Mashaal: A Dancer’s Choreography Journey

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.

Belly Dance Choreography Journey

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.

And waited.

And 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

Here’s a little peek at the choreography, which will be available for you all to learn soon on the Salimpour School Online website. Big thanks to Parya and Patti for dancing it with me!

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.


Don’t Go to a Belly Dance Festival or Workshop Without These Essentials

I write a lot about essential knowledge for belly dancers, but what about the practical items? All the book smarts about belly dance history aren’t going to save you from injuring yourself during a long weekend or week of dancing.

After attending many festivals and intense workshops for over 17 years, here are the essential items I think every dancer shouldn’t be without.

Belly Dance Festival Essentials

(This post contains affiliate links.)

1. A versatile water bottle.

If you’re not hydrating enough, you’ll make yourself more prone to injury, illness, and burn-out. Always have your own water bottle with you, and keep it full. It’s better to drink more water before you realize you’re thirsty. If you’re thirsty, it’s too late!

Personally, I really love insulated, stainless steel bottles. They’re durable, won’t break, and suitable for drinks of all temperatures. Klean Kanteen’s 16-ounce insulated bottle holds just enough coffee for starting off the morning right. And Hydro Flask’s 18-ounce wide-mouth cap is easy to carry or strap to your dance bag. And while we’re talking about hydration, don’t forget that you’re going to get hungry, too. Bring your favorite snacks to keep your brain and body going during those full days.

2. High fidelity earplugs.

A lot of us still kicking around the belly dance scene are getting older, and that means protecting our hearing. Even Dance Magazine recently published an article about how dancers often neglect their hearing, and yet find themselves in pretty loud situations.

Essential for dancers: ear plugs

Protect your ears before it’s too late.

Any earplug made for musicians or concerts will help protect your ears without sacrificing being able to hear the music or the instructor. I suggest that you get a pair that has a cord, so that you can keep them around your neck and so they’re easier to find in your dance bag, purse, or finger cymbal pouch. I’ve lost so many earplugs, but my corded ones are still hanging around (pun alert!).

These earplugs by Reverbs have two different filters depending on your ear sensitivity. LiveMusic sells these in large and regular (regular is fine for my small ears) as well as two different filters.

3. Proper dance shoes.

I’ve attended and taught at festivals that have had less-than-ideal surfaces for hours and hours of dancing. Many festivals are still held in hotel ballrooms, which have the worst possible combination for dancing joints: industrial carpet over concrete.

Investing in a pair of shoes will save you from questionable dance surfaces. Some people love jazz sneakers, while I prefer jazz shoes with plastic on the ball of the foot. This will help protect your knees from turns, still allow you to feel the floor, and the plastic is far more sturdy than suede-soled ballet shoes on those rough carpets. I love the Bloch Flow slip-on jazz shoe, and they really do stand the test of time. I also add in a foam insole for extra cushion.

Come prepared with a variety of shoes, from ball-of-foot covers to jazz sneakers, just in case!

4. A great notebook.

I’m not a huge fan of taking notes during workshops (it feels like different headspace for me), but I always have a notebook. Even if it’s a tiny, purse-sized one, like these softcover Moleskine notebooks. Not only will a notebook come in handy to jot down new tips and tricks you’ve learned throughout the event, but it’s also fantastic for collecting names of new contacts… the old-fashioned way. And don’t forget a pen!

And, as an instructor, I would like to ask that you not take notes on your phone. First of all, handwriting will commit the information to memory better, but it also looks like you’re not paying attention if you’re on your phone.

5. Foam roller.

Essential: Foam Roller

Vibrating. Foam. Roller.

Using a foam roller essential for any dancer who’s working intensely at a festival or workshop. I love the TP Therapy roller: it’s durable, textured, and hollow, which means that it’s great for travel. I can stuff it full of clothes, and it doesn’t take up a lot of room in my luggage.

If you really want to treat yourself (and you’re driving to a workshop instead of flying), check out this bad boy: The Hyperice Vyper. It vibrates. With three settings and a rechargeable battery, your muscles will have no choice but to be relaxed. TP Therapy has a more reasonably-priced vibrating roller, and it weighs just a little over 2 pounds.

