Many years ago I went to a workshop with one of my teachers and was told I danced just like her. Well, you would have thought that I won the lottery because I was so thrilled that someone thought I danced like one of my teachers. As a beginner student my identity was influenced and molded by the styles and methods of a multitude teachers. And as I grew my awareness grew not only in regards to our dance form but also in my observation of dancers and the many levels of training it takes to become the best. An interesting quote that I like puts levels of dance into perspective;
“Beginning belly dancers knows nothing. Intermediate dancer knows everything and is too good to dance with beginners. 3. A hotshot dancer is too good to dance with anyone. 4. Advanced belly dancer dances everything especially with beginners.”
As I progressed through my classes and workshops something interesting happened. I acquired combinations and gestures from the teachers I studied with but I didn’t know what to do with them once I got home and started to practice.
I saw how beautiful the moves looked on each of the dancers that I admired but when I tried to move like them, I lacked the natural grace they had. I thought it was because I just needed to practice and the need to get comfortable with the choreography. In the end I just didn’t move like my teachers and there was a part of me that felt like I never would. I had to learn that the moves had to become a part of who I was first and only than would they become “my” moves. This meant that I could admire my teachers but at the same time separate my “identity” and dance the combinations my way.
“Great artists are people who find ways to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.” –Margot Fonteyn
The funny thing is that I didn’t develop my own “identity” until I was dancing for about ten years. So there were many years that I danced without knowing who I was or that the dance had to come from within in me. As a matter of fact I didn’t know that it had to come from within me because I was too busy dancing outside of me. It only occurred to me one day because a fan came up to me and said “I know you, you’re what’s her name”. Come to find out she was thinking of another dancer that I looked like and danced like. I came home and realized that I had to reinvent myself and start to understand what I wanted from this dance.
Push came to shove because of an experience I had at a restaurant in Dallas. I auditioned for the owner and was told to go home and learn how to belly dance.
It was a harsh lesson but one I learned from and will never forget.
There were two roads that I could have traveled. One was to quit dance all together and the other was to prove him wrong. Since I love a challenge I decided to prove him wrong. I went home and started back to square one. This was liberating because I worked from the inside out. First I decided to do moves that only felt good in my body. Secondly I decided to change how I put moves together and to go outside the box of “safe” moves. I changed what was right for me and let go of ideas that just didn’t fit me anymore. Every teacher has her view of dance and as we learn we need to decide what to keep and what to let go and know that this is ok. I decided that there was certain ways that I preferred to dance than what I was told. So I decided to follow my instincts and go for it. All of a sudden as a few months passed a dancer emerged from within me that I hadn’t seen before. I danced for up to four hours a day and kept it up for about three months. I than went back to the same restaurant and auditioned again. The restaurant owner smiled at me and said “So you learned how to belly dance.” And I was hired that day.
“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”
When I started to teach I realized something that is very important. It is recognizing when to let a student go so they can develop their own “identity”.
One or two things will happen if you don’t know when to cut the ties. The student will eventually become dissatisfied with your knowledge or they will question every move and technique that you teach in class. I love questions and I think questions are necessary but there also has to be respect, on both ends.
I also went through an “identity crises” with a few of my teachers. You can only be a “star student” for so long. I felt that my ability wasn’t being appreciated and that they were acknowledging me only through their own accomplishments. If I did a good job of dancing than that meant that my teacher did a good job of teaching. After a while I just wanted to do a good job of dancing on my own, period. A few of my teachers didn’t understand this and took it personal when I left. The appreciation will always be there because each teacher is in me when I dance. They are apart of my confidence and ability as a dancer. So as a teacher I learned to give my students the open door policy. This way they are in class because they want to be. And they can leave knowing I am proud of them and happy for them.
“The instrument by which the dance expresses itself is also the instrument by which life is lived: the human body.”
Have you ever seen a dancer perform who is trying too hard to impress everyone? I have and I realized this was a good lesson in “not what to do”. Your “self identity”
can’t be forced, it has to evolve along side with you. Does it ever occur to any of us that we must first impress ourselves? We must live dance in order to perform dance. This means being aware of how we feel about dance. It is so important to feel moves because if our audience doesn’t understand belly dancing visually they can understand it emotionally. So part of understanding our “self identity” is to welcome our audiences into our dance. We than welcome them not only in how we live life but how we understand life.
Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself.
Coming back to New Mexico five years ago really tested my newly found “self identity” that had emerged in Texas. Back home people remembered me by how I danced before I left. So I was a little apprehensive becoming apart of my dance community again. But the one thing that I brought home with me was a stronger vision of who I am as a dancer. A friend of mine saw me dance in a show and told me, “You left a girl in this dance and came back a woman.” Now when I perform people remember my name and I remember to open up to my audience. I am finally proud of who I am in this dance. But I didn’t get here alone. My “self identity” became what it is because I have amazing women supporting me. As a favorite saying goes “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle”.