Tips and Techniques: Dancing
Rather than a strict techniques page, here I pass on some of the mindsets and perspectives that may be unique to, or at least more common to the prospective male Belly Dancer.
Do take a look at the FAQ for general questions about male Belly Dancers, and a little bit of what you can expect in class.
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Yes, I know she's female! Artwork like this of male dancers is non-existent.
Besides, she has good form and is pretty! Learn from her!
The very best advice I can offer you is to practice, practice, practice!! Set aside one evening a week where you can work on your dance for at least an hour. Of course, if you can do more than once a week, so much the better. If you're a "clumsy male" like I am, the only way to conquer your body and make it do what you want it to do is to practice!
On the other hand, don't OVER practice. An hour, or an hour and a half maximum. Beyond that, you're tired, and the frustration level builds. Stop while you're still feeling good about what you're doing and it hasn't turned into a chore.
"The more you practice, the better you fake it!"
This is your body...
Males often have trouble with the concept of "getting in touch" with themselves and/or their bodies. Belly dance demands it. Yes, you have hips, probably not as well pronounced as the gals, but they're there, and you can do things with them. You have a posterior, you can do things with it as well. You have a chest, you have a stomach, you have a head, and arms, and hands, and legs, and feet - all of which can and will be used in the dance.
Guess what? You're a human being!! So enjoy it!
EVERYTHING about this dance is designed to show off your body and its movements to maximum advantage. From the costumes, to the postures, to the dancer's orientation in relation to the audience, to; of course; the moves themselves.
Sound terrifying? It is. As one of my dance sisters tells me "Zorba, you put your body on the line with the rest of us.". But just like the gals, this dance form, like no other, will give you confidence in and comfort with yourself!
Your instructor will help you with visualizations that will help you move muscles that you didn't know existed. What a voyage of discovery!
And most importantly, LISTEN to your body! Don't push it too far and injure yourself.
I'm still figuring this one out - but tense only the muscles you must in order to execute a given move. Relax the others! You'll dance much better. This isn't easy...
Along these lines, it may take months, even years to get your body to loosen up completely. Many of these moves are alien to our western culture. In addition, our western culture tends to make us tight. Furthermore, males in particular are tight. But the rewards and health benefits of being loose make the hard road worth it!
Like many people, both men and women, I have had bad posture all my life. We generally have had some training sometime in our lives about proper sitting posture. While that too is important, that isn't what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about standing posture. Wiggle Woman in particular has been after me about my standing posture. Her continued carping is starting to produce results! Proper posture is essential for this dance form, oh so many moves just won't work as well, or at all with bad posture! Another benefit I've found is my neck medallion no-longer sways from side-to-side while walking - its a built-in reminder to keep good posture! I never knew....
Posture is hard, Tarik relates it took Morocco two years to correct his!
On a related note to posture, even after 8+ years, I still don't always keep my pelvis tucked like I should. Oh, I'm much better, but still need to work on it. If a move eludes you, check for proper posture, including pelvic tuck! If you're not sure, have someone look at it for you! I found that I can now do weak standing stomach flutters that I could only do lying down previously. The flutters came when I realized I wasn't tucked enough!
There is some confusion over the issue of men and side-to-side hip movements. Some say that men should NOT do side-to-side movements (Like hip slides, Maias, Gooshies, and similar) while maintaining a pelvic tuck - that this can result in low back injury.
With the disclaimer that I'm NOT a doctor (neither are the ones who claim this problem), I've found, in my case at least, the EXACT OPPOSITE! If my low back hurts while I'm doing Maias, I'm invariably not tucked. As soon as I tuck, the pain goes away!
Your mileage may vary - check with your own healthcare professional. Mine happens to agree with me, but your body and situation may be different! Be gentle with your body - this dance should NOT hurt. Male pelvises are much tighter than women's, it takes time and patience to gently break them free.
Some guys won't do certain moves in a fear of looking feminine. Everyone must make their own choices, but I long ago decided that:
I will fear NO move!
There is nothing inherently masculine OR feminine about any move. This dance is for human beings, if I can physically execute a move, well then it's a masculine move as it is a man doing it! And furthermore, if the move is supposed to be smooth and fluid, then by the Gods in heaven, I'm going to do the move as smooth, and as fluid as I can! Smooth and fluid can be very much masculine and powerful; its all in the attitude, its all in the attitude!
On the other hand, I've had women compliment me on being comfortable 'working with feminine energy'. Although I don't really agree with this assessment, I understand what they're getting at, and it is a compliment, after all. But, you know what? If they're right and its feminine after all, well its feminine after all! I just don't care, I love this dance form! Geez, if that's the case, women do "masculine" stuff all the time and no-one bats an eye - I'll demand equal time!
Get over it!
Here's a weird tidbit: Get over being male! I'm not saying forget you're male (See Male Belly Dancers, Are We Feminine?), but get over it. Yea, you're male - so what, who cares? This isn't easy, most males never will be able to get over the fact of their maleness - some of them are even Belly Dancers! It took me quite a while - but so many issues disappear when you're able to acknowledge the fact that you're male, but then put it behind you.
