Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Getting good at bellydance, good habits.

Part 3 - The daily grind.

In my first installment of this series we looked at how you can set yourself up for a fulfilling and productive bellydance journey with a great mindset and a resilient attitude. In this post, I am going to look at the practical measures you can take, to help you fulfil your dance potential.

For the most part, consistency and dedication are the cornerstones of your dance progression. Intensive study can be great, we will look at that in the next instalment, but nothing beats regular tuition and practice. So let's see what that might look like.

Regular bellydance classes.

The benefits of attending a good regular class are enormous, and I am not just saying that because I teach them! Choose the right class for you and you will be getting a regular lift, physically and psychologically, you will make friends and get to explore the world of bellydance with expert guidance.

There is something very useful about having an outside influence decide what you are going to dance today, it saves us from getting into the rut where we only dance the steps and styles we like best. Ideally your teacher will also be following some kind of progression, so simply turning up will take you on a good, structured and targeted learning pathway.

Go to as many classes are you can afford to. When I started I did 3 classes a week! If you have other considerations outside dance in your life, you might not go that mad, but make it regular, even once a fortnight is better than nothing, or an unpredictable schedule - it is too easy to fall out of the habit if you don't make it a regular priority.

Get the right class for you

Choosing your class depends on how you like to dance, how you like to learn and what you would like to get out of your dance. Some classes are about getting stuck in and moving. This is great for the social aspect, and for gently improving your fitness. If you want to improve your dance repertoire, or become a technically better dancer, you probably need to look for a class that has a more technical focus, at least for some of the time.

One of the biggest reasons a live class with a good teacher is so good for your dance progress, is feedback. A good teacher will help you adjust your technique, not just to make it aesthetically better, but also to make movements safer, more comfortable and more efficient (which helps enormously when you start layering them). This is vital, because every body is different, and even very experienced dancers are often blind to, or can't see a way out of small, but influential, issues in their technique. Feedback can be very individual, I like to do the rounds of a group to give each dancer a couple of adjustments, but it might also be general. I never call out an individual in a group class, but I might spot an issue with one dancer, and advise the class as a whole to "watch out for..." because often that helps the other students too.

A smaller class means that you will get more of your teacher's time and attention, and s/he will be watching you more in order to give you better tips - this might feel a little daunting at first, but you get used to it, honest!

Finally, you have to enjoy your class. You are going to be there every week, possibly more, so the format, teaching style, personalities, music etc. have got to work for you, don't be afraid to shop around a bit, which brings me to....

Mix it up a bit

I always encourage my students to take up opportunities to dance with other teachers, and I am a little suspicious of those who don't. It is wise to stick with the same style while you are a beginner, as there are differences in posture and technique that can be confusing until you are competent in one or the other. Some teachers use different terms, but you will learn quickly what they are referring to. I have had students who dance with both myself, and another teacher on a regular basis, and find our classes complemented each other.

Even with the same teacher you might have the opportunity to take separate classes for technique, choreography, and conditioning. Mixing up your tuition, whilst keeping an anchor in a regular class, makes you a more rounded dancer.

Doing your homework

If going to your dance class is your brief, weekly escape, then there is nothing wrong with turning up, dancing and forgetting about it for the week, however, if you want to make good progress you need to be practising in between times. There are a few ways you can go about this, and again, I suggest you mix it up.

Do the stuff you did in class.

Take notes. Not reams of notes, you are in class to dance, not write. At the end, make a quick list of the things you did, just to remind you. Then over the next few days, pop some music on, and practice the techniques or combinations you learned.


Pick some random steps. Roll back through your notes and choose something from a class a couple of months back, use my awesome drill generator, or use a DVD, and practice until your movements are stronger, cleaner, bigger and generally more awesome. One key thing though, is to make sure you have the technique down before you start drilling, ask your teacher to check, because drilling will write the movement into your muscle memory and you don't want to end up retaining a wrong move!

