I have decided to write this blog entry because I have a feeling it might help other dancers to feel less ‘alone’.
We live in a highly competitive world. I feel like professional artists (and I will talk about dancers specifically since that is what I really know about) have pressures seldom found in other work places. For example:
-We, dancers are rarely seen as having a ‘proper’ job.
-We, dancers are often expected to dance for very little money or sometimes invited along to places to dance for fun (i.e. for free!).
-We, dancers are judged on our age, looks and figure, our ability as teachers and performers as well as on our dance skills.
All of these things, and this list is by no means exclusive, make things hard when we are trying to make a living in an already competitive field. Bellydance especially is a field where you find many women who will happily dance for free or for cheap rates because dance is not their main source of income, therefore they can afford to, and do, without considering the effect that has on ‘the market’ for those of us for whom dance is our sole income.
All these points and many more like them are often the bulk of discussion forums and articles.
This is not however the main topic of my blog today.
What gets me the most is the self doubt, insecurity, feelings of being a fraud, feelings of inadequacy that I get as a dancer and I hear from other dancers time and time again. ‘I am stuck in a rut’; ‘no matter what I do my dancing doesn’t seem to improve’, ‘what’s the point? I’m never going to be x,y,z’.
The problem in art is that you are only a good artist if people ‘like’ your work. And what people like is guided by so many factors. Their personal artistic likes and dislikes, cultural awareness, their experiences, what the people around them are saying, reviews, their own insecurities and jealousies etc etc.
So yes, we get through this by dancing for ourselves- to be as good as we can be.
But, let’s be honest, this only really works as long as dance is your hobby i.e. you are not trying to earn your living by dancing in front of an audience.
As soon as an audience becomes involved the stakes get raised. We want the people we are dancing for to like us, to appreciate us, to rate us. That is human nature. We get stage fright. Some get so scared they don’t even perform or they don’t perform to the level they feel they should or could.
That’s when the beatings start.
Beating yourself up that is! (Not some kind of S & M thing!!!)
I cannot count how many times I have come off stage so upset and angry at myself because I feel I have let myself down. It doesn’t matter what people say after a show like that. I wave away their compliments. I focus on anything and everything negative (usually exaggerating it way out of proportion). The people who are saying nice things are just saying that because they are my friend, or people they don’t know any better, or because they feel they ‘should’ say something, not because they really feel it.
I can’t count how many times in the years I have danced I have been in tears when I come off stage. Angry at myself for having, in my eyes, let the audience, and myself down. Of course, that is never what anyone ever says to me... but I feel it. And it burns.
Usually, when these attacks of insecurity hit, I feel what I did was ‘boring’. That I repeated the same move over and over again. In the past, when I have felt this on stage, I push myself to do more and more technique. To show off moves to ‘prove’ to the audience and myself that I CAN do this. Unfortunately that is the very thing that comes back to bite me. By trying so hard, I start thinking and stop feeling. When I stop feeling, I stop enjoying. If I am not enjoying my dance how can I expect anyone in my audience to enjoy it too? Then if I suddenly panic on stage that the audience are not enjoying it I try harder and fail more. See the problem? Of course, my friends would say that I am over exaggerating the problem, that my dancing is never boring etc. Bless them. They might even be right. But when you work yourself up into in insecure state like that it is hard to listen.
So, I am aware of it now... aware of the spiral I follow when I get myself into a state and I guess that is the main part of the battle.
Now, if I start to feel a little wobbly mid show, and it still happens, on a more often than I care to admit frequency, I am able to see what is happening and stop the descent into hysteria.
Nothing worse than a hysterical bellydancer!
So... what I do is I stop. Literally. I stop on stage... and do the most basic of moves.. Very concentrated and slow. Even if the music is fast, I find something in the music that is slower and I circle or figure 8 that ‘thing’ until I am breathing more normally again. I also force myself to look into the eyes of my audience and smile. A smile that says I am really happy I am here dancing for you and isn’t this music amazing? Not a smile that begs ‘like me like me like me’. A smile that connects with someone and says to them ‘isn’t this figure 8 just the most perfect thing to do to this music?!! It feels fantastic’.
It works every single time. I make eye contact, I connect with someone and instantly I am like Popeye after some spinach. I feel recharged and confident and all because I took it down a notch (ok- sometimes a LOT of notches). From then on I feel that at least one person in the audience is with me and already thinks I am good so I am dancing for them!
Often in class I ask people to think of a family party or wedding. Imagine everyone up on the dancefloor, after a few glasses. Do you watch the younger pretty girls who are self-conscious and doing pretty but ‘safe’ moves? or do you watch mad Uncle Albert who is being silly and having a wild time to himself? The uncle, right? Why? Because it makes us happy to watch people having a good time. It is really difficult not to smile if someone is so obviously happy. Even more so if they are smiling at you. Especially when you feel that smile is heartfelt. If you smile, even if you don’t feel happy at the time, just the act of smiling can make you happier. So if you feel like that when you are watching uncle Albert, why wouldn’t other people feel like that watching you, doing the thing you love more than anything else (dance!!!) ? Share with them how happy it makes you.
It works for me.
That’s how I do it on stage...........
Off stage is harder. All those times you question your own ability. Especially when you are home, having a fat day (we ALL have them!), in pain, and/or feeling that there just isn’t any point to it all. Believe it or not, almost every time the answer to this dilemma is DANCE. It often helps me to go out clubbing or salsa dancing... so I am dancing and getting my endorphins flowing again but without the stresses involved in practising ‘moves’ and ‘trying’ to get them right. That trying thing again, see?
It is good to doubt yourself from time to time. If you think you have reached the top, achieved perfection... then you never will. You stop learning. You stop pushing yourself.
Each time I have a big bout of self doubt it is ALWAYS followed with a Eureka moment about my dance and another step up on that every expanding ladder I am climbing in my head. It is hard to remember that at the time of course.... at the time I just want to crawl into a dark space and hide, make it all go away. Yet every time I do come out the other side having ‘realised’ something that helps me progress. It might be a tiny thing, or it might be a complete mental turnaround, but almost always it is something from inside of me. Nothing to do with ‘technique’ or ‘steps’. Yet often the blackness has been caused by worry about just those things!
I am sharing all this, because I know I am not alone in these fears... and I hope that if you are reading this and relating to any of it then maybe some of my experiences can help you get a little hope.
I’d love to be confident in life, and in dance. I’d love to really feel I was the ‘best’ at something. The thing is... I don’t actually believe such a thing exists. (Which is why I can never really get behind the concept of bellydance competitions- but that is a whole other can of worms I don’t want to get into here). I remember being at a salsa convention and one of my friends asking a stunning young Cuban girl ‘isn’t it difficult being so beautiful?’ she was of course being flippant, however the girl actually stopped and turned and thought and said, ‘yes, sometimes it is’. She had a sad look on her face at the time. We put ourselves down so much, all the time, sometimes we need to step back and accept the true level of things, without pushing ourselves up, or down... and wondering from there how we can improve how we feel about our level. Because it’s the happiness, contentedness, acceptance of who we are and why we love dance that counts.
Every single person who started to learn bellydance did it because music made them happy. Music made them want to move. Why when we get caught up into the ‘hows and whys’ do we lose that joy?
So, next time you are feeling a bellydance block, just do whatever you need to do to get that Joy back....... and everyone will stop and watch you dance. I promise.