Sorting through the blocks

I feel blocked lately. It’s not that I haven’t had ideas. I’ve just had a hard time taking those ideas to fruition.  I’ve had choreographies that I’m working on come to an abrupt halt. I’ve got a couple of blog posts that I’ve started and just don’t seem to be going anywhere. I’ve got an idea for a show that is thus far still a vague mist that has yet to condense into a solid kernel that I can develop. Sometimes all this stalling out makes me feel like I’m accomplishing nothing. I thought I’d take a minute to list projects that have been a bit more successful in the last few months to remind myself of the truth.

For the athlete and technician, I have improved my ankle and arch stability immensely in the last few months. I’ve been going to barre class at least twice a week, and my relevé no longer rolls out. My arabesque is much less likely to wobble. My turns are steadier. Also, I have been working on learning American Tribal Style ® dance. My ATS has improved markedly. Just yesterday, I felt reasonably confident taking a turn at leading in this improv style of dance. This was the first time I’ve done so.

For the artist, I’ve been focusing on other arts. I knit a lap blanket for donation to a local senior citizen for the holidays. I am almost done knitting a second lap blanket as a present for a friend. I have plans for 2 new ATS bras and a new belt to round out my costuming. I’ve gathered the materials for these pieces and am ready to begin as soon as the second blanket is complete. Work continues on the show as I forge ahead with the gathering. At this point, my gathering is in the forming of emotions and experiences. I’ve been journaling in earnest of late as I sort through my feelings around the current prsidency and the things that are happening in our culture as a result. I hope that these feelings will be easier to sort and categorize with a little distance, but the ability to read what I felt in the moment. I’ve also continued with trying to make the world a softer place, another aspect of gathering experiences today. I’ve aranged a stitch & bitch for friends that included a service project. A local organization, The Family Project, requests decorated journals for its counseling clients to use. (I called us Crafting Corner for their purposes. Much easier to publish in their annual report.) We spent the first part of the stitch & bitch decorating journals. We completed 10 journals for their clients. The service project was popular with both the creators and The Family Project, so I’m planning another stitch & bitch for later this month.

And for fun, I’ve restarted my tarot studies. I’ve also discovered the joy of checking electronic books out of the local library, and read a few memoirs and novels with a bit more substance than my usual brain candy choices when I’m not “studying”.

When I step back and sort my blocks, I can see that I’ve quite a pile, and many have a firm foundation. So the challenge, it would seem, is to figure out how to perhaps use some of these other roads to get around them.

The shape of things to come

It’s a few days after President Trump’s inauguration. I scroll through my Facebook feed and feel a myriad of emotions:

  • Frustration that so many people write off logic and science
  • Disbelief at people who have decided that antisemitism and racism are okay
  • Fear that my children won’t have decent, affordable health insurance
  • Anger at the misogyny and the insistence that old, white men know my body better than me
  • Humor at the trolling (I admit I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy, and Trump offers a lot of material.)
  • Desire to go out and make it all better

Through it all, it is this last that I feel strongest. Moreso than before the election, I have been looking for the little ways I can help. I’ve sought out opportunities to help others. I’ve made many small donations to a variety of charities and causes that I believe in. I’ve been looking for ways to volunteer with a goal of making the world a softer place. And I know that I want to create art about all of this. I want to dance it out in a more meaningful way than dancing myself to exhaustion.

But right now, those emotions are so mixed and raw. The thoughts are fast, furious, and ephemeral. My ideas have yet to congeal into a firm shape. So for now I continue marching forward, exploring and forming. And I wait to see what is to come.

Retreating into technique

I’ve not posted much of late. I’ve even grown derelict in posting images on my Instagram account. I’m still doing something dance-related (more-or-less) every day. But what I’m doing is simply my personal technique practice. Repeated photos of the same DVDs or class or studio seem… less than compelling shall we say. While I am more than happy to wax poetic about shimmies or undulations to those who ask, it’s creation that yields the deepest interest for me and what I prefer to share. From conception to completion and every step along the way, it’s projects and what I learn in them that truly excite me. Technique feels easy, but barren. It is easy because there is a “right” and a “wrong”. It undoubtedly gets better with practice. So when I finish a major project, my default to retreat there. But now, it is time to once again stretch my creative brain. I have started playing with the nugget of an idea. So expect to see more soon. Because if I tell you to expect it, I have motivation and an obligation to follow through.

