Sunday, 7 December 2014

Why "beginner" bellydance is for everybody

A man ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that he is going to be a beginner all his life. Robin G. Collingwood

When I started dancing, I was told that it was usual to be at beginner level in bellydance for around 2 years. At the time that seemed immensely limiting. I wanted to be good! I wanted to be doing all the fancy flashy steps and being awesome like the dancers who inspired me to learn. Graduating from the beginner group felt like a great achievement, and I felt glad to be leaving my "baby dancer" days behind.

Now it is true that I do very much enjoy the flashy stuff, but I have gained a greater appreciation of the basics of the dance, and quite how much work there is to do there.

Simplicity can be beautiful, and challenging.

Watch some videos of great dancers in the history of Raqs and take note of how "technically simple" their dance is. Try this one for size, and try not to get too distracted wondering what is going on with that skirt:

There is something special here, the moves here aren't hard, but this dance isn't basic. There is a quality to her movement that means that even in a simple figure 8, you can see she is a great dancer. You can learn to execute a figure 8 in under an hour, but not like that. Her musicality while we are here, is soft, effortless but  skilled.

My favourite dancers to watch are not those who can layer 6 movements on top of each other, hitting every accent and choreographing every facial expression, my favourite dancers are those who can captivate me with a hip drop, who turn the music into a visual that moves me. Dance is a language, having something to say and making yourself understood is more important to me than a huge and complex vocabulary.

Technique must be mastered only because the body must not stand in the way of the soul’s expression - La Meri

The foundations are just that, everything is built upon the basics.

If you work on your basic movements, get them really strong, really controlled, improve your range, your flexibilty; that will show through when you start layering, travelling, compounding those movements.

In addition, when the technique becomes second nature,  only then does adding on the musicality, stage presence and subtle nuances become really possible.

There is always more work to do, no dance step will ever be perfect

I often go back to beginners' classes. I might be going to another teacher, to see what they offer or to learn from their teaching methods. It might be digging through my dance DVDs and working through an instructional I haven't tried in years, or on a day when I don't feel up to much, going for something easy on Datura Online. Every time I learn something new. Every time I find ways to make it challenging.

For example, a few days ago I was feeling a bit indifferent, but I knew I needed to fit some practice in, so I chose a 30 minute shimmy lesson. About half of the content was very similar to the drills that I do at least a couple of times a week, but sometimes having a virtual teacher helps to bring out that extra bit of effort.

I didn't have to think about how long I had been drilling for, or what to do next, because the instructor was doing that, so instead I focused on something I had been working on elsewhere - the engagement of my deep lower abs in my dance posture. I realised that in doing this, concentrating on maintaining optimum posture in the shimmy, the weight changes and the layers, I was working really hard, and learning loads. This was not just a basic move I know well, but one of my best, and I realised there is still a lot of work and refinement I can do.

I have found in dance, as with many other things in life, that the more I study and the better I get, the better I can see how much more study and practice there is ahead. So it's a good job I like dancing really.

My advice to other dancers would be that no matter how good you are, how long you have studied, keep going back to the basics. Not just drilling on your own, or teaching them to your students, but taking classes, getting feedback, listening to how other dancers break down the technique. If you find you aren't working very hard, take a look at your posture, or your breathing; break the movement up even more, go slower and feel every muscle controlling the movement. Make it sharper, make it smoother. Use your core muscles to make it deep and internal, test your flexibility and make it bigger.

When I describe my "Fundamentals" course, I always say it is not just for new dancers, or dancers who are new to me, but something that any student at any level would benefit from attending. Going back to those classes at a later level, you have a head start on getting right into the guts of the movements. Taking time to explore the most basic foundations of the dance will always serve you well.

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