Friday 27 February 2015

Postcards from the coal face. Reflections on my dance practice.

I've been reflecting upon and tweaking my daily dance practice quite a lot lately. Over the last few months I have been working on refining my practice to get the best value out of my time and cultivate a schedule that allows me to maintain fitness, progress technically and prepare for performance in a way that works for my body and other commitments.

So after trying out a few variations of my own, I decided to start a clean slate in January with a little hand holding from Datura Online.  I know that when I choose my own practice, I'll choose the things I like and find easy. I started their Crazy Train programme, which is around 2 hours a day of conditioning, drills and technique, all set out, for 4 weeks of comprehensive practice. I completed the month on this, and then on reflection, decided what I would take away into my own tailored training. This is what I discovered:

Prioritising is more effective than you might think

At first I thought that finding 2 hours a day for basic dance practice (not including classes and performance preparation) was going to be impossible, but everything is impossible until you give it a go. The very first video on Crazy Train is this from Amy Sigil. She is totally right. You have to prioritise the important things. Dance is my passion and my trade, I can't afford to down-prioritise it. So I dance first, and do the other things later. When you work regular office hours, outside the home, your work comes first. You go to work, you do the work. If there is laundry left to hang up, but it's time to go to work, you don't do the laundry, you go to work. Equally you don't check your emails one last time, or anything else. I have learned to be this brutal about my dance schedule too, because if I let it slip, it's gone.

Reporting back helps

A few months back a dance co-conspirator of mine suggested a challenge, where our group of disparate dancers would attempt to complete at least 10 minutes dance every day. As I've said before, 10 minutes should be easy to achieve and is better than nothing. I was already in a daily habit of weight training, yoga, shimmy drills and core technique drills - on top of class preparation, choreography etc, so I figured it would be no problem.

This was a great challenge, firstly because I learned that actually, I was sometimes skipping out of my basic practice (especially if I was teaching or taking a class that day). I also noticed that "reporting in" to my peers was a motivator. Sharing your accomplishments, even if it is just 20 minutes of shimmy drills, is satisfying and hearing about their exploits was motivating. So I bought a notebook to dedicate as a dance diary. Writing in the diary is really just reporting in to myself, but the process of entering my practice encourages me to have more to write about! It also helps me keep track and check the patterns and roundedness of my schedule.

Dance vegetables are important

In her Flow Drills workshop, Zoe Jakes talks about the importance of "eating your dance vegetables". Foundation drills, strength conditioning, flexibility and cardio are the cornerstones of dance. Zoe talks about the necessity of practicing these on a daily basis, only then can you get down to "playing" trying out new layers and combos, choreography, all that stuff.

I believed her the first time I saw it, but after several weeks of religious vegetable dancing, the fundamental importance of a dedicated regular, grass roots practice has become extremely apparent to me. I've written before about the importance of returning to "beginner" technique, but it's actually about maintaining and improving it. Day by day.

Actual vegetables are also important

I've always had an interest in nutrition, and I know that how I eat reflects in how I feel and how I dance. Dancers are in an odd place of being both artists and athletes. It's tempting to think that we should be able to exist on tea and hob nobs, in a feverish artistic reclusion, but our art is enacted through our bodies. Our bodies are the instrument of our expression and we have to take care of them. Our bodies also often represent the limits of our expression. A stronger, healthier body means more access to more movements and a more versatile toolkit through which to express ourselves.

I've come across many variations in diet amongst bellydancers, some swear by their particular variant, supplement or lifestyle. Our ideal diets are all very individual, based on our baseline needs, budget, ethical choices, tastes and training levels, so I'm not going to make any suggestions here. However I have observed that being aware of (and increasing) the levels of water and protein in my diet has coincided with better stamina and less muscle fatigue or post-exercise weakness.

It's not just about maintenance

Working on the same drills, every single day doesn't just preserve the skill, it gradually refines it. You might not see the difference immediately, but give it a month and the contrast is stark. Getting better at a particular drill means that certain elements become automatic, and when you don't have to think about those anymore, you can focus on refining something new.

