The end of an era

I first came to 670 S. Van Ness in April of 2010. I was visiting from Maine, in town for General Skills. I remember walking down 18th, turning left at the Whiz Burger and rounding the corner onto South Van Ness, and slowly realizing… I was not alone. There was a group of women, different ages, sizes, faces, wearing skirts and cholis, congregating in the driveway as if they belonged there.

And they did, of course. They were all just early. Carolena arrived – what a presence! – and opened the door to the Mothership.

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That was the beginning. Since then, I’ve been there countless times, connecting with other dancers and connecting with my own body and my own heart. This is a sacred, transformative space. And I’m only one of the newest people to participate.

Fast forward six years. There have been twists and turns, friends gained and lost, and countless connections forged in this space. I have met new friends from around the world; I have danced with people who barely spoke English. I have calloused my aching feet on that famous squeaky floor.

I never aspired to teach as part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching faculty. Really. I wanted to work hard and refine my technique, and if I happened to be invited, I would have welcomed it gladly. But it was never an aspiration.

I’ve been part of the teaching faculty for two years now. What a gift. For people in this community, it’s the ultimate honor: to teach at the Mothership.

Today, I taught my last classes in this space.

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Forgive the blurriness. It was humid today in the studio and I hadn’t wiped off the lens.

We’re not stopping, of course. We’re moving next door for a while, and will be expanding into additional spaces in the Bay Area soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not bittersweet to leave this transformative, beautiful space.

Farewell, Mothership. Here’s to the next evolution.

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Build a better lip

It takes a lot of practice to develop an open-looking, natural smile on stage. Because of the effort, it’s easy to develop a tight smile when we perform. This tightness in the lips and jaw can create a straight horizontal line at the bottom of our lips, which leaves our faces looking small and closed-off.

Luckily, makeup can help, at least a little! In this quickie tutorial video, learn a little technique for making your smile appear more expressive and natural on stage.

(Credit and thanks to Sofia for passing along the Lip Tar to me… it’s a favorite.)

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Bad dress rehearsal, good show

There is an old theatre superstition that a bad dress rehearsal will lead to a great show. And sometimes… sometimes it’s really true. Here’s a story.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Maine to reconnect with the studio I co-founded, Bright Star World Dance, and teach and perform in conjunction with the studio’s five-year anniversary show.

Diana Saylor drove up from Connecticut to perform with me. I love dancing with Diana — we hear the same things in the music, and I feel a high degree of calm, mutual trust when we dance together. Sometimes you find dance partners that just click, and Diana is one of those people for me. We discussed the set and costuming via e-mail ahead of time, prepared to just show up and improvise together.

When we finally saw each other on Friday night, we danced the set before the show. Our minds were in other places, however, and we weren’t connected with each other, we weren’t connected with the music, and I think I even screwed up a couple of steps.

Our run-through was absolutely terrible. It was SO bad.  And of course the other performers were watching our rehearsal; our awful mistakes were on vivid display.

I was thinking: Diana came all this way and I’m a terrible dance partner! I feel so disappointing! I wanted to run it again several more times, until it felt easy and natural.

But she said no. “We’ll just solidify all of those mistakes. Bad dress rehearsal, good show.”

We both finished our costume and makeup, and mentally prepared. We did our gratitude meditation in the little curtained-off backstage area, Diana’s bracelets clinking quietly. I breathed.

I took another deep breath as we walked through the audience to enter. I let go of everything else in my head, and turned my attention to the muscles in my mid-back allowing my arms to move.

And then suddenly, everything was all right: I could feel connected again, to the music, to my dance partner, to my body, to the audience. I stopped thinking so hard — I think we both did — and just focused on feeling connected, letting the dance play itself out. And it was good, really good.

Bad dress rehearsal, good show.

 

How to give and receive critique

In my day job, I am part of a small team of designers at a software company.  When I first started at the company, the developers weren’t helpful when asked for their thoughts on pending designs, providing useless critique like “I don’t like it,” or “that just looks ick.”  (Actual quote.)

I wanted to work with them, but they didn’t understand how to give feedback that was meaningful or actionable.  To solve this problem, we held a session on giving and receiving design critique.  The session went over well, and now the teams are collaborating better than ever. (Go read this version of the story; it’s better than I could explain.)

In dance as in life: I’ve been thinking about how we give and receive feedback to each other in dance performance.  I’ve noticed that critique tends to fall into one of three camps:

  1. Entirely positive, and very general.  I call this the “puppies and unicorns” critique.  “You’re such great dancers!  You’re so much fun to watch!!”
  2. Entirely negative, usually given behind someone’s back.  “This is awful,” someone will say.  “Those guys shouldn’t be on stage.”  Or my favorite, “this isn’t bellydance.”
  3. Silence.

None of these critique methods, of course, are helpful.  None of them help the dancers become better dancers. And while developing a critical eye towards your own performances is important, sometimes it’s good to get other people’s advice.

So here are some guidelines, pulled from design critique methodology, to help us all provide excellent feedback for each other.

If you are asking for critique:

  1. Ask for what you want. If you’re genuinely asking for feedback, say so! If you’re just sharing something because you want support, a phrase like “Check out this video – we had such a fun time!” will give your audience a clue.
  2. Be specific. It’s okay to ask for general critique, but you’ll get better advice if you ask for thoughts on something specific you’re concerned about: “Do you think that particular combination worked well?”

If you are offering critique:

  1. Make sure your opinion was asked for. Just because someone puts something on YouTube doesn’t mean they’re asking for your thoughts. If you’re not sure if critique is welcome, you can check in: “Thanks for sharing this! Are you looking for any feedback?”
  2. Ask what kind of advice they’re looking for. Maybe you’re focused on their costuming choice, but they are wondering if their formations played well on stage. “Are you looking for any specific ideas?” is a great question to ask.
  3. Be specific. If someone is genuinely asking for your advice, telling them “that was great!” isn’t helpful. If all you have is praise, you can be specific with your praise: “I particularly enjoyed the way you responded to the music when it changed tempo, it was very dramatic.”
  4. Assume good intentions. If there is something you didn’t enjoy, be kind. Some ideas:
    • “It seemed like your shimmies weren’t as bouncy as they normally are. Were you having an off day?”
    • “I’m not sure that costume worked well – it didn’t feel like it matched the music to me.”
    • “I think you need to work a bit on your posture. Your dancing was lovely, but your arms didn’t match the rest of your troupe, and I found it a little distracting.”

If you are receiving critique:

  1. Thank the person. The person who is offering their advice (hopefully) took time to offer you thoughtful, focused critique. Check your ego. If you argue or get defensive, they are unlikely to provide you feedback again.
  2. Take it to heart. Ultimately, you own your dance. It’s up to you to weigh the person’s critique and decide if you want to incorporate their feedback for next time. But at least consider it – there’s a reason you asked them for their advice in the first place!

How do you give and receive dance critique?