On building an ATS® troupe

So you’re a teacher, and you’d like to create a troupe for your students or dance partners. How do you decide who’s in and who’s out?

FatChanceBellyDance®, as an example, famously doesn’t audition its members. Your “audition” starts the moment you walk into your first Level 1 class, and continues throughout your study. Many ATS troupes around the globe follow this model unquestioningly.

But this approach to troupe-building is deeply problematic, and as a community we need to do better. This model discourages clear communication, censures ambition and promotes dishonesty, and creates an environment ripe for gossip and discrimination.

Let’s break it down.

1. This approach discourages clear communication

In the “always auditioning” model, the guidelines for inviting new dancers into the troupe are rarely, if ever, clear – sometimes even to the troupe leader. Dancers who get invited demonstrate some combination of skill, commitment, personality, and perhaps other traits.

Because the “audition” guidelines are never shared, students are continually compared against an unclear standard. They may unwittingly fail without ever being told why. And worse, they are being tested without their awareness or consent.

Contrast this approach with the working world. The best companies encourage clear communication between managers and employees. If an employee is doing well, she knows why, so she can keep doing it. If an employee is having performance problems, the manager addresses these problems early, directly, and frequently, with the assumption that the employee is capable of changing behavior and ultimately succeeding.

Without this shared value of clear communication, the employee will fail, because she is never given the opportunity to improve.

Which would you rather have – a culture of secrecy, or open and transparent guidelines about how to get to the next level?

As a troupe leader, know this: People can’t read your mind, and you shouldn’t expect them to. ATS® as an art form involves interpreting many subtle cues, but you should never expect mind-reading.

2. This approach censures ambition and promotes dishonesty

At FCBD®, my experience was this: The moment a dancer expressed an interest in joining the professional troupe or becoming a teacher, that was the moment it was guaranteed she wouldn’t. Anyone who showed ambition was immediately painted as a “diva,” or sometimes “uppity.”

(For those not aware: “Uppity” is a deeply racially-charged word. Historically, it’s been used to disparage ambitious Black people. When you use this word to disparage someone’s ambition, you are participating in a racist dialogue. My heart sunk when I heard someone I respected describe another dancer in this way.)

This name-calling encourages dishonesty from the most advanced students. Some people are genuinely goal-oriented, and I guarantee there are dancers in your advanced classes who wish to join the professional troupe. If you discourage them from stating their goals out loud, you are encouraging them to lie to you and themselves.

Again, contrast this with the working world. At a company with a healthy culture, if I’d like a promotion, the steps to requesting it are clear:

  1. Express to my manager that I’d like to advance in my career.
  2. Ask her for help in creating a clear path forward, including skill development and opportunities to practice those skills.
  3. Actively work towards the promotion, and re-assess after a time period.

If I succeed in meeting my goals, and the company has the availability to promote me, we move forward.

Students come to dance classes for many reasons; exercise, de-stress, the atmosphere. The most advanced students are advanced for a reason: they have goals and are willing to work towards them. This motivation has to be okay if you want healthy group dynamics.

3. This approach encourages gossip

The “always auditioning” model creates an environment where troupe members are encouraged to talk about potential members. They’re explicitly invited to speculate not only on technique, but also perceived motivation, family life, and personality traits.

Because the student is participating in an audition, not a conversation, the troupe members do not discuss these things with her; they judge her solely on their perceptions. She is never given the opportunity to offer her perspective, or counter the troupe’s speculations.

This is gossip, and is unhealthy.

4. This approach promotes discrimination

We all have implicit biases. I know we’d like to think we’re judging our fellow dancers based solely on skill, but we’re human beings, and that makes us fallible.

When you as a troupe leader don’t create clear advancement guidelines, you don’t create structure to combat your implicit bias. Your troupe will wind up sharing most of your demographics, and then your implicit bias becomes entrenched and institutionalized.

