Dance Infinities and the Secret to Seamless Transitions

Since I decided to call my new workshop series “Raqs to Infinity”, I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts from the first workshop, and talk more about the concept of infinity and why it’s relevant to dance.

The chances are, when I say “infinity” you think of something huge. Infinite distance. The vast depths of outer space. Infinite time. The end of the universe. Things too huge to contemplate!

Infinite space?

Well that is one kind of infinity. The big, showy, impressive kind. But Raqs Sharqi isn’t a big showy dance, and our infinities aren’t the big showy kind of infinity either. There’s another sort, and you meet it every day…

How many numbers are there? If you kept counting forever, how many numbers would there be? Obviously the answer is infinity. That is the big infinity, the “end of the universe” infinity. But what if I asked you how many numbers there are in between 0 and 1? The answer is also infinity. And this is the infinity we can explore in dance.

Why are there infinite numbers in between 0 and 1, and not none, since 1 is the next number after 0? Well, in between 0 and 1 there’s 1/2. And there’s 1/3, and 2/3, and 1/4, and 3/4, and 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 4/5… And you can go on forever, deeper and deeper, dividing that little space up smaller and smaller. And there’s another infinity between 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3… Some infinities are bigger than others, and these little ones are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. There are an infinite number of points in even the tiniest space, and an infinite number of moments in the shortest blink of an eyelid.

But what does this maths stuff this have to do with bellydance, I hear you ask?

Well, consider these questions. How many ways are there to do a hip drop? How many different movements are there that are somewhere in between a figure of 8 and an undulation? How many paths can your arms move through to get from one position to another? It’s that little “in between 0 and 1” infinity, every time.

Almost every movement in bellydance exists on a continuum – that is, a sort of sliding scale, with infinite different points on it. In fact, usually it will belong to many of these sliding scales at once. To illustrate, here’s a graph I made in MS Paint:

Just two of the sliding scales for hip drops…

I chose hip drops because they are a move that seems ‘simple’ – a move that every beginner learns in their first few classes. And yet… How many points are there on that graph? There are infinite gradations of strength or softness in between the softest and hardest hip drops you can possibly do, and there are infinite gradations of size in between the tiniest and most enormous. Put those together and you get… An even bigger infinity!

And of course, that isn’t the only way you can vary a hip drop – if I kept thinking about it I could come up with tens or even hundreds of these sliding scales, even for this very simple little movement, and I could draw many similar graphs for “all the hip drops” with different things written on the axes. How is your hip positioned relative to your upper body? How bent are your knees? Does your hip stop suddenly or rebound, and how much? Where are your arms? Is there a change of level, and if so how much? The possibilities are limitless, even within what seems like a very limited range – just one move, just an ‘easy’ move everyone knows.

The same is true of every one of your ‘basic’ movements, of course. Each one contains ranges of infinite possibility like this, if you have the skill to access them.

But that’s not all…

I just mentioned ‘basic movements’, and you may be used to thinking of bellydance moves as a set list of shapes (circle, eight, undulation…), which you can trace out with different parts of your body. That’s how this dance is usually taught. That’s how I would probably still teach new beginners.

But that’s a very simplified view. It’s the kind of simplification that’s very useful when you first learn and need a way to make sense of things, but limiting later on, if you can’t move beyond it. What we really have isn’t a neat list of moves, but rather, an infinite variety of paths that our hips, torsos and spines, and our limbs, can trace through space. But that’s kind of overwhelming to contemplate. Where do you even start?

That’s where the “basic shapes” are useful. They are our starting points.

Exploring the landscape of movement

It helps if we think of the infinity of ways we can move our bodies within the style of movement that’s recognisable as “bellydance” as a map. Our archetypal, classic moves are the most important landmarks on that map – the cities and towns. They are our bases to start exploring. There are some obvious paths between them, our “A roads” if you like, and there are also many less obvious routes – our little country lanes, bridleways, and wildly circuitous scenic routes… And a whole lot of landscape that’s off the beaten track, perhaps because it’s physically kind of difficult, but still nice to visit occasionally.

The basic moves aren’t just arbitrary choices, of course. They are the classic defining movements of this dance style for a reason. In this infinite map of movements, they are the ones that align with the natural planes of our bodies, and which are symmetrical. But once we understand this, we can expand each into a whole huge family of movements by starting to deviate slightly from those planes, and to slightly disrupt the symmetry…

Think of this, in our map analogy, as exploring the suburbs of the cities, and the countryside just outside. We’ll find a lot of interesting places and beautiful sights outside of the city limits.

