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.


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.

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.

The thing about taking up space.

In any new dance situation — performance venue, studio, or partnership — the first thing I assess is this:  how much space can I reasonably take up?

Note the wording.  Not “how much space should I take up?”  or “how do I avoid bumping into things and people?”  Instead, the question is framed expansively:  Given the space and my dance partners at the moment, how big can I make my body and movements to create an elegant and graceful shape?  How can I generate a sense of grandeur?

Women in my culture are trained to appear smaller than we are.  We are taught to excuse ourselves for our size, for our shape.  We are taught to excuse ourselves for having bodies.

In ATS®, we create breadth and height with our posture and costumes.  We create large shapes with our communities.  We create spectacle, and we have to be unafraid to do so, because that spectacle increases everyone’s joy.

It’s okay to take up space.  It’s our birthright.

This post was inspired by a recent thread on Shira’s Facebook page, in which an anonymous Oriental-style dancer was complaining about ATS®/ITS dancers seemingly being inconsiderate of others’ space in an open dance floor setting – and in which many commenters implied that it was in the nature of ATS®/ITS.  This isn’t a direct response to that thread (you can read my and others’ responses there, if you choose to), but the thread did get me thinking more broadly about how and why we take up space.

If you choose to comment on that thread, I ask that you be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences, and speak compassionately and politely, even if the thread makes you feel defensive.  Remember, we’re all in this together.

On being in community

There’s just something about ATS® dancers.  We’re a big, close-knit community, a worldwide extended family. Cues and Tattoos felt like a family reunion.  And I think Homecoming will feel even more wonderful.

We all have personalities and opinions, and it’s ok to let those unique stars shine. When ATS® works well, it’s a beautiful coming-together of diverse people who share a common passion. We all trust each other, and we all have to trust ourselves.  (Go read Wendy Allen’s essay on Trust, ATS® style for why it’s important to trust yourself.)


The community does break down sometimes.  I’ve seen it happen in dance communities all over the world.  Here are two of the reasons why it happens.

1. Jealousy. We have feelings about other dancers’ successes and opportunities.  It happens.

However, if you think other students are advancing because they are sucking up or kissing ass, you are wrong. They’re advancing because they’re working harder, showing up, being easy and fun to work with, and generally devoting more of their time, energy, and focus to the dance than you are.

Consider this: there is a difference between jealousy (I’m afraid you will take an opportunity from me) and envy (I want something you have, but I’m glad you have it).

Envy has the potential to be a much more positive, supportive emotion than jealousy. But did you catch the definition of jealousy? At its heart, it’s about fear. And if you’re so afraid that someone will take something from you, consider what that says about you.

2. Entitlement. We think we are owed an opportunity for some reason.

Here’s the thing: I don’t care how long you’ve been dancing, or what other dance styles you know — or even how good you are. If you think you are entitled to anything, you are wrong.

And the more you act entitled, the fewer opportunities you will get.  No one wants to work with someone who thinks the world owes them something.

We all have these feelings. We all have feelings of jealousy, entitlement, and so on.  That’s ok; we’re human, and emotions are part of the human experience.  What’s critical, though, to live and dance in community is to acknowledge them for what they are and let them go.

We need to release these things to be in community with other dancers. And the more we release our egos and enter into the dance with an open, inquisitive mind, the better dancers we become, and the more opportunities avail themselves to us.

My point is this: get over your own ego. Get out of your own way.  Stop worrying about other people, and worry about yourself.  Work on your own technique. Be easy to work with.

These things build community, and they build joy. And who doesn’t want that?

This is hard sometimes.  I struggle with this too, and it’s  not always easy to come to the studio with an open, inquisitive heart. Sometimes, I honestly need a break from the studio so I can take care of my own needs first.  And sometimes, if I’m feeling ungrounded, it’s a little too easy to get caught up in the swirling whirlwind of others’ egos.  It’s necessary sometimes to take a step back.

What tools or techniques do you use to release your ego?  In what ways do you build up, rather than break down our community?  I invite you to share in the comments below.

Talkin’ taxeem

The taxeem – a vertical figure-eight with the hips – is one of the first movements you learn when you step into an ATS® bellydance class, and it is a step that you will continue to work on, perfect, and deepen throughout your dance career.

And it just feels good.  I could taxeem for hours.  It loosens up my back and gets me in touch with my dantian or hara – the energetic center of the body, where some traditions believe vital energy originates.  It’s a great mindfulness meditation, and allows me to slow down my breathing and become more present in my body.  The slower you go, the more meditative the step becomes.

And you can do it anywhere. I’ve been known to taxeem while at my office job (I have a standing desk) or while brushing my teeth, or standing in line at the grocery store.

The magic of the taxeem is in the near-total weight shift that isn’t driven from your feet or knees, but rather from your core.  The “empty” hip (the down hip, which is on the unweighted leg) lifts with no help from the knees – it floats up. And once it’s floated to the top, the leg underneath it stabilizes and strengthens so that the other leg can empty out, and the other hip can release downward.

Catch that? The magic of the taxeem happens in three phases: the float, stabilizing the float, and releasing the opposite side.

(If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may see a pattern developing here – go have a look at my meditation on the shimmy if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

This is just like improv dance, right?  We need a stable structure or framework so we can release into it and just have fun. It’s relaxing to dance improvisationally within a structure – without the structure, it’s just flailing, and we develop (or at least I develop) anxiety about where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do in a group setting.  With the structure, the group enters into a shared agreement, and everyone feels safer.

Follow along with Sandi in this sweet taxeem drill.