Who or What Inspires You?
“Borrow” ideas from other dancers
Attend your dancer friends’ events and watch them
Watch DVDs of your favorite performer(s) – what makes them your favorite or what makes them stand out to you?
Try to emulate – Allow yourself to be influenced by your favorites; it’s ok to aspire to dance like someone; ultimately, you will develop your own defined style.
Breathing/mental exercises and warm ups – An excellent way to overcome initial stage fright is to make sure you’re warmed up; prepare by either doing some breathing exercises or general muscle warm up (which you need to do anyway prior to dancing). Mental exercise is also helpful; think positively about how much you’re going to enjoy the music and your dance and about how drop dead gorgeous you look in your fab costume!
Laughter is STILL the best medicine – Think of something hysterical; this will keep you calm, relaxed and with a smile on your face.
Shift your focus – Look out into the “horizon”; this is a good way to begin overcoming stage fright. If you are too nervous, close your eyes and revel in the music. Focus on you, your performance and how beautiful you look.
Make eye contact – WHAT??!! As tough as it is, practice doing this on your own. If you start to do it often, you will eventually feel comfortable enough to look at the audience directly. Do not be intimidated by your audience, make your audience be intimidated by YOU!
Listen to music – All the time – If performing to live music makes you super nervous, make a habit out of listening and spontaneously practicing to music ALL the time; it will help you get accustomed to various routines/patterns and you will be better equipped to anticipate changes and accents in the live performance.
Music selection – When selecting music (either “canned” or live request), dance to what you enjoy and enjoy what you dance to; think about what the song says or how it makes you feel; this will automatically project confidence and translate into a beautiful performance!
Entrances and Exits
Be you – Be yourself, purposeful and deliberate in what you want to convey, but also remember, that when you are performing you are stepping into a larger-than-life character – particularly as an oriental (“belly”) dancer – and you want to let that shine through in your performance, never losing sight of who you truly are.
Be the character you represent – The performance does not begin or end when the music starts/stops; it is the minute you enter/exit the stage. As with musical theater, the actor needs to be in character even waiting in the wings. As belly dancers, we are also actors even though we are representing who we are in our dance style. The minute we put that costume on, we have gone into “belly dancer” mode; therefore, become that gorgeous, sensual, exotic, mysterious dancing diva that the crowd is anticipating!
Know Yourself and Your Craft
Be ready ahead of time. Know your body & feel comfortable with your body and what it can and CAN’T do.
Be aware of your body’s space, distribution of weight and how to use the space in and around you.
Practice, practice, practice! Even Tiger Woods and other top champions practice and/or train on a consistent basis. As well, even the most advanced belly dancers consistently train via workshops, videos and other programs to consistently strive for excellence in performance. This not only applies to rehearsing a choreographed routine, but also improvisational dancing. Doing improvised shows does not mean you should NOT practice. You will only be able to “wing it”, if you are prepared to do so. Some people are naturally gifted in improvisational dancing, but they never stop practicing. No matter how great your last performance was, always look for ways to improve your technique, style and overall stage presentation.
It’s OK to make mistakes! Really…it is! Don’t beat yourself up over it; just use it as a learning tool for the next time. Don’t dwell on the fact that you made a mistake or a few mistakes – acknowledging your shortcomings will only make you a better performer and, if you brush it off, it will help you stay focused on delivering a great performance.
Never let them see you “sweat” – If you forgot part of your choreographed routine, keep moving! Most importantly, don’t let the audience know you forgot, just keep going because chances are, they will not know it if you can hide it well! This is where you have to play somewhat of an actress.
Map out your moves – Have a set number of moves you like to do (or moves which you know you shine in) so that you can map out your routine as you are performing. Also, have some “back-up” moves to stall for time or help you catch your breath as you start getting tired. Trust me, this really works and it will help you avoid mistakes. Examples: If your veil happens to get tangled up, simply continue your performance gracefully by letting the veil go and don’t stop dancing; if your sword happens to wobble and either slip or fall, simply smile, pick it up and/or readjust and continue – DO NOT try to wrestle with your prop or make an obvious “oops-I-screwed-up” face. It’s live theater; anything can happen, but the show must go on!
Professionalism and Backup Plan
What if the audience or other factors (climate or space) does not allow you to express yourself freely or comfortably? What about the music? What happens when tech problems (skipping/damaged CD) make a mess out of your performance? Make lemon out of lemonade! That’s when you, as a dancer, must connect with what and who you are and keep the focus on making the best out of a “not-so-pleasant” situation.
Be prepared with a plan B should the horrific familiar story of the sound system or CD not cooperating occur: e.g. – always have at least one back up CD. Not all CD’s will play in all stereos/radios; if it is the sound system, obviously the audience will know there is a problem so, without raging out of control, quietly ask the sound person to help you. Hopefully, they will have their own plan B to make YOU look good, such as having another CD at their venue which you can use and perhaps improvise to gracefully. Or with lots of class and finesse, apologize to the audience and explain that due to technical problems, etc.