If we wander too far though, we may find that we’re no longer in the same town at all – we may, imperceptibly have entered the outskirts of another as our 8 becomes more undulatey and eventually looks more like a slightly twisty undulation, or our shifting hip circle has begun to tilt and to shrink until it has imperceptibly turned into an interior pelvic circle. We have, as it were, started out exploring around Manchester but eventually ended up in Liverpool… And that, dear readers, is one of the secrets of seamless “transitions”. What is a transition, after all, but a path through our infintely detailed landscape of movements, whether it’s quick and efficient, or roundabout with lots of stops along the way to enjoy the journey?

Well, I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. I hope it gives you some ideas to explore in your dance practice, and if you are near Manchester and would like to get into this kind of thing in more depth, please do check out my “Raqs to Infinity” workshops 🙂

Bellydance and cultural ‘appreciation’

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band

Rachael dancing to live Egyptian music

The great thing about learning an art form from another culture is that it can be a gateway to appreciating a culture other than your own. It can help you to see the world from other perspectives, and learn to see people from that culture as three-dimensional individuals, instead of through the stereotypes we grew up surrounded by. When this happens, and we break down our own barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, I believe that in a small way, we make the world a better place.

Whenever discussions of cultural appropriation come up, in the bellydance world, “it’s not appropriation, it’s appreciation!” is one of the first defences dancers reach for. And if that’s true, that’s great. But as with anything, we shouldn’t just assume it’s all fine and continue on our merry way without looking any closer. When we say this, are we really deeply appreciating these cultures and developing understanding? Or just borrowing superficial things from other cultures because they look pretty, and then dressing it up as a noble act so we can feel good about ourselves?

The answer, of course, is “it depends”.

It depends on how we see the dance, how we engage with it, and how we engage with the culture it’s a part of.

So here are a few questions to think about…

  •  The dance itself – This might seem like a no-brainer, but do you enjoy watching Middle Eastern* dance, and seek opportunities to watch good dance? Not just your friends dancing at haflas, but professional-quality shows, DVDs, YouTube videos? Do you enjoy watching videos of dancers from the countries of origin? In other words, do you appreciate bellydance itself as an art? Or do you find it boring unless you’re participating?
  • The cultural connection – Do you see bellydance as a cultural dance rooted in certain parts of the world, that comes from the social and performance dances of real people in those places? I would argue that for bellydancing to be a form of cultural appreciation, this is essential. Do you think bellydance is any dance that uses a certain set of basic torso isolations? Or do you think it is more than that – including ways of interpreting music, of relating movements to each other, of communicating with your audience, that are all deeply entwined with the cultures the dance comes from?
  • The music – Do you genuinely love listening to Middle Eastern music, for its own sake, and not just because you feel you ‘have to’ listen to it as a bellydancer? Getting into a new type of music is rarely an instant or easy process. It takes time and it takes patience. And yet, so many bellydancers will say that they dance to Western music because Arabic music “just doesn’t speak to them”. Well, to be honest, Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram don’t speak to me, either, and nor do a lot of the ‘recorded for dancers’ instrumentals. A lot of pop music in any culture will be bland, but few Egyptians will take you seriously as an appreciator of their culture if you say you just don’t ‘get’ Umm Kalthum, for example. You need to be willing to dig deeper, persevere, and give things a second chance that you didn’t enjoy the first time round. I have written about this before, if you are interested 🙂
  • The history – How much do you know about the history of this dance form, and where did you learn it? Do you value reliable, first-hand sources and evidence, or are you happy to believe origin myths based on wishful thinking and Orientalist stereotypes? Shira wrote a great article on identifying reliable historical information, which I do suggest you read if you haven’t already seen it, as well as an article examining popular bellydance myths. If you want to appreciate Middle Eastern cultures, it’s important to look for the reality of those cultures, and how this dance developed as a part of them – and not let the real people who shaped the dance get lost in a cloud of romantic fantasies about the past.
  • The cultural background – Do you take an interest in aspects of Middle Eastern culture, language, history and current affairs that aren’t directly related to dance? Do you read books or blogs about Middle Eastern history, arts, pop culture, or daily life, or by Middle Eastern writers? Keep up to date with news from the region? Visit exhibitions of Islamic art when they happen locally, or go to concerts or cultural events even when they are not directly aimed at or organised by bellydancers? Watch films or documentaries? Or even take language classes? Of course, I don’t expect anyone to have the time and money to do all these things at once, but I’d expect anyone with a real appreciation of these cultures to have at least taken an interest in a few of them.