My favourite drill DVDs are Aziza's Ultimate Practice Companion (which sadly is quite hard to get ahold of now) and Michelle Joyce's Drills Drills Drills (which has finger cymbal drills too). I'd recommend checking onto Raqs TV for affordable streaming rental of dance practice videos, and you can also try out some of Michelle's DVDs on there. If you are a tribal dancer, Rachel Brice's Daily Dose session on Datura Online are a good, concentrated practice.

These sessions are generally fairly long and I know that it can be hard to fit dance practice in around family, work and other commitments, but you can always sneak in a little bit now and again....

Incidental dancing

What do you do while you are waiting for the microwave to ping, or the kettle to boil? How do you pass the time while you are on hold on the phone?

Dance. Dance all the time. Can you keep up a strong shimmy for as long as it takes the kettle to boil? What about a shimmy en releve? Did you just get up and walk when the doorbell rang? I didn't. I did a hagalla, or a travelling shimmy. In traffic jams I belly pop and beat out zill rhythms on the steering wheel. My babies have been shimmied and horizontal eighted to sleep.

How can you fit dance into your day today?

You're never too good for the basics.

It can be really tempting to keep pushing for bigger and better, fancier things. The sense of achievement from getting the hang of a tricky step is such a rush, but never forget your roots.

Keep drilling the basic, fundamental movements, do them slowly, do them in different poses, keep it precise. Good foundations will improve your dancing as a whole, but if sloppiness creeps in, that will show too.

Your regular class should be challenging, but it is an excellent exercise to visit a foundation level class fairly regularly too. I like to take beginner classes with other teachers, to hear how they break down the movements. You will always pick something new up.

Getting dance fit

Bellydance is a workout in itself, cardio, strength, flexibility, core control, plyometrics - it's all there! You can get fit for dance by just dancing, drilling moves makes you stronger and more flexible, the move gets better.

If you want a short-cut, targeted conditioning can really help by boosting your strength, control and flexibility in the right areas. For instance, if you are working on level changes, a good squat routine will give you a real boost. Many bellydancers teach classes, or have produced workout DVDs, specifically for bellydance conditioning. Datura Online has some really effective, and time efficient, conditioning videos that you can hire for a while to get that fitness boost. Or you could just join up to a regular fitness class that you enjoy.

My preference for dance conditioning is Vinyasa flow yoga and pilates. I didn't really enjoy fitness before I began dancing, but finding what works for me, and seeing how the results impact my dance has been really motivating.

Listen to the music

Arabic dance is all about musical interpretation, and all good bellydancers have a good ear for Arabic music. You can study the theory behind the music if you like, it is fascinating, but absorbing and quite hefty. I found the best way to become attuned to Arabic music is to listen to it. A lot.

To the Western ear, Middle Eastern sounds are a little alien, and sometimes jarring. It takes a while to learn to love the mizmar! I started with softer, popular music and Western fusion from easily accessible compilations, then gradually introduced more complex and challenging music as I became attuned to it. I am building music playlists for my students, one for general music theory and notable songs, one for some of the easier music I use in class. I also have some recommended compilations on the Amazon store on my site.

Listen to the music all the time, in the car, while you are washing up, let it seep into your brain quietly. Over time you will absorb the rhythms, without knowing what they are called, you will start to dance to fit those patterns because they will become familiar to you. The same goes for the phrasing and melody, the predictable structure of the music, you start to anticipate the direction of music you have never heard before, because you unconsciously recognise the pattern.

Dance too. Just throw on any track at random and see what you can do. Don't worry what it looks like, just feel the music and see what your body wants to do.

Musicality is a crucial part of a bellydancer's toolkit, and I believe it is most efficiently gained by immersing oneself in the music on an everyday basis.

So that's that. This is by no means comprehensive, and I am sure there will be dancers who feel that I have left things out, or included things that they did not find helpful, but I hope this gives you some ideas, and a little insight into the measures that I have found helpful in my own dance journey.

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