Category Archives: Essays and Articles

Why I Teach Belly Dance

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HollyShawbellydanceWhen I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001, I got a job teaching belly dance at 24 HR Fitness.  I had never taught dance before but I quickly fell into the role of fitness dance teacher.  I needed a job, but didn’t know it would be sooo fun! Belly dance is alluring to people for its fluid beautiful lines and body conditioning potential, but it can also have a deeper purpose in its body awareness that can surprise and awaken people.  I LOVED teaching it. It often felt like I was acting from a separate new part of myself. A wiser part of myself. I carved out technique exercises for the class, but the places I would lead them to through the dance and the things I found myself saying would surprise even me.  It was as though I was speaking from a higher self.  I experienced a high after classes that would last for hours. I felt like when I was teaching I could really truly see people and together we reached great natural heightened awareness.  I remember looking out at the crowd of sweating smiling women who had been dancing for an hour and feeling such appreciation to be leading such beautiful people.

But then inevitably, as I was trying to pay San Francisco rent prices, I got another job.  My accounting job. I hung onto the teaching for awhile, then I had Aleister and I had to make choices between belly dance and flamenco. Flamenco is much more challenging for my body type and so that desire won out and belly dancing mostly feel by the wayside for a number of years.

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Holly (in blue) teaching belly dance at 9 months pregnant

So of course recently as I saw my accounting job coming to an end, I wanted to seriously ask myself, “What do I want to do?”  And very important to that: “What would be fun to do?”  Any time I contemplated getting another accounting job or doing bookkeeping even on a freelance basis, my heart would sink.  I’d log onto Craigslist and as soon as I clicked on Jobs/Finance, I would feel nauseous.  Well, my body didn’t need to shout at me any longer.  It was clear to me, whatever I do next it would not include a lateral move to accounting. It was time to get back to where I belonged.

Naturally I remembered my belly dance teaching days and realized I had several very good reasons to teach it.

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Holly teaching BellyDance for Mamas

Belly Dance is accessible to many people.  One of the things I love most about belly dance is that it is so accessible to so many people. While it is true that it can take years to really master a movement, it also is true that it can take only one hour to learn a few movements and be dancing it, even if you don’t consider yourself a “dancer.” The movements may be rough and not as refined as you desire, but you can still get the satisfaction of dancing from the minute you begin learning.

Belly Dance allows you to appreciate where you are. There is no other dance form as forgiving and accepting of your body’s fitness as belly dance. It meets you where you are. Truly.  Go ahead. Wiggle and shake your jiggly thighs. Bless them.  You can see the movements best on thicker women anyway.  I remember when I was 22 years old traveling the world, and I

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Holly dancing in nightclub in Cairo circa 2000

spent some time in Egypt, dancing at a three star night club in Cairo.  The dancers there are beautifully voluptuous and large by Western standards. By the time I had danced there for three weeks I was so slender from all the dancing that the patrons were regularly complaining about me. “We can see her ribs” they were saying.  “Eat eat!” They chanted at me in Arabic.  When I began there, I was a fun anomaly “We love America!” they cried.  But they got tired of watching my skinny body move.  Move over Skinny, there were “real” women to see.  I never felt more appreciative of Arabic men as in the moment I realized I was in the wrong place.

This generality about belly dance has become a core value in my teaching as a whole: If you truly desire transformation, then love where you are now.  By accepting and blessing and embracing all of yourself, you allow yourself to “catch up” to your expansion of all you desire to become.  In belly dance class this philosophy is in plain sight: Bless those curves, bless them!

Belly Dance has props! One thing that is so fantastically fun about belly dance is there are about a million different props and things you can add to it to make it more fun, use different muscles, or simply switch it up: colorful veils! add rhythm with finger cymbals! and let’s not even talk about balancing things on our heads? swords, trays, candles . . .the list is endless.

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Holly teaching dancing with veil

It’s great for the core muscles. Let’s just speak to what everyone is thinking.  Belly dance can have a tremendously thorough effect on your core muscle tone. No amount of pilates, yoga, or crunches can compare to the nuanced workout of belly dance. I remember when I was teaching at 24HR Fitness, there was a young woman there who was a bit on the pudgy side.  Not really overweight, just sort of shapeless.  As she came to class week after week I noticed that her clothing went from baggy tshirts and boys’ sweatpants to more slimming fitness gear.  After a couple of months, she came up and gave me one of the most memorable testimonies I have ever had the pleasure of receiving, “My body has CHANGED!” she said to me with enthusiasm.  “I’m telling you, I never used to have a waist. At all. No waist line. Just a block of body from my chest to my hips, but now there is a WAIST THERE!”

And finally, like I said from the beginning, teaching belly dance is fun! Teaching belly dance is only one piece of my new career.  I also do creativity coaching, choreograph, and perform.  But being a belly Hollyfeatherfansdance teacher is such a natural fit with all of that. I love having an influence on women’s lives and I love that belly dance can reach so many women.  I love the non-exclusivity of it.  It has a wide loving embrace.  I love that women can come to my class and love themselves, every part.  Dance has the power to transform the way we think about ourselves. Physical movement can usher the internal movement of our minds and spirits – providing new resources through metaphor.  The body has its messages and wisdom to impart. I can only hope to provide a space for those who want to

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Holly and her son on Halloween this year

listen.

Holly is a full-time dancer, choreographer, coach, and mom living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She currently teaches weekly BellyDance for Mamas classes in Oakland and Berkeley. Click here to find out more about BellyDance for Mamas classes.

