Friday, November 8, 2013

Fall Joy in Pictures

This fall wrapped up with a series of photos that definitely capture so much of our joy.

My favorite photo of Jameson, EVAR!
Just check out the joy on his face!

One of the best things about dancing in the park with my SCA friends includes visiting with all the non-dancer friends and family. Jameson usually arrives with his parents at the same time in our warm-up, every week. The moment we start working on our shimmies and hips, I can usually say, "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!" then turn around and see Jameson running for us. He loves to, "PUT ON MY JINGLES!" and  shake as much as possible for about 30 seconds, then run off to do whatever it is that 3-year-old boys do.

Me and Jameson, doing the "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!"

Picture night at my other baronial dance practice yielded this lovely image.

Lookee, the kids love us!

Miranda has decided that I'm her, "fighter practice bellydance teacher," and now she usually spends about 45 seconds wiggling and jumping around during warm-up, before running off to do whatever it is that 4-year-old girls love doing in the park.

I love that kids find my dance practices a space where they feel welcome. I love that some of my fellow dancers are much older than me. I love that some of my fellow dancers are much younger than me. I love that my fellow dancers come to rehearsal with various personal issues to overcome or tackle or deal with. But they come. Week after week, they find a way to get in the car, brave the cold, brave the sidewalk cement, and they dance. They share with me the joy that is dancing together and laughing together.

New headscarf bling and shinies!
I also love that no matter what level of body modesty each of us is most comfortable with, we can still dance together. We come to this dance to be part of a team, to support one another.

And I am extremely thankful for all the support I continue to find with my fellow dancers. Thank you, dearhearts. You brighten my days.

Monday, September 30, 2013

All The Teachers, All My Thankfulness

I was curious one Wednesday, so I counted.

From June 4 to mid-September, it had been just more than just fourteen weeks. I originally posted about Making the Transition from full-time bellydance student to part-time instructor. Late in the evening on a Wednesday, I climbed into my car after three days in a row of teaching, exhausted and ridiculously happy. I hadn't been that bone-tired in months, and I loved every moment of it.

It got me to thinking about what it took to get here.

First Introduction to Belly Dance: First Teachers

There's a passage in our Puja (our moving meditation) in which we express our thankfulness for "all the teachers" that have brought us to this point in our lives. Sometimes, it makes me think fondly of my piano teacher when I was in second grade; my private flute lessons from fifth grade through eleventh grade; my college percussion instructor; my college choral directors and orchestra directors. Without them, my musical training would not be where it is now. Other times, I'm reminded of the ballet classes when I was four; the jazz classes I was enrolled in during junior high and high school; the musical theatre movement classes in college.

Then my bellydancing instructors figure large in my memory. During my first experience with bellydance in college, I had the amazing good luck to study with Ansuya and then Alexandra King for a several years. The classes were held through the community courses at the college. Then for a while, I would ride the late night bus downtown to dance at Ansuya's studio. I was in my twenties and had a fantastic time. But as I moved out of the area and had different family obligations, my dancing went on hold.

Then ATS: American Tribal Style, and All the Teachers

Then I met some fantastic women from a bellydance troupe who were performing something called "American Tribal Style" bellydance. Oddly enough, somewhere in my records I have an old xerox'ed copy of a magazine article given to me by Alexandra King. The article was a feature about a dancer named Carolena Nericcio and her troupe FatChanceBellyDance. I tucked the article away in the 90s and hadn't thought about it further in years. But when I met Twisted Gypsy and Jen McDonald,  my interest was rekindled. A quick check of her teaching calendar told me that she had a class just three miles from my workplace. I was enrolled in my first one-hour class on June 14, 2010. There were only two primary thoughts I clung to, throughout that entire hour: "Oh, good grief my arms hurt, when do we get to put our arms down? can I keep my arms up as long as the teacher does?!" and "Oh my goodness, I have to learn to teach this!"

By the end of 2010, I'd gone from one class per week to two. By December, I had a taste of dancing with other ATS dancers at a holiday party at a restaurant.

The first evening I ever danced with a group in public, Dec 2010
Closing bows, Dec 2010
In 2011, I started studying Level 2 as well as taking classes from both Jen and Cassandra. In May, I was invited to join Jen's student troupe, Gypsy Sisters*. In May, I also went to my first Tribal Fest, studying from Carolena Nericcio for the very first time. To say I was completely in love with the form by now would be an understatement. By the end of the year, I was dancing three times a week, almost thirty hours per month.

Me and Jen, at a bellydance showcase

Me and Cassandra, before a bellydance fundraiser

And my first Tribal Fest in 2011 included the first opportunity to take classes directly from Carolena Nericcio. Suzanne Elliott was also one of the instructors, another member of FCBD.

Carolena with our 3-person dance group, Yuska, me, and Kathleen.
For this 3-day class at Tribal Fest 2011, the three of us drilled together.

Me and Suzanne at Tribal Fest

My other classes at TF2011 were taught by Therese Wyatt and Tribal Sooz. Love those women!

By 2012, I was studying Level 3 from Jen McDonald. That summer, Nancy Young hosted an "ATS Summer Camp" on the weekends at her studio, giving me the chance to take lessons from Nancy Young, Politti Ashcraft, Laurie LA Tribal, Dana Johnson, Jennifer Thorimbert, and Leslie Thompson, as well as Jen McDonald... That was an AMAZING summer of learning, and I am so thankful to have such a rich community of ATS teachers in southern California.

And by the end of the year, a large group of us went up to the FatChanceBellyDance studios in San Francisco to take a series of classes. We studied with Kae Montgomery (FCBD), Wendy Allen (FCBD), and Carolena Nericcio.

Private lessons from Kae Montgomery, day two at FCBD
The grand group studying with Wendy Allen, day four at FCBD
Last day, right before class 10 of 10 for me

Classes at Tribal Fest 2012 included the amazing teachers: Kathy StahlmanTherese Wyatt, Katrina McCoy, Bianca Stücker, Mimi Fontana, and Colleena Shakti.