I’m not only thinking about race, of course. Perhaps your professional troupe is multiracial, but is made up entirely of cisgender women over 40. Perhaps the group has people from many age groups, but none are parents. Or perhaps the group doesn’t have any members who have full-time office jobs.

Wouldn’t a greater diversity of thought create better art? The only way to create that diversity is to have clear guidelines to combat implicit bias.


All of that said, there is one benefit to the “always auditioning” model. As a troupe leader, you know that your prospective member is easy to work with and deeply skilled. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re bringing into the troupe. You may even like them. And because they’re “always auditioning,” they’re never allowed to make a mistake.

But the downsides of this approach far outweigh that benefit. Instead, if you want to build a professional troupe and a class environment with positive, healthy dynamics, look to the working world. There are companies with good, supportive cultures that encourage clear communication. Learn how they do it, and apply it to your dance life.

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The bigger picture.

In a few short weeks, I’ll once again be helping to run ATS® Homecoming, an event that gathers the American Tribal Style® community together here in San Francisco. I’ll be running the registration table with Cat Ellen and a few dedicated volunteers; please stop by to say hello when you pick up your name tag.

And come to my workshops! There’s three workshops over the course of the weekend, with room in all:

Many of you have asked after me, and I appreciate it. For me, this event will be bittersweet and hard. A few months ago I was coldly “suspended” from the FatChanceBellyDance teaching collective, with no advance notice or conversation, and with no clear or realistic path to reinstatement. Further, when I announced this, I was subsequently publicly gaslighted when representatives from the collective falsely told the community that it was my choice to leave.

As someone who manages people in my day job, I have a lot to say on how to fire someone with grace, class, and dignity, but for now I’ll say: this ain’t it. All of this bitterness and anger on both sides could have been avoided if someone from FatChance had simply reached out to me first.

But you know what? As a community, we have bigger problems than petty interpersonal crap. We are living in a scary political time, when global nationalism is sweeping the USA and other countries.

Our art form may be uniquely American, but it has its roots in social dances from the Middle East. In addition to the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, many in the Middle East belong to a religion that our incoming government has publicly maligned, leading to intensifying, more public discrimination and violence against our neighbors here at home.

These are frightening times.  The world is painful and scary, and many of us — especially white women — are only just now waking up to how painful and scary it is.

As artists inspired by the Middle East and India, we could just sit back and make art. We could send “thoughts and prayers” to Syria while we lavish ourselves with pounds of antique jewelry from that region. We could set our intentions for global healing as we make art and hope that somehow this changes the world outside of our own heads.

Unfortunately, the most effective currency we have to make change, even as artists, is still currency. Money. While it’s important to support the artists in our community who make costuming and jewelry, or the teachers sharing their knowledge, we need to act in other ways too. Here’s where I’m sending my currency: The American Civil Liberties UnionInternational Rescue CommitteeIslamic Relief USA. And there are so many other organizations worthy of our financial support.

If you have the financial ability to do so, I invite you to join me. The challenges we are facing as a community are bigger than any of us. And they are real, and tangible, and our response should be too.

A new chapter: returning to my roots.

In the early 2000s, I was living in an unfamiliar town, without a lot of friends or family, and was profoundly lonely. I stepped into a group improv bellydance class and found — community. Joy. Support. It was life-changing. And so when I moved across the country to Maine, one of the first things I did was find a bellydance class; I knew exactly how to find community.

As I matured in my dance, and as I grew closer to the the source of ATS®, that focus changed, little by little. Distractions began to pile up.

First it was the obsession with the costume: not just a belt, but the right belt. Not just a skirt, but the right skirt. Ten yards or more, please. And then the makeup: not that lipstick, it’s too neutral. Your bindi isn’t big enough. You need to fix your eyeshadow. Paint your nails. Your eyebrows aren’t right. And the jewelry, oh, the endless jewelry.

(A confession: I despise wearing so much jewelry.)

