The Joy of Teaching

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

I feel like my dance class is really flourishing.  I have enough regular students now, they can practice full formations in class, and I can watch, observe and offer help.  When we perform, I’m not the only one leading.  In fact, I can lead less and less, and let my students gain the experience and grow stronger.

As a teacher, there are moments that are so fulfilling:  The “aha” moments in my students.  The first time they really get a move.  Watching one of my students lead for the first time.  The first time one of them wants to lead in a performance.  The first time someone unexpectedly takes the lead (no really, you have no idea how exciting that is!).

I am glad I have been able to participate in this movement. I am grateful that I have gotten to continue being involved in ATS even as I have moved a couple times. I am extremely happy that I have been given the opportunity to teach this powerful and beautiful dance style to others, and through teaching, have fallen in love with American Tribal Style all over again. Yallah, Habibis!

ATS: If It’s Not Right, Is It Wrong?

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

American Tribal Style Belly Dance is a right side dominant dance form by design. The dancers are always turned slightly so their right side is more visible to the audience. Some moves, such as the Basic Egyptian, are very symmetrical so the two sides of the body are worked evenly. Other moves are not symmetrical such as the choo-choo, a hip bump that is always done with a weighted left leg and unweighted right leg and the right oblique working more than the left. Another is the Arabic Undulation, always done with the right foot in front. I am not sure that this is the healthiest thing for the body. I don’t know of any other dance form that works one side of the body more than the other. You wouldn’t go to the gym and lift weights with only your right arm, so why would we dance in a way that works out the right side more than the left?

I was lucky to begin my dancing with Myra Krien who is also an Oriental Style trained belly dancer and had thought it was not healthy to dance this way. She had designed a way to switch sides so we could also do ATS left side dominant. I still use this technique in my dancing today. Most students are right-handed so the right side is more comfortable for them, but it is important to get an even workout.

When I began ATS, my class would do what was easiest and dance on the right more. Later that year, I was injured while playing soccer in my high school P.E. class. I saw multiple doctors to help me through different stages of my healing. I saw an orthopedic doctor who said one of the problems was that my pelvis popped out of place and he sent me to physical therapy. Another doctor I saw was a cranial sacral specialist. He told me that the muscles in my sacrum were not equal in strength and it was causing my hips and pelvis to twist to one side. I told him about the style of belly dance I was studying and told him we end up dancing more on one side than the other. He told me I should work on building up the muscles on the other side, even if it was just during practice at home. After I told Myra about this, she was much more strict about making us practice both sides equally. Now that I am teaching ATS, I teach both the right and left side as it was taught to me and make my students practice evenly in class.

I believe the ATS community should adopt a more evenly strengthening approach to the dance. I have heard that Carolena Nerricio, who developed the dance form, is an avid gym visitor, so perhaps she builds her muscles evenly enough in other forms of exercise that it does not have adverse effects on her body like it did mine. A lot of people use dance as one of their main forms of exercise and do not have the time or motivation to get in as much gym time, so I think it is important that we workout evenly in dance class.

Adding left-sided ATS is actually quite easy and does not have to interrupt the improvisational choreography. What my teacher had come up with were a couple of moves based on the existing vocabulary that could cue a switch to the left. The transitions are really quite seamless. When dancing on the left, we use the same vocabulary and formations as on the right, only mirrored. This can be done when dancing to fast or slow music.

Here is a video of me and my students dancing at Panoply this year. The first song is performed by my ATS Basics students, with me leading them on the right (the traditional ATS way). The second, slower song is performed by two of my ATS Beyond Basics students on the right. I join them for the final, faster song and lead them into dancing on the left.  (The switch happens at 4:37.)

Mirror, Mirror…

April 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve had an interesting journey with the way dancing feels versus the way it looks.

When I first began dancing away from a mirror (in performance, for example), belly dance was still very new to me. When I didn’t have a mirror to look at, I could still tell I was doing a move because I had to put a fair amount of effort and concentration into it.

Later, around my third or fourth year of dancing, I went through a strange transition. Many moves had started feeling more natural, and I could no longer tell how much I was doing with my hips.  When looking in a mirror, I could see the moves were bold and defined, but they didn’t feel big any more.

This went on for the next couple years. When I took workshops without a mirror, sometimes I was told I was trying to make a move too big. Sometimes I put my hands on my hip bones to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Perhaps I had developed some sort of mirror dependency, but mostly I think I had reached a point in my dancing where some moves felt effortless, and that was new to me.