My instructors at Tribal Fest 2013 included another stunning line-up: Donna Mejia, Amel Tafsout, Jennifer Nolan, Mimi Fontana, Davina Tribal Collective, Elizabeth Strong & Dan Cantrell, and Jen McDonald.

In April 2013, my General Skills course was taught by Carolena Nericcio and Megha Gavin.

General Skills: Classic certification

General Skills: Modern certification

And finally, just this summer I was lucky enough to be able to take workshops from Janet Hanseth, a member of the Red Lotus troupe at FCBD. And an earlier class this summer was taught by Melanie Campbell, her first teaching opportunity. What a wonderful way to share our "launch into teaching" season together.

All this to say that the Legacy of Teachers in my life has been very rich. I am extremely thankful for you all.

* I retired from Gypsy Sisters in June this year. I love those women, miss them, and wish them all the best in all their performances. It was an amazing experience I will always treasure. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thoughts from One Student

One of my students has been going through some fantastic, personal a-ha moments and gave me permission to share some of her writing with all of you.
"Do what you love, and you'll be great!"
Well, um... Not really.
I've discovered that my body naturally loves certain belly dance moves... I love those moves. Even as a beginner of less than three months, I'm willing to just go ahead and say this: I am good at those moves. You may admire me when I do those moves, and I will be pleased, but not surprised.
And there are moves my body doesn't want to do... And the zils. G*D, the zils. Trying to zil makes me wonder how in the heck I was so good at playing my flute or dancing with my flag at the same time as marching in formation in high school and college marching bands. Honestly, I feel like an uncoordinated doofus when trying to zil.
If I do what I love, I will soon have the world's best [moves that I love]. And I will NOT be a great dancer. I won't even be a good dancer. In my drills today, I did each of those moves for about a minute and a half, maybe two minutes. I love those moves, but I've pretty much got them down.
And then I did all the moves that my body doesn't enjoy... I did each move that I "hate" for five minutes. More than twice the time I spent on the stuff that I love and find easy.

Do what you love, if that means dance (where "dance" is any broad category). But when it comes to dance, or whatever your "thing" is, do what you "hate." I mean, definitely do the easy stuff you love (everyone's easy stuff will be different from everyone else's), but don't spend the bulk of your time there. Do the moves, the drills, the patterns, the motions that you find difficult and unenjoyable about your "thing" (dance: strength, flexibility, fluidity, speed, nimbleness, grace, balance ... music: range, tempo, enunciation, vocal clarity...). Whatever your "thing" is, do the aspects of that thing that you find the least enjoyable. Work your fundamentals, but work the hard stuff, the boring stuff, and the least appealing stuff at least twice as much as the stuff you find easy and fun.

Because that's how you get good all-around. That's how you become a good dancer, or computer programmer, or clothier, or whatever you're trying to be. The only thing that separates a good dancer from a sucky one is the number of hours that dancer has spent sucking.
I love that she gets it. There are a few students who are a tiny bit frustrated with me because I won't drill them on the next moves that they know how to do already. The point is: These women are already naturally good at the moves we haven't been drilling yet. And I'm asking them to work on the moves they hate right now. Drilling them slowly, thinking about different portions of the technique, trying them again at tempo, back to drilling only parts of the moves, back to putting all the layers together again.

My student writes again in another post.

BTW, "I suck" is, I hope, understood to be a temporary situation. Sucking right now, as a beginner, is only to be expected. What separates a complete derp from a complete dancer is hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours... (repeats "and hours" about a hundred more times) ...and hours of sucking, after which one sucks a bit less, for a lot more hours. And then a bit less suckage for a lot more hours. And so on. And then, "suddenly," you're a dancer. Or whatever you are. "I suck" doesn't mean "I give up." It means, "Watch me suck at this! And keep on sucking, until I don't! I know I have work to do, and I can actually SEE what separates my attempts from true dancing, and I'm actually working to get rid of the distinctions! Yay!" In other words, I love that I suck. I *LOVE* that I suck. The sweatier and huffier and tireder I get in a practice, or the gym, or whatever, the better and more serene I will eventually look. I am embracing my suckitude and making it into an impetus to practice. So that, you know, I feel less awkward and sucky when people are watching me.

Amen, sister. Amen.

If you cannot laugh together and have fun, why exactly are you doing this?

According to Outliers: The Story of Success, written by Malcolm Gladwell, mastery or greatness comes with enormous amounts of time, or the "10,000-Hour Rule." My student just posted, "9982.70 hours of suckage left. That's not bad at all!"

I love this attitude!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Unusual Structure, Unexpected Benefits

One of the stranger aspects to my current teaching arrangements is that I do not yet have any dance studios from which to teach. I haven't started renting space (and time on the schedule) at any formal dance studios. I haven't made arrangements at community centers or rec centers. I haven't joined any college staff or continuing education offerings. But I teach between 3-4 times per week.

At first, I started teaching as a "guest lecturer" in a park where my SCA friends had been dancing for years at their weekly fighter practice. We are in a public park, next to a tennis court, near some picnic benches, along side our SCA friends in heavy armor or with rapiers. They were already in the habit of dancing on the sidewalk with muted or no finger cymbals (neighborhood noise issues), and without concern for nice studio floors and mirrors.

Another friend invited me to teach her in her home. She has a fantastic floor in her living room, just enough room for the two of us (and maybe one other some time). And there's a mirror at the end of her dining room so we can occasionally look at form and technique in the mirror together.

Two more friends invited me to teach in their home, making it possible for them to keep track of the 4- and 9-yr-old as well as make (or order) dinner for everyone at the same time as dance for fun.

Then another friend wanted me to bring my dance-in-the-park method to her local fighter practice. So now I have two weekly outdoor, in public, on cement rehearsals / teaching opportunities.

This is not typical.

photo by Flint Weiss on Flickr
From this, however, some really interesting things have started to develop.

