Video Resource Feedback

Friday, January 13, 2012

For those of you who are interested in resourceful video production:

- Did you like the Steven Washer video I sent out in today's newsletter?
- Are you interested in video production resources from other people, or just my own articles and videos?

Let me know what you think in the comments.

p.s. if you're not on the newsletter, you can join here.

How to Tell When You're Ready to Make a Video

Friday, December 16, 2011

If you saw someone drowning in a pool, would you think “I’m not a lifeguard. I’m not qualified to help”? Of course not! You’d do whatever you could to help: throw them a life preserver, jump in and drag them to safety, or at least call 911.

And yet we belly dancers routinely let our fear of being “unqualified” prevent us from jumping in to serve those who need us.

The "Big Name" Syndrome

Most dancers assume that only “big name” dancers should give workshops, write articles, and make videos. On the surface, this seems to make sense: after all, the most famous dancers have a whole lot to share, right?

But this is a terrible thing! There are plenty of "small name" dancers who have something to contribute. If we continue to believe that only experts are qualified to participate, then these people spend years waiting, when they could step up and be of service.

Why Do We Assume that Only Experts Can Make a Contribution?

I think this assumption comes from the very real danger of the one-year wonder. Throughout our dance education, we’re told not to be “that girl”, who takes a couple of lessons, buys a costume and puts herself out there as a professional.

Now, I'm not saying that we should tolerate that kind of behavior. Our community needs to uphold standards and make sure that we what we present to the general public is up to par.

But a lot of dancers get so afraid of overstepping our bounds that we hold ourselves back. And it's usually the most conscientious among us - the ones who should be putting themselves out there. The conscientious ones are the most aware of how much there is to learn in this dance, and so they never feel “ready” - even when they have the skills and means to make a difference.

So How Do I Know When I’m Ready?

The best way to know when you’re ready is to shift your focus away from yourself. Stop thinking about what YOU know, and focus on what OTHERS need.

Ask yourself: what unmet needs are out there? What are people asking for or asking about? Do you have anything to share that would help fill those needs?

  • Maybe you have information that’s hard to find.

  • Maybe your style or material could help others expand their repertoire.

  • Maybe you have a teaching method or training approach that might help other dancers meet their goals.

  • Or maybe your unique personality makes a common topic more accessible and approachable.

If you can say yes to any of these, you have something worthwhile to share, and you are ready to make a video.

To put it another way: if you choose NOT to share, you’re withholding your gifts and your contribution from people who need them.

Feels different, doesn’t it?

Case in Point: Me

This is exactly how I felt when I started my DVD series, The Improvisation Toolkit.

I’m not a top-tier dancer. I’m not the first person to think about improv and dance composition. I’m certainly not the only fan of improvisation.

But I saw that a big chunk of the dance community was terrified of improv. And, being a geeky analytical type, I knew that I could make sense out of all this scary, mysterious stuff, and make it approachable and manageable.

I didn’t think I was “ready”. Sometimes I still don’t. And if it hadn’t been for a timely kick in the bum from my marketing coach Julie Eason, I wouldn’t have even considered this project for another 5 or 10 years.

In short: I would have let everybody continue to struggle with improv while I indulged my inadequacy issues.

That Said

This is not to say that you should pretend to be something that you’re not. You should always be honest about where you are in your dance journey. But if you have something to contribute, you don’t have to apologize for not having arrived yet.

What I Want You to Take Away From This

It is important to maintain standards, but dancers needs to stop assuming that only big names have something to contribute.

If you see a need that you can fill, step up and serve! Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, but if you have something to contribute, set your issues aside, and step up! There are dancers out there who need you right now.

What You Can Do Right Now

As yourself what needs are going unmet in the dance community. What questions are your students asking you? What questions and discussions are you seeing on belly dance forums, facebook, etc.?

If you're not ready to meet those needs right now, that’s okay. Just put them on your "someday, maybe" list and keep your eyes open.

And when you hear that splash in the deep end of the pool, you'll be ready to dive in and save the day.


Has "but I'm not a big name" or "who am I to make a video?" been holding you back? What else is holding you back?

