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Beginners Ask Me About Belly Dancing

Frequently asked questions...

(reprinted from ZAGHAREET! "For Beginners", Mar/Apr. 2004)
by Anthea Kawakib Poole

bellydancer imageBeginners are so enthusiastic and eager to learn - they want to jump in and learn everything, right away! Their questions and ideas help me remember what the "outside world" (outside of belly dance, that is) thinks - and wonders - about the dance.

Here are some of the questions new students ask:

The first three can be lengthy subjects so after a brief answer I point to online sources for their further research. The other questions are related to movement and awareness - the "bread and butter" of dance class - so we explore those more thoroughly. I'll share some ideas with you in case you've ever asked those questions yourself:

Question: "Is belly dance good exercise, will it help me lose weight?"

Answer: Some students do lose weight but only if they also adopt better eating habits and add regular dance practice to their home routine. Belly dancing will improve muscle tone, overall flexibility, and "shape" - as in what's commonly referred to as your "figure"; but you won't develop the hard, sharply-defined musculature of 'gym-bodies'. 

Question: "What should I do with my arms?" 

Answer: This question comes up when students try a new step or movement (obviously not an arm movement). In my method beginners start each new move or combinations by first recreating the Basic Pose (more advanced students should do this automatically) and then work up the body to whatever part actually does the movement. Often someone will say "What about the arms?" before they've mastered the feet, pose, or movement. 

Don't rush things - when you "add the arms" (whether they are moving or staying still), here's what you'll be thinking of, all at the same time:

  1. the overall body position (posture, pose)
  2. actually doing the movement correctly
  3. doing the arm movement or holding the arm position, correctly.
(Numbers 1 and 2 comprise the mysterious "technique" you always hear about)

And of course, repeating it - correctly -  for an extended length of time (which then answers the question, "Is this good exercise?" when you start to "feel the burn"!).

Question: "Will we be using zills (finger cymbals)?"

Answer: I know finger cymbals are exciting, but I think students should focus on building a foundation of movement technique (see above) - for several months at least - before adding finger cymbals. This approach has worked well for my students. After all, to move one or more body parts correctly while holding the rest of the body in the correct pose (position) takes quite a bit of skill (again, see above). Then you also have transitions, or the bridge between one movement to the next...

Also, the reason I don't use the term "zills" (the Turkish term for finger cymbals) is simply because I don't do or teach Turkish style belly dancing. When we use them in Egyptian style we call them sagat; but most of the time, I just say "finger cymbals".

Question: "I feel like I'm not moving enough (making big-enough movements)."

Answer: This question, and the related, "Am I doing this right?" used to surprise me because I thought, surely they can look at their reflection and SEE what they're doing? The answers is, not necessarily. One reason involves the various ways people learn: not all students can learn by 'seeing and doing'. 

Another reason is that beginners usually haven't developed the appreciation needed to distinguish whether something is done correctly or not. When they watch videos or go to belly dance shows, new students often admire performances that are less-than-stellar. (Perhaps that explains why performers with little talent or skill can be popular with general-public audiences.)

But also - and this reason goes much deeper into our individual psyches, our self-images, even our basic awareness of reality - when some people look at their reflection they don't really SEE it. They actually have trouble seeing themselves. Maybe this relates to self-image and body issues. Perhaps their reflections have caused them so much emotional sorrow over the years that they develop a sort of blindness. This is a sad and complex issue; I'd be glad to hear from other teachers with insight on it. If this rings a bell for you as a student, would you write and let me know your experience? Perhaps you can shed some light on it for me. 

If you feel unable to control your body well, keep practicing. When you develop awareness of of your body movements - how the movements feel and look - you'll be able to gain more control. When I see that students have developed this awareness, I have them review familiar combinations or choreographed dances but change the dynamics of the movements, that is, how strong, soft, big, or small the movements are. I like doing that myself, it's a fun and fascinating experience. The idea in learning dance is not to "move a lot" but to move correctly - in a way that's both beautiful and safe. 

I hope this gave you some ideas but wasn't "too much information". And of course, one of the most important lessons for new students is that teachers often have their own tried and true methods, and your teacher may have very different ideas from what I've shared with you. Now you have another teacher's perspective - what an education you're getting!

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