The first practice-in-the-park group has now been through a full session of fundamentals. On occasion, I can start introducing new vocabulary and new moves into their instructional time. (This also requires me to keep very detailed records so I know which dancer has learned which move.) We usually have a great turn-out, so I can work with group formations and develop their abilities to interact with one another. As for scheduling innovation, we have access to the park for several hours. I wanted to have more time dancing but without intimidating the dancers who didn't have the endurance to work as many hours as I enjoy dancing. So I started hosting 30-minute blocks of dance time. There is always a warm-up at the top of every half an hour, and we switch between Fast and Slow moves in every block, alternating every week. If someone always arrived for the 7pm block, one week they would dance Fast moves, the following week they would dance the Slow moves. And dancers now have the freedom to choose whether to arrive early or late, stay for as many or as few blocks as they like, and even participate in some of the concurrently hosted arts and sciences classes by dancing a little and going to another class for the remainder of the time.

What I didn't expect is that now modern (non-SCA) people who are just meandering through the park (it is a public park, after all) would be interested in dancing. Since each dance block is a discreet section that anyone can participate in, we just had new drop-in participants recently. They loved it, and one of them stayed for an hour (two blocks in a row). This could never happen in a formal studio, and I feel really fortunate that I can make dance more and more accessible to more people.

There are also SCA friends who enjoy coming to the park every week but are not really interested in dancing that much. But they join in respectfully during the stretching sections, sometimes more than once in an evening. Several of these folks have told me that the stretches are really helping them regain mobility. I'm so grateful they feel safe to join us and are able to improve their own mobility, flexibility, and fitness—even in such incremental portions.

The two friends who have me teach in their home also entertain guests on a regular basis. This past week, one of their visiting friends joined us for the hour of our lessons. She exclaimed at the end of the hour that, "this is exercise that doesn't feel like exercise! I would do this!" I have a similar experience when I dance: I love the movement and I love pushing my body further than the last time I danced. I don't mind sweating and finding myself breathless. The activity is so enjoyable, it is almost like exercising on accident.

The new dance-in-the-park arrangement includes several participants who've never done bellydance at all or haven't danced like this in years and years. This local fighter practice also typically starts later than the other one, and many folks are already in the habit of meeting for dinner and socializing before heading to the park. But since I needed more time to drill and workout, I had to innovate differently for this evening's rehearsals. I've started arriving more than an hour before the regular fighter practice, giving me plenty of time to get dressed, prepare my class notes, set up my music, etc. Then it's drill time for me: Fast, slow, endurance sessions with longer songs, advanced moves, fundamental moves, and everything in between. I find myself smiling and laughing to myself as I drill because just next to me is a tennis court, behind me is a basketball court and a roller hockey rink, and to the other side is the baseball diamond. Families wander through, walking their dogs, escorting their kids to and from practices, or just to get to their own softball games on time. And there I am, a lone dancer working on drills.

My fellow dancers arrive and then we all work together for about an hour. The fighters arrive, arm up, and take to the grassy areas for their own practices. Friends and family hang out on the picnic tables, sometimes studying, working on sewing projects, or just socializing. When our instruction time is done, I open up the after-class time for drills again. Sometimes a handful of dancers still have some energy left so we will work together, dancing without stopping to continue building endurance and stamina (rather than stopping to focus on breaking down the details of the technique). And when they are done, it's still time for me to do one last push. So I'll put on another song and drill again, usually running the advanced moves to a fast song. Several of the other dancers had fun watching my  advanced drill last night, anticipating moves they'll learn later.

I am so thankful for the space I have to dance in, the dancers I have to dance with, and those that I can dance for. The structure of my dance time is unusual, but it is affording me some wonderful and unexpected benefits. Thank you, dear community. You truly enrich my life.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Moving Carefully, Deliberately

One of my favorite disclaimer phrases at the beginning of our warm-ups is, "Remember, I am NOT a trained medical professional. Please do not make me drive you to a trained medical professional."

I am sometimes nervous as a teacher. I work with people who have a variety of body types, body ailments, temporary injuries, lifelong chronic pain conditions, or just folks who may have done something strenuous lately and are currently in recovery. I worry because I want to have good stretches, good advice, and a healthy dose of what are my limitations.

Recently, someone joined in on our warm-up at Dance Practice in the Park. She was careful to only do the range of motion that worked with her body and her abilities. Then she asked me for a list of the stretches we did because she found them helpful. So I wanted to share my current list for those who might be interested.

HOWEVER! Please! Remember that I am NOT a trained medical professional! I do NOT have extensive training in your skeleton, your circulatory system, your musculature, your currently level of activity, your range of motion, your chronic pain syndromes, your ligaments and tendons -- So PLEASE remember to Move Carefully and Move Deliberately.