Now, I don’t know what your answers to those questions are. And I’m not judging you as a person or as a dancer if you answered ‘no’ to any of them. They are just for you to reflect upon, and work out where you stand (and where you’d like to stand).

It’s possible to be a beautiful, entertaining dancer without being very interested in Middle Eastern cultures – but if that’s the case, you do need to be aware that claiming to ‘appreciate’ those cultures purely by participating in bellydance may ring hollow. So when the question comes up of if/when it’s ethical for us to represent another culture, as inevitably it will, you will need to find your own way to square your involvement with the dance with respect for the original cultures and for the people who dance this dance because they grew up with it.

It’s not a question of Tribal vs. Oriental either, because I know dancers in both camps who are seriously knowledgeable about the dance’s origins, and also those who move beautifully but do not have much interest in the deeper roots or wider culture. In either case it’s up to you to think carefully about this stuff, and work out your own answers.

And of course, it’s normal for your level of cultural appreciation to change throughout your life as a dancer. Many of us come to the dance with little knowledge of the Middle East, and holding some questionable attitudes about people from that region that we’ve picked up from our popular culture. The wonderful thing is that the curiosity inspired by learning a cultural dance can change that. If you’ve only been dancing for a short time, please don’t feel put off by this post. It takes time to learn and develop your understanding, and it’s OK to learn at your own pace, as long as you’re interested and open to learning. Think of these questions as suggestions for your dance education outside of class (although a good teacher will also include some of these things in class).

To finish, here are a few great learning resources:

I could go on and list a load more books, since I’m a total nerd about this stuff, but I’ll leave you with those for now 🙂

* I’m using the term ‘Middle East’ here as shorthand for “Middle East, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean”, which is a very long phrase to type repeatedly. I’m not aware of any concise term that actually refers to all the regions from which this dance originates, unfortunately.

Bellydance classes and self-esteem

How often have you seen dance and fitness classes advertised as ’empowering’ for women? It’s one of the biggest clichés of modern marketing – since the ‘girl power’ era of the 1990s, the idea of female empowerment has been used to sell just about every product imaginable, until it’s become almost meaningless

But as dance teachers, most of us genuinely do want to empower our students, and help them to build self esteem alongside their dance skills, even if we don’t advertise that way. So how can we cut through the advertisers’ empty promises, and actually work towards the ’empowerment’ that so many promise but so few deliver?

Empowerment or empty praise?

When you’re trying to build up someone’s confidence, it seems blindingly obvious to tell them good things about themselves – you are beautiful, you are strong, you are clever… In bellydance classes, this can come out as talk about ‘inner goddesses’, or how all women are inherently beautiful/sensual/powerful.

The trouble with that is that counter-intuitively, the lower someone’s self-esteem, the less they will find that kind of praise believable. When a student with low confidence hears her inherent qualities being praised, rather than feeling empowered, she may feel ashamed and inadequate because the praise she’s hearing is so far from how she feels about herself.

Person praise vs. process praise

There have been interesting studies recently on how different types of praise affect self-esteem. In short, there are two types of praise:

  • person praise – praises a person’s innate qualities, e.g. “you’re a clever girl”
  • process praise – praises a person’s actions, e.g. “I can see you worked really hard on that!”

A reflection of your value as a person?

It has been shown that for people with low self-esteem, person praise actually reduces self-esteem and motivation, because it ties personal worth to material achievement. If doing well in a maths test means you’re ‘clever’, would it mean you were actually stupid after all if you did badly next time? Children with low self-esteem who are given person praise tend to avoid challenges and fear failure, because failure in a task becomes a sign that they are, after all, not worthy of the praise that they were given. The person praise creates feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Now imagine that after doing well at school, instead of “Well done, you’re a clever girl”, you were told “Well done, you studied really hard and didn’t give up when it got difficult”. How would that make you feel about the next challenge? A lot better, I’m guessing. Process praise removes the tie between success/failure and self-worth, and instead makes success something that you can control, and failure something you can learn from.

Why does this matter to bellydance teachers?

Rasha's bellydance class

Teaching my beginners class in Oxford

As a bellydance teacher, the vast majority of my students are women. And as it turns out, women often suffer disproportionately from the harmful effects of person praise. Adults have been found to give more person praise to girls than to boys (“who’s a good girl? Aren’t you pretty!”), whilst boys get more process praise (“you did a great job!”). A huge emphasis is, of course, also put on girls’ appearance, which is almost always a source of person, rather than process, praise. This unintentionally sabotages girls’ self-esteem, leaving them less emotionally able to face challenges or risk failure, and feeling less in control of their own lives.

