Photo of Shira



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

Belly Dance Study: How to Practice at Home

by Shira


Many belly dance students like to work on their technique at home, perhaps assisted by either a video, a book, or choreography notes. Whether you're just practicing in between your regular classes, or whether you're attempting to learn how to belly dance from videos and books, this article offers tips on how to structure your home practice to get the most value out of the time you spend.

If you don't have a teacher yet, my article Learning to Belly Dance: Where to Find Instruction might help.

Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.




Preparing to Dance

Many schools advise parents to provide a structure for their children to do homework, with a suitable time and place set aside for it, free of distractions such as television. The same basic principles can also be valuable for adults who are trying to learn something new.


Remove Distractions

I learned a long time ago that when I want to practice belly dancing, I need to lock my cats out of the room! Think about what might distract you - probably your children, pets, and spouse. Try to make arrangements for them to find something else to do during your study time.


Allow Enough Time

If possible, set aside a minimum of 1 hour for your practice session. If you take the time to warm up, review what you learned in the past, and drill yourself on new moves, you can easily fill an hour. Admittedly, not everybody has a full hour available, so if you must do less, do what you can. Remember, most belly dance classes set aside a full hour for the class. If you're learning or reviewing from home, why not give yourself the same benefits of focused attention?


Do It Regularly

Try to work on your studies at least one day per week. If you have time to do it more often, you'll learn even faster! The more time that passes between study sessions, the more you'll forget in between.


Set Realistic Goals

If you're not sure of what you're going to try to accomplish during your practice session, then you probably won't accomplish much. First decide whether your goal is fitness, adding new steps and combinations to your movement vocabulary, polishing technique on moves you already know, or learning a specific piece of choreography in time for an upcoming performance. Any of these can be legitimate goals, but each may steer you to a slightly different practice technique. For example, if you simply want to learn how to dance, then you might set a goal of mastering 4 new moves and drilling all the moves you know so far in a typical 1-hour practice session. But if you want to use belly dancing as part of your fitness program, then you'll want to structure your study time with continuous aerobic movement.

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



Obtain Appropriate Study Aids

One study aid you will certainly need is suitable music. If you are taking a class with a live teacher, ask her to recommend appropriate music and ask where to buy it. If you are learning from a video, it may be helpful to buy the music that the video utilizes - if the credits don't identify it, contact the instructor and ask.

Decide what additional tools you need to help you learn. For example, here are some recommendations on tools that may help with different types of goals:

  • Fitness. Look for a video that takes you through a beginning-to-end workout at the level that is right for your level of fitness and dance knowledge. See my reviews of workout videos for feedback on some of the choices available in the market.
  • Simply Learn to Dance. If you just want to have fun learning how to dance, then videos that teach basic moves and how to assemble them into combinations or simple choreography will probably be the most helpful.
  • Practice Outside Your Normal Class. If you attend a weekly class with a live teacher and you want resources to guide you through practice outside of class, then either fitness, drills, or basic moves videos may be useful. Ask your friends which videos they like, and try to borrow one to view it before you buy one for yourself. In class, you might try to jot down notes for yourself with the names of moves taught, such as "rib cage slide" or "hip circle" to refresh your memory on what to practice in between classes.
  • Learn Things Beyond What Your Teacher Covers. You may find it helpful to learn moves that your teacher never covers so that your own personal dance style will look different from that of your classmates. Or maybe your teacher doesn't explain a particular move such as a belly roll well enough for you to learn it. In either case, perhaps books, videos, or web sites will contain alternate explanations that make more sense to you.
  • Learn a Specialty. Are you hoping to learn how to do sword balancing, cane, Egyptian shamadan, or another specialty dance? Shop for a video that particularly focuses on what you want to learn.
  • Learn Choreography. If your class or troupe is preparing for a performance, ask your teacher whether she has written notes that identify which moves come in which order. If she doesn't, ask whether it would be okay for you to videotape a run-through in class that you can use as a study aid. Some teachers might say no, but most will probably allow it if you promise to never, never post it on the Internet or make copies for anyone else and keep that promise. One of my students used to record my classes on audio cassette tape to assist her with practice outside of class.


Plan How to Use the Time

Decide how much time you'll allow for each section of your practice time — warm-up, review, study of new material, and cool-down. Assemble any written notes, videos, hip scarves, props, or other resources needed for your work in a single place so that when your practice time comes along you have everything you need close at hand. You'll want to spend your time dancing, not hunting for something you need!


Wear Something Appropriate for Active Exercise

Instead of trying to dance in torn blue jeans and an old T-shirt, try to put on something that separates you from your normal daily routine. For example, tuck your T-shirt up under your bra so that it bares the midriff, or put on a sports bra. Instead of blue jeans, corduroys, or other normal daytime garb, put on a snug tank top with a broomstick skirt with the top edge pulled down to hip level so that it draws your focus to what your hips are doing. A hip scarf is recommended, but isn't required.



Warm Up

Begin every session with a warm-up. Warming up is important because it puts both your body and your brain in the mood to dance. It stimulates circulation to your muscles and releases the tension in them so they'll be free to move. It helps your brain adjust its attention away from the latest annoying thing your boss did at work or your child did at home, and brings your focus to dancing.

