Time for this week’s challenge! Are you ready?
I, personally, think that part of the appeal of belly dance is that you don’t need to be flexible to be good at it. You don’t see a lot of the famous dancers out of Egypt doing many splits or high kicks, though back bends are routine (for me back bends are more about ab strength than back flexibility, but that might just be me). I think it makes belly dance more approachable to the general public, and adults, then dance forms that demand flexibility, like ballet.
Being flexible in belly dance, while not required, is certainly desirable. Splits are impressive, and for floor work flexibility is mandatory. Flexibility is also good for back bends, for sideways leans, and for kicks (like in Turkish dance). But flexibility isn’t just about these over-the-top moves. Having flexibility in the torso means your isolations will be larger, and your range of motion will be greater. Any dancer can benefit from this!
My students know that I’m about as flexible as a dry stick. That doesn’t mean I don’t stretch! There are some of us who may never achieve the splits, due to hip socket anatomy (if bone gets in the way, there isn’t much hope for stretching into it!), but we can at least stretch for the health of our muscles and increasing our range of motion. Improving our flexibility is also a good way to improve our dance.
Naturally, in order for us to become properly flexible, we must also be strong. Being strong makes for good dance!
What’s the challenge?
First, a strongly worded note. DO NOT STRETCH COLD MUSCLES. Do not try to gain flexibility by tearing your ligaments and tendons. Remember, strength AND flexibility is the name of the game. Always do stretching AFTER your workout, so you are at your warmest. Stretching is never an acceptable warm up.
Beginner: Unless you have a strong background in another dance form or yoga, you are probably coming to belly dance as someone who is not flexible at all. There’s nothing wrong with that! As I said, belly dance can be done successfully without ever doing the splits. But flexibility is good for our muscles, and keeps our joints healthy (if we don’t overdo it), and, of course, increases our range of motion. This week, get with your teacher to help work on improving your flexibility. Concentrate on your torso this week, because this will probably be easiest. Side bends, chest slides and rotations, all will be improved by stretching the torso. Find some good stretches, get nice and warm, and then stretch!
Intermediate: Let’s talk about the splits. I have tried and tried and failed and failed to get into the splits. Not everyone has the hip socket anatomy for it, and it has nothing to do with how often they stretch or whether they are doing it right or not. As a massage therapist, I know how to increase flexibility. It just doesn’t work for me. But you can work this week on improving yours! Before starting work with a personal trainer or massage therapist, try researching some good stretches for the hips. There are a lot of hip muscles, so try to find stretches that work all of them. This week, incorporate those stretches into your daily routine. YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DO THE SPLITS AFTER A WEEK OF STRETCHING. This challenge is to get you used to stretching daily to improve your flexibility.
Advanced: Let’s talk backbends. Everyone wants to be able to do backbends. They are impressive, difficult, and unsafe. However, there are safe(r) ways to do them. This week, you will work, not on the flexibility of your back, but the strength of your abs. “But I’m a bellydancer!” you protest. “My abs are great!” Maybe. But backbends, and the associated movements, require ab and leg strength that you don’t get unless you train for it. This week, in addition to any regular stretches you do for your back, add in ab and hip flexor strength work. Crunches, Pilates, whatever works for you…This might be a challenge about flexibility, but for backbends you need both strength and flexibility in equal measures!
A note of caution: always listen to your body when it comes to stretching. It should never hurt. Always consult with a doctor first, and if you do not work with a teacher, a trainer, or a massage therapist, make absolutely sure you are following all guidelines and steps for the stretches accurately. And keep in mind that flexibility takes time. Don’t push it, just use this week as a building up of good stretching habits.
Taking the challenge? Let everyone else know! Tweet it!
Wow, okay, so there was so much to do this weekend that the challenge didn’t get written OR scheduled! So…now that it’s Tuesday, let’s try this week’s challenge!
If there was sin in dance, one of the big ones would be not knowing how to count your music. Of course, if you read the last challenge, you also know that not expressing emotion in dance could be considered another. Counting in dance is fundamental, the basis of 90% of your dance (or more). Of course, it is possible and appropriate to approach music without counting (as in lyrical dance or during a taxim), but in belly dance the beat and the rhythm are of paramount importance. Egyptian dancers especially focus on the rhythm of the music. If you aren’t counting, you aren’t doing it right. Dancers should also have a basic understanding of musical theory, since music is so important to dance. So, on to the challenge!
Beginner: Your teacher should be teaching you, perhaps not specifically but through osmosis, how to count. Listen to her (or him!) as she counts out your steps. Normally she gets to 8 and starts over, right? Maybe 4, but usually 8. There’s a reason for that. Your challenge is to find out why. Ask your teacher (or look it up on the Internet) why dancers count to 8. What is the significance of time signature? What does it mean to a dancer? Once you know why, start learning how. Try to pay attention to how your teacher counts the music. Ever wonder why she’ll wait through a piece of music and then suddenly start dancing? Why did she start there? Remember that it is of utmost importance to learn how to count your music. Once you know how, start practicing counting, just not out loud. That’s a bad habit to get into (nothing worse than watching a dancer count on stage!!)