Laybacks: An ADVANCED move, not for day one
Cat's Current Warm-up Stretches
Do NOT do a move that causes you injury! Consult with a physician, a physical therapist, a specialist, or other training medical professional for how any of these stretches should be modified for your body and current condition(s).
  1. Torso, Arms: Overhead, To Each Side, Flat Back, then Toward Ground
    • Both hands overhead, stretch one arm toward the ceiling then the other. Lengthen along your side as you stretch the arm straight up.
    • Pick a side, stretch over the side: If you are bending to the right from your waist, the left arm is overhead.
    • Arms out to the sides, lean over at the waist, keeping your head up. This is for a "flat back" (as much as possible).
    • Hang over at the waist, arms stretching gently with gravity toward the floor.
    • Roll up slowly and in a controlled manner from the stretch toward the floor, bottom of the spine first, center, top, and finally the head.
    • Shake out gently after the overhead and toward floor stretches. Especially shake out your legs and arms.
  2. More Torso, Arms: Dancer Stretch with Arms in Opposition
    • Select a foot, step it behind the other.
    • The foot that went behind is the arm that stretches up. (If right foot behind, then right arm up.) Stretch one arm up toward ceiling and the other arm down at side toward floor.
    • Keep the spine on the "merry-go-round pole" that you imagine running through your body. Do not tilt or tip over, but stretch the arms in opposition from one another.
    • Switch feet, switch arms. Repeat on the other side.
    • Shake out gently after the stretches.
  3. Warming up from the Feet to the Head
  4. Feet: Ankles and Toes and Balancing
    • Stand with good posture: Knees with a small bend (we call this "soft knees") where your hips and could wiggle if you needed them to. Shoulders down and back. Ribcage slightly lifted.
    • Place your feet parallel with as little turn-out or turn-in as you can manage, as close to straight railroad tracks as you can.
    • Keep your knees in that slight bend. Keep your posture straight on the merry-go-round pole. Slowly rise up on your toes, slowly lower back to flat feet. Avoid tipping over or wobbling your ankles. Repeat a few times.
    • Repeat the rise on the toes, lower to flat feet, continue the bend slowly in the knees, return to flat feet. Repeat a few times.
    • Place your right foot forward of the left foot, keeping the feet still parallel. Repeat the toe rises slowly. Repeat the toe rises with a few knee bends.
    • Switch to your left foot forward of the right food. Repeat the toe rises slowly. Repeat the toe rises with a few knee bends.
  5. Ankles and Knees
    • Shake out from the Feet stretches. Lift one foot, shake the ankle gently in the air. Switch to the other foot, shake out the ankle.
    • Loosely twist and shake as if you are Chubby Checker doing "The Twist"
    • Further knee work can be done with Plies, with Ballet technique. (Not covered here)
  6. Hips: Slow Stretches, Increase to Shimmies
    • Stand with a small bend in your knees (soft knees). Keep your feet flat. Without raising either heels or toes, lift one hip higher than the other. The hip rises when the knees move like pistons: One knee is more deeply bent than the other knee (lowering the hip on the deep knee bend leg).
    • Slowly switch hips: First right (R) higher than the left (L), then L higher than R, repeat. The knees are doing the work to raise or lower the hips. Keep feet flat throughout.
    • Transition from slow stretches raising the hips to a timed repeat from R to L: Tick - tock - tick - tock. R - L - R - L. 
    • Slowly increase the speed of your tick-tock hips. 
    • Finally, without trying to count the speed, the knees and hips alternate up and down as fast as you can, in your full-time shimmy (standing still, feet flat).
    • Relax and shake it out. Rotate over your waist, looking/turning L and R as if looking behind you. Keep your knees slightly bent throughout.
  7. Torso and Obliques: The elements of the Arabic, the Bodywave, and the Bellyroll
    • Breaking down the torso movements into three sections: (1) Ribcage lift, (2) Upper obliques, and (3) Lower obliques
    • (1) Lift the ribcage slightly. This move is as if you are "pointing your chest toward the sky" however it is NOT attached to raising your shoulder or gasping for a large breath. It can be a small movement at first, subtle. Practice lift, stand neutral, lift, release, lift, release.
    • (3) Switch to the lowest part of your belly. Imagine pulling your lowest stomach muscles in towards your spine, as if posing for a photo or trying to pull on tight jeans. Release and relax. Pull in, release, in, relax, in, relax.
    • (2) Switch to the upper obliques, in the center of your torso. These are the muscles you would use if you were lying down doing crunches. Pull in the upper obliques, relax, in, release, in, release. 
    • Now complete these in succession. Lift (1) the ribcase. Contract (2) the upper obliques. Contract (3) [while releasing 2]. Keep (3) while you lift (1). Release (3) when you contract (2). Continue pulling in (3) and releasing (2).
    • As you smooth out the motions (1), (2), (3), (1), (2), (3) - you can think "Up, Down, In."
    • The entire movement rolls the contracted portion from top to bottom on the torso. 
    • For a different exercise, you can reverse it (3), (2), (1) - rolling the contracted portion from bottom to top. 
    • Most people will have a natural contraction that is either top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top.  Do not be discouraged if your natural order is different from someone else.
  8. Ribcage: Isolations Side to Side and Around in Circle(s)
    • Keeping hips and shoulders as still as possible, knees in a slight bend, slide the ribcage R as if pulled on a string. Return to center. Slide L. Return to center. 
    • In the same posture, slide ribcage R, lifted (up) center, slide L. Repeat sliding L, up, R.
    • In the same posture, slide ribcage R, horizontally (out) front center, slide L. Repeat sliding L, out/front, L.
  9. Shoulders: Circles, Swooping Arms
    • Good posture, centered weight, knees slightly bent. Slowly move shoulders forward, up toward the ears, back, and down. Repeat with both shoulders moving together. 
    • Repeat again one shoulder at a time, in opposition (R shoulder up while L is down; R shoulder back while L is forward; R shoulder down while L is up; R shoulder front while L is back).
    • In good posture, without tipping over or tilting, swoop one arm in front of the body (if R arm, wrist pulls across the waist R to L), then up and over (R wrist now rises from the L waist past the face and over the head), then reaching behind the body (R wrist now swoops back behind the R side). Turn your gaze to follow the wrist swoop. You'll twist at the waist a little to follow the wrist up and behind, but do not tip or tilt too much off the center axis of good posture.
    • Repeat swooping the other arm: low and front, across the body, up and overhead, swooping out and behind the body. Follow with your gaze without tipping over.
  10. Wrists: Flex and Circle
    • Arms at your side, good posture. Flex the wrists fingers in, fingers out; palm up, palm down. 
    • Pick a direction, circle the hands and wrists one direction together such as scooping the fingers in toward the boday. Reverse and circle the hands and wrists the other way.
  11. Arms: Arm Undulations Together, Alternating, Full Size, and Shoulder height to Overhead
    • In good posture, arms at your sides, start to lift your arms slowly as if you were a scarecrow: elbows rising up with wrists draping loosely. Keep shoulders down as you raise your scarecrow arms. Imagine painting a wall with the back of your fingers and hand. When your elbows are at their limit, the wrists continue to rise (as if painting slowly) until at the last moment your fingertips point at the ceiling.
    • Now imagine painting down the walls with your palms. Contract your shoulder blad to pull the elbows down slowly (palms remain turned out) until the arm is down as low as it is going. Repeat from the beginning, elbows lead first (like a scarecrow). Keep your shoulders down.
    • Practice first with both arms going up and down together. 
    • Practice again where one arm goes up and as it starts down, the other arm goes up. When R is going up, the L is going down. When L is up, R is down.
    • Practice again only by imagining you have a table at shoulder height. This is as low as the undulation can go, rather than going to your waist. Do not drop the elbows below shoulder height. Paint up the wall on the R, paint down on the L. Switch down on the R, up on the L. Your fingertips brush the surface of the table that is at your shoulder height.
  12. Neck: Gentle Look L and R
    • Carefully drop your chin forward toward your chest.
    • Rotate your head slowly to your chin over your L shoulder, head up, looking at the L wall. Drop back to the center again.
    • Rotate your head slowly to your chin over your R shoulder, head up, looking at the R wall. Drop to center again and repeat.
    • Do not tilt your head, just stretch forward alternating with side-to-side.
This is what I do to warm up. You may have to adjust, add, or subtract from the list. But in all things, PLEASE TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY.