Be professional – Always and without exception, be very professional about everything, regardless of the situation at hand. The audience will appreciate how calm you are under the circumstances and it will add to your reputation as an outstanding performer! This means that you must learn to keep your cool even under the worst of situations: The CD keeps skipping, the crowd is not friendly or maybe you don’t have much of an audience… or even worst, wardrobe malfunction – YIKES!!
YES…. Every dancer’s worst nightmare!! – Prepare your wardrobe ahead of time to ensure comfort and staying power. Ensure all beads/sequins on your costume are reinforced. If they are not, this can make for a potentially hazardous dance routine should they happen to start falling apart all around you in the middle of your show, particularly if you are wearing shoes! Trust me, you will be glad you took the extra time to reinforce the beading and besides that, your costume will have a longer shelf life. You spent enough money on it, so it is best to protect your investment.
Be sexy, Not sleazy – Please, please, please make sure your costume looks sexy, not sleazy – there is a HUGE difference. Those of us who have learned this art correctly go out of our way to educate others that this is indeed a beautiful art form and that we ARE professional dancers as equally as those who perform ballet, modern, tap or jazz. As it is, we constantly feel the need to defend ourselves stressing that we are NOT strippers in spite of the social stigma, bad press and mediocre media presentation that belly dance has received over time. The last thing we need is for a belly dancer to present herself in such a way that will not only make HER look bad, but misrepresent both the art and culture as well.
Have EVERYTHING you need – For all performances,- regardless of the event or venue – have everything you will need (e.g. – wipes, safety pins, hairpins, even a razor!); there is nothing that causes you to lose your focus more on stage than knowing you forgot an extra safety pin which could be holding up your costume a lot better while doing 5,000 shimmies!
Practice in your costume prior to performance – It is critical that you practice in your costume both at home and before you go on stage. Every costume will look and feel different when you dance. You want the audience to focus on your dancing skill and not your drooping bra strap or skirt slipping down with every shimmy. If the venue where you will perform requires that you wear shoes, be sure your shoes are comfortable enough and secure. Again, practice in them at home FIRST and, if possible, in front of a mirror.
Props are wonderful and really add to the mystery of the dance and the performer’s ability. However, the dancer MUST be skilled with that particular prop and should use it sparingly so that the performance is about what SHE can do, not about the prop.
When playing zills (or sagat/finger cymbals), KNOW your rhythms; otherwise please do not play at all! This will make a huge difference in how you express yourself. If the zills are not in sync with the rhythm or are louder than the music, it can make for a sloppy performance and the audience will notice. Additionally, you do not need to play zills ALL the time. It is ok to vary your routine; it shows that you are musical and you know what you are doing as a dancer. However, if you are too dependent on the zills and play them the entire show, it can become overkill and your actual dancing will get lost. Remember that the zills should be an extension of your arms/hands; it should not look as though you’re carrying an instrument that is weighing you down or getting in the way of your performance. You want the zills to enhance your show, not distract from it.
The same rules apply with sword and veil – be sure you know how to use them PRIOR to experimenting in an actual performance. Whenever possible, practice, practice, practice! If you would really like to use a prop and are not as experienced, use it minimally and then gently put it aside to continue your performance. This way, the audience will not know that you are a prop rookie because you will not spend too much time with something you are not as familiar with.
Preparing for Performance: Look and Feel Your Best
Watch every detail and I do mean EVERY detail (e.g. nails, toes, pimples, teeth!) – When you are performing in front an audience (whether large or small), there are multiple eyes watching your every move and they do notice everything! No matter how excellent a show you put on, if they are more concentrated on the fact that you did not get a good manicure, unfortunately, they may go home saying, ‘She was a great dancer, but she had one nail missing!’ Yes, this is unfair because, the truth is, your dance skill is what should stand out rather than that one nail, but the fact is your audience is watching and they take note of it all. So take a look in the mirror and ensure you look your best.
Get some sleep!! – Not only can the audience potentially notice you look somewhat tired, but you will also feel it and that can make for a horrible night of dance. You always want to give it your best on stage and not getting any sleep could negatively impact your performance.
Wash your face every day and night. Stay out of the sun; avoid excessive alcohol/smoking/junk food. Yes, all the things we hear from our doctors and parents all the time! It can be annoying, but it is absolutely true. The more you take care of yourself, both inside and out, the better you will look and feel. This is not only beneficial to you as the dancer, but critical. Remember, all eyes are on YOU – being mindful of these and other habits will only help you in the long run.
Health/Nutrition – Keep well-hydrated, not just when close to show time, but on a daily basis. Always carry a water bottle; make sure you have eaten to supply sufficient energy for the duration of the show/event. Take vitamins/supplements, eat fruits, veggies, etc. Stay active in addition to your belly dance training by practicing regular strength/flexibility/cardio training habits at home. You don’t have to go to the gym to stay healthy and fit.
