All The Teachers, All My Thankfulness

I was curious one Wednesday, so I counted.

From June 4 to mid-September, it had been just more than just fourteen weeks. I originally posted about Making the Transition from full-time bellydance student to part-time instructor. Late in the evening on a Wednesday, I climbed into my car after three days in a row of teaching, exhausted and ridiculously happy. I hadn’t been that bone-tired in months, and I loved every moment of it.

It got me to thinking about what it took to get here.

First Introduction to Belly Dance: First Teachers

There’s a passage in our Puja (our moving meditation) in which we express our thankfulness for “all the teachers” that have brought us to this point in our lives. Sometimes, it makes me think fondly of my piano teacher when I was in second grade; my private flute lessons from fifth grade through eleventh grade; my college percussion instructor; my college choral directors and orchestra directors. Without them, my musical training would not be where it is now. Other times, I’m reminded of the ballet classes when I was four; the jazz classes I was enrolled in during junior high and high school; the musical theatre movement classes in college.

Then my bellydancing instructors figure large in my memory. During my first experience with bellydance in college, I had the amazing good luck to study with Ansuya and then Alexandra King for a several years. The classes were held through the community courses at the college. Then for a while, I would ride the late night bus downtown to dance at Ansuya’s studio. I was in my twenties and had a fantastic time. But as I moved out of the area and had different family obligations, my dancing went on hold.

Then ATS: American Tribal Style, and All the Teachers

Then I met some fantastic women from a bellydance troupe who were performing something called “American Tribal Style” bellydance. Oddly enough, somewhere in my records I have an old xerox’ed copy of a magazine article given to me by Alexandra King. The article was a feature about a dancer named Carolena Nericcio and her troupe FatChanceBellyDance. I tucked the article away in the 90s and hadn’t thought about it further in years. But when I met Twisted Gypsy and Jen McDonald,  my interest was rekindled. A quick check of her teaching calendar told me that she had a class just three miles from my workplace. I was enrolled in my first one-hour class on June 14, 2010. There were only two primary thoughts I clung to, throughout that entire hour: “Oh, good grief my arms hurt, when do we get to put our arms down? can I keep my arms up as long as the teacher does?!” and “Oh my goodness, I have to learn to teach this!”

By the end of 2010, I’d gone from one class per week to two. By December, I had a taste of dancing with other ATS dancers at a holiday party at a restaurant.

The first evening I ever danced with a group in public, Dec 2010
Closing bows, Dec 2010

In 2011, I started studying Level 2 as well as taking classes from both Jen and Cassandra. In May, I was invited to join Jen’s student troupe, Gypsy Sisters*. In May, I also went to my first Tribal Fest, studying from Carolena Nericcio for the very first time. To say I was completely in love with the form by now would be an understatement. By the end of the year, I was dancing three times a week, almost thirty hours per month.

Me and Jen, at a bellydance showcase
Me and Cassandra, before a bellydance fundraiser

And my first Tribal Fest in 2011 included the first opportunity to take classes directly from Carolena Nericcio. Suzanne Elliott was also one of the instructors, another member of FCBD.

Carolena with our 3-person dance group, Yuska, me, and Kathleen.
For this 3-day class at Tribal Fest 2011, the three of us drilled together.
Me and Suzanne at Tribal Fest

My other classes at TF2011 were taught by Therese Wyatt and Tribal Sooz. Love those women!

By 2012, I was studying Level 3 from Jen McDonald. That summer, Nancy Young hosted an “ATS Summer Camp” on the weekends at her studio, giving me the chance to take lessons from Nancy Young, Politti Ashcraft, Laurie LA Tribal, Dana Johnson, Jennifer Thorimbert, and Leslie Thompson, as well as Jen McDonald… That was an AMAZING summer of learning, and I am so thankful to have such a rich community of ATS teachers in southern California.

And by the end of the year, a large group of us went up to the FatChanceBellyDance studios in San Francisco to take a series of classes. We studied with Kae Montgomery (FCBD), Wendy Allen (FCBD), and Carolena Nericcio.

Private lessons from Kae Montgomery, day two at FCBD
The grand group studying with Wendy Allen, day four at FCBD
Last day, right before class 10 of 10 for me

Classes at Tribal Fest 2012 included the amazing teachers: Kathy StahlmanTherese Wyatt, Katrina McCoy, Bianca Stücker, Mimi Fontana, and Colleena Shakti.