6 Reasons to Produce Your Video Resourcefully

Friday, December 02, 2011

(Hint: only one of them is about money. And only sort of.)

What is Resourceful Production?

Resourceful production means fully exploring the resources available to you, instead of simply opening up your wallet.

That involves:

  • Doing things yourself, when you can

  • Learning new skills

  • Looking beyond the obvious sources

  • Asking your communities for help

  • Expanding your network

Clearly, this takes a lot more work than just paying someone else to do it for you. But that effort pays off in so many ways.

So How Does Resourceful Production Pay Off?

1) It saves you money

Obvious, right? Paying less = saving money. But saving money isn't just about your profits; it helps you get more done.

A typical video costs thousands of dollars to produce, which is out of reach for most dancers. But being resourceful can save you enough money to turn your pipe dream into a realistic project.

And when you lower your production costs, you can recoup your investment much sooner. The sooner you break even, the sooner you can make your next video, and get it into the hands of the people who need it.

2) It's empowering

When you produce your video resourcefully, you're going to learn lots of new skills. And new skills are empowering! They give you a great sense of confidence and competence. Even better, once you learn a skill, you can apply it to your next video, or even adapt it to other projects.

And you'd be surprised how broadly those skills can be applied. This year, I learned how to interview a target profile to help me plan my programs. I used some of those same techniques at my mother-in-law's 70th birthday (a room full of people I didn't know), and I was the hit of the party!

(BTW, you'll learn how to interview a target profile in the Resourceful Video Production Guide.)

3) You'll discover new resources

I gave a talk on video production at the MECDA Professional Dance Conference and Retreat this year. (And for those of you I met there, hi!) The most common feedback I received was "wow, I didn't even know that those resources existed".

The world is full of organizations, web sites, and other resources that can help you realize your dream project. And once you discover them, they can help you with many future projects (video or otherwise).

4) It's great networking

As you explore your personal network, you're going to have to talk to people. And that's a great opportunity to build some relationships.

Think about it: if you were a band, which would you find more flattering:

Yet another "like" on your Facebook page?

Or an email saying "I love your music, and I think my viewers would love it as well. Can I license this song for my DVD?"

5) It opens the door for cross-promtion

Those same relationships can come in handy when it's time to promote your DVD. The band may be willing to mention your DVD in their next newsletter. The dancer who did your cover design could post the picture (and a link) on her Facebook page. That can get the attention of many people outside your own circle.

Of course, you should always do the same for them. Don't limit yourself to the credits - if someone helped you out, mention them by name whenever you can. And always include a link!

6) It helps you connect to different communities

Being resourceful often means looking outside of your usual circle. When you do that, you'll discover many new circles to join. For example, I film my DVDs at my public access TV station. The station helped me connect with the local arts community (not just the belly dance scene), which had a huge impact. To this day, I get more students through my local arts council than from any other source.

But I Really Don't Want to Do It All Myself!

Being resourceful doesn't mean that you have to do everything yourself. It just means that you explore all your options, so you can decide whether the savings are worth the effort.

And resourceful production isn't an all-or-nothing method. For example, if you hate video editing, by all means pay someone else to do that part. Being resourceful can still save you a lot of money on other tasks.

Ok, I'm Convinced. But What Do I Do Now?

You'll notice that I used the words "network" and "community" a whole lot in this article. Your local and virtual communities are tremendous resources, so get out there! Go to local dance events (don't forget to actually talk to people). If you use facebook, "like" your favorite dance bands, and let them know how much you like their music.

And if you haven't already, be sure to get your copy of Practice Makes Perfect Videos, my free guide to practicing your video production skills before you begin your dream project.

Don't Be A Stranger!

Have a question? A comment? Just want to say hi?

Leave a comment here, tweet me, or say hi on Facebook.

Five Things to Do in the Black Friday Line

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

(Yes, people really do camp out outside the stores...)

You couldn't get me to go to the Black Friday* sales if my life depended on it.

Fighting with crowds and standing around in the cold are bad enough. But getting up in the wee hours of the morning? Hell no.

That said, I know a lot of people who enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the event.