Friday, August 16, 2013

No Pressure, No Shame

There are many philosophies or motivations that various teachers or students of bellydance bring to their classes or performances. I was reminded recently that one of my primary philosophies is a very simple phrase, "No Pressure, No Shame."

There is already so much competition in the world and not everyone resonates with competitiveness. Some people find competition to be wonderful. Others find competition to be horrifying and even a trigger for previous bad experiences. Some people have been bullied by competition, shamed by it, and unwilling participants in competitions they could not escape.

Too busy doing drills and practice to notice anything else
What matters most to me is that people find *Their Passion.* I cannot decide your passion for you. That is as personal as your favorite flavors or favorite colors or favorite music. I can share my passion with people through stories of my experience, through performance, and through photos. But my passion is *my* passion.

If someone comes to me and happens to share my passion for dance, then we can share the experience. But again, each of us decides to what level we want to pursue our passions. You might only want to take up a small hobby, a place to relax and be safe through movement and music. Or you might want to dance slightly better than you did the day before, the week before, or the month before. You might simply want to stand up and *try* a movement to see if you are capable of doing something different from five minutes ago.

Perhaps you want to be part of a community of other people who have various passions for dance. Perhaps you want to add to the community, to share in the experience.

No matter what your motivation is, all I can do is "hang out my shingle" to advertise what I hope you find if you join with me. In the spaces where I am the care-taker, I want to extend an invitation of No Pressure, No Shame. The invitation comes with no further strings attached, only this: Only you can decide what pressure to exert on your own behalf. Only you can decide what participation level you are interested in. I can only offer a path on which you can travel if you'd like to join me. And I only ask that we share in the value of No Shame. Participation is voluntary and it is my sincerest hope that it is both encouraging and welcoming.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thankfulness in my Dance

Carolena Nericcio (from FatChanceBellyDance) leads dancers in a moving mediation or Puja before rehearsal or performance. Instructors of ATS® usually lead their students as well, although occasionally the description of the puja varies a little bit.

One variation I continue to hear uses the phrase "thankful for" interchangably with "acknowledging." Rather than just, "with this gesture I acknowledge the space I have to dance in," these instructors have said, "with this gesture I am thankful for the space I have to dance in." I can no longer remember which instructors tended toward which phrase, but I love the notion of doing more than acknowledging the parts of our dance but being consciously thankful for it.

I had an extra 30 minutes in the park before class was going to start.
I took the time to do drills as the sun went down.
My Sweetie took the time to take photos of me in the sun.
My favorite method of describing the moves of the puja is as follows.
With this gesture, I am thankful for the space I have to dance in
With this gesture, I am like the Lotus flower, blooming in the daylight and returning to sleep in the mud and dark
With this gesture, I am thankful for the music I have to dance to
With this gesture, I am thankful for the surface I have to dance on
With this gesture, I am thankful for all the teachers that have brought me to this place
With this gesture, I am thankful for all the ancestors that have brought me to this place
With this gesture, I am thankful for those I have to dance with and those that I dance for*
And with all this, I bring my thankfulness to my dance
I've been having one of those days where I can hardly enumerate all the ways in which I am thankful. Recently, I've been feeling extremely thankful for the space I have to dance in. Shifting from a ready-made schedule of classes, conducted by someone else, in a space that was arranged by someone else, to determining all my own dance opportunities has occasionally been daunting. For the first eight-week session, I missed all the classrooms and studios I had been in before. I missed all the fellow students, my instructor, and all the hours and hours of rehearsal.

But as students have been coming to me, new opportunities have been coming to me. Now I'm starting my second round of eight-week sessions with one set of friends, a second round with one private student, and launching a brand new eight-week session with a completely new set of friends who are interested. And suddenly I have new spaces to dance in, spaces in which I am responsible for being the caretaker, the facilitator, and the gentle leader to make everyone feel welcome. It is my job to invite these new dancers to find their own dance, their own music, their own passion in coming together with like-minded dancers.

Combine all this with an excellent day job, excellent day job co-workers and employers, excellent relationships, excellent family, excellent health, and excellent opportunities to craft and create — I bring all this thankfulness to my dance.

* Note: The inclusion of both "those that I dance with and those that I dance for" I heard for the first time in April at General Skills, directly from Carolena. I've kept that phrase in my heart ever since, and I always use it when I lead the Puja.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My First Class of Students

What a joyful night! These students have been amazing friends and supporters.
SCA friends at the Barony of Altavia have been bellydancing for years at fighter practice. They allowed me to be a "guest lecturer" and present an 8-week ATS Level 1 Fundamentals class. On the last day of class, we dressed pretty for pictures.

