I hope all the mothers out there had a lovely Mother’s Day! But now it’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another weekly belly dance challenge!
Let’s add the drama!
Dance is an art, and art calls to our emotions. Our left brains (the logical, analytical side) don’t always get art and don’t always understand emotion. Our right brains (the creative, emotional side) do understand both. Most of us spend all of our time, in regular life, in our left brains and very little time in our right, so when we dance, we tend to only think of the analytical, left brain portions of the dance. What count are we on? What step comes after this one? Where am I on the stage? How many minutes of dancing do I have left? All of those are left brain questions, because they are questions about numbers, space, time, and logical progression. Have you ever seen a performance that looks like a drills class? I have. It means they aren’t using their right brains enough. So let’s work on fixing that this week!
Beginner: At this level, the emotion behind your dance is probably the very last thing on your mind. For now, that’s okay. BUT, and this is a big but, are you having any fun? If your dancing is nothing but drills, memorization, and squats, what fun is that? Of course, if you are just starting, you need those drills, the endless repetition of movements and choreography (or combinations), and leg strengthening exercises. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun! And starting NOW, here, at this level, by making your dance fun, you will carry it through as you progress, and it won’t become just a bunch of drill exercises on stage.
What’s the challenge? It’s going to seem so totally easy you just might yell at me. But I bet you that this will be harder than it sounds.
When you are drilling this week, smile. When you are struggling through learning those mayas, smile. In your combos class, smile as you dance, even if your eyes are rolling back trying to remember the next step.
This will make a HUGE difference. Just by smiling, you are telling your brain (both halves) that this is fun, and that you enjoy it. Later on, this will come through in your dancing. You won’t look like a deer caught in headlights, frantically trying to remember your choreography. By merely smiling while you drill, you are telling your body and brain, “This is fun, I like this, and I can relax and be happy because this is not stressful, awful, or painful.” And when we are relaxed, we learn better, we retain better, and we perform belly dance better (remember that post on slowing your dance down and being relaxed when we perform?)
Intermediate: Smiles aren’t the only emotion we can put into dance. Sure, belly dance is (usually) happy and fun (depending on your style). But it doesn’t always have to be, and it’s not always appropriate to have a slap-happy smile plastered on your face while you perform. You can convey other emotions, too.
For your challenge this week, pick an emotion…any emotion. Or, if that’s too hard to choose, pick a song you like and figure out what emotion that song is conveying (and it can be easy…pick death metal for anger or a blues song for longing or sadness…whatever speaks to you, and there is no “wrong” answer). If this is hard, this week, go back to this challenge from last year and try it first.
Now, add that emotion to your dance. Overexpress. If you are dancing sadness, cover your face with your hands, shove those brows together, and PROJECT that emotion. Feel it every time you practice this week, every day. Figure out what you need to do with your movements. Should they slow down or speed up? Soften them or sharpen them? Should the movements be weak or strong? Play around, videotape yourself if you have to, and see what you can express this week.
Advanced: We’re going to work on some acting skill this week. When we are on stage, even with makeup, expression and emotion can be lost due to the distance between performer and audience. Unless you are right on top of the audience (which is not unheard of in belly dance), it may be difficult to express only with your face the emotion you are trying to convey. So, this week, work on expressing the emotion through your movements.
How do you make mayas sad? Or confused? Can you make mayas confused? I don’t know, why don’t you try it and find out. What happens when you tilt your shoulders forward and to one side? Can you look down without tilting your head all the way down? (hint: yes) How would you express anger without using sharp movements? And don’t just think of how to make movements express emotion. How can you show–with your whole body–the emotion you are expressing? What are your arms doing, what is your face doing, what position is your head in?
Really stretch your right brain this week. Video yourself and see if you are really expressing those emotions. Overwhelmed? Take acting classes, or watch stage actors (not TV actors…their methods are a bit different because the camera is right in their faces). Project those emotions to the very back of the room, so that someone sitting in the nose-bleed section can see what you are expressing without resorting to opera glasses. This can be tough, but your weekly practice is the time to sort these sort of things out. Play with expression and see what you can’t do.
Happy (or sad, or angry, or confused) dancing!
OMG, I can’t believe it’s April, and I can’t believe it’s already the second week! Yikes!
Before we get to the challenge, I just wanted to do a little bit of self-promotion. If you are a belly dancer in the Chicago area, you will want to take my new workshop! I’m offering a Lebanese-style workshop at Arabesque Dance Studio! If you are curious about Lebanese-style belly dance, please join us! It will be a fantastic workshop!
And now onto the challenge!
Slow it down
We’ve all been there: sweaty palms, nervous energy…rapid breathing. Gotta get this improv DOWN! You step out onto stage, blink in the bright lights, and then DANCEDANCEDANCEDANCEDANCEDANCE.