The great news is, we can do a lot to change this. And we don’t even need to go out of our way to do so – it comes very naturally as a part of dance teaching, and whilst I have no desire to be a therapist to my students, I do think this side effect of learning dance is as important to many students as the dance itself. I’m not a new-agey type at all, and facebook memes about self-belief and blind ‘positivity’ irritate me as much as the next person, but I do feel that this is both important and practical.

Learning dance lends itself perfectly to the use of process praise, and developing a feeling of agency over your own achievements. Mastering a complex physical skill like bellydance takes serious effort and practise even for the most naturally gifted. So all we need to do as dance teachers is to be sure to notice, acknowledge and praise that effort in our students, and avoid directing our praise or criticism toward their personal qualities.

For women who may have never really been praised for their work rather than their qualities before, this can be transformative. There is nothing more empowering than discovering that your own abilities aren’t fixed, that you have the power to become skilled at things that once seemed impossible. For me, and for many others, probably the most important lesson I have learned in dance class is that I can change my own abilities through effort and persistence, and that success or failure does not reflect my worth.

In conclusion…

Learning dance is an effective way to develop a more healthy attitude to intimidating challenges and the risk of failure. Teach this, and you’ll create not only dancers who are well equipped to continue learning and growing as artists for many years to come, but also women who feel happier and more in control of their own destinies, and who can become more proactive and fearless in their daily lives. Acknowledge and encourage effort and perseverance, embrace failure as a necessary part of learning, and you can truly, quietly, empower those around you.

Further reading

A bellydancer’s best week of the year: JWAAD Summer School 2013

I’m aware that I’ve been a bit quiet for a while – sorry! I tend to have grandiose ideas for blog posts that end up more like massive essays, and then feel bad about posting anything else until I finish them. I’m still working on part 2 of my rather epic article on bellydance and ballet, but in the mean time, I’ve decided to try writing some shorter and less weighty posts (although I also feel a terrible compulsion to actually write a post on bellydance and cultural appropriation soon, which will, no doubt, turn into some sort of monstrous mini-doctoral thesis…).

English: View of Wellington College main build...

Wellington College (image credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway… I spent the week before last secluded in the Berkshire countryside at the 23rd JWAAD Summer School, which was held at Wellington College this year for the first time, after the old venue decided they’d rather hold ballet summer schools for small children than have the school taken over by 100 rampaging bellydancers! Another first, for me, was going as an ‘angel’ – one of the helpers who keeps the whole event running smoothly – along with my good friend Sarah, who had travelled all the way from Bergen, Norway.

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

The thing that makes Summer School so different from attending a normal dance festival or workshop weekend is the complete immersion in the dance world – for a week, a hundred-odd bellydancers (or indeed, a hundred odd bellydancers!) live together, eat together, dance together and party together. The number of dancers in each class is rarely more than 20, which also helps. It’s quite a unique atmosphere to be in a class with dancers you’ve become friends with at Summer Schools over the years, and indeed with teachers who have had a chance to get to know you and your dancing.

By the end of the week, most people will have made new friends, and there is a real feeling of community. It’s also easy to forget the outside world, and focus completely on dance, in a way that’s rarely possible for most of us. This means that it’s not uncommon to make real leaps in your dancing whilst at Summer School, that may have taken many months back in the outside world…  This year, I don’t feel that I’ve absorbed quite as much new information as in previous years, but I’ve definitely come back with some useful insights, and in particular, greatly enjoyed the opportunity to dance with one of my favourite tabla players, Adam Warne.

Rasha in Angel mode

In Angel mode. Yes, they do make us wear those…

As for the Angel experience, well… It was definitely tiring, but also fun. Arrival day was something of a baptism of fire, as busloads of dancers appeared and had to be shepherded to their rooms in the new and unfamiliar venue, amidst a sort of controlled chaos of flamboyantly dressed women and enormous suitcases. Later in the week, things calmed down a lot, with our main tasks being getting rooms set up for our various evening activities (i.e. covering everything in sparkly fabric and fairy lights!). Not particularly hard work, but even as a non-Angel most people start to succumb to exhaustion after a few days, and our duties meant we rarely had time for a sneaky pre-dinner nap to recover… Towards the end of the week, Sarah and I were both becoming quite unhinged through sheer tiredness, and could be sent into helpless giggling fits by the most seemingly innocuous comments – if I’m honest, we didn’t mind this too much. But I did sleep for almost 12 hours straight on my first night back at home…