Yep, it took me quite a while to accomplish this - and even longer to realize just exactly what it was I had accomplished. Sure would have helped with that first performance, for sure. I was definitely carrying a lot of baggage about being male. On the other hand, my first performance was one of the things that did indeed help me in "getting over it"!!
Guys tend to do things powerfully, including dancing. I have been known to absolutely bludgeon some delicate move to death! This inherent tendency is both an asset and a liability in Belly Dancing. It can be rather hard NOT to overpower a move - practice, practice! Try to get feedback. On the other hand, in the right setting, at the right time, with the right music, power dancing can be an exciting variant to Belly Dance. Gals - you can power dance too - I've seen excellent women dancers demonstrate awesome power - my instructor is one of them!
Belly Dance is a dance of isolations, first and foremost. From both my own experience, and what various teachers have told me they've observed, males have a bit harder time achieving good isolation. I think largely due to our cultural stiffness, but also our build differs. This can certainly be overcome, just be prepared to work a bit harder and bend those knees!
I don't know if this will work for everyone, but when I'm learning a new movement and having a hard time of it, I forget about isolating until I have the movement, and then add the isolation back in.
Some dancers can shimmy like crazy from day one. Others, such as myself, have the darndest problems. It took me 3 months to manage to shimmy at all. and even now, years later, I still have problems.
For years, it would take me some time to get a shimmy started (Read: Took time to get relaxed enough), but I gradually got better. Once I did manage to get the shimmy started, I could pretty much keep it going as long as I needed to. The key in my case was getting it started in the first place!
So if shimmy eludes you and you keep tightening up, the only remedy is practice, practice, practice!
Surprisingly, what may help is distraction. When you get to the point of being able to start a shimmy, distract yourself from it. Practice snake arms, play zills, look out the window, talk on the phone. Or, my instructor's favorite: brush your teeth! Concentrate on the shimmy only the smallest amount needed to keep it going. I found that it helped my shimmy settle out and work better. And since we need to learn how to do multiple things at once, you get to practice that at the same time. Two techniques learned for the price of 1!
Update: Coins, coins, Goddess Mother, wear some coins! I had been practicing wearing only a tassel belt for hip ornamentation. That's fine, if all you're after or need is visual effect. I bought a heavy coin belt and the noisiest coin scarf I could find at Rakkasah. My shimmy made more progress in the first 6 weeks after I started wearing coins than in the preceding 6 months! Once upon a time, I had avoided a coin scarf - fearing it was too feminine - but I just no longer care and it sure helps to have the audible feedback! Get a heavy coin belt, definitely masculine and definitely cool, if you don't like the idea of a coin scarf. Now I have both, and I like 'em both!
I have found that a "horizontal shake" (My instructor calls this a "Tunisian Shimmy"), a very subtle, rapid hip twist can often substitute for a "real" shimmy. Its harder to isolate, harder to layer on top of other movements, but for me at least, sometimes easier to use if I need to "shimmy on demand". Some very good dancers do indeed shimmy this way. I'll continue using it on an as-needed basis while continuing to work on my "real" shimmy, which continues (slowly) to improve.
It took me awhile to learn how to shoulder shimmy. I found that my main problem was that the muscles required to do it were almost non-existent on one side. So I did a lot of shoulder twitching at available opportunities (try stoplights) to build the necessary muscles. Remember, this move is subtle - large twitches are great for exercising, but the move itself is quite small. As a result, I can now shoulder shimmy with the best of them!
A lot of guys will have problems accepting the concept of swaying their hips, as it is considered "girly". Let me clue you in on something: Done correctly, I'm rapidly believing that hip swaying is one of the best things you can do for your lower back!
The hip sway (not to be confused with a hip slide), is often used with a walk to get on and off stage, arms swaying overhead. The proper way to do this is to make absolutely sure you're in a good Belly Dance posture - nice and upright - and pelvis tucked. Then, rather than push your hips to the sides as you walk, merely relax your lower back and glute muscles! Your hips will sway nicely, your lower back is totally loose, and the muscles and spine get a nice, relaxed "massage" from the motion! It takes a bit of concentration to keep the back relaxed as you lengthen your stride and walk faster, but it can be done.
This is probably a far more natural way to walk. I often walk this way now, sure helps my (bad) back! A lot of times, those sore muscles start feeling better in a matter of minutes! Do I care if the ignorant think I "walk like a girl?". No.
Hip circles, hip slides, horizontal figure-eights, etc.
Follow your instructor's advice here. The main problem males will have is keeping the belt line parallel to the floor (females aren't immune either). This is partly due to the same issues as the Maia (below), I find it helps to keep my abs tight to help with the belt line issue.
Hip circle turns are another interesting exercise in coordination. It used to take me 20 minutes to get a hip circle turn going, now I can start one instantly and do it for as long as I want. See what practice does for you?
