December 18, 2010

Career opportunities for belly dancers

When asked what we wanted out of the class, all of my fellow beginner belly dance students proclaimed that they wanted to perform on stage, and be a professional belly dancer.  It was my very first belly dance class and I was the only one that just took the six-week class for fun, with no thought beyond the end of the session.  I never saw any of these ladies again after that series, and I chalk their comments up to youthful enthusiasm (yes they were about a decade younger than me), and just plain excitement about belly dancing.  I think that same experience repeats itself on a regular basis around the world, but do women really know what different opportunities and roles there are in this dance form?




In my other life (the one that pays the bills), I have a background in human resources and communication.  I periodically have friends who call on me to review their resumes or offer career advice.  I’ve even helped some people negotiate their starting salary in a new job because my specialty is compensation.  One friend even set me up on a “date” with her husband who had been recently laid off and was contemplating a major career change.  Call it career counseling or just a willingness to listen; I’ve have a talent for helping people figure out what to do with what they know.

The conversations start out in the same manner.  What do you like to do? What do you find interesting/exciting about your job? What do you NOT like to do? People may not realize it, but the list of things you don’t like is usually the most telling part of the discussion.  There are always tedious tasks in every job (even belly dance ones), but knowing what you don’t want is the biggest battle.  This approach has also helped me over the years to hone my list of what I want to do as a dancer and instructor and what I don’t want.  And when I’m feeling less focused, it helps me figure out where to put my energy and effort and what to pass by.  So here’s my list:

  • I don’t do restaurant gigs, or belly grams, or weddings…or Renaissance fairs.
  • If I have to compete with your dinner or your expectations of what a belly dancer is…I’ll happily pass.
  • I do love performing on stages (large and small), dancing to fabulous music (live and recorded), teaching, taking classes and hanging out with fellow dancers. 
  • If I can dance or teach and easily see your face in the audience…that makes me happy. I may even wink at you. 
  • I’m not looking to make a living as a belly dancer, but it’s nice to have extra income to offset the cost of costumes and workshops. 
  • I’m not trying to be a nationally known dancer, but I am looking to be respected for my dance, my knowledge and skills. 
  • If at the end of the day, I help you become a better dancer or woman through my classes, my performances or my online musings…I’m happy.
As we head into that infamous time of the year when people are off making New Year’s resolutions, I’d like to offer a little career counseling.  Instead of focusing on what will you do as a dancer in this next year, or what are your goals; I’d like to spend some time talking about what you CAN do as a dancer.  Consider this a list of belly dance career opportunities, options to choose from…but not a list of everything you should try and do.  Because you simply cannot DO and BE everything in this list, however you can DO some things well and you can BE accomplished with a little dedication and focus.


We’ll start in the next post with the first steps:  Student opportunities.  So, stay tuned!

December 13, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Come to Tribal Belly Dance Camp

Come to camp!  Come to Tramp!  We'll be spanking our sparkly junk and toasting marshmallows.  And you don't want to miss out on this opportunity. 

Tribal camp this year features Kajira Djoumahna with Black Sheep Belly Dance and is hosted by the lovely and talented Bahaia and the ever-adorable Michelle Manx!

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December 6, 2010

Student to Student: Dance on Thru to the Other Side

(Najla's note:  Our guest post for the day is written by one of my lovely students, Krysta.  She's talented, witty, charming, uber-cute and quite enraptured by dance of all shapes and sizes...perfect for belly dance, right?  She wrote the lovely post below, and I picked the picture below...hee...hee)



Step.  Ball-Change.  Sache Right.  Oh hell.  Step.  Ball-change.  Shimmy, Drop.  No.  Step.  Ball-change.  I. Give. Up.  I.  Need. A. Drink.

Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran dancer, you have probably had a similar thought process while trying to master difficult choreography – or choreography that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to you.  Fear not my frustrated comrade, you are not the first or the last to feel the hopelessness of a blank memory when trying desperately to coax your arms and legs into the right formation in the right rhythm while the rest of your company kicks and smacks you while perfectly executing every turn, leap and shimmy across the studio floor.

Below are several helpful things to keep in mind while negotiating your way to the end of this agonizing class or rehearsal. 

Look and Listen
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen dancers try to dance a new choreography WITH the teacher while s/he is teaching it for the first time. I realize that people learn differently, but there is a lot to be said about watching and observing the moves you are about to spend an hour and a half (or three) working on. Take the physical break while you can get it, sister! It also helps to listen to your instructor, as they often mention small details and nuances of the choreography as they dance the routine (and sometimes even beforehand). If you’re already in the middle of actually learning the routine, it is completely acceptable to stop, step to the side, and watch the movement so that you can process it before jumping back in.

Do not give up, dismiss yourself or berate yourself.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Whether you think can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” You are not Suzie-Q Dance-a-Roo next to, in front of, or behind you. She has a different past, present and future. Do not concern yourself with comparisons or self-deprecation. Those sorts of negative thoughts clutter the mind, and do not allow space for the choreography you should be learning right now. Get out of your own way. (And the way of your neighboring dancer).

Breathe.
I, like many others, forget to breathe – as a dancer and as a human. When you make sure to remember to integrate your breath into your movement, your body can associate the movement with the sequence of the breath. Breathing also increases the quality of your movement.

You are not alone.
Suzie-Q Dance-a-Roo may be dancing circles around you and the teacher, but have you considered the 10 other dancers who are either working through the same section as you are…or perhaps a section you’ve mastered?

Tomorrow is another day.
We all have off-days. Now, off-days are not an excuse for poor work-ethic, but they do happen, and it’s important to be forgiving of yourself if you’re having one. Keep working through it, stop when you need to, and jump in when you’re ready. (This is not a way to allow yourself to give up either, by the way.)

As with most things, at the heart of it all, if you just continue to do your work with positivity and optimism, you’ll surprise yourself one day with the perfect execution of your routine. And, I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times before in performance and rehearsal….but don’t forget to smile!

New class format, new website and a New Year!

We may be winding down the end of 2010, but I am gearing up for an exciting and busy 2011. I'm officially changing the format of my classes beginning in January, I promise to have my new website up and running and what better way to kick off your New Year's than with a shimmy?

What's the big news in classes? I will now be offering three different classes, each with a distinct focus as well as opportunities to combine classes. I made this change so that all my students can continue to work on their technique and skills, in addition to other areas of dance. For my beginner students, this change will help them move to the more challenging classes, combinations and choreographies and for those intermediate level students who don't aspire to perform, this will allow them to get a good work out and learn some great new techniques.

