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 so they are ready to emerge as useful elements when we are in that golden moment of “flow”. Then we need to keep our eyes open for the challenge and be willing to give it our full attention.
This is where we turn out our very best work. You are in it to do your best, right?