Maia, or vertical figure eight.
This is a beautiful, and very difficult move that we men, with our generally narrower hip structure, will have more problem with than the gals. This doesn't mean we cannot do it, but we have to try harder. It's largely a matter of range of motion of the torso, something that will come in time.
What will help is to get down!! Bend your knees more than the gals to gain more room to move.
Update: Make sure your pelvis is really tucked the whole time you are executing Maias and similar moves. If your Maia has a slight twist to it, you're not tucked enough. Have your instructor or one of your dance sisters check your stance while doing Maia if you're not absolutely sure. I had this exact problem, and couldn't understand why my Maia had a bit of a twist to it until one of my dance sisters (Goddess bless her!) was kind enough to point it out to me. Now my Maias are truly 2 dimensional, look better, feel better, and are easier too!
Another thing: - try to keep your upper torso relaxed while Maia-ing.
Update 2: I am now getting compliments from very experienced dancers on my beautiful Maias. I'm told they're very well isolated and "crisp". YAY!
Down hip movements drive me nuts! Which is surprising as the Maia actually is a downhip movement. But with practice, I'm slowly, slowly getting better and can even do a "twist 3/4 down shimmy".
The best thing I can recommend is to figure out the basic body mechanics required. The imagery that worked for me was to image that you have to walk straddling a 3/4 inch galvanized water pipe that is ever so slightly too high for comfort. You can rest both feet flat on the ground, but in order to walk, you have to shift your weight from one foot to the other. This results, at least for me, in the desired "hip down on leg with weight on it".
Without getting too far into definitions (that's for your instructor), there is an anti-thesis to the Maia. From a psychological standpoint, most likely one or the other; the Maia or the "Reverse Maia" (Sometimes called a "Gooshie"), will seem harder. From the physiological, if you can do one, you can do the other, mind over matter and all that. Of course, that's all real nice; I find the "Reverse Maia" to be harder than the regular Maia - even though the regular Maia is a downhip movement. Go figure. Needless to say, the same issues as the regular Maia apply.
Belly Dance just isn't Belly Dance without beautiful armwork. When you're first starting out, you're too busy trying to master torso movements to remember about arms, despite your instructor constantly reminding you that you have two of them that you're not doing anything with.
In my case, my arms suddenly turned themselves on at about the 11 month time period. It just suddenly didn't feel right doing certain movements without corresponding arm posture.
My arms still turn off if I'm concentrating on learning something new, but as soon as I have the new movement halfway learned, the arms want to do something!
It is normal for arms to be one of the last things to "click" (Even very experienced dancers have problems with them) - don't drive yourself nuts about them; part of the time remember that you do have arms, and try to do something with them that part of the time. They'll start working - they are a large part of the beauty, grace, and power of this dance form.
With veils or without.
My instructor tells us to EMBRACE the inevitable dizziness - it's fun! Remember when you were a kid?
This said, practice, practice, practice. The important thing isn't being dizzy, it's getting sick!
I must relate this story - others can learn from my mistake:
I was in a Double Veil workshop with Kamaal - 4 hours with a 2 hour break in the middle. Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the workshop, Kamaal had us spin and do the latest technique he had just demonstrated. So I did it (twice), and since I was already spinning, decided to see how fast I could go. I very quickly got up to "warp speed", the huge 3/4 circle veils were flowing out beautifully and rock steady, and I was having a ball and starting to get into that "twirling dervish head-space". After about 30 seconds of this, it occurred to me that I really *was* in a workshop and needed to stop.
So I did.
I couldn't stop, I couldn't stand upright. I was stumbling around badly - it was with a supreme effort of sheer will that I didn't take out the nearest dance sister - and when I barely managed to avoid colliding with her, I was headed directly towards another! I then stopped all this the only way I knew how - by throwing myself onto the floor!
It must have been rather alarming to see a six foot guy careening totally out of control. Anyways, later in the workshop when Kamaal was talking about a double veil movement called the "tulip" requiring high speed spinning, I asked him "Ok, we've all seen what happens when you do this the wrong way - what did I do wrong?". "Don't stop suddenly, SLOW DOWN gradually and that won't happen!"
Some Belly Dancers can do some pretty incredible things with their stomachs: rolls, flutters, flipping coins, even folding dollar bills! It turns out that this is one of those Belly Dance movements that many men can do easier than women! Unfortunately, I'm not one of them - I've had extremely weak abs all my life - however, practicing rolls and flutters is starting to strengthen them. I only recently have been able to do stomach work in performance.
Ribcage movements and isolating same was one of the easier things for me to learn. When I first started, I was so tight that I couldn't move my ribcage to the left at all, and only slightly to the right. But I broke that loose fairly quickly.
However, in some of my online researching, I've had instructors tell me that many males have real problems "breaking the ribcage loose", being very tight. Apparently, this is worst among the athletic types and weightlifters. Males have more muscle mass in this area, and if it has been overdeveloped without attention given to movement, the ribcage locks up.