Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I posted already in a previous blog about Synergy of elements in your dance (see ). This time, I’m tackling cohesion, which should really have been a first step. Whereas synergy is all the elements working together to enhance the performance, cohesion is all the elements fitting together… i.e., cohesion is the first step and then, if you’re lucky and/or have planned well, synergy will be the next level.

Head scratching
I’ve seen a lot of performances over the years that have left me scratching my head… some of them are downright bad… but, you know, it’s not that often that it’s just plain bad. What happens often instead is that it leaves you scratching your head because the elements individually aren’t bad but putting them together didn’t have a good result. If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you’ve heard the judges say something like “These ingredients together weren’t working… there was no relationship between them.” So we’re talking about the same principle here.

For example (and not that I’ve seen that specific example…), let’s say you’re using some classical music from the 18th century, wearing a post-apocalyptic type of costume, hair is totally 80s, facial expression is uber upbeat cabaret, and you’re doing some folkloric moves. Okay, this example is really farfetched but I’ve seen some that approach that level of schizophrenia.

Common thread
So you want a common thread throughout the elements. That’s how you can make cohesion work. Again, if you watch Top Chef and/or Project Runway, the critiques will often touch on that. It’s the same thing for dancing. It needs to make sense why those elements are brought in together.

Stand alone piece
And I’m not talking about explaining away why you chose all those elements and how they make sense to you… if it’s truly a good idea, it will need to come out in your dance so that it will be obvious in the piece that you are presenting. It’s getting increasingly rarer that you will get an intro before your piece… and even if you do, they may mess up what you wrote… there are some pieces that maybe would benefit from having a program so you could read about the piece (and programs are nearly a thing of the past... even rarer than the intros)… but if the idea is too intellectual and not enough represented in dance, then it’s not fully developed for the dance medium. Your performance needs to be self-explanatory as much as possible.

Back to cohesion
So back to the original point… and that farfetched example… if you love all those elements, it’s cool… but maybe you shouldn’t pair them together. It would be better to do individual pieces centered on one of the items and run with that thread… explore it in more depth. You’ll be surprised (agreeably so) with what you’ll find!

Discordance can be way cool… but the way that this is done the most effectively is when only ONE item is opposite to the rest. It’s a statement when you do that.

Not all concepts are usable
Just a note that not all concepts are usable… there are things that are much better in your head and they should stay there. And it’s a matter also of some concepts, while interesting, may not be usable for your medium and maybe another medium would be better. So it may not be a danceable thing but would make for a great thing to write about… then why don’t you write about it? I’d like to read it!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Just do it!

Part of ATS/ITS is obviously the whole leading and following thing. Following is generally not too nerve-racking (although you still want to make a good effort at understanding the cues and executing the appropriate movement). What trips up most people is leading. I’m not going to talk about exactly how you go about leading (i.e., the technical aspect) but more the mental preparation. And although the frame of mind that I had for writing this blog was about ATS/ITS, a lot of it is applicable to other styles of dance.

That’s why we drill
So you’re nervous about leading and whether you will do the moves correctly. Well, you know what? That’s why we drill those moves over and over again. The idea is that the moves will become so ingrained in your body that they will just flow. What will happen eventually is that you’ll do cue XX and the move that goes with it will just come out. That’s how much you want to know your moves. It makes your life much much easier.

Overthinking is a killer
I’m a big overthinker for most things… but definitely NOT for leading. If you start overthinking, that’s when you’ll second-guess yourself as to whether you should trust your body that you had the correct follow-up to a cue or whether you are doing it correctly on the beat and it all goes downhill from there. Just trust your instincts. Trust that your body knows what it is doing.

Don’t edit
Unless you’re about to replicate the exact same pattern as the leader before you (and even then…), don’t edit what you’re about to do. The main reason for that is that it’s then putting you into the left side of your brain, so in the analytical side, as opposed to keeping you flowing… and the overthinking will ensue… as well as the negative talk that we (too often) give ourselves. In addition, that will generally make you hesitate and, thus, will break the moment.

That’s why we practice together
You know, those rehearsals when we just do improvisation together? They’re as crucial if not more than drilling moves. You can drill moves on your own, at home. While you can do exercises on your own that will practice your leading abilities, it’s never the same as having some folks in the back relying on you to cue a move. So it is really important that you do those group practices. But please relax in them. You can totally mess up in those and it’s all in good fun. We’re all learning together when we do those practices.

