Sunday, 20 November 2016

The ever expanding rider of a professional bellydancer - contracts and clauses

When I started out as a new dancer, I joined an online forum called Bhuz, where bellydancers gathered to chat, to exchange information and to learn. Bhuz had a whole section about professional and legal issues, and at the time it seemed kind of ridiculous that turning up and dancing should involve contracts and all kinds of legal wrangling. After all, you show up, you dance, they pay you, everyone's happy. Right?

Oh poor naive past me. What she had to learn....

After hearing lots of horror stories, I realised that it was necessary to have a contract. Too many dancers were being cancelled last minute, without having taken a deposit, or even sent home from a gig (after or without performing) without full payment for various reasons. A lot goes into preparing even a short performance, so losing the gig fee is fairly devastating.

I started out with a cut down version of Michelle Joyce's sample contract. My contract looks a little less formal, because I send it out very early in my conversation with a new client and I wanted a "friendly" approach.

However, as time, and shows, have passed, my contract has grown. For the most part because I have discovered that things that seem basic and obvious to me as a dancer, don't always occur to the client, but also because of some ridiculous, and often hilarious positions that I have found myself in.

This post is a brief compilation of some of those additions, based on the experiences of myself, and other dancers I know. Some details are changed to protect the innocent.

The monies

On the Bhuz pages, it was always the money side that caused the most issues. Common problems include being asked to reduce the fee for various reasons, some of my favourites on the bellydance grapevine:

  • "it's my birthday"
  • "It's only half an hour"
  • "not everyone likes bellydance"
  • "it's fun for you"
  • "it will be great exposure"
I used to be shy about stating my fee, but now I make it very clear at the outset. Some people will be put off, but they will be put off whenever they find out the price, so let's not waste anybody's time. An easy mistake to make when starting out is not wanting to "put off" potential customers, but it really is OK to let an enquirer know if it's not going to work for you.

Deposits. Again, my serious clients have never taken issue with a deposit to secure the booking. It's important because you can end up turning down work because you are already booked, then being cancelled at the last minute. 

Workshop teaching has a whole different pricing structure. While I generally quote a flat fee, it has become increasingly common within the dance community for teachers to work for a percentage of the class takings. At best, it means you can earn slightly more for a popular class. At worst it means that the host is protected from making an unaffordable loss - many workshops just wouldn't happen in the UK right now otherwise, the risk is just too great for the host.

Most of the time it works out just fine, because dance teachers aren't generally out to fleece each other; hosts tend to work very hard to populate classes, and if they can't they tend to be honest and cancel. But there was an occasion where I offered this pricing structure to an "outside" client, who then did not publicise the class, or tell me that there were only two participants, and I lost a lot of money on expenses. Because of this I now include a clause for a minimum number of participants, or a minimum fee.

Changing space.

Almost every dancer I know, who has performed at some point - whether as a pro or a student has encountered this one.

A brief rundown of the top 5 changing spaces:
  • A food storage cupboard in a restaurant
  • The back of a van with no internal light
  • A tent with no standing room.
  • A single toilet cubicle, which was the only toilet for the venue.
  • A shower room with a wet floor.
From a dancer's perspective: Most bellydance costumes are not travel friendly. They have fringe, heavy beading, delicate crystals. They are not designed for being sat on. They are also generally difficult to wash so we want to wear them for as short a period as possible and not anywhere that the hem might be soiled on the ground. They are also complex to get into, we need space and we don't want to drop the end of our belt in a puddle. Even the skimpiest costume often involves a lot of layers, fastenings and pins. And we need light, and preferably a mirror. We know this can be a tough call for some venues, but if it really is impossible to provide a decent changing space, it's best that we know in advance so we can work with that and arrive partially dressed at least - and it might mean that there is no costume change between sets.

Show timings

My terms always state when I will arrive, when I will leave and how long I will dance in between. I often get people asking me to dance for an unrealistic period - like 2 hours straight.

Dancing, full tilt, registers on my Fitbit as an Aerobic workout, but I have to do that without appearing to exert myself excessively. Because nobody likes a bellydancer dripping in sweat and heaving for breath over their dinner. Most dancers consider 20-30 minutes to be a reasonable set length. 

While it might be possible to tone it down and dance for longer, most Western audiences couldn't really handle that. We don't really have a culture where people are comfortable sitting back and being lightly entertained, we want big, in your face... until our concentration span runs out. 

The time window is also important. Firstly because, as Michelle puts in her contract, often a performer has other gigs to get to, so it's not acceptable to postpone the performance at the last minute.Or maybe you need to get home to a babysitter, or before you turn into a pumpkin. Another issue that seems common for festivals and conventions, is that they expect all the team to be on site for the duration. This means that you might get paid for an hour of your time, but you lose 6 hours of your day. That might be OK if the event is of interest to you, and you get to spend the day watching bands or perusing interesting merchandise, but if you are going to be losing the opportunity to work elsewhere, then it is reasonable to charge a waiting fee for your on-site time.

Show content

It's really important that clients know what to expect from a show, I usually have videos and music samples, and that goes into the initial agreements so it's super clear.

A couple of other useful things....

"The show will be culturally sensitive" - which is a really nice way of saying "no, I'm not going to dress your uncle up as a "harem girl" and teach him a dance to humiliate him, but I will gladly do some audience participation that is respectful of the culture I am representing"

"I will choose who to invite for audience participation". I stole this from another dancer. While sometimes it's cool to be asking the guest of honour up to dance, it's preferable and "safer" for the performer to choose participants herself. Then she can choose people who look keen (because embarrassing people isn't usually actually fun) and avoid people who might cause issues (like the guy who strips off his shirt and wants to rub up against her while she dances. This has happened to dancers I know. It's gross and unacceptable).

"The show will be family friendly". This eliminates some of the wierd preconceptions some people still have about bellydance and sexuality. 

On a related note, here is the moment for a story from a friend of mine who is a burlesque dancer. She and a colleague were booked to perform at a corporate event. The organiser came to see them just before, in the dressing room and said "just to be sure, you're not going to be doing anything *too risque* are you?". Well. The problem is, that they were. As strip tease artists, that was exactly what they had planned, and while they had alternate acts in their repertoire, they hadn't brought the costumes and props for those. It seems the client had booked performers who were known to be good at what they do, without properly checking what it was that they do.

Often our clients aren't used to booking performers, and they don't know what questions to ask. The performers on the other hand are so used to what we do, that we often forget that some things aren't obvious to an outsider. This is why I like to keep it all written down in a standard document, that I can quickly customise and send out.

A safe space to dance

Another one for a list of ridiculousness, I have experienced....
  • Wet tarmac
  • A slope of about 30 degrees
  • Deep sand
  • A rolled lawn, which disguised uneven ground underneath (I broke a toe on a turn)
  • Grass with thistles in it
Often an event organiser will think about space, but not think about the floor, which is the most important aspect of the performance space. The only way to overcome this is to be really prescriptive, and include the caveat that says you won't dance but will require payment if the area is unsafe. It sounds harsh, but it's not as harsh as losing a month's dance income due to injury and I've never had to follow through on this as clients tend to be brilliant once their attention is drawn to the right areas.

The green room

OK, so now we get into diva rider territory! I always put into my terms that I will require access to drinking water. It's easy to get stuck backstage, with nothing to drink and performing is a hydration heavy occupation. If there will be substantial gaps between my teaching or performance slots when I am expected to stay on site then I need a rest area (green room) with bathroom access etc. No peeled grapes and blue M&Ms, I promise. I just don't want to be left sitting on my suitcase in a corridor!

