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!





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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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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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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How Dance Instructors Can Keep a Beginner’s Mind

If you’ve been dancing a long time, do you remember what it was like when you were a beginner dancer?

The Joy and Frustration of Being a Beginner

One of the classes I teach at the Salimpour School of Dance is Level 1 technique. Our students often have no prior dance training or experience. They’re often looking for a new way to get exercise and have fun, and many of them are apprehensive… because trying something new as an adult can take a lot of courage. Especially in a room with a wall of mirrors at the front!

When I teach Level 1, I often think back to when I was first learning belly dance, particularly the Suhaila Format. I remember how hard it was for me to separate my hipwork from my footwork. I remember being frustrated with myself when I couldn’t do a drill right away. I remember how I sometimes struggled to learn a combination or a chunk of choreography. Of course, I became a beginner again when I started my Master’s degree in dance, where I was taking four modern dance classes a week.

Instructors Need to Reflect on Their Beginnings

It’s important for instructors who teach beginners to reflect on what it was like to be new to a dance form. This act of self-reflection helps us become more compassionate instructors, and also allows us to create more positive learning environments.

When we forget what it’s like to be new at something, it’s easy to get frustrated with those who are new. We let our egos interfere. We think we know something, so we use that knowledge to look down on those who don’t instead of allowing those who have less experience process and figure out how they need to approach the new information. There’s a phenomenon of human thought where we think that everyone thinks like us, but as an instructor, I need to be able to understand that everyone’s experience in the classroom is unique.

I Love Teaching New Students

Personally, I love teaching new students. I love the excitement I see on their faces when they start to assimilate a movement into their bodies. I love their questions about anatomy and the body. I love seeing those imaginary “thought bubbles” over their heads when they’re figuring out a drill or exercise. I love seeing the sense of satisfaction they exude after they’ve danced a combination several times. I love seeing our regular students progress and improve, even when that improvement might be small. New students are absorbing so much information, and as an instructor, I can so often see students integrate and physicalize that knowledge from week to week. It’s exciting, and it keeps me excited about my own practice. When I’m excited, they’re excited. And from a business standpoint: when students are excited to come to class, they’ll keep coming back.

When the teacher expresses enthusiasm, the students feel it, and it becomes a positive feedback loop of awesome.

We’re All Still Learning

And here’s the thing. We’re always beginning at something. No matter how long we have danced, there is always a new choreography to learn, a new stylization, an advancement of technique, the constant polishing and cleaning up of work that we think we know. There is always more, be it physical (such as layering or finger cymbals) or theoretical (such as learning to recognize different Arabic musical maqamat or historical/cultural context).

Even if you’re not an instructor, remembering your beginner’s mind and allowing yourself to be a beginner might help reinvigorate your practice and allow yourself to try something new.

How does approaching dance with a beginner’s mind help you as a student or instructor? Tell us in the comments!