Let go of perfection
In practice and in performance, you will mess up… you will cue something that you didn’t mean to or cue something wrongly. No biggie. As long as you don’t have a face of “OMG, I messed up!”, few will know. And your dance partners won’t flog you at the end. Seriously. We’ve all messed up. It’s perfectly fine.

Just do it!
To borrow the Nike slogan (it’s a damn good one), what it boils down to is that you need to Just do it! It’s that simple! Sounds complex and all but, really, all that you have to do is take a deep breath and take a proverbial plunge… you need to just do it! And the more you do it, the easier it gets. Trust me!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Soliciting feedback

Finally, the long-awaited follow-up blog on soliciting feedback. Or maybe it wasn’t long-awaited! :p Ahem…

Note: This post will be about the person soliciting the feedback and not about how to give feedback/critique. Also, the post is really about soliciting feedback about improving your performance quality as opposed to how to do a move better.

Soliciting feedback is a hard thing to do at times as we often don’t really want to know. However, that’s one of the ways that we get valuable information of what to work on to improve our dance.

Who should you ask?
First off, you need to figure out who you should ask for feedback. Here are some of the characteristics of an ideal person to request feedback from:
  • Honest: You want to find someone who will be honest with you. That is, someone who will really tell you the positive, negative and anything in-between. As such, close friends make bad persons to ask… they will be afraid of hurting your feelings and may not tell you the whole truth.
  • Similar style: You want to ask someone who does the same style as you do or similar enough. The issue is that the person can only talk about what she/he knows and the comments and advice that you will get will come from that knowledge… and it will most likely not be appropriate. For example, if you were to ask me to critique a Turkish piece and give you feedback on what to improve on, I would be a baaaaad choice… while I could indeed give you my opinion and my feedback on what I saw, I most certainly don’t know enough to point you in the right direction. Also, I could potentially say that I liked something that is a big no no for the style… you never know.
  • Someone you look up to in dance: You know, someone who makes you say/think “I want to be like her when I grow up in dance.” (And, hopefully, you don’t want to be ‘just’ like her but you with some of her skills… but that was already a topic for a portion of a blog.) If you can find someone who you are looking up to, someone who has performance qualities that you want to emulate, you will find a lot of valuable information from said person. The person could tell you how she/he went about working on whatever item you like from her style and that could be useful for you. Also, you will get that person’s perspective on your dance.
  • Ideally, an instructor: Not all instructors are created alike, of course, but a lot have the knowledge and skills to give you pertinent feedback and critique and will be more apt to tell you how to work on whatever. Again, make sure that the instructor is one who will tell you the truth, though… I mean, some will be hesitant to tell you things because they want you to come back to their classes and/or workshops. Hopefully, this is not the norm.

Off limits?
Do you think that someone is really off limits to ask feedback from? Probably not. As I mentioned in the previous section, most instructors will do it… you need but ask…

Paying for feedback
What? Some people pay for feedback? Why, yes. Yes they do. I’ve most certainly done that. Generally speaking, it’s considered as a private session since the instructor spends time reviewing a performance and helping you figure out how to improve aspects of your performance. It’s totally customized for you. Believe me: it’s money well spent.

You definitely do NOT want to ask for feedback right after you’re done performing… that’s when you are at your most vulnerable and will generally not be in the best frame of mind to listen anyway. So you want to at least wait one day. Any time after that is fine. Note, though, that if some time elapses, it might be beneficial for whoever you are asking the feedback from to have a video to go by to trigger the memory of the performance, if the person saw the performance live.

Frame of mind
So, when you’re going to ask someone for feedback on your dance, you want to make sure that you are in an ‘open’ frame of mind. You need to be able to listen. And when I say ‘listen’, I’m not just saying hearing the words that are being said but actually understanding what the person is saying. So doing active listening.

Don’t be defensive
You may feel attacked or end up going on the defensive. Try to resist the urge. Don’t try to explain what was going on unless it’s something that will help the person give you tips on how you could have done something better. Actually, during the Mira Betz intensive, we received two critiques (one at the very beginning and one at the very end) and, during the time that we were receiving the critique, we were instructed not to speak but just take it in. It was hard to do but it was indeed very helpful. The goal was mainly so that we wouldn’t go into the defensive mode and excuse away some things. So you may want to even resist the urge to speak at all, especially if it’s to say anything that starts with ‘but’.

