Few dancers actually want to be full time professionals, but lots of dancers want to dance at that level and I’m sure all want be the very best dancer they can be. Every dancer knows that the only way to improve is to practice. The way you practice will change as you develop as a dancer. But how do you go about structuring that practice to make it effective? There are plenty of DVDs out there to help you, but I think that an important part of finding your own voice as a dancer is deciding how you dance when there is noone to tell you what to do. What works for your DVD teacher may not always work for you. At the risk of totally negating this entire post before I even start, the best person to decide how you practice is you. All I’m going to do is give you some suggestions.
[Important disclaimer: I am not responsible for what you do outside of classes! You are responsible for making sure you are dancing safely.]
What to Practice?
Probably the most important question to answer! The temptation is always to try and practice everything, every time, but this simply isn’t possible. If you’re attending weekly classes then it makes sense to practice what you’ve learned in class that week. Your teacher will have explained the technique to you and hopefully also given you some feedback so you know what corrections to make. Take notes at the end of class to remind you. You’ll probably be building on what you’ve learned in the next class and if you’ve got a strong grasp of the material it will be easier.
If you’re not attending weekly classes then choosing what to include in your practice can be harder. Again, avoid the temptation to try and do EVERYTHING. You might decide to focus on a particular area (such as fluidity, sagat, travelling or shimmy layering) and work on that for a few weeks or months, then pick a different topic. You could draw up a programme for yourself where you work alternate topics on different days, for example, day 1, 3, 5 taqs and shimmies, day 2, 4, 6 figure eights. Day 7 rest – rest is important! Sometimes I like to go back to basics and focus on core technique for a while, other times I’ll work on moves and combinations I’ve learned in a workshop. Having a plan which you can use for a few weeks will mean that when you’ve got time to practice you can start straight away, without worrying about what you’re going to do that day. If you’ve got a performance coming up spend more time running through your choreography for that and do less technique. Let your practice be fluid, adapt it to what you need.
How long should you practice?
If I give you a specific figure I can guarantee that someone will comment and say “Oh but [genre] dancers practice for [that number plus four] hours every day! We should be doing that!”. Sure, the more you practice the better you will get but be smart about your practice, there is no point flogging yourself to death for three hours every day if you’re tired and miserable by the end of the first hour. That will just leave you feeling resentful the next time you come to practice, less likely to work hard and more likely to stop early.
Busy lifestyles can make it hard to find time to practice, but don’t beat yourself up about it and remember that little and often is very effective. When you’re a beginner just a few minutes here and there will make a big difference. Try practicing your shimmy while you boil the kettle for your tea ?. If you’re a professional/teacher level dancer then you should aim to be doing more, but be realistic. Most professional bellydancers have day jobs and families and lives outside of the dance world so I would say do what you can, when you can and make it as effective as possible. It’s the teachers who think they don’t need to learn or practice any more who worry me!
Also consider what time of day you practice – I know I work much better in the morning than the afternoon.
Where to practice?
Very few people have the luxury of a home studio but if you have a room at home with a big mirror that will do nicely. Watching yourself practice will help you pick up on mistakes quickly and let you see what really looks good on you. If you don’t have a mirror try recording yourself, then watch the video and make notes on areas you need to improve. Don’t try and correct all the mistakes all at once, pick a couple and work on those.
So you’ve found a suitable space and set aside an hour to work, you’ve made a list of what you want to cover – what next?
How do you practice?
Whatever else you’re doing, start with a warm up. This is where a DVD can really help you, although some DVDs will assume you already know how to warm up and don’t include one. If you don’t know how to do an effective warm up, ask your teacher. Spend around ten minutes warming up. Then, simply work through your list! I have a playlist of songs, all with a steady beat and lasting around four minutes, and I use one song for each move or combination on my list. Say my first move is circles – I’ll start with a basic hip circle then think about adding arm shapes, travelling, direction changes, layering with a shimmy etc. and that easily takes up one song. Repeat for as many moves as you like. I recommend you leave yourself some time for free dancing at the end, not only is it good to practice your improvisation but it will help you see what moves are starting to “stick” from the rest of your practice. Allow yourself time to cool down and stretch, and use this time to focus on any areas of your body that really need it. In classes and on DVDs you’ll usually get a good all round stretching routine, when you’re on your own you can take time to personalise it.
So there you go – it’s pretty simple really! If you want help in structuring your practice, or deciding what areas you need to work on then your teacher can help. If you don’t have a regular teacher then consider having a private lesson or signing up for the JWAAD Personal Development Programme. I also offer a workshop on daily drills which will allow you to see how I put these ideas into practice (as it were!).