My sister Melanie (who designs the covers for the Improvisation Toolkit DVDs) and her husband go every year. My theory is that it's less about the sales, and more a way to get some time alone together during the holiday weekend. But don't quote me on that. :)

So for those of you who love Black Friday, I've put together a list of five things you can do to have some fun while you wait in line.

1) Secret Dance Practice

It's COLD out there! Even if you live in a warmer area, the early morning can still get chilly.

Keep yourself warm by doing some shimmy drills. Keep the circulation going in your hands by practicing your wrist circles and hand undulations.

  • If you're shy, wear a long coat. Nobody will be able to tell that you're dancing, rather than just shivering. If you're not shy, not-so-secret practice is a great conversation starter!

  • Bring your iPod. You'll want some music to inspire you.

  • It's more fun with a friend. Invite a classmate or troupemate along, and practice your routines while you wait.
  • If anyone else in the line looks curious, strike up a conversation. You could even offer to show them a few moves, if they seem receptive. (If you teach or perform, be sure to bring a few business cards.)

2) Virtual Dance Practice

Studies have shown that tennis players are more likely to hit a perfect serve if they visualize it several times first. The visualization tells your brain "hey, this is important - and I'm going to ask you to do it again." We can apply this to belly dance too, whether it's executing a perfect hip drop, or learning a combination.

Standing in line is a great place to do just that. So choose something you want to work on, and just imagine yourself doing it over and over again.

  • Be specific. "I want to make my snake arms more precise" is much better than "I want improve my arms."

  • Be sure to visualize every detail. What's happening in your hips, waist, hands, feet, gaze, and breath? What do you see, feel, and hear?

  • If you're visualizing a combination or choreography, focus on one small snippet at a time.

3) Air Zils

Working on your finger cymbals? A great way to kill time is to play "air zils". Just tap your middle fingers and thumbs as if you were playing your zils.

  • If you're shy, practice with your hands in your pockets, or tucked inside your sleeves.

  • Bring your iPod, and play along to different songs.

  • Be sure to "ring" your air zils. When you don't have the sound of the zils to guide you, it's easy to focus on closing your fingers, which trains you to "clack" your zils instead of ringing them. Focus on bouncing open after the strike, instead of on the strike itself.

4) Song Mapping

Whether you're working on a choreography or just your musicality, mapping out a song is a fantastic training tool. So bring a notepad, pen, and your iPod, and do some song mapping while you wait.

  • Be sure to bring gloves that are thin enough to handle a pen!

  • Everyone has a different method for song mapping. However you choose to do it, I suggest recording the major sections, how many measures are in each section, and any notable features (accents, instruments, etc.)

  • In your notes, be sure to write down the name of the song, the artist, the album, and the date. I've gone back through old notebooks, and had no idea which song map was which!

5) Video Analysis

Do you have an iPhone, iPad, or another portable device that can play videos? Load it up with some belly dance performances.

You can watch them just for fun, or analyze them for moves and ideas that you'd like to incorporate in your own dancing.

  • Don't bring your laptop. It's heavy, you won't be able to plug it in, and you don't want to risk it being damaged or stolen in all the Black Friday excitement.

  • Be sure to charge your battery before you go.

  • Bring a notepad and pen, so you can record your observations.

So What Do you Think?

Do these sound like fun? Too off-the-wall for you? Leave me a comment.

And if you actually do any of these, let me know how it goes! You can leave a comment here, tweet me, or say hi on Facebook.

* For those of you outside the US, Black Friday is the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many people begin shopping for holiday gifts on Black Friday, and so many retailers offer special sales on that day, and open in the early morning. Because the discounts are deep and items sell out, some shoppers line up in the streets as early as the night before, to get a good place in line.

Photo by John Neidermeyer, used under a Creative Commons Non-commercial Share Alike 2.0 license.

Announcing the Resourceful Video Production Guide

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I'm working on a pretty exciting project: The Resourceful Video Production Guide.

The Guide will take you through the video production process, from researching your idea to holding your DVD in your hand.   

As the name implies, we're going to focus on being resourceful.  We'll explore free or low-cost resources that will help you make a professional-quality instructional video for a fraction of the cost of a hiring a production company.

