Recently in class a student asked me how long it took me to feel proficient at tribal group improvisation. I told her it would be wildly different from person-to-person, depending on previous dance/movement experience, mind-body connection, home practice, etc. But most important of all? Showing up. Which leads me to a little anecdote about my baby dancer days…
My introduction to tribal style bellydance (live, not the FatChance® videos I had watched avidly) was via Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan. Up here in Seattle, a gal was hosting monthly workshops with Paulette, where we would get a blissful two or three hours of dancey goodness every 30 days (I was still taking my Am Cab classes weekly, but tribal was my calling!). I looked forward to it every month. You bellydance whippersnappers growing up in the community today don’t know what it was like back then–no tribal for as far as the eye could see. Most people had no idea what it was, and there were only a handful of VHS tapes on the market which taught the basics. We walked uphill both ways in the snow… well, anyway…
Even with all the anticipation I felt, and how I longed for a regular class I could take locally…I always left early. Yep. As soon as it came to the chorus work at the end, I would slip out the back door. Literally. I was too nervous (me?! yes!) to dance improvisationally with the other women. Getting to dance in this style only once a month, I felt I just wasn’t absorbing the moves enough into my mind and body to be able to pull them out comfortably. So rather than just suck it up and try, I would sheepishly dance n’ dash.
Of course, I know two things now I didn’t know then…
Number one is that when you dance with others, be it in class or workshops, they are going through the same gamut of feelings you are. Believe you me, they are just as excited and nervous as you are, heads swimming with new information and fear of ‘messing up’. And two, know that all the encouraging thoughts and joy that flow quite naturally from you to them in those moments are being returned. In short, don’t be afraid to try try again. We covered this a little bit in a previous post (Dancing with others – you are supported!).
In short: your dance sisters have got your back! So don’t be afraid to be a little vulnerable, and just go for it.
But the real question was how long does it take to get truly comfortable? If I am being totally honest with you, some people may never feel 100% awesome in the lead. But that should never stop you! I have known many a professional dancer who still feels like throwing up from nervousness before going on stage, but once they are up there, they love dancing for an audience so much it just doesn’t stop them from following their bliss.
So how can you minimize anxiety over leading, or even eliminate it altogether?
Know your vocabulary
I don’t mean you need to know how to comfortably lead every single move into every other single move in the entire repertoire–after all, you may not even be at a point in your dance where you have been exposed to every single concept in our (your) dance repertoire. Simply have a few go-to moves and combinations you know work well with your performance music, and drill them until they are second-nature. That way when and if you end up taking a lead, you have concepts you know for sure you can lead cleanly. Other moves will inevitably bubble to the surface as you increase your experience and confidence, and pretty soon you have a growing collection of moves and concepts that you can easily pull out in many performance situations!
I have emphasized it before and I will do so again:
The more repetition you get under the watchful eye and guiding hand of a trusted professional instructor, the better a dancer you are. Ballet dancers at the barre know this without question. Learn it, live it, love it.
Know your music
That means knowing your music so well, you could “sing” it from beginning to end, including any unexpected little stops or nuances in the melody. You want to eliminate the need to track your music on a fully conscious level, and just be able to flow with it on a more subconscious level. Make it become so much a part of your mind and body you don’t have to give it much energy to be able to truly connect with it. I tell my students they should be somewhat sick of their music by the time they perform to it.
Pro Tip #1: There is a sort of bell curve that comes with listening to your performance music over the long term. At first you love it but don’t know it very well. Then you eventually know it really well but are kind of sick of it. And finally, you know it like the back of your hand and you love it all over again. I find at the final stage there is an added bonus, in that you begin to hear and appreciate tiny subtleties and details you weren’t really able to hear before. You get past the gross structure of the song and dig into the deeper artistry of the musicians who created it. And that is where the magic lies!
Be comfortable in your costume
This means not only dress rehearsing your costume thoroughly, but also practicing dancing in various elements in rehearsals or class. For we tribal bellydancers, if we want to wear piles of skirts on stage and be able to move gracefully and confidently, we need to get used to wearing those skirts as a matter of course. Students of mine will note I wear a skirt most nights in class–not as a fashion statement, but because those skirts kind of have a mind of their own, and you need to learn how to move in tandem with it. Same with pantaloons–those puddling silky layers of ‘loons can be easily slipped and tripped on if you aren’t used to maneuvering in them. Wearing these elements to class regularly will make them an extension of you and an extension of your dance, making it easier once you are on stage. While we’re on the subject…
Pro Tip #2: Dress rehearse any new costume elements TWICE before a performance. This means all out dancing from beginning to end of your set, not just bopping around to your music casually checking to see if your ensemble works or not. By giving yourself two full rehearsals, it allows you time to discover any issues in the first rehearsal, adjust, and confirm those adjustments work in the next rehearsal. In my classes we generally have a pre-dress rehearsal rehearsal, and then a final dress rehearsal, just for this purpose.
Mistakes happen – accept it, move on
I have done a lot of theater training which included tons of improvisational exercises. In these sessions, we are schooled in how to keep an open mind, to release what we expect or wish the other person will say or do in order to further the story we have in our own head. Instead, we need to learn how to honestly take in what is being said to us or shown to us, accept it as a fact, and move forward with it as if that was the story all along. This is how convincing improv works–all the people in the scene are agreeing that whatever is put out to the group, the others will carry it forward without question or resistance.
Improv dance is the same way. We can’t spend any time or energy on what we feel should be happening, we need to move with what is happening. Flubs, slip-ups, mistakes, costume malfunctions, completely made up moves, forgotten choreography, finger cymbals flying away, feeling stuck in hip bump for half a song–all these things and more can and will happen in the course of your dance life. But a strong dancer doesn’t shy away from all these “scary” scenarios. She accepts that this is what is happening and moves forward as if that was the plan all along. And if one of these “magic moments” happens while you are leading, well luckily we have already made our pact with one another that we won’t resist or shut down what is happening, but just gracefully go along with it as if this is how it is supposed to be. This mutual trust takes time and patience to nurture, but it is the real glue that holds a successful tribal improv group together.
The sooner you begin to believe that even if you mess up it will truly be okay, and fully embrace this controlled chaos that is tribal style bellydance, the sooner you will let go of the anxiety and dance with more joy and freedom!