And the parties? Well, what happens at Summer School stays at Summer School. You’ll just have to come next year to find out what we get up to 😉

Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters

Anteater

Anteater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ballet. It’s a comparison that inevitably comes up when discussing any issue in the bellydance world. For a lot of people in the West, “dance” is ballet, and it’s the standard against which all other dances get compared. Unfortunately, in discussions on bellydance, I don’t believe that this comparison is very useful, because the two dance forms are so wildly different in so many ways. The ballet analogies are unavoidable, but I feel that they very rarely provide any meaningful insight. To borrow and misquote from someone else I can’t remember, it’s not even like comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to anteaters.

In these posts, I’ll be discussing the various comparisons that are frequently made between bellydance and ballet, and why in my view, there aren’t many true parallels. Since it is a subject which I have a lot to say about, I’ve had to split my post into several parts, of which this is the first…

Cultural roots – the dance of my people?

Fifi Abdou dances baladi

Egyptian bellydance has its roots in Raqs Baladi, the folk dance of ordinary Egyptian people. Raqs Baladi literally means “dance of my country” or “dance of my people”. It is a dance that ordinary people learn by copying their family and friends as children, and dance together at celebrations. Egyptian kids don’t get shipped off on a Saturday morning for Baladi classes, it’s just the dance they grow up with, and a part of who they are as much as the language they grow up speaking or the music they grow up listening to. Even those who go on to be top professional dancers often say they started out dancing at family gatherings, then copied the dancers they saw at weddings and on TV,  and although they may have gone on to have more formal training, that was not until they were already accomplished dancers.

English: A performance of The Nutcracker balle...

A performance of The Nutcracker ballet, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, it’s a very long time since ballet parted ways with any folk roots it once had. In all of my lifetime as a white British woman, I’ve never seen ballet danced among friends at a party (my own social circle mostly prefer variations on awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other, apart from those family members who have taken up modern Jive), or met anyone who had picked up ballet from their family and friends without going to formal classes. As somebody who has never taken regular ballet classes and has only been to the ballet once (that’s fewer times than I’ve seen the Chinese state circus…), it is not really a part of my culture in any meaningful way. It is very disconnected from the cultural expressions of ordinary people anywhere. To learn ballet, children go to formal classes from a young age, and the child’s cultural background is mostly irrelevant to this training process.

If ballet ‘belongs’ to any group of people as a cultural expression, it’s to an upper middle class elite, spread across many countries and even continents, who may have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their respective countries. But even these people don’t actually learn ballet unless they go to classes, although they may watch it much more frequently than most people. There is nobody, anywhere, for whom ballet is truly “the dance of my people”.

Types of learning – speaking Latin?

Bellydancers often ask why our training isn’t more like ballet. More codification, more terminology, more rigour… I believe that the differences here also come from the differences between a folk dance and a classical dance.

To use the analogy of language learning, which I often find helpful when thinking about dance learning, Egyptians grow up with Raqs Baladi as their ‘mother tongue’ of dance movement. This means that for them, formal lessons play only a small role – they are able to learn by imitation of the people around them, the same way I learned to speak English. They will probably need training later on if they want to reach artistic greatness, just as a native English speaker would still need training to go from being just a fluent speaker to being a good novelist or poet, but the basics come from cultural immersion.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A British or American dancer, on the other hand, hasn’t grown up with Raqs Baladi. Sadly, we often don’t even have our own equivalent, as social dancing of any type has declined miserably in many places, hence the awkward foot-to-foot shuffling. When we decide to learn bellydance, we are in the same sort of position as we would be as English speakers turning up to our first Arabic language class. Everything is unfamiliar, from the alphabet to the grammar. And as adults, we’re no longer able to effortlessly soak up information from our surroundings like children, and we don’t have easy access to that culture to immerse ourselves in anyway (unless we live somewhere that still has a thriving Arabic club scene), so apart from a few rare individuals, most of us will need formal lessons.

However, because of its social nature in its home environment, bellydance doesn’t come ‘ready made’ with a formal learning structure. The people who developed it didn’t need one. That leaves it up to dance teachers in the West to devise a learning structure that can replace the social learning for Western dancers, without losing the social, improvisational nature of the dance that is part of its unique appeal. As Western learners, we have to start from the very beginning, having to learn the alphabet all over again before we can even string sounds together into words, let alone compose our own poetry.