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365Dances: What I learned this year? Lean Into What You Love

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When I began this project my intention was to make a different dance every single day.  Oh! The things I would learn about choreography! Oh the learnings and the amazing art which would follow! Well, after about twenty days when I was shaking from the exhaustion of not getting enough sleep (see the video Crossroads? That is a woman that needs to chill the bleep! out). I realized I needed to come to some sort of modified agreement with myself.  It was not really realistic for me, a single mother working full-time 30 hrs a week AT A DESK to create entire dances every single day.  Laundry has to get done at some point. What I could do is vow to create a little sketch every day. Ah! Yes! That feels better! A little dance sketch.  Could be a 30 second sketch off a gesture I observed during commute, could be an entire five minute improvisation, could be something I’d been thinking about in the back of my mind for days.  But whatever it was, I realized, I needed the freedom to just let it be and not judge it.  This is tough when you are putting your videos on youtube.  But that was important to me too.  We don’t make art to live inside of bubbles.  Art is supposed to be out there.  And so even when things weren’t WOW really good, I still liked posting them for the moments of value that I found in them. For the transparency of the process. When I began this project, I couldn’t have predicted how my life would change, but I did know on some level that it would. You can’t set a plan to do something every day and NOT change. It would be impossible for me to list all the things I learned this past year, but I’ve tried to highlight some of the major points:

Things I have learned this year:

Take It Seriously, but Keep It Light:  I noticed that in order to keep up with my 365dances challenge, I had to maintain a certain amount of discipline – which means sometimes I just had to make myself get in there, put down the other “busy” work of day to day life, and just do it.  Dance a little. Throw on some music and find out where my body is.  But on the other hand, sometimes if I pushed too hard on myself, I reaped very little benefit. Extreme frustration would follow. Disappointment. There is this important balance between fun and discipline. The optimal creative conditions are when you are inspired to work. You are in a playful mood, but feel compelled to do it. The “discipline” doesn’t even enter into it. The best work was when I was having extreme amounts of fun, so much so that I wanted to keep working at it.

When Taken Seriously, Ideas Keep Showing Up: The more I started listening to my ideas, the more ideas I seemed to have.  Nobody asked me to make dances you know.  Probably some would rather I stop. I decided that my dances were important. Once I made the decision to care about them, my ideas became stronger. Try it. Try taking your ideas seriously and writing them down for a week. It pays to take yourself seriously this way.

Work With The Best People You Possibly Can:  I think it is really important to try to put yourself in situations where you can learn from people who are much much better than you.  Often this is scary. Sometimes you have to be brazen and swallow your ego. I don’t pretend to know everything and I love to learn. I studied with some outrageously talented people this last year. Often I would be in a class and wondering what the hell got me into this situation and who did I think I was trying to do this stuff? I think it is a good check on yourself as an artist to challenge yourself. And you can really take your skills to a whole new level when you do this.

Making Dance On Yourself Is Limiting: Yeah, I got really bored with my dancing. I mean, not forever or anything. I’m still dancing and loving it, but creating work on myself is limiting. For one thing, it is really impossible to be impartial whatsoever.  I have a really healthy body image, but still got annoyed with myself for giving undue criticism. It’s tough to take yourself out of the art when the art is you.  Of course there is no such thing as being objective when looking at others either, but I have really generous eyes for dancers I create on and this tends to make everything work better.  The most rewarding experiences were working with other dancers and musicians.

Creating On Others Is Challenging and Rewarding:  As a choreographer I make work to enhance the individual I’m working with. Not everyone does this, but I do.  Maybe I’ve been on the other side too often, trying to make someone else’s choreography fit on me. But whatever the cause, I don’t think of a piece and then try to find dancers for it. I find dancers I’d like to work with and then begin imagining pieces made on them.  The work comes from their strengths and sometimes their weaknesses too.  Those things that will also leave them vulnerable and expose some of that real depth to the rest of us.

Making Art Is About Being Resourceful: Let’s face it. Nothing is created entirely “new.” Being resourceful matters. The universe is a place that is ridiculously abundant with ideas, art, people, things.  The San Francisco Bay Area is full of people making things all the time.  Rather than being discouraged by all of this, I find it a delightful source of inspiration.  I praise innovation everywhere I see it. Being curious is the engine of resourcefulness. I am both very curious about others and their art AND very resourceful.  This is part of the reason I study many different kinds of dances.  And then those dances become my resources. Some of my best ideas are when I realized there is one wonderful thing that has never been put alongside another wonderful thing. I put them together. I feel like a genius. Then I see a youtube video of someone doing the same thing fifty years ago the next week.

Give It A Break Once In Awhile: I love to dance, but bodies do need rest.  I’ll be the first to admit it. There were definitely some days here and there that I sort of “eeked” by on my intentions because I just bloody well didn’t feel like doing it.  Also, besides making a dance “sketch” I taught dance, took workshops, had rehearsals for performances, coached and worked with other dancers, and I did sometimes let that count towards the project.  One of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of rest. We dancers say that it’s important, but do we mean it?  On those occasions when I would allow myself a day or two of no real physical activity, I noticed a difference when I hit the studio again.  I’d be amazed after a lazy weekend that I actually felt stronger.  And my body and imagination would be itching to create and move again. Rest dancers. Rest!

And a couple more things I learned on a more personal level:

My Family is Awesome:  I never once forced Aleister to dance with me, but a few times did suggest it and he was game.  And I think that shows.  I love those videos with him and know I’ll love them even more as the years fly by all too quickly. I realize that he and I aren’t what most people imagine as a complete “family.” But this year, I realized we are. We are perfect.  His maturity and support of me as an artist is generous beyond his years. And I think this has something to do with the level of fun that we have with dance in our house.  Art isn’t just something I do.  It is something that pervades everything in our home life from the food we eat to the artful way in which we ride those scooters. I am really proud of that.

