Once upon a time, a young dancer came to a Suhaila Format Level 3 weeklong.
Back then, the Level 3 workshops were legendary, maybe notorious, for being more technically, emotionally, and mentally challenging than any other belly dance workshop available.
For homework, she created a combination to a non-belly dance song. The combo began with chasses and turns in a large circle. An opening promenade. Suhaila saw through the music and recognized the composition for what it was: an entrance.
She said to the dancer, “This is belly dance music?” (Yeah, Secret Chiefs 3 isn’t really belly dance music.) “Set this combination to belly dance music. To an entrance piece. And do it again tomorrow to the belly dance music, with a veil.”
So, the dancer dug into her belly dance music collection and chose one of her favorite belly dance entrance pieces: “Mashaal,” from Jalilah’s Raks Sharki Vol. 1.
The dancer set her existing combination to the malfuf rhythm opening of Mashaal, complete with veil. After creating a short combo to the beginning of “Mashaal” as a homework assignment, Suhaila told the dancer, “You need to finish this. Choreograph the whole thing.”
But, the dancer had such a difficult time choreographing anything. She couldn’t remember her own work, and it gave her immense anxiety.
The dancer didn’t feel ready to set a 9-minute piece, so she waited.
But as she waited, she honed her technique, creativity, and composition skills.
Mashaal: Seven Years Later
Seven years later, the dancer had since moved to the SF Bay Area, and taken thousands of hours of classes at the Salimpour School. She learned how to set and create combinations for teaching. She choreographed shorter works for herself.
She returned to graduate school, earning an MA in Dance Studies, building her knowledge of choreography, composition, and dance-making.
She also earned the official teaching certification in both Salimpour School formats.
Finally, her schedule allowed her to finally attend a Choreography Development 5-day workshop at the Salimpour School. And when she did, she made a promise to herself:
If I can choreograph “Mashaal,” I can pretty much choreograph anything.
It was time.
So, she did. And with Suhaila’s guidance, she polished the dance, made it stronger, more dynamic, and way more fun.
You Can Overcome Choreography Anxiety
If you haven’t guessed already, that dancer is me. I used to have major choreography anxiety. I had a hard time setting anything and committing it to mental and muscle memory, including simple combinations.
When I started teaching weekly classes at the Salimpour School in 2014, I had to create at least one combination every week. By starting there, I was able to train my body and brain to remember short phrases. I let the music drive me, whether it was a combo for Level 1 or Level 3.
What’s the secret? The same secret as always: Doing the work.
Just as with any art, in order to get good at it, you have to be consistent. You have to make lots of art. If you’re a dancer, you have to make lots of dances. If you’re a painter, you need to cover a lot of canvasses. If you’re a musician, you need to compose a lot of songs.
A Sneak Preview
I hope that this story inspires you and helps you be a little kinder to yourself if you’re feeling any kind of creative block, or feeling overwhelmed by creative work. You can get through it, and sometimes it just takes time.