Latin inscription in the museum at Monteleone ...

Latin inscription (Photo credit: diffendale)

Sticking with the language analogy for a bit, ballet is like a language with no native speakers. Learning ballet is more akin to studying Latin than learning a modern language with an existing body of native speakers. Everyone who learns it is learning it as a ‘second language’. Some will have advantages, like having a native language that uses the Latin alphabet, or that is linguistically related to Latin (like Italian or French). In dance, this might translate as things like having familiarity with the structures of Western classical music, or coming from a culture where dance is expected to be primarily about movements of the limbs through space, or a culture where the physical body is seen as a thing to be transcended. But nobody comes to it as a native speaker. Everyone has to go through the formal learning process, which native Egyptians don’t usually need to dance Raqs Baladi. Ballet simply could not exist as a dance without the formal learning process.

Toy Poodle from 1915

Toy Poodle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for bellydance, formal learning is an ‘added extra’ which allows cultural outsiders to participate, but which is somewhat alien to its folk roots. But for ballet, it’s an absolute necessity, without which the dance form could not exist. This is why a universal codified learning structure for bellydance is unlikely to ever exist as it does for ballet. The dance form does not need it to survive, and by strictly codifying bellydance, it would be removed further from the more organic nature of Raqs Baladi, possibly eventually being refined and redefined until it bore no more resemblance to it than a toy poodle does to its ancestor, the grey wolf.

Tango Kiss

(Photo credit: Pat McDonald)

This is not a totally unfounded concern on my part. It has been pointed out to me that a similar thing has already happened to dances like Argentine Tango and Salsa as they have been incorporated into ballroom dance and ‘dancesport’. The ballroom versions of these dances, as performed in competitions and widely taught around the world, are sanitised, homogenised and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original social dances they were based on. They have been taken from their original cultural context, and have lost a lot in the process (including their music) – people who dance the original versions simply don’t recognise the ballroom styles as their own dance. Do we want this to happen to bellydance in the West? To some extent, it already has.

Habits and posture – more bellydance musings

I’m reasonably sure that one of the secrets of being a great dancer (or for that matter, a great musician, artist, writer, or just about anything) is having good habits. When something becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about it or make an effort anymore, it just happens. It’s the path of least resistance. Habits are what enables us to get through each day without constantly having to worry about every little detail of what we’re doing, so they are both useful and powerful when managed wisely.

We usually think about habits in the context of breaking bad habits, like slouching or biting your nails, but in fact, forming new good habits to take their place is just as important. Good habits take the stress and hard work out of doing the right thing, whether the right thing is remembering to point your toes, practising and exercising regularly, eating well, or just getting your false eyelashes on before a show…

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for rearranging our habits – the only way is sheer repetition. The good news is, there are ways to get through the repetition stage more easily. What works for me is the use of reminders – these make it easier to remember your new habit during the early stages, until it starts to become automatic. Here are a few ideas:

  • Time and place – If you associate your new habit with a particular environment or set of circumstances, this will act as a reminder every time you do it, eventually making it easier to go through the motions effortlessly when you’re in the right place at the right time. For example, a couple of years ago, Khalida suggested in a workshop that we should practise shimmies whilst brushing our teeth. I’ve done this ever since, and I now shimmy automatically as soon as I pick up my toothbrush. It actually feels very wrong not to do it now! The act of beginning to shimmy is unconscious, but once I’ve started, I can choose to practise a certain type of shimmy or focus on a particular aspect of the movement.
  • Mental Imagery – A mental image can serve as a memorable shorthand for a whole lot of physical adjustments. This is especially useful for fixing postural issues. The more amusing and memorable the image, the better! At the moment, I’m working on lengthening and relaxing the back of my neck, and relaxing my jaw. To achieve this, I’ve been using imagery from the book ‘Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery’  by Eric Franklin, a book which I’ve found very useful to refer to for these types of issues. What this means in practise is that I’ve been walking around Oxford for the last few weeks imagining that my head is a helium balloon on a string, and my tongue is hung over a towel rail. Weird, but effective!
  • Positive incentives – find some immediate, obvious reason why you’ll feel better right now if you remember your new habit. This probably won’t be the same reason that you are actually trying to create the habit, but something you can use to persuade yourself if you’re feeling a bit lazy or apathetic. These aren’t always easy to come up with, but can be very handy. For example, I’m trying to change my habitual gaze from being downward, to being outward at eye level (a common problem for tall people, who are always having to look down at the rest of the world!). Day to day, “it’ll make your dancing better” won’t necessarily persuade my change-resistant subconscious mind to actually do this. But I’ve had a lot more luck thinking instead about how changing my gaze means I get to see a lot more of the beautiful scenery and architecture of Oxford as I’m out and about.
  • Physical reminders – Sometimes if your mind tends to wander, a cleverly arranged physical reminder can nudge you back in the right direction. Things that have worked for me in the past include holding objects between my fingers to bring attention to my hand positions, and wearing a necklace or scarf to remind me to open my chest or lengthen my neck.