My instructors at Tribal Fest 2013 included another stunning line-up: Donna Mejia, Amel Tafsout, Jennifer Nolan, Mimi Fontana, Davina Tribal Collective, Elizabeth Strong & Dan Cantrell, and Jen McDonald.

In April 2013, my General Skills course was taught by Carolena Nericcio and Megha Gavin.

General Skills: Classic certification
General Skills: Modern certification

Just this summer (2013) I was lucky enough to be able to take workshops from Janet Hanseth, a member of the Red Lotus troupe at FCBD. (Edited: Janet Taylor is now a member and teacher at FatChanceBellyDance)

And an earlier class this summer was taught by Melanie Campbell, her first teaching opportunity. What a wonderful way to share our “launch into teaching” season together.

All this to say that the Legacy of Teachers in my life has been very rich. I am extremely thankful for you all.

* I retired from Gypsy Sisters in June this year. I love those women, miss them, and wish them all the best in all their performances. It was an amazing experience I will always treasure. 

Thoughts from One Student

One of my students has been going through some fantastic, personal a-ha moments and gave me permission to share some of her writing with all of you.

“Do what you love, and you’ll be great!”

Well, um… Not really.

I’ve discovered that my body naturally loves certain belly dance moves… I love those moves. Even as a beginner of less than three months, I’m willing to just go ahead and say this: I am good at those moves. You may admire me when I do those moves, and I will be pleased, but not surprised.

And there are moves my body doesn’t want to do… And the zils. G*D, the zils. Trying to zil makes me wonder how in the heck I was so good at playing my flute or dancing with my flag at the same time as marching in formation in high school and college marching bands. Honestly, I feel like an uncoordinated doofus when trying to zil.

If I do what I love, I will soon have the world’s best [moves that I love]. And I will NOT be a great dancer. I won’t even be a good dancer. In my drills today, I did each of those moves for about a minute and a half, maybe two minutes. I love those moves, but I’ve pretty much got them down.

And then I did all the moves that my body doesn’t enjoy… I did each move that I “hate” for five minutes. More than twice the time I spent on the stuff that I love and find easy.

Do what you love, if that means dance (where “dance” is any broad category). But when it comes to dance, or whatever your “thing” is, do what you “hate.” I mean, definitely do the easy stuff you love (everyone’s easy stuff will be different from everyone else’s), but don’t spend the bulk of your time there. Do the moves, the drills, the patterns, the motions that you find difficult and unenjoyable about your “thing” (dance: strength, flexibility, fluidity, speed, nimbleness, grace, balance … music: range, tempo, enunciation, vocal clarity…). Whatever your “thing” is, do the aspects of that thing that you find the least enjoyable. Work your fundamentals, but work the hard stuff, the boring stuff, and the least appealing stuff at least twice as much as the stuff you find easy and fun.

Because that’s how you get good all-around. That’s how you become a good dancer, or computer programmer, or clothier, or whatever you’re trying to be. The only thing that separates a good dancer from a sucky one is the number of hours that dancer has spent sucking.

I love that she gets it. There are a few students who are a tiny bit frustrated with me because I won’t drill them on the next moves that they know how to do already. The point is: These women are already naturally good at the moves we haven’t been drilling yet. And I’m asking them to work on the moves they hate right now. Drilling them slowly, thinking about different portions of the technique, trying them again at tempo, back to drilling only parts of the moves, back to putting all the layers together again.

My student writes again in another post.

BTW, “I suck” is, I hope, understood to be a temporary situation. Sucking right now, as a beginner, is only to be expected. What separates a complete derp from a complete dancer is hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours… (repeats “and hours” about a hundred more times) …and hours of sucking, after which one sucks a bit less, for a lot more hours. And then a bit less suckage for a lot more hours. And so on. And then, “suddenly,” you’re a dancer. Or whatever you are. “I suck” doesn’t mean “I give up.” It means, “Watch me suck at this! And keep on sucking, until I don’t! I know I have work to do, and I can actually SEE what separates my attempts from true dancing, and I’m actually working to get rid of the distinctions! Yay!” In other words, I love that I suck. I *LOVE* that I suck. The sweatier and huffier and tireder I get in a practice, or the gym, or whatever, the better and more serene I will eventually look. I am embracing my suckitude and making it into an impetus to practice. So that, you know, I feel less awkward and sucky when people are watching me.