If your teacher hasn't taught you how to warm up, or if you're studying with a video that doesn't tell you how to warm up, here's a simple way to start:

  • Start with lively music that you like very much. It doesn't have to be Middle Eastern music, though Middle Eastern pop music is often perfect for this. Choose something brisk with a strong beat that makes you want to get up and dance. Pick a song that's about 3-5 minutes long.
  • As the music plays, walk briskly around the room, swaying your hips side to side.
  • Continuing to walk, make a large, sweeping arc with your arms - start with your wrists near your hips, sweep each arm out to either side up to the "crucifix" position, continue sweeping them up until they are overhead.
  • Still walking, cross your wrists above your head as shown in the photo of Tahia Carioca to the right.
  • Bring both hands downward, toward your hips, across the front of your body, keeping wrists cross until they reach the hips.
  • Continue walking around the room, swaying your hips in time to the music, continuing to use the arms until the song ends.

Photo is the legendary Egyptian dancer Tahia Carioca. This is a screen shot of her performing in the motion picture Shatie al-Gharam, known in English as the Shore of Love.

Tahia Carioca



Review What You Already Know

If today is not your first session, begin with a review of what you have learned so far. Here's my recommendation on how to structure the review:

  • Put appropriate belly dance music on your sound system and systematically do every move that you remember. When I teach classes, I usually allow one or two songs, each with a length of 3-5 minutes for this. Use the full song, repeating each individual move many times, paying careful attention to correct posture and technique. This is known as "drilling". If you have written down a list of the moves you have learned so far, consult your list to make sure you practice everything on it. If you run out of time, restart the song at the beginning and keep going. This isn't a race.
  • Do your own improvised little belly dance. Put a suitable song of 3-5 minutes on your stereo system, and focus on what you hear in the music. Use the moves you know to interpret it. If the music is slow and sensuous, use undulations, hip slides and circles, rib cage slides and circles, and snake arms. If it is brisk and energetic, do hip lifts and drops, traveling steps, and shimmies.
  • In your unstructured review and practice dance, you may have forgotten to use some moves that you know how to do. Place your video in the machine, or refer to your class notes or book. As the video / book / notes discuss each move that you already know, do the move with it. Listen carefully to what the instructor is saying, or read the text carefully, and pay close attention to your technique. Are you doing it correctly? If so, can you sharpen it at all? Can you gain further range of motion by encouraging a little stretch in your muscles? Did you miss any important information when you learned this move in the past? Can you refine your technique?



New Material

Take Time to Learn It

Don't rush your way through learning new material. Take time to learn all the details. For each individual move that the video or book teaches, take about 5 minutes (or more, if you need it) to practice that move. Rewind your video 4 or 5 times, and each time pay attention to see whether you can pick up new information that you missed when you listened to it before.

  • Each time, listen carefully to the explanation and watch what the instructor is doing.
  • Pay attention to where she places her weight.
  • Watch her posture.
  • Listen to her words.
  • Look for details that she does not describe with words, such as where she places her arms.
  • Do the move along with the video as it is taught.
  • After you have rewound the tape about 4-5 times to review how the move was explained, pause the video, put suitable music on your stereo, and repeat it over and over for the length of one 3-minute song.

Make a written list of all the new moves you learned during your session with the video. Over the next day or two, even if you don't have time to dance, pick up the list, look at it, and try to remember what each move was like. Try to visualize yourself doing the move correctly. The next time you work with the video, this list will remind you of which moves to practice during your review.


Practice the New Moves

When you've finished using the video to drill the 4-5 new moves you learned in this session, it's time to incorporate them into your personal dance style. Turn off the television, and put your practice music on your sound system. Start doing some free-form dancing to the music, using all the moves you know, and make an effort to incorporate the new ones you just learned.

Just focus on the music, and let your body interpret what you hear. Don't worry about creating great art — the point of this exercise is to help you learn how to transition in and out of the new moves you have just learned. Let your focus be simply to experiment with using the new moves to enrich your expression.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.

Shira In Practice Attire



Cool Down

Every exercise session should end with a cool-down. This helps ease your body back to inactivity. If you were working with vigorous music before, switch to slow, sensuous music. Work through some of the gentle isolations that you have learned: hip circles and slides, rib cage circles and slides, and stretches.

Think about which muscles you have used the most during the practice session, and experiment with stretches to find ones that stretch those muscles. The lower back, in particular, often requires some gentle stretching after belly dancing.



Make Written Notes

Write down notes on what you learned during this session. Here are some questions that may help guide you in what to put in your notes:

  1. Which new moves did you learn this time?
  2. Which of the moves you already know do you think you need to spend extra time drilling?
  3. Did you have any "Aha!" moments of insight? If so, what were they?
  4. What would you like to do differently next time?
  5. Which things are you finding easy to do?
  6. Which things are you finding hard to do?
  7. If you're working with a video that teaches choreography, write notes that will help you remember the choreography.
  8. In what ways have you improved since the last time you practiced?



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