You Can't Get From
November 24, 2005
the convergence of the twin crazes of bellydance-as-fitness
and bellydancer-as-original-priestess-of-the-goddess, it
seems that everyone and their grandma has put out an instructional
video or DVD on how to bellydance. Recently, a wave of instructional
DVDs for percussion have also surfaced in the bellydance
world for use by dancers and percussionists alike.
with many other dancers, have tried (wo)manfully to learn
the drums. We got ourselves tablas, tambourines, and frame
drums and doggedly learned to play a few simple rhythms
under the gimlet eye and ear of some instructor who could
correct us when our playing was off the beat or not crisp
how much can you really learn from books or video? I
asked this question of a martial-arts instructor of mine,
whom I've known since 1989, and who also enjoyed a career
as a stage magician. I figured you probably can't learn
martial arts from books alone (although there's certainly
a plethora of books and magazines on the subject). But what
about stage magic? Once you know the gimmick, isn't that
the important point?
gist of what he said to me was this:
martial arts] You can tell who has learned from a video
because their techniques are picture perfect. But they
lack... life... you can also tell when their instructors
have never applied their techniques.
on to describe his magical career by saying, "I learned
at the fingers of the masters..."
role of feedback, both explicit and implicit, and the
ability to ask questions are an essential part of the
practice can develop timing and motor skills, but when you
are performing in the presence of other people you have
to re-learn what you have learned with the addition of more
stimuli. The more perfect you are by yourself, the more
destabilizing a new stimulus - such as eye contact - can
movement form, whether it be music, dance, martial arts,
or athletics, has a psycho-motor component, a cognitive
component, and an interactive component. Psycho-motor has
to do with getting your body to do what you want it to do:
run, jump, somersault, or strike a series of drum beats.
Cognitive means that you can name what you are doing: maqsoum
rhythm, time trials, or 3-step turn. Interactive means that
you must respond or react appropriately to unpredictable
stimuli from your surroundings: what might happen during
an improvised drum solo, or when inviting audience members
to get up and dance during a party.
sports, such as soccer or tennis, are highly interactive.
Playing with others is the proving ground for whether you
know what you are doing or not, ultimately it is what validates
your efforts. Other people are your mirror. Outdoor sports,
such as rock climbing, also involve working with other people,
for safety among other reasons, and ultimately I think most
people who strive for achievement appreciate peer recognition
at some point. I mean, if you can bench press 200 lbs but
nobody ever hears about it, what fun is that?
terms of learning, we need recognition in order to feel
secure and confident about what we are doing.
recognition can come from dancing for an audience who are
unconsciously in synch with us, such as nodding or otherwise
showing approval. An effective instructor should provide
at least some approval (although a lot of them don't, focusing
only on what the student is doing wrong, and their students
are often neurotic wrecks).
you don't get this recognition, you will never feel truly
confident of your mastery. And this recognition is one
thing you can never get from a video or DVD.
art forms such as dance also have an "ineffable"
component, the "how did she do that?" factor.
Suddenly, a movement that looked simple, that any beginner
can do, becomes almost supernatural. Everything happens
at once: emotional expression, timing, body angle, momentum,
and spontaneity unite in a single instant of genius.
can you learn that in a studio by yourself? You can't.
will end up a hothouse flower: picture-perfect, but unable
to respond to any disruption in your perfectly memorized
routines, unable to hold your own in the so-called real
might be better to be less technically accomplished, but
more solid in the skills that you do have.
is achieved through regular exposure to masters and to your
critical factor is that your teacher, and other students,
must believe in your ability to succeed even when you don't.
This comes back to the recognition theme. A good instructor
knows when to give positive feedback, and when to suggest
a correction. Instructors who only criticize tend to produce
damaged students. However, if the instructor always gives
positive feedback, then it becomes meaningless. A DVD that
says "good job!" every 2 minutes simulates this
part of the learning experience, but simulation isn't the
same as the real thing.
trying to imagine a DVD that would insult me after every
exercise by saying how poorly I was doing at it, which is
what some instructors do when they pick on one or two people
every class, and wondering if it would sell… probably not…)
learning is in our biology. The reinforcement from fellow
humans is what solidifies or "fixes" the new neural
pathways you are etching so painstakingly through repetition
and practice. It is the crucial last step in making the
skill your own. You cannot get this from a mass-produced,
pre-recorded, online lesson.
able to withstand honest opinions is crucial. If one never
communicates directly with one's peers AS PEERS, that is,
not as sycophantic students, one can develop an insular
and self-referential mindset without ever realizing it.
are social animals, and isolation disintegrates the psyche.
If an artist never shares her art with other people, then
she might become very inflexible and brittle, unable to
adapt to circumstance. Her art will be a museum piece, always
seen under glass.
the same with music, another "ineffable" skill.