Amen, sister. Amen.

If you cannot laugh together and have fun, why exactly are you doing this?

According to Outliers: The Story of Success, written by Malcolm Gladwell, mastery or greatness comes with enormous amounts of time, or the “10,000-Hour Rule.” My student just posted, “9982.70 hours of suckage left. That’s not bad at all!”

I love this attitude!

Unusual Structure, Unexpected Benefits

One of the stranger aspects to my current teaching arrangements is that I do not yet have any dance studios from which to teach. I haven’t started renting space (and time on the schedule) at any formal dance studios. I haven’t made arrangements at community centers or rec centers. I haven’t joined any college staff or continuing education offerings. But I teach between 3-4 times per week.

At first, I started teaching as a “guest lecturer” in a park where my SCA friends had been dancing for years at their weekly fighter practice. We are in a public park, next to a tennis court, near some picnic benches, along side our SCA friends in heavy armor or with rapiers. They were already in the habit of dancing on the sidewalk with muted or no finger cymbals (neighborhood noise issues), and without concern for nice studio floors and mirrors.

Another friend invited me to teach her in her home. She has a fantastic floor in her living room, just enough room for the two of us (and maybe one other some time). And there’s a mirror at the end of her dining room so we can occasionally look at form and technique in the mirror together.

Two more friends invited me to teach in their home, making it possible for them to keep track of the 4- and 9-yr-old as well as make (or order) dinner for everyone at the same time as dance for fun.

Then another friend wanted me to bring my dance-in-the-park method to her local fighter practice. So now I have two weekly outdoor, in public, on cement rehearsals / teaching opportunities.

This is not typical.

photo by Flint Weiss on Flickr

From this, however, some really interesting things have started to develop.

The first practice-in-the-park group has now been through a full session of fundamentals. On occasion, I can start introducing new vocabulary and new moves into their instructional time. (This also requires me to keep very detailed records so I know which dancer has learned which move.) We usually have a great turn-out, so I can work with group formations and develop their abilities to interact with one another. As for scheduling innovation, we have access to the park for several hours. I wanted to have more time dancing but without intimidating the dancers who didn’t have the endurance to work as many hours as I enjoy dancing. So I started hosting 30-minute blocks of dance time. There is always a warm-up at the top of every half an hour, and we switch between Fast and Slow moves in every block, alternating every week. If someone always arrived for the 7pm block, one week they would dance Fast moves, the following week they would dance the Slow moves. And dancers now have the freedom to choose whether to arrive early or late, stay for as many or as few blocks as they like, and even participate in some of the concurrently hosted arts and sciences classes by dancing a little and going to another class for the remainder of the time.

What I didn’t expect is that now modern (non-SCA) people who are just meandering through the park (it is a public park, after all) would be interested in dancing. Since each dance block is a discreet section that anyone can participate in, we just had new drop-in participants recently. They loved it, and one of them stayed for an hour (two blocks in a row). This could never happen in a formal studio, and I feel really fortunate that I can make dance more and more accessible to more people.

There are also SCA friends who enjoy coming to the park every week but are not really interested in dancing that much. But they join in respectfully during the stretching sections, sometimes more than once in an evening. Several of these folks have told me that the stretches are really helping them regain mobility. I’m so grateful they feel safe to join us and are able to improve their own mobility, flexibility, and fitness—even in such incremental portions.

The two friends who have me teach in their home also entertain guests on a regular basis. This past week, one of their visiting friends joined us for the hour of our lessons. She exclaimed at the end of the hour that, “this is exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise! I would do this!” I have a similar experience when I dance: I love the movement and I love pushing my body further than the last time I danced. I don’t mind sweating and finding myself breathless. The activity is so enjoyable, it is almost like exercising on accident.