Image from IAI TV

Perfection

I am a recovering perfectionist. A few years back, when I worked in the clothing department of a major retail chain, I was one of the slowest zoners. (Zoning is what they called picking things up and making it look good for the store to open the next day.) But my section always looked good. In school, sometimes I had a hard time completing homework and turning it in. I wanted it to be right. “Done and imperfect is better than incomplete and perfect” has been a hard lesson to  learn.

I find this continuing into my dance practice. I spent a long time striving for “perfection”. The trick is, there’s no such thing  in art. There is too much subjectivity that comes into play. I spent many years working on my technique, in pursuit of a more definable gold standard. The result? I’ve got pretty darn good technique. Movements vary quite a bit, depending on your teacher, and I can tweak my movement to match most styles. I can stand onstage and perform any number of stupid human tricks to delight any audience. But stupid human tricks are not art. As an audience member, I know that perfect technique and stupid human tricks will only hold my attention for so long. In fact, technique that is too intricate will find my eyes wandering even sooner because I’m not sure what to look at.  My performances were not what I would want to watch because their artistry was lacking. As my technique became more and more “perfect”, my performances grew further and further from that goal.

More recently, I’ve been putting my effort into artistry.  But there is no gold standard for good artistry. It is much more ephemeral and hard to define, therefore there is no “perfect”. And actually, pursuit of perfection can be more of a hindrance in performance. Trying to appear too polished may leave a veneer that allows the audience to slide right off.  It’s the little nicks and grooves of vulnerability that give the audience somewhere to hold on.

In my practice, I’ve had to learn to abandon the pursuit of perfection in favor of progress. I’ve had to give up the easily measured in favor of guesswork and feeling things out. This has been a very uncomfortable process. But that is where art lies. To help me in my practice, I’ve commissioned a wall hanging for the wall of my studio. It will serve as a reminder as I continue my pursuit of imperfection. I will remember that practice will not lead me to perfection. Instead, it will lead me down a  path of progress.

#practicemakesprogress

Proof for a commissioned piece by ADEprints

Authentic entertainment

I’m currently reading a book by Brené Brown and was struck by the following thought:

Art is about being real and authentic, while entertainment is about being liked.

Each dancer must decide which is more important to them. The answer can be fluid. It may change over time, perhaps even from one piece to the next. And these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. The most successful art frequently has elements of both. Being authentic may even provide an avenue for being liked by a particular audience. The relationship between these two ideas is complex.

But knowing significance to you can guide your process.  If getting the art out is more important, do that and don’t worry as much about the response. If entertainment is more important, learn what your audience wants and improve those skills. In either case, do your best and know that you are enough.

Dancing Skeletor

Loving dance

The lines at the beginning of the first story in The History of (my) Dance are:

I love to dance. I always have. Dancing makes me happy in a way that nothing else does….

I dance all the time. I do have a day job. But most of my vacation, weekends, and evenings (along with a lot of financial investment) are devoted to something related to dance. That time is spent perfecting technique, improving artistry, cross-training, working on costuming, studying, choreographing, learning choreography, reading books related to artistry or my dance’s history, or any of a number of other related activities. I know that I am not alone amongst dance lovers. I meet a room full of my compatriots at every dance intensive that I attend. Most would willingly utter these same words. We express that love in every dance-related activity that we pursue, unerringly and unflagging. We show the strength of our love in the work and energy that we pour into our craft. And sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our love, that we lose sight of the happiness. We forget why we fell in love.

