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Does Your Brain Get it? Tips for Learning & Memorizing Belly Dance Choreography

Does Your Brain Get It- PIN

Does your brain get it?

Anyone who’s been in a class or workshop with me has probably heard me say this when checking in with students. Once I’ve presented and broken down a combo or section of choreography, I ask if their brain gets it before we move on. So what exactly do I mean by that?

In short, your body takes orders from your brain when dancing so if your brain doesn’t fully understand the instructions – what shape is your hip making, where is your arm and what foot are you supposed to be on – then the chances of getting an accurate result from your body are pretty slim. Of course, once your brain is clear on the instructions, the body does take some time to get it together and comply – that’s what drilling and practice repetition is for – but the brain has to get it first. This is an important step that I see dancers ignore. Being unclear, they fumble through an unclear movement or footsteps till they get to a part they are sure of. If you keep running through a combo with errors because you aren’t truly clear on what happens when, not only is it unlikely to resolve itself correctly, you may set and memorize patterns that are wrong. If it’s a group choreography, that is a real problem.

So how do you make sure your brain gets it?

In my experience, one of the best ways to thoroughly check your understanding of a movement sequence is to remove the pressure of the beat. Turn off the music and do a slow walk-through of the movements by yourself. Be patient. Don’t gloss over little ambiguities – those can get you in trouble. If you’re not sure why you wound up on your left foot when you’re supposed to be on your right foot for hip drops next, check it out. Did you take the right steps at the right time in the thing that came before it? Don’t just switch feet and move on. Track it back – was that supposed to be a 2 step pivot turn before the hip drops, but you took 3 steps? Well-written belly dance choreography is clear and uses logical and natural weight changes that set you up properly for the next movement. If a choreographer expects to keep dancers synchronized and looking clean together on stage, it’s a must.

Be proactive. Speak up.

If you find yourself with unclear gaps in your understanding of class material, ask specific questions. “I’m on the wrong foot for the hip drops and I can’t figure out why.” Sometimes I think students feel bad about asking questions. They apologize and for the life of me, I cannot understand why! When a student asks, I know they care about what they’re doing – they are really thinking about it. Almost always, the explanation benefits others in the class who just didn’t bother to ask.  I love questions. They also help me to improve as an instructor by pointing out where I could have explained something differently or more fully, or where students find something is trickier than I anticipated.

The bottom line is I am there to TEACH, not just to present something. Teaching is a two-way communication process and answering students’ questions effectively is an important part of the job.

The mental integration process.

Once you’ve done the tedious task of working through your understanding of the mechanics of assorted body parts, the next step is to get it organized in your brain for speedy recall. That’s the part we call “memorizing the dance”. It’s all in there, but can your brain access it at the pace of your music? You’ll need to be able to do that in order to build the muscle memory that will kick in later- brain before body, remember? Once muscle memory is in place, you can move on to beautifying your transitions and attending to the graceful details that will really polish your dance, but you have to bake the cake before you can decorate it!

Here are a few tools to help with belly dance memorization:

  • Train up. Make a reduced speed practice track using Audacity or other audio editing software. This is especially helpful if you’re working with fast music or choreography that has lots of quick, precise movement like in a drum solo. It’s your bridge between the take-your-time no music walk through I mentioned above and your final performance speed. Make a few speed versions if you need to take it in smaller steps. More on that here.
  • Let the music talk to you! There’s a reason we shimmy at certain times and travel in others. Yes, there’s lots of artistic license, but again – well-written choreography should reflect what the choreographer hears in the music. There’s usually more than one thing to choose from (I could go on for days on this point!) but there should be something musically that the movement relates to – the rhythm pattern, the melody line or texture of a sound. Find it and let the music remind you of why a movement is where it is.
  • Sing it! Although you may feel silly, singing cues to the steps is remarkably effective! The more senses we involve in the learning process, the better the results in my experience. Hum the melody line that hip circle reflects. Say “shimmmmmmmmmyyyy……pop! pop!”. Create cues that work for you.
  • Do the mental practice. When I need to memorize choreography (yes, the teacher still has to memorize what she’s written!) I run through it in my head when I lay down at night and upon waking up. Visualize the movement – you may even feel it in your body as you lay there. Hear the music in your brain. Note where the next step doesn’t come to mind right away.
  • Grease the groove. Do you have a stubborn spot where you repeatedly blank out about what comes next? Pinpoint it and take the last movement or two that you DO remember and the next one or two that you’re having trouble recalling reliably and drill that junction together over and over. Find a way to connect them – does the arm position or movement that came before create a frame for the next thing? Does it change direction? Find a way to relate your stubborn movement to the thing before it. Build the muscle memory for it with a targeted repeated drill of that specific spot.
  • Paint the big picture. Some dancers find creating a “story” out of the movements is useful as a memory device. Others find that having a spatial map helps them remember. For example, go forward, then back, then move in a circle. The description of the path can cue your brain to recall the steps for each section. “Big picture” constructs of that sort can help you organize the order of the movements.