(This is the same process I used to create the Improvisation Toolkit DVDs for less than $100 each up-front.)

I'm shooting to release it in mid-November, but that may change.

I Want to Hear From You!

I already have a pretty specific idea of what's going to go into the Guide, but it's important to me to get your input too, to make sure that it's as useful to you as possible.

If you have a few minutes, please give me your input.


One lucky respondent will receive a free copy of the Guide. To qualify, you must:
- Complete the survey by noon (EST) on October 28th 2011
- Answer all the questions
- Include your contact information

Stay in the Loop

Sign up now to receive the latest news on the Guide project, as well as pre-order specials. You'll also receive "Practice Makes Perfect Videos", my free guide to practicing your video production skills before you begin your dream project.

I'll also send you additional helpful resources and information from time to time, to help you make professional-quality videos on a no-frills budget.

But don't worry: I won't flood your inbox with emails, I won't share your information with anyone else, and you can unsubscribe yourself at any time.

Taktaba Turns Five!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Five years ago today, I released the first episode of Taktaba.

I wasn't able to get a new episode out in time for the anniversary, but I did want to give you a little something today.

This video is a short excerpt from the Improvisation Mastery Mentoring Program pilot. It's a quickie, not a full episode, but it should give you some ideas to geek out on.

You can also download it to watch offline.


Episode Guide

Here are direct links to each episode of Taktaba:

Episode 1: Repetition and Alternation

Episode 2: Long-Term Repetition

Episode 3: Timing Patterns

This page only lists official episodes. Other mini videos aren't listed.

Transparency Time

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's been a long time since my last post. Not because I've been busy (although I have!), but because I've been hiding out.

You see, I'm injured.


For the fourth time in three years.

It's not the injury that I'm hiding

Injuries happen to everybody, especially those of us who are active.

(As one of my mentors would say "it's transparency time.")

I've been hiding out because not being able to dance makes me feel like a fraud.

In the fall of 2008, I was just coming into my own:

  • I was performing a lot, and starting to get higher-profile gigs

  • My first crop of students were starting to blossom into advanced beginners, and having a great time

  • I was filming my first DVD

  • I was working with a business coach, and getting serious about my marketing

I was really proud of where I was, and excited about how much more I had to learn.

But the injuries stopped me in my tracks

Each year has been another cycle of healing, physical therapy, and getting back into training, only to get in a couple of performances before starting over again.

Now that's not all I've done. In the same time, I've:

  • taught over 100 students

  • released two instructional videos

  • designed an improvisation mentoring curriculum

  • studied article writing, web design, and copywriting

  • refined my understanding of performance and musicality through lots of watching and listening

  • run a profitable business every single year, despite my limitations

  • tripled the size of my mailing list (that's all you lovely people)

Now, I think that's pretty damn impressive.

But the problem is not what I think. It's what I believe.

When I feel broken, I don't believe that any of that matters, or that it wasn't just dumb luck.

Being injured undermines my faith in myself

It's hard to consider yourself a dancer when you can't dance. It's even harder to continue to put yourself out there as an expert when your body is broken, and won't let you follow your own advice.

We live in a culture that believes "those that can do, those that can't teach". And when a big part of your identity is being a dancer, when you "can't", it's devastating.

So Why Am I Telling You This?

For one thing, hiding out makes it worse. Nothing makes you feel like a fraud as much as pretending that everything is okay.

But more importantly, a very wise lady told me that sometimes your biggest hurt is your gift to the world. I didn't get what she meant until last week, when a dancer I admire shared her own "broken" story on a private forum. It was such a relief to not feel alone.

So Don't Be Alone

If you'd like to share, tell us your own story:

  • Do you feel "broken", whether physically or in some other way?

  • What undermines your faith in yourself?

  • And what do you do about it?

You're very welcome to post anonymously if that would be more comfortable.

What Victor Hugo Can Teach Us About Improvisation

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I went to a group singing workshop last night, and we sang a song with lyrics by Victor Hugo. (That's the guy who wrote Les Misérables.)

