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.





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.

Save

Save

Save

Save


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.

 




Save

Save

Save

Save


The Mystery of the Missing Hip Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source: Bellydance Paladin