3 more dancers and you’re on. Your stomach is churning and sweat is running down the inside of your arms before you have even started dancing.
Not feeling like thisTamin?
So what does this mean for you backstage?
3 more dancers and you’re on. Your stomach is churning and sweat is running down the inside of your arms before you have even started dancing.
As serious dancers, we should always be looking to grow, expand and improve on our skills. Sometimes this means taking on new physical challenges in strength, balance, flexibility and maybe even endurance. The key to success in training for these kinds of belly dance achievements is to define a clear path of how to get there. In situations like this, some thought to the specificity of your approach will make your efforts more effective and less frustrating.
Specificity is the relevance and appropriateness of training to a particular activity or skill. Usually, in academic publications this is discussed in terms of sports, but as dancers, we know that belly dance can be a seriously athletic endeavor! By relevant we mean it prepares the body for all the various demands of the activity. By appropriate, we mean that the volume and intensity of the training is sufficient to prompt the body to respond with gains in strength, flexibility or whatever effect we are after.
When you decide to tackle a new belly dance skill that will tax your body more than it is accustomed to, it is smart to start preparing yourself before even diving into the actual practice. Let’s take floorwork for example – this is one of the most physically demanding aspects of Middle Eastern dance. Floorwork requires core strength, shoulder strength, and for some moves, significant spinal flexibility.
Before beginning the learning and practice phase of taking on floorwork it would be very helpful to work on strength in the quadriceps muscles, shoulders and core especially. You would want to incorporate flexibility work for the spine, hip flexors and ankles (those kneeling crawls are tough!) Different skills require other attributes – that is exactly why specificity in training is so important. By preparing yourself to take on the task, you will make the learning process and your practice more comfortable and successful – and most importantly, reduce your chance of injury.
Specificity is also important in your pre-practice warm up once you have begun to dive into your new skill. Let’s look at the example of fan veils this time. Your warm up should include mobilizing the hands and wrists in all directions to lubricate the many small joints there. It should also include a full warm up of the upper body and shoulders to prepare for the large movements it takes to maneuver the fans.
Your pre-practice warm up can also be followed by more strengthening exercises to maintain and continue your progress in getting stronger, but they shouldn’t be so intense that you will fatigue the muscles you need to practice effectively. That just leads to sloppy form, a poor quality practice and potential injury. Keep the more intense strengthening routines separate from your practice, or perhaps following it if that’s the only way it fits in your schedule.
Of course, warm ups aren’t only for class and practice! It is imperative that you warm up thoroughly before your show as well, both for performance quality and for your safety. This can be tricky, as your space may be limited and you will almost certainly be in your costume. Think ahead and figure out a warm up sequence that will serve your purposes while being able to be done in a small space without getting on the floor.
Does this sound like a lot of work and preparation? Well, it is. But if all skills were easy to achieve, they wouldn’t be so amazing to watch! Putting in the time to analyze the skill you are after and figure out your best and safest route there will give you the most satisfying results in the end. And once achieved, your gains in strength, balance and flexibility will make the next skill that much more accessible.
If you are unsure of how to break down the physical needs of a new skill or select the exercises to prepare yourself, consider getting some qualified help from a certified trainer or fitness instructor that has experience working with dancers. This is a teaching service I offer both in person and through online lessons too.
Very few books on belly dance catch my attention enough to actually read them. Even fewer find a way to be relevant to both the beginner and the seasoned performer. After being a fan and follower of Princess Farhana’s blog for years, I knew “The Belly Dance Handbook” would make it onto my reading list. This lady is one of the hardest working and most diverse performers in the biz, and she’s got a wealth of experience that ranges far beyond just the dancing. That’s what I love about this book – she shares the goods on all the topics a pro dancer needs to know, but will never learn in dance class. I can hardly cover it all, but I’d like to share a few of the aspects I found particularly valuable.
Princess Farhana’s overview of belly dance styles and props is a major strength of this book. The beginner would find it useful to get the “lay of the land” so they can begin to explore in an informed way and have some context when they encounter performance genres they don’t recognize. I made this assigned reading for my serious private students! As an experienced dancer who’s done her fair share of research, I loved this section because it really wove together all the threads of styles over time, creating a “bird’s eye view” of our history.
Another place where this book really shines is in the costume department. Princess Farhana is legendary for her elaborate, meticulous and “totally together” look. In the costuming section, she discusses strategies for building a costume wardrobe on a budget, including how to make sure you get your money’s worth whether you are purchasing new or used. But it doesn’t stop there – she schools us on how to store, transport and clean our delicate bedlahs. This section also covers all the extras that complete the look like hairpieces, jewelry, the low down on costume undies, and makeup tricks for face and body.
