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

Dear Shira


Belly Dancing

Expression and Sensuality



The Question

Dear Shira:

I am taking a class that focuses on teaching performance skills to intermediate / advanced students. Recently, after I performed for the class, this teacher told me that my dance has no sensuality to it. She was not talking about my body type (I do not have a feminine figure), but rather, she was talking about my facial and other expressions. I was rather discouraged by this comment: is sensuality something I can work on and somehow learn to express, or is it something I either have or don't have? If it is something I can work on, what would you suggest I do to improve my "sensuality"?

— Mechanical Doll

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




Shira Responds

Dear Doll:

Since I haven't seen you dance and I don't know your teacher, I'm not sure exactly what she meant by her statement that you lack sensuality. I'm guessing that perhaps she meant you dance mechanically, without displaying sufficient emotional expression. This is a common issue that many beginning dancers face. Some dancers focus so much on technique that they miss out on connecting emotionally with the audience.

I'll offer you my own thoughts on this, but I also encourage you to have a private conversation with your teacher to find out what she meant by her statement. It's possible that she meant something entirely different from what I'm about to say.

When students first begin to learn belly dance, teachers often focus on technique: the correct way to do a hip lift, the correct way to do a shimmy, the correct way to isolate a hip circle, the best way to produce a fluid undulation, the correct way to layer a shimmy on top of other moves. Of course, technique is important. Bad technique can look sloppy or even cause injury. But technique alone is not enough. Dance is an art form, and art is all about expression, emotion, soul, and spirit.

If your dance lacked soul, maybe you allowed the logical, organized side of your brain to exert too much control. Maybe you were so busy thinking about what to do next that you forgot to simply enjoy what you were doing. Maybe you were thinking, "I wonder if I remembered to turn off the oven?" Maybe you were focused on trying to execute a challenging move with perfection. Maybe you wondered what critique was forming in the brain of the teacher as she gazed thoughtfully at you. All of these things can be distractions. A busy brain can take your mind away from the joy of the dance.

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


So, what you need to do here is to find a way to empty your mind of all the distracting baggage and take your brain to an "other" place where nothing exists except you, your music, your response to it, and your connection to the audience. Explore your spirit, let go of your logical thinking at least for a little while, and share your joy in dance with the audience. Each dancer has her own way of doing this, but here is one method that works for some people:

  • Begin by selecting music that stirs your heart, that carries your imagination to a place of joy, passion, spirit, etc.
  • Listen to that music over and over, until you know it so well that you can hear it in your head even when your sound system is turned off.
  • As you listen to that music, allow yourself to feel an emotional response to it. It helps to obtain a translation to the lyrics, if possible. Remain aware of what emotion it makes you feel. Delight? Spiritual ecstacy? Quiet introspection? Sorrow?
  • Now, in the privacy of your home, dance to the music, and try to cling to the emotion that it evokes in you. I'm not asking you to concoct fake teeth-baring smiles or horrid frowns. Just reach into yourself and try to connect with your emotional response. Don't worry about whether you're repeating the same move over and over, or whether your layered shimmy-over-hip circle was done with precision. Dance with your heart, not with your head.
  • Keep practicing this "dance as emotional response" in your regular at-home practice routine. You'll still want to separately practice "dance as precision technique" too. At first, don't try to do both at the same time. Practice one way, then practice the other. Give yourself enough experience with each type of practice to feel at ease with each view of dance.
  • Once you can reach out with your emotions to touch the music with confidence, then bring together your emotional and your technical skills, practicing both together at once.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.


Over the years, I've known different dancers who used different techniques to put themselves "in the zone" emotionally for a performance. Some do a quiet meditation in the privacy of their dressing rooms before they perform. Some "pump themselves up" by doing hip drops in time to the previous dancer's music before it's their own turn to perform, immersing themselves in the music as they do so.

Here are some emotions you might try to touch while dancing:

  • Joy ("This is really fun!" or "I'm in love and I want the world to know it!" or "I just love this song!") to cheerful, happy music
  • Sad reflection ("I miss those happy days when I was in love, but I'm moving on now") which is lovely for veil work or standing undulations to a sad song. It's most effective when you have an ethnic audience who understands the language the song is in.
  • Dreamy introspection ("I'm inviting you to meditate with me") - also lovely for veil work or standing undulations
  • Strength, power like a warrior queen, great for sword work or dramatic music ("I am woman, hear me roar!" "I have a sword, and I'm not afraid to use it if you heckle me!")
  • Teasing, playful ("I'll bet you can't do this!" or "Yes I do, but not with you")
  • Mischief ("How long will it take this waiter to realize I'm following him with my veil?")
  • Surprised pleasure ("Wow, I didn't know I could do this!") as you execute a difficult move
  • Sassy independence ("I am soooo over that jerk of a man I used to see!" or "I'd rather be single than be in a relationship with a man like you" or "I have a great job, I have great friends, who needs a man to complicate things?")
  • Humor, good for recovering from bloopers. (You're tired of getting tangled up in your veil, so you cast aside and pose your pointer finger like a gun barrel and "shoot" it.)
  • Apprehension. Helps build drama when using props. ("Will that sword I just placed on my head fall off?")

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


These suggestions are just a starting point. Reach out with your soul to find your own emotional signposts that feel right with your own music and dance expression.

Separate from actually dancing, look for other ways to explore the creative side of yourself. Take a class in drawing. Begin keeping a journal which focuses on your daydreams and flights of fancy. The more time you spend creating something, the more comfortable you will be connecting with that part of your spirit while dancing.

Creativity and emotional expression come naturally to some people. For others, it's a skill that must be learned. It can be learned. The trick is to set aside all your "busy brain" thoughts and allow yourself to feel. This probably won't come easily at first. But keep working at it, and just like any other new skill the more you work on it, the easier it will be. Don't expect passion to come flooding out of you the first time you try it. Celebrate your small successes along the way - each will make the next one come more easily.

— Shira

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




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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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