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.



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.

Improv vs. choreography

The beating heart of American Tribal Style® bellydance is dancing improvisationally with a group.  The entire structure of our art form — movements, formations, even posture — is set up to facilitate improvising.  Improv is fun, too; it lets you connect with your partners in the moment and have a conversation, a shared energy, that audiences really respond to.

I’ve been part of sets that are entirely improv — where even who comes out of the chorus is supposed to happen in the moment, organically (eek!).  This can be fun for practice, but it’s really scary in performance, especially if you’re not used to dancing with this particular group.  And because the dancers look unsure, it doesn’t often make for great performance.

So sometimes we choreograph all or part of a set.  And that’s okay.  It’s not “against the rules.” And if you’re thoughtful about where you use choreography, it can really enhance a set.

Here are some reasons we might use choreography in performance.

1. Your dancers are of varying levels, but want to make a great impression.

When you’re working with a group of mixed levels, sometimes giving them an ATS®-style choreography to perform allows them to relax and focus on their energy and faces.  They can settle into the sequence of the steps, and don’t have to worry about what’s coming next.

Here’s a great example: BlueDiamondsBellyDance, the umbrella student group of FCBD®, choreographed their section of the epic Tribal Fest 2014 performance, starting at 2:30. And they really nailed it.

2. You have a strange performance area, and want to use it to good effect.

The Tribal Fest® stage is a perfect example of this.  It’s very wide, but only about 9 feet deep; that means our normal approach of chorus in back and featured dancers in front won’t work well.  Many of the large-group ATS® performances you see at Tribal Fest are choreographed for this very reason.

Check this out: FatChanceBellyDance® at Tribal Fest 2012. The second piece, in particular (the one with the sword duet and two trios) shows how a larger group can create a dramatic tableau on such an oddly-shaped stage. And the last piece with the duets creates such a great lateral movement.

3. You have a strange piece of music, and want to rock those transitions.

Have a look at Daruma’s piece at Cues and Tattoos 2014. They really kicked it down with some Taiko drumming, and because they choreographed, they nailed some dramatic transitions and wowed everybody!

4. It’s a big event, and you really want to wow the audience.

If you trust your fellow dancers, you can take a hybrid approach and just choreograph the transitions.  Here’s Tessera’s piece at Cues and Tattoos 2014 (with special guest Wendy Allen):

We choreographed a few things here.

  • the transition into the diagonal trio at 3:57
  • the transition into the hand-holding quartet at 6:25
  • the transition out of the hand-holding quartet into the duet with me and Wendy, at 6:37
  • the transition into the dueling duet with Chico Four Corners, starting around 7:15
  • the Rush Hour variation with Arabic Hip Twist Flourish, at 7:50

Choreographing the transitions puts structure to the song.  We can improvise within the structure, though, so there’s both an organic feel and an effective presentation.

We shouldn’t always rely on choreography, but it’s ok to sprinkle it in here and there when the situation calls for it. Where do you put your choreography?  How do you use it for good effect?

Makeup for performance: the daytime outdoor gig

My very first time seeing tribal improv live was at the Farmers’ Market in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The dancers brought a carpet to dance on, and drummers, and created such a wonderful spectacle with their wide variety of bodies and faces and skill levels.  They brought so much joy to the people who thought they were just coming to the market for the vegetables.

To this day, street fairs and similar casual outdoor gigs are my favorite venue to perform in.  They’re a great opportunity to share our joy with the general public who wasn’t expecting to see something so delightful.

Makeup for this gig is interesting.  On the one hand, these gigs are probably going to be marketing opportunities for your studio, so you want your face to look accessible and friendly.  You want potential new students to think, “hey, I could do that.”

On the other hand, you still want to create a spectacle, and you still want to create enough of an exotic  look so that someone walking by doesn’t think, “Oh, that’s just Janet from the office in fancy duds.”  You still want your look to be removed from the everyday.

Here’s one way to achieve that.

Step 1: Sunscreen.


This is important, ok?  I like a lightweight cream sunscreen for my face (the purple tube) and a spray sunscreen for everything else.  Don’t forget your back, and neck, and chest!  And midsection!