There is one instance that the opposite thing occurred: learning continuous hip shimmies (vibrational shimmies, piston hip shimmies, freeze shimmies, etc.).  These are very challenging and I had greater success if I focused only on feeling each hip moving up and down alternately and not on how the shimmy looked.  When I would look at myself, my shimmies would freeze up or stutter.  The mirrors were working against me. Looking back, it may have been a self-conscious, mental block.  Because these shimmies are so challenging,  seeing myself try to execute the move probably just pulled my focus to my not being that good at them and away from concentrating on getting the move to happen.

It’s only in the last couple years all this has resolved itself.  Now, unless I’m doing something that’s really new to me, I can usually tell what my hips are doing and how big, with or without a mirror.

I think a major aspect of learning to dance is a shifting of focus between how a move looks and how it feels, until eventually the two become aligned.  Perhaps that’s one way to define mastering a move.

American Tribal Style!

January 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have been watching the Fat Chance Belly Dance DVDs. There are still a couple I don’t have access to (I am borrowing the ones I have right now) but plan on buying those soon. As I watch these, a couple thoughts come to mind.

First of all, my ATS training was far more accurate to the Fat Chance Style than I ever realized. I’m not really sure why I thought it wasn’t. I guess it was because I hadn’t watched the DVDs myself and as my class learned more, my teacher had us add in details.  It seemed like we were modifying things when we were usually just refining them.

Second, it’s interesting to me that I have been able to witness some of the more recent evolutions of the dance language. There are moves that were not in the Fat Chance language that I learned or saw from other troupes that have now made their way onto the most recent DVD, Tribal Basics, Vol. 7: Creative Steps & Combinations.

At Tribal Fest 3, my dance troupe learned a new move using a turning double hip bump that hit all four corners of a personal box. I believe the troupe we learned it from called it “The Spider.” The way they presented it, the arms were positioned out to the side when facing the front, and over head when facing the back. We adopted this move into our local ATS language. Several years later, I got a hold of Creative Steps and Combinations and discovered that a variation had found its way into the official dance language, but with different arms and the name “Chico Four Corners.” I really like the new arm positioning and now perform and teach it that way.

Another example is the Double Back. I had seen many other troupes perform versions of this move over the years, but had never done it myself until I watched Creative Steps and Combinations. Now it is one of my favorite moves.

The next thing I noticed when watching the DVDs is that the intention of how the dance information be used seems to have changed over time. On the revised Tribal Basics, Vol. 1, Dance Fundamentals, Fat Chance Belly Dance founder and director, Carolena Nericcio, says the moves included on the DVD are the “Tribal Basics according to Fat Chance Belly Dance.” I generally didn’t notice any implication that using different basic moves or variations of the basic moves would be considered incorrect or would not be true American Tribal Style. Perhaps this is a relatively new idea.

On Tribal Basics, Vol.6: Improvisational Choreography, Carolena talks about ATS.

“The concept of American Tribal Style Belly Dance is interpreted differently all over the world, but the idea that seems to repeat itself over and over is that of dancers enjoying each other, celebrating their bodies, and honoring the music with movement.”

Carolena used to annually teach workshops and guest star in a big show with my old troupe. It was in one of these workshops, around 2003, that I first heard her say that she thought the ATS language should be formalized. She said she thinks it should be like ballet and everyone should have the same form as her, but since it wasn’t that way, it was important that everyone in a single troupe at least use the same form as each other. Perhaps in the beginning, Carolena was not particularly direct about this because she could not have foreseen the explosion of variations her dance form would spawn.

This explosion has also led to the dance form having to be referred to more formally as “American Tribal Style” or “ATS” since the simple term “Tribal” has become all-encompassing to include any variations that have some similarities in stylization, costuming, or the feel or intention of ATS.

Watching these DVDs has been a very good experience for me. It has been a refresher on some of the finer details and I have learned a couple things I either didn’t know before or have forgotten from lack of use (such as a trio having the option of dancing in a diagonal line; I only recall regularly using a triangle).

Also, I can now tell my students what exactly is a classical ATS move and/or cue and what is an addition so they will know what to expect when they venture outside our local ATS community.  Dance is a universal language, and American Tribal Style is a fun conversation.

American Tribal Style?

November 19, 2009 § 7 Comments

A few months back, I had to do some belly dance teacher soul searching. I teach American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Recently, the creator of this amazing dance form, Carolena Nericcio, has become increasingly vocal that all ATS dancers should do the dance the way she does, or it shouldn’t be called ATS. Now, I teach a form of ATS that is very closely based on the Fat Chance dance vocabulary with a few stylistic decisions made here and there, some by me, some by my first teacher. Carolena has expressed that moves that haven’t been approved by her should not be considered ATS.

