I will never be that good. I will never be successful.
I hear this a lot in many circles: in writing, in dance, in most other creative outlets I’m a part of or know people in. I see famous authors tweeting out that their writing is crap because it isn’t like someone else’s. I see dancers desperately trying to dance/look just like their idols, but lamenting over how they can’t do one trick or another.
I, too, find myself watching other dancers, or reading other people’s books, and putting myself down the entire time: “I can’t do that trick.” “I can’t write such evocative prose.” “I will never be able to do the splits.”
I get depressed over the lack of time I have to completely change the direction of my dancing and writing skills to go after the ones I do not possess, to be just like someone I admire. I feel the pull to dance just like that famous dancer or write just like that famous writer. The thought presses down on me: I will never be successful unless I change how I do my art.
I’m going to borrow a phrase from British English here: bollocks.
We should never change ourselves or our art to please others.
My prose is not flowery and flowy. I will never make you cry over the beauty of my words. My stories hit you in the face like a ton of bricks, ripping open feelings and picking through them like birds with entrails. This does not make me a bad writer. My dance is not light and feminine and playful, nor is it hip hop or ballet. My dance is a powerful blend of styles, with knife-sharp isolations and musicality (also kind of like a ton of bricks to the face). This does not make me a bad dancer.
I may lament those lacks, and feel the pressure to change, but that’s not going to do me any favors. While I might not make you cry over the beauty of my words, I can certainly disturb you with the dark imagery I spill onto the page. The important message here is that neither is better than the other.
To force myself to change these things about my art would change me and how I express myself. It would be inauthentic. The one thing that we do not seem to tell other artists enough is that being yourself will lead to your success.
Authenticity is a cornerstone of artistic expression. Art comes from within, and people tend to notice when artists aren’t “feeling it.” To me, authenticity is part of that elusive “it factor” that some artists have. We can’t describe “it” but we sure know star power, the “it factor,” when we see it.
Once I came out as trans, people started telling me that they have noticed how my dancing has changed, and that has changed how they see me as a dancer. I was literally told that they can’t believe the progress I’ve made as a dancer in the short time since I’ve come out. While some of that is definitely training, a lot of it is being authentic. I can finally express, through my art, who I really am inside.
In my writing, I got nowhere with stories about women. I then started writing trans-related stories and essays, and suddenly I’ve sold three of them. All I did was refocus my efforts into being authentic and into writing characters that I identified with because I was just like them.
So don’t worry about whether you can do this trick or that trick, or write that genre or that way. If you really want to learn it, that’s great. I’m always all about challenging ourselves to stretch and learn and grow (we should always be learning!). But if it feels inauthentic, or doesn’t work with your style, stop saying how bad you are for not being just like that other artist. Stop putting yourself down because you aren’t just like some famous person. Be you instead, and train to be the best you you can be. No one else can be you.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the future of belly dance. The belly dance community was recently rocked by some controversial notes on Facebook (now deleted) questioning fusion’s role in the belly dance community and the erroneous linkage of fusion’s popularity to the decline of belly dance in general. Some other discussions have popped up around the decline of belly dance, the boredom of audiences with belly dance, and the lack of paid performance opportunities.
I had initially written a fairly inflammatory response to these issues, but have decided to, instead, feed the right wolf.
Where do YOU want to see belly dance headed? Do you want to see it go down in flames, with petty in-fighting driving away potential customers and supporters, or do you want to see it thrive and grow, with dancers working together to make belly dance appealing to all audiences?
Personally, I want belly dance – all dance, all dancers – to succeed. I want good paid opportunities, free of harassment. I want students to be supported in whatever style they choose, without teachers’ egos stifling their growth. I want belly dance to be taken seriously as both a cultural artform to be carefully preserved and a new, emerging vehicle for artistic expression. I want full classes and thriving festivals. I want traditional-style dancers to be respected and to eagerly share their wealth of knowledge. I want fusion dancers to want to learn the roots of the dance and to take the issues surrounding it seriously.
To throw another cliche out there, a rising tide raises all boats. If we support one another, if we put aside useless style wars, then we can focus our limited time and resources into making belly dance succeed. I refuse to spend my energy on tearing other dancers down, on arguing over who is or is not doing belly dance “right.” If I’m arguing online, I’m not doing belly dance at all!
So if you want to succeed in belly dance, if you want belly dance to grow and gain a wider acceptance, then put your work in towards that. Stop feeding the wrong wolf and giving the negativity and fighting all of your energy. We can only do this together.
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?
I’ve been posting lately a lot about challenging yourself (see those weekly challenges!) and about failure. It’s important to understand that, as artists, we don’t always succeed. But that does not mean we should just give up.
Why do I take the time to think up and write up all those weekly challenges? Why do I bother? Because I do them, too. Because I try to improve myself all the time. If we do not challenge ourselves, we stagnate, get bored, and then quit. Or we wonder why we haven’t magically become better dancers. You CANNOT grow unless you challenge yourself. Sorry, law of the universe here, can’t be helped. Enlightenment doesn’t just come from sitting under trees. We must go through trials first, then we can be pleased at our growth.
If you find that you are not growing, that you are not as a good a dancer as s0-and-so (and I dislike making those types of comparisons), or that you aren’t where you want to be with your dance, maybe you should challenge yourself more. Don’t be afraid of trying something new, different, or hard. As I said in my previous post on this subject, humans are afraid of failure. Unfortunately, we also want to be masters of everything we do, right NOW. NOW I say…how about YESTERDAY? Now? How about now? No one has any patience anymore, and growth takes patience (ask anyone who has tried to grow a garden…you don’t get pumpkins in three days now do you?) Yeah it sucks to think about how long it might take you to get where you want to be, but the journey is important. Think about how much fun it will be to challenge yourself every day to be a better dancer. Think of the relief and elation that comes when you finally master that move that’s been your nemesis for the past three weeks. Shouldn’t that be delicious?
Again, I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to take belly dance classes because they think it might be too hard. After much reflection, I have to say this, and it won’t be very nice: that’s a really poor attitude to take. You don’t even want to try something because you don’t want to even take the chance you might not be a genius at it the very first time you try it? I apologize for being mean there, but I think a lot of us need a kick in the pants, not sweet words, to shake us up a bit. You cannot master any form of dance–belly dance included–in six weeks. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen. If your current teacher isn’t challenging you, maybe you should ask for more. Or find another teacher. If all you ever practice are the moves you already excel in, why bother? (of course, as a side note, all dancers should practice even basic moves often, but not to the exclusion of all else).
I like this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though he was talking about something quite different, it still applies: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Here’s another, from Robert Louis Stevenson, “We must accept life for what it actually is–a challenge to our quality without which we should never know of what stuff we are made, or grow to our full stature.”
Rise to the challenge, reach for the stars. Grow, change, evolve. Don’t stagnate, don’t be afraid of failure or of challenges. How can we know what we are made of, if we don’t reach out, fall, get up, and keep going? If it’s worth it to you to be a better dancer, then you have to be willing to pay the price…challenge and growth.