The new dance-in-the-park arrangement includes several participants who’ve never done bellydance at all or haven’t danced like this in years and years. This local fighter practice also typically starts later than the other one, and many folks are already in the habit of meeting for dinner and socializing before heading to the park. But since I needed more time to drill and workout, I had to innovate differently for this evening’s rehearsals. I’ve started arriving more than an hour before the regular fighter practice, giving me plenty of time to get dressed, prepare my class notes, set up my music, etc. Then it’s drill time for me: Fast, slow, endurance sessions with longer songs, advanced moves, fundamental moves, and everything in between. I find myself smiling and laughing to myself as I drill because just next to me is a tennis court, behind me is a basketball court and a roller hockey rink, and to the other side is the baseball diamond. Families wander through, walking their dogs, escorting their kids to and from practices, or just to get to their own softball games on time. And there I am, a lone dancer working on drills.

My fellow dancers arrive and then we all work together for about an hour. The fighters arrive, arm up, and take to the grassy areas for their own practices. Friends and family hang out on the picnic tables, sometimes studying, working on sewing projects, or just socializing. When our instruction time is done, I open up the after-class time for drills again. Sometimes a handful of dancers still have some energy left so we will work together, dancing without stopping to continue building endurance and stamina (rather than stopping to focus on breaking down the details of the technique). And when they are done, it’s still time for me to do one last push. So I’ll put on another song and drill again, usually running the advanced moves to a fast song. Several of the other dancers had fun watching my  advanced drill last night, anticipating moves they’ll learn later.

I am so thankful for the space I have to dance in, the dancers I have to dance with, and those that I can dance for. The structure of my dance time is unusual, but it is affording me some wonderful and unexpected benefits. Thank you, dear community. You truly enrich my life.

Moving Carefully, Deliberately

One of my favorite disclaimer phrases at the beginning of our warm-ups is, “Remember, I am NOT a trained medical professional. Please do not make me drive you to a trained medical professional.”

I am sometimes nervous as a teacher. I work with people who have a variety of body types, body ailments, temporary injuries, lifelong chronic pain conditions, or just folks who may have done something strenuous lately and are currently in recovery. I worry because I want to have good stretches, good advice, and a healthy dose of what are my limitations.

Recently, someone joined in on our warm-up at Dance Practice in the Park. She was careful to only do the range of motion that worked with her body and her abilities. Then she asked me for a list of the stretches we did because she found them helpful. So I wanted to share my current list for those who might be interested.

HOWEVER! Please! Remember that I am NOT a trained medical professional! I do NOT have extensive training in your skeleton, your circulatory system, your musculature, your currently level of activity, your range of motion, your chronic pain syndromes, your ligaments and tendons — So PLEASE remember to Move Carefully and Move Deliberately.

