Monday, July 19, 2010

Everyday practices

If you have a day job or even if you don’t, you will probably find yourself bemoaning frequently how you don’t have time to practice belly dance nearly as much as you’d like to or should. It’s really hard to sneak in some time to do a full practice, especially in this modern day and age when so many shiny things can distract us (smart phones, TV, computer, etc.).

Any practice time counts
With that in mind, I want to emphasize how any practice time counts! It truly does. Ideally, you’d do long periods of practice… but that ain’t practical. But you can sneak in moments. If you’ve been in my classes, you’ve often heard me talk about my practices while making coffee. (For those who don’t come to my classes, I have this espresso machine [superbly good coffee] and, when I make a latte, ideally, I have to stay close to the machine [as was painfully evidenced this weekend when the milk went overflowing and I had to wipe it from everywhere! :(]. The machine makes a ticking sound while warming up the milk and I use that as a type of metronome to work on some moves or combos.)

Think of all the times when you’re idle somewhere. Like how about doing some shimmy or hip work while brushing your teeth? That will showcase whether your isolations are good. :p Or you’re watching TV and there’s a commercial break… use that time to do something. Like you could do some drills… you could have your iPod handy and you plug it in when it’s commercial time… or you can just do it without any music either. Or you’re getting up to get a glass of water… how about you walk over to get it with, say, a 3/4 shimmy? Or some other traveling step? My tribe sister Stacy used to do the dishes while balancing her sword… and lemme tell you if you’ve never seen her with a sword that she’s extremely good at balancing that damn thing.

Shoulders work
One area that you can definitely work on very routinely is your shoulders. Very few people are naturally good at keeping their shoulders down. If that’s your case, bravo! For the rest of us, you can work on keeping your shoulders down on a daily basis in your everyday life. There are 2 things that I do:

  1. Periodically throughout the day, I assess where my shoulders are. Are they down enough? Do I feel a mild pressure down? If not, I correct it. At first, I thought about my shoulders only a few times a day. Now, I don’t need to think about it so much (though I still do periodic checks) but my shoulders are very often in the proper down position.
  2. Every hour or so, I do shoulder rolls. You don’t have to do them for long… just a few will help.
Seriously, doing these things is very helpful even at work. Most of us have desk jobs where we’re facing a computer screen all day. When you get tired or stressed out, your shoulders will automatically creep up and you’ll feel tons of tension. So working on your shoulders is good for belly dance AND for general stress relief at work. Two birds with one stone. Gotta love it!

While not exactly like actually moving, visualization techniques are used by athletes and dancers. And sometimes it helps you understand the mechanics of what is going on when you’re doing certain moves. At any rate, it’s another way to keep belly dance in the forefront of your mind. You can review your choreography or think of a combo or move that you’ve been having a hard time pulling off and envision doing those perfectly. Since this doesn’t actually require any movement, you can do visualization in places where you couldn’t do the other stuff like while at the waiting room somewhere.

Other mini practices
  • Again, if you have a desk job, doing some wrists circles every now and then is very helpful too! Relieves the stress and will help you get better hand movements.
  • You can also do some of the fingers exercises to stretch your fingers. Always a good thing too.
  • Assess how you reach out to grab at items. This could be done in a cute dancer way with shoulders down and a gentle reach out. I’m not saying to make a show of grabbing items… that’s just for your own benefit.
  • Also assess how you’re sitting normally. Is your back straight? If not, what would it take for it to be straight? When we were at Tribal Revolution, interestingly, I could tell who had been dancing for a while by the way that they sat in their chairs. Experienced/seasoned dancers generally had a straight back (held on by a strong core) versus more novice dancers who were slouching. Yes, it exerts more efforts to have a straight back. But it’s so much better for you. AND that’s what we want in dance too!
  • You can work on level changes as you’re waiting for stuff… like, say, your toasts to be toasted… or whatever… The key to improving level changes is getting those ankles and calves stronger (though a strong core is uber important too). So while you’re waiting, you can practice going up on the balls of your feet and coming back down in a level change position.

Stay safe!
When you’re doing those mini practices, especially when you’re sneaking in some time at random moments (e.g., coffee machine gazing), it is NOT the appropriate moment to work on the crazy combo that kicks your butt. That crazy combo requires you to be warmed up thoroughly to ensure that you’re not taxing your body too much. Or like the level changes can be hard on your ankles and calves, especially if you are still struggling with those so go up very carefully. Bottom line: choose your moves carefully for those moments.

Not an excuse not to practice
While these techniques will allow you to sneak in some extra practice time that could add quite a bit time at the end of a week, those mini practices shouldn’t replace the formal practices entirely. So do keep some time for those. And one thing that you can do to help your formal practices is sneaking in a few minutes to plan what your formal practices will be. If you don’t plan ahead of time, you’ll start with your warmup and then won’t know what to do next… having a plan of attack is very useful… and that takes time to prepare it. ;)

Friday, July 9, 2010

The infamous videocamera tool!

If you've ever been to a tribal fusion workshop, you've heard the instructor mention that you should routinely record yourself while practicing. Rachel Brice and Ariellah are especially strong advocates of using this tool to improve your dance.

When you first hear about this, you probably think that, yeah, sure, THEY can videotape themselves as they look so cute all the time and all that... but, really, it's not for you. What's speaking there is that part of you that is absolutely dreading to see yourself on video. It can obviously be a rough reality check... and that is EXACTLY why you should use it!

