A student of mine emailed me a little while back to tell me that her new sensei was interested in having me come to do a demo at his dojo, and talk a bit about any relation between bellydance and martial arts. I studied Parker-style kenpo for some years, and this topic was of interest to me – I see a number of parallels between martial artist and dancer.

Subsequent conversations with the sensei turned up that this was a miscommunication – he wanted me to come see a demo of their classes at his dojo. Apparently he saw his new student’s dance teacher as a potential sale…  My student – a lovely and insightful woman – was disappointed; she wanted to hear about those parallels. Most of what I have to say on the subject is about approach, philosophy, and state of mind, not similarities of the movements themselves. I thought to myself, I may not have a room full of captive martial arts students to talk to, but I sure as heck have a blog.  🙂

Practice Practice
In both arts, the first step is to practice a move over and over again again until it enters “muscle memory” and happens as naturally as breathing. Pay attention to the move; note how it feels internally, execute it slowly, break it into its component parts. Then repeat it. Don’t just execute it a few times until you “get it” mentally – repeat it until you absorb it fully, without having to think about how it is done.

Alignment is Key
Both arts, done properly, involve a deep attention to the internal – which muscles are engaged in the torso, where is weight placed, etcetera. These things, often not visible themselves, are the foundation of how powerful a move is. If you aren’t harnessing the power of the muscles of your waist, your punch will lack force. If you aren’t engaging all your abdominals, your undulations will lack depth and fluidity.

Surrender to the Moment

“A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
-Bruce Lee

I think of this quote frequently in terms of improvisational dancing. When the music calls, I do not move. It moves all by itself. Dancers respond to the music without conscious thought the way martial artists respond to opponents without conscious thought. Practice is the time to think. Once you hit the sparring ring or the stage, you have to let go. In both a performance and a fight, if you have to think about how to execute a move, you’ve already lost.