Yes, I use a foundation that has SPF.  But I still put a layer of sunscreen on underneath.  I live in California, and that sun can get intense.  You could also use a tinted moisturizer that has SPF, if you like, but me:  I FRY.  So this is what Step 1 looks like before I rub it in:


Seriously.  Do not skimp on the sunscreen.  Remember that you can get burned even through clouds or — because this is San Francisco — fog.

(Depending on the texture of your sunscreen, you may find that your makeup slides around a little bit as a result.  Don’t worry, some tips and tricks for dealing with that are coming your way!)


Step 2: Primer.

Face and eyelids.  Here’s what I use.



Step 3: Foundation, contour, blush, highlight.

For foundation, I use one of the normal, day-to-day foundations that I often reach for: a pressed powder from bareMinerals.  (I’ve got very sensitive skin, and the mineral makeup doesn’t seem to irritate it at all. )

Use what makes you feel good.  I don’t recommend liquid, though; I feel like the powder helps set the sunscreen a little bit to prevent too much sliding around.  But that’s my personal experience, of course, and yours may differ.


For contour, I used a pressed powder that is a few shades darker than my foundation.  I put it in standard contouring places:  under cheekbones, under jawbones, on temples, and around the forehead.

IMG_6475 IMG_6476


For highlight and blush, I’m using these from the “Rock Star” palette from theBalm.  I am in love with this palette.

IMG_6479Blush goes on the cheekbones.  Highlight goes on top of blush, over eyebrows, maybe on the nose if you want.

Blend the heck out of all of that.


Step 4: Eyeshadow.

For daytime gigs, my troupemate Jesse turned me on to a black and gold eyeshadow look.  They’re both neutrals, but just bold and blingy-enough that it sets you apart from your daily routine.  And the gold keeps it light, a dramatic look that’s still good for daytime.

First up, the gold.  I’m using Blitz from the Urban Decay original “Vice” palette — lots of great metallics in here — but use whatever metallic gold you want.

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Next, the black.  I’m using Black Market from the same palette.  Any matte black should work well, though.  Put it in the crease and just under the outside part of the inner lid.

IMG_6488 IMG_6489


Then blend.  After blending, I will sometimes put another layer of gold on top to really lighten things up.  Here’s the finished eyeshadow look.



Now is a good time to give yourself a dose of setting spray.  This one’s my favorite.





Step 5: Eyelashes.

Normally I would always wear lashes, even to a daytime gig, because they really finish off the look and keep things interesting.  Here are the lashes I was going to wear — not as crazy as for stage, but still interesting and bold.


… but I was having issues with the eyelash glue, and my hands were shaky since I’d had coffee but no real breakfast at this point, so I gave up and went a different route:  lots and lots of mascara.

I would definitely not recommend this for stage or any nighttime affair, but if there’s one gig where you can get away with just mascara, it’s the daytime outdoor gig.

I did two types of mascara:  first, a thickening mascara from Makeup For Ever, and second, a lengthening mascara called They’re Real! from Benefit.


Step 6: Eyeliner.

(Or you could do this before the lashes.  Up to you, of course.)

I didn’t do anything fancy with liner today – I don’t normally for daytime gigs.  Liquid on the top lash line (I like the Illamasqua brand), no crazy cat eye, but you could go that route if you wanted.  Pencil about a third of the way in on the bottom lash line.


Step 7: Eyebrows.

I FORGOT TO DO MY EYEBROWS.  SERIOUSLY, GUYS, DON’T DO THIS.  Luckily, my troupemate Sofia had some brown pencil with her and I was able to fix it later.

Step 8: Lips!

Pencil, lipstick, and a little bit of glitter eyeshadow in the pout to finish it off.  But when I leave the house, I just do pencil – it’s enough to help the look appear finished, but you’re not going to eat off your lipstick before you get to the gig.

I always pack a mirror, lipliner, and lipstick with me so I can get those things done before I go on.

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And here’s the finished look!  With the ever-patient Sofia.  (She’s made different — and equally lovely — makeup choices.  Remember there’s no real right or wrong here, just be mindful of why you’re making the choices you’re making, and be creative.)




