Good or Bad? : The struggle with comparison

I recently attended workshop with one of my favorite teachers. Afterward, I said something about how much I enjoy watching her move, in spite of knowing that I will never be as good. Another attendee took this to be a self-disparaging remark and immediately told me, “Don’t compare yourself to others. You’re a beautiful dancer!” There is so much of our art form loaded into both of these statements, I thought it was worth a deeper look.

Let’s start with the statement of my fellow student: “Don’t compare yourself to others.” What did she mean by this? I interpreted her remarks to be encouraging. She felt that I was putting down my abilities as a dancer. Generally speaking, belly dance is not a competitive sport. There is definitely a negative side to constantly comparing yourself to others. This runs counter to the feelings of sisterhood, support, and comraderie that many of us prefer to foster in the community. As comparison generally partners with negative self-talk or imposter syndrome, I understood exactly why she said these things. Dancers of all levels can create beautiful art. As an observer, I can appreciate a broad variety of performances. There is no “best in show”.

I’ve had those thoughts though. I have felt the angst of feeling that I’m not enough. I have gotten frustrated because I wasn’t what I felt was “the best” performance in a show. And none of those thoughts were good for anyone. They can lead to pettiness and jealousy. “Why is she getting more attention than me?” And most of all, for me it led to unhappiness. It took this thing that I love and made it personally toxic. For a time.

But more recently, I’ve found a healthier side of comparison. What my fellow student missed in my statement that I will never be as good as our teacher is a recognision of professionalism. I will never be as good as our teacher because  I don’t put in the work and I have chosen a different life path. Her technique and artistry will always be better because she works hard at them. I work 40+ hours every week in a rather demanding, sedentary day job. I continue to choose to pursue additional interests outside of that job and dance: knitting, researching the history of the dance, Tarot, time with beloved people and animals, gardening, etc. I find all of these things wonderful and fulfilling, but they generally do not contribute to the technique of my dance and dance artistry. I will never be as good as my teacher because I have chosen to prioritize a broad range of other interests that also bring me happiness. That and there are only so many hours in a day. And that realization has been liberating. It has allowed me, the recovering perfectionist, to once again enjoy my art.

The World’s Oldest Dance?

We’ve all heard the stories:

  • “Bellydance is the world’s oldest dance.”
  • “Bellydance is an ancient art form.”
  • “The roots of this dance form go back to time immemorial.”

We hold up our heads with pride, thinking about our ancient dance lineage, passed from mother to daughter. We’ve discussed and experienced the sisterhood of the dance. Perhaps we heard our teacher, or even Jamilla Salimpour talking about the origins of the dance form in exercises for childbirth.

But there are a couple of problems with this “history”. To start with, we can’t prove any of it. While these stories make up a lovely origin myth, that’s exactly what they are. The earliest documentation of the women’s solo performance dance known as raqs sharqi date to the 1920s. The dance form does descend from older folkloric and performance dances, much like modern ballet descends from French courtly dances. But the notes that we have from before this time depict a very different dance.

And then there is the problem of the myth’s colonizing and racist roots. While these stories may seem innocent enough, they reflect 19th century European and Western views on the development of culture. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859. This yielded not only scientific theories of evolution, but also sociological theories of Social Darwinism. Westerners began to view themselves as better not because of their religion, but rather because they believed their culture to have developed later, making it “the fittest” and other cultures “lesser”`. These other cultures were also viewed as unchanging. These became justification for forcing Western culture and values on other, generally non-white people.

When some of the precursors to raqs sharqi were displayed at the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, Illinois, the dances were derided for focusing on the torso. This was a clear indication to the contemporary Western viewers that the dance form was older, and therefore inferior. Victorian-era Western audiences also had no proof of the age of the dance. But in their purview, torso=older, not as advanced, limbs=developed.

So the problem in blindly perpetuating these myths is that we continue a racist tradition of demeaning and belittling the cultures that originated the dance forms collectively termed “belly dance”. It keeps us from seeing these cultures as valuable and equal to our own. While I don’t think it is most dancers’ intent in passing on these myths to demean these cultures, it is continuing a racist and imperialist stereotype.

Collectively, we need to care enough about our art form to learn more and do better.

Jean-Léon Gérome. Dance of the Almeh. 1863. Oil painting. Dayton Art Institute, Ohio.

What’s next

Four and a half months ago, I fell off a step stool. I snapped my ACL in the process. I had reconstruction surgery a month later. You can live without an ACL.  But I opted to have the surgery so that I would not have to give up dance. The surgery started a year-long journey of recovery. I’m about a quarter of my way through at this point, and it has been an interesting learning experience.