Trial and error – lots of error – are the way so many dancers learn about things like photoshoots. That can be an expensive lesson! Princess Farhana’s photos are always striking, unique and full of personality. What works on stage and what works in front of the camera are not the same. She shares lots of tips for preparing for your shoot, how to play up your best features and creatively mask others, as well as what kind of photos are necessary for promotion and getting your “brand” across.
I really appreciated the section on stage lighting. This is another topic we don’t get exposed to till we are in the moment and need it. Most dancers wouldn’t know what to ask for if given the chance. Most lighting techs at shows wouldn’t be willing to tell you what they are using and why so you could learn, but the Princess will fill you in on stage jargon, lighting basics and how colored gels can enhance your skin tone and costume color, set a mood … or just make you look sick.
I’ve really barely scratched the surface of what “The Belly Dance Handbook” covers. There is plenty of practical information about living and working in the biz – onstage and off, including turning pro, teaching, belly dance tourism, navigating the belly dance community and business practices. Princess Farhana’s voice and engaging personality really shine in the writing so it’s never dry. I highly recommend it, wherever you are on your belly dance journey!
Last week there was a pretty lively belly dance discussion on Saqra Raybuck’s Facebook page regarding how to be a considerate dressing room companion. As bellydancers, we rarely have spacious, luxurious, star-quality dressing spaces. The reality is usually a crowded room with suitcases on the floor, a few mirrors and a table – if you’re lucky – and poor lighting. Most of the contributors to the discussion were experienced professionals – and among us, we had a good many backstage tales to tell. A lot of good points came up, so I thought I’d share some of them with you here.
Have a small footprint. Put your gig bag down and keep your stuff close to it. Costume suitcases do have a way of “exploding” once you start getting dressed, but fold your things up and keep it all contained. Packing up will be that much easier for it later.
No photos, please! What? People really do that? Yes, I’m sad to say they really do. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If you really must do a pre-show selfie for Instagram, do it in the hall. 4 feet behind you people are getting naked. Think before you shoot.
Share the mirrors. If there are only a few mirrors for lots of dancers to share, be courteous. Get in, get glittered and get out. Don’t park yourself with your full makeup bag to do your whole face. If you aren’t going to arrive with most of your stage face on, bring a mirror of your own to use so you can take your time. When you’re done, offer to share and make a friend!
If it’s not yours, don’t touch it. Treat other people’s things as you’d want yours to be treated. Don’t borrow someone’s mirror to brush you hair and leave the hairball from your brush as a present. Yes, that really happened too. Gross, huh? Sadly, some dancers have even had things stolen – from cash to whole costumes. We’re in this together backstage, let’s act like it.
Careful with the costumes! A crowded dressing room is not the place for food or drinks, other than water in a closed container. Can you imagine if someone’s yogurt spilled on your precious Bella? Costumes and food don’t mix. Step outside the room to snack.
Step out before you spray. Your hairspray or perfume doesn’t just land on you. Also, some people have fragrance allergies.
Put your phone on vibrate. If you need to take more than a very short call, step out of the room.
BE NICE 🙂 A pleasant attitude does wonders for backstage energy. Contribute to the good vibe. Or a least don’t contribute to a bad one. Complaints, bragging and “one-upping” don’t leave a good impression.
DO warm up, and please be compact about it. Ideally, you should leave the dressing area to do your warm up ( you DO warm up before a show, don’t you?). For times when that is impossible, learn to do an effective warm up in your own space. Shoulder circles, standing cat/cow, knee lifts – it is possible.
If you have something “not nice” to say…. wait. If you have concerns about the show procedures, backstage isn’t the place to vent. Close your lips and put your lipstick on. Save your thoughts and share them in a polite way with the person they actually concern – in private, by email or by phone later. Let’s keep that vibe positive backstage!
Forgot something? Just ask! We’ve talked about a lot of bad dressing room behavior, but the vast majority of dancers in my experience are happy help out with bobby pins, eyelash glue or any other little thing that got left behind at home. It’s good dressing room karma. I got to share my glitter lotion with one of my bellydance heroines once…. it felt grrrreat! 🙂
Keep your music to yourself. If you like to listen to your show music over and over before a performance, do it with headphones. You are the only one that needs to hear it. Also, I would say this was the second biggest complaint- right behind our next one…..