6. Kinesiology tape.

The scientific verdict is still out on whether the stretchy therapeutic tape actually helps, but I’m a big believer. And a recent study suggested that application of the stretchy adhesive tape increased reaction time in non-dominant hands.

There are many brands of tape, but I’ve found KT Tape—available at most drug stores—to work just fine. KT Tape makes two kinds: cotton and nylon. The nylon tends to stay on longer, and yes, you can wear either one in the shower. Other dancers and athletes like Rock Tape or Kinesiotex. If you have sensitive skin, you might need to try to a few different brands to see what works for you.

Learn how to use and apply the tape before trying to stick it to yourself. KT Tape has lots of very helpful videos online, but consult with a physical therapist if you have a specific injury you’re trying to protect.

7. A small first aid kit.

You can make your own, but having a small supply of adhesive bandages, alcohol wipes, tweezers, pain killers, and other items can make or break your festival or workshop experience.

This little first aid kit has every thing you need for minor injuries. As a former (and current) Girl Scout, I always make sure to have these items on hand, because you never know when you’re going to need them or help out a fellow dancer.

8. Baby wipes.

So, maybe the dance floor wasn’t so terrible, and you danced barefoot… but now your feet are filthy! Be prepared with a pack of baby wipes, so you don’t put your dirty feet into your clean socks or shoes.

Plus, if you get sweaty, baby wipes are a great way to refresh if you don’t have time for a shower. These travel-size packs by Babyganics will fit right into your dance bag.

What essentials do you bring to every festival or workshop? Share in the comments!


Your Belly Dance Style Doesn’t Matter Without a Strong Foundation

If you’ve been belly dancing for a while, someone has probably asked you: What style do you do? We’re so tempted and even pressured into choosing a style that sometimes we focus so much on the trappings of the dance and not the fundamental technique and history of it.

And if that’s the case, then your belly dance style doesn’t matter. Not without a strong foundation.

Belly dance style and building a strong foundation

Some of you know that I am an architect’s daughter. I grew up visiting building sites, walking through the frames of homes that my dad drafted out with T-squares and french curves, all by hand. The smell of fresh-cut wood and drying exterior paint reminds me of spending time with my dad, watching him do his craft.

My dad was not only a designer of homes, but a builder of them. As a licensed contractor, he built the two-story addition to the home in which I grew up. He was always fixing things, improving them, and repairing the house. He’d spread out building plans on the kitchen counter, and I was fascinated by how he was able to create a building on paper that stood up against earthquakes, storms, and the test of time.

Growing up around buildings in progress has shaped how I view learning and teaching dance. I use architecture analogies a lot in my teaching, because dancers have to start their training with a strong foundation, just like a house.

A Foundation Keeps You Standing

To be a strong dancer, you need a strong technique foundation

A foundation is a foundation. What style will this house be? Who cares if it doesn’t stand up against the elements.

And what does a foundation do? It keeps a building, or your body, standing.

Houses, as far as we know, have no sense of their place in space. Dancers, however, absolutely must!

For your body, that means dynamic alignment, awareness of your body line, the relationship between your core and distal ends (fancy term for the ends of your hands and feet) and of the connection between your head and tail, just to name a few basic elements.

As belly dancers, we are so tempted to learn a style before we build a strong body and kinesthetic awareness on which to set a stylization. We’re attracted to the look or vibe of a particular kind of belly dance before we even have the skills to integrate that style into our movement repertoire.

But we must learn first how to walk, how to use our feet, how to place our arms, how to move our pelvis in the ways this dance requires so we have all of those movements available to us when we do learn or perform any belly dance style. We must practice these techniques until they become effortless, habitual, and part of ourselves.

From there, we must learn the theoretical and historical foundations of belly dance. We need to learn basic history, understanding how this dance has changed through the decades. We must also start building (pun alert!) our embodied knowledge of temporal (say, Golden Era Egyptian) and regional styles. Then we must also familiarize ourselves with the political and social aspects of this dance, such as questions of embodied Orientalism and gender essentialism.

When we begin with a strong foundations, we can then layer any style on top.

Looking Beneath and Beyond Style

Well, every well-built house has a strong foundation. And when you take away the style of the home, whether it be a Ranch, Rambler, Eichler, Craftsman, or Painted Lady, a foundation anchors the home to the earth.

