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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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?

It’s okay to make mistakes.

In a Level One class I was teaching a few months ago, I had a new-to-me student. Let’s call her Ginny. She was excited to be in class, almost giddy. She’d taken a few classes elsewhere, and was really excited to be in class at FatChanceBellyDance®. She did a really nice job with the technique.

But when it came time to dance in formations, she balked and stood apart from her group. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she said, “I’m afraid I’m holding them back.”

After a little coaxing, Ginny rejoined her group and went with the flow. By the end of the class she had gotten the concept of the lead change, and was smiling again. I was so very, very proud of her.

It can be really hard, learning new things as adults.

Our egos get in the way. We feel frustrated that our bodies won’t move in the same way as the teacher’s, or our fellow students’. Our brains get full and our feet won’t move in the ways we want them to move.

And we feel embarrassed with our own pace of learning. We can’t quite get a step right, or a formation change. Our own shame tells us we’re not good enough to dance with the other students, so we decide to step back rather than focus on what we’re there to do: learn.

This has happened to all of us, once upon a time. It’s certainly happened to me. I still experience that feeling sometimes, and my goodness, how incredibly frustrating: It’s so very, very hard to cultivate beginner’s mind about something when you’re supposed to be good enough to teach it.

Take this out of the studio for a moment: when was the last time you tried to learn something that you knew you weren’t going to be immediately good at? Me, I’m starting to do more bootcamp-style fitness classes, and BOY do I suck at ’em. I can do moderate-intensity exercise for hours in the dance studio, but ten minutes of high-intensity cardio and I feel like I’m dying. This stuff is really hard.

I’m also learning a new piece of software for my day job. I don’t understand some of the concepts that this software is based on, so when the documentation uses certain words, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Frustrating! Makes me want to throw the computer out the window.

This isn’t limited to adults, of course; I can’t tell you how hard it is to teach my favorite six-year-old to ride her bicycle when she’s so afraid of falling. But she’s got to be okay with failure if she’s going to learn anything. And so do we.

Tell me: what elements of ATS® are hard for you?

The hardest part is showing up.

Photo by Don Labit Design.  Jewelry by NakaRali.

Photo by Don Labit Design. Jewelry by NakaRali.

So, this summer, I:

  • went to Maine to teach some workshops;
  • started a new day job, where a lot more is expected of me;
  • took a family camping trip to Yosemite; and
  • got married!

I hope I am forgiven for being relatively absent from the dance studio (and this blog) for a few months.  I’ve had a bit going on.

I admit: It’s hard to get back to the dance studio after a hiatus.

But good gracious, it feels good!  It feels good to move my body in these ways that are so familiar. It feels good to connect with my community again, and it feels good to sweat and pulse and breathe with other dancers.

Here’s what doesn’t feel good: I’ve lost some technique. I’ve lost some sharpness. I’ve lost muscle in my upper back. I’ve even lost some language — my first class back, I couldn’t remember the name for Circle Step!  And I’ve been doing this for over a decade!  How embarrassing.

While it’s awkward and weird to come back after a hiatus, it just highlights for me the importance of regular technique practice.  Those of you who are teachers, how often are you able to work on your own technique?  Those of you who are advanced dancers, when’s the last time you went back to Level 1?  When was the last time you took a private lesson?  With the summer over, it’s a nice time to come back to basics.

Moral of the story: Get your butt back to class, especially if you’ve been away for a while, or have lightened your dance practice for the summer.   We have to take the time to focus on these things, or else we lose form and technique. Come back. The dance misses you.

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.