Tribal Fest 14 Recap

Yep, it’s taken me over a week to process Tribal Fest 14.  It’s always such an intense experience, with dancers coming from all over the world.  And it’s a nonstop barrage of people — some of whom you know, and some of whom know you — which is a lot to handle for this introvert.

I only came up Saturday and Sunday – Saturday to perform, shop, and take a workshop with the lovely Devi Mamak, and Sunday to work at the FCBD® booth.  That means I missed seeing the lovely ladies and gent of Ebb & Flow performing on Friday night.  Ebb & Flow is a group of skilled ATS® dancers who are all based in the East Bay of the San Francisco area, led by Wendy Allen and Sandi Ball from FatChanceBellyDance®.  Check out this beautiful choreography.

(Yes, it’s choreo, and yes, that’s okay in ATS®, in case you’re curious.  FatChanceBellyDance® has always done some choreo, especially for big stage shows, or where we want to make the best use of a strange space like the very wide and shallow Tribal Fest stage.  The hallmark of ATS® is still improv, though, and that hasn’t changed.  Stay tuned for another blog post about that; I have many thoughts.)

I also missed Donna Mejia, who is one of my favorite fusion artists and teachers.  If you haven’t taken a workshop with her, please sign up for the first available; it will change how you think about bodies and movement and space.  She doesn’t have her Tribal Fest piece up, but you can go check out her YouTube channel and witness the expansive power of her artistry.

But Saturday was great!

I zoomed up to Sebastopol in the morning to catch my friend Heather Powers for her solo on the Tribal Fest stage.  Heather is an elegant, fluid artist who has joined the management team over at Bright Star World Dance in Portland, Maine, the dance studio I still co-own in name if not in day-to-day.  I’m grateful for her help, and I know my business partner Rosa Noreen is as well.  Check out Heather’s beautiful solo.

And of course there were lots of other performances Saturday, from the sublime to the truly weird.  But that’s okay; Tribal Fest is basically an open stage, not a juried show, and it’s an opportunity for people to express themselves.  It’s where we can all really let our freak flag fly, if that’s what we want.

FatChanceBellyDance® closed the show on Saturday.  There’s been a lot of anxiety and questioning in the broader tribal dance community about what’s been happening at the Mothership, and Carolena wanted a way for us to show the community what’s been going on at the studio.  Her goal was to show everyone that even with the proliferation of studio troupes, that we’re all still connected and enjoying being with each other.

I was point person, which meant I was in charge of wrangling twenty dancers.  TWENTY. But everyone took responsibility for themselves, and everyone showed up on time and was so easy and fun to work with.  And Carolena was happy, which meant we all were happy.  Here is the joyful result of our efforts.  Enjoy!

The ladies of Tessera

I am grateful to be able to create art with many of the studio troupes at FatChanceBellyDance®, Inc.  I am honored and so happy to perform with the founding troupe, FatChance; with the original “sister troupe,” Red Lotus Belly Dance; and with the umbrella student troupe, Blue Diamonds.  And they’re all wonderful, and I enjoy dancing with all of them, for different reasons.

But sometimes, it’s magic.

Tessera Tribal Belly Dance is the newest studio troupe to come out of the FCBD® studio, and its three members have this in common: we have all come from elsewhere to further our dance study.  I’m a FatChance Sister Studio, formerly of Maine, where I co-founded (and still co-own) Bright Star World Dance.  Jesse is also a Sister Studio, formerly of the UK, where she taught and performed as Moirai Tribal.  And Sofia came to SF from Seattle, where she danced with several troupes in the area and honed her signature, elegant style. And we love, love dancing with each other.

Photo courtesy Don Labit Design

Photo courtesy Don Labit Design

Witness tonight’s Rakkasah performance:  entirely improv.  This is what trust feels like.  This is what flow feels like.  This is what bliss feels like.

I want it to always feel this good.

Turbo-Speed Tribal: Prep for a gig in less than an hour

I know dancers who take two hours or more to get ready for a gig.  I understand wanting to take time for yourself, to get the makeup just right, to get all the stuff in your hair.  And I know it takes time to pick out the costume – and goodness knows, sometimes just putting on the jewelry takes ten minutes or more.