Tech requirements

This one is super important. Music is absolutely crucial to a dance performance and I cringe every time I hear the story of a dancer who had to dance to the client's playlist, to their phone speaker or nothing at all. I clear up the sound system requirements straight away and offer up my sound rig if they need it. Then I bring an MP3 player and a CD of just that set. I also bring cables to connect my MP3 player via phono, analog and USB. Then I put my Minirig in my bag. Just in case.

This isn't because I am super awesome, it's because I have had to run out for a new cable 10 minutes before a performance, or got to a venue and found their sound system is too quiet. Also there was a time when I decided to charge my iPod on my laptop, but it synced with iTunes and erased the playlist that I had compiled on the device. I only realised when I arrived at the venue and went to soundcheck. Always  soundcheck.

I also ask for someone to be on hand when I arrive and, if relevant, when the performance/class starts to help with tech setup (and if it's a class, registering etc). The story behind this came from an event where I had arrived first thing in the morning, but was teaching after lunch and inbetween times, the location of my class was changed. To a cinema. Which had no accessible music system. And was playing adult films. Clearly this is not an acceptable situation, and none of the organisers or support staff were anywhere to be found. I had to delay the class by 15 minutes while I ran around trying to find a tech person to sort it all out. So now my contract is set up so that sort of thing doesn't end up being my responsibility.

Finally, and probably most importantly.

When I started using contracts, and to an extent still, I felt awkward about it. I worry about sounding divaish with an extensive rider, or like I have no faith in the client's ability to host me appropriately. However, I have noticed a stark difference between how clients treat me when I provide a contract, vs when I don't. The more prescriptive my terms, the more willing people are to fall over themselves making sure everything is right for me, and the whole thing goes better for everyone.

Assuming that your client isn't an expert in bellydance performance (and that's a safe assumption, because that's your job), they can't be expected to understand the minutiae of what helps you to give your absolute best. They will assume, that you have it all in hand, which rightly they should, that's what they pay you for. So if there is something that you need from them, they are going to need you to let them know or assume you won't get it.

Often a client contacts me, not really knowing what to expect, they might have a idea about what I can do, but part of my job is often to say "that's great and I can accommodate that" (or "I'm afraid that's not going to be possible") "BUT, I can offer you this.... which has worked out really well for similar occasions in the past".

For this reason, I always submit a contract for every performance or teaching booking. It doesn't matter if it is a local fete or nursing home, a charity fundraiser where I am donating my fee, or a high end ball. Even when the client is someone I know well and trust. Because without fail, every time I have let things slip and failed to provide a comprehensive set of terms at the very outset, something has avoidably gone wrong.

Here's your Jerry Springer moment. When you don't bother with the paperwork, things usually turn out OK. Sometimes they go disastrously or hilariously wrong, but that is the exception - usually you can muddle through. Paperwork fixes the problems before they happen, but what it mostly does is makes it clear from the start that you are not a rank amateur, and sets expectations appropriately. When you do everything professionally, not just how you behave and present yourself to perform, but also how you set yourself up, from the start with all the official contracts, invoices etc, clients better recognise your value and are enabled to treat you better. Not only this, but it elevates the impression of our artform as a whole.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The big November update.

I've been having an amazing couple of months, so I thought I had better do a little news post to catch up....

Dancewise my latest big thing was being part of The Juniper Project. I realised recently that this was the first time in 7 years that I have danced as part of a large troupe. The challenge of learning a choreography written by someone else (the amazing Alexis Southall), polishing to the point of uniform consistency and working with a bunch of brilliantly talented dancers was a really enriching, and intense experience. Oh. And the zills. All the zills.

We performed the piece at the Infusion Emporium show. I'm really looking forward to seeing the official videos  when they come out in January, because the sneak peeks I have seen are looking great.

Photos by Dan Fullard, here...
Infusion Emporium was also an excellent opportunity for me to get some training in. I took workshops with Piny Orchidaceae who really got me thinking about more interesting ways to move and to generate movement ideas, Amy Sigil, who I find really inspirational as an artist and teacher, and Anasma, who again was pushing me into realms of movement outside my usual repertoire. I came home after 4 1/2 hours of driving and went straight into the studio to start mixing some new ideas into my current WIPs.

Speaking of the studio, my home studio is now up and running. My Monday morning Glastonbury classes will now be taught out of my studio (no longer the Goddess Hall). I'm also getting a lot more work in, having a dedicated, full time training space, with all my props etc at hand.

The dancers of Bridgwater are shimmying on. We've been working on a party theme this term and I have been making them do more improvisation as well as getting a handle on some more social dancers. I am super proud of them for nailing some fairly challenging stuff this term. New dancers are always welcome to join this friendly and enthusiastic bunch.

The Laylet Amar Ensemble, a collective of musicians and dancers from the South West are going to be appearing at the Glastonbury Frost Fayre, Sat 26th Nov, on the Melodrome stage at 13.15. Come along and cheer us on if you are about.

Last of all, the big news is that I have now qualified as a Personal Trainer. Training and qualifying has been an extremely intense process, but it has given me a whole new skillset and understanding that is already adding new depths of understanding and tools for my dance teaching, particularly in terms of postural correction and complementary conditioning. I am also now providing fitness training through Fire Lotus Fitness, which will see me supporting individuals and groups in reaching their own health and fitness goals through in person and online personal training!

I'm really excited to see how the next few months pan out!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

News round up, Summer 2016

Tum te tum,doo do doo DAAAAA!

It's time for a quick round up of all the things that have been happening at Scarlet Lotus HQ lately.

Bridgwater bellydance classes are on a break for the school holidays, we will be back next term, starting on the 6th of September at a new time of 7-8pm. We are still in our usual venue of the YMCA.

Glastonbury classes continue for now, in the Goddess Hall on Monday mornings at 11.30. These classes will be taking a bit of a break in autumn - The last class will be on the 5th of September and we will continue again on the 24th of October- but watch this space as we may be at a new venue, all being well.

My prenatal and baby yoga classes will also be suspended for this period, though I hope to be offering an alternative, so again, watch this space.

The reason for this break is that I will be spending 6 weeks in September and October training for a Level 3 Diploma in Fitness Instruction and Personal Training. I'm really excited about this as I believe it will add a new dimension to my dance teaching and enable me to offer a whole new range of classes and services.

The summer "break" has been remarkably busy so far. Back in June I taught a weekend of workshops, one covering Vintage Golden Era styling and the other on double veil technique. We had a great turnout and lots of fun.

At the beginning of August I ran a full day intensive, Dancing with the Red Goddess. Again we had a fantastic group of lovely dancers who came together to do some very intense and productive work. We also had catering from Wizard Hospitality, who put together an absolutely magnificent spread to fuel our efforts.

I'm spending my teaching break (hahahaha "break") working on new teaching material, planning, writing, renovating my home studio, rehearsing for the Juniper Project and taking fitness classes so as not to show myself up in Personal Trainer school. I've also had a visit from Paola Blanton, who is fabulous and taught me some Balkan dances! I suspect I might be sharing some of this with my students in the new term.

I hope you are all having a lovely summer and I hope to shimmy with you soon!

Friday, 20 May 2016

Bellydance - the art of femininity?

For a while I have been trying to wrap my head around the issue of bellydance and femininity.