One of the most useful things you learn over years in dance is to learn how YOU learn best as a student, and how your students learn if you are an instructor. When you find the tools and methods that are effective for you, put them to work consistently. You’ll take some of the frustration out of learning and teaching choreography and move along more quickly to the more fun parts!

June 2, 2017 2 Comments

Skill, Challenge & Creative Flow in Belly Dance

Let’s begin at the end this time. Have you ever set to working on a bellydance choreography and found that you competely lost track of time? Ideas are coming, you’re jumping forward and backward in the music as you find the movement that is the perfect fit of musicality and style. Ahhh… flow is a wondrous thing. The “flow” state, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his TED talk,  is that lost-in-the-work feeling you get when it’s all coming together easily, or at least steadily. You face the sticker moments head on without inadequacy and drill right through them. Those are amazing and energizing moments, but for most of us, they don’t come nearly often as we’d like.

Creativity requires your full attention.

Researchers say that flow can only happen when we work alone and without distractions because to pay attention to another person uses over 50% of our brain capacity. To get into creative flow, we have to source our ideas from within the contents of our brain, or what we can synthesize using our existing skills and knowledge. We can’t stop to look things up or gather ideas from outside sources or other people – that breaks our flow. Therefore having s solid bank of skill is key to getting and staying in this golden creative state. We need to have it at the ready and fully integrated into our skill set, not as a passing bit of information we once heard, saw or tried, but an adaptable understanding of how that information can apply to the work at hand.

So… what does this have to do with bellydance?

Does it sounds like I’m talking far away from the topic of bellydance? Not really. Let’s look at the example of going to a workshop. During the workshop you may learn several new moves and combination that you really enjoy  and would like to incorporate in your improvisational dancing or choreography projects. However, if those moves and combos only live in your notebook and a dusty corner of your dance memory, they are very unlikely to come out in your work. To get this information embedded into your dance brain and muscle patterns, you need to drill it consciously so it can come out spontaneously when you are deeply embroiled in writing new dances.

Taking a huge load of workshops at a bellydance convention is fun and mentally stimulating, but ask yourself how much of the information that you paid for and took in do you really, truly actually apply in your dancing? If we’re honest with ourselves, the percentage is probably fairly low.  I observed this about my own workshop experiences going to conferences and I changed my objective. I still may take a lot of workshops for the variety, opportunity and experience of new material and teachers, but my goal is to pluck a few nuggets that I will really, truly use and get them into easy reach of my working movement vocabulary by engaging with the material consistently in my personal practice during the weeks following.

Filling your bellydance “well”

As creative artists, bellydancers should be looking to “fill their well” every day with a variety of images, music, dances and inspiring thoughts. Sometimes we seek it out, sometimes we just have to be open to what is around us..  These all converge and align in the moment when we need them…. if we’ve provided ourselves a steady diet of thoughtful material of all types.  This is a practice recommended in both  The Accidental Creative and The Artist’s Way – two books and authors I have personally  found invaluable and highly recommend.

Recently, I shared an article in the “Daily Bellydance Quickies” regarding creativity as a skill  that can be acquired rather than a “gift” one is born with – or not. One of the “skill builders” for creativity the article described is being an “explainer” to yourself.  Talk out loud to yourself, or write down an explanation of new information you want to truly learn. Share it with someone else; the questions and comments in these interactions can be quite illuminating and will enrich your own understanding and synthesis of the information. The goal here is to get those skills on board so they can go with you down the river of creative flow.

The goal here is to get those skills on board so they can go with you down the river of creative flow.

True flow also needs something for us to leverage our skills against. Mr. Csikszentmihalyi  and Julie Bernstein each explained aspects of this idea in their TED talks.  The challenge presented needs to be high and met by a high skill set. If our challenge is high but our skills are low, we are anxious and unsure. If both are low we are bored. If our skills are only slighty below what is needed to meet the challenge, then we are in an “arousal” state where curiosity and interest are piqued and the atmosphere for learning is optimal. If you’ve been in a bellydance workshop with just the right amount of challenge – a reach but not a frustrating overreach for you technical skills – then you know the kind of exhilarating learning experience this can be!

