Consistent Challenges are the Key to Improvement

All artists seek personal improvement, but what’s the secret?

About a week ago, I finished up my first year as a graduate student in dance at Mills College. My course work included four days a week of modern dance technique, ranging from Jose Limón’s/Doris Humphrey’s “Fall-and-Recover,” Martha Graham’s “Contract-and-Release,” Merce Cunningham’s split body awareness, and a myriad of contemporary and classic stylizations from the 20th and 21st centuries. I sustained a debilitating injury (minor tear of my biceps femoris hamstring) and have mostly recovered; I cried quite a few tears of pain and frustration.

My fellow students and colleagues have also struggled and triumphed. In addition, I have continued my training at the Salimpour School, beginning work on my Suhaila Format Level 5 and training for Jamila Format Level 4.

If I have learned anything at all in these programs, it is that consistent practice is key. But it’s more than just consistency: it’s consistent challenge.

Adult Students Aren’t Patient

Adults are a funny lot. Adult students often want the result without realizing the hard work it takes to get there. We see what we want, and we want it now. A friend of mine teaches cello, and many new adult beginner students have asked her how long it will take for them to play cello like Yo-Yo Ma.

Similarly, new adult students at the Salimpour School ask me how long it will take for them to certify Level 5 (the highest level of the program of which there are currently two dancers). The answer to these questions is complex. It depends on how hard you want to work, how much you want to be a master of your craft and your art. It will take you as long as it takes you, if you continue to work for it.

Hard Work Is The Answer

I will tell you what it takes to get there, though. Hard work. Consistent hard work that continually challenges your technical, creative, physical, and emotional limits. There will be tears. There will be frustration. There will be injuries.  …and there will be so many triumphs, joys, and accomplishments.

Many dancers talk about drilling, and while drilling can be an incredibly valuable element of becoming an accomplished dancer (no ballerina would ever go without doing her barre exercises), it is the difficult work that truly helps us grow. If you continue to drill, say, glute squeezes at a tempo that is manageable for you, it is unlikely that your dancing will ever improve dramatically. You’ll only ever be able to do hip work at the tempo at which you work in the studio. (Why would you want faster hipwork? Maybe that song you love calls for it at a particular part of the music.) If you drill them at a tempo that at first seems completely outside your abilities, but you keep a positive attitude and you work for it… ahh, then that’s where the palpable, embodied, and visible improvement lies.

Struggle Can Make You Stronger

Even plants benefit from struggle. Winemakers turn off irrigation to their vineyards in the summer, when the weather is hottest. You might think that this would cause the grapes to wither on the vine, ruining the crop, but it does the opposite. Turning the water off forces the roots to dig deep into the earth, and the vines grow grapes that have an intense flavor and rich sugars. The vines that struggle are the ones that have the potential to make a better wine.

Of course, humans are not wine, but when it comes to improvement, struggle is necessary.

Struggle Properly

In my training both at the Salimpour School and now at Mills College, my teachers ask of me work that I hardly ever thought possible for my own body. But I am tenacious. I continue to work to do movements and phrases that are just within my technical and emotional reach. I know there are things that might always be beyond my physical abilities, such as doing the splits, but I still keep working at those things.

My training might not bring me greater fame or visibility, it might not make me more money, and it probably won’t bring me love and adoration. I am not training for these fickle accolades. I train because I am in love with my own progress. I am addicted to the rush of reward chemicals that flood my brain when I can finally dance that combination on the left side without fumbling, when I can play that fast new finger cymbal pattern, or when I strike the final pose of a choreography that once seemed so outside my physical and technical abilities.

Your Work Is Never Finished… Celebrate That!

The lack of an endpoint might frighten some people, and it might discourage them. Why do something if you’re never done? For me, that’s why I do what I do. I see improvement in my work every day I show up for class. I also see it in my colleagues and my students. The students who don’t back away from a challenge are the ones in which I see the greatest improvement.

How do you get better at something? Do the things that you think you cannot do. There will be frustrations, there might be tears. That’s all right. If you can’t do them now, keep trying, and one day you will do that thing you thought you could not do. Celebrate that you did the thing. Then get back to work tackle the next challenge.

How do you keep yourself challenged in your dance practice? Tell us in the comments!





What are we seeing, anyway?