Intermediate: Hopefully you know how to count your music. If you do not, you need to do the previous challenge until counting is second nature. At this level, you should work on making count so much a part of your dance that you do it automatically and unconsciously. You should be able to identify the downbeat in a piece of unfamiliar music just by how the music feels, not by having to count from the beginning of the song. This can be an extremely difficult thing to learn if you are not a musician or have not had dance training throughout your life. Your challenge this week (if counting is no big deal) is to make that count second nature. Instead of counting out loud, or thinking too hard about it, put it in the back of your mind. It’s almost like getting a piece of music stuck in your head, but instead it’s 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 stuck on an endless loop in your brain. For now, stick to music you know that has easy time signatures, like 4/4 or 2/4, and try a brief improv dance while counting. If you have a mirror, make sure you don’t have “counting face” (in other words, the audience should not see the gears grinding in your head).
Advanced: Try different time signatures! There are so many interesting time signatures out there, so learn how to count them. Start with something relatively easy, like the kashlama rhythm (a 9/8 time signature). Learn how to identify the downbeat, and how to count it out (hint: it’s not always easiest, or appropriate, to count unusual rhythms straight out, like 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9). If you know that one, try others, like Sami’i, or 6/4 and 6/8. I have a song on my iTunes list that is in 12/8 time!! Have fun and explore the different rhythms. Extra challenge: learn how to dance to these rhythms! Can you move in 9/8 time (it’s easier than it sounds!)?
OMG…it’s October!! Time to start hibernating, right? Wrong. Let’s do another challenge!
Have you ever watched a dancer with perfect technique, but absolutely no emotion in her/his face? If their technique is strong enough, that might be fine for awhile, but when we listen to music we are trying to connect to an emotion. Dance is all about emotion. No emotion, no dance. If there is no emotion in your dance, you might as well get up on stage and start a drills class. And plastering a I-gotta-get-this-over-with smile on your face doesn’t cut it either. I’m guilty of this sometimes as well, when I’m performing a choreography I don’t know well enough or if I’m super nervous (which doesn’t happen much anymore, but it can still happen). So this week we’re going to work on putting some emotion into our dance!
Emotion in Dance
Pick a song, any song. Something you enjoy, and not necessarily something you want to belly dance to. Close your eyes and listen to it. It’s fine if your mind wanders, but take a mental note of where it goes. Take note of how you feel when you hear the song. Chances are you will feel what the artist intended you to feel during that song. Either the lyrics will tell you (if there are any) or the actual sound of the music will (freebie nugget of music theory…a minor key makes you feel sad!).
Now write down what you felt at the top of a piece of paper. If it’s more than one emotion, great! Use a page for everything you felt. Under that heading, split the paper into two columns. On one, label it “Facial expressions” and the other label “Dance moves.” This is going to be a toughie, because there are not necessarily any right answers. In these two columns, brainstorm what facial expressions (including things like tears, laughter, or touching the face with the hands) and dance moves fit your emotion.
Arabic songs may be a bit more of a challenge for us Westerners. For starters, the lyrics are in a language most of us do not understand, and the musical scale that Arabic music uses is different from what we are used to. But humans still composed and performed that music, and that means they felt an emotion while writing it. You can still connect if you close your eyes and open yourself to it.
Use your list when improvising a dance or when planning out a choreography. Do this to one song every day this week, and start mixing in songs you want to actually dance to. This will help you connect to the music and actually dance, not run a drills class on stage!
This week is a special week for me, and this will be a special challenge. It’s going to be the last one until I get back from Vegas.
I challenge you to challenge yourself.
Want to know why I go to Las Vegas every year to the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive? Simple: I want to be a better dancer. I want to stretch my horizons, learn from new teachers, and be challenged. I don’t want a pat on the head, a cookie, and someone to tell me what a good little dancer I am. That gets me nowhere. The workshops I remember the most fondly are the ones I walked out of frustrated and close to tears. Why? Because it gave me something to work on all year. At my first Intensive, I took Aubre’s layering workshop and nearly quit right then and there. I thought I’d never get it right. But then I realized that I had to get it, that I had been challenged, and that I would do it even if it killed me (not literally, but you know what I mean). By the second Intensive, I could layer, and when I took my next layering workshop, I didn’t feel like such a uncoordinated loser. I had grown. And every year, I grow more. There are things I can do now that are easy–because I worked on them–that two years ago I never even dreamed I could possibly do.
Over the past five months or so, I have given you a lot of tools and challenges. Maybe you have done them, maybe you have not. This week, I challenge you to challenge yourself. If you haven’t yet actually tried one of my challenges, do it. If you don’t do it NOW, you never will. If you’ve been consistently doing the challenges, fantastic! But don’t stop there. Take a workshop with someone you’ve never heard of before, or take a class from a teacher that scares you a little, or practice that move that you just absolutely CANNOT do.