Recovery from surgery of this nature is exhausting and arduous. I have been doing hours of physical therapy every day. I’ve been staying home a lot, falling asleep earlier, and generally just trying to keep my head above water. At 3 months post-op, I’m just starting to have energy for the mundane everyday. I have begun using my planner again. I have started playing catch up with my life.  And I am able to dance once more, albeit in limited fashion.

But the most interesting part of this has been my creativity. From the time I fell until about 3 months post-op, I had no energy to create. I spent everything on getting through, finishing PT, and doing my day job. Almost everything else fell by the wayside. But in the last couple of weeks, I find myself craving creation. Movement is still problematic, so I’ve sought other outlets. I’ve made 4 collages, and have several others started. My dining room table is covered with magazines, paper, and cutting supplies. So how is this dance? Collage has long informed my movement. It’s a habit that I picked up from one of my teachers, Mira Betz. When I dance, I use collage as inspiration for movement. So while I’m not quite up for choreographing a 50-minute long dance just yet, I am up for filling a sketchbook full of inspiration. And I am curious to see what this sparks.


That feeling when…

My activity level has been waning recently. But I’ve started feeling motivated to do more. I signed up for a couple of new classes at my gym to try some new things. I decided that my goal for the next month was going to be at least 15 minutes of dance movement every day. (Last month’s goal which I almost hit, was at least 15 minutes of any sort of movement each day.) I’ve started up drilling again.  I’m scheduled for a short vacation next weekend, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating  an opportunity to throw my yoga mat on the ground and enjoy some gorgeous scenery as I work my way through a couple of new flows. I’ve been doing some rather active yard work for the past few weekends. I’ve been moving, and I’ve been excited to do more.

And my art has come to the fore again. I’ve started working on a new show. Right now, it’s still at a stage that I lovingly call “idea vomit”, but details are starting to form. I’ve been reading, researching, and  seeking out other shows  and activities for the ideas they inspire, reading. (I’ll share more details as the show begins to take a more solid shape.) It feels great to have a start of a goal again!

And then things come crashing down, literally. Yesterday, I was standing on a step stool doing some of the afore mentioned yard work. I shifted my weight to reach the vine that I was trying to cut, and the step stool became unsteady and tipped. I managed to jump clear of the house, the bushes, the step stool, and the clippers I had been holding, and landed on my right foot. But the impact shifted my knee inward in a way that a hinge joint isn’t meant to bend. So now, I sit on my couch and wait for the swelling to go down enough to figure out what’s wrong. For better or for worse, my body has always taken soft tissue injuries over bone injuries to date. I know that my older-than-I-care-to-admit body will have a hard time recovering from this one. I know that I may have torn a ligament and need surgery with a 6 months-1 year recovery. And even if I don’t, movement will not be easy for the next couple of months. I will have to learn new ways of moving, and find new pathways as I attempt to adapt to new limitations. Part of me wonders if it’s time to give up on dance. Part of me keeps looking for a book of Pilates exercises so I have attainable movement while I recover.

And so, I wait for the pain and swelling to subside. I wait for the healing. And I wait to see where this latest “adventure” may take me.

My knee in an immobilizer

My view for the next several days.

Why dance?

What’s the point of dance? Why do I keep coming back? These are questions that I’ve been asking myself quite a bit of late, as I grapple with the effects of growing older on my movement and limited time from having a day job. I am someone who is extremely goal-driven. Right now I have no goals related to dance, so I am struggling to figure out what’s next and why I keep coming back. I’ve been getting movement from other activities, such as barre. I’ve been creating in other formats. (I’ve been making jewelry. If such things interest you, I invite you to checkout my store.) So why does dance specifically continue to matter.

The answer is both exactingly complicated and beautifully simple. I dance because it’s in my soul. I have danced as long as I can remember. Feeling rhythm in my body brings an effervescent joy moving through my entire being. I can’t explain why, but some of my happiest moments have been on the dance floor. While I enjoy the results of a good barre or Pilates class, I can’t say  either has ever left me feeling “bubbly”. And so I keep going. I keep looking for ways to move through my dance. I keep searching for a new goal.

Live, Love, Dance

“Success” Today

My physical practice ebbs and flows, but it’s always present. Lately though, there’s been a lot of ebbing. I’ve still been going to rehearsals, and a couple of cross-training classes each week, but for me that’s as little as I can get away with moving. Less movement than this base level, and I experience physical pain. I can tell I’m hitting my minimum movement threshold because recently my lumbar has made its voice heard. My sacriliac joint has insisted that I not sit in a standard chair. I attended a dance performance last night and awas barely able to sit through the whole thing.  And I’ve been noticing. It’s time to start flowing again.

