Gilded Serpent presents...
Now What?
Improvement Ideas for the Growing Dancer
by Anna

1-5-09

As dancers, we all reach points in our development where we are not sure how to improve. We’ve taken so many classes and workshops, and we perform regularly, but it seems that we cannot grab that illusive thing called growth, at least at the rate at which we desire. Most classes and workshops are geared for beginner and intermediate students and most advanced training is merely a shallow continuation of previous levels. This typically leaves a dancer's development to time and experience, which can be frustrating for those of us seeking to quickly become well-rounded dancers. Often, finding avenues that cater to our educational needs is difficult and is frequently an obstacle to our professional growth.

This article is for those of us that would like to delve into areas of the art form that may be beyond the usual class topics. This is not due to the failing of instructors everywhere, because much of our growth as dancers is very personal, and it is really up to us, as individual dancers, to seek out knowledge applicable to our needs (when we are ready to receive it), and to practice consistently to foster growth over time, outside of the dance studio.

Below are some ideas on what dancers can do to increase their skills as dancers, performers, and entertainers, as well as increase their knowledge of dance related topics:   

Back to the Basics…and Beyond
You can never be too good technically! Dancers are just like athletes. To perform at high levels, you must consistently drill the basics and constantly increase your level of technical difficulty. Okay, so you have a great hip drop, but can you do that hip drop with various traveling foot patterns? Can you overlay that hip drop over something else? Can you layer other movements over that hip drop? Can you hip drop with precision at different trajectories and heights? Is that hip drop just as precise when done fast or slow? The possibilities are endless! There is always something to improve, regarding technique. I would encourage you not to be complacent with knowing how to do any move only one way. Definitely, drilling and experimenting with movement should be a part of your regular practice routine. There are many DVDs available that focus on drilling, if you need some ideas on what to do.

Keep Practicing
Sometimes we get so caught up in amassing knowledge that we stop physically practicing. While imaginary dance practice has its place, it is no substitute for real practice. Again–dancers are athletes. “You must use it, or you will lose it!” It is a cliché, because it is true. Take a class to stay in condition, or try a new class to check out the approach of a different instructor. Work on old choreographies, perfecting them or changing them. Find DVDs that you can use on a daily or weekly basis to maintain skill or to learn something new.       

Find a Mentor or a Coach
If you don’t have one already, a mentor or a coach can be an important catalyst for change in a dancer’s career. They can help you identify gaps in your skills and knowledge. Often, our own perception of things can be “off”.  Mentors can offer valuable insight that would, otherwise, come the hard way. Remember: they have been where you are now, and can provide advice that may help you avoid common pitfalls. If you don’t have a mentor or coach and are not sure how to find one, look for professional dancers or instructors who are highly respected in your community. Find someone whom you admire and is able to act as your role model. Only a dancer who has “been there and done that” can better help you get to that special place in your career. If your desire is to be a good restaurant performer, find a mentor that has effectively done that. Don’t choose someone who has never danced in restaurants!  If you want to try competitions, find a coach that has placed in a competition, has a record of students that have placed, or at least has trained intensively with ones that have.

Explore Other Styles
If you are mainly an American Cabaret dancer, have you explored or honed skills in classical or modern Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, or increased your knowledge of their origins? If you are skilled in tribal or fusion styles, maybe going back to more traditional styles or learning a different dance form, can give you a fresh approach. Try something entirely new to get your body and mind working in different ways. There are many regional folk dances and styles in which you could learn more about and increase your knowledge and skills. Choose something and spend the time and effort to become proficient.  

Learn a New Prop or Improve Use of an Old One
Though zills are not a prop, have you neglected to learn to use them well or are your current skills stagnating.? New DVDs have recently hit the market addressing advanced zil playing. Study with a master zil player or start learning how to use them. Learn more difficult veil moves. You can start studying an entirely new prop (stage property): single or double veils, capes, cane, different objects of fire, candles, balancing trays or swords, voi (veiled poi), fans, almost anything goes in Belly dance these days. Maybe your discovery will be the next big workshop topic!

Videotape Your Dance
Often our perception of what think we are doing and what we are actually doing in performance is not “in sync”. Have a friend or family member video your performances occasionally, so you can monitor what you are doing and immediately correct anything that has become a bad habit in your dancing. It can also show you what you are doing right in performance. Perhaps you are not aware that your left hand flips incessantly, or that you lick your lips too much, or that you really are doing too much of one thing. Only video or a really observant and brutally honest critic will clue you in to those details.

