Thursday, March 20, 2014

Practice Tips Series - Planning What to Practice

If you've ever found time to practice and then didn't know what to do, it's likely because you didn't have a plan... and then this scenario may feel familiar: you end up doing just a little bit and stop and check your phone and noodle around and you have a very unsatisfying practice session. Honestly, without planning, it can be rough to practice.

Another advantage to planning is that it may actually make you WANT to practice. You may get excited about doing something or at least you have an idea of what to do so it doesn't sound so scary.

Now one thing that helps with planning is having goals. We'll cover that in a separate entry as it'd be too long to cover here.

Practice Session Elements

Except for the warmup and cool down, note that the below elements can be done in whichever order makes sense to you... and that not all practice sessions will contain all these elements. These are more suggestions/food for thought than mandatory elements. :)


All practice sessions should start with a warmup. One super quick way to get your heart rate up is to shimmy for a few minutes. But, honestly, that's not quite enough. Ideally, you want to spend time on stretching your body a little and prepare it for the work ahead and all that. If you don't quite know where to start, feel free to use your teacher's warmup as it's something that you know and it should have been created with the goal to get your body stretched enough for belly dancing. If you don't take regular classes and don't know where to start, I would strongly encourage getting a belly dance DVD and borrowing something from there. Or just simply think of how you'd need to stretch your body: neck, shoulders, wrists, ankles, legs, knees, hips, etc.

I'm a big proponent of keeping the warmup constant. I use the same warmup for myself as I do for my students with the exception of an alternate warmup that I use when I do more intense drilling sessions. The advantage with a consistent warmup is that it ends up mentally prepping you to practice. You'll know when that first note hits and when you're doing your first stretch that it's practice time. As improbable as it may seem, it creates a sort of Pavlov reaction that trains your brain over time to quiet down to enter practice mode.


I pretty much always drill at least something or work on isolations in general for at least a few minutes. Even when the focus of a session is more on choreographing/piece development, I will make it a point to drill at least one thing or go through a selection of moves. The reason for this is that I find that it helps get my body and mind aligned that we're doing belly dance now and sort of uploads the concept and some movements to the brain. Other times, the focus of a session will be on drilling.

One of the reasons why drilling and working on isolations and why doing some even for a few minutes is so important is that it helps you perfect your technique. The better you are at technique, the easier it will be to execute movements on stage. So that's an important thing to keep working on. When you work on drilling, your focus should be on feeling the movement through and through and assessing where its weaknesses/areas for improvement are.

There are a number of drills that are possible, obviously. You can create your own, you can pick a DVD and follow along, you can borrow from something that you remember (or noted down) from a workshop, etc. One thing that works really well for me is to work on one thing for the duration of a piece.

Just Dance

I pretty much make it a point in each session to pick a piece (generally randomly on my iPod) and just dance to it. While part of the purpose of this segment is to help develop some of the improv skills, mostly, it's just to have fun. With the drilling and the choreographing/development of a piece, it can get nerve racking and you forget that you actually like to dance. So that's an occasion for me to connect with that awesome feeling that you get when dancing. When I do the "Just Dance" portion, I don't care if I'm doing belly dance at all... the point is to get your body moving and to enjoy the feeling.

Choreographing/Developing a Piece/Practicing Your Piece

I don't choreograph anymore. I do mainly planned spots with improv in-between. I may post an entry on that. Even if you're an improv kind of performer, you need to work on your piece at least a little bit to ensure that it will come out as you want on stage. If you're a choreographer, obviously, you do need to devote some time to doing that. 

Once you've choreographed the piece or my version of it is when I have enough planned spots, then I get in practice mode. I won't consider that I'm practicing the piece until it's stable enough so it may take a number of sessions before I get to practice the piece.

Cool Down/Stretching

I'm terrible at doing this but I will generally do at least a few stretches after I'm done with my practice time to ensure that my body will stay dancing for a long time.