Avoid things that cause stress. Yes, that’s a tough one because we are all stressed out at various points in our lives. However, there are ways to combat it and you certainly do not want stress to be a major factor when you step out on stage. Anything can happen during a performance if you are stressed … even fainting! The last thing you want is for the paramedics to be called to scoop you up off the stage! If you have a problem with stress, do something therapeutic to help fight it or, as a worst case scenario, see a professional.
BEAUTIFUL HANDS & ARMS
One of the most distracting things is watching a dancer who has wonderful technique but no idea what to do with her hands. I have seen several amazing dancers who lack grace due to sloppy hand placement. Keep in mind that you represent the beautiful, exotic, sensuous and artistic mystique of belly dance and, as such, every nuance about you must be poised and graceful in addition to having precise, well-executed technique. There is no better way to achieve this than through proper placement of hands and arms for overall expression.
Part of Your Body, Part of Your Movement, Part of Your Dance
Remember that your hands and arms are a part of your body and therefore, a significant part of your overall movement and dance. When we walk, we do it with our arms and sometimes when we speak, we use our hands/arms (which is also a cultural thing in many countries). Even when we’re angry or hurt, we use those parts of our body to express our emotions. In other words, our hands and arms are a very important part of our daily body language; hence, they become even more critical in our dance vocabulary.
You should display a natural fluid movement; it should not look robotic, as if you’re trying too hard or as though you’re uncomfortable. Since your hands/arms are a part of your body, they should flow with your body as you perform. There are certain arm movements that are – and should be – second nature to you as a dancer.
If you simply do not know what to do with your hands during a particular dance sequence, a good rule of thumb to use is to always keep them either at your sides or framing your hips. After some experience, you will know what to do with them because it will become habitual.
The How, When, What and Why of Using Hands/Arms
Usually, the dancer uses her hands/arms in such a way so as to evoke great depth of emotion. Since this dance is indeed very emotional and spontaneous, hands and arms will often be used to convey a range of emotions or a particular sentiment.
Other times, the dancer may wish to frame her body while executing a specific move. This deliberate action will help the audience shift its focus to the part of your movement which you will want to accentuate at that time.
Still other times, the dancer wishes to use her hands for balance and even weight distribution while performing. Proper placement of hands and arms also make for a lovely “line” overall from head to toe: It is aesthetically pleasing to the audience because it translates into a polished look.
Keep it Fluid / “Tread Through Water”
Generally, in Oriental Dance, hand and arm movements are extremely graceful and soft. Even when the music speeds up and your body has to keep up with that, your hands/arms should never move at top speed, unless you are deliberately going into a quick spin or are using them to clap and get the crowd going in an upbeat section. Keep in mind that you are expressing emotions with everything that is in you and you should reflect this accordingly. Imagine being under water. When you are under the surface, your entire body moves differently than it would through the air. Think about the movements your hands/arms would make under water and the speed at which they would move. If you remember this, you will always have fluid, lovely moving hands and arms while performing.
Keep a continuous and full range of motion. If you are extending your arm up from your hips to above your head, see it through to the end; do not “skimp” out on the movement.
Fingers, hands, wrists and arms should be extended and relaxed through any movement. Always be aware of your placement; this allows your complete body form to be correct, lifted and/or balanced. This is another time when practicing in front of a mirror would be extremely beneficial.
Take Your Time
Just as was mentioned previously under stage fright”: Take your time and make the audience wait for YOU; they are not going anywhere! It is ok to stop and take a deep breath, allowing your hands and arms to do all the talking for you, slowly and generously. It shows not only what a skilled and professional dancer you are, but also that you are in control at every moment throughout the performance. Considering the world we live in today, where so many things are beyond our control, it certainly feels great to be in control of SOMETHING!
That being said, the beautiful art of Oriental Dance is something we DO have complete control over! It is a testament of our self-empowerment as women in a society that can, at times, do everything possible to tear down our sense of self-worth and value. Anytime you feel the negative impact of circumstances bringing you down, remember you have plenty of reason to feel positive about who you are and, in particular, about your ability to artistically control how beautifully you can move.
In conclusion, be sure to put your best face on! Smile and/or show some kind of expression according to the section or style of music you are interpreting. Do you really believe in this dance and feel what you are performing to? If so, the audience needs to believe it and feel it as well. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”. It is paramount to convey to your audience through your own stage expression that what you feel and are interpreting is authentic. Otherwise, they will not connect to you or appreciate the dance. You can have all the technique in the world and use all the props better than any other dancer, but if you do not exhibit passion in your performance, it will not come across as genuine to those observing. At the end of the day, people want to be entertained by experiencing with you that your dance interpretation is believable. How you deliver your performance is going to be the crucial determining factor in whether people will want more of you or not. Therefore, take your time, allow the music to speak to and move you, and dance as though no one is watching!