Thursday, February 28, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

The brain-body connection

Western medicine is slowly realizing the error of separating the mind and body into unrelated elements of the human experience.... and so am I, both as a dancer and as an instructor. The following is a longer post that I've been cooking up for a few days. I think the subject matter is incredibly important. Of all the things I have learned as a dancer, the magnitude of the mind-body connection is the most important thing I will carry with me throughout my career.

The University of Chicago Basketball experiment.
I've started to tell this true-life story of the power of visualization to my dance students.

A number of people were divided into three groups, then they were tested on shooting a number of foul shots (free-throws) in basketball. The groups were then given different instructions.
Group 1: Did not practice foul shots for 30 days.
Group 2: Practiced foul shots every day for 30 days.
Group 3: Practiced foul shots only in their mind (visualization) for 30 days.

After 30 days the 3 groups were tested again and the results, compared to their initial performance were incredible.
Group 1: Showed no improvement at all, as one would expect.
Group 2: Showed a 24% improvement, which can not be considered satisfactory given that they had been practicing with the ball for one month.
Group 3: Improved by 23% which is amazing considering they had not even seen a ball for 30 days.

Basically, you can think about shooting hoops or actually practice shooting hoops, and either way, you'll improve. These results show the power of visualization, combined with physical training, can make all the difference to a player's progress. I think this is true with any activity we undertake, especially dance.

Practice in Your Head.
I admit, I don't do enough physical dance practice. However, I practice in my head, a lot. I visualize myself dancing at my best. I see in my mind's eye how my body should move through space, and how I want to interpret whichever song I'm obsessing over at that moment. This doesn't mean that I don't need to practice actual dancing, but it does mean that I get a mental head-start when I actually do find the time and space to practice. Of course, I need to keep my body flexible and strong - no amount of visualization will maintain physical stamina and strength - but positive thinking even when I'm sitting still can take my dancing and my performances a very long way. If you imagine yourself performing at your best, you will be closer to achieving your best in the studio and on the stage.

Of Chocolate and Butter.
I belong to a newsgroup on which all the members are Level 2 certified or higher in the Suhaila Salimpour format. One of the requirements for the Level 3 exam is the splits - right side, left side, and front. One member asked, "What do you think about when you're doing the splits?" I've never been that flexible. When I attempt the splits, I think something like, "OK. Fine. I'll try it. But I hate this." However, my unconscious brain must believe I can be that flexible, because I've been having dreams about doing the splits ever since I was a little girl.

But I realized after reading that message on the newsgroup that when attempting the splits I haven't been thinking that it's even possible. Of course, sometimes I still have that feeling of absolute dread whenever I try to go into the splits, but I'm never going to get anywhere with that attitude. I have to believe that I love the splits, I can do them, and that I've always been able to do them.

There's another component to this. Food.

And I'm not talking about how what you eat affects your physical and mental wellbeing. That's another post for someone else to blog. I'm talking about imagining yummy food. Food that makes you happy.

Another member on the newsgroup replied to the splits query, "I think of my body as pat of butter melting on a warm skillet." I thought that this was an excellent visual and then I thought, "What other yummy things melt?" Chocolate. Cheese... Just thinking about those things make me happy.

Try this. The next time you attempt a difficult stretch, maybe it's the splits, maybe it's a seated wide-legged forward fold, close your eyes, take a deep inhale, and as you exhale think of nothing except your favorite melty food item (chocolate really works well), and imagine that your body is becoming that food as you ease into the stretch. Picture that food in your head, whether it's butter, chocolate, or cheese, and have a very clear image in your mind's eye of that food melting. Do this several times in the stretch. I think it's important to keep your eyes closed, as this allows you to really focus on the image of melty food goodness in your head. Then, think of your body melting fully into the stretch, as if you were the most flexible human on the planet. Flexible. Melty. Food. Mmm...

The "No" Demon.
Every one of us has a "No" Demon. It is sum of our self-doubt, psychological damage, internal censor, and self-inflicted limitations. It also feeds on fear... Fear of appearing or feeling inadequate, inexperienced, incompetent, uncreative, stupid, and (my "No" Demon's favorite) not good enough. What we often don't realize, however, is that our past fears affect greatly our current physical state. When we push our bodies beyond what we think are its limits, negative past experiences can often hinder us from moving forward and improving our physical selves even more.

