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?

A meditation on body love.

I’ve never been a small person, in any dimension.

I’m tall and muscular, not petite or skinny. My shoulders are broad, and I don’t fit in a lot of clothing made for women. My arms and legs are long; when I buy tailored shirts or long-sleeve cholis, sometimes they barely cover my elbows. And skinny jeans?  Forget it. They barely fit over my calves. I take up space.

Bracelets made for dancers’ upper arms? Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can wear them on my forearms.  I’m not kidding.  I’ve seen my troupemates wear the same bracelet on their biceps that I wear as a bangle.

Sometimes I find this discouraging, but this is how I’m built. I’ll never be petite.

In my non-dance life, I’ve been going to a truly wonderful gym with truly wonderful trainers and community, and I’ve been lifting heavy things and building muscle. Just this week, I deadlifted my own bodyweight (and trust me, that’s a significant number).

And this morning, despite the number on the scale, I’m grateful that I have a strong body, a reasonably flexible body.  Not all of us are so lucky.

Today, I celebrate my ability to lift heavy things, shake my shoulders and hips, wear and shimmy with two skirts with ease, build a hair garden of epic proportions and not have it look out of place. Today I celebrate that ATS® looks good on my body, just as it looks good on every other body around the world.

The hair garden of epic proportions. Backstage at TF 15.

The hair garden of epic proportions. Backstage at TF 15.

What do you celebrate about your body today?

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Diva Dreads for short hair: the video tutorial!

Lots of folks at ATS® Homecoming have been asking how I put the dreads on my head, so by popular request, here’s a video tutorial version of the photo tutorial I posted last year.  Enjoy!

Apologies that the top of my head got cut off – I’m still learning best practices for using iMovie on my phone! But for reference, here are two photos that Brandie took of me when I stopped by her booth to prep for the fashion show.

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Photo by Underground Nomads

When “doing the best you can” isn’t good enough

When you’re playing on a sports team, and you lose the game, you lose the game.

When you’re taking a test, and you don’t know the answer, you just don’t know the answer, and there is no “A” for effort.

When you’re giving a presentation at work, and you mess it up or screw up the sales pitch, you’re done. You don’t get a second chance.

When you’re in dance class, you can apologize to your dance partners before and after an exercise.  You can explain what you were thinking when you screwed up.  You can try new things, and maybe they don’t work out.  It’s okay to make mistakes in class.  That’s what class is for.  That’s why you’re there.

But when you’re performing, you get one shot.

In class, Carolena talks about “feeling the fear” of being onstage, and how necessary that mindset is to provide a flawless show.  If you mess up dramatically and visibly on stage, I guarantee that almost no one in the audience will be thinking “well, that was weird and I didn’t really like that, but I suppose she did the best she could.”  Nope. The audience member leaves thinking “wow, that was weird and awful.” Or maybe they forget your performance entirely.

In other words, if you go on stage thinking “oh, I’ll just go out there and do the best I can,” frankly, you won’t. Per Carolena, you need to feel the fear.  You need to go onstage and be flawless.

Does this scare you?  It should.  Performances should be scary.

You might get to apologize to your dance partners, but you don’t get to apologize to the audience.  They already have their experience; they don’t care about your explanation or excuses.


Here’s an example.

I’d had a long day at the office, but I’d promised Carolena I’d show up to be a student for a taping for the PowHow classes.  So I came to the studio, put on some makeup, and tried to transition my brain quickly from Nerdy Day Job Brain into Dancer Brain.  It takes some time, you know, to transition mentally as well as physically.

But the taping started right away. Carolena had been there all day, as had some of the other “students,” and I was one of a couple people who was coming to provide a boost of energy at the end of a long taping day.  I had to make a really quick transition, because we started with recording the drill portion, and somehow I found myself in the lead.

“Ok,” I said to Carolena, thinking I was showing a great positive attitude, “I’ll do the best I can.

But that’s not what she wanted to hear, and rightly so.  There was no time or space or energy for “the best I can.”

“No,” she said, “you will do it.


If you’re practiced at feeling the fear, you can move past the sheer terror of stage fright and use the adrenaline of being on stage, combined with your skill and presence of mind, to bring the most high-energy, flawless, immersive performance that audience has ever seen.  There will be no room in your brain to make a mistake.

“The best you can,” in performance, is a cop-out.  As an audience member, I want you to be magical.