Currently all classes will be held at Tarrytown Dance on Sunday nights. Classes will resume on January 9, 2011. Online class registration is available as well as class gift certificates. New students registering in January will receive the "loyal student" class rate, so take advantage of the discount now!

Fundamentals of belly dance (4:00 to 5:00 p.m.)
  • This class is designed for students new to the dance, or those that want to work on fundamental movement and technique. Each month a new topic is introduced, with the idea that a new student to belly dance can gain a strong foundation in the dance over the course of six months. 
  • The topic for January is: Pops, Locks and Shimmies: An introduction to belly dance isolations and movement. The four-week class will cover rib and hip work, lifts, drops and shimmies. Perfect for students new to the dance or beginner students who want to drill these movements and increase their stamina.
  • Class rate is $12 a class. Students who have studied with Najla for at least three consecutive months, pay a "loyal student" rate of $10 a class.
Mixed-level belly dance (5:00 to 6:30 p.m.)
  • This class is designed for students who want to work on their technique and perfect their belly dance skills. With a mix of drills, combination and improvisation, this class is ideal for a dancer who has a strong understanding of fundamental belly dance movement. 
  • Experience with zils and veil is highly recommended.
  • This class may be combined at a discounted rate with either the fundamentals or performance class. The cost for the combined class is $22 a night for either combination (mixed+fundamentals or mixed+performance). Students who have studied with Najla for at least three consecutive months, pay a "loyal student" rate of $18 a night for the combined classes.
  • The topic for January is: Building Strength and Endurance: Work off those holiday calories and start your New Year off right with drills targeted at increasing your strength as a dancer. Class will not only include drills, but also cardio and stamina movements followed by a nice, long stretch at the end. So, how many hip drops can you do in a row? Let’s find out!
  • Class rate is $15 a class. Students who have studied with Najla for at least three consecutive months, pay a "loyal student" rate of $12 a class.
Performance and choreography (6:45 to 8:00 p.m.)
  • This class is designed for students who are interested in solo and group performance opportunities. In this class, Najla will explore more advanced and challenging dance technique, including performances with props, improvisation, designing choreography and deepening your understanding of Middle Eastern music, culture and costuming.
  • Enrollment in this class is subject to the instructor’s approval. Students attending the performance class must be simultaneously registered for the mixed-level technique class. Because the emphasis on this class is performance, students are invited but not required to perform at local dance events. 
  • This class is required for membership in the Baharat Belly Dance Ensemble. Members of the ensemble may be required to purchase troupe costumes for group performances.
  • In January, we’ll be starting a review of the drum solo choreography, as well as beginning new work that includes veil, floor work and sword.

What to Wear:
Wear comfortable clothing that is easy to move in, but try to avoid loose or baggy clothing. Yoga wear or leggings and tank tops work well in class. Bare feet are recommended, but dance slippers, jazz shoes or dance sneakers will also work (no street/athletic shoes please). Hip scarves are available to borrow in class, and information on purchasing scarves is available in class.

Payment and Attendance Policy:
Students may sign up and pay online, or pay at the door via check or cash. New students are required to sign up for a full month of classes, and classes are non-refundable. Current students may pay on a student account to cover classes. Class payments are non-refundable and expire six months after purchase.

November 29, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 3)

Okay, here’s the last of my three-part series on the characteristics of a good belly dance teacher.  As I’ve been writing them, I’ve also been evaluating myself against the list.  Although I’ve been teaching for a decade now, I can see so many areas in which I need more practice, and dedication.  So it seems that I have work to do, especially since some of these last ones are really tough questions to ponder.  So, if you’re a teacher reading this, how do you rate compared to the list?  And, if you’re considering teaching or just started…what are your thoughts now?

7.  Can you can graciously accept and give criticism and feedback?
As performers, we are all eager for feedback - the lovely, fluffy, upbeat and feel-good comments that just make your day.  If you have been dancing for a while, you probably have also had the not-so-kind comments, back handed compliments or withering criticism that people with the best intentions (or not-so-good intentions) seem to offer.  It can be tough to differentiate between the beneficial feedback and the “I’m-jealous/insecure/always negative/know-it-all/crazy” rounds that come your way.  However, if you really want to grow as a performer, artist, dancer and teacher can you deal with the not-so-fluffy comments?  And are you open to hearing something more meaty and meaningful?  Let’s start with you as a dancer and teacher:


Do you regularly seek feedback from other respected dancers on your performances, technique or style?  Do you take classes and workshops that keep you challenged or do you stick to the safe ones that you can easily master?  Have you ever considered taking private lessons for the sole purpose of getting a dance critique?  Seeking feedback can be a scary, humbling experience especially if you consider yourself to be a more advanced dancer or teacher but it can also be invaluable.  Think of it as the spinach in your teeth scenario.  Would you like someone to be honest with you and tell you there’s green gook in your teeth, or would you prefer to walk around thinking you’re looking lovely (because everyone is staring…right?) and then find out later on the stares had nothing to do with your fabulousness?

I have a good friend and fellow dancer, named Jamie Lynne who has spent a great deal of time and energy in the past couple of years actively seeking critiques from other dancers to help her grow.  I admire her ability to put her own ego aside and ask the tough questions.  She even recently entered and competed in a belly dance competition for the sole purpose of getting detailed feedback from a group of judges!  Where other dancers may have been there to prove how good they were, her approach was to gain more knowledge about her dance style.  So, when you take classes or workshops is your plan to show everyone how quickly you can pick up the moves and how talented you are as a dancer…or do you walk into those sessions comfortable with just learning?

I had the opportunity to share a private lesson with Jamie Lynne this last October with Ranya Renee who was teaching at Bahaia’s dance camp.  We both decided we wanted feedback on our dance skills and we each did an improvisational dance (with a random song) for Ranya’s critique.  If you think about it, the possibility of humiliation increases if you’re sitting there with another dancer who gets to hear every comment.  But we thought the benefits were more enticing because we had a second pair of ears, a fellow dancer to take notes while Ranya spoke and a trusted dance friend to help evaluate and break down the comments later on.  It was a humbling experience, and I’m still processing parts of it…but it was a valuable experience.  So, how comfortable are you with receiving feedback and how willing would you be to share that experience?