Be like the bird,
Who halting in her flight
On a limb too slight,
Feels it give way beneath her,
Yet sings,
Knowing she has wings.

At first, I was interpreting this as "you have everything you need to deal with the unexpected", and that's true.

But as we sang, I realized that it's bigger than that.

The unexpected certainly can be scary. But when you put it in perspective, it's actually pretty paltry compared to your ability to deal with it. And so the unexpected, even mistakes, shows you how powerful and amazing you are.

Have you ever seen a really top-notch dancer make a mistake?

I have, many times. If it's a small mistake, she pretends it never happened, and the audience quickly forgets about it, if they notice at all. But if it's a noticeable mistake, the dancer laughs.

She doesn't laugh because she's embarrassed, but because she is amused by that tiny, paltry little mistake. And we laugh with her, charmed by her grace and confidence.

Next time you improvise, stay in that mindset.

When you mess up, notice what happens. Not only did the world not end, but moments later, you're still creating something beautiful for the audience. (Yes, even if it's not your best show ever, it's still beautiful.). And you're doing it right there in the moment. And that's *amazing*.

So glory in what that says about you.

It's not just that you can deal when your branch breaks. You can *fly*.

Leave a comment:

How do you usually respond when you make a mistake? What do you do? How do you feel?

Photo by Charles Lam, used under a creative commons attribution share alike license.

Why Transitions Are Like Punctuation

Friday, July 29, 2011

Without punctuation reading would be really hard you'd have no way to know when one idea began and ended and the words would all just flow into a big sticky unintelligible mass of letters on the page you'd also have no way to know which statements should be emphasized which should be questions and which are just regular sentences if you've gotten this far you probably have a headache from all the squinting a lack of transitions can also create headaches in your dance


Transitions Are Punctuation For Your Dance

Transitions serve the same purpose in dancing that punctuation does in writing. It separates your dancing into logical "chunks", just like commas, periods, and exclamation points separate your writing into chunks.

Why Do I Need to Separate My Dance Into Chunks?

Ask yourself: why do we break our writing up into paragraphs, sentences, and clauses? We do that because "chunking" helps the reader understand where one idea begins, and the next one ends. That helps them understand what you're trying to say. Similarly, separating your dance into logical chunks helps you communicate your movement ideas to the audience, so they can understand and enjoy your performance.

How Do Transitions Accomplish That?

Transitions break your dance into chunks in the same way that commas, periods, and exclamation points do.

A comma groups things into a single idea. Comma-style transitions are unobtrusive transitions that make it possible to include more than one element in a single movement phrase. You would use them when you want to link different movements into a single, cohesive movement phrase.
Example: "cheating" your foot out to the side to open up your stance before you begin a big hip circle.

A period tells the reader that your current idea is ending. Period-style transitions are noticeable transitions that tell the audience that you're about to change to a new idea. You would use them to close your movement phrase.
Example: Bringing the hands in to the heart before changing to a new arm position.

Exclamation Points:
An exclamation point tells the reader that not only is your idea ending, but that it was important. Exclamation-style transitions are bold, dramatic ways to signal the end of an idea. You would use them when you want to end your movement phrase with a bang.
Example: an unexpected pivot turn, ending in a pose or accent.

Don't Overdo It

It's really tempting to use lots of exclamation points when you dance! They're flashy and fun! But when you overuse them, they lose their power! They're much more effective when used sparingly! So save them for when it really counts.

But I Just Follow the Music - I Don't Think About Punctuation!

You may not think about punctuation when you perform, but musicians do! They just have different names in music theory. (Ever heard of a "crescendo"? It's a musical exclamation point.) If you listen closely, you'll find that the music you're dancing to is full of commas, periods, and exclamation points.

The more you practice punctuating your dance, the more aware you'll become of the punctuation cues the music is giving you. Even better, you'll learn to use it in the moment, so your brain will easily supply the punctuation that you hear in the music.

But you have to fill your idea bank before you can make a withdrawal. For that reason, I recommend practicing punctuation separately, before you try it in concert with the music.


