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

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…