Everyone once and a while, an artist will experience a moment that lights so many matches in the heart that they can become engulfed in flames. As a Gypsy dancer, I experienced such a moment when dancing onstage with Uska Kan Orkestar, a Romani Brass Band from Macedonia. It was the final night of the Woodford Folk Festival, a show named "the last dance".
I was performing with other dancers from the Silk Road Tribal Collective, and when we arrived backstage, the energy was ebullient. We agreed the other two dancers (Fiona and Dee) would take the first song, and I would take the last, but speaking to Demir Kanturovski, a champion trumpeter and centrepiece of the band, he said he had an extra Spanish Gypsy piece he would throw in. The order was loose, kind of spontaneous, and the thrill of this adventure took hold in my body.
The Unusual Suspects were on before us, a 25 piece Balkan band from Australia, and their music soared through the open space. Our stage was the Grande, situated in a natural outdoors amphitheatre. My feet were caked in dirt and dust as I manoeuvred my feet into my dance shoes. "What are you doing?" one of the musicians asked when I was doing my hip opening stretches... He laughed and mimicked me and laughed again, a bit like a hyena.
"Uska Kan! you're on!" shouted the stage manager, and with a flick of a switch this rambling party turned into a slick Balkan music machine. Instruments out. Onstage in a flash and ready to play. My dance sisters launched onto the stage with Uska Kan's opening thunder. I watched those instruments shine and blare under the lights, amongst the stage fog and crisp night air. My dance sisters shone with joy in their beautiful tribal costumes. I noticed that wasn't scared or nervous at all. Just happy in my heart.
A few songs later, I heard a track that I thought was the Spanish piece, so I glided onto stage and announced my arrival with a dramatic twirl. I glanced at Demir who told me with his face that this wasn't the right song, so I shrugged and kept dancing. It turned out to be a beautiful Balkan Gypsy piece. During the trumpet solos shared between Demir and his father Usain, I swirled around to face them and became a vessel for this tremendous collective heart song.
The Spanish song did eventually come, and this time I transformed into a matador, the energy moved up into my being with such ferocity that I could barely contain it. My self was almost obliterated by the surrender to this incredible music. I looked into the eyes of the musicians as I moved about the stage. There was that knowing, that love, that commitment, that dedication to the music. THE MUSIC! that drives through generations, music to which the soul must capitulate. There were moments of synchronised showmanship and triumph. My spirit lived in complete freedom. When the song finished I made it to the top of the backstage stairs before my legs began to wobble. The energy by this point was coursing through me like rapids, and yet there was a beautiful lake, so still and deep welling in my heart. In between songs, I moved up and down backstage, to handle this energy.
Then came our final song, the famous Chaje Shukarije. I asked the other dancers to share this song with me. Demir sung with such heart as well as playing the trumpet. I began to feel overwhelmed emotionally, perhaps a part of me knew that this excursion to mountain tops was about to end.
That night my dance sisters had to shanghai me back to camp because I wanted to dance to that music forever.
Back in the real world now, there are memories from that performance, some I have not written down because they are too precious, that I will carry for my lifetime. A place for my heart song. My heart aches now. A place for my heart song. Perhaps I can dance like this again one day? A place for my heart song. A part of me wishes to never dance again so the memory of this stays rich. A place for my heart song...
I remember attending a workshop with a US-based dancer who said that when we perform, we only achieve 80% of the greatness that we have off-stage. I reflected on this at the time and came to the conclusion that while I am often more relaxed when dancing in the studio, I am definitely more powerful, stronger, and more capable on stage - thanks to adrenaline and being in the zone. But this isn't the case for many dancers who feel more burdened than empowered by nervous energy when performing.
Undirected nervous energy can lead to feelings of flightiness and ungrounded movement - sometimes spilling into a loss of balance, physical disconnection or dis-embodiment (where the origin of movement comes from the periphery rather than the centre of our being) and 'throwing out' of energy, often manifested through unfinished movements and phrasing, and even sudden transitions. A great technique for making performance on stage your supapowa is to incorporate moments of grounding into your pre-dance or dance routine, where you deliberately connect with your para-sympathetic nervous system, breathe & exhale, melt, ooze, cultivate, be. Just be. And in that moment, you will know you have your supapowa at your disposal.
Standing on the earth outside is a great, immediate form of grounding but that's not always available to us before going on stage. But we can replicate that feeling through practice. Yoga is another way. Contemporary dance and contact improvisation have also helped me immensely. It helps not only with our stage presence, but our balance and quality of movement on stage. I also believe that stage fright is often caused by a loss of grounding because the dancer becomes very reliant on the audience's energy, which can stimulate feelings of vulnerability and cause us to shut off.
Make the stage a fertile ground for your supapowa and you will never look back.
