Leveling Up Is About More Than Technique
Most of us start out on our bellydance journey learning isolations, steps, and movements. We may be lucky enough to have a teacher who makes us aware of different rhythms, but at the introductory level most classes in the US focus on coordination and combinations.
That's a great start! The trouble comes when students get the impression that technique is all there is to this dance. Worse yet, many teachers do not trust their students to be willing to learn more than choreographies. In the end, students miss out on some of the best things this dance has to offer!
If this has been your education so far, you might wonder, what else is there to learn? Simply put, all the fun stuff!
There is an Arabic expression that "technique is the servant of expression". It is fun to do a hip circle, and it feels good. But you know what's even more fun? To feel the buzz of the music moving your hips. To turn off your inner critic and let the present moment fill your brain as you improvise. To learn another way to see art and experience another set of aesthetic values. To connect with classmates. To connect with people across continents as you are moved by music written in another language and full of context. To communicate something beyond words with your audience. To develop confidence in your choices, and trust in your instincts. None of that has much to do with technique. When I first started teaching, I had a tendency to "info dump", I would want to tell students everything I knew, either out of excitement for the material or fear that they might not stick around long enough for me to make sure they knew important things. That fear turned into a self fulfilling prophesy, as students would get overwhelmed and looked for simpler hobbies. So I sat myself down and broke up what should be taught at each level of dance.
I started with the professional level, and worked my way down, I made a list of skills and knowledge a good representative of the art and an entertaining performer would need. That told me what sort of content master classes would have in them. Then I asked myself, "what does someone need to already know in order for it to be reasonable for them to learn this?" The answer to that question became what needed to be taught in advanced classes. Then I looked at that list and asked the same question. That answer became what needed to be taught in intermediate classes. Repeat for beginner and I had to look at the list and ask: "is it too big a leap to go from what most folks come into their first class with, to learning these things?" The answer was a giant YES! So I added an introductory level. That's how we arrived at the level system CBDS uses. The names of each level aren't important. What is important is how things build. You can think of this in terms of technique, sure. It would be setting students up for failure to ask them to layer a shimmy over a traveling hip circle without teaching each of those components on their own and giving students time to integrate them into their muscle memory. But we also build from "hey, it would be fun to dance like Shakira" to "let me tell you about the role of Turkish Kochek's refusal to pay taxes in bringing the Awalim back to Cairo!" and from "oh, I couldn't wear that, I just came because Jenifer asked me to go with her" to "honey, you KNOW I look better in bedlah!"
That bolded list above all sounds so worth it! So why do some classes never get past technique? Well, back in ye olden-times (for the US, read 50s-70s) dancers learned on the job, by watching each other and imitating later (with their own flair added, of course) and by sitting in with the band as part of the precision section. In the 70s, some schools started to open, but they didn't have the same sort of technique focus most modern classes do. A few things came together to change this. One major influence was the fitness trend that took over after 9/11. Throughout the 80s and 90s MENAHT owned nightclubs had been struggling with changing entertainment behaviors (more people preferring TV to a night out) and an aging diaspora clientele. After 9/11, most of the surviving nightclubs couldn't make ends meet in the face of the tide of anti-Arab bigotry. This lead lots of dancers to teaching and to minimizing the cultural context of the dance to stay afloat. When you do the same move over and over, like in a fitness focused class, posture and alignment become more important in order to avoid repetitive motion injuries.
There is also the very legitimate impact of dancers who spent years dancing long shows every night without the benefit of technique study, often doing Turkish drops on the regular and dancing with the fashionable leaned back posture, in some cases without understanding the muscular support needed to do so safely. Many dancers found they needed to retire due to back aches or adjust their posture and technique to something more ergonomic and supported.
Many of that first generation of dancers came from other performing disciplines. Some used their training in ballet, theatre, or vaudeville, to inform how they taught. Those backgrounds and fitness class formats provided a template for teaching technique. But that magic of learning the cultures, through emersion with the band, the guests, and the families that owned and patronized the old clubs? That was gone.
Maybe a few teachers took it for granted, probably a few had not paid much attention, but the vast majority of teachers simply feared that their students would not be willing to learn an Arabic dance, and feared their students would desert if asked to be brave enough for improvisation and open enough to connect to another culture.
But if we let that fear guide our lesson plans, we shortchange our students and the roots of the dance at the same time.
What if we built our classes around musicality, improvisation, and the dance's place in the cultures of origin? What would happen to our students? Remember that expression, "technique is the service of expression"? As Amity recently reminded me, if we teach our students the tools to express themselves and encourage their inspiration, technique will come. It will always be important to teach dancers how to support their bodies and move in a healthy way, but learning that is a natural outgrowth of learning to really dance.
Think of it this way, if someone starts to learn a new language they must start with a base of vocabulary, but their level of proficiency is not measured by their deftness with pronunciation, ability to turn a tongue twister, or speed at raping in that language. Their level is measured by their ability to communicate with native speakers! Practicing vocabulary and pronunciation come naturally out of the desire to communicate.
You might be able to do complex steps, layers, and combos; but can you make your own dances? Can you feel the difference between a malfoof and a maksoom? Do you know who the Awalim are? There is a lot more to what level a dancer is besides how tricky their technique is.
A dancers level is measured by their ability to communicate. The rest are of our skills are simply servants of that goal.