If you watch what I do on facebook, you’ll have seen me post a few things about my ‘summer camp’ for this year, Technique for Teachers, an upper-level training for American Tribal Style®
bellydance teachers. I haven’t posted much about it, because I am still working through the experience; I expect to be digesting it for some time to come. My friends Melissa Decker and Jeana Jorgensen have written wonderful summaries of their takes on it, which have made me smile to read through, because, for once, I was there.
I never quite ‘got’ the idea of what these events were for. I can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, and this was one of them. We found out when introducing ourselves in the group that I had taken Teacher Training previous to anyone else, and yet, I’d never attended any national-level events. The major reason is that I am not well-off, and find travel hard to manage often. With that being the case, I had not been persuaded that this was something I needed to sacrifice to save for. I know it’s not that much of a sacrifice for some, but for me, it decidedly is. I’d decided already that it was not for me, even though this one was almost in my backyard, due to the cost of the training and accommodations, quite pricey in themselves. Imagine my shock when a benefactor turned up out of nowhere to offer me the package; all I had to do was to get myself there. This caused me to think hard about where I found myself in my dance practice, and where I wanted to go with it. More than once in the last year, I had wondered if I wanted to continue to perform and teach, as classes are smaller these days, and the turnover in dance students is a constant. I have been through numerous iterations with my dance troupes, with accompanying triumphs and sadness, as people ‘graduated’ and moved on, or just stopped taking with me. I’ve been invested in every one of the people who stayed with me for multiple classes; watching them go was cumulatively disheartening; if you don’t find ways to recharge your artist’s heart, there is always that temptation to give up.
The cycle of change meant that I often had difficulty finding anyone at my own level to dance with, and that meant I was always holding back my own abilities in order to foster the confidence of my students. I never got the chance to dance full-out with anybody! And that, right there, is one of the greatest benefits of Technique for Teachers, that, and getting critique from the people most highly qualified to give it. We were honored to have the founder of the style, Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, and her second-in-command Megha Gavin, there to oversee this, and to break down technique and answer questions.
I went there nursing an injury, wearing a support brace for a strained tendon on one ankle. I paid attention to how it was doing daily, hourly even. As I was not the only dancer among the eighteen of us to be working with physical problems, we worked out who might do their evaluation demonstration at the best time to get the maximum performance under the circumstances. For practical reasons, I ended up going third-to-last, on the last day. I was SO nervous, even though the environment couldn’t have been more loving and supportive. It was not the most brilliant performance I ever gave! It was sufficient to get me what I needed to hear, though, my strengths and my deficits. I have work ahead of me.
I have performance amnesia around that demonstration. I know the two songs I danced to, and how they felt, and I recall a burst of sweet exultation at finally getting to let it fly. I suspect that showed on my face, from what I was told by my supporting crew.
That fellowship, eating with everyone and talking with everyone, watching and learning together, actually dancing together, was invaluable. The whole event reached deep into my doubts and holding back, my fear of not being good enough, my desire to be seen and understood, and gave all of that a little turn, enough to true the compass. I came back ready to do the work, re-committed, with a burning desire to pass along what I’ve learned.
I have answers to many of my questions. I’ll be better at handling the questions that come to me from my students. I have to say, this is the time to get in on a beginner level with me, if ever there was one!
Huge thanks to all the lovely teacher-dancers who inspired me with their beauty and dedication. Huge thanks to Carolena and Megha for their patient and excellent work with us. Hugest thanks to my benefactor. It might be the best gift anyone ever gave me, and I intend to pay it forward.
By the way, if you are ever at an event using the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus, near Woodstock, Illinois, I hope you enjoy the place as much as I did. It’s serene, quiet, and wonderful.
We had something of a pow-wow at yesterday's dance class. It has left me pondering a few dance-related concerns.
Have you ever run across the statement that we, as bellydancers who take and offer workshops, are just passing around the same couple-hundred bucks, endlessly? I didn't make that up, but can't recall who said it first. It nonetheless has stayed with me. The point was that no one is really making money with this gambit; we just keep it in circulation, and our names in circulation as well.
Seems like just about everybody tries it, though, and the offerings are not all of the same caliber, by any means. I have taken workshops that were almost instantly forgettable, while others have planted seeds that are still flourishing.
