, and a crappy pair of shoes will make your entire body ache. Dancers don’t have time for that. Heck, parents, businesspeople, and vacationers don’t have time for that either! I also don’t have time or packing space for bringing lots of different shoes with me when traveling. Personally, I get grumpy if I have to bring more than the shoes that I wear on the plane and maybe an extra pair of flip-flops for times I don’t need to go far, like from a hotel room to the breakfast buffet.

My requirements for shoes? Easy to take off and put back on (because airport security), versatile for the purpose of my trip, flat soled, supportive, and comfortable like slippers. A good pair of shoes should last for over two years, minimum. I’m particular to the Merrell brand for my weird, narrow feet, but for the love of all that is holy, don’t be one of those people that wears flip-flops or 4-inch stiletto high heels. You don’t want to have to run to a connection with shoes like that, and both will likely make your joints very grumpy.

6) STRETCH. You know that weirdo in the back of the plane, near the galley and the lavatories, contorting themselves into some weird yoga poses as you try to get by? Don’t be afraid to be that person. Keep your blood flowing and stretch, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings, which inevitably are shorted when you sit in those tiny little airplane seats. In addition, those seats fit about 1% of the population. The rest of us are too short or too tall. Plus, if you get up and head to the back of the plane for a bit, you can ask the flight attendants for more water… or for the wonder that is tomato juice, which we all know you only drink when you’re on a plane.

How I want to dress on planes. (Randy from A Christmas Story.)

Bonus: 7) Stay Warm. If you’re one of those people who is always cold, you understand. And for dancers, the cold can be a formidable foe for our bodies. Bring a jacket on the plane that you can also use as a blanket, as well as a big scarf that can keep your neck and head warm if you get blasted by the plane ventilation system. If it’s too cold to stay seated, and it’s safe to move about the cabin, get up and go stretch out near the galley.

Traveling dancers: What are your favorite tips for keeping limber and ready to move when you travel?





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Dance Is A Radical Act

furious_dancing2One of my colleagues at Mills College wore a tank top emblazoned in bold letters: “Dance is a Radical Act.” I admit that at first, I did not understand what she or the shirt meant. Dance is art. Why should it be radical?

As I continued my study of dance history and theory, I realized… of course dance is radical. Dance expresses independence of body, thought, and expression. Dance has been a vehicle for protest and dissent (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Exodus”). Dance critiques warmongerers (Kurt Jooss: The Green Table). Dance exposes the heartbreak of marginalized communities (Kyle Abraham: Pavement). Dance challenges preconceived notions of itself (Yvonne Rainer: Trio A). Dance can satirize itself and critique the fetishization of marginalized peoples (Keith Hennessy: Bear/Skin). Dance can bring together disparate cultures and celebrate beauty and love (Mark Morris: Layla and Majnun). Dance allows the disenfranchised a physical and corporeal voice.

And within each of our bodies is incontrovertible truth. Even if we are denied truth through biased news outlets, corrupt politicians, and even from members of our own families, we still have our bodies. When deprived of political and social power, we still have our bodies. Oppressive governments, regimes, and political climates have tried to suppress dance for centuries. Look to the exile of the ghawazi by Pasha Muhammad Ali, the outlawing of hula under missionary rule in Hawai’i, the banning of the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance by both the United States and Canada, and many more. Dance is, indeed, a radical act.

For me, my worldview and dance are intrinsically linked. When I dance, I am expressing my physical and personal power. We make art that reflects what we value. I value truth, justice, kindness, compassion, cross-cultural understanding, inquiry, self-reflection, corporeal independence, and the pursuit of embodied knowledge. I believe that there are facts, and that the existence of facts is not and should not be controversial. Indeed, when I wrote the Salimpour Compendium, I sought to dispel many of the myths that surround belly dance, hoping to nip them in the bud, and provide a sound foundation for those new to the dance form who also wish to dig beyond the “wishtory.”

In these troubling times that might pit you against your fellow countrymen, neighbors, or family members, I hope that you reflect on what you truly value. Does your dancing embody those values? Do your everyday actions? What about who you vote for? Does your art align with your politics? If it doesn’t, how can these defining aspects of yourself be reconciled?

Dances need not always be political. But for those of us who are afforded the freedom to move, to take studio classes, to perform for each other or on stages, we must remember that dance is a fundamental act that has phenomenal power to both express and shape humanity.

I hope that you dance not only for yourself, but for all humankind.

 

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Adult Dancers: You Are Making Progress

getting-betterAdult dance students are often quite hard on themselves. We take all of our adult baggage into the studio classroom with us (and I use “we” because I do it too!), and expect to be able to do anything the teacher asks of us perfectly the first time.

Well, when put that way, it sounds a bit ridiculous. No one can do anything perfectly the first time. So why do we pressure ourselves like this when learning a new skill, particularly one as challenging as dance?

Adults need more time to learn

We adults should be kinder to our beginner selves. Being a beginner is an exhilarating and inspiring experience if we allow it to be. Not only does allowing ourselves to learn and make mistakes make the whole “learning new things” thing easier and less stressful, but our adult brains just don’t take in information as quickly and in as large amounts as they did when we were younger.

In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus notes that adults, with their limited time to practice and diminished brain plasticity, have to learn new information in smaller chunks than children. He also says that kids learn new things so quickly because their brains are growing and developing so quickly, they often have more time to devote to learning a new thing—unfettered by jobs, raising kids, household chores, and other “adult” responsibilities—and they are, of course, often way less self-conscious than adults are when learning something new. Being a child means learning new things every day.

Adults, however… we think people are judging us, and we have egos to feed, and we want to feel accomplished because we’re all grown up and that’s what grown up people do: they accomplish things and do them well, and we can’t possibly take up something new and look like a beginner again. That would be… embarrassing.

Dance isn’t easy. We do things in the studio that we often don’t do in daily life. That’s the appeal, isn’t it? We don’t do plies, 6-steps, or upper back curves while walking down the grocery aisle (well, I know some of you do, and keep on with your bad selves). So why do we expect to be able to do a new move or technique in the studio classroom the first time the teacher asks it of us?

Stick with it

Then if you do stick with dancing, you might not think that you’re getting better at all. There’s that phenomenon that happens that when you are involved in something regularly, it’s so difficult to see your progress in that activity. Or when you have children, you might not see on a daily basis how quickly they’re growing, but a relative who hasn’t seen them in a year will blurt out the inevitable, “Wow! They’ve gotten so BIG!” You look down at your kids and think, “Well, yes, but I see them everyday…”

That’s my job as an instructor, though: To see my students every week (or more), and also recognize the overall, long-term progress that they are making. I’ve had students for over a few years now who might not think that they have improved at all, but I can see how their technique is stronger, their timing more accurate, and their posture lengthened. And part of my job is to tell them that I do see it, even if they don’t see it themselves.

As students of anything, we must find instructors (and I suspect most teachers of anything) who can see the micro-level of the day-to-day—giving subtle technical and timing reminders and, of course, encouragements—as well as the macro, month-to-month, year-to-year progress that each student makes in their own time.

Everyone improves at their own pace

All of us will improve at our own pace. Some of us will progress very quickly, and others will have to take their time in a particular level or class for months, maybe years. It’s so easy for us as adults to compare ourselves to the other students in class, but we have to recognize that each of us is going to learn and progress in different ways. Each of us has our gifts and each of us has our challenges. And if you look back a year, you’ll see how much you’ve gotten better.

I guarantee that if you’re going to class regularly, you are getting better. There’s almost no other option but to improve!

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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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