Timeline Planning

Again, we'll talk about goals in a separate entry. But, for example, if one of your goals is to conquer the 3/4 shimmy... you'll need to work on it (that would fall in the drilling category). So you can use your goals to help determine what you'll be working on. If you never work on a thing from your goals list, guess what? You won't achieve your goal. So do look at your list and use that as inspiration for what you want to work on.

Performances may or may not be part of your goals list (they're not on mine). If you know that you have a performance coming up for, say, June, you know that you'll need to get ready for it. So that will help you in determining a timeline for when you need to be done with your choreography or whatever step you know you need to be at by when for a good performance... with time left to practice, right?

So things that you can/want to work on will become blocks and you'll be essentially be using them to help create your practice plan and having a timeline will help you tremendously for that.

Time Budgeting

The concept here is to be realistic about how much time you have for your practice time (which was discussed in the previous entry) and also be mindful of how much time you'll spend on what in your practice. For example: if you know that you have a performance coming up this weekend, you will likely need to spend more time in the "practicing your piece" time of your practice session.

What we mean by "time budgeting" here is having an idea of how much time you'll spend on each segment of your practice time. So, in the example above, if you were to have 30 minutes to practice and spent 25 minutes drilling, you would have no time left to practice your piece (because that remaining 5 minutes should have been spent on warmup). This is where the focus of a session becomes important. So if a session were to be focused on practicing the piece, I may parcel out a 30-minute session like so: 5 minutes for warmup; 5 minutes for drilling; 5 minutes for just dance; 15 minutes for practicing the piece. Or if there was a combo or a movement in my piece that needs a bit more attention drilling, I may skip the "just dance" and do 10 minutes of drilling. Again, this is just an example but that's the idea behind time budgeting: allocating a ball park idea of how long you'll spend on what. That obviously can change during your practice, though, according to your needs.

Additional Tips

  • A note on the drilling segment: Whereas it's going to be (or should be) very clear what you're working on for the choreographing/developing a piece/practicing a piece segment, the drilling segment can be very vast and leave you confused if you don't have a plan and will likely end up doing the "just dance" segment instead of focused drilling and perfecting your technique. So before you even start your warmup, think of what you want to work on for your drilling segment. And, as mentioned above, do look at your list of goals for inspiration.
  • I generally will plan the details of my practice session of the day during the day, way ahead of when I'll be starting it.
  • Try not to bring your electronics in your dance practice. Don't have other web pages open if you're using your computer to play your music. Turn off your phone. Heck, don't even bring it in the room that you're practicing in (unless of course you need to). It's so easy to get distracted by Facebook, texts from friends, the weather, etc.
  • I have a dance journal that I keep. I'll touch on this in the goals entry as well. I use a pen and paper dance journal to remove the electronics distraction temptation. I write in it what my practice consisted of, how long for each segment, how long overall, what I need to work on next, discoveries, etc.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Practice Tips Series - Planning When to Practice

So, you intend to practice more. That's great. Next up, you gotta plan. Oh man! Not that! No, seriously, you do have to plan. Raise your hand if you've ever made that promise to practice more, say, 3 times a week, and then a whole week goes by and you haven't practiced once... OR... you've started your practice and didn't know what to do. That all takes planning. This entry will only cover planning your when to practice. The "what" will be covered in a separate entry.

Look at a Typical Week
Chances are, you have some typical weeks where you know that you generally have XX on Tuesday and YY and Thursday. Or whatever your typical activities are. Which days have an opportunity for you to practice? You don't have to pick all days that are available... you just know that they are a possibility. And if you don't have a typical week as things are often in flux, that makes it harder but not impossible to plan.

Be Realistic About Your Time
While you're assessing your typical week, you should also have an honest discussion with yourself over how many times in a (typical) week you can realistically practice. For example, if you are busy 3 nights a week, setting a goal of practicing 5-6 times a week may be too much. You'll need to allow yourself some time to just relax or else you'll, yes, fill all your time with dancing but then you'll get burned on it... and that's much worse than doing fewer practices but keep at it.