This past week, I had a couple of opportunities to revisit the joy. In Minneapolis, we’re fortunate enough to have this marvelous little non-profit venue, The Cedar Cultural Center, that has concerts most nights. More often than not, three quarters of the floor are clear for dancers. They bring in music from all over the world, including many of the artists that I listed in a previous post. Last week I saw Palenke Soultribe and A-WA, both of whom create some amazing fusion dance grooves. I went to these concerts, and danced. I undulated and shimmied my hips off. I flung myself around the tiny space that I carved out to house my movement. I found new combos to play with. I was inspired by the movement of other dancers, and I inspired theirs. I spun.  A lot in that trance stye of spinning. I left my inner critic at home, and experienced the movement. And I smiled as the happiness bubbled up from my feet, through my body. I grinned from ear to ear. I remembered the happiness and suddenly, I remembered why I love to dance.

A-WA performing at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sept. 18, 2016

A-WA performing at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sept. 18, 2016

Palenke Soultribe performing at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sept. 21, 2016

Palenke Soultribe performing at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sept. 21, 2016

 

Dance Everyday: an Invitation

I recently gave myself a challenge: do something dance-related everyday. That can mean many things:

  • Attending class
  • Reading a book to affect stagecraft
  • Watching videos for inspiration
  • Performing
  • Working out with performance enhancement in mind
  • Costuming

The list is endless. But mindfully engage in an activity related to my dance. And document it. I chose to use Instagram. It’s accessible in the sidebar, if you’d like to peruse my results. And the goal is not perfection. The goal is the process of learning and improving my dance, of inspiring myself to create, of dancing.

I invite you to join me. Choose your own method of documentation. But do document. It encourages accountability. Personally, I need the accountability. Feel free to share your preferred documentation here. I’d love to see what you’re doing!

Image from iwontdance.com

Image from iwontdance.com

The Great Shimmy Debate

In my studies of various styles of bellydance, I’ve come across 3 basic ways to drive a shimmy:

  • Obliques
  • Glutes
  • Knees/thighs

Each of these has its own look; and advantages and disadvantages.

Characteristics

The oblique shimmy tends to have a softer look to it. It’s produced by lengthening and shortening the internal obliques in opposition. Given the depth of the oblique muscles, the goal is to relax the muscles on top, resulting in an appearance of ease.

Trunk muscles

The glute shimmy looks a little sharper. It’s produced by using the lower part of the gluteous maximus, just above where the hamstring attaches to the bone. The movement tends to be more localized, and residual movement does not radiate out as much as it does for the other types.

The knee or thigh shimmy resembles the oblique shimmy in that it has a softer look. It’s produced by bending and straightening the legs in opposition, predominantly through the use of the quadriceps and hamstrings. It can also have a much more grounded appearance, with movement driven up from the floor. The movement requires no engagement of the torso area to create the effect.

Why limit yourself?

I’ve heard many people argue that their preferred shimmy is “the best”. To this I shrug, and wonder why there needs to be a “best”. The 3 are subtly different. As a dancer, why not learn how to do all of them, and understand the visual difference? This gives the dancer the most range of expression and musicality. Use a knee shimmy for an earthy, folkloric piece. Select a glute shimmy to match punctuation in the music or to provide contrast to smooth, sultry movement. Use an oblique shimmy for a piece that requires “ease”. Be sure to experiment. I find that different shimmies layer better with some movements than others.

If you’re a beginning dancer, learn your teacher’s approach. Perhaps even attend classes with more than one teacher and experience a different technique. Even now as a student, I will try to spend at least some of each class doing whichever shimmy is a given teacher’s preference.

If you’ve been dancing a while, embrace your own default for soloing. Pick the one that looks best on your body, along with your movement and music choices. Know how to layer well with that technique. Which shimmy you use matters more in a group choreography, in which case ask your choreographer’s preference. (They may even specify different approaches at different points.)

For me, I like the look of a glute shimmy best on my body. I don’t like the stomach reverb on me that comes with a well-done knee or oblique shimmy. But then, I’m a slightly larger dancer with a lot of loose skin from having twins. This is my choice. But I can switch to a knee shimmy without much of a thought as the music & mood dictate. I haven’t found much that I can’t accomplish with these two, but then I’m still working on my oblique shimmy. I may yet discover the move or layer that require it from me.