Many times I see fellow dancers commenting that they “Loved!” a performance that they saw, or that a performance was “Amazing!” without really qualifying or identifying why. Of course, it’s awesome if someone loves a performance, but if they can’t identify why, then I question whether or not they know what they’re looking at (ending a sentence with a preposition eek). Read More


The Mystery of the Missing Hip Work

In my time attending “fusion” belly dance festivals, I’ve seen quite a few powerful, creative, and moving performances.  Many of them have taken inspiration from modern and contemporary dance, touching on emotional themes and other issues. Others have been inspired by grand stage productions with larger-than-life props and costumes, and great overall dance skill…  but sometimes I am left wondering, “Where’s the belly dance?”  If these performances are being presented at fusion “belly dance” festivals, then I am left expecting presentations with more belly dance in them.

Asking “Where’s the belly dance?”  is different from asking, “Is it belly dance?” That question has been asked over and over again about emerging stylizations within the belly dance genre, and it’s one that I’m not sure I can answer definitively for all of us.  Belly dance is often (arguably) in the eye of the beholder.  But here I ask a different question…

Asking “Where’s the belly dance?” prompts me, for the sake of this post, to define what I mean.  To me, for this post, it isn’t necessarily the imitation of movements done by dancers “over there” or that certain indescribable Middle Eastern quality that so many master dancers bring to their art.  No… I’m talking purely about movement.  Specifically hip work. Vertical hip work (glutes, in my world), twists, pelvic locks (front and back), figure 8s (vertical and horizontal), interior hip circles, interior hip squares, and all the other wonderful permutations thereof.  Belly dance is partially defined and distinguished from other dance forms by the sophistication by which we are able to isolate the pelvis and articulate the muscles around it as we travel around the stage, often separating these movements from the rest of our bodies.

Sometimes when I watch a performance, I do see hip work, but most of the time it is performed while the performer is stationary.  Other times, I’ll see articulations in the upper body, such as torso undulations and rib cage isolations, without much more hip work throughout the performance than a stiff shimmy or a “hip drop”.

A few “shimmies” there, a “hip drop” there, and an undulation over there do not a belly dance performance make.  It’s not even fusion.  Fusion would be taking the footwork of, say, a modern or a jazz routine, and putting the hip work on top of it.  Or, taking the upper body articulations and arms of another ethnic dance form and integrating in the distinct hip articulations of belly dance into those movements.  And yes, such endeavors are difficult.

This phenomenon of missing hip work is not new… Recently a video of the famous model Juliana, who graced the covers of George Abdo’s classic 1960s belly dance recordings, surfaced, and she strutted around the stage beautifully, posing with gorgeous body angles, and looking fabulous, and even playing finger cymbals… with barely a hip movement to be found.  From her photos, she looks like the quintessential belly dancer, with her chain maille costumes and her hourglass figure, but after watching her dance, I found little actual belly dance.  What a shame.

Today, “fusion” presentations continue to suffer from a deficiency in hip work.  But hip work is the great defining element of our dance.  Yes, other dance forms use pelvic articulations, but not with the same degree of definition that we do.  Why abandon that very element that sets us apart from other dance traditions?

Here’s where the sticky issue lies:  I’m not sure why the hip work is missing from so many otherwise accomplished “fusion” presentations.  It might be that people want to experiment with new movement vocabulary, or maybe it’s that more “traditional” hip movements within steps (such as, say, “Basic Egyptian” or “3/4 Shimmy”) doesn’t fit their vision for a contemporary choreography.  If a dancer is worried that putting hip work on their dance might be viewed as too “traditional” or “cabaret”, then maybe belly dance isn’t the genre in which she/he should be participating.

Or it might be that they just don’t have the skill or the training to put hip work on their contemporary traveling movements. And why work to do so when you can present a choreography with a few hip drops and undulations and still receive a standing ovation?  Because it’s hard. It’s damn hard. I’ve been training for thirteen years, and I still struggle with putting hip work on top of foot patterns.  I’m not sure I’ll ever stop struggling.

What I would love to see is the fusion community of dancers take this dance to the next level by integrating more belly dance movements into their choreographies.  It’s work, and it’s challenging, and it takes dedication and time.  And the resources are out there.  With the advent of online classes and touring workshop instructors, the training is easier to find and use than any time in the history of this dance.  It’s just up to us to take it.

 

Source: Bellydance Paladin