Set a Regular Schedule
This will help with consistency. If you can pinpoint some days when you DEFINITELY don't have anything routinely that day, then you may want to plant the idea that these are mandatory practice days. For example, I'm taking a break from teaching classes for now and have definitely nothing Mondays (or very rarely do) and 3 out of 4 Tuesdays are completely free. So Mondays and Tuesdays are days that I've scheduled as mandatory practice days.

The idea here is creating a habit. The more you can create this pattern of you just dance on these days, the easier it will be to just get up and dance. It's really habit that will fuel your willpower to just do it. And the more you can create consistency, the easier it is. If you think vaguely of practicing XX number of times per week but don't set a regular schedule, you'll forget or pretend to forget that you need to do it. It's real easy to let it slip if you don't have a regular schedule. So help yourself by creating a habit.

Respect Your Body
So while you love the idea of practicing like 3 days in a row, your body hates you for it. Well, you just may need a recovery day in-between practice sessions. There is no point in forcing your body to do more than it can do. Again, it goes with being realistic and, if you get too tired from practicing, you will stop doing it altogether and that's not good.

Some food for thought on that, though. You do want to gain stamina so pushing your body isn't necessarily a bad idea... within reason. The good thing about belly dancing is that there is quite a vast array of dance moves that you can practice/drill so you can mix it up. So your upper back is hurting because you drilled a whole bunch of chest circles, well maybe you can work more heavily on hips today. Or you could do one day more focused on drilling, the next day more focused on just dancing, improv, and/or choreographing, and the next day be drilling again. There IS flexibility. And, yes, that may require some different planning (again, will be tackled in a different entry).

Look at the Upcoming Week
The next week may be a typical week... or it may not. If it's not, and it's a busier than normal week, you'll need to work with it. There is no point in pretending it's anything but what it is. This goes also with being realistic about your time, right? So maybe this week, you won't be able to do your 3 times a week that you wanted because you are super busy and going out of town this weekend. Don't fret. How many can you do? Hopefully you can hit at least one of your normally scheduled days. And if you normally dance for like an hour at a time, can you swing a shorter time but more sessions? Try as much as possible to squeeze in at least one practice session, even if only a short one because we want to keep that idea, that habit of practicing regularly.

Now if it's a case of your week has more time in it than it normally would, see if you can't squeeze in an extra practice session. But be kind to yourself: when you have more time, you CAN use it to decompress and relax. You do need that too. But, yanno, if you can squeeze in a bit more, try to do it.

Be Careful about the All or Nothing Scenario
It's a very human tendency so don't beat yourself up for it but be mindful of it. You may go down the road of thinking that, if you can't practice 6 times a week, then there's no point. That is completely untrue. ANY practice time will be beneficial. And, yanno, actually too much isn't good either as you do need some rest and you need to not get burned on dancing to keep dancing.

Also, if you missed your first practice time of the week, that doesn't mean that the week is * beep *. It just means that you didn't practice that day. Don't beat yourself up. Just practice whenever you were scheduled next or if you can make it up another day, do it. In my weight loss journey, one thing that Weight Watchers did for me that was awesome was take care of the guilt of having messed up. Well, it's hard to mess up royally with Weight Watchers but not impossible. What they tell you is that, if you messed up, you get to get back on track at the next meal... you don't even have to wait a full day or a full week. Same here.