How do you connect with your supapowa? What is your experience on stage? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Do you know what makes you unique as a dancer? Usually it is much clearer to our trusted friends, dance colleagues and teachers, because we are too engrossed in the inevitable highs and lows of being a creative person. But do you have those people in your life telling you what makes you unique? Do you know your strengths, celebrate them, work with them in your performances? Do you take the time to tell other dancers what you love about their performances? This is the greatest gift you can give another dancer. By telling them what you love about their act, you help them to forge their sense of self and identity on stage. Once a dancer has this sense of self and identity, they can choose what to do with it in performance. They can be deliberate in expanding upon their strengths or throw a curve ball by doing something completely different. And being deliberate is key. So next time you see someone dance, or if you prefer to reflect on your own dance experience, here is a list of strengths to consider (just a few):
Usually as we evolve and strengthen certain attributes, others will naturally take the back seat. As we go along our dance journey, our attention can be drawn to different aspects. This is part of becoming more well-rounded dancers. But integral to this journey is to know what we have strong now. If you don't know, ask your dance friends for feedback.
1. Move always with a connection to your centre and breath, rather than driving your arms and legs. It will turn your body into a storytelling vessel rather than a collection of moving limbs.
2. It's great to include vocabulary that you have learned but most of the time, the music calls for an elaboration of a motif rather than a string of moves.
3. Ground yourself by humbling yourself before performance, remember that we are all students striving to expand and explore our own art. Remember most 'stuff' out there that we laden and torment ourselves with is just a story - a story you can turn off.
4. In choreographed dance, stay in the precipice between the right and left brains. Stay attuned to the choreography, but trust yourself enough to wear it and not let it wear you. Remaining yourself is the key to expression and presence. This also means you need to know yourself (improvisation practice helps).
5. Embrace absolute stillness on stage.
As tribal bellydance becomes more of a discipline and less of a folk art, with students spending small fortunes to study with international teachers and embark on gruelling regimes of body conditioning and drills, the expectations students place on themselves changes - especially when it comes to performance. Bellydance, once home to women who wanted to express femininity, fun and mysticism, is now a haven for perfectionists wanting to conquer their bodies. There exists an obsession to manipulate bodies into precise organisms of art. This is a product of the pioneers of tribal fusion, yoginis who have plundered every limit of their muscular range, and made precision and articulation the cornerstone of their dance. Dancers from the oriental world like Suhaila have also codified and explained ancient moves of the hips and torso into muscular terms. Interestingly, she is also American.
American Tribal Style ® sets foundations for good posture, lifted arm lines, and ways of moving, of travelling and spinning and dancing to any direction. It builds peripheral awareness, spontaneous musical interpretation, and spatial awareness amongst fellow dancers, attention to detail in following, courage and boldness in leading. It teaches reverence to tradition, to the lineage of teachers, to the 'tribe'. Some students love the cut and thrust of group improvisation. Others find it deeply uncomfortable. Some move away for that reason. Some embrace it.
As a dancer who spent a lot of time experimenting through solo improvisation, and experiencing other genres like contemporary dance and free spirited Gypsy dance, i come to ATS ® performance with some mixed feelings. So much of what is presented can appear formulaic, regimented, even cold. More often than not, it is because dancers are so worried about fitting the bill, having good technique, being in sync, that they forget to play, to have fun.
I noticed during my tribal performances for many years (and still sometimes today) that as soon as I switched to the playful and creative side of myself, my posture crumpled. But when I focused solely on strong posture and technique, I looked on edge. Of course, the audience picks up on that.
This journey from the discipline of the left brain to the creativity of the right brain takes time. For starters, the primary goal of the ATS dancer ® is to incorporate good posture, technique, arm lines, and constant zilling into their muscle memory. Once imbued in muscle memory that posture doesn’t collapse once you start having fun. But here is the catch. One of the most effective ways to get good posture and technique into your deeper muscle memory, is to let those muscles experience good posture as unconsciously as possible. Visual cues presented by mirrors are excellent early on, but then embodying those movements away from mirrors, repetitively, slowly, quickly, freely, on the precipice of the right brain sphere where true improvisation lives, is where they will sink deep down. It is where our brain’s proprioceptive mapping powers can forge patterns in our own language. It is also amongst the spaciousness of the right brain that our peripheral awareness is most acute (essential for following).
This means that the ‘linear progression’ of getting technique right, and then learning how to let go and have fun, is a falsehood. These processes actually need to run at the same time. The sooner one can experiment and 'own' tribal moves through free improvisation, the sooner one's technique and posture will gel.
This leads me to the psychology behind pèrforming. In oriental dance, our goal is to entertain, engage the audience, bring the music to life. In tribal, there is more of a sense of doing the dance for ourselves and our tribal sisters - it has a social dimension. The strongest emotion carried in fast tribal is collective joy - like the joy experienced at a wedding. So while we might not play up the audience or be as cheeky as an Oriental performer, or even as sensual, we are joyous because we dance together. That joy needs to reach the audience. So rather than thinking 'will i be good enough?', the dancer needs to think 'what fun this will be!' or 'how can i have fun with this?' The tribal dancer can show off. They can play with moves, give them little twists. They can play with angles, levels, direction. They can enjoy the game of roulette. The beauty of tribal is the connection between dancers, its spontaneity, and the ebb and flow of synchronicity through different formations. The goal is not to be perfectly in sync all the time, but to have moments of it, woven in with graceful moments of chaos. Maybe that thought alone will help us to enjoy the dance more, and bring that joy to the fore.
If one needs a bit more help to let go of the fear and feel the joy, then channel gratitude before you go on stage. Be grateful for having dance in your life, for having dance sisters to share the journey with, for having an excuse to dress up, for having that space where you can be you - joyful you.
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