Dance is one of those wonderful things, like many things in life, in which you never stop growing. There is always more to learn, more to practice, more to perfect. No one EVER “arrives” in dance. There isn’t a point where you go, “Here I am, this is the best you’ll ever see, this is the best I will ever get.” Hogwash. Even the dancers we look up to the most practice every day, drill every day, get frustrated every day, and grow every day.
Will you take up this challenge?
As you may or may not know, soon…VERY SOON…I’ll be heading to Las Vegas for the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive. If you haven’t gone, you should! But this one is going to be a milestone for me. Not only is it the 10th year for the Intensive itself, but it will be my fourth year going! AND I’ll be entering the So You Think You Can Bellydance competition. Scared! But I think it will be fun, and it will be educational, and that’s pretty much how I view competitions.
It also means that I won’t be keeping up with my blogging as much (I’ll be driving back on Monday the 10th, so no challenge that week!). BUT, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on my experiences! I will be posting stuff on my Tumblr, my Facebook personal page or my Facebook page, or through Twitter. So choose your favorite social media site and follow or “like” or friend me, and get updates (when I remember…it’s a busy weekend!) straight from the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive!
I hope you have been enjoying your belly dancing challenges! Here’s your next one!
First of all, what is stage presence? Basically, it’s how you act on stage. Do you look at the floor or at the audience (or OVER the audience?) Is your posture correct or are your shoulders hunched? Do you look nervous, or are you smiling and having fun? It’s not necessarily WHAT you are doing on stage, but HOW you are doing it.
Beginner: Before you rebel on me and run away screaming about not ever performing, think on this: I never wanted to perform either, and now look where I am!! I wish I had started on stage presence at this stage of my dancing career, rather than later on. When you FIRST start learning is the BEST time to learn stage presence. Even if you think you will never, ever, ever, ever get on stage, try to cultivate stage presence. How? Smile. When practicing your drilling, think of smiling. Don’t frown, or stick your tongue out, or stare at yourself in the mirror like you’re trying to start a fire. Relax and smile. Check your posture. Are your arms out or sagging down into T-Rex land? Is your chin back and up or are you staring at the floor? Your challenge is to try checking every 16 counts or so at first, just a check-in with your body to make sure everything is still where it’s supposed to be. If it’s not, stop dancing, reset, and begin again.
Intermediate: Now is when you will start to think about performing in front of friends and family, perhaps at a student hafla at your studio, or at a casual festival in front of a supportive audience. And now is when you will really need to start to learn how to perform in front of people. Your first performance will be terrifying. But you can get through it! You know your choreo (or your combinations), so now start to think about everything else. When practicing, remember the most important parts of belly dancing stage presence: relax, smile, and make sure your posture is good. Your chest should be up and lifted, and your knees bent. That will also help you relax and make your shimmies and other hip movements bigger and stronger. Don’t look down to your audience if you are on a raised stage. Look out, keeping your chin up. And practice that way! That’s your challenge: make sure you check in every 16 counts or so for posture, where you are looking, and what your face is doing.
Advanced: There’s nothing worse than a technically beautiful dancer with no stage presence. You NEED to connect with your audience. Smile at them. Draw them into your performance. Take their breath away. This is a hard technique to learn (one that I still struggle with!), but there are things you can do to help. If you are on a raised stage, you’ve been told never to look your audience in the eye, and that’s usually the case. But once and awhile, look down at one of them. Make eye contact and pour your performance into your eyes. Even if only one audience member walks away thinking, “Wow, she really connected with me…” that’s perfect. Some of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen was where the dancer stared me down, almost to the point where I was uncomfortable, and then seemingly danced JUST FOR ME. Of course she really wasn’t dancing only for me…there were hundreds of others watching. But the other audience members will also see that connection and be riveted to their seats, wondering if you will dance just for them next. In your practice, always check the basics, of course–posture, facial expression, your character–but also pay attention to how you project yourself in your dance. It’s still important to smile during practice so that you get in the habit of it, but also think about how you come out onto the stage, how you exit, and the personality you are trying to project. Are you being silly, or sensual, or flirty? Is the piece dark or sad or slow? Learn to project those emotions so that anyone watching you feels those same emotions. Your challenge: grab a friend or loved one, put on your headphones (so they can’t hear the music), and have them guess what emotion you are trying to portray (the music often gives it away). Ask them if they felt it, too, or if they just saw you dancing to silence. For an even greater challenge, have them try to guess the song!
Stage presence is a toughy, so keep going with it. Try the exercises at least once a day, and always try to stay aware of HOW you a performing, not just WHAT you are performing. Happy dancing!
Yep, that’s right. This is Kamrah’s official blog. My website will primarily focus on my professional life and news updates. Here’s where you get all the juicy bits about being a dancer, as well as information on being a professional dancer, and all my articles about belly dancing history and techniques. Stay tuned for more!