In addition to commentary on your dancing, do you seek feedback from your students on your teaching style?  When students quit your classes do you have a clear idea of why they didn’t come back?  Was it schedules, finances, lack of interest…or could it be you teaching style, organization or class structure that sent them off?  Are you willing to find out the answers to those questions?  A couple years ago I was asked to do a quick belly dance demonstration and as preparation for that, I needed to describe my teaching style and philosophy.  Frankly, I was a little stumped because I had not thought about that…at…all.  So, in my next class, I asked some of my long-term students to tell me what they thought it was.  And then I held my breath!  I was really impressed by their comments and very enlightened by what they took away from my classes.  So, how do your students describe you and your style?  Do they recommend you to friends and why?  If they had to post public feedback on you as a dancer…what would they say?

So, onto the harder part of this topic:  What about feedback for your students?  Are you able to offer constructive feedback that helps your students perform better?  Or are you afraid to say anything because you don’t want them to leave the class?  I think there are so many teachers out there that either feel their role is to be the best friend/party organizer or on the opposite side - the constant critic.  Can you strike a balance between the two and not only offer positive feedback, but help correct students in gracious way?  I had experience with a teacher who felt that giving students positive feedback only made the student get too much of an ego.  So I had to wait until she would occasionally parcel out something for me to grab onto.  Now, she didn’t give much negative feedback either- so, I spent a great deal of time feeing clueless while dancing. 

On the flip side, I’ve also seen cases where the teacher just doesn’t want to say anything bad…ever…and then keeps telling her students how fabulous they are…even if they aren’t.  For example, I know a teacher who had students perform at an annual event.  In her mind, her group was the best of the best…and when they did not get the acclaim she felt they needed, she stopped having them participate.  The truth is, they worked hard, but they weren’t the head of the pack in terms of performances.  And instead of evaluating their skills and their performance, and then working to improve them, her response to was just walk away from it.  So, what would happen if one of your students (or a group of them) performed in public and the outcome was less than successful?  Could you have the tough conversations to help them do the work to improve…or would these setbacks stop you and your students?


And finally, do you understand how to deliver criticism in a supportive and encouraging manner?  This isn’t just about telling someone what they did wrong, but about understanding the timing and approach based upon individual personalities.  Can you read your students well enough to determine who is ready for more feedback, and who may need more time to develop their confidence?  Can you assess your own mood and temperament so that you don’t lash out at students just because you’re having a bad day/week/month?  How comfortable are you with students who rate their skills much higher than their technical ability, or those students who have strong technique, but needs more practice or challenges?  What about students who are just in class for fun but don’t have plans to perform or solo?

I frequently have my students perform for each other in class and then provide feedback.  My rule is that the students can only point out the good things the dancer and/or group did…and I am the only one who can offer constructive feedback.  I think this teaches students to focus on what went right, and for the dancer to learn her own strengths.  Then, they get to hear me deliver feedback that will help them grow.   I also keep my feedback to only one or two things at a time so no one feels overwhelmed.  So how would you feel about coaching others in the art of giving feedback?  And, can you create a culture in your classroom that encourages and appreciates comments from fellow classmates and the instructor?


8.   Do you have a healthy ego?
How does that saying go…if you love something, set it free, and if it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and shoot it…right?  For most of us, our dancing is a way to define ourselves, to present an alternative side of our personality or explore a creative outlet in our lives.  It is more than just a hobby; it is a fundamental part of our identity.  But, do you take too many things personally as a dancer?  In my experience, students will travel great distances just to study with a particular teacher.  So, what if they choose not to take from you?  Can you deal with that type of rejection without being angry or bitter?  What happens if a student of yours chooses to take from someone else?  Or what happens when a student grows beyond your class and skills?  Will you try to trap them…or can you let them move on without you?

I heard a story about a teacher who, after one of her new students didn’t come back to class, began calling the student constantly, trying to convince her to come back.  I know this story, because when the same student asked me about classes, her first question was whether or not I was crazy!  It is one thing to be concerned if a student doesn’t come back…you can send an email checking on them…but stalking can be a little too much.  How do you feel about students taking from other teachers?  Do you encourage them to try other classes and attend workshops, or do you keep them isolated from other dancers and styles?




What about those students who want to learn a style or technique that is beyond your skill level?  Do you send them out to another teacher, or do you try to fake your way into it?  Can you admit to your class that you don’t know it all?  My ultimate goal is to have students who succeed well beyond what I can teach.  So, can your ego take the success of someone who was once your student?

9.  Do you have a unique point of view, or something different to offer the dance community?
I sometimes shake my head when I hear stories of new dancers offering classes (probably before they should), and then complaining they don’t have enough students to make it profitable…and at the same time really qualified, experienced teachers struggle to get more students into their classrooms.  I think there are many individuals who rush into performing too soon, becoming a “professional” too soon, and teaching too soon.  So, if you are considering teaching, what do have to offer in terms of style, technique and movement that is different than other teachers in town?  In other words, why would someone take from you versus another instructor?

Do you have a clear vision of what you want to offer your students?  Do you understand your own dance strengths and weaknesses?  What can you give students that they cannot get anywhere else?  If you are doing a knock-off of another dancer’s teaching methods…why would the student come to you versus going to the source?  Think of this in marketing terms…what is your brand and how can you differentiate yourself from other instructors (besides the fact you have room/time at a local studio)?  If you don’t know the easy answer to that question, you may need to do some more work!


10.       Are you passionate about teaching?
It seems like the standard formula for making a living as a belly dancer is 1 part performances (restaurants, shows, workshops); 1 part private gigs (belly grams, weddings and parties) and 1 part teaching.  Some dancers are fortunate to add 1 part DVD or CD sales to this list but for the majority of dancers, financial incentives for belly dancing are slim.  So, is your sole interest in teaching financial or do you really feel passionate about teaching?  If you did not receive any money, fame or attention for teaching…would you still do it?  I know so many dancers that would dance even if there wasn’t an audience…or a stage…but how many of you would still teach for the pure joy of sharing your knowledge?

Don’t get me wrong, I think teachers can make money in this dance form and the dedicated, talented and persistent ones will always find a way to do this.  However, I think the ones that are the most resilient are the dancers who are passionate about teaching.  Teaching takes an enormous amount of work, effort and time.  I’ll admit that there are days when it is hard to get up the energy to go teach.  However, I know once I step into the studio and the first student arrives; my mood and spirits will immediately improve!  For me teaching is not about getting credit for students learning new skills, but rather seeing those students learn and understand more about themselves as strong, beautiful, graceful women.  