There Is Still That WannaBe Movie Star Inside of Me: This project began as just a dance project. The videos were supposed to be really very secondary. I initially imagined terse and perfunctory videos made in the dance studio.  Clearly, I very quickly realized the possibilities of my awesome little iPhone (I am still waiting for them to call me and offer an endorsement!) and the videos themselves took a life of their own.  At a certain point I realized that there is probably still that little girl in me that always wanted to be on film.

And Finally. . .

Lean Into What You Love: I discovered a million and one different “techniques” for creating and coming up with ideas: games to play with myself, exercises to do, different types of meditation.  This project taught me more about those creative pathways than I could have imagined. But all those pathways can be boiled down to one simple lesson: Lean into what you love.  What? you say. . . that’s it? Really? Lean into what you love? Yes really.  Every creative step is a step taken in desire. The more you follow that trail of what you want, the more you know what you want. The more you know that, the more it shows up. The more you lean into it, the better you become at feeling your way towards it. I will probably spend a lifetime exploring this and teaching this, and yet it really is that simple. Lean into what you love.

Do Quit Your Day Job

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For the past 11 and a half years of my life I have worked as the Accounting Manager for a San Francisco law firm.  That means I have not had a break for longer than two weeks in eleven years.  Ok, save for when I had Aleister. That was four months. Damn, sounded much better eleven years straight. . . but even still! That was almost ten years ago when I had Aleister! Eleven years.  When was the last time you did the same thing for eleven years? The only thing I can compare it to was public school grades 1-12. And we all know how that transforms us.  And so it is with a joyful heart that I announce that I am leaving this job and beginning the new business of me.  Yep, I won’t go into all the ornery details about how or why, just suffice to say I have been calling for this opportunity for a number of years now and the nice easy push has finally manifested.

I’d like to think it has something to do with this last year.  We are always expanding, growing, and changing every day.  Whether we want to or not. Spend 365 days leaning into what you love and it is like leaning your foot onto the gas pedal – you speed up and something is bound to happen. And so as I come around the curve into the final stretch of this project, I wanted to dramatize a little part of me that I’m leaving behind.  So, please enjoy a Farewell To A Pity Party. It is the end of an era.

Raising A Boy Who Dances

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Raising A Boy Who Dances

The scenario is far too familiar: I’m at a dinner party, out with my friends, or on a date and a male friend, boyfriend, or a husband of a friend, knowing that I’m a dancer will, at some point in the conversation admit they’ve always wanted to learn to dance but have felt trapped inside their “rhythmless” white bodies due to prevailing American culture.  I have found myself in an interesting role of coach to some of these men and have, in many instances, found real ways to help them overcome their fear of dancing and experience joy on the dance floor instead of dread.  I’m happy I can help them but have been thinking lately of ways I could address this interesting relationship of American men to dancing at an earlier point in their lives. I’m the mom of a boy who loves to dance.  Boys, often athletic and full of energy, are natural dancers so why not begin where it’s easiest? Rather than helping men “overcome” their fear of moving, why don’t I put some energy towards creating a space in our culture for boys to dance like they want to? But where is this space? Does it even exist?

I was having a conversation with another mom the other day.  I noticed that her son was very dramatic in his expressions and full of energy.

“He is really expressive.  Have you ever thought of putting him into a theatre camp or class?” I inquired.

“Well, I agree,” she said, “we tried putting him in a camp at (local dance studio) but found that it was just really geared towards girls.  He wasn’t particularly happy there.”

“That is so disappointing,” I said and then it hit me: Someone really needs to put together a program for dance and theatre that is geared towards boys.  Something the caters to their learning styles and interests in movement and expression. *

I have a son who dances.  I can tell you how I have raised him in order to make it seem as though his dancing is all my doing – and certainly I can take some credit: we’ve been dancing around the living room since he was a toddler; I play all kinds of different music that he might enjoy;  I have sent him to martial arts since he was three years old which has trained his coordination and body awareness fantastically, but I waited until he was eight years old to enroll him in formal ballet training;  he has been to more dance performances in his nine years of age than many adults; and yet, I will admit to the fact that I don’t believe I have taught him to dance, but rather enabled him to dance.  Made the space for it, normalized it, made it part of his culture.

When my son was in Kindergarden, I came and taught creative dance to his class once a week.  The students, a mixture of girls and boys, were introduced to different types of dance from around the world, different music, and encouraged to explore the different textures, similarities and feelings that arose through the dances and encouraged to experiment with movement of their own as well.  As I have continued to teach workshops with kids and adults over the years, I have become increasingly impressed with the fact that all humans, and that includes boys, are natural dancers.  And also that you can teach them a particular style and try to impart them with a new language vocabulary, but people’s bodies have an overriding desire to express themselves idomatically – that is, creative ideas arise from learning dance.  Alas, when I taught my son’s class, it only lasted one year, but I am happy to note at school events ever since, that it is my son’s classmates who are the first to hit the dance floor, and that it is the boys especially who are most likely to dance.  Being the mother of a dancer and having these teaching experiences over the years has led me to a couple conclusions:

Boys are often natural and enthusiastic dancers when they are given the space, context, and the social “permission” to express themselves through movement. Create a culture where other boys are dancing and they will rise to the occasion, often surprisingly being more likely to dance than girls.  Also, having boys dancing in a class with girls adds a different dynamic to the dancing for the girls.  Unfortunately, dance classes that are exclusively all girls can often be centered around appearing pretty, light, delicate.  Add boys to a class and the athleticism often increases, the movement opens up to include more emphasis and a fiercer quality.  I often make the analogy of baseball to dance.  Since boys are very little they are encouraged to “hit the ball out of the park,” so to speak.  In learning sports, they learn to push themselves to their physical limit.  So when you get them in a dance class, asking them to really “go for it” is an easier step for them to take.  Girls who aren’t involved in sports may not have experienced being pushed to the edge of their physical limit and so the journey is a little longer to get there.  They aren’t as comfortable at first when asked to do it.  They are sometimes worried they will look ugly, silly, too macho.  But put boys and girls together from a young age and the girls start to associate these other qualities with dance.  They recognize it.  They know what it looks like and they are more likely to be able access it themselves giving them confidence and a wider range of expression.

