Advice for Dancers

[These thoughts were originally published as part of the DVD Beautiful Technique from Step One.]

heart pagesWhen I talk with other dancers, I find that nearly all of us have had a common experience: belly dance infatuated us with love at first sight. From the first moment of our first class, we were hooked. But, as in any relationship, getting the most from belly dance takes work. Obviously, much of that work is physical. But dance also happens in our minds and in our hearts. We must each discover our identity as dancers before we can truly take ownership of our art.

Be serious about making dance, but don’t be stern. Be happy! Have fun! Make choices, be intentional, and create the dance that you want to put in the world.

Belly dance is filled with labels and categories. Use these categories to help you, but not to limit you. Descriptive ideas (Turkish, Egyptian, Cabaret, Tribal, Fusion) all give some information about the type of music, movement vocabulary, and costuming a dancer might be using, but they don’t tell us really fundamental information. As you learn about different styles, start to think also about context and motive:
  • Is your dance intended for an audience, or do you dance simply to enjoy dancing?
  • Are you interested in elite movements that require special ability, or do you favor an inclusive vocabulary that is for “anyone and everyone?”
  • Do you enjoy dance as a means of unlimited self-expression, or do you prefer the structure and conventions of a traditional approach?
  • What is your level of motivation and ambition?

As long as you understand and describe your work accurately and honestly, you are entitled to be any dancer you want to be. This may seem like simple and obvious advice, but it may not be so obvious if you are dancing in a small community where a few strong personalities promote certain styles. On any given day you may be as traditional or creative as you wish; you may choreograph or improvise; you may work in a particular style, or create your own. You may strive for excellence, or just dabble.

Belly dance exists as both a participatory activity and as a performance art. Performance is not right for everyone. You may have the most rewarding experience dancing solely for personal reasons, at home or in classes, alone or within communities of friends. Personal reasons are great reasons: dance for healing, spirituality, community, ethnic heritage, sensuality, fitness, recreation, or pure joy.

If you choose to take your dancing into the public sphere as a performer, remember that you are no longer dancing just for your own pleasure. Stay true to yourself, but, if you want to be treated with dignity and respect, respect the desires and expectations of your audience: to find the greatest satisfaction and success, match your performance to the appropriate venue and context.

If you are still practicing, make sure you are only dancing in recitals and other venues for developing performers.

If you are doing traditional commercial work as an entertainer at nightclubs or parties, you’ll be most successful if you follow the conventions of these venues.

If you present yourself as a performer of dances from a particular culture or country, be authentic and respect the traditions of the form.

If your work is artistic, creative, or conceptual, tell your audience so, and make sure they are in the mood to see something new.

To move your dancing to the next level, take to heart words of wisdom you already know: “what you put in is what you get out.” The benefits of continuing to build your technique are obvious, but don’t stop there. Technique is like a box of tools. Having a variety of high quality tools makes any kind of work easier, but tools are useless until you know what you want to build. A large vocabulary, whether of words or movements, is not enough to make you a great communicator. You also must have something to say.

Self-expression can be intimidating, especially in dance. All artists reveal themselves through their work, but as dancers we undergo the unique vulnerability of showing not only our ideas but our bodies. Be brave.

And, be smart. Keep learning and improving. Take initiative. Ask how and why. Teachers and coaches are invaluable curators of information who can help you to focus your training; but, in the end, no one can dance for you. You must do the work of discovering dance within yourself. Move beyond passive imitation. Be active and fearless and you will grow the wisdom that will let you dance the truth of your soul.

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