So if you are thinking about teaching, or currently teach…do your eyes light up at the idea of teaching?  Does the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you see your students perform?  Do you get all misty-eyed when they dance?  And, most of all, do you teach because you know how to translate all your skills, experience and knowledge into a productive, fulfilling experience for everyone?  Think about it…and then get back to me!

November 19, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 2)

So, I recently started some posts talking about the characteristics of a good belly dance instructor.  Here is part two (of three) in that series.  Last time we talked logistics, today we’ll talk about technique and movement.  Feel free to chime in and add your thoughts to the conversation!

4.       Do you know your stuff?
I could write multiple posts on this one point alone, but it boils down to whether or not you understand this dance, the music, the culture, and the history?  Can you articulate the differences in the various dance styles or the evolution of belly dance in this country and in the Middle East?  Can you work with both choreography and improvisation?  Have you performed in a variety of venues, to a variety of music, more than just a handful of times?  Do you understand how to break down different moves, to different music, for different body types and levels of dancers?  Do you understand when, where and how to use props…appropriately?  Have you invested more money in your dance training than your costumes?  Do you understand the dance community in which you live and know what type of performance opportunities are available for students?  Have you performed in most of those venues?  If you attend a workshop or read a blog post or a belly dance history/music/culture article and don’t understand the majority of what is being discussed or taught, then get thee to more workshops and classes, buy some books and do more research to increase your knowledge.  



And, if you don’t know what is happening in the community around you…you need to meet other teachers, support other venues and do more networking.  Here in Austin we have a strong dance community, and I was at a show once where someone who performed (and supposedly taught as well) didn’t have any idea who the show’s headliner was.  That same headliner is a major name here in town and beyond, so I was surprised.  That one tidbit showed me that this new dancer really didn’t know her stuff, and did more posturing than studying.  If you want to be a reputable teacher, you should know the big dance names and venues in your community.

Knowing your stuff goes beyond dance technique and teaching styles (which could be hundreds of posts right there).  Do you know how to costume yourself…and your students in an appropriate manner?  (Again, I could write volumes on this one!!!!)  I just heard a story of a dancer (and teacher) that performed at an event and well…let’s just say the audience learned more information about the dancer’s private anatomy than necessary.  And no, this wasn’t a costume malfunction!  So, the event coordinator decided (without telling the dancer/teacher) that she would never invite that teacher back again…all because the costume (and certain dance moves) were inappropriate.  I’ve give more details…but I don’t want to call anyone out directly, all I can say is that the dancer/instructor doesn’t see any issue with the costuming…but wonders why it is so hard to get booked in various venues. 

When I first started dancing (back in the day!), there were limited costume choices.  You didn’t really even consider a professional level cabaret costume until…you had been dancing for a while professionally.  Now, beginner dancers can buy costumes with a click of the mouse but it doesn’t mean they are ready to perform at that level.  I’ve had students ask me if they are ready to buy a true cabaret costume…if their dancing is up to that level yet…just because they recognize that just like there are levels of dance, there are levels of performance and presentation.  So, if you’re in doubt about appropriate (or tasteful) costume choices, find the most respected teacher/dancer in your area and see how they dress, how their students dress, and have a chat with them.

(Photo copied from What Were They Thinking?)


Beyond appropriate costumes is the subject of appropriate fitting costumes.  Can you help your students dress in a respectful manner, and in a way that their body type is best showcased?  Around here I’m known as the “bra whisperer” because I can help fit bras on all body types.  Once I did a bra-making workshop for my students and I literally spent the evening in a bathroom with a parade of topless students getting fitted for bra tops.  Not only did they learn how to make the most of their own shape, but also how to take costumes and alter them successfully, which is a win-win in my book.  So, if you don’t have the skills to help students yourself are you willing to seek out other dancers to help teach them alterations, sewing and costuming skills?

I personally saw a group of dancers perform in new costumes which simply left me speechless.  I can understand the desire for lost-cost costumes for a student troupe but I have never seen so many ill-fitting outfits in one place.  There were muffin tops, butt-cracks and cleavage showing, skirts way too short and others way too long.  There were breasts hanging 2-3 inches well below normal placement and dancers wearing colors that looked horrible on stage, and with their coloring.  Then, after seeing the instructor I could tell that the teacher had no idea on how to fit or alter a costume for a woman’s body properly.  It was sad, uncomfortable and really distressing as an audience member.  There’s a possibility that the students were good dancers, but I have no memory of the event…and I what I do remember I wish I could wipe from my memory forever!  So, can you make sure your students shine not only in technique but also style when they hit the stage?

5.       Are you continually learning?
A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a student recital night with Bahaia and Stacey-Lizette, two of Austin’s premier dancers…and I’m fortunate to say friends of mine as well.  I was so flattered and honored to be included, and although I knew it would mean more work as a dancer and teacher, I was excited about the prospect.  After the first show (which we dubbed the Hip Circle Hafla), Stacey-Lizette and I talked about what a successful evening it was.  She commented that since she is still a student, it was a wonderful opportunity for her to practice as well.  Yes, I did fall in love with her all over again for that remark because it really sets an example to have such a strong dancer admit she still needs to study.  I’m hoping that I will always feel that there is so much more to learn, study and practice.

So, are you willing to empty your cup and be open to new ideas?  Do you read, study, watch and grow?  Are you respectful and curious about all aspects of this dance?  Are you are willing to evaluate what works and doesn’t work, and then change it?  This next spring I’m completely revising my class format, which means much more work for me, but I hope many new and exciting challenges and opportunities to grow for my students.  It’s not the first time I’ve changed my teaching strategy, but each time I make the change I feel that I’m refining my style more which allow myself and my students to grow as well.  Think about where you are as a dancer now versus when you first started, and where do you see your dancer career going?  Is your goal to travel and tour professionally?  Is it just to explore the dance from a recreational aspect?  Is it to provide a creative outlet…or a financial one?  Will teaching help you with your goals, or sidetrack you?
I know of a dancer who started in the 80’s and is still going (and no, she's not 80...).  At a dance workshop that she and I both attended, I noticed a couple of things.  First, she either spent all of her time talking with vendors and other dancers or making comments to the side about how she already knew the subject being taught.  Or, if she did occasionally participate in the class, she immediately took whatever the instructor was teaching and just did it her own way…not willing to see if there was merit to a different style or breakdown of movement.  The most striking part of the weekend was one night when she said this dance form does not respect the teachers who have been teaching the longest.  That belly dancers only want to learn from the newest kid on the street.  What she failed to tell people is that she never advertises or makes any effort to recruit or retain students or help them grow.  Her approach is that of entitlement.  She put in the time; therefore she should have the most students.  Unfortunately she doesn’t see the correlation between her inability to grow as a dancer and her inability to attract students.   Students may initially flock to the “new” kids on the block, but the good ones, the dedicated ones will seek out the strong, experienced teachers.