When I work with men who are interested in freeing up their range of expressive movement, the first thing I start with is the knowledge that they CAN dance. My job is staying clear that dance is their birthright and providing them with the space to experience this for themselves. But I hope to be part of something that catches the male species earlier in his dilemma. What about a school named something like, “Renaissance Boys” where a fuller picture of masculinity was presented? Where the dance classes included hip-hop, martial arts, as well as ballet. What would it look like to have a dance studio where instead of boys being “fit” into a girls curriculumm, the curriculumm was geared towards boys?  Instead of choreography created for girls and changes made for the one boy in class as an afterthought, what about movement which is more well-rounded for everyone? What if instead of pink walls and pictures of tutus, there was a weight/fitness room, larger boys’ dressing rooms, and pictures of athletic male dancers on the walls added to the mix. When I started telling my son Aleister about the idea, I asked him how it would feel to go to dance class and instead of there being all girls and only two boys, there would be almost all boys and a few girls there.  I asked him how he would feel if he could imagine some of his soccer buddies there, dancing all to their favorite hip-hop music.  His eyes got wide when I mentioned the weight room and dressing room (at his current dance school – which he still does love by the way – he has to change in the bathroom – there is no boys’ changing room).  I asked him how all of this would feel.  He looked at me in awe, “Amazing, mom,” he said eyes wide, “Amazing.”

There is a an excellent article on DanceAdvantage that I found when researching boys’ dance schools:  Encouraging Boys to Dance

*I also wanted to mention that Danceversity Summer Camp , which my son and other boys have enjoyed for years, is an excellent resource for boys wanting to dance due to its many different styles of dance and often large percentage of male instructors.  For a number of years they tried having a “Boys Week” where boys were strongly encouraged to attend and at which, they would have styles of dance which boys might be more likely to enjoy.  I believe this wasn’t as well attended as they would have liked, so they discontinued it, but I still think there would be a market for this, it just might entail more time to grow the student base.

How To Have A Successful Photo Shoot

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How To Have A Successful Photo Shoot

As a teenager with my eye on becoming a movie star, I spent many hours having my picture taken.  So lately, I’ve been a little taken aback when I see myself in photos.  Granted, I don’t spend hours in front of the mirror observing which angle is my best anymore, but still I really wanted to know how this person on the left

turned into this woman

You can understand how disturbing this must feel. So, I decided to do some field research into the matter and did an impromptu photo shoot of myself last night.  I was pleased to see that with a little practice one can improve their photogenic propensity, or at least learn about what not to do.  I’ve distilled my findings into a list of poses:

The Intimate Shot Lie on your bed and try to have something provocative in the background. Like a cozy photo of your family, or a box of condoms, a subtle gesture indicating social responsibility and good hygeine.  This makes you feel up close and real and makes people feel like they know you and can stalk you.

The Julia Roberts If you have good teeth show them off with a big sexy guffawing laugh.  Think of teeth as an accessory.  Or a warning to other predators to back off.

Regretful Starlet Take inappropriate photos.  And then delete them. The aura of friskiness you have now created will show through on the rest of the photos.  Or at the very least, the person taking the pictures will not delete them when you ask him to and then will have something to blackmail you with later.

The Baby Pose Whatever you do and under no circumstances should you stick your finger in your mouth.  Are you a baby? No, you are not. Fingers don’t go in your mouth.

The Messy Hair Pose Get your hair out of your face.  I know you think that it is really sexy but it is just actually really f*#$#* annoying.

The Isabelle Rossellini Unless you are this wonder-goddess or similarily gorgeous, then keep your eyes open.  Otherwise you just look like you had too much white wine next to the pool while waiting for your check to arrive.

Heroin Chic  Don’t imbibe beforehand.  Unless you are 19 year old runway model from Bulgaria and you live in the 90’s.  Otherwise you just look faded.

Whimsical Gal Practice making funny faces where you look silly, but not disgusting.  Go for cute and fun, not horror movie.

Girl Next Door Try tilting your head ever so slightly to the side with a grin that says, I’m just the sweetest.

The Sexy Nostrils  Tilt your head way back. Look down your nose at the camera. Now think to yourself, “I am so sexy that you even want to see the insides of my nostrils.”

The Dreamer Clasp hands under your chin, look off into the clouds dreamily and think, “la la la!”

Slab of Boob  Be sure to show some boobage.  But not the sexy cleavage, but rather the sunburned flabby slab near your upper arm.  That’s the new cleavage.

Photo Shop Monster It is very helpful to know someone who can take your raw photos and then cut and paste the best parts together later.  I really love it when they put the perfect head on the perfect body.  Or better yet, maybe they can just cut your eyes and lips out, then stick them on a picture of just your boobs.  I think this would be ideal and really streamline things for the male viewer.

And Finally,

Accept Change: Adapt to the new image of yourself in photos.  You feel like your face doesn’t look the same anymore? It doesn’t.  Be comforted by the fact that no one’s does.  So get over it.  You change. Your face changes. You’ve practice being focused in life and taken seriously? Well, so has your face.  You grow. Your nose grows. You get the idea.

