I have to admit that I am a bit down after the recent election. But it’s times like this that I remember why I dance and why art is important. It gives me a voice. So excuse me while I go dance a little.
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.
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.
- “Zuki Zuki” by Mahala Raï Banda – glutes & arms
- “Sertab” by Buda – smooth & locked
- “Take Your Whiskey Home” by Van Halen – twists; focus on keeping the hips level using the opposite oblique, then adding the mid glute
- “She’s Long Gone” by the Black Keys – downbeat: pelvic 4 ct. (B, L, R, F) ; upbeat: chest locks dbB
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.
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
- Working out with performance enhancement in mind
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!
In my studies of various styles of bellydance, I’ve come across 3 basic ways to drive a shimmy:
Each of these has its own look; and advantages and disadvantages.
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.
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.
- “Te Veo” by Palenke Soultribe – glutes & arms
- “Spider Cider” by Man Man – smooth & locked
- “Gelin Havasi” from Sulukule: Rom Music of Istanbul – undulations; focus on rolling all the way through the low belly
- “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees – downbeat: chest slides dbR; upbeat: IHS CCW dbL
Sometimes your daily practice gets sidelined. Perhaps you’ve been sick. Maybe you’ve done a different practice, such as attended a dance intensive workshop. Perhaps you’ve created and performed a show about the history of your dance. Any of these would be a good reason for temporarily letting go of your regular daily practice. In my case, the last 6 weeks have been filled with all of these things. But now, it’s time to get back on. The excuses are many: I’m still sick. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a movie. I even had to go to a visitation last night.
But then you reach a point where you just need to jump and grab on. I did my drills tonight for the first time in a while. I walked my dogs for a little light cardio. (I will still play the sick card here. Respiratory illness and asthma don’t play well with serious cardio.) I’m stretching as I type. I have two dance classes and one barre scheduled for the upcoming week. I’m working to schedule a rehearsal for Smiling Lune, and hopefully a second barre class as my regular one is cancelled over Monday’s holiday. I also need to schedule time to choreograph.
And just like that, I’m back and holding on tight. Because it’s my practice, and I’m an adult. No one will tie me to the wagon. It’s my choice to hold tight or let it go. But what a ride if I stay!
I’ve just spent the past week in the middle of the desert in northern New Mexico on a dance retreat with Mira Betz. Mira offers many types of intensives, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But her retreats are my favorites. Mornings give me a chance for some awesome fusion drilling and technique work. Afternoons and daily dance sketches give me an opportunity to push myself artistically. I should also say in full disclosure that for me, intensives are not about amazing breakthroughs. They are about a concentrated dose of incremental work to help me progress my dance.
The focus this year was spaces. In the external realm, we created site-responsive dances. We did both a carefully planned one out in the desert, and more spontaneous dances at the fantastic Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. (One of my videos from the latter is posted below.) But it was the internal spaces that I explored that left the strongest mark on me.
My inner critic kept her damn mouth shut almost the entire week. I find it amazing that Mira was able to provide a space in which that voice was mostly silent. She encourages her students to test themselves, to support each other, and to try new and different things in support of their individual art. She gives them tools to do all of these things. But it is the student’s choice on which to pick up. I chose to pick up all I could hold.
I found myself trying new things, exploring characters and movement that I might not have otherwise. I portrayed a character that was simply happy and in love, not something that I would typically do as many of my pieces tend to be a little darker. I discovered that I can still do a backward somersault, and performed one where it fit in a different piece that I created. I even fully participated in the site-responsive exercises, something that I started as a little resistant to. Even on day 3 (hump-day, for those unfamiliar with the emotional roller coaster of week-long intensives), when my inner critic was closest to the surface, I was still able to fully participate and brush past what the critic was saying. As a result, I had one of my best intensives ever. I left with solid ideas to explore for 3 new pieces, and a desire to dive right in when I get back to the real world.
My internal space, my dance and creative home, is happy.