Transitions serve the same purpose in your dancing as punctuation serves in writing. It breaks your dance up into logical chunks that help you communicate your ideas to the audience. Transitions can act as commas, periods, or exclamation points. Choose your transition type that is most appropriate to the idea you're communicating, and resist the temptation to use lots of exclamation points. As you get more comfortable using transitions as punctuation, you'll start to hear the punctuation that naturally occurs in the music, so you can respond to it naturally.

As naturally as adding a period to the end of your sentence.

What You Can Do Right Now

Make a list of the transitions you know, and sort them into commas, periods, and exclamation points. Then pick your favorite transition in each type, and practice the heck out of them.

Photo copyright Horia Varlan, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

How Transitions Work Their Magic

Friday, July 15, 2011

When you're learning to belly dance, transitions are an almost mystical concept: a magical ingredient that transforms a bunch of moves into a polished, professional dance. We collect these talismans as we run across them in class or in choreographies, and if we're lucky, we become proficient with our small repertoire.

But for most of us, how transitions work their magic remains a mystery. And that keeps us from moving from proficiency to mastery. Because the first step to mastery is understanding.

Transitions Work Their Magic In Three Ways

Part of what makes transitions so mysterious is that, even though they are a single tool, they serve three different purposes:

1) They physically prepare your body for the next movement.

2) They help you organize your ideas into logical movement phrases as you improvise

3) They signal to the audience that you're changing to a new movement idea

Why Are These Three Roles Important?

Physical preparation
This one is obvious: if your body isn't in the right position for your next move, you can't do it. So until we master transitions, we stumble over our own feet, freeze up, or miss out on great combos because we couldn't get into the right position in time. Good transitions make our dancing looks polished, professional, and planned – even when it's improvised in the moment.

Organizing your ideas
This is not so obvious, but it makes improvisation a lot easier! When you think of your dance as a string of individual movements, you have to make dozens of decisions in every minute. Under that onslaught, most dancers panic, and then freeze up or start scribbling. But when you master transitions, you start thinking about your dance in terms of phrases instead of individual moves. That leaves you with far fewer decision to make, and gives you the breathing room to stay calm and make better choices.

Signaling a change of idea
This is a hidden gem. As we discussed in Volume 2 of the Improvisation Toolkit, the audience can't enjoy your performance if they can't keep up with your train of thought. Clean, clear transitions are like road signs: they help the audience follow you as you progress from one idea to the next. And when they can understand your show, they enjoy it a lot more.

So How Do I Use These Ideas In My Dancing?

Take Stock
The best place to start is to see how you're already using transitions. Look through your choreography notes and watch any videos you have of your own performances. (If you don't have any, turn on the camera and improvise!)

As you watch, make a note of five or six transitions you used, along with the combinations they appeared in. For each one ask yourself:

  • How did this transition help me prepare for the next move?

  • How did this transition help me keep my ideas organized as I improvised?

  • (Or for choreography, how did it help you organize your ideas as you planned your dance?)
  • How did this transition help the audience see that I was about to start a new idea?

Revisit and Revise
Next, identify the area that you're least comfortable with: physical preparation, organizing your ideas, or communicating changes.

Revisit each combination, and brainstorm some different transitions that would be more effective in that area. Repeat the revised versions of your combination over and over again to get your favorites into muscle memory.

But I Can't Keep Track of All That While I Improvise!

While you're learning to improvise, you already have plenty on your mind: the music, the audience, whether the waiter is getting too close to your veil with his tray of flaming cheese… So it's not practical to add three more concerns to your performances right away.

That's where practice comes in. We usually practice individual movements, or whole combinations or choreography. But if you dedicate some practice time to focusing specifically on transitions, much of it will become habit:

  • Physical transitions become movement habits, and flow naturally out of each move.

  • Organizing your ideas becomes second nature, like pausing between ideas when you speak.

  • Signaling changes to your audience follows naturally from organizing your thoughts.

It does take focused practice to get to that point, but once you've mastered transitions, using them is a lot like walking: your body will automate the process for you, except where you choose to do something unusual. And even the unusual will only take a passing thought.