Make a Date With Yourself
This sounds silly but comes via The Artist's Way book (kind of a good read but it gets tedious after a while... good food for thought in the beginning): make a date with yourself to practice. Or if you've ever heard or done the Covey "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" workshop (I think that they're up to 8 habits now?): honor your commitments... (addition from me here:) even those with yourself. So you said that you'd practice on Monday and Tuesday nights. DO IT. You'll feel so much better after you've done it. It's a much better feeling than thinking that you should have practiced but didn't... but maybe you can make up for it now... but you don't want to. Know that song and dance? And it will be real easy to get tempted by other things. Those other things can wait. You owe it to yourself to take that time for yourself. Be selfish here. Protect that time even from yourself. ;)

This also may sound silly since you're all grown up and all. But, yanno, we're still kids at heart (again, you can read about that in The Artist's Way book). And visuals work GREAT for simple rewards that will make you feel good about the work you've done. How about you get a wall calendar (they must be on sale now) and put it up in your dance space (or somewhere else). You can go to the dollar store or some other store and get stickers. You can write on each day on that calendar that you practiced or put a star or some sticker on the day (great visual impact). When you have reached the minimum number of practice sessions in the week, you can put another sticker (maybe a bigger one?) for the whole week. That visual alone will make you feel good about the work you've done.

And you may want to have milestone rewards as well. So say a full month of doing your minimum, you may say that you'd buy yourself that big bindi you've been drooling about or the DVD from XX dancer that you've been wanting to get. For 3 months of mostly doing every week with the minimum practice sessions (don't go for an all or nothing scenario here; you could set a ratio of 80%? that'd be 10 out of 12 weeks), you get yourself something bigger. The point here is to give yourself an extra incentive to keep at it. The biggest incentive that you'll get and also the biggest reward, though, will be seeing the improvement in your dancing and there is no price for that.

These are merely suggestions and ideas. You can definitely come up with your own. The most important thing is to do what works best for you to keep you motivated.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Practice Tips Series - Debunking some myths

It's winter time and you have a bunch of time on your hand because, well, it's winter. In the fall, you had all kinds of awesome plans for how you'd kick your practice into high gear. But then you find that your motivation and willpower has has gone out the window and you haven't practiced in... who knows how long? Or you've been practicing real good for a while and then the Holidays happened and you got off the proverbial bandwagon and have a hard jumping back on it. Or you never got on it. Whatever may be the case, so you're having issues practicing?

Let me just say that it happens to all of us... or at least most of us. It's just normal. So you're not alone. The key is finding ways to get you practicing.  This is what this series of blogs will be about: giving some tips and tricks to help with your practice.

First off, though, I want first to debunk a few things about practice.

Debunking the willpower myth
I've heard the line "I have no willpower" from a lot of folks for a number of things that they wish they would do. If I learned one thing from losing weight, it's that it's really not about willpower but about habits... and then out of those better habits will come your will to resist temptations. In the case of practicing, temptations abound in the form of a lame TV show that you somehow feel you need to watch, looking at everyone's updates on Facebook or other social media, or whatever has been keeping you from practicing.

Again pulling from my time losing weight, when people wield the "no willpower" card, it seems like they believe that willpower is a magical wand that will suddenly make everything better and easier. So here's the truth: there is no magic wand. There's really only planning and habits. More on that in the next blog entry (coming soon).

Debunking the length of practice time
I've been guilty of that myself but I've sometimes been reluctant to practice if it's for a short period of time. We have these grand ideas of practicing where we'd like to think that we could practice for hours every day... but then the reality hits you and you don't have all these hours of time or have just a limited amount of time and figure out that there's no point in even practicing a little.

Honestly? There is literally no amount of time that is too short. For example, I've seen improvements by just doing a few isolations while cooking my eggs in the morning or doing shoulder rolls at work (which has the added benefit of relaxing my shoulders from all this typing I have to do). Or maybe an idea for a combo will come up and you'll try it in the kitchen... or the bathroom... or wherever. I call those micro-practices. While they aren't the only thing that you should rely on for improving your dance, they still serve useful purposes and even that is helpful.