Laybacks: An ADVANCED move, not for day one
Cat’s Current Warm-up Stretches
Do NOT do a move that causes you injury! Consult with a physician, a physical therapist, a specialist, or other training medical professional for how any of these stretches should be modified for your body and current condition(s).
  1. Torso, Arms: Overhead, To Each Side, Flat Back, then Toward Ground
  • Both hands overhead, stretch one arm toward the ceiling then the other. Lengthen along your side as you stretch the arm straight up.
  • Pick a side, stretch over the side: If you are bending to the right from your waist, the left arm is overhead.
  • Arms out to the sides, lean over at the waist, keeping your head up. This is for a “flat back” (as much as possible).
  • Hang over at the waist, arms stretching gently with gravity toward the floor.
  • Roll up slowly and in a controlled manner from the stretch toward the floor, bottom of the spine first, center, top, and finally the head.
  • Shake out gently after the overhead and toward floor stretches. Especially shake out your legs and arms.
  • More Torso, Arms: Dancer Stretch with Arms in Opposition
    • Select a foot, step it behind the other.
    • The foot that went behind is the arm that stretches up. (If right foot behind, then right arm up.) Stretch one arm up toward ceiling and the other arm down at side toward floor.
    • Keep the spine on the “merry-go-round pole” that you imagine running through your body. Do not tilt or tip over, but stretch the arms in opposition from one another.
    • Switch feet, switch arms. Repeat on the other side.
    • Shake out gently after the stretches.
  • Warming up from the Feet to the Head
  • Feet: Ankles and Toes and Balancing
    • Stand with good posture: Knees with a small bend (we call this “soft knees”) where your hips and could wiggle if you needed them to. Shoulders down and back. Ribcage slightly lifted.
    • Place your feet parallel with as little turn-out or turn-in as you can manage, as close to straight railroad tracks as you can.
    • Keep your knees in that slight bend. Keep your posture straight on the merry-go-round pole. Slowly rise up on your toes, slowly lower back to flat feet. Avoid tipping over or wobbling your ankles. Repeat a few times.
    • Repeat the rise on the toes, lower to flat feet, continue the bend slowly in the knees, return to flat feet. Repeat a few times.
    • Place your right foot forward of the left foot, keeping the feet still parallel. Repeat the toe rises slowly. Repeat the toe rises with a few knee bends.
    • Switch to your left foot forward of the right food. Repeat the toe rises slowly. Repeat the toe rises with a few knee bends.
  • Ankles and Knees
    • Shake out from the Feet stretches. Lift one foot, shake the ankle gently in the air. Switch to the other foot, shake out the ankle.
    • Loosely twist and shake as if you are Chubby Checker doing “The Twist”
    • Further knee work can be done with Plies, with Ballet technique. (Not covered here)
  • Hips: Slow Stretches, Increase to Shimmies
    • Stand with a small bend in your knees (soft knees). Keep your feet flat. Without raising either heels or toes, lift one hip higher than the other. The hip rises when the knees move like pistons: One knee is more deeply bent than the other knee (lowering the hip on the deep knee bend leg).
    • Slowly switch hips: First right (R) higher than the left (L), then L higher than R, repeat. The knees are doing the work to raise or lower the hips. Keep feet flat throughout.
    • Transition from slow stretches raising the hips to a timed repeat from R to L: Tick – tock – tick – tock. R – L – R – L. 
    • Slowly increase the speed of your tick-tock hips. 
    • Finally, without trying to count the speed, the knees and hips alternate up and down as fast as you can, in your full-time shimmy (standing still, feet flat).
    • Relax and shake it out. Rotate over your waist, looking/turning L and R as if looking behind you. Keep your knees slightly bent throughout.
  • Torso and Obliques: The elements of the Arabic, the Bodywave, and the Bellyroll
    • Breaking down the torso movements into three sections: (1) Ribcage lift, (2) Upper obliques, and (3) Lower obliques
    • (1) Lift the ribcage slightly. This move is as if you are “pointing your chest toward the sky” however it is NOT attached to raising your shoulder or gasping for a large breath. It can be a small movement at first, subtle. Practice lift, stand neutral, lift, release, lift, release.
    • (3) Switch to the lowest part of your belly. Imagine pulling your lowest stomach muscles in towards your spine, as if posing for a photo or trying to pull on tight jeans. Release and relax. Pull in, release, in, relax, in, relax.
    • (2) Switch to the upper obliques, in the center of your torso. These are the muscles you would use if you were lying down doing crunches. Pull in the upper obliques, relax, in, release, in, release. 
    • Now complete these in succession. Lift (1) the ribcase. Contract (2) the upper obliques. Contract (3) [while releasing 2]. Keep (3) while you lift (1). Release (3) when you contract (2). Continue pulling in (3) and releasing (2).
    • As you smooth out the motions (1), (2), (3), (1), (2), (3) – you can think “Up, Down, In.”
    • The entire movement rolls the contracted portion from top to bottom on the torso. 
    • For a different exercise, you can reverse it (3), (2), (1) – rolling the contracted portion from bottom to top. 
    • Most people will have a natural contraction that is either top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top.  Do not be discouraged if your natural order is different from someone else.
  • Ribcage: Isolations Side to Side and Around in Circle(s)
    • Keeping hips and shoulders as still as possible, knees in a slight bend, slide the ribcage R as if pulled on a string. Return to center. Slide L. Return to center. 
    • In the same posture, slide ribcage R, lifted (up) center, slide L. Repeat sliding L, up, R.
    • In the same posture, slide ribcage R, horizontally (out) front center, slide L. Repeat sliding L, out/front, L.
  • Shoulders: Circles, Swooping Arms
    • Good posture, centered weight, knees slightly bent. Slowly move shoulders forward, up toward the ears, back, and down. Repeat with both shoulders moving together. 
    • Repeat again one shoulder at a time, in opposition (R shoulder up while L is down; R shoulder back while L is forward; R shoulder down while L is up; R shoulder front while L is back).
    • In good posture, without tipping over or tilting, swoop one arm in front of the body (if R arm, wrist pulls across the waist R to L), then up and over (R wrist now rises from the L waist past the face and over the head), then reaching behind the body (R wrist now swoops back behind the R side). Turn your gaze to follow the wrist swoop. You’ll twist at the waist a little to follow the wrist up and behind, but do not tip or tilt too much off the center axis of good posture.
    • Repeat swooping the other arm: low and front, across the body, up and overhead, swooping out and behind the body. Follow with your gaze without tipping over.
  • Wrists: Flex and Circle
    • Arms at your side, good posture. Flex the wrists fingers in, fingers out; palm up, palm down. 
    • Pick a direction, circle the hands and wrists one direction together such as scooping the fingers in toward the boday. Reverse and circle the hands and wrists the other way.
  • Arms: Arm Undulations Together, Alternating, Full Size, and Shoulder height to Overhead
    • In good posture, arms at your sides, start to lift your arms slowly as if you were a scarecrow: elbows rising up with wrists draping loosely. Keep shoulders down as you raise your scarecrow arms. Imagine painting a wall with the back of your fingers and hand. When your elbows are at their limit, the wrists continue to rise (as if painting slowly) until at the last moment your fingertips point at the ceiling.
    • Now imagine painting down the walls with your palms. Contract your shoulder blad to pull the elbows down slowly (palms remain turned out) until the arm is down as low as it is going. Repeat from the beginning, elbows lead first (like a scarecrow). Keep your shoulders down.
    • Practice first with both arms going up and down together. 
    • Practice again where one arm goes up and as it starts down, the other arm goes up. When R is going up, the L is going down. When L is up, R is down.
    • Practice again only by imagining you have a table at shoulder height. This is as low as the undulation can go, rather than going to your waist. Do not drop the elbows below shoulder height. Paint up the wall on the R, paint down on the L. Switch down on the R, up on the L. Your fingertips brush the surface of the table that is at your shoulder height.
  • Neck: Gentle Look L and R
    • Carefully drop your chin forward toward your chest.
    • Rotate your head slowly to your chin over your L shoulder, head up, looking at the L wall. Drop back to the center again.
    • Rotate your head slowly to your chin over your R shoulder, head up, looking at the R wall. Drop to center again and repeat.
    • Do not tilt your head, just stretch forward alternating with side-to-side.