Train for competition
Whether you decide to actually compete is your decision, but it never hurts to train on this level. Many competitions post their judging criteria online. This information is a guideline regarding the qualities that are expected in a good Belly dance performer. If you do decide to compete (for the learning experience), it is a good idea to compete in a contest that offers feedback from the judges. There are a few competitions that only provide a numeric score with no written feedback. You can imagine how much more valuable written feedback could be to the growing dancer who is interested in what high quality dancers think of her performance.

Enroll in an Extended Workshop from a Top Professional Instructor
Many wonderful instructors hold weeklong workshops around the world. Frequently, it takes more than a 3-hour workshop to really soak in the style and movements of others. “Week-longs” are a great way to really get familiar with another style. Additionally, you have the benefit of getting to know and learn from some of Belly dances’ true master performers.

Observe Other Dancers
Sometimes just watching other dancers is enough inspiration to get back on track. You can learn so much about what to do and what not to do simply by watching other dancers! Since I started dancing, I have noticed certain qualities in other dancers that I have hoped to acquire. I remember Saqra’s sense of humor and freedom, Delilah’s confidence and strength, Tamallyn’s creative expression, Nadira’s grace and fluidity, and Ansuya’s abandon. There have been countless others who have inspired me to grow beyond simply executing movement into becoming a true entertainer.

Get Better Acquainted with Your Music
Have you taken the time to learn the names and time signatures of rhythms commonly used in our dance form? Can you recognize them in your dance music? Have you explored the more oddly metered rhythms? Do you know about their origins or if they are tied to a specific dance or region? Have you learned about the most common maqamat? Do you even know what a maqam is?

Beyond music knowledge, you may also delve into you own musicality. Mentally deconstruct your music. Learn to recognize the maqam, base rhythm, common rhythmic accents, the melody, the different instruments and what movements work well with the various aspects of your music. Match your dance with the flavor or mood of the song during your practice. Find a song’s lyrics and practice expressing those lyrics in an authentic (or believable) way.

Improve or Update Your Image
We all know that it’s what’s inside that counts, but to think that you could go onstage with minimal hair and make-up is naïve. Any one who has read the bestseller “Blink” or heard the adage: “You only get one chance to make a first impression!” knows that looks do count in our culture of perfection. This is especially true for those of us in entertainment, as we Belly dancers are. I’m not saying you should wear more make-up than Tammy Faye or diet yourself into nothingness. You should, however, be made-up enough that your audience can tell that you did not just roll out of bed and thorough enough that your audience can distinguish your facial features at a distance. That’s what stage make-up is! Your hair should be clean and coiffed. What is the use of having on a fabulous sparkly costume if everything else about you looks shabby?

Invest some time into learning about hair and make-up for performers. The Internet has many resources. There are also DVDs available to assist you. Get some free makeovers at the MAC counter and discuss your tresses with a good hair stylist. Buy “hair”, if you must!

Work on Choreography or Improvisation Technique
Most of us are more naturally gifted at one or the other. To challenge yourself, you should strive to be good at both, by pushing yourself to do what doesn’t come naturally. You can focus on choreography by creating your own choreography, working with choreography on a DVD, taking a choreography-based workshop, or joining a troupe. You can work on your improvisation technique by practicing with unfamiliar songs , plan on performing improvisation, work on techniques to “fake” choreography, or only choreograph certain sections of a routine, leaving the rest to spontaneous dance movement.

Travel to the Lands of Dance
Seeing and experiencing different places and cultures, especially those related to your particular dance style, can be just the thing to rediscover your muse. Make a point to study with instructors who are not always available in the country where you live. See what dancers are doing over there. Bring home some new moves and a better understanding of the dance from its source!

Develop Your Skills as a Performer and Entertainer
Dance is even more special when it aspires to inspire and entertain an audience. Like a good TV show or movie, a great performer can take an audience on a mental or emotional journey. Being able to express emotion while you dance gives the audience an opportunity to connect with you beyond simply witnessing you execute movements, but instead, allows them to get inside your head and heart, where dance moments may be shared between the dancer and the audience. Being able to connect with an audience is the secret to being a great entertainer!

Taking an acting class can be helpful. Get some coaching from dancers that are also great entertainers, even if that means instructors outside of Belly dance. There are also DVDs available that specifically address stage presence from dancers for example: Amaya’s Star Power and Michelle Joyce’s Secrets of the Stage series. You could also delve into learning more about tailoring your performances for different types of venues and audiences.  

Get Physical
Strength, stamina, flexibility are important factors in developing and maintaining good technique. Together they can help you gain greater range of motion, better muscle control and help you dance for longer periods of time without tiring. Properly fueling your dance machine can have a big impact on your dance too.

In Conclusion
There is so much to this art form we call Belly dance, so many areas of related study, and so many areas that have the potential for your growth. I hope the above information has provided you with some ideas of what you can do to improve both your skill and your knowledge of this dance.

 

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