You leave the stage exhausted, wondering how you could possibly be so worn out after just a 3 minute song! Then you see the video and wondered if, rather than dancing…you’d had a fit. You’re exhausted just watching the video! I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve ALL done it. What happened? You over-danced your piece. It happens most often in improv, but it can also happen in choreographies. You find yourself ahead of the music, rushing through sections to get to the next, because you are so nervous/excited/about to throw up that you have to get through it to the end. In improv, you want to keep the piece interesting, so you do every single move you know, never repeating them, because that would be boring, right?!?! Wrong.
Let’s slow it down. Way down. Way, way, way down.
Dancing, especially belly dancing, shouldn’t be frantic (even up-beat, fast dancing should not be frantic). You exhaust your audience by never stopping, never pausing, and never seeming to enjoy the dance. If you frantic-dance, the audience can’t enjoy the music with you. And if you have a slow song, please, please, please don’t frantic-dance! It’s off-putting. I’ve seen dancers with beautiful technique beating a song to death with every move they know, done as fast as they can be done, but the song was slow, sultry, and intense. Yes, of course, music can be interpreted differently by each dancer, but a piece that is obviously slow tempo, with rich instruments like cello or with juicy rhythms like masmoudi or bolero, should not, in my opinion, be danced like someone set you on fire. Dancing is about the music. Sorry to disappoint you, but as belly dancers, it is our job to interpret the music for the audience, not show them every skill we know in as little time as we can manage.
So what’s the challenge?
Want a starting point? I’m going to shamelessly promote my friend Rosa Noreen’s “Delicious Pauses” DVD (I did a review of it here.) This is a MUST for dancers. It is more geared towards intermediate and advanced dancers, but a solid beginner with some moves under her coin scarf would also benefit from the instruction, and for future reference. I’m promoting it because it was partial inspiration for this challenge, and because it’s a fantastic DVD (and workshop!)
Beginner: You probably aren’t yet thinking about performing, but that’s okay. You still need to learn how to interpret music, whether it’s belly dance music or Tribal fusion music. Your challenge this week is to pick the slowest song you have. No, not that one. Go slower. Find something that absolutely plods, and then find something slower. Now take a combination you’ve learned, and slow it down to fit the song. Hopefully, your teacher has given you combos that are set out in nice, long sets of 8 counts (such as, hip drops for 8 counts, snake arms for 8 counts, then 8 more counts of snake arms as you walk in a tight circle…etc…) That’s what we want! Many dancers fall into the trap of thinking that doing 8, or 16, or even 32 counts of something is dull, and the audience will be like, “Uh, she’s been doing that forever now…can’t she do something else?” What feels like an eternity to dancer is rarely a long time in the song. A count of 8 is usually only a few seconds. So you’re only going to do a move for less than 30 seconds–maybe even less than 15 seconds–if you do it for 32 counts. Not very long!! Practice this every day. Find a slow song and practice a combo to it, even if it’s not the song you originally learned the combo for. Slow it down, be patient, and enjoy the movement.
Intermediate: Okay, you get to pick a nice slow song, too. Now pick a couple of juicy moves, like mayas or figure 8s, and dance them. Slowly. Slow it down even more. Are you doing a maya? Make the maya take 32 counts. This is hard stuff, so don’t get discouraged. It’s going to feel like you are standing still. It’s going to feel boring. But the point of this exercise is for you to understand that slow does NOT equal boring. It’s JUICY. And that’s lovely. That’s what we want. Your challenge is to pick a movement every day and see how slow you can get it. How juicy can you make it when it’s going to take all day to do it? Slow it down and enjoy it. Feel the move, feel how interesting it might be to an audience member who is now sitting on the edge of their seat wondering what you are going to do next! Take hints and tricks from Rosa’s DVD and make them yours!
Advanced: If you are improvising for audiences, you’ve probably made the mistake of over-dancing. This has been a particular challenge for me, especially since I love fast, up-beat songs. It’s horrifying to me to feel like I’m standing on stage doing nothing. But believe me, the power of standing on stage, with all eyes on you, watching you as you barely move an arm…it’s amazing (and how else are you going to get good pictures!!?!!). To have an audience waiting with baited breath for me to finish this juicy, lovely move before surprising them with something else fantastic…it’s super powerful. Dancing is emotion, and sometimes it’s not a happy one. Your challenge is to, this week, choreograph a slow song. Pick a few moves, and only a few, and do a whole song with them. Make those movements last, and find ways to make them interesting. Use your face, use emotion. What do you FEEL with this song, rather than what move can I do here? Again, I highly recommend taking cues from Rosa’s DVD to help you with this.
Let’s all slow it down, because dancing beautifully is our goal, not dancing frantically. And nothing else matters 😉
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!