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

Belly Dance: Bigger Isn't Always Better



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Bigger range of motion is NOT necessarily better. Beginning students often find that their hip or rib cage slides, circle, figure 8's, and other movements have a very small range of motion. Teachers often urge those beginners to aim for increasing the range of motion. I feel a bit differently about this, and in this dance tip I'd like to explain why.

As a teacher, I personally tend to encourage my students to stay within the range of motion that is comfortable for their current level of ability. In my experience, as my students practice at home, and spend more time drilling in class, the range of motion will naturally start to expand without needing to force it.

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




Corrupting Technique

I've noticed that when a student tries to push her range of motion beyond what her current ability allows, her attempt introduces incorrect technique.

For example, the student might start her hip slide by correctly powering it with her core muscles, but then as she reaches the outside of her range, she'll start pumping her knees to reach farther, and in the process, she will lose the engagement of the core muscles. Or, she might do a head slide with her chin correctly level, but as she reaches to expand her range, she tilts her head and loses the alignment.

It's much better for the student to stay within the range that her current muscle tone allows, even if it is tiny. Doing so will enable her to build strength, control, and flexibility in the muscles required to do the move correctly. As those muscles develop, they will eventually become able to do a broader range of motion of their own accord, without needing to push it.

After I introduce a new move such as a hip slide to my beginners, I ask the class to drill it, and I go around to each student, one at a time, making individual corrections. If someone is doing the move correctly but with tiny range of motion, I make a point of telling that person that they're doing the move properly, using the right muscles and technique. I'll also say, "It's okay that your range of motion is small right now. For now, I just want you to focus on using the correct muscles and doing the move within your comfort level. As you practice and become more experienced, your range will gradually expand on its own." I want to make sure my students realize they don't need to do the movement as large as they saw me do it!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




Injury Risk

A dancer who tries to force her range of motion beyond her body's current boundaries can run the risk of injury. I don't want any of my students to injure themselves when practicing at home. For that reason, I encourage them to be gentle on their bodies, keeping their range of motion within comfortable levels.

Students who are new to dancing, yoga, and other forms of movement often don't yet know how to recognize warning signs when they are reaching the boundaries of what is safe for their own bodies. Even highly experienced dancers may put themselves at risk when their focus shifts to trying to do what the teacher is demanding rather than remaining aware of how their body is responding. It is important for the teacher to be aware of this, and teach in a way that encourages students to honor their bodies' own capabilities.

A dance acquaintance I'll call "S" told me that she experienced a severe back injury because she tried to obey a very famous Teacher who urged her to extend a body position's range of motion beyond what felt reasonable for her. "S" trusted Teacher because this person was so famous. Sadly, Teacher was not worthy of her trust, showing blatant disrespect for students' bodies by pushing them hard to do things her way. "S" has endured daily back pain for many years as a result of studying with that person.

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




What You Practice Is What You Perform

When a teacher urges her students to do moves as big as possible, the student doesn't always realize it's often better to do those moves much smaller in performance. I've seen many a new-to-performing dancer seem to beat the music to death because she thinks she's supposed to do each move with the biggest range of motion possible. I encourage my students to use a smaller range of motion when the music is faster than they would with slow music. I tell them they should always feel as though they *could* do the move bigger than they currently are, but choose not to.

Larger range of motion is acceptable when you're practicing at home, drilling the moves slowly and thoughtfully, paying attention to your body's current boundaries, and being gentle in your quest of broadening those boundaries. It can be beneficial to explore your boundaries in practice, so long as you're careful to preserve correct technique and muscle engagement, and back off if your body starts to protest.

In performance, it's usually best to hold back a bit and not do the fullest extent of what you're capable of. Saqra describes this in more detail in her dance tip on the 70% rule.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.




Turkish and Arab Dance Styles

Generally speaking, belly dancers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) perform raqs sharqi with some subtlety in their movement technique. Dancers who aim to perform in the Turkish or Arab style should contain movement to a small-to-medium range of motion in order to express the style appropriately.

Of course, not all dancers are identical, and if you watch enough videos of dancers from MENA, you will probably see somebody with large, flamboyant technique. Please remember that I'm describing the style I've witnessed from the majority of performances I've seen on video and live shows. I acknowledge that exceptions exist, but exceptions are not what define a style.

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




Something for Teachers to Consider

When teaching class, I used to demonstrate moves with large, exaggerated movement to draw my students' attention to what my body was doing. For example, if demonstrating footwork, I would exaggerate how high I picked up my foot. When demonstrating hip circles, I would make them very big. I used to believe this was necessary in order for my students to see what the move looked like.

However, I noticed that whenever I did that, my students tried to do the movement as large as I had demonstrated, and it came out completely wrong. As a result, I changed how I demonstrate moves.

Now, I demonstrate the move at a range of motion that I might actually use in performance. This is much smaller than what my body is capable of doing, though still somewhat larger than what most beginners would be able to do. I point with my finger to my body to draw my students' attention to the movement I want them to see. When I use this revised teaching method of demonstrating the moves without exaggeration, my students are still able to see what I want from them, but no longer are trying to overextend.

Your mileage may vary. I'm just offering you my perspective as an experienced teacher and long-time dancer.

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




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