Thursday, 30 October 2014

Dancing with Hypermobility.

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

The mums at my baby group are planning a 5K road run. It's a frequent topic of conversation, and naturally, there came the part I had been dreading. "You should run with us" said one of the mums. "No thanks" said I with the affectation of a committed couch potato. "I don't do running." She continued to attempt to convince me, and I was forced to admit it, "I'm sorry, I just cannot run."

The secret is out. I'm a dance and yoga instructor, I am fit, strong and healthy, but if I tried to run, I would last less than 100 metres before the excruciating pain set in. Not long after my knees would give way and it would all be a bit embarrassing. I have an 'invisible condition', Ehlers Danlos Syndrome - Hypermobility Type (EDS-HM) with recent campaigns aiming to raise awareness, I am going to share my experience of living with and despite the condition.

EDS is a genetic mutation that causes the sufferer's collagen to be more elastic than it should be. EDS-HM is relatively mild, and characterised by extremely flexible joints; sadly flexible also means unstable; sufferers are prone to regular sprains and dislocations, the joints wear and take damage more easily than most, because the movement tends to be erratic and outside the "safe" range. EDS-HM sufferers often have other health problems as all our soft tissues are affected.

I was around 11 years old, when I started to get pain in my knees, and it escalated from there. Growing up with hidden health issues is never a smooth ride. I can recall vividly being shouted at, and called a liar by my PE teacher, because I was limping on the other leg that day.

I spent my teenaged years in an environment where sporting achievement was prized above all. I was the girl who wore supports on both knees, long socks instead of tights so I could more easily adjust the straps that held my kneecaps in place, this did not work out well for me socially. On the other hand I missed double German every week to for physiotherapy.

As an adult I adapted to my personal capabilities. I'm in pain every day. My knees creak and rattle from the damage caused by the joint surfaces mashing together at awkward angles. I have a running joke about how I fall down the stairs. There is a particular point where my knee is bent and it just can't hold anymore, it collapses, and down I go! I always cling to the bannister to take the weight off at that crucial point. Occasionally I find myself approached by someone ascending the stairs, and awkwardly have to choose between facing them down and appearing rude, or letting go of the rail and falling on them!

I have instability in my wrists, ankles, feet and hips, which means I get sprains quite a lot. My hands are always stiff and sore - the medical advice on that was to use my hands less! I bruise easily which does not combine well with the clumsiness that results from wobbly joints. I am very grateful however, that for the most part I can move quite normally within the boundaries that have become second nature to me. As a teen I was told I could expect a wheelchair in my future, but although I use a stick on a bad day, it happens rarely enough that people ask me what I have "done".

It's not all gloomy. As a dancer my natural flexibility serves me well, provided I support it with strength. The right kind of regular training actually eases my condition. Here are my tips for exercising with hypermobility.

- Alignment is crucial. I love gentle yoga for achieving strength in good posture. When you practice regularly you carry those good habits into your everyday actions.

- Impact and load bearing in exercise are tough on joints. I am able to do Arabic dance but I could not dance ballet.

- I always warm up properly, mobilising all the joints, locating the muscles that support them, and establishing good posture. I start my movements small and explore the limits of my safe range of movement safely.

- It is really important to have symmetry in strength training. Poorly balanced muscled drag joints out of alignment.

- Good footwear is essential, as hypermobile feet are prone to fallen arches. All of my footwear is supportive or equipped with insoles.

- I listen to my body and I am aware of my limits. If I get injured, I rest. I understand that I will never run, or do star jumps; but I am at peace with that, as long as I can dance.

More information about EDS can be found here

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Getting even better at bellydance

Part 4 - Steepening the learning curve.

So far we have looked at how your regular practice can help make you a better dancer, but what happens when that isn't hitting the spot?

Every dancer finds that they learn in fits and starts. It seems to be really hard for a bit, then you get it, then it feels easy, then it feels like you are coasting. You can sit in that happy place where the dance feels easy and you are learning few new elements. It's a good thing to do so sometimes, consolidate, let things stew, put some polish on it. After a while though, you will get the itch, the dissatisfaction that says you could do more, or just a touch of boredom because you want to do something new.