There is benefit in boredom

Following on from my previous point, sometimes doing the same drills over on a daily, or even weekly, basis can seem tedious. I considered for a while whether I could do something else while I was drilling. Then I realised that concentrating on the drill itself is really important. When I no longer have to apply my brain power to making the move happen, I have the capacity to analyse and refine it. There is always a reason to focus my attention.

It's not just drills that bear repeating.

I have an enormous collection of bellydance DVDs and downloads, not to mention the streamable Datura library. Everything from conditioning to drills, flow practice to technical breakdown. I tend to use them on a fairly broad rotation. The flow and drills gets used more.

The Crazy Train programme actually repeats videos that I would not have considered repeating at such a tight frequency. Combinations and technique that I might previously have thought once, or very occasionally, was enough. Making myself repeat them I realised that there is a lot of depth you can miss while learning a combination, and going over the technique, from scratch, for a second or third time really allows me to get to the guts of it.

Teaching is not practice

There was a time when I considered my teaching time to equate to drilling time. After all, I am breaking down the technique, practicing it over and over. The problem is that while I am conscious of maintaining good technique, I am also watching my students, analysing their movements, making judgements about what to correct, what to encourage and what to let lie. While I may have revelations about the mechanics of a movement while I teach it, I can't really get into the meat of my own technique while my purpose is to support that of my students. In addition I can't really push myself when I am tailoring the level to beginner or improver level dancers. I have to respect the limits of their stamina, range of movement etc, and that means not challenging my own.

Variety is the spice of success

I've talked before about cross training, but I've also noticed how different types of cross training benefit each other. For instance I regularly use Jillian Michaels' Shred workouts for conditioning, although I have to make some modifications recommended by Shredheads, to respect my joints. I'm not a massive fan of working out, so the high intensity Shred workouts are the exercise equivalent of ripping off a band aid. I don't do Shred daily however. I mix it up with pilates, yoga and dance flow conditioning.

Early on, I found that my ability to keep up with the Shred workout was limited by muscle fatigue. Even on the cardio focussed workouts I wasn't nearing my cardio limit before my legs started to tire. After mixing it up with some pilates for a couple of weeks however, increasing my strength, I found that I had the ability to push harder and reach that sweaty out-of-breath sweet spot when I got back to my cardio circuits.

I also used to have a real problem with burpees. They were (and probably still are) my nemesis. On the other side of things I have been working on tolasana. I started back in October when I couldn't lift my weight off the floor at all. I've found that the core strength from my tolasana practice gives me the extra oomph I need to get my feet back to my hands from plank when I am doing burpees. I'm still not great at them, but I can actually get through a set now.

A committed practice habit has inertia

It surprised me how quickly this set in. I would suppose it took me less than a week of devoting 2 hours a day to basic practice and learning (not teaching, not choreography or rehearsal) to set in my mind that this was what I did now. Usually I do an hour of conditioning in the late morning or early afternoon, then the rest in 20-30 minute slots later in the day. I don't argue with myself about it. It has to be done.

Then I went away for a couple of days and had to break my schedule. I was so grouchy and twitchy not getting my dance fix. It was hard to get back to as well. So I have had to work out ways to maintain some semblance of routine even when my schedule is disrupted.

Missing  practice

Missing out a day's practice is really easy when other things get in the way, and one missed day easily turns into 2 or 3. I try to schedule my down days, usually to coincide with times when I know I am going to be busy or tired. I also try to replace my dance practice with something else, like restorative yoga, to maintain the "slot" in my day.

Busy people are happy people

My father always used to say that if you want something done, you should give it to a busy person. Getting down to practice straightaway. Making the decision not to sit down for that cup of tea after the kids are in bed, but to get straight down to dance-business. I don't let up until I get all my "to dos" ticked. It's busy, but it's productive.

Changes are incremental and not always predictable

I can't see from day to day, or even week to week, the improvements that a dedicated practice creates. It's not the instant gratification of an intensive for instance. I have also found that changes I expected haven't manifested as fast as I might predict, while others have been clear and surprising.

Keeping track of progress by filming samples of drills or combinations and comparing them, a few weeks apart makes it easier to see the changes, and gain the motivation to keep going.

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