It’s a DRESSING room – not a studio. The dressing area is not the place to run through your choreography. There is rarely if ever space and even if there were, it’s just not polite. As a matter of fact, it can make you look as if you’re cramming in a last-minute rehearsal and not prepared. If you must do a run through, find another area of the building or even go outside, weather permitting.
Leave it clean. Check your space after you pack up. Throw away your water bottle, tissues and other trash. Wipe up any glittery messes. Imagine how pleased the host would be if everyone did that. Now image if no one did….
It really comes down to having “Golden Rule” behavior backstage. The dressing room can be a wonderful place full of anticipation, excitement and sisterly good times. That is part of the fun of a show night – for me, anyway – and dancing should be fun, on stage and backstage. We’re in it together, let’s act like it.
As performers and belly dancers, we pour a lot into a performance – time, energy, sweat, When the time comes, we put it out for all to see and then comes the last phase, evaluation. It’s an important one and we lose a valuable tool for improvement if we don’t process it for all it’s worth and harness its true value. There’s self-evaluation and then there’s the less formal evaluation we get from others in the form of comments and feedback – whether we asked for it or not.
It’s easy to take a self-protectionist stance and accept the positive feedback and dismiss the negative, but that is not the best criteria on which to decide which words to take to heart and which to let go in one ear and out the other. Considering the personal investment we put into creating a performance piece, it’s natural that our emotions play a role but it’s much more beneficial to filter the accolades and criticisms by more rational means. So let’s talk a bit about how to sort out the signals…
Feedback comes in from a variety of channels – civilian audience members, our peers, our mentors, YouTube viewers. The reactions we get from any of these can be useful or useless. Before we venture further, we need to recognize that all we can give is 100% of what we have on any given day and that changes from day to day. Our emotional and physical state can lift us up or keep us from performing to our full potential. Hopefully we have prepared ourselves diligently. Only we know the truth in these and we owe it to ourselves to be both honest and compassionate with ourselves in considering these factors.
Compliments feel great, but the ones that mean the most come from people who are trained and experienced enough to know what makes a real quality performance and are not easily “wowed” by the sparkle and spectacle. The value goes up when the comments – positive or negative – come from someone who is familiar with your progress and goals. Respected peers and instructors with whom you have a healthy working relationship can be an invaluable source of relevant food for thought. But that’s not the end of the filtering process.
Civilian compliments are nice, but recognize that they are often uninformed. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy them – part of our job is to entertain. They are not the end-game validation of our skill or growth as an artist. Random snarky remarks on your YouTube videos are usually worth about as much as the pixels they occupy on the screen. Treat them as such. A thick skin comes in handy here.
This is where a mentor-student relationship can really shine. Ideally, every dancer at any level, will have a trusted mentor. The keys here are trust and understanding. True mentoring is a two-way trust relationship. The student trusts the teacher to tell them what they need to hear to effectively work toward goals. This includes both encouragement and acknowledgement and constructive criticism. The mentor trusts that the student will be open to guidance given in a clear, honest and considerate way with the student’s development in mind.
I had a really wonderful conversation about this over lunch with Samira Shuruk when I was on a teaching trip to Baltimore this summer. There’s much more to be said about how to give feedback but I’ll save that for another post.
No matter how valuable the source, all commentary needs to be compared to your personal point of view. By this, I don’t mean your personal opinions or emotional reaction to it. I mean what do you want to be about as a dancer, or what you meant to accomplish in a particular performance. Nothing you do, no matter how top quality, will please everyone. It’s right that it shouldn’t. We should strive to be clear in our art, and authentic to our artistic selves. As Todd Henry, author of “The Accidental Creative” put so well “If we are trying to please everyone, we don’t have a point of view.” Know what yours is and own it. It’s worth the time to clarify this internally and use it as a personal compass for our work. For example, if a peer tells you a piece was “too fusion”, and that’s what you intended in creating it, then graciously listen and evaluate it against your own vision. It was “too fusion” for them, but exactly on the mark for what you wanted to present. That re-frames the remark in a very different and more relevant way.
Once your determine that the feedback is coming from a credible source and really is salient to your creative point of view, consider what your take-away should be. Personally, the feedback I value most is a mix of positive and constructive. Celebrate your accomplishment in the facets that you successfully carried out. Put your emotions aside and take hold of the nuggets that you can use to plan your further development. Write them in your dance journal, add them to your study and practice list and get to work. As dancers and artists we are all works in progress and are never done learning.
How do you experience and process feedback? Tell us in the comments below…