From the first round of photos

From our second round of photos

From our third round of photos
Then they surprised me with gifts and a thank you card.

Pile of gifts, so overwhelming

A Henna kit, some bellydance bling,
and a Thank You card from all of them

My lovely teenage student decorated this pot
to be a "bellydance plant" for me <3

The "bellydancer orchid" on display at work
 My heart is overflowing with thankfulness.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lyrics to Zill By

I was taking a class from my friend Melanie and she mentioned that for zill drills (finger cymbals) she likes to say the phrases, "I can walk, I can play, I can walk, I can dance" (or something similar). The words line up to the "And-A-One, And-A-Two, And-A-Three, And-A-Four" that the zills strike on, and the feet move on 1 (right), 2 (left), 3 (right), and 4 (left).

I shared the lyrics with my student D'vorah, and as I was driving home from our lesson, I started to expand the phrases.

  I can breathe
  I can move
  I can dance
  I can zill

Verse One
  Have a drink?
  Yes, I shall!
  Thank you, much!
  Say no more!

To which D'vorah added Verse Two
  Double, please!
  Here you go!
  Oh thank G*D!
  That's my girl.

Feel free to make up any lyrics you like. One nice trick about four-line verses or choruses, you can practice moving your arms "on the 4" to cue the next move when you get to the fourth line of lyrics.

For example:
  I can breathe [step R]
  I can move [step L]
  I can dance [step R]
  I can CUE! [arms move to new cue as you step L]

I hope you like this trick. As we move beyond the arms and feet and posture and smile layers of our Fundamentals in Level 1, we add the Zills as our next layer. In each progression in ATS, we're bringing new layers to our combinations, like a delicious Baklava, lovingly prepared with layers of thin dough and delicious honey and butter. NOMZ. Delicious! <3

Friday, July 12, 2013

Practicing Every Day

One of my students shared the following website and video with me recently.

Image from
Video at:

I love the sentiment in this gal's website and video. She wanted it so she worked for it.

One of the things I was able to observe in her time-lapse video: You can see that she has more energy in her moves near the end, as well as a carriage that says, "I'm confident in this movement." When you practice more, you gain confidence. That confidence infuses your overall energy. Having energy and confidence in your movements makes the movement look more polished and amazing. It's Dance Magic.

We're already bringing our audience into a place of magic when we perform, whether it is the magic of our technique (How did she DO that?!) or our precision (How did they do that TOGETHER?!).

There's also a place of magic that is just for you. You are the recipient of the magic. You're the one who can get excited when you see the results of what practicing can do for you. It might be a small thing, like the first time you no longer feel like an awkward duck trying to waddle across the stage. Or it might be an accumulation of things, like when you realize you have more endurance, you can dance to faster songs, you can layer more moves, you can smile while dancing, etc. Or it might be those moments when you remember what it was like the first time you took a course compared to taking it again a year later.

How do you get those incremental improvements? Find a way to practice.

I like an idea I picked up from a book by Julie Morgenstern called "Organizing from the Inside Out." She suggests that you find something you already do well in your life to be a model for the strengths in your life that you can apply to something you want to improve. Basically, find what works in one area of life and do that in the other areas.

I like to find triggers for remembering to do a new thing. For example, I shower every morning. I put conditioner on my hair every morning. I decided when I first started dancing to "study one dance move" every time I put on the conditioner. For most of the first year, I examined how my arms should be angled in a dance move that was difficult for me (to be specific, the Egyptian Basic in ATS). I held my arms in the starting position, moved them slowly to the right, back to center, moved them slowly to the left, back to center, and done. Rinse my hair, go on with my day, repeat the next morning. Later, when that had fully entered my muscle memory, I did other slow stretches or muscle movements. Sometimes, I just stretched my shoulders in the warm water. Other times I rose on my toes slowly and back to flat-foot, just to get my ankles stronger every day.

The key here was DAILY. The trigger was my own choosing. And because I picked something I do every day as the reminder for a new habit I wanted to build every day, it worked.

Lately, I've been trying to remember to go for walks to get away from my computer desk job. One trigger I like is, "Walk around the building once every time you get up for the restroom." I don't always do it, but I often do. I've noticed I'm able to work out the kinks of sitting for hours by something simple. And because it is simple and daily and attached to a memory trigger, it works.

What new small habits do you want to build? What new daily memory triggers might you try using?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Taking the First Step

There's a discussion forum (both on a separate website and on Facebook) in which many folks post about finding motivation and overcoming various obstacles in their lives, whether physical or mental, chronic or habitual, lonely or common. In one discussion, one of the ladies on the list said something in passing that struck me at the heart.

"In my exercise classes, the only required choreography is the get out of the car and walk in the door of the class step. Everything after that is optional."  -- Jeanette Depatie (author of

I took her quote and made a visually appealing graphic, uploaded it to the group, my students' forum, pinterest, and my general facebook timeline.

I'm glad that Jeanette liked it. She's an inspiration to many people, and I could not help spreading more of her inspiration to other people.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Always Learning, Always Flexible

Last night I had my first *new* class as a dance student, and it reminded me that I'm never NOT a student. I believe that it is worth it to always be a student, to always be learning and taking in new information. I'd forgotten how much I love those opportunities, and was very grateful last night.

A friend of mine is also doing her first class as a teacher, and her excitement last night was extremely palpable and infectious. It was fantastic to be there, and I hope I was a supportive student. I think what I find most difficult is that balance between a student who just listens and doesn't respond verbally and those times when student input is good for both the teacher and the other students. There have been times when I've observed some classes in which student feedback is not necessarily encouraged but a sense that the teacher is the only one who talks and describes what is going on. In other classes, I've seen teachers encouraging students to offer their observations, their ideas, and to make those leaps of understanding and share them with everyone there. A cooperative learning environment doesn't always work but sometimes it is exactly how everyone can benefit. Sometimes some of my spinning students will observe something I've never thought of, and when they contribute it is really fantastic. Other times, students might make a leap in thinking, but they've landed on a solution that will cause them trouble later. Then I have to gently show them another option and we can all see why some options are better than others.

