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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

From Plateau to Next Level



The Question

Dear Shira:

I've been dancing for about three years and have hit a plateau. I feel I'm not getting any better, I still can't choreograph my own dances without it looking like a bellydance "sampler" and I'm getting pathetically slow at picking up new stuff (I'm in my late 40's). I'm slim, fit, and have a long history of ballet and costume design. I'm performing soon in a beginner level duet and I'm feeling grumpy and frustrated with myself - I should be doing a more complicated solo by now! What to do? Can the old dog learn new tricks or should I just pack it in and content myself with doing serged roll-hems for all the other dancers? I need a boost! Help!

— Catbelly in Canada

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.




Shira Responds

Dear Catbelly,

I think everybody hits a plateau now and then, even long-time professional dancers. Some people are content at their plateaus, while others become frustrated and look for new directions. It sounds like you're one of those people who is ready for new inspiration.

Possible Causes

Plateaus can be caused by different things. Some possibilities:

  • Maybe you're becoming bored with your current teacher, the music she uses, and the material that she covers in class. Even if she's an excellent instructor, it's possible that her taste in music and dance style simply don't match yours.
  • Maybe your job or home life are rocky right now, leaving you too drained to feel creative. Look for ways to solve that, and perhaps your dance enthusiasm will return.
  • No matter how much you love your current teacher, maybe you have outgrown her. Some teachers provide an excellent foundation for beginning students, but aren't able to take their students to a more advanced level.
  • With your background in ballet, you may be accustomed to dancing to other people's choreography, and you may need a teacher whose classes explicitly provide guidance in creating your own dance.

Introducing Inspiration

The most common cause of reaching a plateau is that you need something to change in your dance environment. Maybe one of these ideas will reignite your enthusiasm:

  • Buy a video of belly dance performances by a variety of dancers to inspire you. This may offer new costume ideas, spark your interest in another style, draw your attention to a prop that you might enjoy learning to use, or feature some step combinations that you want to incorporate into your own dance. You might see something on the video that wakes you up and makes you think, "I'd love to learn that!"
  • Sometimes a change of music will spark your enthusiasm into new directions. Look for music that is entirely different from what you have been using. For example, if your teacher has been using Egyptian classics when she teaches, try Turkish pop music. If you've been using a variety of nightclub-style music, try some traditional folk songs with a folkloric costume.
  • Sign up for classes with a new teacher, preferably someone whose students seem to have achieved a more advanced level of skill. You don't need to discontinue your current teacher if you enjoy her classes - you can try two classes per week for a while. Sampling a new teacher will expose you to different kinds of music, different step combinations, different classmates, and different dance experiences. If there's not another teacher in your community, try an instructional video as a new source of input.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

  • Attend a seminar taught by a visiting dancer.
  • Attend a weeklong retreat taught by someone whose style or dance philosophy you admire.
  • If you're used to performing only choreography, try improvising when you practice at home. If you normally improvise, try learning some choreography. Improvisation and doing memorized choreography are two entirely different skills which use different parts of your brain.
  • Sometimes you'll reach a plateau because your own teacher hasn't provided advanced-level choreography to challenge you. Buy a video containing a performance by a world-famous Egyptian dancer such as Dina or Soheir Zaki. Analyze the choreography and learn to do it yourself. Or, use an instructional video by Raqia Hassan. These Egyptian dancers incorporate a level of intricacy into their musical interpretation that you won't find in many belly dance classes. "Studying" with them through video will open a new door for you in understanding the complexity of this dance form. Do this even if you normally prefer to dance something other than Egyptian stye.

Many belly dancers fall into the habit of constructing dances based on a series of specific step combinations that they learned in their classes, and this can indeed create the "belly dance sampler" effect you mentioned. This is particularly tempting for people who come from a background of doing dance forms such as ballet that stick closely to choreography. Although step combinations are useful, you need to be careful not to limit yourself to a memorized collection of them.

Try this exercise to feel the music deep inside your soul: Play some wonderful music that makes you feel like belly dancing, close your eyes, and just listen to it. With your eyes still closed, imagine yourself dancing to it. Lose yourself in the music. Do not ask yourself, "Which combination would work with this?" Ask yourself, "What movement does this music make me feel like doing?" With your eyes still closed, move just one arm and hand in time to the music. Gradually add your hips, standing in place. Focus on the music, what you're hearing, and what it tells you to do. Bit by bit, allow more of your body to participate, and open your eyes once you truly feel immersed in the music.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.


Using a Journal

You may find it helpful to use a journal to explore your feelings toward belly dancing and other topics. If you've never done a journal before, don't be intimidated. Just sit down at your computer keyboard, open your favorite word processing program, and start typing what you feel. Or, if you're more comfortable with pencil and paper, curl up in a comfortable chair and start scribbling. The article A Dancer's Journal elsewhere on this web site provides some tips to help you get started using a journal to in managing your growth as a dancer.

These specific journal questions may help you deal with your current plateau:

  • What do you enjoy most about belly dancing in general?
  • What do you like best about your current belly dancing class and the person who teaches it?
  • What do you find frustrating about your current belly dancing class?
  • If you could make five changes to your belly dancing teacher and how she runs her class, what would they be?
  • Which belly dancing songs and musicians are your favorites and why? Which of these does your teacher use in class? Which did you find from other sources?
  • How do you feel about the music your instructor uses and the steps she teaches? Do they inspire you?
  • Which belly dance performer do you most enjoy watching? Why?
  • How would you compare belly dancing against other dance or exercise forms that you've done in the past (such as ballet)?

Sometimes the things in your life that are not related to dance are the things that prevent you from growing as a dancer. Look for ways to fix things about your life that you find annoying, frustrating, stressful, painful, depressing, or angering. Negative emotions can be parasites that consume all our energy and prevent us from concentrating on the things we enjoy. After a few weeks, review your journal and look for patterns. If you spot a pattern of something - a certain type of music, perhaps - that consistently seems to spark your enthusiasm, maybe pursuing more of that will inspire you to growth. If you spot a pattern of something that annoys you or bores you, maybe reducing that will remove the block.

Other Ideas

Look for people you can talk to about your feelings. Maybe you have a sympathetic classmate who is willing to be your sounding board. A fellow dancer can help you crystallize your thoughts because she understands dancer-type issues.

Don't expect to emerge from your plateau overnight. Human beings are complicated. Set easy-to-reach short-term goals for yourself that you think you'll enjoy meeting. For example, if you've had your eye on a great belly dance video for a while, set a goal to buy it and watch it within the next 4 weeks. Then set a goal to buy a new CD that's significantly different from what you're accustomed to using, and spend time practicing with it. When you've done that, set your next goal and work toward that. Choose goals that will guide you in the path you want to go.

Finally, look for ways to stimulate your inner creativity. These don't necessarily need to be tied to dance, although they can be. For example, write poetry, draw pictures, or design a wonderful new costume. For creativity exercises specifically tied to belly dancing, you might explore the book Grandmother's Secrets by Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi.

— Shira



Related Articles

Other articles on this web site related to growing as a dancer include:



About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.



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