 

 

Was this article helpful? Read other articles like this: Working with Dancers, How to Write A Performer Bio, and How To Teach Dance To Children

2011 Year in Review

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My brother in-law, Tim Pratt, recently wrote a 2011 retrospective article on his blog and not only was I blown away by his productivity and dedication to his craft (the dude is super-inspiration), but I was also inspired to write my own retrospective. If I may quote my fabulouse and prolific brother in-law: “A year is a good unit of time: short enough to be measurable and memorable, but long enough to get a sense of trends and developments. It’s a time to make course-corrections, and to see if my life is where I’d like it to be — and, if not, to figure out what actions are within my power to bring my dream life into line with my real life.”  So here is a look back at my trends, developments, trials, and achievements. Since I am not the professional writer that Tim is I have supported my sparse writings with some large pictures. heee

In 2011:

I started writing this blog. I’ve made 121 dances, or rather, 121 of what I like to call “sketches.” I’ve made 81 videos of these sketches, filmed in 29 different locations around SF, Oakland and greater CA, 21 of which are posted here. I’ve posted 36 blog entries (not so good:). My blog has been viewed 1600 times by people from all over the world including Egypt, Latin America, Australia, Sweden, and Czech Republic (lots of fans in these last two for some reason hmmm, old travel friends perhaps?)

SageNina

My family grew double in size. . . well, technically anyway.  Aleister and I adopted two guinea pigs over Christmas: Sophie and Miss Suzie.  They are ginger-haired Absynnians and I am surprised how much I love them.

2011 was a year in which I let go of a lot of relationships because I was like, huh, this person makes me feel really awful when I’m around them. I let go of “the love of my life,” and a “best friend,” to name a few.  My close friend list is much smaller, but I am happier than ever with myself and with my life.

I’ve been salsa dancing more this year than in all the other years of my life combined. (Thank you Kirah, Bernadette, and Eliseo) I’ve become enamored with the combination of surrender and present awareness that salsa demands.

In 2011, my son’s father moved back to the Bay Area, and also moved away – Again. 

I’ve begun to allow more into my life by focusing more on what I want and less on what I don’t want.

I began to really like myself better without any make-up.

In 2011, my son started taking Ballet lessons, played two more seasons of soccer, gained a belt in Taekwondo, grew 5.3 inches, and went from being someone who I could pick up while he was sleeping to someone who, not only can I not pick up anymore, but writes full length short stories now, knows more science than I do, and actually makes decent and challenging arguements when he wants things. Drat!

This morning he told me, “I don’t know why mom, but I just feel good inside.” Watching his inner freedom and joy, I am in many ways, his student.

To read Tim’s retrospective article, click here.

How To Teach Dance To Children: 10 Helpful Hints

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Disclaimer: teaching dance to children has left me in tears on more than one occasion so I can tell you that I am no expert in this matter.  But, as life necessitates, I have taught many dance classes to kids over the years and therefore have acquired a specific set of skills to handle these occassions:

1. Don’t Expect to Teach them to Dance: Or should I say, don’t expect them to teach them to dance your way, or any particular way but their own way. I have a beef with most of the dance education from my generation.  I’m not talking about my dance teacher, she was fabulous, but I’m speaking to the prevailing ideology from my generation which was to teach kids to move like someone else.  Really what you should be focusing on at this point is the sheer joy of moving and learning their bodies.  Keep the expectations low. Dance education, at least in the Bay Area, has come a long way on this, but we still have a ways to go. I’m speaking more to the little kids.  Around 8 years old you may be able to start really teaching technique, but before that it is a freedom dance all around.

2. Transition Quickly from One Activity to the Next:  You must give the illusion that you are one step ahead of them.  In truth, they are way smarter and faster than you are but you cannot let them know that. If you’re using music have it ready.  Be close to your music if at all possible. Have a lesson plan, be prepared to deviate from it, but whatever you do, when you decide to move on know what is coming next and have your music ready.

3. Have a Thorough Lesson Plan but be prepared to Toss it All Out the Window: Have a lot of different ideas (see #7), have a good solid game plan, but then be prepared to improvise.  There are so many  factors that come into play when working with kids. Energy level, group dynamics, levels of experience, whether or not everyone had a snack or not.  These can all be true of adults as well, but at least with adults they are mostly socialized and conditioned to accept what you say and go along with your plan (unless you are teaching to adults in Berkeley, then. . . well, it’s a whole other story). It really does help to be prepared, but you will do yourself a big favor if you can listen to the needs of the kids that day and be flexible.

4. Don’t Try to Be Their Friend: This is how I’ve ended up in tears.  Let me tell you a little story: There was a teacher once who went into a classroom “auditioning” for a teaching job.  She was nervous and when she’s nervous she is overly nice.  And tries to crack jokes to lighten her mood. Well, this  made the children think that this was the tone of the day.  Cracking jokes! Undermining authority! Whoo hoo! and so you can imagine when the class was turned over to her how the rest of the day went.  No one listened to a DAM#$* thing she said. And she cried. She waited until she was in her car, thank heavens, but it did happen – oh yes.

5. Don’t Fall Into the Scapegoat Trap: There is always gonna be that one kid that really gets to you and pisses you off.  Maybe they have a lot of energy, or a bad attitude, or someone told their parents they have ADD or whatever but what you must do is FIND A WAY TO LIKE THEM. You must. Otherwise they will suck all of your energy like a little parasite and you musn’t let them.  It teaches them bad habits.  Tap the deep well, as my mother would say, and find a way to see what makes them shine.  Give them their moments to shine so they can acquire energy in a healthy manner, and do the rest with others in the class so there is a healthy pattern established.  Do it as soon as possible.