Breaking out of those plateaus means a change of approach, so lets look at what you could do.

1. Inspirational education

Plateau or no plateau, I think every dancer needs to have their dance training peppered with different experiences to keep things fresh.

Take a workshop. Lots of dance teachers regularly invite other dancers to come and teach workshops, often as a precursor to a hafla or show. Last year I invited Gwen Booth over for a workshop and hafla, this year we hosted Michelle Manx. I do this because I recognise that even though I am a scintillating teacher, something different, a different style, a different teaching approach, can really inspire student dancers. That builds strength and enthusiasm in the dance community and it is great for everyone.

Keep your ear to the ground, get on mailing lists, find out who is coming to your area, or travel to another area and make new dance friends.

If you are really up for a kick in the dance motivation place, then book into a festival. Do it anyway, I always go to at least one a year, more if I can. Majma is one of my regular favourites, I attended my 6th Majma this year, but they happen all over the country. Some are mixed styles, some focus on particular styles, some are like a little holiday with dancing. Whatever you choose, I can guarantee that you will come away brimming with new ideas, new things to practice and loving the dance more. At some point soon I will write a whole blog on making the most of festivals.

Speaking of holidays, there are also dancers who run overseas dance excursions, often to the Middle East where you can learn from the greats on their home soil. If you are stuck for inspiration, that has to be a way to find it.

So there it is, whether it's a £15 workshop or a £500 holiday, learning from a new source is a great way to get out of a dance rut.

2. Get focussed feedback

Feedback from teachers and other dancers can be an invaluable way to add a new perspective on your dance training.

You could take a private lesson with your regular teacher, or any other teacher. A private lesson means that you can concentrate on exactly what you need to be working on, and you get 100% of your teachers' attention. This can feel a little daunting, but a good teacher will put you at ease and soon you will just be focussing on working hard. In my experience a private lesson will leave me with enough material to keep me busy practising for several months.

If you are going to a workshop and would like to get some extra mileage and personalised training, you can ask if the teacher is available for privates while you are there. Some teachers even offer tuition via Skype, meaning you can train with teachers from all around the world.

Another option for getting feedback is to ask other dancers to appraise your dancing, usually in video form. There are a variety of online forums such as Bhuz, or specific groups on Facebook where many knowledgeable dancers are prepared to cast an eye over videos and give you pointers.

3. Set yourself challenges

I find that I work harder when I have something to work towards. You could book yourself in to perform at a hafla, or if you are feeling brave, a competition. If that feels like a big step, then how about preparing a piece just to show your teacher or class?

Sometimes it's fun to set a creative challenge, perhaps just a minute of dance a week, on a series of themes, video them and watch them back. Try doing short samples of different styles, different moods, try things you wouldn't usually dance, take yourself out of your comfort zone. You might surprise yourself.

Smaller challenges you could try might be mastering a new step every week or completing a set of drills on a regular basis. Give yourself a target and work hard at it.

4. Try something new

Sometimes taking yourself out of the pressure cooker is just what you need to relax into yourself and find your inspiration.

Recently I started attending a new dance class. I initially trained in Egyptian Classical Oriental style, and I have done quite a lot of Tribal Fusion, I teach both, but I had never trained in ATS, apart from a couple of workshops which I really enjoyed. ATS is at the roots of Tribal Fusion, and I like to know about roots. I came across my nearest Fat Chance Belly Dance Sister Studio, Kalash Tribal, at a hafla in Somerset, so I took the plunge and decided to go to class.

I know that I am not going to be performing this style anytime soon, much less teach it, and as a result I feel freed up to be a beginner. I am really enjoying the challenge of a sudden, steep learning curve, and the freedom to make mistakes, or to not get something straight away, because I am the newbie here.

As a result going to this class has given me a new drive and a new sense of joy in my dance, I really can dance like no one is watching. But I am still dancing, I am still keeping fit, the movements will creep into my Tribal Fusion, and will make it better, deeper. I am also being forced to play zills while I dance, which is great, because I always find excuses not to drill with zills when I am on my own!

So why not take some folkloric classes to inform your Orientale? Or adult ballet? Or Streetdance for the fusionistas? Put yourself back in beginner's shoes and fall in love with dancing all over again, with no pressure.