So, How much time (and money) do you spend on your personal dance training?  Do you know who the “big” names in your dance style are…and do you seek them out for classes and workshops?  Belly dancers are fortunate because the majority of the great names of this dance are still alive, and teaching.  So, if you are serious about the dance are you serious about seeking out training from the best?  Do you cross training in other dance forms, or other styles of movement like yoga, Pilates, Nia…even martial arts?   Continual training is the key to growing as a dancer and artist, so make sure you are in position to put in that time.

6.       Do you understand basic movement principles?
Although you may know belly dance, do you really understand how our bodies move?  Do you know what causes different limitations or issues with a student’s form or how to ensure dancers don’t injure themselves?  What about basic anatomy…can you name the major muscle groups used for each movement? I like to describe movement in terms of what is happening from a skeletal points (i.e. knees bending) and then from a muscular point (i.e. glutes contracting) so students can start developing a relationship between the movement and their own bodies.   So, do you understand how movement is generated and how little things like posture, stance and feet position can alter or change a move?  Can you explain why to do or not do certain moves to help prevent injury (i.e. tucking your pelvis so you don’t hyperextend your lower back)?  Consider investing in some good anatomy books, or take some basic movement or yoga classes, or consult Dr. Google.  But, above all else you should increase your knowledge of the body.

Introducing my office mate, Mr. Muscles


Next:  Part three!

November 17, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 1)

Recently I griped wrote a post on what qualifies as an experienced belly dance teacher.  I think there is a natural inclination and curiosity from many dancers to move into the role of teaching.  And, depending upon the area in which you live, there may not be many instructors so teaching may be a lucrative move.  In other areas, some dancers feel that to help make a name for themselves (and make some money) teaching is a necessary part of that process.  Now I love teaching, and would do it even if I didn’t get paid a single penny, but I’ll readily admit it is not for everyone.  So, here’s a not-so-short list of the ten questions you should ask yourself before making that transition from dancer to teacher

This isn’t set up as a pass/fail, but rather a list of things you should consider before taking the teaching plunge.  Dancers who live in smaller towns with fewer resources will have different challenges than those in larger cities with vibrant dance communities, but I’ve tried to touch on the most common issues, as I see them.  I’ll be posting the list in three parts, because yes…I have that much to say on the subject.  I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks, and what you would add (or take away) from the list!  So today, we’ll start with some logistics:

1. Are you are organized, dedicated, timely and persistent? 
Will your classes start and finish on time?  Can you keep up with class schedules, rosters, emails and contact information?  Can you keep up with music, props, costumes, and other things you’ll need for class or are you they type of person who misplaces most everything?  Are you good at communicating with studio owners, students and the belly dance community?  I heard a story of a teacher who was consistently late to class or just didn’t show up.  She had another teacher come sub for her one week who was shocked to find out that everyone showed up about 20 minutes into the class.  As it turns out, the students never came on time because they didn’t want to wait around.  It made me think that if the teacher cannot take the class seriously, how can she expect the same of her students?  I always try to show up 15-20 minutes before each class to set up my things, and settle in, and many of my students show up early just to spend a few extra minutes talking to me.  It doesn’t always happen that way, but I make that a goal…just so I’m not feeling rushed when everyone arrives.  I also require any new students to show up early so they can get a feel for the place before class starts.  So, ask yourself if you can be dependable for the long haul, and are you a good role model and show respect for your student’s time and energy?


2. Are you willing to put in the time?
It seems like the longer you teach, the less time you would need to spend on planning and organizing classes.  Not true!  As you grow as an instructor, hopefully your students grow along with you.  I started out teaching 6-week beginner classes for about six years before branching about beyond that.  Trust me, I can teach a six week beginner class in my sleep, but nowadays I spend more and more time working on the longer classes for more advanced dancers.  So, are you willing to put in extra time for lesson planning, or choosing music playlists, or developing drills or warm-ups, or designing choreographies?  I just spent an entire week planning one class because I was going to combine three levels of dancers into one session.  I can’t do that much prep each week, but I also know that I cannot wait until 30 minutes before class (or at the beginning of class) to decide what we’ll study.  Now I’ll admit, sometimes the best laid plans change once class begins; having a game plan going in makes all the difference in the world!


Do you have the time to spend on advertising and marketing or other community outreach?  And, in the midst of all of this, do you have time for your individual practice and training as a dancer?  It’s rare to find dancers who can afford to do this full-time, so can you juggle your other life…work, family, friends, relationships…along with dancing and teaching?  If you are still taking classes from someone on a weekly basis, will your teaching schedule interfere with this? If you take regular workshops, have you thought about what you will do with classes while you’re off training?  Do you cancel or do you find substitutes?   And, if you’re thinking that once you start teaching you don’t need additional training…how do you expect to grow as a dancer?  What about having room in your schedule for coaching, mentoring and developing relationships with students?  All of these things take time, and if you’re already short on free time…will teaching really help you out, or hurt you?

3. Do you understand the logistics of teaching?
At some point in time every teacher sits down and does the math just to find out how much they can make while teaching.  Usually the hypothetical calculations are based upon the maximum number of students the class can hold, under the assumption those students will be there every week, without fail.  (Yes I’m smirking while writing this.) Even skilled dancers and teachers know it takes time and energy to build a student clientele. Experienced teachers know there is an ebb and flow of students, days of high attendance and days of low attendance.  So, are you willing to accept the financial risks associated with teaching?  This goes beyond the cost of a classroom rental; it includes the cost of teaching insurance, supplies, materials, marketing and publicity.  Are you in the position to pay deposits or rentals up front, or if your class attendance is erratic, can you deal with a less-than-steady cash flow?


Beyond fiscal matters, have you had a CPR or first-aid class recently?  Do you know what to do if someone injures themselves, or what to do if they show in class with an injury or other physical limitations?  Can you revise or adapt your teaching to help those students who struggle with the moves because of different body types or levels of physical skill, strength and flexibility?  What about personality types?  Can you work with really outgoing, shy or ‘know-it-all-already’ students?  Remember that strong belly dance technique doesn’t necessarily transfer to strong teaching skills. 