Two learning models are the weekly lesson and growing up
with it as part of your daily life.
Western classical music model, as I experienced it growing
up, was this: You went for weekly lessons, usually private.
The teacher heard what you practiced, and gave you additional
scales and exercises. Then you went home and practiced daily
(after being badgered by your parents about how expensive
lesson are, and why are you letting good money go to waste?).
Eventually, you tried out for marching band or an orchestra,
where you were mostly told what to do. Typically, it was
grinding away at exercises and student pieces which weren't
in and of themselves worth playing.
growing-up-with-it model might be more like this: From the
time you were very young, your parents took you out with
them to gigs because, being musicians, they couldn't afford
babysitters. As soon as you could hold a rattle in your
chubby fist, you were part of the band. Pretty soon you
knew what to do, and would play a simple but charming part.
By the time you were old enough to think for yourself, it
was too late: the music was already in your bones.
of dancers say "But I can't get to class! There's no
one teaching in my area, and no other dancers!" And
to that I would say it may be that you would have to relocate.
This is a sacrifice that not everyone can make.
tambourine DVD says (as does every other instructional video
I've ever watched) that you should seek regular instruction.
I would go further and say,
if you're starting a NEW art form, don't bother with the
videos unless you have some real-life people to work with,
even if it's only every other week. As a beginner,
you may run into problems initially related to positioning
or repetitive stress, and it's important to be able to
ask questions and get some concrete, usable suggestions
before going too far.
a video can be a valuable supplement if you're already
taking regular instruction. It can remind you of finer
details and exercises you might otherwise forget. It is
also helpful supplement after taking a workshop - you can
grab the DVD and work on it daily for the next week or so,
while the workshop is still fresh in your mind.
back to class will keep you honest. I have been through
some instructional DVDs where I really felt I was doing
well. Then I went to class and, lo and behold, I wasn't
any better than anyone else in the class. I was glad I had
practiced - but also glad to be put on the spot so I'd know
where I really stood.
is a video better than class? Well, sometimes you might
not have good chemistry with the teachers you have available
to you. And, just as you can't get much out of a DVD without
some real-life validation, you won't get as much out of
teachers who don't believe in you. And you have to believe
in them as well. If you don't see them dance and think,
"I want to look like that when I dance," then
get thee to another teacher.
is some division of opinion as to whether one should study
at all with someone who has serious personality problems.
Can you learn their skills without also picking up their
neuroses or their ethical lapses? In my opinion the answer
is that it's probably OK to study with someone like that
for a while, IF your personality is already strong, but
that eventually their problems will become your problems
if you don't move on.)
another category of instructional video that can be very
helpful, and that is performance footage, such as
the annual awards series put out by the International Academy
of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED). Even here, the support
of live people is important.
opinion, watching performance videos by yourself in your
own private ivory tower, especially as a beginning dancer,
isn't going to make you a great dancer.
get a lot more out of watching such things in a group
of people where at least some of the viewers are knowledgeable.
I learn a lot more from good commentary than from the
better is getting two knowledgeable people who have differing
opinions about what they're watching. I use these videos
as a reference mostly, for particular dancers or particular
examples, such as a cane dance or double veil.
dancers are supposed to develop musical appreciation, another
educational media to mention is concert footage. A lot of
people think that listening to an audio CD is the same as
being at a concert. It isn't. Even watching it on film,
which gives you some visuals, is not the same-not even
close. Not to mention that the acoustics from real instruments
in a hall are fundamentally different from what comes out
of a single set of speakers or headphones.
key is going to live performances where the audience
is knowledgeable. Imagine watching a classical
music performance of an unknown genre with a crowd of people
who had no previous exposure, all earnestly reading their
program notes, trying to appreciate something that's completely
foreign to them. Or maybe bellydance wannabes are getting
up and dancing in the aisles to sacred music, while the
aficionados whisper among themselves... the horror! Then,
imagine this same concert in a hall full of people who love
and really appreciate the genre.
a musician onstage hits a particular note or riff, there's
a collective sigh... that's how you know that it was an
it's a mistake to seek perfection in an instructional DVD.
People think that if only they get the formula right, then
everyone who goes through their DVD is guaranteed to come
out playing or dancing like a master. But learning cannot
be reduced to a one-size-fits-all recipe.
think the instructional DVDs do serve an important purpose,
in introducing someone's approach.
like their approach, you can always seek them out through
workshops or events that may take advance planning and travel
on your part. Then, when you go back to the DVD, it'll make
a lot more sense. Plus, the instructor might be flattered
that you bought their work and actually cared enough to
come to their workshop and ask questions. In my experience,
the instructors are really pleased to see people making