6. The First Encounter Sets The Tone: You can reference the story in #4 of the teacher who started by joking with the kids.  Bad idea.  Better to be more mysterious and slightly serious with kids than overly excitable.  They are already full of energy. You must balance them.  Remember, they are looking to you as the authority figure and so you should seize these first moments to establish the tone.  Say less than you may want to. Speak quietly in order for them to have to shut up to hear you.  Show them you are in control.  Later on you can show your more fun side. And of course, you should always be loving.  But not their friend!

7. Have a lot of Tricks in Your Bag: You should have a “toolbox” of ideas.  Watch teachers who are known for their kid skills. Observe other kids’ classes, take teaching workshops, pay attention to children that you know and the ways that they play.  What engages them?  What do they love?  My friend Hannah used to have, at all times, the following articles in the trunk of her car: veils, plates for balancing on one’s head, hip scarves, fans, paper, color markers, song sheets.  She knows that kids LOVE props and at that time she was teaching a lot of classes to kids.  She had an actual physical toolbox in her trunk, but you could also have one in your head.  Games to play, exercises etc. How can you use what they love to do, to help them through boring things like technique exercises?  You should have 10 approaches to any movement.  Continually update your toolbox with new tools.

8. Don’t Make It Too Hard – or Too Easy:  There is a balance when teaching to kids of making the level just difficult enough that they are encouraged to try for it.  Kids need goals that are really tangible.  This brings to mind one teacher I know who stands on a chair holding a tambourine high out to the side so the kids have to bang on it as they jump past in their grand jete. This an actual physical goal, but you get the idea.  Make it too hard and they will be discouraged, but too easy and they grow bored.

9. Use the Space: Kids can’t focus on one thing for too long.  Or stay in one place.  Use this to your advantage.  Take them in across the floor work that sweeps across the room, then do a different activity in a circle.  Make them face away from the mirror for one exercise.  Make lines.  Work in pairs. Switch it up. If there’s a bar, find a way to use it even if you aren’t teaching ballet.  Take them down on the floor for a stretch.  Use levels and the entire room.

10.Whenever Possible Make It A Game: Games and imaginary play are the way that children engage with the world. This doesn’t mean it needs to be competitive.  It is just a way of clarifying.  Making dance into a game gives what they do a clear goal and should help to clearly define the movement.  It should take the emphasis off of instructing them, and place it instead on challenging them in a fun way. It Instead of “kick higher,” try, “kick over your head in the mirror! Did you do it?”

One last note: Remember that dance and movement are natural to children. Any dance education should foster the joyful spark that exists in every child while challenging them to learn more about themselves and others. At the end of class I want a child to love not just movement more, but their bodies and their selves.

Read more helpful articles like this one! Visit my new website MovingTowardsYourDesires.com to get FREE information or to subscribe to my newsletter, The Thriving Artist.

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How to Write A Performer Bio – 10 Things to Remember

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My old college friend, Molly Wyldfyre, recently posted a plea for help with writing her own bio.  I started giving her ideas and I realized this might make a good little blog article.  I have written many many bad, long, boring, inappropriate biographies of myself.  I am actually a little proud of how awful they were.  Since I have made so many mistakes I would like to share some of my findings with you all:

1.  Write to Your Audience:  I can’t emphasize this enough which is why it’s first on the list.  It is advisable that every time you send out your bio for this or that program, grant project, job etc., that you tweak it and create a new version to suit the audience reading it. Applying for a teaching job? Be sure to have your teaching experience in there. Need a bio to insert in a performance program? Keep it short. People don’t have much time to read as the lights are dimming.  They are racing from bridge traffic or their stop at Starbucks. So, keep it to exactly what you want them to know to remember you from that particular performance. Applying for a grant? oooh really think long hard about what they need to know to give you the money! What are they looking for? Tweak! Revise! For everything. Every time. Make it fit.

2. Start with a bang: Your first sentence should get right to the point and tell them who you are exactly in your field.  Consider where you fit in the scheme of your field? Are you an emerging artist or a seasoned one? What makes you unique? What is your role in your particular artistic community locally? Globally?

3. Include Highlights: Most likely, unless you are only 5 years old, you have MORE information about your experience than you can actually use, so pick the impressive or interesting highlights only and the ones that serve your audience.  Don’t try to cram too much information in there because the end result is no one will read it or they won’t remember anything special about it. We don’t need to know that you starred in your high school play if it is ten years later.  Unless you are scrapping for a theatre gig and you have nothing else that’s current. Then leave it in – but don’t put a date in there and don’t mention it’s high school.

4. Be Specific: I see this mistake all the time: “Mina Jona starred in numerous productions, has danced various styles in many professional companies all over, and at the most prestigious venues.”  All right, there is a LOT wrong with that sentence, but let’s focus on specificity.  Instead of that sentence, try something like this:

“Mina Jona starred in John Carly’s Emmy Award winning play, “Crampton Who.” She also was a principal dancer with the San Francisco based John Hersh Ballet Company, and toured internationally for three years with the Fier Flamenco Company including stops at New York’s City Hall and the Queen’s Castle in Uzbekiermany.”

5. Keep it Short:  Once when I was in a college play this was my bio in the program: “After getting her BA in English in May, Holly plans to belly-dance her way around the world, then turn around and return in the other direction.”  This worked when I was twenty because  I didn’t need to worry about my audience in this situation.  They were either other twenty year olds or professors who already knew all about me and my cheeky antics.  Everybody read it because it was short, and it gave a really good conversation point for people to come up and talk to me after the show. If you keep it short, yours will be the first one read and the last remembered.

