When I say that “dance is poetry in motion,” I do mean it literally. Because dance is a language of its own… after all, is it not a way of communicating feelings using our bodies as the medium?
Studying dance actually does take us through many of the same processes as learning a new language.
The first step is to learn the alphabet—becoming familiar with the shapes of the letters and properly enunciating the sounds they represent. In belly dance, our “alphabet” is composed of “isolation components”—those simple, single-plane-and-direction isolations that can sometimes be used by themselves, but that also get strung together to form multi-plane-and-direction isolations, from the most basic to the most complex. These “composite isolations” are our words, along with the traveling steps and other non-isolation movements that we use.
It is important to learn and practice those “words” enough for them to become ingrained in our muscle memory, so that we can develop a movement vocabulary large enough to interpret a variety of sounds in the music we dance to.
Much in the way that the vocabulary in a language is a key defining element, the types of movements that we do—and the way we do them—are part of what differentiates one genre of dance from another. Music is another key element, as it dictates the types of movements we can do and when, therefore providing a structure for the sentences we create with our movements, like grammar and syntax!
Transitions and accents act as punctuation marks and facial expression, body language, and stylizations can serve as our adjectives...
Achieving true mastery in any genre of dance takes practice and immersion, much like achieving fluency in a language. It takes years of work and dedication, and there are no shortcuts!
We can’t skip straight to layering multiple moves together and trying to add feeling and stylization if our body can’t perform the movements—the dance will not be recognizable, in the same way that if we attempt to piece together a thought in a language before knowing the words we need to use, we will not be understood.
On the other hand, we also don’t need to get stuck practicing a move to the point where it is being perfectly executed exactly the same way as a dancer who is native to this dance before moving on to layering, expression, and stylization. Some moves can take years of practice before they can be executed at a professional level, and it can take years of study and immersion before they can be executed with the same nuances seen on native dancers.
We call that dancing with an “accent.” Having an accent in a language doesn’t necessarily make you any less fluent. The world is full of multilingual people who can express complex thoughts and ideas in their non-native languages even if they do so with an accent. Western belly dancers need not be afraid of dancing with a Western accent. So long as they are using belly dance vocabulary, grammar and syntax, they are belly dancing!
These parallels are a great way to think about how we learn dance and to keep perspective when we become frustrated with the challenges that pop up.
They can also provide some context and a framework for our goals. Someone who just wants to learn how to say a few words isn’t going to need to spend as much time studying as someone who wants to learn how to speak a language fluently.
But regardless of individual goals, the ideal class should provide students with all the tools they need to achieve fluency, so that they too will be able to create poetry in motion…
I'll take discipline over "natural talent" any day of the week!
Innate ability will carry you through the initial stages of learning a new skill and might even help throughout all stages of development (better results for the same amount of practice), but without deliberate and consistent study and training, talent on its own is nothing but unsatisfied potential.
This is true for absolutely anything in life, including belly dance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how beginner students often create limitations for themselves that don’t actually exist, by perceiving their lack of ability to do something right off the bat as a permanent limitation as opposed to a perfectly natural part of the learning process, and even an opportunity to learn the process at a deeper level than those who don’t have to struggle through it.
Sometimes as teachers we even encourage this type of thinking, by overly complimenting a student’s natural ability to just “pick up” a new move right away, but neglecting to give attention and positive reinforcement to the improvement that student is showing week after week on a move they struggle with.
If you are that student in class who just can't understand the explanation given, if you're that person making mistakes and looking around and noticing that everyone else remembers the choreography but you, if your body just won’t move the “right” way, or you just feel awkward, or whatever it is...
There are reasons you are having a hard time, and none of them are your fault, so there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Yet these reasons are also mostly within your control, if you want them to be.
If you want to improve, if you consistently practice, if you have good guidance in some or many forms (in your teachers and mentors, friends and peers, books and/or other reading materials), then it's just a matter of time before you become good, or even great, or even awesome.
Many aspects of belly dance did not come naturally to me, so I'm familiar with all types of learning struggles and learning styles, and try to tailor each class to the specific individuals in it by using a mix of verbal, visual, kinesthetic, and other methods of explaining movement.
In my class, "mistakes" are not bad, mistakes are opportunities for progression (for both the student and myself as a teacher), because they allow me to rethink my explanations and tailor them to the student/s having issues so that they are receiving the best instruction for their individual needs.
Or if the issue is not with my explanation, then it allows me to look at the root of the problem and recommend appropriate solutions. Maybe it's just a matter of drilling that specific movement over and over again. Or maybe we need to specifically target the muscles that are not working optimally in this move, in which case I will recommend an exercise outside of belly dance that will do just that.
I am amazed at the progress I've been seeing from each and every SharqiDance student! When both student and teacher are committed to this progress, wonderful things happen. I feel absolutely blessed to have dedicated students who come to my class to embark on this journey!
Yamê is a Brazilian-American belly dancer based out of New Jersey, USA.