I'll share some of what feeds my "No" Demon with you all. I was brutally teased in school, from 2nd to 8th grade (including a death threat against myself and my family, and even some physical abuse like hitting and punching). It was a relentless barrage of spite, hate, envy, and jealousy from my classmates. I never felt like I had an adult advocate in the school who would take my concerns, and my emotional pain, seriously; I felt like some teachers didn't care, some didn't think it was a big deal. I certainly didn't feel like I had any classmates that I could trust and call "friend." I would say that most of this cruelty stemmed from the fact that I have been a consciencious over-achiever (even since Kindergarten!) my entire life, and that my obvious nerdity beamed out like a beacon for any unhappy classmate to attack. I was an easy target. I would cry when teased. I cried because it hurt, but mostly I cried out of frustration because I knew I had no adult advocates and that there was nothing I could do to get back at them, because... then they'd get me in trouble. "Ignore them," the adults would say. "Oh, maybe the boy just likes you," they would say. "Toughen up," they would say. "Kids will be kids", they would say.

The worst of it all happened in P.E. class.

In 8th grade, I learned to toughen up. But in toughening up, I sealed off my emotions, pushing them way down into the depths of my subconscious. But they didn't go away.

So, under physical duress, my emotional barriers fall, and my Demon comes back. Because most of the teasing happened in P.E., a certain amount of physical activity, such as the weeklong Level II Suhaila Salimpour format workshop, will trigger those memories and emotions that are held within my body. The only way to deal with this is to let it out: cry and experience that anger that I keep within myself and visualize it releasing from my body so that I can move forward as a human, artist, and dancer.

My "No" Demon, the one that tells me I can't do the splits, lives in my body, and gorged itself on my childhood and adolescent pain. My job now is to starve it.

Telling the "No" Demon to fuck off.
As we practice, and especially as we become performers, the "No" Demon is quickly biting at our heels, and if we aren't careful, it can grow and eventually eat us alive. It's always there, behind us, threatening us with failure. It's the voice in your head that says....
..."I can't do that."
..."Ok, I'll try, but I won't be able to do it."
..."Mary, Louise, and Isabel can do it, why can't I?"
..."I'll never be able to do that."
..."I'm just not good at this."
..."I hate this move."
..."I'm not good at this movement."

The more you tell yourself that you can't do something, the more you won't be able to get past that self-created mental block. You will think yourself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can tell the "No" Demon to fuck off by turning each negative statement around and making it positive.
..."I can do that."
..."I'll try, and do my best."
..."It's ok that Mary, Louise, and Isabel can do it. I need pay less attention to them and more to my own progress. I can do it too."
..."I will be able to do that."
..."I will practice this move more."
The "No" Demon thrives on your negativity.

Try this. Draw a picture of your "No" Demon. You don't have to make it pretty. Actually, the uglier and more raw, the better. Use color. Personally, I like using crayons because of their inherent association with childlike innocence. My Demon has big sharp teeth and angry red eyes; his mouth is open, incisors prepared to bite, ready to tear me apart. If it helps you connect with your "No" Demon, give him or her a name. Once you have completed your drawing, say a not-so-fond farewell (I tell mine to "fuck off" because it's strong, succinct, and to the point) to your demon and rip the paper in half. Do it with purpose. Tear that paper like you mean it. Don't tear it up so much that you can't recognize the image anymore. Keep your torn up image somewhere accessible so that when you start to lack self-confidence you can look at your "No" Demon and remember that you are in control.

Visualization is key.
The basketball experiment, practicing in your head, chocolate and butter, and telling the "No" Demon to fuck off are all part of positive visualization. If your brain can see yourself doing something, you have the capacity to achieve it. Of course, this applies only within reason... I can imagine myself flying using only the flapping of my arms, and we know that's not very likely to happen in the near future. However, I can see myself in my head doing the splits, and when I think about doing the splits, I am sending an unconscious message to my muscles and joints, telling my body that it can do the splits. Once I melt away that mental block, I truly believe that I will be able to do the splits. If there's a movement that you're struggling with, imagine yourself executing that movement, and doing it well. Then, with that image in mind, get up and try it. You'll be amazed at how far a little mind power will take you. is gradual, yet inevitable.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Inspirational Decay

So, some of you know, I like industrial decay. I find it eerily beautiful, and the feeling I get when seeing it, either in photographs or in real life inspires so many of my performances. The textures influence my costuming; the colors play into my make-up choices.

Tonight I found a blog that is all about posting the best photographs of industrial decay from the photosharing website flickr. It's aptly called "Industrial Decay". I wanted to share it with you, as well as some of the beautiful photographs posted there.

What unusual things do you find beautiful?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Confident Humility.

Where is that line between being confident in your abilities, and yet remaining (or becoming) humble about them?