6. Consider Humor: I see this with writer’s a lot lately.  There is a trend of funny bios among them. Some of my favorites:

“Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. (Read more)”

“I write. I’m a mom. I have a garden. I do aikido. I have friends. I read books.” – Heather Shaw’s Google Bio
These only work because people already know so much about them already. Or because it is easy to find that info elsewhere online.  Of course one must only use humor when appropriate.  This goes back to #1 Write to Your Audience.  I don’t suggest using humor in a grant application for example.  They won’t find it cute.

7. Research Other People In Your Field:  Think of people you respect, who are a tier above you in your field and see how they did theirs.  Read as many as you can.  Notice things you like and don’t like.  What’s off-putting or braggy? What do you want to avoid?  What sounds really good? What draws you in?  Get ideas from people doing the same thing as you.

8. Once You’ve Got Funding You’ve Got It Made:  You don’t even need to be reading this do you?  But seriously, if you have received some huge awards and/or grants then that is what you tell people.  Let the creds speak for themselves.  At this point you can stop talking about every single person you received training from.  Unless it was Mark Morris.  Then for sure, mention that.

9. Keep It Current: Did you just start a new project you’re excited about?  Just finished performing somewhere impressive? Did you travel to the far ends of the world recently to study your craft?  Include it! Tweak! Revise! Remember? Keeping it current makes you sound prolific and relevant.

10. Include A Resource for More Info:  This is the easiest way to keep it short.  Only have 50 words for a program bio? Include your website address where people who are jazzed about your performance can find out more about you or contact you for future gigs.  Or, if the bio is on your website – have two pages.  The opening bio page has a short description with a link to the second page to find out more.  That way readers don’t feel overwhelmed by the sight of a long multi paragraph bio but more info is there for those who are really seeking it.

11. Steer Away from Subjective Adjectives: Instead of “Mina Jones is an extremely talented artist,” tell us the the factual data that will make a reader come to that conclusion on their own.  The only time you should use these sorts of subjective adjectives are if you want to include a quote from someone else – like a critic, not your mother. You can call yourself “prolific,” or “unique” as long as it’s clear that you are and it’s backed up with an example. Just be careful with the self -aggrandizing. Your bio should sound impressive, but because you are including truthful highlights, not because it reads like an advertisement. Save that for flyers for classes or shows. In your bio, let the facts speak for themselves.

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How To Have A Successful Photo Shoot, Working with Dancers and How to Teach Dance to Children

Working With Dancers

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I have the deepest respect for dancers.

These people are kind enough and interested enough in what you do as a choreographer to lend you their bodies.  Dancers allow you to tell them what to do and often are paid very little.  What I’ve discovered is that I enjoy working with all dancers of various degrees of experience and skill.  Of course it is extremely satisfying having the luxury of really skilled dancers to execute what you, as a choreographer, have in mind.  That is one thing.  But it is just as satisfying in a different way to work with dancers of less experience and to witness them discover their new levels of potential.

I got a taste for this witnessing experience when I put together the piece, “War Devours Youth” (produced as part of “Eyes of Eve” at Cowell Theatre in 2009) using three teenage boys I had met in my capoeira class.  I was watching them in class one day, their liquid movements, their casual strength, when it occured to me that in a couple of years these young “kids” could be called off to serve their country in a war. A whole idea just landed in my lap – kerplunk. Boys. War. War Devours Youth. It’s like I saw the whole piece from start to finish. That rarely happens, but that day it did.

Now I had the task of convincing these boys that they were dancers. Watching their smooth flexible movements, it was clear that they were, but now I had the challenge of introducing new concepts and ways of being in their bodies. It would be a balance of using what they already knew while taking risks into new territory (well, and it also included some conversations about how not all male dancers are gay).  Through these three boys I actually learned a good deal about how to work with dancers and some rules that I try to live by:

Rule #1: I try to never waste a dancer’s time.

I begin and I end on time.  This tactic goes a long way towards productivity.  People really appreciate not having their time wasted. It creates an atmosphere of respect all around. Also, if I am setting the choreography all myself I come in with many phrases already prepared. I try to stay two steps ahead of the dancers in the choreography in the event we have a really good day and manage to cover more material than we expected.  Depending on how long we have to produce something, sometimes I’ll want more of a collaborative environment. Even so, this also needs preparation. As the director, I set the goal of what we are trying to accomplish in the seesion, I bring a lot of ideas to try, and bring ways to improvise with those ideas.  This was important for “War Devours Youth,” because the movement base was capoeira (which I had only been studying myself for two years) and hip-hop which I was new to.  So there were a lot of times when I had the choreography up to a point and then I would literally say, “ok, now we need like some sort of thingie where you can flip up off the floor,” and they’d give me a ton of ideas.  One dancer, David, was especially good at making the choregraphy better. I’d set one thing and then he’d say, “oooh what about if we do it like this,” and he’d contort his body and fling it in a seemingly impossible way. He was great at improving movement – even to the point where I’d have to tell him to stop when no one else could execute it besides him.

So, I like to trust my dancers.  But I’ve also found that sometimes you have to ask dancers to do things that they’re initially not interested in doing.   Which leads me to

Rule #2: Know when to push, let go, and ignore.

There is a skill in realizing when a dancer’s resistance is just their ego (often), or when it goes deeper than that. Sometimes they have an injury or sometimes their English skills are not good enough to understand what is going on and they are too embarassed to admit it, or sometimes they are just scared.  So if there is resistance, it is best to try to find out what is really going on there. Sometimes they need to be pushed past their comfort zone and sometimes you should just back off and let it go (even if it is their ego). There are also the times when it should just go ignored: they are working out something that’s personal and if you coddle them it would seem condescending. You have to know when to do these things: push, let go, or ignore.  I’d like to think I’m getting a lot better at this if only because I’ve screwed up so many times and done exactly the wrong thing.