I hope this has given you some ideas for when you feel ready to launch your dance up another level. Remember this is all about inspiration and fun, it's the exciting new discoveries that keep the fire in your belly and the passion in your dance.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Bellydance and body image

A study came out recently that demonstrated what those of us in the bellydance community have known for some time: Bellydance is great for body image and self esteem.

Body positivity and body acceptance is often born out of an appreciation for the function of the body. A mother may come to terms with her postnatal body by considering the amazing function it has performed. A bellydance student learns to love her body because she knows that when she dances, it can do beautiful things, or she appreciates the joy that moving her body in dance can bring her.

I am ceaselessly amazed at how those who come to this dance blossom, over time as they grow in confidence, poise and grace; in the moment as the music starts and they transform from their everyday self, into the dancer, into a vision of the music itself.

One of the things I love about this dance is its inclusiveness. Bellydance is available to people of all genders, races, ages, shapes and sizes. None of these is a barrier to learning, or performing, everyone has the opportunity to express themselves, and to share their dance in the safe, accepting environment of the dance studio or halfa. Bellydance, is for every body.

When news of the above research came to light, there was a murmer in the background. Some experienced dancers were asking “what about the professional performers?”

For while it is true that a student or hobbyist is surrounded by encouraging peers and supportive audiences, the same cannot be said for those who choose to become entertainers for the general public, where employers and audiences, unaware of our more accepting (and dare I say, realistic) aesthetic demand and expect a dancer who fits within a narrow, “conventionally attractive” image.

When I was a fledgeling dancer, in a student troupe, our teacher related to us an enquiry she had had for a party booking. The organiser had specifically asked that she sent only the “young, slim” dancers. Our troupe was made up of dancers between the ages of roughly 18 and 60, dress sizes 8-20. Our teacher politely declined, and explained that this request was contrary to her dance ethos, and the spirit of the troupe itself.

I was reminded of this recently, when Shira reshared an old article from her site. It was based around a question from a dancer whose teacher had asked her to cover her stretchmarks for a performance.

The reaction to this was incredibly powerful. A few dancers agreed with the teacher, citing professionalism, client/audience expectations etc. Some moderate responses stated that the teacher was correct, but only to spare the dancer from the judgement of the audience. An overwhelming response, from dancers and dance teachers, was in support of the student, stating that it should be the individual dancer’s choice what to cover and what to reveal (within the bounds of culturally appropriate costuming).

My stance on this, was that as a teacher or mentor, I would avoid exposing students to a toxic environment where they might be judged according to their appearance rather than their dancing in favour of a safe opportunity to express themselves as they choose. As a performer I know that a critical audience can have a horribly negative impact, even on those who do “fit the mould”, because none of us will ever be “perfect” in the eyes of every observer. Striving for that perfection is not a route to happiness, but perhaps self-acceptance and appreciation of our reality might be.

I am left considering how this goes forward. In our insular community we have happy, well adjusted dancers. People who step out of their everyday lives to be together, to appreciate each other and learn to appreciate themselves. These people leave the studio and take that attitude with them, they walk taller, dress more adventurously. They model self-acceptance to their children and their peers. Little ripples. Can we make waves?

What happens when an older dancer, or a plus sized dancer goes out to perform professionally? What happens if the public audience doesn’t see the “young, slim, pretty” dancer they were expecting? Do they fall in love with the performance and broaden their perspective on beauty, or is the dancer ridiculed as an oddity. Sadly the latter is all too common and sadly this means that the less thick-skinned dancers find themselves having to cherry-pick their performance opportunities. If I had a pound for every time I heard the “oh she has the belly for bellydance” comment (and I am sure you can imagine my geektastic rebuttal regarding the misnomer, you don’t need a belly, just hips, bone ones or titanium ones, or not even, I’ve seen some lovely chair dancing too)

But if we could get out there, just a little more. Share our art and show people the power, grace, joy and beauty in out dance. Maybe we could inspire more people to be a little more comfortable in their skin.
Finding the bellydance joy - Kash performing with Doum Tekka on darbuka, photo credit: Jenny Balkam