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 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?

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?

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.

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 Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.When you’re a dancer, you want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, we were required to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. We were not allowed to leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way. It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

Here’s what I learned…

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class… and then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure, that you are weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class. Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up. If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything. That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.


Dance Technique is Fancy Habits

Dance sometimes feels like some sort of mysterious practice, full of magic in its impermanence, and yet real in its physicality. We practice our technique and choreographies again and again to make our movements clearer, stronger, cleaner, more refined, and more fully embodied. Ballet dancers never stop practicing their tendus or plies. Practitioners in the Salimpour School always work on their glute squeezes and Basic Egyptian.

But really, when you get down to it, good technique is just fancy habits.

This is not to minimize technique, take it for granted, or imply that it’s easy. Indeed, maybe the opposite is true. How many times have you tried to change your habits in daily life, and how many times were you successful? Changing your habits and getting into new ones actually takes a great deal of mindfulness and work.

When we go to class, we’re integrating new movements and further integrating more familiar movements into our physical memories. Learning choreography is putting those habits into a longer practice. We revisit the same steps and sequences of movements again and again so that they become habitual, unconscious, and physically available to us in times when we need them most, and when we might be under duress… such as in a recital, performance, or practical exam.

And of course, habits can become mindless. I think of all the times I’ve locked the front door of my house out of habit but I can’t remember if I actually turned the key in the keyhole. We can “go through the motions” of our daily lives without thinking about what we do, and that is death for the dancer. When we fail to continually refine our technique, phrases, and choreographies, we fail to improve our already embodied skills.

Every day we go to dance class, we are creating new habits and refining existing ones. It is also essential that we identify somatic habits that might be detrimental to our physical bodies, such as poor alignment, as well as psychological ones that might result in negative thoughts or feelings. If we habitually tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough and that we won’t ever remember that choreography, then we truly won’t remember that choreography. That is, of course, where a great instructor can guide our practice out of negative habits and into positive ones.

We practice our technique so that we can somehow transform mindlessness into mindfulness, and become better dancers every time we enter the studio or take the stage.

 


Why Dancers Need to Cross-Train

Here’s something you don’t often hear: A dancer admitting their injuries.

14 years of figure skating, plus going on 16 years of belly dance (as well as many other dance forms) have taken their toll on my body. I’m constantly managing cranky hamstrings (biceps femoris for those nerds who are curious) in both legs, particularly on the left, as well as what might be pre-arthritic inflammation in my left hip socket. My left patella is prone to instability, resulting from muscular imbalances in my upper legs, causing the dreaded “Runner’s Knee.” In addition, I occasionally suffer from Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. The muscles around my left tibia and fibula seized up for a month in 2014 causing an excruciating pain in the ball of my foot, so much so that I could not walk or dance on it.*

I’m not asking for sympathy. This is my physical reality, but it doesn’t mean I’m forever doomed to dance in pain.

I could easily blame my coaches and dance instructors for my injuries, but my injuries are as much my own fault as the movements I have done repeatedly to invoke them. I’m not even sure “fault” is the best word. Dancers push their bodies to do unnatural movements for the sake of expression, aesthetics, and beauty; do that enough, and there’s bound to be some consequences. I could also easily admit defeat in the face of these physical obstacles, allowing them to dictate my practice. And while I take much care to not aggravate these conditions, I refuse to let them hold me back.

As a child, and well into my teenage years and early 20s, I saw myself as indestructible. Sure, I had some back pain once in a while (which I later learned was related to my psoas), but it would heal, and I would be fine. It wasn’t until I tore my left biceps femoris again last year that I actually did anything about it.

And by then, it was almost too late.

Thankfully, as a graduate student in a dance program, I had access to a fantastic physical therapist. I began seeing her regularly, as well as enrolling in a Pilates teacher training program.

Indeed, seeing a physical therapist and regularly engaging in a Pilates routine helped rehabilitate my hamstrings, as well as reveal other imbalances and instabilities in my pelvis that could, if I am not careful, lead to further injuries. But because of my injury, my rehabilitation has made me a stronger, more stable, and more efficient mover.

Many of us in the American belly dance community are in our 30s and 40s, having started this dance while we were in our 20s. Movements such as Turkish Drops, backbends, and the splits might have been more easily attained in our more youthful forms; however, years of wear and tear not only through dancing, but office work or anything else we have done in our lifetimes have taken their toll on our bodies. (Sitting all day wreaks all sorts of anatomical havoc.)

It is important that we find ways to mitigate the inevitable damage that we do to our bodies as dancers. Those of us who seek to make a living from teaching and/or performing must take even more care, for our bodies are literally our livelihoods. Even the most anatomically-aware dance practice includes repetitive movements, and this repetition, if not balanced out by cross-training, can cause imbalances in the body that could lead to injury. This reality is often not the fault of our instructors or their methodologies. It’s just a reality of this meat-covered skeleton we call Home, and as maturing practitioners we must take responsibility for our own bodies. We can do so through cross-training.

What do I mean by cross-training? Engaging in an exercise routine that explicitly aims to identify and balance the body’s strengths and flexibilities. Sure, attending dance classes in other forms will work out different muscle groups, but a specific exercise practice will likely be the most valuable for injury prevention and movement longevity.

What methods are out there? One dancer I know insists on machine-based weight training (and rehabbed herself after a major surgery). Some swear by yoga, others Gyrotonic/Gyrokinesis. I know others who insist on attending Dailey Method workouts. I prefer Pilates mat and reformer work to bring greater kinesthetic awareness to the intrinsic muscles around my hips. Any practice that emphasizes alignment, somatics, and strengthening will likely benefit you in the studio and on stage. You’ll feel a difference even if you only go once a week.

As we age, we must recognize that it’s up to us to modify movements as necessary. Indeed, an instructor can give modifications, but we are more empowered if we know how to modify for ourselves in a way that is not disruptive to the class or other students. It’s also up to us as students to alert our instructors to any injuries we might be dealing with on a given day; it’s up to the instructor to honor that communication. A good instructor will.

Do your body a favor and find a method that makes your body feel stronger, supported, and mobile. We won’t dance forever, but we can at least make our dancing years as pain-free and injury-free as possible.

 

*For those who are curious about why the left side? That’s my landing leg. Every time a figure skater lands a jump, she puts 5-8 times her own body weight on it through sheer impact.