I think that there's a spectrum.

Self-Doubting ------------------ | ----------------- Self-Absorbed

As an artist, and as a human being, I think I'd like to be somewhere in the middle: sure of myself to be able to sell myself without self-doubt creeping in to cripple my efforts, yet humble to genuinely accept and appreciate feedback and to evaluate my art and actions and accept criticism about them.

I think that I fall somewhere around here:

Self-Doubting -----------*me*------- | ----------------- Self-Absorbed

For me, my self-doubt comes from my need to be better than I am wherever I am in my journey as an artist. Most of the time this is healthy ambition that drives me to improve.

However, self-questioning can easily turn to self-doubt, and with self-doubt comes looking outward for approval from other people, comparing myself to others (where it's not warranted), and generally letting my insecurities handicap my self-esteem. I don't think I'm as good a dancer as I could be. I could certainly practice more. I could probably engage more with my students. I struggle, as many of us do, with finding my identity as an artist, particularly after several comments from the uninformed implying that I dance very much like other more well-known tribal fusion artists.

If we think about our weaknesses more than we focus on our strengths, we can slide backwards into detrimental self-doubt and insecurity.

Whereas, self-absorption is looking inward and seeing only or mostly great things. From what I can imagine, an artist who is self-absorbed is slow to consider criticism and "try it on", they see themselves as more accomplished than their colleagues, and have a hard time talking about anyone but themselves. Compliments, to the self-absorbed, are mere confirmations of what they already know. "Yes," they say inside, "I am fabulous." Frankly, I have a hard time putting myself in the self-absorbed's shoes.

Where does that leave us?
Accept compliments when you receive them. Even if they're nothing more than ass-kissing, accept them and let them bring you a little bit of joy. Accepting a compliment with humility and honesty forces you to open up your heart a little to the person offering the compliment. Yes, this makes you temporarily vulnerable, but that which scares us makes us stronger. Thank the person and mean it.

Accept criticism when you receive it. Even if it's as dumb as "OMG, I HATE the way she wears those bracelets." Allowing yourself to consider criticism also makes you vulnerable because you are questioning that which you believe in, but welcoming in criticism also makes us stronger. Try it on; see if it fits. Maybe those bracelets weren't flattering afterall.

We must strive to find a balance. Without self-assuredness, we can't promote ourselves. We'll constantly think we aren't good enough to be "out there" and we'll sell ourselves short. But if we slide too much the other direction, we can cease learning, never believing we owe anything to anyone, completely consumed by our own perceived greatness.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Inspiration on a sunny Monday.

Every once in a while, I'd like to share with you the individuals I find inspiring. Most of them will be completely unrelated to dance.

Albert Einstein.
Scientist. Artist. Philosopher.

While Einstein is probably most famous for his theory of relativity, I admire him more for his views on creativity and imagination and for his personal integrity and quiet brilliance. Today I want to share with you some of his philosophical wisdom. I hope you find these words as inspiring as I do.

The ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty and truth.

If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions.

Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

It would be better if you begin to teach others only after you yourself have learned something.

Who inspires you?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dancers are Businesspeople too.

Some just haven't realized it yet. I was one of them.

Growing up, I was never the entrepreneurial type. I was never interested in money management, budgeting, or being frugal. That sort of thing was just too... practical.

Now, as I find myself in the throes of adulthood, I am finding that I probably should have cared more about how to keep track of my finances when I was younger. Because now, I am a small business owner. How did that happen?

I never imagined myself to be a small business owner, and yet, as a self-employed dancer and instructor I am, indeed, just that. I pay taxes on my earnings, itemize my business expenses, and own a BlackBerry to keep in better touch with anyone who needs to reach me regarding dance. I have to market myself, network with other dancers, send out contracts, manage my website, and even brand myself and my dancing.*

As artists, the business end of things is often the last thing we consider. We are so consumed with creating, capturing inspiration, improving our technique, and sharing our creations with others (often other artists) that we forget that we have a business to run. When I remember that dance is business, I am reminded of the following, some of which come naturally to me, and others which continue to be difficult every day:

  • My promotional materials must be clear, informative, catchy, and without typos or spelling mistakes.

  • My behavior in public, dance events or otherwise, must be professional, calm, and collected. I can be quirky and odd, but never displaying out-of-control anger or frustration.

  • I must keep good records of my expenses and earnings.

  • I must return e-mails and phone calls in a timely and prompt manner.

  • I must consider those who take my classes, watch my performances, and hire me for workshops as clients. I am providing them a service.

