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Six Steps to Becoming a Great Dancer (no, really!)

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If you have been reading my blog for even a short time, you have likely come across the popular “Four Steps to Becoming a Great Dancer” article I posted in late 2011.  That article stands as the first and most important list of “to do’s” to improve your dancing, period.  BUT!  We all know there are a few more steps we can take, which can support those first four magical steps, and push us on to becoming stronger and more confident in our dance.  So here they are, Six Steps to Becoming a Great Dancer, coming atcha!

1. New dancers should diversify.

When a dancer is first dipping her toe into a new genre of dance, in this case bellydance, it is vital that she explore many facets of the dance in those tender first months and years.  Take classes from different teachers and take workshops as they are available to you–even ones you fear might be over your head, or below your notice–take them, the bellydance world is your smorgasbord!  Watch lots of professional videos.  By professional videos I mean professionally produced DVD’s and online videos with established professional dancers. (While YouTube can be a great resource, for new dancers who don’t know how to discern the great stuff from the terrible stuff, it can sidetrack you. Just be aware of that as you troll around for inspiration.)

Never let one bad experience with a teacher or a workshop make up your mind about all teachers or workshops in that style.  

It’s best to get a cross-section of experiences before coming to any final conclusions.  In short: try it all, as much as your time and money allow, and see where it leads you. Ideally the first 2-3 years of your dance study should include lots of diverse classes and experiences, starting to hone in on a style and teacher that really moves you, inspires you, encourages you, and motivates you.

2. Intermediate dancers need focus.

The term “Jack of all trades, master of none,” can easily define an intermediate dancer who never moves out of the “sampler” phase of a beginner, and thus never finds a focus for her energy and technique refinement.  While a good dancer continues to cross train (see Step 5 in this list), ultimately she narrows down her focus of study in order to develop and refine a specific set of skills and polish them to a high sheen. 

Think of your first few years of dance study as your undergrad years, like a liberal arts degree which includes a cross-section of general study, where students are exposed to a wide array of ideas to explore.  But when it is time to choose your major, or possibly move into a graduate degree program, you need to narrow your focus to get the most out of your educational opportunities.  Once you have a better idea of the dancer you would like to grow into, it’s time to choose a teacher or school to really invest yourself in, and they in you in return.

Finding a teacher (or two) you trust, in a style you love, creating a tighter teacher-student/mentoring bond, will propel your skills forward.  

These kinds of committed teacher-student relationships can lead to more satisfying advancement in class, student and semi-pro performance opportunities, and potentially even teacher assisting or subbing opportunities (if that is your goal).

3. Take notes.
Most of us have had a teacher at some time in our lives who never handed out a syllabus or handout of any sort. Instead they would put information up on a chalkboard/whiteboard, overhead projector, PowerPoint presentation, etc. and tell you to write it down. In most cases, they weren’t just trying to save copy costs!  This was their way of helping you interact with the information they needed you to absorb and integrate into your learning experience.  Note-taking in class is not just a tedious way to copy down information we already could find in a book or handout someplace; it is an opportunity to interact with the information on a different level, and hopefully better integrate it into our understanding.  That brain/body connection is key.

There have been countless studies on methods by which people are able to learn and retain information, and a pretty universal truth among all the studies is this: the more modes in which you interact with the information, the higher the retention rate.  Different modes of interaction quite naturally involve our various senses: hearing, seeing, touching, etc.  In class we hear and see the lesson (some students get more out of one mode than the other), and we physically attempt the skills presented (which represents a kinesthetic mode of learning).  An easy way to add another layer to the absorption and retention is writing.  Jotting down the concepts you are learning, in your own words, is a fantastic tool to greater understanding and retention.

From the first class in the first level of classes, I tell students to start bringing a dance bag to class, and to include a notebook in that dance bag.  Some students really get into it, and take notes on everything.  Some take an occasional note on a song title or event date.  And most never even buy a notebook let alone bring or use one in class. Guess which cross-section of these students I see moving through the classes levels with the greatest speed and confidence?  Did the most confident and talented students just happen to be the ones to get and use a notebook; or did writing regularly in the notebook help to develop a confident and talented student? I have no scientific data to prove one or the other, but I can promise you that more frequent note-taking wouldn’t hurt in any case…

4.  Start a journal.
Somewhat related to Step 3 is the idea of keeping a dance journal.  This can be as simple or as elaborate as you like, but the basics should be a folder or binder of some sort in which you can keep at the minimum your notes from class, handouts or from workshops, and/or any choreography notes you have received or jotted down.  At its core, a dance journal can simply be a reference guide for the information you need to know at a glance. But it can be so much more, as well, including such things as:

  • Flyers for events you want to attend
  • Pretty postcards from dancers or troupes you admire
  • Programs from shows you have seen or performed in
  • Inspirational images or quotes
  • Lists of books you would like to read
  • Self-reviews and goal-setting
  • Fabric scraps from past or potential future costumes