When I'm an instructor, it seems easier to guide everyone's discussions so that we can all learn from one another. It's harder to know, especially in the beginning, when it is okay to volunteer an idea, an experience, a story, an observation, or even to ask a question to see if I'm headed down the right path when I'm a student. I can only hope that I'm gaining the wisdom to read the room better, each time. I can say that I had a blast last night, and I'm enjoying this class. I hope I can dance with these folks more often. Our instructor has some fantastic dance training, and I can already see the excellent ways in which she's bringing that to her new instruction style.

Today, I also had an opportunity to share some flexibility with some students that really encouraged them. Sometimes we get sick and have to heal, sometimes we have family obiligations, sometimes we have appointments come up that we couldn't foresee. One friend and I want to be dancing regularly together, and we still haven't had the opportunity. Another couple of friends and I were supposed to dance tonight, but things came up. In all these cases, I love that I have the chance to soothe their worries and assure them that my flexibility is specifically why I am teaching the way I do. I'm not a standard "classroom and schedule" kind of instructor. For some reason, I've been called to be a "mobile strike-unit" type of teacher. I'm reaching the students who cannot go to a weekly class in a classroom after a commute. I'm reaching students who cannot leave their homes because of small children. I'm reaching students who already have other obligations but would love to dance informally in a park, dreaming of doing more and other types of dance later.

And if you couldn't tell, I *love* being this type of teacher. I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting Good Feedback

Week two of my guest-lecture series in the park was last night. This is an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) fighter practice for a local barony, and they've been doing informal (free) bellydancing for years. They've been kind enough to allow me to be their guest instructor for an 8-week series to demonstate ATS instruction. It gives me an excellent chance to refine my teaching and to work with a larger number of dancers at one time. My other teaching engagements right now are limited to a 1- or 2-student lessons, so I love the variety in the park.

Also, I never know who might show up at the park. Even though the material builds on foundations introduced in earlier lessons, this series is specifically open to *any* student to drop in on *any* week. So I also need to refine the lessons to allow for both the review material that makes new drop-ins feel welcome and still challenge returning students with new material.

A friend I haven't seen in many years dropped in last night and complimented me on the experience.
You rocked it! You are an amazing bellydance teacher! Amazingly funny and yet detailed and calm. Great class. See you next week!
Of course the straight-up compliments are very encouraging. But best of all, I never thought about how my instruction style often includes humor. She's right, I do crack small jokes throughout the instruction, trying to get everyone to relax and laugh and smile while they are working so hard. It's even easier in the SCA-context because there are so many silly references I can make to help them visualize the posture we're working on. Want their arms to be wide and strong frames? Envision trying to hug a very sweaty fighter or a kitchen cook covered in flour. Want to have them angle their faces towards the audience? Describe how the fighter who is standing there watching our practice is actually an invited guest at our dance performance, and she's taking photos. We want to present pretty formations so she gets the best photos of us! (Said fighter played along with my narrative and immediately mimed taking pictures of us.)

I never thought about it consciously but yes, I joke through my instruction and I hope it continues to resonate with students who want to study with me. It won't work for everyone, but it does seem to draw the kind of students I adore to want to spend time in my classes

Teaching spinning this past weekend:
Laughing and Encouraging my students

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"I Teach Bellydance"

Our workplace has tandem parking spots in the parking structure, where you can park directly behind someone and block them in (or be blocked in) and then you log your parking into a database. Then when someone needs to leave, they can find you and ask you to move your car for them. I was walking out to the structure with one of the guys who was leaving at 2:45 pm, and as we walked up to our cars he saw my bumper sticker.

Sticker from

He asked me, "So, what are Zills?" I explained that zills are Finger Cymbals. And I almost did a double-take on myself as I continued, "I teach bellydance."

Whoa. That's the first time I said that naturally in conversation to someone who never knew I studied bellydance, never knew I had been trying to get to a place of teaching since my very first hour of ATS, and never knew how I'd only just recently started to make that transition from full-time student to part-time instructor.

But yes, I teach bellydance.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Integrated Musical Inspiration

My background is stronger in music than in dance, if by shear number of years of experience over any other metric. I can remember singing and making up songs just walking around the neighborhood before I was in kindergarten (so I must have been 4 or so). I started piano in 2nd grade, flute in 5th, piccolo in 7th, mallets (xylophone, marimba, vibraphone) in 9th grade, additional percussion in early college (especially timpani), guitar around my 3rd year of college, doubek and other middle eastern drums near the end of my college years, and continued singing throughout. Music is very nearly how I think (with Color running a close second).

But I never really consciously thought about how integrated music is within dance until today. One of my students wrote the following (quoted with permission).
I've avoided proper "workouts" for a while because my mind isn't engaged, even when I have my headphones in. I find myself thinking about the music, and the movements are things that distract me from that mental stimulation. But in dancing, the movements and the music are integral to one another, so all of me is being involved at the same time. WAY better, IMO.
What a fantastic way to look at it. I think being steeped in music in my very being for most of my life, I hadn't noticed how connected the music and movement can really be. Of course, I'm reminded that nearly every ATS instructor has mentioned that the movements are inspired and, possibly even dictated, by the inspiration from the music. Many of the instructors talk about the Musicality of our inprovisational dance form.

This is an excellent reminder for me to consider how to share this integration with my students. Dancing is more than just a series of steps, performed with technique skill and grace, in shared group formations with my fellow dancers. It is the visual representation of the way in which Music moves my very Heart and Soul, shared with my fellow dancers and then shared together with our audience.

And this satisfies me in a way that few things do.