Don’t twist the words
I’ve been guilty of that many times over when Jeff (my husband) gives me feedback/a critique. In that specific case, I wish that I was perfect and all that… and it’s the typically husband/wife misunderstanding. But I’ve gotten much better at not twisting his words. It may happen in the course of the discussion that you will misunderstand what the feedback really was… even if you’re doing active listening and even if you’re not defensive. Take words at face value unless otherwise specified. So if the person says that XX could be improved, it doesn’t mean that it’s crap… it means that it’s an area where you may want to work on.

Follow-up questions
Now “the” time when you can speak (and should speak) is if you have a follow-up question. It may be because the person wasn’t clear so you’re not quite sure what the point is. Or it may be because it’s bringing another idea that you have. Or what if it was in a different setting. This will engage you in a conversation with the other person and it’s generally all good and fun… but do remember to go back to the original conversation. I’m real good at digressing so that happens to me a lot.

But I feel like crap now!
Hopefully, the person giving you the critique did a good job of stressing out areas where you did well. That being said, it’s super easy to kind of dismiss those and focus on what else was said… so those areas for improvement and all that. While, yes, some dancers that you look up to are near flawless, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect… not even them! So there will always be room for improvement, just like you can always bend your knees more and lower those shoulders more. ;) It most certainly doesn’t mean that the performance was bad. But, yes, even your best performance so far can be made better… and that’s what you’re learning: where to go to next.

Whoa! What a list!
After some of those feedback sessions, you may end up with a relatively long list of items that you could tweak. While it can seem like a daunting task, don’t feel like you have to incorporate everything all at once! Some of the items on the list will be technical aspects: those can be handled in drills so the more you drill those items, they will ‘magically’ (i.e., through work and effort) get better. There are other items that have to do with performance quality so you want to pick maybe 1 or 2 of those items and work on them for your next performance; you want to pick those that are actually applicable for your next performance and/or those that could have the most impact. Since performing requires so much and thinking of so many details, you don’t want to overwhelm your brain with too many additional items to keep in mind. ;) Once you’ve successfully tackled some issues, tackle other ones.

Suggestions – not mandatory
Unless it’s something related to potential injuries (for example, if you keep doing this move this way, you’ll hurt yourself), it’s also important to realize that whatever you are hearing are suggestions. It’s up to you to decide whether you will incorporate the items that you were told in your critique. No one really is the end all be all belly dance authority; therefore, realize that you may have a different take and that it may be okay… you still want to assess whether the item could have some application but there comes a point where some things will be subjective … and you most certainly can agree to disagree.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Personal style

Well, I was going to answer Maria’s comment on my previous post but realized that it was going to be a long reply so it may as well be its own post. I’ve definitely felt that fear of ‘What if “my” style is lame/boring/uninteresting/yaddyaddya’. And I’ve definitely been on a quest for my own personal style for quite some time with a lot of question marks and wondering how to do it and generally a lot of overthinking.

Negative voice
Most of us have a negative voice inside of us… it’s the one that makes you think that your own thing may be <> (for example, lame, boring, uninteresting). Thou shalt not listen to that voice! It’s the thing that holds you back all the time. It’s why you haven’t done XX thing even though you’ve been itching to for like forever. You need to shut that voice down. I went with some creative and crazy ways of dealing with it: I wrote a poem to it and I did also a Q&A blog post about it (both are on tribe somewhere in my blog posts). Again, that’s my silly and crazy way of handling it. But it eventually worked. Whatever works for you, use it. You may want to write a letter about it and then burn it. Whatever. If all else fails, use the Stuart Smalley daily affirmations: I’m good enough! I’m smart enough! And doggone it! People like me! And believe it too!

Starting point
So, at first, you will follow in someone’s footsteps or imitate the way that they do moves. It’s normal. It’s akin to when we all started learning how to write and we would mimic the letters… nearly all letters from those first graders workbooks look the same. It’s because they’re copying those shapes that they were told make the letters. As comprehension of how to write those letters increases (and with regular practice), you start seeing some handwriting differences. It’s the same principle with dancing.