I’ve given myself a goal: 15 minutes of dance-related movement every day. For my dance, barre and yoga count. Spin class does not. (High-intensity cardio is great for my health but has less effect on my dance.)  And on days that I have no class or rehearsal scheduled, I commit to putting other activities aside for 15 minutes and moving. This 15 minutes can be drilling ATS® combos, practicing a fusion piece for a coming performance, or even just stretching. I should be able to accomplish this goal even through most illness or injury.

Today is my first day since setting this goal that I have no class or rehearsal scheduled with others. Today is the first day that I have no accountability to anyone but myself. Today is also Father’s Day, so I have many other items on my schedule. Today, success means that I will spend some time moving in my studio. In spite of all the other things going on, in spite of no risk of disappointing anyone else, and in spite of other artistic pursuits calling my attention, I will hold myself accountable for my 15 minutes.

My studio awaits

What exactly is “Fusion”?

The subject of “what is Fusion” has come up several times for me recently. It’s been a topic of discussion with other Fusion dancers, and a topic of debate with dancers of other styles of belly dance. I don’t think that there is a single answer, but I would like to address some of the comments that I’ve heard and usages that I’ve seen. I think that it’s important to come to an understanding of what it is and is not to continue to elevate our dance form.

Transnational Fusion (sometimes Tribal Fusion Belly Dance) is my favorite dance style. The fluidity and freedom of movement that it offers me drive my creativity and desire to grow and develop as an artist. Fusion demands a great deal from me in terms of training and ongoing practice, but it repays that work in full with continuing inspiration to learn one more thing. My dance has evolved a great deal over the years. I have moved from incorporating yoga and modern-inspired moves into a sword piece to creating dance to accompany storytelling and lectures in exploration and celebration of the history of belly dance. And it is Fusion that has enabled my journey. defines “fusion” as: “that which is fused; the result of fusing”. And while it does not define my dance, it also offers: “popular music that is a blend of two styles, especially a combining of jazz with either rock, classical music, or such ethnic elements as Brazilian or Japanese music”. What is interesting about the second option is that the elements being fused are clearly definable. I would offer that in the bodies of skilled practitioners, Fusion dance is a blend of two (or more) styles of dance, with a dancer that is fully cognizant of what is being fused. In an ideal situation, those skilled practitioners are equally proficient in everything that they fuse. More likely, they are highly skilled in one form, but have studied the other forms that they are blending. Regardless, they have a clear understanding of the elements in play.

Fusion is not a catch all-term for “I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just going to call it ‘fusion’.”  There are many problems with this approach. If a dancer does not know what the term is for the art they are performing, they are likely also not sufficiently skilled in any of the forms that they are blending. I think that this is fine for presentation at a student hafla, for example, but hopefully even the student dancer is aware of their lack of knowledge. Fusion is also not a label of convenience for dance with sloppy movement. A lack of drilling and technique should not morph “raqs sharqi” into “fusion”. Each style, performed well, requires a great degree of practice and resulting expertise.

Today, dancers can take classes in Fusion instead of the “pure” dance forms that they then blend on their own. These classes vary a great deal, but do have some underlying threads. Most Fusion classes incorporate a muscular approach to belly dance isolations. Most will call out moves borrowed from other belly dance and other dance forms. These elements are important as they help dancers understand the rich breadth of movement in use today, as well as what is appropriate (or inappropriate) to do in front of a given audience.

Personally, I am proficient in Oriental style belly dance. I’m working on proficiency in American Tribal Style®. I have also studied Jazz, Modern, and some ethnic/folkloric Middle Eastern dance. I know which moves that I use in my own choreography are influenced by which style. (This awareness also helps me understand which moves are going to be foreign to the bodies of other dancers based on their experience.) As a teacher, I feel that it is essential to help my students understand the origin of a movement. It’s all work to learn these things. But work is essential for professional (and even semi-professional) dancers in any form.

Photo by Dave Stagner

A lesson for the teacher

I’ve mostly been teaching private lessons lately. Between the day job, not needing to rent space, and a few other things, they just work better. Recently, I had one of my transnational fusion students ask me to teach her American Tribal Style (ATS ®) during her lessons instead. For those unfamiliar with ATS, it is a planned improvisational style of dance where dancers learn a finite set of combinations and formations, and cue each other as to which move to do next mid-performance. She’s heard me extoll the benefits of ATS, like the strong component of community (a post for another day) and those appealed to her. As I just completed my Teacher Training certification, I agreed.

This student has studied with me for a very long time. She is a wonderfully expressive dancer who has battled with a few physical issues over the years. My insistence on proper (and healthy) technique is one of the reasons that she comes to me.  This is one way that I generally give my perfectionism free reign. It has served me well to insist on proper alignment for myself and my students, and to help students find the right positioning for their bodies.