Have you found any other good ways to create new virtuous dance habits? Please share them in the comments!

Stealth Bellydance Practise – Part 1: Public Transport

As we (hopefully!) all know, the only way to become a better bellydancer is through regular, focused practise. But this can be a daunting prospect! When you have lots of time commitments already – work, study, family, and even just keeping yourself fed and clothed – it’s hard to set aside a big chunk of time for dance practise.

The aim of this blog series is to sneak tiny practises into your daily life. Any change in your dancing takes hundreds of repetitions to get it into your ‘muscle memory’, the point where repeating it no longer takes any conscious effort. Normally we think of getting to this stage by drilling a movement many times in a single practise session, but it’s just as effective to reach the necessary number of repetitions by fitting in lots of brief practises throughout the day.

Each of my posts in this series will look at a different way to make bellydance practise a habitual part of your everyday life, so that your dancing continues to improve even when you are ‘too busy to practise’.

Sneaky practise on public transport!

Since I spend several hours every week on buses to and from dance classes, I’ve decided to begin this series with stealth practise strategies for public transport. Although you are normally sitting down on a bus or train, there are lots of ways you can use this time to work on your dancing:

  • Listen to Arabic music – This one’s easy! Fill your MP3 player with Arabic music, and listen to it whenever you’re travelling. Your musicality and ability to improvise will improve hugely as you develop a feeling for the Arabic rhythms and song structures.
  • Practise glute squeezes – Developing control of your glutes (gluteus maximus, the big muscles in your bum cheeks) enables you to make your hip isolations sharp, precise and powerful. Practise clenching and releasing one bum cheek, both cheeks, and alternating, at various speeds. Try to relax your thighs so that the movement is isolated in your glutes. If you’re sat next to someone, they may notice you bobbing up and down a little, but they won’t be able to tell quite what you’re doing 😉
  • Work on your abdominal isolations – Abdominal work is cool, and impressive! Belly rolls, pops and flutters can look amazing, but the fine muscle control takes a lot of practise to perfect. As it happens, all of these skills are easier to practise when sitting down, so a bus journey is the perfect time to work on them. You may look a bit odd to anyone sat nearby, unless you are wearing a big jumper or coat, but the skills you’ll develop are more than worth it. My flutters have improved immensely since I started practising them on my weekly bus journeys.
  • Perfect your hand ripples – This one is a bit more obvious to your fellow passengers. Try practising hand waves, hand circles and wrist isolations (for a good selection of hand and wrist drills, some of which can be adapted for stealth practise, I recommend Aziza’s Arms DVD).

Have you ever used a public transport journey for stealthy dance practise? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Musings on dance and the brain

I’m still (slowly) working on a post about Bellydance Trophies, but in the mean time, here are some thoughts which perhaps you will find interesting…

One of the first skills we begin to develop as dancers is called proprioception. This basically means knowing the position of your body, without having to look. This sounds like it should be easy, but actually most people’s proprioception isn’t great – I notice this a lot when I’m cycling, and I see people trying to signal that they are about to turn by raising one arm. They think that their arm is out to the side, but often it’s actually pointing somewhere completely different, usually down and to the back. In dance classes, this problem shows up when beginners are asked for the first time to raise their arms to their sides, or above their heads.

One of the first things we begin learning when we step into a dance class is to adjust the normal posture of our body so that what feels ‘normal’ and comfortable becomes closer to what is healthy, graceful and well aligned. And when we perform, we don’t have any way to see ourselves, so we have to be able to move confidently, knowing that what we think we’re doing matches what we’re actually doing.

Learning to dance, and practising dance movements, is actually rewiring your own nervous system. I think this is pretty cool. By comparing what we feel to what we see in the mirror, we are making a more detailed map of the body in the brain. As we refine our movements, we are building new neural connections to muscles that we weren’t previously able to consciously control. And as we practise a new movement or sequence of moves, by repeating it, we are creating pathways in the brain for those whole sequences of movement, which enable us to eventually repeat them without conscious effort.