How do you know what you are signing up for?
Word of mouth is the only honest guide here, because no one wants to discourage a workshop-giver who is doing her best. Even word of mouth isn't fully reliable, because you can't know why someone is boosting someone, unless you know the booster well. There are no standards. There is no accreditation.
This led to talk about certifications. Everybody who is anybody has made a structured format, and is offering training and certification in that format; there is now a bellydance paper chase. It has gone in tandem with the general requirement for formal training and certification in many types of jobs that did not have such a stipulation, just a few years ago.
Just a few years ago, bellydancers were known and respected for two things: what they could do as performers, and with whom they'd studied, a sort of apprenticeship in which prestige might be conferred by lineage, through a master. You did not teach unless your own teacher saw you as ready, perhaps beginning by asking you to sub in her own classes, or work under her eye. My own training was Fat Chance Belly Dance lineage, two degrees removed, before the format was locked in and certifications began to be offered.
In the early 2000's, when it all got off the ground, I was teaching and leading a troupe in the Chicago area. I used to compose and distribute an online newsletter with events, updates, links to other troupes, and musings. One topic was certifications, in which I saw both good and bad possible outcomes. I wavered about it for some time, not least because of the cost. Later, I committed; I hold several. I'm still not sure why I bought in. It did not make me a better dancer or teacher, never attracted students (most of whom have no idea how many styles and flavors of bellydance are out there), opened precisely no doors for me. The college for which I taught thriving dance classes refused to pick up the costs, not seeing a bellydancer's continuing professional education as necessary.
That's my history. There's plenty more, but I won't bore you with it.
I think we're reaching a certification plateau of sorts, in which those expensive papers will actually point to the same legitimacy-by-lineage that we used to get from years of sustained study with a master whose work we admired.
The question here is, does a certification amount to the same thing as coming up and being brought out under the tutelage of a master, as in a guild system? Are there standard for a knowledge/demonstrable ability base, and testing? Who sets those? It's early days for us in this regard; we're still emerging as a legitimate art form, with a lot of one-step-forward, two-steps-back. I might also point out that there is a lot of useless wheel spinning within the bellydance category as to who is more legit or authentic than whom.
I welcome your respectful, considered thoughts on this subject. Please remember, my dance does not invalidate your dance. There is room for us all.
Dance with your whole body, which is really the same thing as being fully present in your body when in 'dance space'.
When I started in ATS®, back before it was a program with a registered trademark, we all learned something called 'the puja', or 'the moving meditation', a brief mental and physical grounding meant to mark the transition from the street into dance space, to prepare for the work. It's not called that anymore; I understand that 'puja' refers specifically to Hindu religious practice, so the original name was laid aside out of respect.
I like the idea of moving into dance space with a transition of some kind, because it's necessary to have a particular type of focus established in order to make group improvisational dance work. I am aware that some dancers and dance teachers find a spiritual experience in this type of dance. If that works for all involved, so be it, but there is a danger of making dance practice uncomfortable for those who don't take this approach, who are trying to find a place among those who do.
This transition was always primarily the individual's responsibility; with adult learners, discipline should be self-generated. Walking into the studio, take off your shoes, and take off the outside world with them.
Our particular form of dance requires two things to work right: a deep internalization of the step vocabulary, making it easy to recognize and follow changes, and an 'on the beam' focus. Without them, cues are missed and complex steps fall apart.
I can see that focus in a dancer's lines. If her knees are soft and she is grounded in her low center, she is relaxed and ready to spring into the next change. The whole body is in the dance at all times, even for a hand gesture. Without this physical readiness, it will be more difficult to both lead effectively and also to follow smoothly. In sports, this is called 'physicality'; it means being focused, present, and all the way in, rather than absorbed in thought.
Stance shows in lines. Stance indicates readiness and focus. Focus makes for a compelling artistic presentation. Dance with your whole body.
As of May 30, I will be offering a beginner level ATS class at Arabesque Dance and Fitness in Chicago. If you never did any bellydance before, or any dance even, I can get your feet on the path. If you are experienced in bellydance basics, like muscular isolations, spinning, and so on, I can give you a whole new game to play. Get it Tuesday nights at 7:20. I will not make this easy for you, but I will make it utterly worthwhile.