I don’t know about the rest of you, but I always go through a few weeks this time of year where I want to curl up on my couch with my cats and my tea and pretend the world outside doesn’t exist. Since I tend to recover before we even hit the solstice, I’m currently theorizing that, as a non-morning person, the changing of the clocks deals a shock to my system that it takes me a few weeks to recover from. All of a sudden *WHAM* I lose a full hour of daylight. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I’m not among those who feel this way all winter.

The point being, it’s high time I posted something.

A little while ago, one of my students asked me for advice not just on what material to practice, but *how* to practice. It’s certainly something I’ve thought about myself, for my own dance sessions, but I’d never really gathered the bits of thought together into a coherent body. This post finds its seed in my email reply to her; I’m indebted to her for asking the question. 🙂

Many beginner videos are geared more towards the teaching of technique than structuring practice, and often the more advanced ones only add drilling. Time in class is usually spent this way as well. So what to do when you are practicing on your own between classes/workshops/etc? You’ll want to make sure you start with a warm-up and end with a cool down, but what goes in between?

My students hear the phrase “muscle memory” from me all the time. I can’t overstate its importance to a dancer. Often in class, a workshop, or with a video, we work on a move until we “get it” intellectually. But that isn’t enough. To be able to incorporate it into our dance we have to absorb it at a level below that, so we can fire off the move without have to think about how it is done. That requires practicing it over and over, beyond just understanding it. I recommend both spending time in front of a mirror seeing how it looks, but also some time not watching yourself and just paying attention to how it feels. Then try putting on some music and playing with the move, getting a sense for how or if it fits in to the song you’re listening to.

I also like tackling new moves frequently in short bursts – I think hammering away at a move for 45 minutes does little beside create a wall, something of a mini-burnout. Try practicing it for 15 minutes before switching focus to something else. Also, those little 2-5 minute “practices” dancers are known for sneaking into grocery lines, moments alone in the elevator, waiting at the bus stop? They work. When I worked in an office I used to repeat whatever new technique I was working on a couple of times every time I went to the ladies’ room. I found those mini-bursts of practice really helped advance my dancing.

Drills help with gaining and maintaining that muscle memory, but they are also important for building and maintaining strength and endurance. OK, you can shimmy – how long can you sustain it? How solid are your moves en releve after a month’s hiatus? That’s what you gain from drills.

But there’s more to dance practice that the moves. Dancing isn’t just a demonstration of technique.

Just listening to Middle Eastern music frequently will help with dancing – play it as background music or in your car – you don’t have to concentrate on it, just absorb it into your subconscious so you start to get a feel for the rhythms, mode changes, etc. The more you listen, the more familiar it feels – you can feel the beat rather than counting it, learn the breaks in the well-known songs, and get that sense that you know what is about to come next even in a piece you’ve never heard before, because you’re familiar with the way the music is structured.

Interpreting the Music
People will tell you to shimmy with the qanoun or oud, move your hands with the nay, hip drop on the drum. Those are great guidelines, but it’s not dancing unless you understand why – unless you feel it. As a dancer you are interpreting the music; that’s your job. In practicing your ability to interpret the music, you should listen to it and see what it tells you to do. Try different moves out to see what feels right, and what looks right in the mirror. If you’re not sure what works, pick a move and try it out. Didn’t work? Why – too percussive for the music? Not dramatic enough? Use that answer to pick a different move, and try it again.

This is the tough one that makes many students cringe, but to me, at least, this is the heart and soul of Oriental dance. There are a number of exercises for practicing improvisation, such as:

  • Choose one default move for the song. Whenever your mind goes blank, go back to that move.
  • Create yourself a short list of moves you can use – maybe three. You can use them as creatively as you’d like, but no other moves. This helps in avoiding that feeling of being too overwhelmed with choices.
  • Play with which moves transition well into other moves. This is an important skill for building choreographies and combinations, too. I find with newer students it works best to start out with transitioning between different flowing moves rather than traveling or percussive ones.

Improvisation is also tough if you haven’t already gained a feel for the music. 😉

Putting it Together
Are you going to have time to do all of the above every time you practice? For most people, probably not. I tend to structure my own practice around how much time I have, what my short term goal is, and what my mood is that day. If my current goal is, for example, to improve my veil work, I’ll spend a little time on any new veil techniques I’m trying to learn, followed by some improvisation with veil to challenge my creativity. If I’m going for stronger shimmies and hip work, I’ll likely spend most of my practice on drills to strengthen my legs and obliques. If I’ve had a rotten day, I’ll probably put on some karsilama and step-hop and whirl my way around the room.

No matter what I’m working on, I always find a little time at the end of the practice just to let loose and have fun. Practicing your love of the dance is important, too!

Questions? Comments? Let me know.  🙂