Rule #3: Prepare your dancers for the work.

Another thing I like to do when I work with dancers is to do something I call “stack the movements.”  When I’m planning my session with them, I’ll start with the choreography I want to teach, then work backwards creating exercises that build up to the final work.  When I start working with them I’ll give them the trickiest part first (I learned this from Ben Levy who gives you the floorwork early on. By the time, you insert it into the final phrase at the end of class, it seems familiar.) After teaching the tricky part, I give excercises that break down many of the important techniques used in the final choreography.  If I stack the movements well enough, then by the time I teach the choreography the dancer’s body already knows what to do and it only takes ten minutes to learn the sequence.  This way, the dancer has the freedom to focus on the flow of the phrase rather than being frustrated with the new details they weren’t prepared for.  If I do my job correctly, then by the end of the session the dancers are able to just dance the phrase over and over – rolling it around and tasting it like a good wine.  These last 20 minutes of a session can be magical. The dancers are allowed to begin claiming the dance as their own, expressing themselves more fully through it, and I have the pleasure of witnessing it.

Dance Like Someone’s Watching

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Forgive me.  Forgive me for I’m about to embark upon a blog project that is inspired by another blog. Actually, it’s even worse than that.  It’s a blog inspired by a blog, which inspired a book, which inspired a movie about a blog. Last night I watched Julie & Julia for the first time.  For those of you that don’t know it, this is a movie about a woman who vows to make all the recipes from Julia Child’s cookbook (524 recipes), “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” within one year.  After the movie, I turned to my son, Aleister, who is eight and I said, “What if I were to make 365 dances? A different one every day of the year?” 

First let me explain.  I make dances.  I can’t help myself.  I’m a single-mother who has done a (sometimes) decent job of balancing a full-time job as an accounting manager for a law firm with my professional dance career. But mainly the only reason this works is because I am compulsive about creating dances.  Men I’ve dated find it terribly cute when I break out dancing every time there is music. . . the first few times. I am the grown woman who tap dances in the grocery store. Those aisles! Those floors! I am the lady glued to her iPOD marking out steps on the crowded BART platform. My dentist keeps warning me about clenching my teeth together, but what I finally realized is that I don’t clench! I tap out rhythms with my teeth!  

My attempts to balance this compulsion with my job and motherhood has resulted in a dance career full of fits of starts and stops:  I’ll spend 8 months entrenched in producing, creating, or dancing in a show and then, once it’s over, spend the next 8 months watching episodes of “Mad Men” on the couch insisting that red wine and dark chocolate are a food group and driving in soccer carpools. I never stop creating exactly, I just stop taking those creations seriously.  So, what if I took a year to take the creating seriously?  Twyla Tharp says that creativity is a habit.  Exercising my creative muscles will make them stronger. So what if I make it a habit and vow to make a dance for every day of the year? At the end of one year, I won’t necessarily be the world’s greatest choreographer but I’ll be 365 tries closer to being any good. 

When I was a kid growing up in Indiana I would make up dances at the end of the driveway while waiting for the school bus each morning.  I’d make up show tunes patched together from snippets of ones that I’d heard (remember this is. . . . er, awhile ago and before the days of internet access for 8 year olds and iTunes and whatnot), and make up dances to go with them which I would then perform at the end of my driveway each morning.  Cars were zooming past (we lived on a pretty busy street) and there I was, waving my mittened hands around and singing at the top of my lugs while executing high kicks and jazz squares. Little did I know my artistic blueprint was being formed.  There was something about the feeling of being watched, but not stared down which really got my creative juices flowing.  Knowing that people would see me as they whizzed past, but not stop and judge.  Well, that was appealing. Putting the pressure on without the demand for polish.

So you see, that’s what this blog is.  A little bit of pressure.  The feeling that there might be people watching without the expectations that they will. An opportunity to exercise my creativity every day.  An assignment.  Professional choreographers (ahem! I guess I mean those that actually get paid to do it on a regular basis) are expected to create nearly every day.  What I’m doing would be nothing new to them.  But I don’t have that luxury. Or do I? Why can’t I decide to just do it myself? This project is part Twyla Tharp and part Nike: I’m going to make it a creative habit and just do it!

I’m about to celebrate one of those major type birthdays that makes you glare furiously at your “silver” roots, and which you conveniently forget to tell your friends about in order that you may instead lie under the covers willing yourself to stay the same age. I’d like to think of this project as a birthday present from myself to myself.  I love a challenge.  If I really love to create dances so much, is it something I could do every day? Would I still love it?

Last night, after watching Julie & Julia, I was tucking my son into bed and I started whizzing around his room in a goofy dance. His room was quite spacious as we (me) had spent an entire morning working together (me threatening to throw toys away if he didn’t clean them up, him pretending to clean while really playing Pokemon) to clean it (shove all toys in closet) in a mother-son bonding experience (both of us crying from frustration at closet doors that wouldn’t shut).  However painful, the result was a clean spacious room.

“Oooooh, your room is so clean, honey! It makes me want to dance! That could be my first dance,” I said, jokingly engaging the doorway as a partner in an arabesque, “The Clean Room Dance.”

He gave me the same look I get when I’m tap dancing in grocery store aisles.

“Well, Mom,” he said after a moments consideration, “but not today. You should go to bed. That’s a lot of dances. You need  your rest.” 

I was touched by his concern, but my suspicion was that he just wanted a cuddle.