I know many teachers advertise their classes using this term. "Try this beautiful, feminine artform". "Discover your femininity". And it gets me wondering what this means. Or whether it means to me the same as it means to the teacher, or the women who see the ad. Or indeed the men - because to me, there is plenty of scope for dancers of all genders in our artform.

And then I start to wonder if bellydance *is* a feminine artform, and if so, how. And what does that even mean?

When I typed "feminine" into my usual stock photo source, it gave me this, which is kind of apt for where I'm going now....

When I was a little girl, my mum insisted I kept my hair cut in a fairly short bob style. She told me that while I needed her help to wash, dry and style it, I would have to have a style that made this easy for her.

I hated this and often begged my mum to let me grow my hair out. Because girls have long hair, obviously. I also recall refusing to wear trousers in case people thought I was a boy. Being a girl was an important part of my identity and how I perceived myself. While a child's gender might arguably be an unnecessary consideration for those around them (does it really make a difference if a child you glance at in the street is male or female?), it does often matter to the child. I wasn't really a pink and princessy type of girl, though I "understood" that these were the girl things that girls liked and I should probably aspire to because I was a girl. I knew my own gender identity and wanted to express this in the manner I had learned was appropriate.

I was about 10 when my mum finally relented and let me grow my hair. As I've grown up I've done all sorts of things with my hair. It's been everything from very long to pixie cropped, I've shaved bits off, put dreadlocks in it and dyed it all the colours. This isn't because my understanding of my gender has changed, it is because I have discovered that there are many ways to express femininity beyond the Disney princess stereotypes. Women, and indeed femininity in those who don't identify as women, are complex and multifaceted, there's a lot more to women than being doe-eyed and conventionally "pretty".

So back to dance.

I recall a dancer I know posting on her Facebook page to say that she was painting her nails bright pink and how she loved bellydance because it was a great excuse to "be girly". That's great if that's your bag. I know plenty of dancers who love the prettiness of the costumes, who are light, elegant, bubbly and dance with maybe just a touch of coy flirtation. It suits them, because that is how they connect with themselves as women. Personally manicure duty is my least favourite part of preparing to perform - although I appreciate the aesthetic of well groomed hands (not pink polish mind....)

I've often witnessed ATS and other group Tribal style performers refer to each other as sisters and present a rich earthy aesthetic while dancing in a powerful style with the joy of togetherness. Undoubtedly feminine, but totally different. While a "cabaret" style dancer usually caters to a commercially acceptable aesthetic, other styles often ignore or shun the male gaze, or media-endorsed ideas of beauty.

One of my favoutite  dance friends recently prepared for a performance saying "I'm not going to do fancy make up, I'm doing ugly today" while applying fierce warpaint. But her performance was beautiful and touching - it gave me goosebumps. In fact when I look around my circles of dancing friends, I see all kinds of people, expressing themselves beautifully in unique and diverse ways. It's wonderful, but it doesn't really help in my quest to find out what it is about bellydance that is feminine.

Is it wearing floaty chiffon skirts and rhinestones? Is it push up bras and layers of hipscarves? Is it being comfortable enough in your natural woman's body to shun convention and dance with unshaven underarms? Is it baring your soul in a tender and emotional dance? Or is it showing strength, pride or sass? Is it flirty? Is it, as Ava says "sexy by accident"? Or is it not at all because being a woman isn't about what men think of you? Is is smooth, soft, gooey hips? Is it elegant lines? Is it explosive locks and isolations?

I think it's probably any, all and anything else you can think of.

I don't believe the dance itself is inherently feminine. Dance is a route to self expression, each dancer gets to choose how they wish to express themselves. We tell our own stories. We can choose to present a character, who might be fun or liberating to play. Or we can be raw and authentic. And maybe the audience never really knows which is which.

I don't doubt for a minute that many women discover bellydance as a safe space to find and express their femininity. Whether that means dressing up, or learning to feel good moving their body. I came to dance after an acute illness that left me feeling broken and out of sync with my body. Bellydance is accessible to women of all ages, body shapes and sizes, and so many find self acceptance through the realisation that their bodies can do amazing and beautiful things. Women coming through traumatic life events often find their joy and learn to express it through dance. I've spoken to a few trans-women who have found bellydance helped them discover how to move in their female identity, and I am not sure whether that is purely an act of physical instruction, or whether dancing and being accepted in a community of women is the perfect confidence boost.

Learning about ourselves through dance is an ongoing process. I always feel immensely privileged to hold space for dancers who come to my class, for reasons they might not tell, dealing with issues I may never hear about, then slowly but surely bloom, as their true self begins to surface and shine.

If you are interested in exploring your own ideas of authentic self and what femininity means to you, do check out my Dancing with the Red Goddess immersion, taking place on the 6th August.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

How long does it take to dance for 30 minutes?

I've found there's a real art to getting myself ready to go out and perform. Whether it is a hafla or a wedding reception, putting on a performance can be quite a palava!

Preparing the dance for a performance is a process in itself, from conception, to banging my head against the wall to meticulous rehearsal. But preparing to perform is about a whole load more than having the choreography polished.

Sometimes a potential client will ask me to perform at a reduced rate and only perform a single set, instead of two, or for 10 minutes rather than 20. In reality I can't offer much discount for this, because the part that people actually see is only the tip of the iceberg. Being performance ready involves continuous commitment (like drilling, conditioning and developing material) and a solid investment of time beforehand, specific to that gig.

As a professional performer I do believe it is necessary to have the ability to drop everything and dance at short notice. I always have costumes on the hanger, generic sets compiled and regularly rehearsed etc, so that if I get a last minute booking, or another dancer calls and asks me to cover for her, I can roll up with a few hours notice and put on a fabulous show. But from my own perspective, I know that I do my best work when I have had the opportunity to tailor my performance to the client, venue and audience. I also know I am in my best headspace for performance, and give my absolute best, when I can be totally confident that everything is in place and is going smoothly.

Recently I was making small talk with the mother of one of my childrens' friends. I told her what I did for a living and she was rather surprised, "I'd never have guessed" she said. "Yeah" says I "it takes quite a lot of work to turn me into a bellydancer"....

T - at least 1 week. Finalising the playlist.

 I'll usually check in with my client about now too, and confirm any music requests. Finalising a week in advance means that I can guarantee myself rehearsal time in a large studio to run the entire set (I have space booked for one session a week by default).

I will likely have rehearsed each track separately many times, but I think it is important to rehearse a whole set from start to finish at least a couple of times. That 6 minute drum solo might feel fine as a standalone piece, but can you still dance it with as much energy after performing 15 minutes of upbeat pop?

T- 2 days. Costume alteration time.

There's no point in doing this too early, because the fit on my costumes has to be exact and a tiny fluctuation in weight can be the difference between a good fit and a potential mishap. Sometimes I will be wearing a costume that I haven't worn for a year or so, and you can't just get those out of the wardrobe 3 hours before a performance and hope they will fit! 2 days is a good timeline to get it done, without it being too last minute and with time to buy in supplies if repairs are needed.

I make the vast majority of my costumes myself, and when I do, I keep adjustability in mind.

There's a balance to be set between the ease of getting into a costume and versatility in sizing - especially with costume bras. Some of my bras have long straps that are tied in a knot or bow, and reinforced with a safety pin. This makes them really adjustable, you can get the band and shoulder strap length spot on every time, but they have to be tied right; usually they need to be tied, left to settle, then adjusted. My modern Orientale style costume bras are usually based on the hard "Dina" bra bases. These tend to fasten with hooks (I use trouser hooks, which are bigger and stronger) they are great for quick changes but the hooks have to be taken off and resewn in order to adjust them.