The brain is massively complex, and movements, memories and ideas are often connected in our minds in surprising ways, so thinking of seemingly unrelated imagery can often lead to noticeable differences in dance movement. Finding roundabout ways to persuade your brain to communicate a certain message to your muscles can be an art in itself…

So, as we become better dancers, we are actually completely reshaping the relationship between mind and body. In a sense, we become a living work of art, or a musician and their instrument at the same time, as we fine-tune our body and our nervous system to move with skill and grace in harmony with our music. To conclude my ramblings, dance is not just a thing that you do, it is something that you become. Learning to dance will change you, for the better in my opinion!

Dance: my journey so far

A few weeks ago, I did a bellydance party in Bristol for the hen night of an old school friend. We had a wonderful time – everyone from the bride’s little sister to her grandmother joined in, and I was amazed by how quickly the assorted friends and relatives forgot their awkwardness and began smiling as they shimmied and rolled their shoulders together. At the end of the evening, my friend’s mum told me how much she had enjoyed the dancing, and added “I would never have imagined you doing this!”. I suddenly remembered the girl I had been the last time she had met me – the painfully shy 18 year old, studying maths and physics, a tall and gangly figure in black trying ineffectively to not be noticed. And I wondered, how did I get here from there?

“I have been dancing since I was three years old” is one of the great clichés of the bellydancer’s biography. Well, I haven’t been. Whilst my schoolfriends were taken to flit around in pink tutus or learn tap and jazz, I was the strange kid reading fantasy novels and fashioning dinosaurs from old cereal boxes. I wasn’t one of those children who seemed born for showbusiness, singing and dancing and starring in school plays – I was the one hiding in a corner of the library, dreading the humiliation of drama class even more than the horrors of PE, and terrified of speaking to strangers. I loved drawing, painting, and playing guitar, but dance was something I could never have imagined myself doing.

So, what on Earth compelled me to go to my first bellydance class, some years later, whilst at home from university for the summer? I was so shy that I could barely bring myself to introduce myself to the teacher, and hid at the back of the room, shuffling clumsily through the unfamiliar steps. But something about the dance had captured my imagination years before – the undulating movements, rich fabrics, the impression of glittering coins and exotic perfumes… I knew next to nothing about this dance then, and most of what I thought I knew was wrong, but somewhere inside of my awkward and rather lonely younger self, something unusual was happening. I secretly imagined myself bejewelled and fascinating, dancing sensuously before an enthralled audience to the strange, foreign music that had quickly taken a hold on me, leaving me humming lyrics I didn’t understand and tapping my feet to new rhythms inside my head. It’s fair to say my family were pretty confused by this new development.

When I got back to university, I began classes with the Oxford Middle Eastern Dance Society (where I now teach). It wasn’t until I’d been taking classes for almost a year that I worked up the courage to speak to my fellow dance students or even to our teacher – but I loved the new movements, the way they made me feel beautiful and graceful for the first time in my life, and I practised as much as I could, coming to classes religiously. And four years later, some of the women I was too shy to speak to in that first class are now my closest friends.

My transformation was so gradual that I didn’t notice it myself, but people started commenting that I seemed to have got taller as I stopped stooping and hunching my shoulders. My clothes got more colourful, my jewellery more sparkly, and I increasingly listened to Egyptian and Turkish music in place of the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure (though I still love those things). And more strikingly, slowly at first, I began speaking to people… And realised it wasn’t actually that bad! I had also stopped seeing my own body as something ungainly and disappointing, never measuring up to the ideal of an attractive woman, and instead it became my own musical instrument, that had to be cared for and learned about in order to express the beautiful music that flowed through me. Little by little, for the love of dance, I confronted my fears – of speaking to new people, of performing on stage, of failure, of hard physical exercise, even of public speaking. And as I did those things, I realised that there had never really been anything to be afraid of.

At the time of writing, I have been dancing for four years. Bellydance has in many ways transformed my life, so that the shy student is now the confident teacher and glamorous performer (my inner geek is still there just the same, but these days she’s taking an obsessive interest in Middle Eastern music, history, language and culture)… But I still remember how it was to be that unhappy girl. I hope that through dance I can pass on the joy and creativity that have made such a difference to me. And I wonder what new changes I will see looking back in another four years…