Evolving your learning expectations

Or why does it suddenly get so hard !

By Sara Shrapnell.


2008 – please do not reproduce without permission

First published in Taqasim magazine



I wanted to write something about how that and our expectations change over the years as we learn more and more about bellydance.


Many of us will have experienced the joy of keeping up with a tough workshop, or really mastering a complex choreography, and yet this is often followed by a month where you loose your ability to shimmy or freedance !  When this happens it can be easy to loose heart.  Students also talk to me one week about how they are struggling with the class, then two weeks later they might mention that they are feeling unchallenged (!).  What’s going on here ?


I’m going to look at three main focuses of learning to dance –physical work, our emotional side and finally our knowledge of the subject and moves.  We need to use our brain to think of moves, interpret the music, put some feeling into our dance and present an over all style.  We need our bodies to be able to produce the movements we think of, to be flexible, strong and balanced.  And we should also consider Bellydance as a subject, all the linked dance styles, history, important music and our knowledge of them.  Very few of us can develop all three skills simultaneously, and can become overwhelmed or over confident as our skills in each progress.


Lets follow an example of a new dancer:

 In her first lesson the music sounds strange, she has no idea of what’s coming next, her body can’t do any of the moves and the teacher uses words that she has never heard before.

 Having drilled some basic moves (we need to physically drill each move 1,000s of times to get them into our muscle memory), and heard the same piece of music four or five times she can now flow or hit in time with the teacher.

 Now she is given some harder moves to mix in.  She can’t remember the names of all the moves and during freedance returns to those early favourites.  She sees others using the complex ones and feels bored by her limited movement vocabulary.

 Around this time she may hear a piece of music that really touches her emotionally and we get that light bulb moment when dancers realise its not all about how many moves you can do.  Also this is often the time when new students join the group and our dancer sees them struggle with the basics, and remembers how far she has come.  Learning alongside them also means that she can think through her teacher’s explanations once again, re-enforce her knowledge and tidy up any problems with her technique.

 Then we have the joy of learning to layer.  This is a really frustrating process.  Take two movements that you know are easy and that you can do without fault and put them together.  It’s like tapping your head and rubbing your tummy.  The dancer sees herself in the mirror with limbs going in all directions and the look of pain on her face and wonders if this combination is even physically possible.

 Maybe now our student buys a video, looks on YouTube or goes to a Hafla and is inspired by a performer they see.  Maybe someone with their body shape, or who triggers and emotional reaction in her as they dance.

 Equally they might suddenly get overwhelmed by how much they have to learn.  Perhaps they have been learning about modern Egyptian, but didn’t realise there was also Turkish, Tribal, Folkloric and finger cymbals to find out about (keep them away from my 40 styles of bellydance lecture !).  They see dancers who can spin or do backbends and realising that they may never be able to do those things they begin to wonder if its worth continuing to learn if they can never be as good as they want to be.

 Perhaps now is the time for her to bond with the others in her class or locals that she met through Hafla’s and workshops, or even other dancers she meets on line.  Experiencing that amazing joy from dancing with others, or to others.  Hopefully this group of friends will support each other and her, comment on the skills they are learning and compliment each other.  For a while the classes become more about meeting up with those others and less about learning to dance.

 And here is the really odd one – the group has been working on a combination, choreography or a particular style of dance for a few weeks and the teacher throws in an old familiar drill, just for the fun of it and everyone finds their brain goes blank or their body can no longer do the most basic moves.  What’s going on here is that the brain needs regular reminding and that the muscle memory has faded.  Unfortunately its time to return to the basics, daily drilling and all those things that now feel boring.  The top dancers practice their basic moves and drills regularly and so must we, but it’s a bit of a shock and feels like a huge backwards step.

 Our dancer now goes to a workshop and learns along side dancers from lots of other areas.  Hopefully this fires her up with enthusiasm, helps her realise how much she knows and she brings back to the group a number of new moves or ideas.  It makes her feel fabulous to show off to her group, and their reaction shows that they see her as talented and knowledgeable member of the group.

 Unfortunately the next workshop she goes to isn’t as good.  Maybe she picks something too basic for her and doesn’t feel she learnt anything new.  Or maybe she went for the choreography that started off with the travelling spin on the left foot and never got her balance back for the whole two hours.  When she returns to class the others ask her how it went and she can only shrug and see the disappointment on their faces.

 The up and downs continue and start to depend on the dancer.  Will she love performing solo, but hate the new group number ?  Will she find that new people joining the class make her feel like she is being held back?, or as a chance to make new friends?  Will she specialise in one style of bellydance or take workshops in as many styles as she can find?  Maybe a new album will speak to her and inspire her to all kind of new ways of dancing, or it will all sound very much the same and un-inspiring.  Will she work drills into her daily routine or be happy with her one hour of class a week?


I hope many of you can recognise some of these stages and how our confidence ebbs and flows as we learn more and improve.  Along with each step forward there is also time needed to re-enforce those new skills.  So we naturally get a learning curve that is like a staircase, one step up and one step on the level with the occasional drop in confidence, which might feel like a step back, but more often is just a prolonged journey on the level.   The really unfortunate thing is that not all of us will follow the above pattern but will have a couple of difficult stages one after another – for example maybe a bad performance experience is followed immediately by a bad workshop or one of those moments when the basics seem impossible.  At these times it’s hard not to loose heart or to feel like giving up.


What can we do to make the journey easier and more enjoyable? – Well firstly that support network is very important, look out for your classmates and help them if you see them facing a difficulty, and ask them to help you when you feel uninspired.  I hope this list will make you see that this kind of learning is perfectly normal (in all learning, not just for bellydance), and that the only way through it is to give yourself time.  Knowing which stage you are in can really help you focus on where you are going and how you are getting there.  Are you taking that step up and need lots of new ideas ? or are you on a plateau and need time to re-enforce or get comfortable in the knowledge and skills you have collected ?  Real life can also get in the way of our learning:  if your work life needs all of your brain then you may have nothing left for class.  Knowing this can stop us stressing about our inability to remember the moves from last week, but remind us that right now we need the physical movement, and that it all adds up over the years.


Try not to focus on increasing all your skills at once.  Write down a few ideas of where you want to go, over the next year, month or even week and just work on those.  And finally drill !, re-enforcing those basics will really get them deep into your memory and muscles, leaving room for new information.  Oh and don’t stop enjoying yourself !