Image from wikipedia,
Musicians of Amun, Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Western Thebes.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Now I'm Dreaming It

I've started participating in an informal bellydance practice within the SCA context as a "guest lecturer series" introducing my SCA friends to ATS® in pure FCBD style. The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) has a long history of artistic classes in a "you research, you teach your friends" style for decades. This gives me a fantastic opportunity to "practice how to teach" with close friends of mine in a safe setting. They've been meeting weekly for years to share various bellydance styles with one another, and a couple of them have always been interested in my studies over the past several years. It's been a great opportunity for me to offer something to my friends, give me a reason to develop my own handouts, and give me the hands-on chance to put into practice all my studies for the past three years.

As a result, now I'm dreaming about teaching classes. Hours and hours of my morning brain were swirling with classes in the park and an amazing set of women, all having fun together dancing. I couldn't be happier.

Putting my General Skills (GS) certification into practice

Friday, June 7, 2013

Back to Training and Running

Last year in the spring, a friend of mine ran her first marathon. I was really moved by the effort and vowed I would do the same. A year went by and she ran her second marathon and I was fairly stunned that a year had gone by. In the first year (of my non-training) I'd managed to start making better records of all the walking miles I'd been doing daily. This spring I double-downed and decided that I would start actually running this year.

I've written about this somewhere else, but my main idea was to break down a year of preparation into bite-sized pieces. If a marathon course might take me six hours of running, and I could take twelve months to prepare, then in six months I would need to be capable of running for three hours, in three months I'd need to be up to 90 minutes of running, in only one month I should be up to running for thirty minutes. This all averages out that I should be able to run one more minute today than the day before.

So I did that. I started running just a minute at a time, or a minute more than the day before, or each running portion of the day should be slightly longer than the longest running portion of the day before. Here's what happened.
Day 1: 2 minutes; day 2 - 3.5 minutes; day 3 - 5.5 min; day 5 - 9 min; day 7 - 12.75 min; day 8 - 16 min; day 9 - 29 min; day 12 - 40 min; day 13 - 54 min.
Well that went faster than I'd expected. I ran no more than 3-days in a row, and those last two days included no walking at all. I had switched from intervals of jogging / walking and tried my local route with no walking. And on that last day, I'd completely stopped paying attention to the clock or my mileage and just ran until I was ready to stop.

I'm still stunned by that. In two weeks of training, I went from 2 minutes of running and interspersing running with walking intervals to running for 54 minutes without stopping. Apparently I was in better shape than I thought.

But because I had two major dance weeks ahead of me in April and May (General Skills certification training in ATS® and then Tribal Fest), I put running training on hold. I didn't want to risk either injury or being too exhausted to do my very best in class or performance. But now I've been home for two weeks and, having finally caught up on my fitness records, noticed a distinct lack of training on my spreadsheet. So today I went out for just a small jog, light hills, just a quick 9 minute trip outside. It felt wonderful.

I may have to break up my training into bite-sized pieces to fit into my daily schedule (10 minutes here, 20 minutes there), but to be back on track I should be up to 79-minutes of running today. I last left off two months ago at the 54 minute mark. I should be on track in two weeks.

I love these pursuits. First marathon: Here I come. There are 275 days left until the LA Marathon.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

More Preparedness

Making the transition from full-time student to part-time teacher is requiring more preparation time. Last night, I spent some time re-sorting all my workout clothing, my performance clothing, my performance jewelry, my dance shoes, and my workout bags. I've rounded up all my notebooks from various classes for the past three years, and poised them next to me on my desk with all the intention to start digitizing my notes. I use a cross-platform system called Evernote so that I can make notes on my phone, laptop, or tablet at anytime. I also tend to format my notes in Word or Excel when I need a printed version on occasion.

I've been collecting various teaching syllabus notes from different websites and teachers over the years. Now I'm in the place where I can start creating my favorite teaching syllabus, just those small tweaks for how to fit the material to my various students, teaching environments, and calendar constraints.

I always knew teachers worked hard. And I've always put efforts into my training materials for various textile classes I've presented over the years. But some days I can hardly believe I'm in this place already: Implementing my ideas and notes over the years.

I've often pictured in my head having a teacher log book that keeps track of which elements various students have learned so far. I now have a draft for my student records, and only by using it will I be able to figure out whether it has all the features I need. I also have been dreaming of a workbook / handouts for various courses and individual classes. I need to start working on those, based on the various personal study aids I created for myself over the past three years. And then I've been thinking about how to present this material as an *option* that isn't mandatory. I don't want students who are *not* paperwork-oriented in their learning style to be intimidated by my study guides.

What a joyful stage this is for me, chewing on my ideas and implementing my solutions. I'm entirely in my element right now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Post-first-class Success

I think that the post made mere minutes after I left my student's house sums up the awesome that was last night.
Brilliant, flashing movements. Bells and drums. Cats fascinated by human-sized cat toys. Isolations of body parts, while coming together in unity. Meditation of the body, exercise of the mind. #BellyDancing with Cat Ellen was a revelation. Thank you, my sister.
I could not be more pleased at my first run at a first lesson. I felt prepared (with the exception of having not packed my iPod speakers). I felt strong in my technique and my articulation skills. And I felt so much gratitude that my approach to dance was met with so much enthusiasm.

I'm on the right path. This brings me so much relief.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Making the Transition

Tonight is a major transition for me. It's the first night that I am officially going to someone's home to teach them ATS®. Since the first hour of the first class of the first level, I knew I wanted to teach this dance form. But now I'm just a few minutes from getting into my car and driving to the appointment. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm nervous. But then again, I've been working non-stop for three years to get here. Just a month or two ago, my regularly weekly schedule included class or rehearsal four nights per week, 10.5 hours of dance per week. In April, I spent 20-hours over four days in an intensive workshop earning my General Skills (GS) certification from Carolena Nericcio. In May, I went to Tribal Fest for the third time, spending 16 hours in another 8 classes.

But it's here. My first day preparing to teach. I can only hope that I do all my teachers proud, to arrive prepared, to teach with care and compassion and skill and good technique, and share this passion and love I have for this dance and this community.

Here we go.
One of my favorite drawings, a gift given to me by Lynn (@cavalaxis) from