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.

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