But here’s the problem: sometimes the gig itself is ten minutes of actual dancing. And for me, that ratio of getting ready to actual performance time just seems ridiculous.  Or maybe you’re coming from your day job and you just don’t have the time.  Or maybe it’s a morning gig, and you are prioritizing having a slow morning with a cup of coffee and your Facebook feed.

Ladies (and gents), consider this my call to streamline. Here’s how to do it.

1. Make a checklist.
I make my checklists from bottom to top, in three layers.  It helps me stay organized, and keeps me from forgetting anything (like that one time when I forgot a belt, and luckily a fellow dancer had brought an extra)!  It could be a mental checklist, or you could actually write it out. I break it down in the following layers:

Base costume – footwear if applicable, pantaloons, skirts, choli

Second-layer costume – this includes hip wear such as shawls, saye goshe, tassel belt, etc.  This also includes my coin bra, if I’m wearing it, and a formal cover-up.

Jewelry – I don’t write out every bangle, but I want to give myself an overall idea for the look.  Again, bottom to top – so the belly chain comes first, and earrings come last.

I keep my performance jewelry in little hand-decorated and labelled bags that hang from a hook board. My beloved gave me this for Christmas last year. It’s incredibly thoughtful and ridiculously functional.

Hook board for jewelry.  Some bags have rings or necklaces; some are labelled specifically, like the one with the Talakhimt necklace).  My CholiDeco lives in the bag with the bronze circles. The colorful red bag houses my Diva Dreads and hair flowers. Many of these bags are empty because I just had a gig and haven't put all my things away yet.  Note the extra markers for when I want to label more things!

Hook board for jewelry. Some bags have rings or necklaces; some are labelled specifically, like the one with the Talakhimt necklace. My CholiDeco lives in the bag with the bronze circles. The colorful red bag houses my Diva Dreads and hair flowers. Many of these bags are empty because I just had a gig and haven’t put all my things away yet. Note the extra markers for when I want to label more things!

Here’s what a sample list might look like.

Sample gig checklist.

Sample gig checklist.

2. Put on the first layer.
Here’s a tip: If you’re wearing two skirts, put the outside skirt on FIRST, and slide the underskirt on underneath.  Much easier that way!

3. Prep the gig bag.
Put the following into a sturdy, large, presentable tote bag:

  • Second-layer costume
  • Jewelry
  • Your other essentials: pins, eyelash glue, lipstick, hand mirror, zills. Include the set list or CD if you are the person responsible for it.
My new favorite gig bag, from the Something Tribal This Way Comes festival in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's a good size, sturdy, and thematic! And if I have to put it on the ground, I can wash it later.

My new favorite gig bag, from the Something Tribal This Way Comes festival in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s a good size, sturdy, and thematic! And if I have to put it on the ground, I can wash it later.

4. Do your makeup.
There is a lot to this step, and this part will be an entire blog post just by itself. Suffice to say that yes, even when I’m rushed, I still wear false eyelashes.   Such a difference.

I do, however, limit myself to fifteen minutes.  Maybe twenty. Time is of the essence here, and unless you’re doing a photoshoot, it’s okay if it’s not perfect.  You just need to be seen.

I don’t bother with fancy lips at this point – just enough to make the costume look complete as I’m walking into the venue.

5. Do your hair.
For me, with my pixie cut, I have two options: I either do a casual headwrap, or I wear my Diva Dreads.  But if I’m rushed, there is no two ways about it – it’s Team Headwrap all the way.

I think this step would take me a lot longer if I had a lot more hair. We shall see!

6. Put on your “travel” coverup.
For me, this is usually my FCBD® hoodie.  It’s a little more casual and covered than the formal coverup.

With the beautiful Sofia and Jesse. Photo courtesy Don Labit Design.

With the beautiful Sofia and Jesse. Photo courtesy Don Labit Design. OG represent!

7. Get to the gig before call time.
Just a few minutes will do. You don’t want to be stressed out, and you have more work to do!  And now you don’t have to occupy your brain with anxiety about being late.

Once you arrive, put on the rest of your costume.  If there is a green room, great!  If not, find a restroom or unobtrusive corner to continue adorning yourself.

8. Dance your set!
This is the best part.  And remember – this is supposed to be fun.