So what does it all mean for us as bellydance artists?

If our end goal is to experience flow in our dance creations often and turn out quality, inspired work, then we have to seek out and be receptive to new ideas and inspiration that “fills our well”. We have to let ourselves move toward and with the ideas that  draw our interest and engage with them deliberately. This sets them in our brain s Continue Reading →

May 21, 2015 4 Comments

The Guest List: Belly Dance Drill Music Recommendations from Anasma

Have you ever wished you could peek into the iPods of famous bellydancers? I have – so I thought I’d ask a few…

Anasma belly dancer

Anasma is the co-founder and co-director of the New York Theatrical Bellydance Conference, director of World Citizen Dance and an incredibly versatile all-around artist! Her performances tap into her background in ethnic dances, yoga, martial arts and acting, often creating a clear character and storyline told through dance. Her wild creativity, free spirit and adventurous nature really makes me want to know what’s on her practice and teaching playlist!

Anasma says:  Here are some of the songs I love to drill to. I use them for fusion and experimental purposes. I work not only with popping, bellydance, modern, theater fusion, but also on well-being.  Have fun! Choose inspiring music to make you move and enter a trancey state – simply dance where your soul and body take you.

“Just The Way You Are” by Boyce Avenue  I just love the lyrics. It carries people in a realm of self acceptance and pleasure of dancing as they are, without self judgement.

“Aquarium” by Nozaj Thing  A watery, liquid, floaty atmosphere that inspired waving techniques.

“Tumbling Backwards” by Young Wonder – I love its beats, the female voice. It simply carries me.

“Frankincense” by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble  This is a super cool band composed of brass only.  It has 4/4 rhythms, very convenient for teaching.

“Sun Models” by Odesza For fiery upbeat energy!

Anasma is also a music artist. Here’s her video for “Ocean Elevation”

Did you find a new song you like? What does it inspire you to do with it? Share in the comments below…

April 5, 2015 0 Comments

Interview with “Improv Roulette” Founder, Elizabeth Joy

One of the most fun, creative and inspiring things I did in 2014 was to participate in an Improv Roulette event. It really was unlike any other dance experience I’d ever had. You can read all about it here, including my combat veil to “Living Dead Girl”!  Yes, I know you’re shocked!!

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the person who brought this concept to the bellydance community – so I tracked her down for you.

Improv RouletteMahin: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into dance and what you’re doing now?

Elizabeth Joy: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Joy. I live in Providence, RI. I’m an active member in the Providence and Boston performance communities. I’ve been studying various facets of belly dance since 2007. I am currently primarily studying with Neylan of Providence and Aurel of Boston.

M: What styles) of bellydance do you primarily perform and study?

EJ: My mother is Lebanese and my father is a jazz musician. Music and the arts were always important in my family. Because of my mother’s heritage, I was introduced to the sounds of Middle Eastern music at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally signed up for a class.

I would consider myself a lifelong student. Every year, I can feel myself progressing as a dancer… and realizing how much more I have to learn. I am currently studying Gypsy Caravan style Tribal with Neylan as well as a myriad of Middle Eastern studies with Aurel, although her current focus is modern Egyptian with an emphasis on how it was influenced by classical dance training.

M: As some DBQ readers may recall, I came across your “Imrov Roulette ” after reading about it on Sophia Ravenna’s blog.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to actually attend one in Tucson.  For our readers who aren’t familiar with Improv Roulette, can you describe the experience for us?

EJ: Yes. Improv Roulette is a multidisciplinary collaborative performance experiment. Performers of any type get together quarterly to create spur-of-the-moment reactive performances. They use the environment, as well as other performers to create these pieces. Improv Roulette sets up a safe, casual setting that allows performers to creatively explore, without the pressure of performing a polished piece.

Improv Roulette is for any type of performer. Belly dancers, singers, guitarists, bagpipe players, puppeteers, acrobats, etc are all welcome. It is for the seasoned performer as well as the budding student.

M: One of the things I really enjoyed about the experience was there was no way to prepare. You had to just let go and approach it as play – which is something we often lose sight of when we train as dancers, in my opinion.

EJ: Exactly. I know that I am very much a person that wants to feel prepared…. but I feel a great sense of freedom in letting go and just experiencing and reacting to the music and the “audience” and my performance partner.