On the day of our first official ATS class, I threw a whole lot of information at her. I gave her  4 weeks’ worth of information in an hour, and she absorbed it like a sponge. I did this because her previous dance experience allowed her to grasp the information easily, and because it was enough information to start dancing. Through the hour, we talked through the 4 basic movements, rules for formations, how take a turn leading the group, and how to change the leader. As we walked through each item, I corrected her technique both for alignment and the stylization that is used in ATS. I helped her practice the path that she would follow to move in and out of formations. I gave her tricks to help her remember some of the details that are more difficult for a fusion dancer to remember. I talked her through the corrections. She did it all, and adjusted the things we discussed. And  then it was time to dance.

I put on an appropriate “fast” song and took the lead position. She stepped in behind me and we started to move. We went through each of the basic moves, and then I shifted the lead. We talked a bit as we danced, me helping her remember some of the details. She took the lead, we did two moves together, then she turned to hand the lead role back to me. I led us through a bit more, then gave her another opportunity to try leading. She didn’t take it. We talked briefly about how to take the front rank, and kept dancing. Then I yielded the position again. We circled around and this time, she took the lead spot, but not quite the way she should. She led us through a few more moves until the song ended.

I turned off the music, and turned to explain exactly how to move into position. But she looked at me, and I stopped. The look of sheer joy on her face kept me from uttering a single word. What I had to say didn’t matter. That minor detail was immaterial in the face of all that bliss. Because regardless of the rules, the technique, and the formations, we had danced. We had shared a perfect moment in the music and enjoyed every bit of it. And that moment reminded me why I keep going back, why I work so hard, and what it feels like to join with other dancers and move. I told my inner perfectionist to shove off and hugged her. A “perfect” transition to lead can wait for another day.

Saying “Yes, and…”

Criticism is hard to take, especially for a recovering perfectionist. I frequently find myself denying any correction offered by teachers in workshops that I attend. But then I remind myself that the critique is why I’m here. I’ve paid good money to be told that I’m wrong. So instead of immediately  begrudging the teach telling me that I’m locking my elbow out in a floreo, I should listen to what’s being offered. I’m working to say, “Yes.”

I am currently attending ATS® General Skills. I have been dancing a long time, so my form is generally pretty good. But I have only been doing ATS for a couple of years. That form is imperfect. Most of the time, I know a different way to do a particular move. Today, I found myself getting frustrated by floreos. I could see that I was missing something because my timing was off. During a break, I asked one of the teachers to help me figure out what was wrong. She very patiently helped me figure out that I was “missing half the move”. I had originally learned floreos as being about the circle of the wrist. In ATS, the move is about the circle of the fingers. Because I focused on the wrist, my fingers short the top half of the circle from an ATS perspective. During the next drill, I went back to my spot and really focused on getting the fingers right. Another teacher came over and told me that I was locking out my elbow. My internal monologue said, “No I’m not. I’m just focusing on my fingers. There’s no elbow lock occurring.”

But I’ve been here before. I remembered a recent piece of advice from another teacher, Jill Parker. She said, “Don’t let your ego get in the way of your learning.” Instead of ignoring the information, I put it in my back pocket and kept working on my fingers. A couple of hours, and several drill sessions later, my fingers were noticeably improved. I was ready to revisit the locking out comment. I worked my refined finger technique, and watched my elbow. It was straightening ever so slightly, and dipping when I flipped my fingers over in my new-found improvements. The comment clicked, along with one that another teacher had said. I now had a new thing to work, along with my fingers.

I already said yes to this training. I said yes to learning a new style of dance. Class is the time to also say yes to help offered. This is how to get your money’s worth.

Crossing boundaries, pt. 1

One of my biggest motivations in life is pushing into new territory. I love to learn new things, to push past physical limitations, and even to challenge my own perceptions. This is not always easy, but it is important for me and I find it intrinsically rewarding. I don’t need another reason beyond doing or knowing something new.

For my dance, this means that I am always willing to work on pushing to the next level. But what constitutes “the next level” is not static. My level of fitness waxes and wanes as for a variety of reasons: season, day job, illness, interest in sedentary pursuits like research and costuming. I rarely am completely inactive, but there is a big difference between taking the dogs for a mile-long stroll and commuting to work by bike, a 25+ mile round trip. So I do find myself looking to “reset” and restart my physical practice. And now is one of those times. I find myself thinking about what my goals are, and my upcoming week, and looking for the best place to start. My goal is the boundary that I need to cross, but I need to start on the path to get there.

For this week, that means focusing on 3 things: Restarting my ATS practice (which has gotten rather lax), Making a better effort to attend an alternate cabaret class when I can’t make my favorite, and getting in a few bike rides to up my cardio. We’ll see how the next couple of weeks go.