And then it was the technique, even beyond the quest for perfection: am I doing this right? Is my elbow at exactly the right angle? Is her elbow at exactly the right angle? Should I dance with someone who doesn’t have great technique? Will someone tell me if don’t have great technique? Will someone tell me directly if I’m doing something wrong?

And finally, and most pernicious, the obsession with hierarchy. What are the guidelines for advancing to the next level? Who’s in the troupe, and who’s out?  What are the rules for getting in? Who’s good enough? Who has the wrong attitude? Who has the certifications, who’s approved to teach? Who can successfully intuit the ever-changing unspoken rules?

I’m ashamed and sad to say that I got caught up in this culture, because I thought it was necessary to support the ATS® brand. No more.

All of these distractions from the reason I started dancing have built up to this:

I’m no longer part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching collective. This was not by my choice, and I’ll save the story for in-person conversations. This heartbreaking shift has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship with dance, what I want out of it, and whether I will choose to continue.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: I want to remember why I started doing this in the first place. I want to go back to the beginning.

The most important thing for me in dance — beyond technique, beyond spectacle, beyond performativity — is connection. I cherish my connections with the worldwide ATS® community. That is the root of why I do this, and that is where I will focus as I move forward.

Speaking of roots: “community” and “communication” share the same linguistic root. We can’t build community if we are hesitant or afraid to communicate freely, honestly, and authentically. With open, compassionate hearts. Fearlessly.

I want to dance with people who are fearless communicators, on and off the dance floor.

I want to dance with people who are bighearted, generous, and kind.

I want to dance with people who only expect mind-reading when we’re dancing together.

I want dance partners who find the good in their fellow dancers. I want dance partners who open up communication instead of shutting it down.

I want to dance with people who don’t care about hierarchy. I want dance partners who prioritize joyful connection. I want dance partners who know that our art form isn’t a sorority, it’s a method of communication.

I want to work with community builders.

So, what does this mean in practice?

I’m still devoted to American Tribal Style® bellydance, as created by Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman and FatChanceBellyDance®. I love the strength, the beauty, and especially the connection that having a clear shared dance language enables. I respect Carolena and her brand, and will continue to support her artistic vision to the best of my ability, as I have for many years.

And I will still be teaching at ATS® Homecoming in January 2017, and offering SSCE at least at that event and perhaps beyond.

I will not be teaching regular classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are enough excellent teachers here, and I respect the local teachers who rely on dance for their income.

However, I will happily travel to teach workshops. I love working with the global community. It’s also important to me to keep the workshops affordable for the communities in which I offer them; reach out to me if you’d like to talk logistics.

Additionally, I don’t want to run my dance career as a business any more; I only want to support the worldwide ATS® community. To that end, any funds I earn will go to charity, or to support your local dance community.

And if you live in the Bay Area — or are visiting — and you share my goals, consider this an invitation to come dance with me. In my living room, in yours, in a studio, or in the street. Come back to the roots with me, and let’s focus on connection and communication.

Come dance with me in joyful community.

 

(Photo credit: Don Labit Design)

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?

We are all “real” bellydancers.

So, I’ve joined a gym. I go through this phase from time to time, where I’m feeling like I’m not in touch with my body, not moving in the ways I want to be moving, not feeling like I’m as strong as I’d like to be.  And it’s good!  I’m delightfully sore all the time, and I’m enjoying the way my body is changing and getting stronger.

One thing I love about the gym I just joined is that they explicitly celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes. No matter where you are on your fitness journey, they’re happy to see you exercising, getting strong, moving your body.  They don’t shame you or tell you you’re overweight, or not good enough; they just push you to be better. It’s a really positive (and butt-kicking!) experience to go there.  There’s no competition except with yourself, and the trainers are loving and patient.