Strong foundations for belly dance stylization

A Craftsman-style home in California

Our dance technique also grounds us, and gives us refined and habitual tools from which to pull. When we attend a workshop or a class that does focus on a particular stylization, we can better absorb the essence and nuances of that instructor or style without having to ask basic questions like, “How do I do an undulation?”

If you have a strong base in alignment, technique, and basic understanding of the different regional belly dance styles, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll get out of the one-off workshops that you take with various instructors.

Be Versed in Many Stylizations

Even an elaborate Victorian has the same basic walls, plumbing, and electrical as the Craftsman above. Just as extra decoration doesn’t negate the fact that this is still a house, a different costume doesn’t make the style of dance change either.

When my dad was in architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, he had to not only learn how to design buildings that would be practical, but also artful. He told me that he was required to design homes in various historical styles. Because of this rigorous education, he was able to design the addition to our home in the 1980s, blending it seamlessly with the older building from the 1920s.

Indeed, as belly dancers, a comprehensive education includes learning how to dance in different historical and regional styles… from the sweeping figure-8s of the Golden Era, to the fiery turns of 1970s Turkish Oryantal, to the lyrical and still grounded shimmies of contemporary Egyptian Oriental.

When we integrate these different movement qualities into our bodies, we are doing ourselves a great service. By learning the different stylizations of belly dance, we are embodying the history, regional preferences, and legacy of the dancers who have come before us… and in the process, we create our own personal style that reflects all of our influences.

And just as some architects end up specializing in certain kinds of buildings, we dancers can specialize in the stylizations in which we are the most versed. It should be an organic process of exploration and discovery, not a decision made when you have just started dancing.

So, when we ask our fellow dancers, “what style do you do?” it shouldn’t matter. We should all start with strong foundations. And that means knowing your body, and how to use it efficiently and effortlessly.

I teach foundational technique and several stylizations. Check out my upcoming workshops or schedule a Skype private to become a stronger, more versatile dancer in less time.





Why I’m Glad Belly Dance in the US Is Declining

What a headline, right?

Class numbers are dwindling. Festivals are disappearing. Bellydance Superstars is long gone. And who even watches an actual instructional DVD anymore?

Well, that’s right. I’m glad that belly dance in the US is on the out and out.

But, wait, you say! How can someone who has invested some serious time and resources into being a belly dancer, and who earns a substantial part of her income from teaching belly dance, say such a thing? Why would I celebrate what Laura Tempest Zakroff calls “The Toilet”?

Hear me out…

Abigail Keyes: Why I'm Glad Belly Dance in the US is Declining

We’re Doing Some Much-Needed Soul Searching

Of the dancers I have contact with, both in and out of the Salimpour School, there is a sense that it’s long overdue that non-Middle Eastern dancers own up to the fact that the popularity of belly dance was built on the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.

For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.

But many dancers are realizing that using belly dance as an escape from the troubles and toils of daily life is just not appropriate, and is, for lack of a better word, appropriation.

Owning Up to Orientalism

And while I still believe that the term “cultural appropriation” doesn’t really address what it’s really about (that is, cultural imperialism, the systemic imbalance of social and political power, and outright racism), related discourse in mainstream media outlets has forced belly dancers to take a good hard look in the mirror and decide whether or not we still want to practice this dance form. I might not agree with Randa Jarrar that white women need to stop dancing, but her article stirred up some much-needed discussion in a dance form rife with white-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

Those of us who are sticking around—and who aren’t from the culture or origin—have to do the difficult work of owning up to wrongs we might have committed, and that kind of work isn’t for the casual hobbyist who just wants to shake it with her “sisters.” (Also, gender isn’t a binary. Using belly dance as an “all women” space is inherently exclusionary and historically inaccurate. But that’s a post for a different day, and oh, hey, Kamrah already wrote it.)

Finding Other Movement Arts

Many former belly dancers are realizing that doing this professionally takes a lot of effort, time, and unpaid labor to practice responsibly. Some of us are sticking around, and others are deciding it’s not for them.

I’ve noticed that quite a few dancers who started belly dance in the early 2000s have moved on to other alternative movement forms, such as aerial arts, hooping, flow arts, burlesque, and niche fitness practices. That’s awesome! Many of these movement forms don’t carry with them the same cultural legacy and responsibility that belly dance does. (Of course, movement arts such as poi and fire staff DO have cultural histories in the dances of Polynesian peoples, but I leave that to practitioners of those forms to discuss those connections.)