One other thing to know is that you're better off practicing more frequently for shorter sessions than less frequently but longer sessions. Instead, most people believe that it's better to do, say, one practice session of an hour per week versus, say, 3-4 sessions of 30 minutes. If you do the math, it's clear that one yields more time overall for the week. But even if it was the same amount of time (e.g., 2 x 1 hour versus 4 x 30 minutes), the more frequently you practice, the better it is. I will put a caveat to that in an upcoming blog entry about being realistic about your schedule.  That being said, if you can swing a longer practice session during your week, that can be beneficial since you'll be able to cover more material in your session and build your endurance and all that good stuff.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Open Your Horizon

I've been musing on this for a while now.  There have been some interesting trends that I've noticed.

Back when I first learned to belly dance (1995), the internet wasn't widely used at all and few actually had access at home. Given that I was in Quebec City, Canada, there wasn't a whole lot of information being spread around about belly dance. I was at the mercy of my instructor to know what was going on in the belly dance world (and she wasn't one for sharing information). Back in those days, you'd be lucky if you could find a catalog that carried belly dance VHS and even if you did find it, the price would be exorbitant... add the currency conversion (since I was in Canada)... and duty... and the cost was very prohibitive.

Once more people started getting internet at home, finding information was oh so much easier. During the glory years of (remember that?), it was easy to find information on any topic that you were interested. We had so many different tribes (i.e., message boards) on specific topics. It made finding information easy. Events were also promoted there.  I thought for sure that, given how information was so easy to find, it would enable us all to broaden our horizons and learn more about everything belly dance well beyond your neck of the woods.

And, for a while, that was true. Everyone seemed to know the big names in the belly dance world. And whether you were tribal or cabaret, you knew at least the big names for the other style and got to learn about a number of awesome smaller names in your style. Events were well attended by people from neighboring cities and states and sometimes well beyond (especially for festivals).  People weren't afraid to drive 3-4 hours (if not more) to attend some workshops. It seemed that dancers had a thirst for knowledge that FINALLY was being quenched.

In the Summer of 2008, there were so so so many glitches with that it made it practically unusable. It definitely was very frustrating to try to use the darn site... I remember full well. A bunch of people decided to recreate some tribe-like feel on Facebook. Well, Facebook, ain't tribe... but back then, actually, groups were more like message boards so, for a bit, it worked out okay. That being said, finding information in general and definitely finding information for event was a little tricky as we were all trying to figure out how to use Facebook.

Well, you know what else happened in 2008? That's right: the economy took a real bad turn. So besides having a hard time finding the information about events easily, people didn't have as much disposable income for traveling far and wide to all events and would pick and choose which ones they were attending. So events (and classes) weren't as well attended in general.

But, for a while, it seemed like people were at least keeping a minimum of interest, enough to still know what was going on in the belly dance world in general (i.e., beyond their local community). So while people couldn't travel as much, the fountain of knowledge was still there and people were still drinking from it.

What happened since then? Well, things have been hiccuping. For all that we're told that the economy is getting better, either people are being more frugal and keep their disposable income in their savings account or the economy isn't that much better... or it could be that the belly dance revival that happened in the late 90s-2000s is over with. Only time will tell.

One thing that has me concerned, though, is that I've noticed that people won't even travel a few hours for a weekend of workshops with a renown instructor. Instead, they'll just attend their local events and not expand their horizons. While I'm all for promoting and participating in your local belly dance community, I feel that, without seeking out new knowledge, growth will be harder to reach.

But I get it, the cost of events, even just a few hours from your home, may be prohibitive. Okay, fine. What has me even more concerned, though, is that I notice that so many new belly dancers have no idea who renown belly dancers are but they will only know their local dancers. Again, while I'm all for knowing and interacting with your local community, it's important to also get to know contemporary and historical names in the belly dance world.  And, again, with the internet, you have no excuse for not finding that information! It's available at your fingertips! Look at videos on youtube, search on google, look up groups on Facebook, when in doubt, ask an instructor for pointers (and if they don't know, they should find out). The fountain of knowledge is still there... please drink from it!

I invite everyone to branch out and open your horizon to gain more knowledge about this art form that you love so dearly.