What about location?  Have you thought about how to create an environment in which students can learn and develop their skills?  If you find a studio, are there any potential conflicts with other teachers or classes?  Will you have keys to the studio or do you have to rely on the owner to open and close for you?  What kind of sound system, dance floor, parking, and other amenities are available?  Can the owner guarantee your scheduled slot?  Will you have to sign contracts, liability waivers, pay deposits or follow specific studio rules?  My first experiences with studio rental were fraught with anxiety and missteps.  I had problems getting keys, having other classes scheduled on top of mine, bad acoustics and carpeting that was a tad suspect for dancing barefoot.  At the time, I was grateful to have the space, but I cannot imagine dealing with all of that again.  Now I have a studio in a great location that is well-kept and well organized (with my own key) with dedicated parking and all I have to do is show up and turn on the lights!


If you are thinking about teaching out of your home, do you have a separate, dedicated space for classes?  Or, would students have to walk through your kitchen, living room, bedroom, garage, patio, etc. to get to class.  Could your classes operate uninterrupted or would family members (or pets) be interrupting?  Are there any restrictions in your homeowners association or neighborhood regarding home businesses?  Is there readily available parking or restrooms?  Would your neighbors have any issues with people coming and going for classes?  What happens if your student is allergic to pets, or even worse…injures themselves in class?  Are you okay with inviting strangers into your home, or advertising your house as a studio location for prospective students?  Can you keep the studio and house (if students have to walk through it) clean and organized? 

I’ve seen good and bad examples of in-home studios.  And, I’ve heard dancers say that they’ll start teaching out of their home just to earn a few extra bucks (I know…yowza!)  So, before you invite people in, ask yourself if you can create an environment that is conducive to dance, and whether you are ready to shoulder the personal, property and financial risks involved with teaching at home.

Next:  Part two!

November 10, 2010

Gloats and Gripes

Last week while heading out to the parking garage in my office, three women in the lobby of a nearby building caught my eye. Or rather, their hip scarves did. It looked like an impromptu belly dance class, but much to my dismay the woman leading the other two clearly did not know how to move. Her movements reminded me of an awkward jazzercise class, with lots of stomping and erratic, frantic steps. I can’t verify that it was a belly dance class; however the addition of hip scarves seemed to lead me that direction. I had to stifle my urge to break into their group, much like the belly dance police or mafia, and instead walked away shaking my head over what qualifies as “teaching” in belly dance.

It wasn’t so much the location, but the quality of movement that bothered me. As a belly dancer I have practiced and trained in a variety of locations from home studios, garages, hotel ballrooms, living rooms and traditional dance studios. I’ve been teaching for about a decade now (yikes!) and I’ve taught in some crazy places under really odd conditions. So, I could imagine a time when I would have jumped on the bandwagon to have a clear dance space and room to teach, regardless of the location. Luckily, I’m past that stage which makes me gloat a bit, along with the griping about who teaches this dance form.

This spring will mark the third anniversary of teaching out of a traditional dance studio. And as an early Christmas present, the studio just moved into a new and larger location. Words cannot express my gratitude for having a dance space, a location whose sole purpose is to teach and train dancers as my home base for belly dance classes. There is something so much more legitimate and dare I say, grown-up about paying rent on a REAL dance studio, scheduling classes and managing what and how I teach. The studio makes me want to be a better dancer and instructor and I know that my students training in this location will benefit from the environment as well…so I gloat, and perhaps giggle a bit as well.

Which now brings me to my big gripe. I normally try to be supportive and encouraging to all women involved in this dance form. But over the last few years I have soooo much less tolerance for those individuals who think that just because they have room in their garage/living room/den/spare bedroom/office they should start a belly dance class…especially just to earn a few bucks on the side. Although I think this dance form is for ALL women, and should be accessible to anyone who chooses to come take classes and participate I do not think teaching is for everyone. Not all dancers should teach. Period.

In all honesty, I started teaching long before I should have. Luckily I taught other subjects and topics so I don’t think I left anyone scarred by the experience. And I learned, and grew as a teacher. But in hindsight I wished I hadn’t started so soon. I think in the rush to feel competent as a dancer so many women try to push past the beginner and intermediate labels too early. And teaching seems like such an easy way to claim expertise, right?

Wrong. Over the years I have seen the results of poor teaching skills, lack of discipline and really bad technique manifested in students who think they can perform at a level beyond their skill set. I’ve spent time with students trying to correct their posture and technique being taught really bad dance habits. I’ve met students who were devastated to learn that they have bad technique because their instructor didn’t want to say anything bad about their dancing. I’ve seen new dancers (really, really new dancers) advertise on web sites that they have classes and are available for private lessons. I’ve had people tell me that they informally showed their friend some belly dance moves and without any formal classes, maybe their “friend” could just move into my intermediate level class. And I can’t tell you how many times I have watched someone dance and thought to myself…she’s got real talent…I hope and pray she finds her way to a qualified teacher…and soon.

So secretly (and today publicly), I gripe about those teachers who don’t seem to appreciate and understand the hard work, dedication and skill necessary for teaching this dance form. And those same teachers then wonder why this dance form isn’t respected…or treated as legitimate as other dance forms. Think about it, if you can show people how to belly dance while standing at the coffee machine in your office, or in some bar while out drinking…why would anyone believe that you have to pay to take classes at a studio with *ahem* a teacher? I know we want this dance to be accessible, but at the same time we should encourage and set the example that belly dancing requires work and dedication and training under a qualified instructor (not just watching DVDs).

I think that every time we tell people, “it’s easy to dance…let me show you”, we belittle our dance training. Really, have you ever seen a ballet teacher jump into first, second or third position just because someone asked them about the dance? I think that when people ask you to show them how to belly dance you should politely decline and either refer them to good teachers in your area, or if you are a teacher invite them to come take a class. I also think we need to tell people that yes, they can learn this dance form, but it requires hard work, dedication and training. And above all else, we should educate people on the difference between a legitimate belly dance teacher and those who are just are just looking for some extra cash.

*climbing down from my soapbox now*

September 18, 2010

Belly Dance 101

When I sit down to count, I've been taking classes for 12 years, performing for 11 years and teaching for 10.  Whew!  The startling part of that sentence is not feeling amazed about how far I have come but rather everything I still have to learn, internalize and master.  It is all at once overwhelming and exciting.  I hoped that when I first started performing that this dance form would stay with me for decades, but I don't think I thought that much about the structure, history or culture of the dance.  I was lucky however because I had amazing teachers, attended workshops with masters in this dance and whether or not I was prepared to learn the scholarly aspects of belly dancing...I was thrust into those lessons and lectures.  

