For many years I shied away from saying I was a dancer because I felt it was pretentious. Sure, I danced every day, it was part of my discipline, but I didn’t feel real. I have always been a visual learner and have never really liked memorising choreography, though my initial performance opportunities were all in tribal fusion, dancing others’ choreographies. It wasn’t until ATS® sank into my bones that I felt I wasn’t just dancing.
At the recent amazing workshops with Jesse Stainbridge in London, some of my fellow teachers and I were talking about dance habits, and the levels of seriousness students bring to class. Many students come to class to have fun and shimmy away a weeknight and others fall in love with the dance and let it become a big part of their lives. Both kinds of students are important, but if you are the later, how do you go from just dancing to being a dancer?
The answer is devotion and discipline. Prioritising the dance, letting consistent practice be a kind of meditation, and leaving your ego out of it. Concretely, what does this mean? I’ll share a bit of my journey.
When I first tried ATS®, I was overwhelmed by it all. The only thing I could do at first was zill, and not very well. Since I didn’t have a regular teacher, I had to rely on the DVDs to practice and I became overly reliant on visual prompts and drilling. I was in a rut, I’d reached a plateau after daily drilling for a couple of years.
I used Carolena’s first book, The Art of Belly Dance, to begin a dance practice. It came with zills that I used for years until I upgraded to Saroyans! Her suggestions and pictures in this book prompted me to rely less on visual based drilling and just let the moves come from me. I wasn’t just dancing, I was becoming a dancer.
The next step was taking control of my dance, looking at it objectively and organizing my movement vocabulary. Just like when I learned to speak Spanish and was increasing my vocabulary, I used flash cards to keep track of the movements in the dance. Using the master list generously created by Marwen/Julie de St Blanquat, I made a deck. Each movement had a card, colour coded between fast, slow and multi-dancer combinations. (For several years I was dancing this group dance form alone and those group combos were saved for a day when I had others to dance with).
I started to collect songs into playlists using Spotify. These were any song that would draw the dance out of me, from Johnny Cash’s Hurt to Outkast’s Hey Ya, as well as other traditional songs. I would never perform using these pop songs but they were great to get me dancing. I would draw a couple of cards from my pack and dance them to these songs, working on transitions and musicality– did this move go with parts of the song I was dancing to? If not, why? Everything became an experiment and I stopped worrying about getting technique perfect, I just trusted it was there. I was becoming a dancer.
I would note down on the card any revelations I had while dancing, anything I wanted to clarify when I met with a teacher, anything I knew I needed to work on. I still have these cards but I don’t use them in my practice anymore. The movements have become completely organic, part of me, a dancer.
How has your practice changed over your dance journey? When did you consider yourself a dancer?