I understand where she’s coming from. I have seen a lot of ATS over the last 8 years. Some has been really good, some mediocre, and some really not true to the ATS style.   ATS has spawned a whole movement of growing and changing (and sometimes difficult to define) genres of belly dance. There is a great article on this at tribalbellydance.org. What a lovely movement this has been. Art giving birth to art.

So a couple months ago, after a few discussions and after reading the above article, I had to do some soul searching. If everything I’m performing and teaching is not exactly as Fat Chance would do it, am I really doing American Tribal Style?

I let this marinate in my mind for a bit and kept teaching the style as I learned it with some occasional stylistic choices and decisions made amongst my dancers to clarify cues and transitions to make our dancing cleaner.

I thought about how some of the stylistic decisions had been made by my first teach, Myra Krien, and thought of her decades of belly dance experience and decade of ATS experience. I trust her judgment.

I also thought about the incredibly strong technique and stylistic base she instilled in me in my several years of training with her.

I still had some doubt in my mind, until my two best ATS students went to TribOriginal last month. One of the workshops they took was with a couple of lovely ladies who perform ATS and study directly under Carolena.

First of all, my students expressed how confident they felt in this workshop and how they felt like their arms were in the correct places, their posture was correct and they had a pretty easy time following along and picking up the new moves they learned.  Other students asked for tips when they were getting something easily or their way of executing the movement looked correct. This made me feel very proud; proud of them for their dedication to classes and how much they’ve learned, proud of me for teaching them so well, and proud to be part of such a massive global dance movement.

This along with this next tidbit restored my confidence in my right to call myself an American Tribal Style dancer. They learned in this workshop that even the Fat Chance language is still evolving.  Even the base dance form is evolving. In beautiful ways. And we evolve with it.

And I feel confident enough in my ATS training and experience to make some technical, artistic or stylistic choices and still keep the integrity of the ATS language and style in tact.  As with any language, there may be slightly different dialects from place to place. Language is fluid, more about what you’re communicating than the exact words you are speaking. The sentence, more powerful than an individual word.  Art communicates in an organic way, with a life of its own.

I can honestly say I think we are representing American Tribal Style well.

Belly Dance Classes

August 16, 2009 § 5 Comments

At the beginning of the summer I started a new Beginning American Tribal Style class in a new, more popular time slot. I’ve gained a lot of new students. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve designed it around the very basic ATS movements and the standard triplet zill pattern. It takes 6 weeks to cycle back through so everything gets reviewed every month and a half.

The students are great. Very excited, and very supportive of each other. I try to bestow upon them the little gems of knowledge I’ve collected and find the most useful. Planting seeds.

Starting in the fall, I will have an ATS Beginning II class following my Beginning class that will focus on beginning combo moves and specialty moves with a couple specialty zill patterns. I’m planning on also designing this class on a 6 week cycle.

I love having a bigger class and new students who I can really help develop a safe and strong technique. I feel newly inspired by my students each week. I always leave class rejuvenated and energized.

The only downside to the new class schedule is there’s no official time now for my Intermediate students from my troupe who have been dancing with me the last 2 years. The Intermediate class has been tacked onto the end of troupe rehearsal since we are the performance level dancers. Unfortunately, our time usually gets swallowed by other parts of rehearsal. Must find some way to remedy this….

Oh yeah, check out this short clip taken by an audience member of me and my Performance students performing some slow ATS at Panoply a couple months ago.

Students and Self Promotion

December 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

My dance class is shrinking slightly again.  I lose students periodically to such things as giving birth, foot surgery, personal lives and exhaustion.  I’m sure every class does.  It takes awhile to build a program.

I began fearing I wouldn’t make a profit on the class anymore, or worse, it would actually cost me money again.  I started considering canceling the class, but after teaching class tonight with a mere one student, and seeing her excitement for learning new moves and the feeling of accomplishment we both got from having made it through the whole vocabulary of movements I had put together for the class, I’ve decided that it’s absolutely worth it whether I have one student or twenty.

Babies get bigger and feet heal and obstacles pass.  Old students will come back.  New students will get interested.

I guess my biggest goal in teaching really is to share what I know; for a couple reasons.  First of all, it’s fun!  And I want people to dance with!  My greater goal is to pass on what I know and stabilize a good Tribal program that could continue on even if I was to move away.  It’s about passing the torch and sharing the love for the dance.  And even if I only get to do that with a few students, it will have been worthwhile.

And that brings me to the aspect of gaining students. Self promotion.  This isn’t my strength.  I usually just do my thing.  I’d have to make fliers and videos and advertise and make myself personally sellable as a teacher.  Ugh.  I work full time.  I’m tired a lot.  And I’m on the modest side.  I just don’t have the time and energy for all that.

So, I guess I need to reasearch some easy yet effective ways to promote.  Wish me luck.

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