Now, as an instructor I really want to actively ensure that my students have all that information at their fingertips.  And with the growth of fusion and tribal styles of dance, I still want people to understand the roots...the heart and soul of belly dancing, from a cabaret point of view.  So, I've been sneaking in lectures and handouts and video clips for my students and decided to start chronicling those same topics here on my blog.  And although this is not the definitive guide to all things Egyptian, Arabic and Raks Sharki...it's a nice overview and starting point.

It took me years to figure out that belly dancing is not just about learning technique...hips drops, isolations and traveling combinations...it is about comprehending the entire belly dance experience, where it started from and  the music, dancers and culture that have influenced it.  So, I put together this diagram to give my students an idea of life beyond a basic shimmy and to remind me as an instructor not to spend too much time on movement at the expense of everything else.  My goal in class is not to just follow one after the other, but rather touch on different elements at different times, but making sure people know each class...lesson...and experience is part of a bigger picture.  



In designing this diagram I thought about my own dance journey and what (and where) I learned different aspects along the way.  Some things like the movement were taught to me early on.  Others, like the influential dancers, musicians, classic songs and even culture I had to learn along the way or research myself.   All in all, I like my diagram and I hope you do as well!

September 16, 2010

Fall 2010 Classes

Well, I'm getting all geared up for some cooler weather and much warmer, sultry belly dance moves!  Come join me this fall for beginner and intermediate level classes at Tarrytown Dance.  You can register online and then just show up for the next available class.  Please note, the studio is making a move the first of October...and we'll have a larger and more wonderful space to dance out of very soon!

Happy Shimmies
Najla

September 7, 2010

Name That Tune


In a bizarre string of bad technological breaks, I have just spent four days of my life sifting and sorting through my music files on iTunes.   It all started with the addition of a new computer, and my overly naive belief that transferring my music from the old to the new would be simple, easy, and painless.  

Attempt number one resulted in the duplication (and triplication...if that's such a word) of the majority of my files.  So, instead of approximately 3,500 music files my folder showed close to 8,000. Two days of sifting, sorting and playing files resulted in a clean organized system.  Somewhere along the way I also learned that I could have purchased a $20 program to transfer the files, playlists and CDs in a more civilized manner. Too bad I didn't get that memo sooner.

The most difficult part was sorting through approximately 300 music files that had no name, no album and no home.  But, to my amazement and surprise I managed to find all of the files a home and I discovered how well I really do know my belly dance music. I was proud of my ability to 'name that tune' because I had  to listen to each snippet and then figure out what album it belonged with.  In many cases, it was a duplicate so I could just match up the times and delete the extra copy.  In some cases I had to play it over and over again, and even 'dance' the music a bit to figure out when and where I had used that song before. 

In a strange twist of fate, the next time I turned on my computer it asked me if I wanted to search for any music files to add to  iTunes.  Sleep apparently causes a memory loss, so instead of shrugging off that suggestion I told my computer, 'yes' and then watched in horror as my two days of work unraveled before my very eyes.  And now, two days further into this misadventure I am finally back to a clean set of files, with all my songs in their proper home, all my CDs with the appropriate artwork and a sense of wonder over my ability to sort through so many songs and know their name without hints.

I think back to when I first started dancing and didn't know anything about the music.  Everything ran together, I didn't have an ear for the difference in rhythms, instruments, composers or musicians.  Apparently all these years of immersing myself in the music has paid off.  I noticed this last week when I watched a show and could name the songs of most every dancer performing.  It was nice to sit there and think "ok, that's Ya Mustafa" or "hmmm...such a nice take on Jalilah's version of 1,001 nights" and although I don't want to play "name that tune" with my CDs ever again I'm feeling quite proud of my musical knowledge and acumen.  

So Internet, I dare you...could you take 100 songs off your iTunes list and name them all without peeking at the label or artist?  It's a daunting challenge but I suspect you're up to it!

August 1, 2010

Channeling Dalia Carella



Instead of channeling spirits from the past, apparently I have the capacity to channel live ones.  This weekend was Z-Helene and Rick Fink's 6th Annual Middle Eastern Troupe Competition and Dalia Carella was not only a guest judge but also taught several workshops.  Now I confess that I know her name and reputation but never took any classes from her and maybe watched a handful of videos of her.  I know that she is immensely talented and well respected in the dance community and that I would be foolish to miss a class with her...especially when it was less than five minutes away from my house.

What I was not prepared for, was how much I loved her class and absolutely LOVED the way she moved.  She's now on my short list for future workshops and classes.  We learned a short choreography to Ghannalli which was not only challenging, but really fun to perform.  The most surprising fact is that today, after sleeping...I remember the whole thing!  Yes, craziness!!!!   I'm great at learning choreographies and pick them up quickly, but rarely do I remember one after a workshop.  My mind only retains pieces that I like, and the rest falls away. And since I don't typically perform another dancer's choreography I never think twice about it.

However, for some reason this one stuck.  So, on a whim I downloaded the music and decided to teach it to my intermediate class tonight. Since most of them performed in the showcase last night, I knew it would be a small group and I thought this would be a treat for the dedicated ones who showed up.  And when I ran through it the first time, they all laughed.  Not because I did a bad job, but they said it was a "Najla" choreography if they had ever seen one.  And , as I broke down each move I realized that so many of them indeed were already in pieces they had learned.  All the way down to certain small kicks and hand flourishes. It was eerie in the similarities.  In fact, it was so eerie that my students had the number down in about 45 minutes (the workshop was 2.5 hours)...simply because they already knew the steps!

So, apparently I have been channeling Dalia all along and didn't realize it.  Her movements and choreography were so in tune with the way I dance that I was quite giggly tonight over that realization.  It's like finding the mother ship without even knowing that I had one.  Now, my challenge may be to finish the choreography (we only learned about a third) and then see if anyone can spot the authentic "Dalia" moves versus the "Najla" ones.  

July 29, 2010

Not bad for a white girl


So what would you do if someone asked you to come teach a class that was an Arabic folkloric class to a group of students in an Arabic language/culture program with the possibility of an Arabic professor either watching or participating in the class? For someone like myself who is uber-Caucasian, I had to take a deep breath and say, 'sure, I can do that'. Although I have taken my share of folkloric dance classes and have studied with some really amazing teachers, I really was worried that I would not be able to represent the culture and dance in an appropriate manner. I got the gig from another dancer who had all the confidence in the world in me…but apparently I didn't get that memo. I've taught debke to my students, have done debke in public settings…but I was still a bit worried. So I did what most people would do in this situation. I crammed!