After hearing Ariellah tell me oftentimes enough to videotape myself while practicing and after reading in Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life that she records herself routinely also (thus corroborating what Rachel and Ariellah were saying, especially regarding recording the first improv to a piece) and after noticing that I didn't have enough video evidence of my work, I decided to invest in a videocamera with the company's bonus this Spring. So my message here is simple: they were obviously right.

First Try
I was working on a piece and, after much hesitation, decided to take a deep breath and go for it: I recorded myself. The results were astounding... in both good and bad ways.

A LOT of my flaws were easy to pick out... that's usually the first thing that we all notice about ourselves anyway. But I also realized things about the piece like I needed to tweak the timing on some moves. And I found some ideas that were really interesting.

More Ideas
I tend to go in patterns of 3... don't know why.... but it comes back all the time. Anyway, I recorded myself doing improv 3 times to that piece I was working on. The interesting thing is that, with doing the improv that was being captured, I ended up mixing things up way more than what I normally do when I practice. Well, I knew that I was capturing it all so there was no need for me to revisit the same idea over and over again, which is what I used to do without the camera because I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't forget it so I'd keep repeating it. Now, unless I accidently hit 'delete', I wasn't going to lose the idea.

Big Picture
We all work with mirrors when we practice whether in classes or at home. Mirrors are a good tool for instant feedback as to what you're doing but, because of the way your head is placed on your body and having only 2 eyes, you can only focus on so much at a time. You can't see the 'big picture'. And THAT is another extremely useful advantage of using a video camera. As I mentioned already, yes, my flaws were more visible... but not only were they more obvious but their context accompanied them. Examples:

  • My arms and hands had a tendency to do too much flourish; well, that really happens when I had no plan for what my arms and hands should be doing or where they were going next.

  • I've been told that my moves weren't finished... well, that coincides really with when I'm technically in synch with the music but the timing could be slowed down to fit with the music even better.

  • I was told that my technique could be improved. Really, it was because I was pushing too hard (i.e., applying too much strength) to some moves when I was really attempting to just make them more staccato... i.e., I was using the wrong application for what I wanted to accomplish.
I could never have figured these things out without seeing the footage. And, as I already mentioned, it's really the only way that you can see your whole body moving and can take it all in.

Focus on the Positive!
While the footage is a great way to see your flaws and find what you may need to tweak to help correct them, it's crucial that you also notice the positive... and actually focus on it too! There is no way in hell that there isn't something positive to say about your video. If you can't find anything, it's because you are absolutely too harsh on yourself. And it's okay to find good stuff about yourself. We all tend to focus too much on the negative and forget to acknowledge the nice stuff about ourselves! You will find cool stuff among the items that you did. Maybe your smile was splendid... maybe your posture was great... maybe this one arm movement is interesting... So there will be items that you should realize that you want to keep as is. Keep them in mind.

Other Tips and Tricks
Here are some other items that may be helpful:
  • Watch multiple times! Watch back your video at least 3 times (told you that 3 comes back around in my life). Usually, the first time, I dread it and only see all the flaws. The second time, I'm still disappointed but can stomach it better. Typically, by the 3rd time, I can watch the footage more objectively.

  • Objectivity is key! Get to that objective stage! Look at your footage and ask yourself: If I had to critique that person, what would I say? Pretend that it's your best friend. And PLEASE do a balanced critique.

  • Hedge your bet! Do record yourself multiple times back to back. You will get more footage and, therefore, more feedback.

  • Analyze in-between! If it won't throw you off, consider watching the footage right after you took it and before you'll do your next take. You will obviously see some things that you want to correct. Pick one or two things and correct them (or at least try something different) in the next take.

  • Have a good frame of mind! You may want to consider putting yourself in a great frame of mind before hitting that record button. I like to light incense and a scented candle. Consider wearing some practice gear that makes you feel comfortable and/or makes you feel good about yourself when you're wearing it. Heck, consider putting on cute jewelry if it helps!

  • Don't do it cold! Do warm up before (it should be an obvious thing). Consider doing drills. And, yeah, maybe run through the piece once or twice before.

  • Make notes! Not just mental ones. After you're done recording, watch the footage with a notebook in hand. Note down anything. Feel free to pause to scribble notes and/or watch multiple times (so that you're not missing some crucial info like a cool move).

  • Keep the footage! I worked on a piece for April. Then I worked on a piece for May. I had about 2 weeks from when I did the May piece until when I needed to do the April piece again. I dance mostly improv but with ideas of what to do for accents. Well, I had 'flushed' that April piece out of my brain to make space for the May piece... watching my practice sessions again and re-reading my notes totally put the piece back in my head quickly.

  • To post or not to post? I wouldn't advise putting your practice sessions on youtube or another public site. I see many people doing that. I mean, sure, if it's a killer practice that you want the whole world to see, go for it... but we generally are wearing practice gear, little to no makeup, there is poor lighting so you're not putting youself in the best light possible. And I think that practice sessions are really like drafts of pieces until you perform the piece for an audience. Oh and I can see another reason why you'd want to post your footage, which would be to get feedback from a mentor or instructor... but, generally, there are other ways that you can send the footage in and, more often than not, the instructor (at least those with whom I've worked) prefer to see an actual performance.

Still Scared?
Of course, you're still scared and don't want to see yourself. It's normal. Did you know that neither Rachel nor Ariellah really like seeing their footage all that much? Really, we all dread it. The key is getting used to it. Rachel and Ariellah have used the videocamera tool to their advantage because they got used to seeing themselves and managed to get over the dread and analyze the performance. I can vouch firsthand that it's really a valuable tool. I hope that no one will wait as long as I did before using it!