And then…
At last year’s Belly Boo Bash workshop, Leila Gamal was instructing us while dancing in diagonal lines across the floor to find our groove, find the way that a certain move fits on your body. After that workshop, I realized that that’s an important step: finding how a move really is on your body. To accommodate for your body proportions, strengths and weaknesses, moves will end up being slightly different on each bodies while the outlook will remain the same. It’s a subtle thing. But it’s an important one. And note that it doesn’t mean that technique goes out the window… it just means that you’re keeping your good isolations and your technique but with your body quirks in mind. ;)

Also, you will branch out from what your mommy (or daddy) in dance has taught you and may take some workshops and/or start being influenced by other dancers. And you’ll incorporate those items into your own dance and practice, therefore modifying (by default) the original style that you were taught. My whole blog post from yesterday around tweaking moves was getting at that too. ;)

The copycat pitfall
While learning from your teachers and from your mentors or whoever you admire is exactly what you should be doing, you should be wary of the copycat pitfall. It happens if you take something exactly as is and don’t modify anything. It also happens when you copy someone’s aesthetics down to the minute details… and, you know, not even to the minute details… If it’s too close to the original, it’s dance plagiarism (okay, I know that dance plagiarism doesn’t exactly exist… but you get the point). We’ve seen countless Rachel Brice clones and while it’s not a bad idea to learn things from Rachel Brice, you don’t want to be renown as a clone, do you? When you leave the stage, do you want folks to remember you as Rachel Brice copycat or as that dancer who had her own style? And, of course, you can insert any name instead of Rachel Brice… it’s just that it happens a lot with her.

While on the topic of copycat, even if a teacher taught you a choreography in class or in a workshop, you don’t really want to perform it on stage. Why? Because, again, you’re copying what the teacher has done… of course, it’s so much easier if the choreography has been made for you… you don’t have to come up with something and all that… you just have to execute the choreography. And therein lies a big problem. A choreography made by someone else is someone else’s point of view on that piece of music using belly dance as the tool for expression. And while you can learn the moves by heart, they will have been put in a logical order that is logical to the creator of the piece… not necessarily logical for you (hence why we sometimes struggle remembering the choreography). Moreover, as I already stated, it’s someone else’s point of view and not yours and, believe me, I’ve seen enough dancers doing someone else’s choreography to see how there is always something off. You can’t really replicate what the creator had in mind. Ever heard some bad cover songs? Usually, they’re bad because it’s just the song as is and not much extra. (And if you want to see a great example of a bad rendition of a song, look for this year’s America’s Got Talent where the father and son are singing All By Myself… yes… a duet singing All By Myself) A good cover song will be one where the artist who covers the song has made it his or her own. And that is usually done by tweaking the song to fit the cover artist’s aesthetics. One great case in point is Marilyn Manson’s version of Sweet Dreams. That song took on a whole different twist.

The “Quest” aka overthinking
At some point, you may end up on a quest for your own personal style. While it sounds noble and something that you should do, it’s a pitfall. You can read a great number of my blog posts from tribe (and I’ve carried them over on blogger too under a different address) of me being on that quest… which was really overthinking. Don’t let yourself be bogged down by this… it will come.

A lot like love…
Turns out that finding your personal style is a lot like love. Ever heard the saying “If you’re looking for love, you won’t find it but if you stop looking, you will?” It’s exactly like that with the personal style. The less you’re looking for it, the more it will come. Yes, I can vouch for that from personal experience. Eventually, Ariellah and Tempest, my mentors, each told me to stop thinking and start doing. Well, they were obviously right. The day that I stopped fussing over what my style was and started just dancing, I was much happier with my dancing in general and it just blossomed from there. So don’t worry about your personal style and just dance!

Doing your own thing
So “doing your own thing” really means simply doing whatever your heart desires. It’s as simple as that… and it’s as complicated as that. You still want to keep in mind Tempest’s sound advice: “Sure you can. Should you?” But, generally speaking, we all have filters that take care of the funky stuff… and even if something funky comes out… is it the end of the world? Heck, no. Bottom line, go with what attracts you, what makes you smile (internally or externally ;) ), what you find aesthetically pleasing, etc. The rest are details. So when I encourage folks to do their own thing, what I mean is dance however YOU want to dance. Have fun with it. Discover new stuff.

The gem inside (aka being genuine)
If you dance from the heart and from something that is genuine, your dance style WILL be interesting enough. We all have beauty inside of us and we all have something to say. We’re all unique and different and that’s what makes the world interesting. So take it as your twist on dancing. Or, drawing a parallel to a different art form, it’s your way of telling a story. You know how if one person tells a story, it sounds a certain way but someone else tells the same story and it sounds different? It’s really like that.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Make it your own

To add on to the good post by Tempest around learning (see ), here are some of my considerations I want to add.