When I make skirts or pantaloons I always make the waistband accessible and easily adjustable.

T- 24 hours - putting together the costumes

At this point I gather together all the separate components. I tend to store complete sets on the same hanger, but some items go with more than one costume. The complete costume might also include shoes, bodystockings, tights, hairbands/flowers. I also always include a cover up, because I almost always need one at some point. I always lay everything out before I pack it so I know exactly what I have and can pack it efficiently.

For most commercial bookings I will be dancing 2 sets, which means 2 full costumes, often with a change of accessories (I try to make them starkly different so I often change my hair and everything between sets).

T- 23 hours - packing the bag

THE BAG has consistent components that I will always need, and changable components. The night before a performance I will check the stocks on things like hairgrips and pack the costumes and props into the bag carefully. Once it's set to go I try not to interfere with it at all, in case I accidentally take something out and forget it. I'm quite particular like that.

I also always pack at least 2 copies of my music. Usually I have my ipod, my phone and a CD of the whole set. There are some things you just don't take chances on.

T - 3 hours, the final countdown

On the day of a performance I try and make sure I have a couple of hours before I have to leave set aside for getting ready. I try to give myself more than I need because rushing is the sort of thing that gets eyelashes glued to your ears.

First thing I do is eat. Something proteiny so it's filling but not stodgy. Dancing on a stodgy meal is not good. Sometimes when I perform at a restaurant they will offer me dinner, which is frankly awesome. The tough bit is waiting until after I have finished dancing to take them up on it.

There was also the time when I told my husband not to worry about me for dinner, because I was dancing later. He took that as meaning I wouldn't have time to eat, so he boxed up a whole homemade pizza for me. I had a 2 hour drive ahead of me with this pizza smelling amazing on the passenger seat. I planned to eat it on the way home. Most of it didn't make it that far.

So once I have eaten I will usually have a shower and start looking at getting ready proper. If I'm using my real hair, I will usually dry it at this point and set it in velcro rollers or large pin curls to keep it out of the way while I do my face.

T- 90 minutes - Beat that mug

I give myself an hour for stage makeup, it actually takes less, but various other things tend to be going on as well which I can't really quantify - like painting nails. Taking time to lay down a good base and contours makes all the difference in a solid, lasting look.

Things like false eyelashes need a steady hand and time to get right, it really is a case of more haste, less speed otherwise.

T-30 minutes - Hair

Hair is always the last thing I do before leaving the house. It usually involves messing around with some kind of hairpiece and loads of bobby pins.

T - 15 mins - clothes

I rarely travel to a gig in costume. Most of my costumes are not comfortable to travel in and many could potentially be damaged. They just aren't made for sitting in. They also aren't made for being chucked in the washing machine if I get splashed by a puddle or catch the skirt in the car door. I usually wear something like a jersey maxi dress that I can step into to avoid hair and make up issues.

Time to go!

Grab the gig bag and off I go!

Friday, 13 May 2016

Bellydance training with an injury

This post partly comes out of my recent post about managing my EDS for dance, because managing injury is an enormous part of being a dancer with EDS, however it is also something I have been meaning to write about for general reasons, because every dancer has to deal with this sometimes, whether it is because of ongoing issues, accidents or even a bout of flu.

Illness or injury has the potential to completely mess with your training schedule, knock out your opportunity to rehearse for performances and for a teacher upset your schemes of work and student progression as you plan your classes around your own physical limitations.

When an injury happens, you have to rest it, but I am always aware that while I am doing so, there is a risk of muscle deterioration, which means slipping backwards in terms of the joint stability I have worked so hard to build up, not to mention my general dance conditioning.
I'm still trying to work out a solid strategy for injury management, but these are the things that have worked for me so far.

Recognising the problem, and not denying it.

Denial is really easy when you are used to regular twinges. It's easy to think "oh that's just a little sore, it'll be fine" and carry on. Well, it might be fine, but even if it is, taking care of it won't do any harm. I use a warming muscle rub on anything that feels tight or sore. It aids recovery from post-conditioning aches and I've also found it helpful for stiff and sore ankles.

An injury needs rest, elevation and ice asap, I usually take some ibuprofen at the time, to help stop the inflammation. There really are no prizes for being a hero here - admit there is a problem and deal with it before it turns into a bigger problem.

Then you have to actually rest it. Princess Farhana wrote recently about how dancers just can't leave their injuries alone. Stop poking it!

Modifying exercises

In my work as a perinatal yoga teacher I am used to finding workarounds for conventional exercises. There's no shame in using props or adapting to reduce impact or exclude a joint that won't tolerate the position. Usually modification means compromise in terms of results, but it's a much better option than doing nothing, and definitely a better option than continuing to work a damaged or weak joint.

Splitting the body

In general I try to work different areas of the body on different days. Core almost always happens, but I have legs days and upper body days and abs days. This is fairly conventional in fitness and allows recovery inbetween. If I have an ankle injury, I will focus on the other areas for a bit. I also keep my conditioning symmetrical, because an injury on one side of the body will strain the other, so that will need some respite and care too.

When I was pregnant and suffering with pelvis instability, I started drilling arm pathways, with weights, while sitting on a fitness ball. There's often a way to rest an injury without stopping completely!

Splitting the work

On reflection I have realised that I can split my practice into a variety of levels, each with their own internal goals, this helps a lot because it means I don't have to drop everything when one part is compromised.

  • Basic fitness for cardiovascular and metabolic health - this is walking and generally being active.
  • Strength and stability for joint health - simple hatha yoga, restorative yoga, basic pilates, wobble board etc.
  • Strength and conditioning for dance - pilates, interval training, ashtanga yoga.
  • Dance training - drills, technique and rehearsal

Only the first two are essential for managing my general health (though the others do make a marked difference). It is possible to "mark time" in recovery periods by identifying the activities that make the most positive difference for the least harm.

Managing the domino effect.

A couple of months back I sprained my right ankle, I'm not entirely sure how. A couple of weeks later my left ankle buckled under the pressure of compensating for the weakness. It just gave way underneath me and I sprained that too. The right was almost better, but after a day of the left being weak, it got much worse again. Another day later and I was suffering from excruciating muscle pain up the outside of my left calf and the inside of my right quad - as a result of losing the balance and alignment in my walk. The quad imbalance affected my kneed and my kneecap subluxated...

This is a pretty usual pattern in my experience and it characterises how devastating a relatively minor slip can be as well as reinforcing how important to rest.

I've become very aware of how the body compensates for injury, usually by compromising alignment. Appropriate use of supports and splints helps. If I damage one ankle/foot, I will use a support on both, to protect the good foot. I also use a lot of muscle rub, massage and stretching to prevent tightness and imbalance in the muscles that support the joints.

One of my postnatal yoga clients was asking me about using supports for an injury just this week. In particular she was concerned about relying on the support and losing the musculature that would naturally provide support. Ideally what you need to to is talk to a physiotherapist who can let you know exactly how to use supports appropriately. So... this is my personal experience and not advice... When I feel a weakness or pain, I use a support, always. Why? Because I have found that continuing to use a joint that is weak, wobbly or generally unreliable leads to further injury. A slight weakness due to reliance on a support is a much lesser issue than the risk of aggravating the injury or causing further injury. And I'm not convinced that a support will cause weakness, if your muscles/joints needed the extra help in the first place.