I went on a three day Google/YouTube rampage and downloaded about twenty new songs. Each night I sat at the computer trying to really immerse myself in the dance steps and movements in a short time. The funny thing is, I wasn't learning anything particularly new. There were some nuances I had not considered, some great combinations, some really amazing dancers, but nothing really new. And somewhere in the midst of my self-imposed panic I realized that I did, indeed, know enough to teach this class. Once I allowed myself to recognize my own skills and ability I was able to think about structuring the class like any other class I teach, which is pretty simple. Start with an overview, breakdown basic movements, teach a short combination or two and then practice. *whew* HUGE sigh of relief when that clicked in.

So why all the angst? Not sure…perhaps it had more to do with my perception of my own skills in relationship to this dance style. A couple of years ago, I took a workshop from Michelle Joyce. Not only is she a great dancer, but a really wonderful teacher. Her style and teaching philosophy really resonate with me. At one point she talks about the four stages of learning. The first one she calls, unconsciously incompetent, where we basically think we're hot shit but have no clue how little we know. Then, we move into the consciously incompetent phase where that self-awareness slips in and suddenly we realize that there are a lot of people much better and more skilled than we are. With any luck we move to the unconsciously competent phase where we're hitting our stride but don't quite realize it. And then, it's off to the consciously competent phase where we understand and can appreciate our abilities.

My angst was due to living in that unconscious incompetence stage. Luckily, I realized that a couple days before I taught the class which helped me feel much more relaxed and excited. As it turns out, the class was a group of students who had very little exposure to debke and several of them were, shall we say, rhythmically challenged. What they lacked in one area, they made up for in enthusiasm and exuberance so I had a blast! My favorite part was dancing to the music and feeling completely at home with the movements and music. Score one for the white girl!

July 23, 2010

Making Faces

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who suggested that I treated her differently than others in our group. Her feeling was that I should be fair in my comments, conversations and discussions and equally share my thoughts and feelings with everyone. What kept running through my mind was the fact that I do, indeed, think of her in a different manner than others. As a rule, she is much more guarded, more self-conscious and at times more superficial in her comments and observations. There are the cursory greetings and inquiries we trade regarding each other lives, but rarely do we have what I consider an 'honest' conversation where we both let our hair down and share our thoughts and feelings. So yes, I agree…my conversations with her are different than with others because her guarded nature does not compel me to drop my guard either. It is not a matter of fairness, but rather in meeting someone where they are at. And, until she is ready to go deeper, relax and open up I have no desire to go below the surface either.

And, just like it is okay with someone to keep their feelings and emotions tucked away from the public eye, there is nothing wrong with a dancer who just moves through a performance by concentrating on technique alone. It works, it gets the job done…and often times the audience can really appreciate and enjoy the skill and expertise shown. It does however get much more interesting when instead of feeling guarded, a dancer lets go and allows the audience to share her feelings, fears, joys and emotions in her dance. Those are the juicy moments, the soul-baring, soul-searching, beautiful moments that may not be technically precise but emotionally compelling.

I like to think that when I dance, I try to let my guard down…relax…and let the audience share my experience as well. However, when I stop to look at photos of my dancing, it is rare that I find shots that seem to capture what I think that I am thinking! I would love to attribute this to some terrible childhood trauma where I was chased by some domineering photographer who scarred me emotionally for life….but…I cannot. The truth is, when I see a camera, there is a part of my mind that immediately tries to come up with what I consider a 'game face' instead of staying in the moment. I go to a much more superficial place versus letting my guard down and honestly feeling the emotion. I would love to take an acting class at some point in time, in the hope of really working on those facial expressions, but in the meantime I think I have discovered a new practice for myself.

As you may know, I just got a new computer with a built in webcam. I christened the webcam with my first video blog, which was fascinating to create because you get to watch yourself (even mirror image) the entire time. So, I decided to start channeling Tyra Banks and her advice to practice in a mirror for photo shoots and decided to play with the still shots just to see how they would come out. The hardest part was fighting the urge to go fix my hair and makeup and then practice a few times before taking some pictures to upload. Tonight's lesson plan?


Instead of trying to force the emotion or feeling for the photo, I simply allowed myself to relax, let my guard down and simply 'experience' an emotion to see what would happen. So, here's a sneak peak at my new training tool…no makeup, ready for bed, lights off (except for the screensaver which changes color)…and just me.


So, now that I have let my guard down, what do all of you do to practice and improve your ability to emote while performing? Do tell!


July 18, 2010

Crossing Boundaries and Baring it All


Here's the first of what I hope to be many guest blogs on this site. The honor of the first one goes to a newer student of mine, Krysta, who is passionate and joyful and just lots of fun to be around. Enjoy!

I've been dancing on and off since I was about 4 years old – I've dabble in ballet, contemporary, folklorico, ballroom, latin, hustle, hip hop, west African, afro-haitian, capoeira, contact improvisation, tap, jazz, swing…and I love it all. It was only last year that I built the courage to try belly dancing. Like most women, there was just something terrifying and uncomfortable about letting my soft belly be seen by anyone but me…and my doctor one a year. For years I'd admired the belly dancers I had seen who were not only comfortable, but proud of the fleshiness of their midsection. I also couldn't help but be in sheer awe of the Indian women who let their bellies be…let their bellies rest happily and peek through the crevices of the brightly colored fabric that made their saris. "Yes, this is me – here I am."

I decided it was time to cross over from "traditional" forms of dance, into belly dance – and also cross over the boundary my fears had generated, and dance with my tum tum out. In the past year, I've gained another level of kinesthetic awareness which has profoundly informed the other styles of dance that I love, and I think I'm close to being on par with the Indian women I've admired for so long...this is me. Here I am.

Belly dancing has provided me with something I wasn't fully anticipating – confidence as a performer overall…and as a woman just trying to make it in the world. There is no apologizing in belly dance – you mean for your flesh to jiggle, or not jiggle. Your veil was supposed to get tangled. You were supposed to add that extra clack with your zils. And yes, you did nail that leap into a three-step turn. In performance, you must believe that every single hip sway and snake arm has been executed to perfection. You must know that you are the most interesting creature onstage whenever you enter…up until several lifetimes after you've exited. And in life, you must believe that every sashay in your heels, hair flip, and the building of every new Ikea furniture piece has been executed to perfection. You must know that you are the most interesting creature in the conference room and on the street – with or without your hip scarf.