It lets in a sense of freedom and honesty and as you said, play. I once took a choreography workshop (ironically) with Cera Byer and she made a great comment about how we don’t play enough. We jump right into choreographing without giving ourselves and chance to explore first.

It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it.

M: In your experience what has been dancers’ first reactions to the idea of participating in Improv Roulette?

EJ: It depends on the dancer! Some dancers jump at the opportunity to meet and collaborate with performers that they’ve never worked with before. Other dancers are understandably timid with the idea of getting up and performing without the ability to prepare. I acknowledge the act of courage that it takes to participate in this experiment, even with it being a safe and welcoming environment. It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it. I would be willing to bet that the once hesitant participants would agree with my statement.

M: I think one of the really important factors in the event’s structure is that everyone who comes in dances. There is no audience other than fellow participants, so we all walk the same tightrope in turn.

EJ: Yes. That is a very important element. I like to joke, “No spectators, only victims.” Everyone, regardless of their improv experience, will being trying something new at Improv Roulette. Everyone will be challenged and everyone will be supported by the performance community in attendance.

M: The online comments preceding our Improv Roulette event were full of “I have to get better at improv first” kind of statements. I agree, just showing up is an act of bravery to some degree. When it comes to creative endeavors, I think it it scares you a little (and you can’t foresee any serious harm) you should definitely do it. This was such a great way to push personal boundaries artistically – and really liberating.

EJ: Well the best way to get better at something is to do it! Because Improv Roulette is not a formal performance, it really is a good place to get improv practice in. I agree that if something pushes you out of your comfort level, it’s probably worth trying. I am primarily an improv performer in my solo work, and yet I still feel a great sense of freedom in the Improv Roulette experiment. It takes me out of my general process of working on a piece and allows my body and mind to just react.

M: Agreed!  How did the idea for Improv Roulette come to you?

EJ: Well it really came out of me experimenting by myself in my living room. I enjoyed exploring my movement to unexpected songs. But I was missing the element of interacting with others. This is, I think, and important skill that performers need to practice. Knowing how to instinctively play off of the audience or interact with a collaborator really brings a technically accomplished performer into the realm of entertainer.

M: Bellydance is definitely a style where being able to “entertain” as well as perform is so important!

EJ: I agree. I think it’s Nadira Jamal who wrote a wonderful article about having both hard skills and soft skills.

M: It seems that Improv Roulette has escaped your living room and is spreading! Where has this concept gone so far and where do you see it headed in the future?

EJ: Yes! I wanted it to be as inclusive as it could be so that very first Improv Roulette was not in my living room! I rented out a beautiful yoga studio just north of Providence and invited all of the performers in every discipline that I knew. And only six people showed up. Just as you experienced, people were a little intimidated by the idea. But as the participants shared their experiences, interest grew. And it’s still growing. In 2014 I began working with other community builders to start regional Improv Roulette chapters across the country. Right now we have three official chapters with a few more in the works. I am specifically working with organizers that are active members of their current performance communities and really believe in the concepts of collaboration, community, and creative spontaneity. I

M: Do you have any non-dance practices that you routinely use to feed your creativity?

EJ: I do! I have a career in textile design and a background in fiber arts. I am often creating sewing/dyeing/fabric manipulation projects both for dance costuming as well as other end uses. I also have a love for gardening and when I’m not in rehearsal, I’m usually digging in the dirt… that is when it’s not covered in two feet of snow.

M: Did you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

EJ: Well first and foremost, that you for the opportunity to be interviewed. Your blog and DBQ are always informative and enjoyable. I also appreciate the chance to tell more people about Improv Roulette. I really believe in the power of collaborative experimentation and the power in taking creative risks. I believe that Improv Roulette gives performers the opportunity to discover something about themselves and their work. It really is work, constantly growing, so we’d might as well feel the elation that comes with taking risks and discovering something about ourselves in the process.

For  more information on Improv Roulette please visit here.

 

What do you think? Does the idea thrill you? Scare you? Would you do it? Tell us in the comments below…

January 29, 2015 4 Comments

Let’s Get Specific: The Training Principle of Specificity and Belly Dance

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.

What is specificity in training?

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.

How does specificity in training apply to belly dance?

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.

Step up to the challenge!

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.

 

Here’s to your dance progress!

What new skill did you find physically challenging to learn? What’s on your wish list to step up your belly dance in the coming year? Tell us in the comments below….

November 29, 2014 1 Comment
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