Total rest.

Sometimes the best thing to do is just stop and give yourself some recovery time. If you are ill, you need to get better and while in some cases taking a half hour to walk in the fresh air might do you the world of good, in others it might just prolong your illness and keep you out of training for much longer.

It's OK to have downtime, and downtime doesn't have to mean a break from dance entirely. I've written before about how you can improve your dance by watching and analysing video footage. So that's a start. There's also other things like mapping music for choreography (I hate this job but I've found it essential for really understanding all my performance music, improv too), or even just listening to tracks through services like Spotify or even on YouTube to find your next performance peace.

As a teacher I use downtime to plan lessons, or to type up my rough lesson plans, choreography and workshop notes from my notebooks. Or sort out the dreaded accounts.

You could also work on zills or drumming, or costume making. There's lots of ways you can turn a bit of time off your feet into genuinely productive work.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Reflecting on an intense year of dance.

So I've been a bit lax with this blog, and that's because I've just come to the end of an amazing chapter of dance.

I've had a phenomenal year which has involved multiple workshops, intensive instruction from Ashley Lopez and Ava Fleming, and the opportunity to participate in Alexis Southall's Tribal Fusion Education Programme.

I've really struggled to write this post and give everything the attention it deserves without going on too long, so I've reminded myself that most of these topics will get their own post in time. Now is a quick overview!

Working in a group

It's been a long while since I have worked consistently with the same bunch of people, as I have not been part of a troupe, or attended weekly classes for several years.

There is something really special about shared experience, knowing there are others working through the same material, preparing for the same goals. Being part of a collective can be restrictive in some ways, but it also gives you space to breathe and grow with the support of your peers.

Being back in a tight, shared dance space with lovely, talented dancers has been really refreshing. So much so that I decided to apply for this year's Juniper Project. And I was accepted, so I am really excited to have a group project, with a shared performance, on my training schedule for this year.

Diversity is amazing

One thing that really struck me was how different all of the dancers in the cohort were. We all came from different backgrounds and different influences, but everyone had something brilliant to offer and to be inspired by.

There's a lot of diversity in traditional Arabic dance as it is, but when you get fusion performers bringing in influences from other styles, along with their personality and aesthetic, the possibilities are endless.

One thing I have learned from bellydance is to see and appreciate something in everyone's dance, every individual has something worth watching. Working with the TFEP group I saw this phenomenon, but massively inflated. At the final showcase I was blown away with the high calibre of all the performances, though each one was vastly different from the next.

Seeing through others' eyes

Feedback is a super important part of improving your dance, but good feedback can be hard to come by. Much of the feedback I get for my dancing isn't true feedback, it's niceties, or its accurate, but not backed up with the information that helps me understand *exactly* what it is that made that feel that way, or what I have to do to improve.

With Alexis as a mentor I have had some really useful feedback, but in the course of our studio time we also got feedback from the other participants, and that was really useful too.

Another aspect that was fun, and revelatory, was the exercises where we got to evaluate each other's dance styles. I've been told before that my style is "distinctive" or "quirky" or all kinds of things, but I've never really understood what that meant until other dancers sat down, watched me then listed all the traits they saw that made my dance "me" (and I got to do the same in return). This brings me back to the last point, understanding how two dancers, dancing the same style, even taught by the same teacher, can be quite distinctive. It also helped me understand a very important point of artistic angst, the "what am I doing that everyone else isn't doing? Why would anyone want to watch *me*". Which brings me to my next point...

Self doubt is part of the process

I've talked to a lot of dancers this year, from international master teachers to dancers preparing their first solo, and I've come to realise that every one of them has moments of wondering why they are doing this to themselves, whether they can pull it off and whether it is worth it. This isn't just normal, it's vital if you want to keep your feet on the ground. Sometimes the answer is what you need to get you to put your big girl pantaloons on and get up there. Sometimes the answer is to sit this one out because it's not right, at this moment, and that's ok too, as long as it's authentic and honest.

Vulnerability is powerful

At Majma last year, I asked Ava how she managed to bring the raw emotion in her fusion pieces (like Too Close and Roxanne), which she explained always come from real, personal experiences, to the stage. How did she present her heart on her sleeve with such vulnerability? How does she get up there and take that risk?

Her answer: You just do it.

So at first that didn't seem all that helpful, but then I decided to take it as advice. At a friendly, local hafla, I took a track that touched me, but which I hadn't choreographed or rehearsed to the point where technique starts to erase the feels. And I just did it.

And no one laughed, or criticised the technical flaws, or threw things. In fact I got a lot of very good feedback. I didn't record it, because sometimes you don't need to sit there and cringe and dissect things, some things just have to live and die in the moment.

What I took away from that performance, was a little more confidence in allowing my dance to come from the heart. And every time I do that, it gets a little easier.

Don't be afraid to be a dancer

I've always had a certain amount of self conciousness about doing "dancey" things. There's bellydance moves, and that's fine because I'm a bellydancer, but some movements, gestures, delicate turns etc. Moves which have evolved from ballet or contemporary dance. They just feel a bit silly. Well they did, until I realised that what I had to do was just commit to them and remember that I am a dancer, so I better dance like one!

I realised through rehearsal, recording rehearsal, performing and recording performing, that sometimes I hold back, and actually I dance better without the audience, because I'm not afraid of looking daft. But of course the fear of looking daft, the holding back, that's what makes you look daft.

Or to make decisions

This seems like a small thing, but it's made a tremendous difference to my dance time. Alexis made us choreograph on a very tight time limit, and I learned to make snap decisions. To just put in something that is about 80% right to get that section choreographed and move on. You can always change it or embellish it later. Recent new work has shown that this just about halves my choreography time, giving me more time to actually perfect it.

A supportive mentor is priceless

Alexis has been great this year. I can't really explain quite why, but having a teacher who is genuinely invested in your progress makes a huge difference, even when they aren't doing anything. I suppose it's a bit like a doula, it's what they are as much as what they do, and knowing they are there makes all the difference. So I have to say a massive thank you to her, because she is fantastic.

The result

So I'm pretty proud to be able to present the video of my final performance at the Vernal Equinox showcase. It represents the culmination of a great year of growth in my dance. If you would like to see the work of some of my peers on the course, they are also available on the same channel.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

EDS - dance and conditioning as physical therapy.

I've spent most of this year working very hard on my cross training, as well as general drill and practice schedule. I've written about what that means in dance terms (tldr: many good things) but I wanted to look at it from another angle.

I've written before about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It's a genetic disorder that affects my collagen structure and causes all kinds of fun complications, most of which are invisible to all but those closest to me. In my case, the most invasive symptoms are joint instability, the subsequent injury that causes (sprains, dislocations etc), chronic pain and fatigue.

I like to think of it a bit like this: Imagine you are building a machine, like a car, but where you need cable ties (it's a cheap car) you only have rubber bands, and where you need gaffa tape, you have elastoplast. It's not going to function quite right in a variety of different ways.

It is well understood that certain kinds of physical therapy are good for EDS patients. I had a lot of physiotherapy as a teenager,and some in my 20s but none of it really stuck. Then earlier in the year, I watched this lecture. It's long, but interesting. I'm going to summarise the bits that I found really relevant to my practice.