Figuring Out Why We’re Belly Dancing

As a traveling dance instructor, I have the opportunity to talk to many practitioners in diverse communities throughout the world. My most recent trips and interactions have revealed a sense of “Why are we doing this?” and dancers asking the question, “Why do I care?”

When we ask ourselves these questions, not just about dance, but about any activity in which we are involved—be it a hobby, a job, or a relationship—this introspection can reveal much about ourselves. It can also give us clues on what to do next. Do we keep dancing? If so, why?

Dancers are reevaluating what they really want to get out of belly dance. For some, it might just be a once-a-week class, and for others they have made it a career. Either way, many dancers I’ve talked to lately seem to be reflecting on their desires and goals for being involved in belly dance.

Some people have figured out that belly dance isn’t for them. And, yes, means fewer people at festivals, workshops, and classes, which also means less money circulating throughout the industry and community. But it can also means that those who are continuing their involvement are very invested in it.

We’re More Invested in Learning

With the (temporary) fading of belly dance from the public eye, that means fewer students who are looking to feed their egos by teaching and performing well before they are ready.

From my view, the dancers that I’m teaching on a weekly basis are more invested in learning than performing. They want to know more about their bodies, technique, and, of course, cultural context. They’re not taking class to look cute in a sparkly costume. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get people excited about performing.

The dancers that we’re attracting at the Salimpour School are more mature, either in actual age or in attitude towards their dance practice. They are more humble with regard to whether they want to take the stage. They carry far less drama and ego with them into the studio classroom than students who are eager to perform, which is a relief and a joy.

Fewer Performances, Smaller Egos

Now many restaurants have closed altogether, and there are fewer restaurants featuring dancers, attracting smaller audiences, and the pay sucks. While this is shitty for the professionals (especially the pay part), it’s also less attractive to the 6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.

And, at least where I am, there are fewer opportunities to perform. That might just be a Bay Area thing. But compared to Washington DC in the mid-2000s, when DCTribal was hosting events, and DC Tribal Cafe happened every month, and there were several Middle Eastern restaurants that featured performers, we were awash in performance opportunities. And audiences packed into those shows.

It seems like it has become far less likely for a young person to take up belly dance to become a “star.” Thank goodness.

Preparing for the Next Generations

This current downturn seems to be much like the one we’ve already seen in the 80s. At that time, dancers who stuck around were more likely to invest time and money into digging deeper into the history and culture of belly dance than the ones who started dancing in the 1970s to get in touch with their sexuality and to shock their “Leave It to Beaver” parents.

Belly dance will, I’m sure, see another resurgence, but it might be in another 30 years. In the meantime, I believe that in the diaspora, the dance will be in good hands.

Passing the Torch to the Millennial and Homeland Generations

Millennials (a label I am loathe to use but it’s what we’ve got) have far less time and disposable income than younger Generation X dancers like myself, or the Generation X and Baby Boomer-generation dancers who taught me. They’re far less likely to take a dance class just because it looks fun or different. They want to put their money where their values are.

Of the Millennial dancers that I see involved in belly dance today, they are far more aware of the social justice issues inherent in a contemporary belly dance practice. They want to talk about issues of cultural appropriation. They want to know how they can be more responsible when they dance. They actually come to lectures about history and culture. Those who pass as white are less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin.

The even-younger Homeland Generation will be even better equipped to discuss and embody these complex topics, as they have grown up with social media that brings these issues directly to their personal profiles every day.

So just as fads come and go, so does belly dance. But before it returns to the popular spotlight, those of us who are still dancing must create the resources and foundations to empower the next generation.

Isn’t that a wonderful reason to stick around?

Want more about the heyday of belly dance in the 2000s?
Read my eBook – Bellydance Paladin: 9 Years of Dance Blogging




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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!





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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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

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. 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.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

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, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us 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.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  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. 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. They won’t think you’re 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.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

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.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!





Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique (It’s Not as Hard as You Think)

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, the secret to good technique is knowing that it’s all just fancy habits.

Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique by Abigail Keyes

New Habits Are Not Always Easy

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.

Habits Don’t Equal Mindlessness

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.

Habits Require Mindfulness

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.

 




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