  • I must be open to changing my business practices, including how I teach my classes how I market myself, and how I communicate with my clients.

  • Public criticism, regardless of its validity, is still better than not being mentioned at all.

  • I must not take public criticism personally, but I should "try it on" to see if it fits (thank you Frank Gehry for that imagery). Unconstructive criticism reflects more about the one doing the criticizing than it does about me, my dancing, or my instruction.

  • I must keep my eyes open for inspiration all the time, not only for my dance, but in how I present myself as a businesswoman.

  • I must never ever make promises or commitments to others in the business (or anyone else for that matter) that I cannot or do not intend to keep.

  • Most importantly, I must never forget that I am a businesswoman, a professional.

What does being a professional dancer mean to you?

*One of the reasons I chose the tagline "Modern Tribal Bellydance" is to give my business (i.e. me and my dancing) something that people could latch on to. Now every product I produce will have "Modern Tribal Bellydance"--business cards, my advertisements, my instructional DVD, my website--somewhere on it.

Images and humor.

Yes. Yes, indeed.

Student. noun.

Student. 1. A person who is engaged in or addicted to study. Const. of, in, or with defining word prefixed, indicating the subject studied.

Etymology: [In the forms, var. of ESTUDIANT, a. OF. estudiant, estudient, mod.F. ├ętudiant (= Pr. estudian, Sp. estudiante, Pg. estudante, It. studiante, studiente), subst. use of pr. pple. of estudier, ├ętudier to STUDY; in the mod. () form, ad. L. student-em, pr. pple. of studre, to be eager, zealous, or diligent, to study; cf. It. studente, Du., G., Sw., Da. student.]

- Oxford English Dictionary online

I consider myself an eternal student. I think everyone should. We are never done learning. I hope that students in all classes, dance or otherwise, approach learning in this manner. I especially hope that the students in my classes do. Take a look at the phrases in bold in the etymology above. These four terms in particular started jogging my thoughts about being a student... What do those terms mean to you? Here's what they mean to me:

Eager: Full of keen desire or appetite. The student must want to be in class in the first place. If she or he is coerced to be there, chances are she or he will not reach their full potential as a seeker of knowledge. The student must be hungry for the knowledge that their class and instructor offers. I interpret being eager as what a student feels before ever registering for a class.

Zealous: Intensely earnest or actively enthusiastic. It is an extension of that eagerness described above. A student must be enthusiastic about the material being taught in order to absorb the maximum amount of knowledge. Being zealous is the excitement a new student feels after her first or second class. The student's enthusiasm might even be contagious; maybe her friends will want to know what all the fuss is about. It is important to maintain this enthusiasm to reach the next characteristic.

Constant in application, persevering in endeavor. Diligence implies a constant action, sustained dedication. This does not mean showing up to one night of class, working hard that one night, and then never showing up again or even just showing up sporadically. Diligence means continuous effort. A student must apply themselves in class consistently in order to learn to the best of their potential.

Studious: Devoted to the acquisition of learning. Ideally, through diligence, students remain dedicated to learning what their teachers have to offer. They review the material outside of class, explore what they have learned, either by themselves or with classmates. They return to class with questions and revelations to share with their classmates and instructor. Students commit their knowledge to memory and practice it, building upon previous knowledge, and eschewing that which is irrelevant, harmful, or outdated.

I really like these four characteristics. Students must work, and they must never cease seeking to build their knowledge base, whether in academia or in the dance studio. Nothing we truly learn is easy. For if it were easy, then we wouldn't be acquiring new knowledge. New knowledge challenges our current perceptions, changing them, mostly for the better.

So... what does being a student mean to you?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Something to whet your appetite.

Taken from Keri Smith at her Wish Jar blog.

The blogwagon. Thoughts from a belly dance paladin.

I've always fancied myself a bit of a philosopher. I think about life, my life, my interactions with other humans, how I approach the world... but yet, I hardly ever write any of these thoughts for anyone else to see. This blog is an attempt to change that.

You see, I'm not only an armchair philosopher, but also a belly dancer. This means that I'm constantly evaluating the integrity of myself as a dancer, artist, and individual. A dear friend of mine once called me a "belly dance paladin" because I have consistently ranted about the importance of truth and honesty amongst dancers, of integrity, of ethics, and of prizing quality over hype, skill over schmooze, and individuality over mimicry.

I'd like this blog to be a place where I can share my thoughts on being an artist, a businesswoman, a thinker, and a self-proclaimed protector and defender of integrity in the little niche world of belly dance.

Weird enough for an interesting blog, I hope.