One thing that really struck me was that they felt that general physical therapy was just as effective as targeted therapy. For me this was super-good news. I have a whole catalog of really boring PT exercises I am supposed to do, but I never do. Why not? Because they are dull. It might sound like no problem to take time out 5 times a day to do 10 reps of a basic exercise, but it never happens because there are better things in life.

"I have never met an EDS patient who can ignore the pain and exercise in the gym and be successful at it" Jan Dommerholt

In the video they talk about an external focus. So that patients aren't exercising just for the sake of it, or even thinking about what muscles they are using or where there body is, they are doing a task where correct form is built in, but the goal is something far more compelling (you can see some examples of the speakers' less conventional PT tasks at about 35 min).

Another issue I have experienced this year is the notable lag in progress of my EDS symptoms behind my fitness. I have never in my adult life managed to push through to the point where my joint stability is good enough to match what my general strength and fitness is capable of.

For example, after about a month of daily interval training, I was feeling a lot stronger and healthier, but I was still having to modify some exercises to reduce the impact upon my joints. I kept at it. After 8 months I was finally able to do jump squats and burpees (putting aside a brief point where I let my burpee form slip a bit and ended up having to splint my wrist 24/7 for a month). For most people doing a jump squat is about having muscles strong enough and fast enough to get off the floor, for me it is about having enough stability in my knees not to collapse like a marionette when I land - and that was the hard part. I could do 80 standard squats a day for months before I was able to land a single jump squat.

It is also known that the gains from PT will drop off very quickly if you stop, which is something to consider when dealing with illness, injury or rest periods. In my summer dance-downtime this year, I continued with my fitness training for this reason.

Pain is the last symptom to go, and it never reaches zero. Well, that's depressing. And that's another reason why it is really hard for people with EDS to motivate themselves towards PT. My pain levels have reduced, inasmuch as I don't get particular pain from injuries, slips, trips and wobbles quite so much. The general background aches are still there. The truth is though, there is improvement. Marked improvement, but it is taking work. A short while ago a quote was posted on a Yoga for EDS forum I subscribe to: "he is in so much pain he has to exercise all the time". It's kind of perfect.

My programme

So I want to write a little about the parts of my training which I feel are having a positive impact on my EDS symptoms - it's just what is working for me, everyone's body is different, this is intended as reflection, not instruction. A summary of what I am learning on this year's fitness journey.


So the most important thing I came into this year with, was an understanding of my issues. I analysed my posture meticulously. I watched videos of my dance practice and performance, I asked other dance teachers to do a postural analysis on me and I had a session with a physiotherapist for the same reason. With that in mind I started out aware of potential pitfalls, weak spots and problems to "fix".

I have/had: A deep lordosis in my lumbar spine, swayback, femoral torsion with a weakness in my external hip rotators which worsen that, pronation on my left foot, supernation on my right, plantar fasciitis and a few other fun things. A lot of work has gone into all of these and my posture, movement and proprioception are all improving - but that couldn't have happened nearly so well if I hadn't been aware of what to look out for from the start.

Another side to feedback that is important is observing my dance, either on video or in studio mirrors, and being aware of my alignment from an external perspective. People with EDS usually have poor proprioception (the sense of where the body is in space). You can train proprioception, but I have to be constantly mindful to keep my lines healthy and avoid "weird" and unnatural-looking joint positions.


Some people get twitchy about yoga and EDS, because they think that yoga is about being bendy, and EDSers are already *too* bendy. When I practice yoga I am concentrating on good alignment and strength through postures and flow. EDS comes with poor proprioception, we often don't really know where our body parts are unless they are at an extreme of their range. Yoga is about being really conscious of that, and developing good movement patterns which become habits we carry into our daily lives.

Pilates has a lot in common with yoga, but with more ability to spot target and strengthen muscles. Pilates tends to be intense and is often about doing a few reps in good form, which makes it initially quite accessible. My physiotherapist runs clinical pilates sessions, which are a great option for anyone wanting to try it out while keeping a joint condition in mind.


One of the most basic exercise therapies suggested for EDS is 30 minutes walking a day. That's a good amount of walking, certainly enough to call yourself active for the sake of cardiovascular health etc. The great thing about walking is that you can choose how to pace yourself. If it takes 30 minutes to get to the end of the street and back, it's still 30 minutes walking, right?

I usually walk on a flat surface, like a pavement, although more recently I have been branching out to some cross country things. Uneven surfaces carry risks of wobbles which means ankles, knees, hips, falls, all that drama.

Finding motivation to walk isn't so hard. I started by walking the school run, or just walking into town and back. Then I got a puppy. Now I walk her. Walking with a dog feels much more purposeful. I like going places with her. I've just about doubled my daily distances as a result.

Kit for walking is helpful. I started out using a hiking pole when I am going off road. "Hiking pole" is sports for "walking stick for wobbly muppets who fall over in the mud too much". I find the difference it makes is phenomenal. I have mananged to avoid using a conventional walking stick for about 3 years now, but I used a pole religiously on rough ground while I was developing strength in my walking habit, and continue to use it on wet days or if I'm feeling a bit weak.

The other important thing is shoes. Shoes are a big deal for me generally, they have to be right or I end up with fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, odd dislocations in my metatarsals, all sorts. I started wearing trainer style, low top walking shoes for all my walks. I found them lacking on wet ground. I have old fashioned leather hiking boots, but I find them too restrictive, my feet can't flex and I get cramps and my joints ache for lack of movement (moving joints is really important for keeping the synovial fluid levels at their cushiony best). So I invested in some soft, high top walking boots and they are great, enough flexion in the sole to keep my feet busy, but loads of ankle support.

When I walk I also think about alignment and posture a lot too, just like a do when I am dancing. Is my pelvis level and stable? Are my toes facing forwards? Are my knees tracking over my toes?

I've noticed that the strength training in the pilates and yoga, as well as the more intense interval training, has changed the way I walk, I'm using more muscle groups now and my gait is smoother. I notice these things because I am a movement geek.

There are other parts of my training that are less relevant to my EDS, like weights, interval training and dance practice. Those are all happening too, but doing those parts is the goal, the stuff above is what keeps me well enough to get there.

Keeping track

One of my most surprising discoveries was how useful it has been to use a fitness tracker. I use a Fitbit Charge HR, which I find best for picking up my non-stepping exercise like weights and dance (when my arms are isolated and most of the effort is not in my feet)

So why is this so useful?

First off, it makes me be active every day. It is very easy to have a slack day, then let that drift into a slack 3 days and before you know it you are losing strength, getting wobbly and falling down the stairs again. I am naturally a bit goal driven, so I do make a point of hitting my daily goals and doing this consistently has definitely made me more active and stronger.

The thing that I wasn't expecting to make an impact on my EDS symptoms was the calories in/out tracker. I knew I had a problem with how I was eating on heavy training days. The disruption of travelling, dancing all day, taking short breaks with unusual sources of food etc was clearly problematic. Like many EDSers my digestive system likes routine and I would usually end up with stomach cramps etc due to the disruption. I also used to crash badly the next day. Total fatigue, brain fog, sometimes migraine.

I'd put this down to having exercised/pain managed hard the next day and just having no spoons, but when I started tracking my calorie intake, I realised there might be more than that. On my heavy dance days (and this means teaching/rehearsal days as well as taking classes), I was undereating terribly. It is quite usual, on a Monday, when I run a full morning of classes with rehearsal inbetween, for me to end the day having expended up to 2000 more calories than I consumed. No wonder my body was screaming for downtime after that!

