I have been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon in the bellydance world of favoring volume over quality. Teachers are pushing students through levels (Six weeks in the beginner level? Welcome to intermediate!) or constantly introducing new concepts in lieu of polishing current skills (because they are bored themselves? are afraid of not being relevant?); and in turn instilling in their students the perceived higher value of lots and lots of movement and variety above the value of honing a manageable set of skills before adding on new things. I am seeing a lack of emphasis on repetition, control, discipline, and intention over flash. In doing so, we undermine a strong work ethic and diminish a sense of pride in the fundamental elements of Good Dance.
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly and over-dramatic, at the center of it all I think we are failing as a community to nurture a mindful generation of dancers. What we need to make our mantra in this day and age of “sensory overload and on-demand streaming video constantly pumping overwhelming amounts of data into our skulls in a world which honors style-over-substance” is this powerful idea: “Do more with less.“
“Kitchen Sink Dancing” is this trend in the bellydance community which embraces the idea that the more amazing tricks you do–the more pops and locks and intricate details you can throw into a routine–the better it will be. Music is chosen which has the most beeps and boops and tittertittertitterPOWs in it so the dancer can snipsnaplayerlayerlayerlayerlayerlayerSCHWOOP her way through a routine. In improv circles, the analogue to this is glorification of knowing “all the moves”. For teachers, the analog is rushing to teach or incorporate the latest vocabulary additions before the student really gained proficiency with what they are already been working with. All with a despairing lack of self-awareness or assessment.
But I Like New Things…
Hey, I get the excitement of new things! I feel strongly there is a lot of value in expanding your horizons, dipping your toe into material that is new, different, and challenging. Every dancer should be doing this throughout their dance life. But in my humble opinion, it should not be the primary, central focus, and adding these concepts to one’s repertoire should be only after a lengthy period of practicing (or vetting–does it fit into your personal aesthetic? if not, how do I adapt it so it does?) and refining these skills in the studio. There needs to be a solid balance between bringing in new material (thoughtfully!) and honing/polishing your current skillset.
For bellydancers, drilling basics and honing our fundamentals are our version of “barre work”. Ballet dancers know there is always work to be done at the barre–there is no such thing as a professional ballet dancer getting sick of doing plies, or complaining about doing another tendu–because it is understood that this foundational work is integral at every stage of a dancer’s growth. Think of your dance as a practice, like yoga, where the height of success is executing each pose with confidence, control, and presence. Each repetition offers an opportunity to learn something new, gain greater confidence and strength. The ultimate is to be able to ease in and out of these effortlessly, to “flow”. The opposing sentiment being “ZOMG did you see all the new yoga poses in the workshop today? Let’s do them all immediately! FLOW DAMMIT! WE HAVE TO FLOW!” Consider this quote from MovingIntoStillness.com:
“Getting “better” at yoga is not only a matter of becoming stronger and more flexible, of becoming more proficient in the poses, but of getting better at finding the specific alignment in each pose – moment by moment by moment – that feels perfect to you, and of wholeheartedly immersing yourself in the experience.”
Equally important, one must be self-aware enough to make smart decisions about when one is ready to debut new material vs. when it deserves more studio time. Teachers, this starts with you back in the classroom and rehearsal space! You need to be honest and communicative with your students, lending your trained eye to their work. Make your critiques not only a nudge in the right direction, but also a teaching moment so they can learn to think critically and objectively about their own strengths and weaknesses. Don’t hand down directives, but instead encourage self-evaluation, talking through their work and offering insights as they are ready to absorb and understand them. Pushing them forward when they need to be pushed, and gently helping them hold back when such a course is best.
I always tell my students that I would rather see them do three or four moves with impeccable technique and intention than dozens of moves halfway. I have seen rare and beloved dancers who made entire dances out of a few moves paired with gorgeously controlled and graceful arms which completely floored me. And I have seen far too many dancers who threw in every single combo they learned in workshops in the past two years (including that one last weekend!), leaving me cold.
So What Can We (You) Do?
The tongue-in-cheek term “Kitchen Sink Dancing” comes from the idiom “everything but the kitchen sink”. One definition of this idiom is “a lot of different things, many of which you do not need.”
Think about that for a second…think about what you really need in your dance, and by comparison what may be detracting from your work in the name of “variety”. Is it more important to you to have lots of moves and concepts in your performance, or is the real power of a dance in the performer’s confidence, presence, command of the material and the stage? When staging a piece, consider your or your students’ true strengths, bring forth your (their) greatest skills, and set the rest aside for further polishing. When teaching, instill in your students a passion for the practice and not just the imagined end result. Remind them that new material will always be there, there is no rush, and there is joy in taking your time at every stage of your dance practice. Instill a sense of pride in those students who continually return to the basics to refresh their technique, find ways to reward students who remain mindful of the importance of patience and persistence, and always emphasize the flow over flash.
One of my favorite quotes on dance ever, which has been close to my heart since I began teaching in 2001, sums it up well:
“The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion, the steadfast and willing devotion to the labor that makes the classwork not a gymnastic hour and a half, or at the lowest level, a daily drudgery, but a devotion that allows the classroom discipline to become moments of dancing too…”
– Merce Cunningham
What do you think? As a performer, how do you prepare or vet new material before debuting it? What do you do as a dancer or teacher to assess readiness for new material? Do you feel you and/or your teachers are realistically and honestly evaluating your progress at each stage of your development?
What is your or your teacher’s mantra which reminds you to slow down and “Do More With Less”?