When dance class is good, it’s the same way. There are natural variations in our sizes, shapes, and flexibility levels, and there are variations from day to day, and we all need to work with the bodies we’re given today, in this moment.  We all strive to be more skilled and expressive, but the only real competition is with ourselves.  Not all of us can do a back bend or floorwork, or hold a plank for five minutes, or do ten burpees in a row, and that’s okay.  We don’t have to match someone else’s arbitrary standard of thinness or flexibility.

The nature of ATS® is that it works on many different bodies.  The standard costume and the new Bessie skirt look good on bodies of many different shapes and sizes.  (Go check out the super cute fashion show to see the new line in action!)  And because the costume is flattering on so many different shapes, we get to focus on the joy of building community and creating art.

Audiences, too, are inspired by seeing dancers of different shapes and sizes and ages and races and whatever – all celebrating their bodies moving together. They love witnessing a social, community-based experience that is welcoming and expansive.

This is not a call for sloppy technique, however.  Work your body. Get stronger and more flexible. Practice, and come to class, so you can execute movements with skill and precision, and be a better dance partner.

It is a call to love your body where it’s at, today.  That will let you focus on the artistry and community you’re engaging with.  Build yourself up, and build up your dance partners.

Why dancers advance faster at the Mothership

A note before I begin: I’ve seen highly skilled, beautiful dancers from all over the world. None of the following is meant to suggest that you have to be in San Francisco to be an excellent dancer. Please read this post with that in mind.

Ever wonder why the overall skill level of dancers at the FatChanceBellyDance® studio is so high?  Yes, there exist varied skill levels even within the advanced groups, but in the aggregate, the bell curve at FCBD® skews quite high.

Obviously, a huge part of it is the quality of instruction.  There is absolutely nothing like learning from the source, and being immersed in Carolena’s aesthetic.  You will improve so much faster if you learn from Carolena and her teaching staff than if you learn elsewhere.

What also lifts students up, though, is dancing with people who are more skilled than they are.  You get to pick up good habits this way, and “go with the flow” in a way that’s harder if everyone in the group is floundering.  You might pick up bad habits too, but you might even learn something from someone else’s bad habits.

Your takeaway, as a student, is this:  if you are newer, don’t be afraid to practice with people who are more experienced than you from time to time. That’s the fastest path to learning.  You’re not dragging them down; it is in part their job to help lift you up.

Don’t be obnoxious about it, of course, by acting entitled to their attention.  Try not to be clingy, or the biggest personality in the room.  But if you approach someone with humility and friendliness, they may be more than willing to partner with you.

If you are a more experienced student, allow some energy (and it does take energy!) to partner with those less experienced than you. Don’t let them latch on to you — you need to improve your skills too, by dancing with people at or above your level — but remember that everyone was there once, even you.  Come to Level 1 as often as possible, both to refine your own technique and to be a dance partner for the newer students.  You may also surprise yourself, and deepen your own technique by observing what the newer students are doing (wrong or right!) and why that might be.

And here’s a bonus: if you’re patient, you may find that you’ve helped cultivate a wonderful dance partner in a few months or years.

(To be clear:  I’m talking about a class setting, where we’re all working on our technique together.  Performances are a different story, of course – when there is an audience to consider, we add another variable into the mix, and the considerations are very different.  More on that in another post.)

Bottom line: Everyone gets better, faster, if we all invest in each other.

An update: someone pointed out to me on Facebook that this post could be interpreted as saying that only the original FatChanceBellyDance® studio can produce high caliber students.

That’s not what I meant at all by this post. I want to make it clear that the overall gist of what I’m saying is not that only the Mothership can produce good dancers. Rather, I hope it’s clear that I’m saying dancers advance faster when their fellow students help lift them up. And that can happen in other places, for sure.

It’s also a call for the teacher, removed from the FCBD® studio, to invest in herself and her continuing education, so that she constantly improves.  Luckily for you, Carolena and Megha have just launched Sister Studio Continuing Education and Advanced Teacher Training programs!  There are some other new programs too, to help you improve even if you’re remote.  Please go check it out.