The counter problem to that was that on my rest days I was using half as many calories and eating more. So basically my fuel system was completely upside down.

I use an app on my phone which allows me to record my intake throughout the day, and lets me know if I am on track according to what I am doing. This means I can not only match my intake to my output on a daily basis, but throughout the day, which gives me much better balanced energy levels. This in turn means I am much less fatigued the following day. Energy levels are also really important for pain management. Low blood sugar saps willpower.

Daily goals mean that I am more consistently used to being active, and that has helped a lot with training days too, they aren't such a shock to the system! I still have pain to manage, serious training does still give me a bit of a "hangover" but it is much, much better.

The dreaded injury

Injury is an inevitable part of living with EDS. PT can strengthen and stabilise the body, which makes it less likely, but eventually it will happen.

There are some things I can live with, like my right hip that jumps in and out of place like it's doing the joint Hokey Kokey, or "The Claw" when my hands just seize up from overuse. Other issues can cause more disruption.

This time last year I wrenched my shoulder (while feeding the rabbits, because of course I did). It took a very long time to work through all the issues this caused in my neck, shoulder and upper back. Spraining my wrist meant no burpees for a while (there's the silver lining). I also couldn't plank properly for a while, I had to modify to the elbows.

Earlier this year I managed to sprain both ankles, which caused a whole cascade of issues.

I had so much to say about how I cope when I have an injury, that I decided to put it into a whole separate post.

The final word

So I'm going to wrap this up here. The last year has been quite a journey on a number of levels. From a health/EDS perspective I was determined to see what my body was capable of if I cared for it, ruthlessly. It has exceeded my expectations. A couple of times last week on a dog walk I climbed Glastonbury Tor twice in a row (and went around the base inbetween) with absolutely no extra issues afterwards. This takes constant work though. I have to exercise every day, regardless and that takes commitment and scheduling.

Dr Dommerholt is correct. The pain doesn't go away. But it doesn't go away through rest either, so that's not part of the equation. Being stronger, more physically able and a better dancer has been worth the effort.

EDS affects different people in different ways, and I am very grateful that I have the ability to access this kind of training, many sufferers would struggle with the basic programme I began with, and I certainly wouldn't expect many people to be as driven as I am. Dance is one of my greatest priorities, but I have that luxury because it is also my job.

However, accessible activities are a great thing - I currently have plans to start a low-impact dance class for less able dancers - moving, in a safe and level appropriate way, motivated by something other than simply getting the exercise done is an excellent tool towards health and wellness.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The pregnant bellydancer

Every now and again I get approached by a dancer who announces she is pregnant. That's always rather nice, but more specifically they are looking for help and advice about dancing through pregnancy.

Now I love these conversations, because it's great to help out another dancer, and supporting women on their journey into motherhood is what I do on the other side of my working life. But I also felt that it would be good to put a bunch of information in one place (for the bits I forget to talk about) and to be able to share it with dancers who aren't going to contact me directly to ask. There's a lot of misunderstanding about dance, or physical activity in pregnancy, and I think that places a lot of unnecessary stress and restrictions on pregnant women.

In this post I am going to focus on continued dance for dancers who happen to be pregnant. There will also be a sister post on my doulaing blog for pregnant women who would like to dance.

Before we start. Who am I to be talking about this stuff?

Well, I'm a bellydancer, and teacher, hopefully that is clear or you have stumbled here via a stray internet link and are wondering what is going on. I have a background in teaching specific prenatal bellydance classes ( this used to be a regular thing, but now is something I offer as a workshop) which stems from my work as a doula.

I am also a trained doula, which for the uninitiated means that I provide practical and emotional support for women through pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period. This is not a medical position, I don't provide any medical treatment or advice, but part of the role is having a strong understanding of the processes of pregnancy and birth, as well as the various options, complications etc that might arise, so that if need be, I can serve as an advocate for a client, helping her to make informed choices that are right for her.

And I'm a perinatal yoga teacher. I have been teaching regular pre and postnatal yoga classes for just over 3 years and I have the privilege of watching a wide range of women progress through pregnancy, whilst analysing their posture an movement (in a totally not-weird way).

What I am not however, is an obstetrician. Or more importantly, your obstetrician. The information I am about to give you is based on my experience as a dancer, teacher and mother. Always seek the advice of a medical professional who knows your file and can actually see you and stuff.

Down to the questions. 

I'm going to FAQ this. Yes, it's a bit lazy, but it might make it easier to follow....

Can I bellydance in pregnancy?

Yes. Yes you can. There will be limits. For the most part they will be extremely clear to you.

This is assuming you are generally healthy. If you have complications in your pregnancy then those limits might be tighter, or you might need to rest up completely. I keep a quick checklist here for *my* prenatal class, which is beginner level and very low impact.

Generally if your health care professionals are not advising you to avoid light/moderate exercise, you can dance. Some HCPs don't know much about bellydance, and will err on the side of caution when asked, because they really have no idea what you are proposing to do with your expanding midriff. Discuss your concerns, and theirs and see how you feel. But the rule for most pregnancies is if you were doing it before you got pregnant, then you can keep doing it. Dancers in forms that are much tougher on the body, like ballet, continue to dance safely in pregnancy. Runners keep running, weightlifters keep lifting. You get my gist.

Is it going to cause a miscarriage?

The "usual" advice women are given is to lay off exercise for the first 12 weeks, as this is a risky window for miscarriage. Now, it's fine to lay off exercise if you are exhausted and nauseous, and it is very important to listen to the signals your body sends when you need to slow down.

But.... I need to get a bugbear off my chest. There is a reason most miscarriages happen in the first trimester. That reason has nothing to do with exercise. It has nothing to do with *anything* the woman does. To suggest otherwise is a cruel lie that leaves grieving women torturing themselves with blame over a pregnancy loss that could never have been prevented. The vast majority of first trimester miscarriages are genetic faults. Those embryos simply didn't have the right DNA to grow into a viable foetus. It's really common, happens all the time - we have actually evolved to only carry the strongest, most viable embryos. It is nobody's fault.

For many dancers, dance is what keeps them sane, and healthy. For many of us it is our main (or sole) form of exercise. Without it we lose our cardiovascular fitness, strength and posture. Those are all going to be important to keep healthy and comfortable through pregnancy. So telling a dancer to stop dancing for a couple of months is not actually beneficial to her health at all.

Is there anything I should be avoiding?

I have 3 answers to this question, the fluffy, the general and the sciencey

The fluffy

Listen to your body. If you feel tired, don't push yourself. If you feel dizzy or nauseous, stop spinning drills. If something hurts, don't do it.

Most of the time that will see you through. If you are dancing regularly and not consistently injuring yourself, the chances are you either have a fabulous and attentive teacher, or a fairly good understanding of your body. Both of those will serve you well here.

The general

Smooth movements are usually ok. Sharp movements can be uncomfortable. Twists, especially sharp twists need to be avoided. Camels/undulations - the general advice is no, I would certainly advise against deep pelvic undulations in the second half of pregnancy. Backbends are just ridiculous, don't even think about it. Belly rolls are probably possible (I could bellyroll at 34 weeks pregnant just fine) but it does put strain on a muscle that is already very stretched and you would probably like to go back to its original length eventually.

That said, Sadie is doing just fine....

The sciency

To unite the first 2 answers, sharp movements will probably feel uncomfortable anyhow. Your uterus will essentially become a hard and heavy wrecking ball, crashing about buffeting your insides (that's the science....). You will most likely not enjoy this sensation. You won't want to do the movements.