    This is what I do to warm up. You may have to adjust, add, or subtract from the list. But in all things, PLEASE TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY.

    No Pressure, No Shame

    There are many philosophies or motivations that various teachers or students of bellydance bring to their classes or performances. I was reminded recently that one of my primary philosophies is a very simple phrase, “No Pressure, No Shame.

    There is already so much competition in the world and not everyone resonates with competitiveness. Some people find competition to be wonderful. Others find competition to be horrifying and even a trigger for previous bad experiences. Some people have been bullied by competition, shamed by it, and unwilling participants in competitions they could not escape.

    Too busy doing drills and practice to notice anything else

    What matters most to me is that people find *Their Passion.* I cannot decide your passion for you. That is as personal as your favorite flavors or favorite colors or favorite music. I can share my passion with people through stories of my experience, through performance, and through photos. But my passion is *my* passion.

    If someone comes to me and happens to share my passion for dance, then we can share the experience. But again, each of us decides to what level we want to pursue our passions. You might only want to take up a small hobby, a place to relax and be safe through movement and music. Or you might want to dance slightly better than you did the day before, the week before, or the month before. You might simply want to stand up and *try* a movement to see if you are capable of doing something different from five minutes ago.

    Perhaps you want to be part of a community of other people who have various passions for dance. Perhaps you want to add to the community, to share in the experience.

    No matter what your motivation is, all I can do is “hang out my shingle” to advertise what I hope you find if you join with me. In the spaces where I am the care-taker, I want to extend an invitation of No Pressure, No Shame. The invitation comes with no further strings attached, only this: Only you can decide what pressure to exert on your own behalf. Only you can decide what participation level you are interested in. I can only offer a path on which you can travel if you’d like to join me. And I only ask that we share in the value of No Shame. Participation is voluntary and it is my sincerest hope that it is both encouraging and welcoming.