Learning the basics – The Blaise Pascal story

Blaise Pascal was a monk in 17th century France who was a mathematician and physicist… very brilliant guy… While at the monastery, the monks loved watching him re-discover math theorems and prove them and all that. While he went on to make great discoveries, that story makes me mad. Thing is, for a portion of the time, he rediscovered old knowledge. I’m puzzled and flabbergasted that they didn’t bother teaching him all of that instead of marveling at his intelligence as he’s rediscovering stuff. Imagine how much more he would have discovered? He didn’t have the tools for it until he discovered them… and it’s not like he was out in the middle of nowhere (well, kinda) with no one to teach him… there were people there who could have taught him what was known.

What does this have to do with dance? Well, a parallel can be drawn: if you need to discover or rediscover how things are done, you will accomplish XX… but what if you had all the tools in your possession… what lengths could you achieve? And *that* is why we learn or at least should want to learn by going to classes and workshops and all that: it’s so that you can learn technique and artistry and any other tool that you need for your art. There’s no point in re-creating the wheel if it already exists. There’s no point in you trying to figure out how to do a shimmy if someone can show you how to do it. To some extent you will have to figure out how it feels on your body but you catch my drift. The mechanics behind it can be taught. Same for artistry and all that.

Make the moves your own

While you’ll learn great moves and combos during classes and workshops, you can totally take those home and tweak them. They don’t necessarily have to be done ‘as is’ unless we’re talking about some folkloric moves done in a folkloric setting. Examples of tweaking:

  • Sometimes a combo’s timing will seem off to you… it obviously works for the instructor who taught you the combo but it may not work for you. There’s nothing that says that you can’t modify the timing to something that fits better.
  • A portion of the combo leaves you blah or doesn’t look right on your body: you can remove that portion or replace it with something that works better. Sometimes, though, just a simple tweak like changing the arms may do the trick. (We have an infamous combo that was tweaked that way.)

ATS tweaks

You would think that ATS is sacred and that no tweaks should be made… well, not necessarily. Let me put one caveat, though: if you want to play with other groups that do the same format, you don’t want to make tweaks… or at least remember what the original move is so that you can synch back with those groups. And this should be a group decision as to what you want to do. Some groups will want to strictly follow one format (FCBD, Gypsy Caravan, BlackSheep BellyDance) while others will be more flexible. It’s all good. Black Rose Caravan falls into the flexible category (our little known tag line is “We make this sh!t up”). Black Rose Caravan loves to incorporate any move or combo that we feel fits our format and aesthetics. But, in order to do that, we’ve had to tweak some combos and moves so that cues can’t be confused or to add a cue, keeping in mind that the move/combo will be done by a group in synch (hopefully, lol). We do that in a collaborating manner but we still do it. And no move is sacred… we’ve even tweaked good old Egyptian Basics because one of our members at the time had shoulder and neck issues and it also gave us an opportunity to have a cue to stop the half turns back and forth while still doing Egyptian Basics. We love the fact that we can incorporate anything that we like.

But <> does it a certain way!

Don’t be fooled by that. It’s not because so and so does a move or combo a certain way that you have to do it. It happens a lot with big names in tribal fusion (of course, most noteworthy being Rachel Brice). While, yes, it’s a nice way to do the move or combo, it may not look good on you… maybe not at all. It’s important to recognize that and either edit or tweak said move/combo to flatter your figure… or ditch it entirely. For example, while I think that pops and locks can be cool, given my fleshy body, it looks all wrong on me as there are ripple effects that don’t make the moves crisp as they should be.


So, you learned a choreography in a workshop. Bravo! But what to do with it? Generally speaking, you don’t want to perform that choreography on stage (even if the instructor said that it was fine). And the whole rationale for that is a blog post in itself so I’ll shelve that for later. But now you have spent moolah learning a choreography and what can you do with it? Surely there are some elements that you like about it. It may be an arm movement or a set of moves. It’s totally possible (and even a great idea) to excerpt those items that you find interesting and incorporate them into your own vocabulary and/or practice. If it’s an arm movement, you can layer that over some moves. If it’s a set of moves, you can turn it into a combo.

Bottom line

So the point of the whole thing here is that knowledge is important and is your foundation for (in this case dance) growth and you should seek it out as much as you can. But once you have it, it doesn’t have to become stale… quite the contrary! Borrowing back to the Blaise Pascal story, you can discover new things and further Dance. Most importantly, it will be YOUR way. Make it ALL your own. THAT is what will differentiate you from the crowd.