The other risk for sharp movements is relaxin. As your pregnancy progresses you will become more flexible as this hormone softens your ligaments in preparation for birth. Flexible joints are unstable joints and it will become easier for you to hurt yourself through an overenthusiastic movement. Some women find themselves getting really loose in pregnancy, and this can result in Pelvic Girdle Pain, when the usually fixed joints in the pelvis start to wriggle around. I suffered from PGP in both my pregnancies. I found that I could dance at times when walking was difficult, because my automatic dance posture activated my core into stabilising my pelvis. If you have PGP though, you need to take it steady and remember that if you overdo it, you might not feel it until the next day, so be careful.

That said, from my personal experience as a mum to be with pelvic pain, and as a yoga teacher with several women with PGP in my care, I strongly believe that the worst thing for a loose pelvis is complete rest. When your core muscles weaken, they support the pelvis less, the instability becomes worse, the pain becomes worse. The Pelvic Partnership have some great information about how to take care of your flexible pelvis in terms of avoiding the activities that make it worse. Maintaining core strength and good pelvic carriage in your posture usually reduces symptoms.

Generally stabilising the pelvis will help both pelvic and back pain. Be mindful of your posture and think about keeping the low abs engaged and avoiding "duck butt" at all costs. Your body will be fighting you on this one. Do this every day to help straighten things out.

Twisting the lumbar spine needs to be avoided in pregnancy, in prenatal yoga spinal twists are done sat on the floor or otherwise to root the pelvis in place and taken very gently. I personally found horizontal figure 8s just fine, but kept the range of the twist small.

The last thing to consider is dizziness. You'll probably be getting some of this. You'll also notice the headrush from standing up or bending over is much worse now. This is usual. Your balance will also be off, because your centre of gravity is different and constantly changing. This is going to limit your ability to spin.

Can I keep training?

For some dancers training might mean attending one class a week, for others it might mean a more punishing schedule of conditioning and dance. How you manage this is entirely up to you. I stopped taking classes at about 20 weeks in my first pregnancy. But at 17 weeks I made it through the Majma festival without sitting out of any workshops.

Of course dance isn't just about classes. I never truly stopped dancing in either of my pregnancies. Even after I stopped classes, or practice at home. Dance is integral to my life and I was still dancing, even briefly, on a daily basis.

If you want to maintain your fitness, it might be worth switching over to specialist pre-natal classes whose teachers have a better understanding of what is going on in your body and how to manage it. There are also some really good prenatal yoga and pilates DVDs on the market (Tara Lee held me together in my first pregnancy), and a couple of prenatal bellydance DVDs, which while basic, offer you a safe flow practice.

There are other ways you can work at your dance, without actually dancing. Like watching videos or studying music. So try them out to keep your dance monster fed. Lastly, be creative, if you can't do the entirety of your regular practice, what can you do? When my pelvis was at its worst, I sat on a fitness ball and drilled arm patterns. Great for core strength!

Can I perform during pregnancy?

Absolutely. If you can dance, you can perform. You might want to think about what your energy levels can handle, but if you feel up for it, most bellydance events love a pregnant dancer!

What about afterwards?

When I was pregnant people told me that dance would be the last thing on my mind after I had a baby. These people were wrong, and if you, like me, live and breathe bellydance, then you will understand the urge to get back into it fast.

You're going to have to wait a little, at least. Medical advice is to wait 6-8 weeks, at which point you will have your postnatal checkup and your doctor will tell you if you are OK to start exercise.

After my second baby (c-section) I went to a beginner level class at 10 weeks postpartum. Looking back on that it seems ridiculous, but at the time it was an absolute lifeline. One whole hour a week for me, where I wasn't caring for a tiny and perpetually hungry human.


I took my yoga teacher training during my second pregnancy. My teacher told me at the time that yoga teachers were far more likely to push themselves too far, maybe even without realising, because they felt the need to "keep up" or maintain a certain level to justify their position as a teacher.

I think that is something to be conscious of as a pregnant dancer too. You will lose condition, you will find yourself dancing more basic technique and fumbling movements that were previously easy.

You may even resent your body, or your baby for "taking away" something that is probably part of your identity. All of this is normal and OK.

When you come back, dancing will feel like driving an unfamiliar, and much less powerful, car. Your brain will know what it wants to do, but your body will not quite get there.

However, pregnancy did make me a better dancer. Living without dance, as I had known it, made me yearn for it more, and work for it harder once I could again. It made me less inhibited because I understood what I really had to lose. It made me dig deeper. Losing the edge on my skill made me reflect harder on the artistry, musicality, storytelling and emotion of dance. Don't be afraid of taking a little sabbatical, the dance will always be waiting for you.

Tasty metaphors....

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Practice snacks - making a difference to your dance in bite size chunks.

I've been thinking a lot about training and practice for class students lately.

I often catch myself telling dancers in class that the move the move they are struggling with will come... with practice. We usually drill movement in class, both while learning it and in the drills section of the class, but I don't believe it is the best use of our class time to drill a single move for an extended period until everyone has nailed it (drill-specific classes excepted); once I know my students can execute a move safely, understand what they are aiming for and have had a little time to let their bodies feel it, we usually move on. Apart from anything else a little settling time usually helps things click.

I do understand that not every class participant is going to go home and practice the material they covered in class. At all. Let alone for hours of meticulous drilling. But I am also aware that many dance students want to practice, but don't really know how.

Also I am an evil taskmaster and setting homework pleases me.

Are your toes good or naughty?

I train stupidly hard, because I love it, it's my passion, my job and I am trying to maintain a steep learning curve. I am prepared to prioritise my training and make sacrifices for it. I don't expect every student to be quite so affected. So I got to thinking about what I could advise students to do that wouldn't cut into their lives too hard, but would still make a difference to their dance.

[though if you are interested in really raising your game through intense training and practice, this is the series for you]

I'm a real fan of the idea of 10 minute practices, because most of us can find 10 minutes a couple of times a week. Or even just 2 minutes a day. A lot can be accomplished in 2 minutes a day. It could be the time while you wait for the microwave to ping your porridge in the morning, a mid-afternoon break to freshen up your brain. Schedule that time and you will do it.

So I'm going to start a new series on here of little homework snippets that make a difference.

I'll get into specifics with the next post, but for today, here's  some general ideas to get you going.

Daily drills

Use my drill generator to pick something at random, and practice it! Picking at random means you will not just practice the moves you like best! Chose one thing to practice, do it for the duration of one song.

Class technique top up

In most classes you will probably learn 2-4 new techniques or steps. Put on a song, you can use Arabic music or just something you like with a beat (I have a bit of a playlist for students here). It could even just be a plain drumbeat (I use Guy Shalom's Tablatastic for drills to specific beats or Gypsy Caravan's Caravan Rhythms). Practice your new steps for the duration of the song, first slow, then full speed. Start small and increase your range as you warm into the movement. Think about posture and isolation. If the movement is a layer, practice the separate components briefly before putting it together.

Improvisation sensation

Choose 3 dance movements or steps. You decide how loose your definition is (for instance you could choose "figure 8s" which could be any and all variations on an 8, from mayas to chest 8s and one-hip 8s, or specifically stick with one type). Put on a song you know and like. Dance to it, using only those moves. We are working on musicality and spontaneity. Whatever happens, just keep dancing.