Essentially your dance journal can become a very informal scrapbook chronicling not only the things you have accomplished, but ideas you have yet to manifest. I didn’t start keeping a organized dance journal until about my third year of dancing, but I wish someone had encouraged me to do it sooner.  Mine is a hot fuscia three-ring binder with a clear sleeve on the front where I can slip any inspirational images into it as I like (pic to the left is not mine, but looks very similar!).  It has colorful tabs, which have sleeves to hold smaller loose notes, and divides the binder into sections such as “New Move Ideas”, “Choreographies”, “Workshop Notes”, etc. Whenever I have a stroke of inspiration, I can just jot it down and throw it into my journal. Whenever I am looking for my choreography notes from a performance last summer, it is at my fingertips. And for those who say “but I keep these things on my computer”, I say a) refer to Step 3, wherein I regale you with the power of linking physical note-taking with mental retention and b) god help you if you ever have a critical hard drive crash (I have; no bueno). 

5. Cross-train.
So in Steps 1 and 2 I address the idea of both diversifying your study and focusing your study in bellydance. In this step, I am telling you to step away from the bellydance class entirely.

Any doctor, trainer, or athlete will tell you that the path to true strength and fitness is by cross-training.  Practicing only one discipline does not allow you to reach your fullest potential (and I am not just talking physically).  

Naturally, you don’t go to the gym and only run on a treadmill (or perhaps as in my case, maybe you don’t go to a gym at all, but I digress…) and expect your whole body to become toned, supple, and strong.  No, you have to do a circuit of exercise which targets different parts of your body, giving each muscle group the attention it needs.  While we may recognize the many benefits of bellydance, and the whole-body workout it can feel like, it is still a single discipline with specific movements and muscle groups being targeted, while others are not challenged.  By developing other areas of our body through different kinds of physical challenge, we will strengthen and support the muscles which bellydance utilizes.  This can mean taking classes in other styles of dance such as ballet or hip hop; or other movement disciplines such as Nia or yoga; martial arts is another great option, which can include more or less aggressive movement depending on the school of study you choose (think Tai Chi vs. Taekwondo); swimming, biking, hiking, the list goes on.

The secondary benefit is mental and emotional.  “Getting into a rut” happens when you do the same thing again and again, establishing a predictable or tedious pattern than can bore even yourself.  Of course, our dance requires that we be very repetitious in our work, in order to develop the muscle memory which can make movement look effortless. So it’s good to get the brain moving in new ways as well, to get the creative juices flowing, to imbue our life (and thus our dance) with new energies!

6. Network with other dancers. In person.
In this day and age, the internet gives us so many opportunities to connect with fellow dancers and enthusiasts around the world.  These connections are (usually) so motivational, helping us feel like we are part of something greater, that we are validated in our love of this dance form, and providing opportunities to be challenged in our ideas by those who may or may not share our same vision for it.  What an amazing world we live in today to be able to share in all this so easily and frequently.  But there is no replacement for getting out there and seeing one another face-to-face. 

I suppose I could draw this one back to Step 3 as well–that in-person interaction is another way to integrate ideas and energies of others in the dance community in a way which online interaction doesn’t fully afford us.

Hearing voices and music in person, seeing smiles, reveling in a shared experience in the moment (not after the fact in a sterile online forum), clapping and zaghareeting, pawing a costume, hugging an old friend, the immediate feedback of a group of like-minded enthusiasts in one space at one time…nothing can replace that.  

And the bonds which can be formed at these gatherings can reach far into the future, keeping you connected to a larger family of dancer you may not even have realized you could be a part of.

The more you are “out there”, the more opportunities you will find. What opportunities these may be are defined by your goals. Want to perform more? Attend performances and get to know other performers and let them get to know you. Want to teach more? Go to festivals where other students and teachers are and get to know them, introduce yourself to hosts and promoters.  Want costume inspiration?  Seeing other performers, shopping from vendors, or meeting creatives in the community can provide such eye candy.  And if you are like me and love to talk about dance, discussing theory and ethics and creativity and all the amazing details, there is nothing like drinking beers over a plate of nachos with some fellow dancers after a workshop or show and hashing it all out together.  Some of my greatest personal evolutions were instigated by a beer and nachos night…

So there you have it, Six Steps to Becoming a Great Dancer. Are there more steps? Absolutely!  These are some of the top ones I have found to help me push my own boundaries over the years, and I hope they provide you some food for thought!

What do you think has been some of the significant steps you have taken to improving as a dancer?  Please share your comments below!

If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered here on Deep Roots Dance, please get in touch and share your thoughts.

Bonus 7th Step to Becoming a Great Dancer: Workshop Intensive In Seattle This Weekend!

Join us for I *heart* ATS Month: A Tribal Intensive, which begins next weekend!  The first workshop will include a presentation on the history of tribal bellydance (complete with a projector and everything!), followed by a comprehensive Level 1 Foundations technique workshop.

I *heart ATS is comprised of two hour workshops every Sunday evening during the month of February, focusing on ATS-based group improvisational bellydance and its fusion offshoots. We will spend time on strength and flexibility work, individual movement technique, partner concepts, tribal bellydance history, costuming, and more.

Full details and registration at http://wp.deeprootsdance.com/p/workshops.html

Follow Shay:

Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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