Transitions seem like magic, but in reality are just multi-function tools. They prepare our bodies for the next move, facilitate improv by helping us organize our thoughts, and help the audience follow our train of thought. To make sure you're using them to their fullest, do a transitions audit of your performance videos and choreography clips. Identify your least comfortable area, and brainstorm some ways to use it more effectively in the same combinations. It may be a lot to keep track of at first, but with time, they'll become second-nature, and no more mysterious than walking.

Next Steps

Gather your video clips and choreography notes, and do your transitions audit. (Or, if you can't do it this minute, schedule a time on your calendar.)

Photo copyright Linus Bohman, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Psuedo-Venn Diagram

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I created this diagram back in 2009 as a quick visual means of helping distinguish what we mean by "belly dance", "middle eastern dance", and "middle eastern belly dance". I made it in response to a discussion on, and the current version (v3) includes input from several of the lovely Bhuzzards.

(click on the image to view a larger version)

This is just my opinion, not canonical. Not everybody will agree with my classifications, and that's okay! If you'd like to make your own version, you can download the original file in MS Word format, so you can tweak it to reflect your own opinions.

The diagram (in all formats) is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license. In short, you're welcome to use it for non-commercial purposes and to modify it, as long as you keep my copyright statement intact.

I'd enjoy hearing about what you do with it, and what modifications you made, so drop me a line in the comments.

(That's a request, not a requirement. I'm just curious!)

Or Does Your Dancing Need More "Puppy"?

Monday, April 25, 2011

In my last article, we talked about kitty energy. Kitty energy is important because it brings a confident, elegant quality to your dancing. However, if you find yourself dancing with your nose in the air, and a snooty, prissy demeanor, you might be overdoing the kitty. (I think of this as haughty dancer syndrome.) Or maybe you’re bringing more of a “bunny” energy: staring at the floor in terror, avoiding the audience, and franticly jumping from move to move.

Either Way, The Cure is More “Puppy”

As I mentioned when we discussed kitty energy, my friend Lilya visualized herself as a labrador puppy when she performed. She did it for good reason: puppies are friendly, energetic, and appealing. And those are important qualities for an entertainer.

Why Do Entertainers Need Puppy Energy?

As entertainers, our job is to make the audience glad they came. Puppy energy helps you do your job by making your audience feel welcome, and setting an upbeat, light-hearted tone for your performance. At party & restaurant gigs, this means getting the audience into the party spirit. At a more formal stage show, it helps break the ice, and get the audience involved. Nothing is more frustrating than dancing for an audience that thinks they should sit quietly and hold their applause until the end!

How Do I Get Puppy Energy?

To bring some puppy energy to your dance, observe a dog. (Ideally, a tiny energetic puppy.)

Mark Your Territory
When a puppy enters a new place, they immediately explore the entire space. They sniff for signs of other dogs, and then mark their territory. We can do the same thing (minus the fire hydrant) by circling the stage once or twice at the beginning of the show.

Sniff Everybody

In a room full of people, a dog will inevitably sniff each person in greeting. You can do the same: at some point during your show, visit each section of the audience. You don’t have to go among the tables, although that can be nice too. Just go downstage left, and focus your attention on the left side of the audience for a while. Then, at some point during your show, do the same thing downstage center, and downstage right. Just try to give equal time to each section, so nobody feels left out.

Get Personal

The other thing puppies do is get personal: they’ll come up to you, wag their tail, and maybe also jump up and lick your face. Obviously you shouldn’t lick your audience, but you can single someone out. Singling out one person adds a personal touch to the performance that actually makes everyone else feel included.

Choose a member of the audience. stand near them (two arms’ lengths is plenty), make eye contact, and smile at them as you dance. At some point during your show, do it again, with someone in a different part of the room.

Don’t be a crotch-sniffer!

It’s good to get personal, but not too personal. A wagging tail is adorable, but when a puppy tries to sniff your crotch, it’s embarrassing and intrusive. So don’t single out someone who may not want to participate. It’s safest to choose a target who is obviously receptive (dancing in their seat, clapping along, beaming), or someone who relaxes and opens up as soon as you smile at them.

But I’m Shy!

The great thing about the puppy persona is that it gives you permission to be friendly & outgoing, even if you are shy. You may not be the kind of person who goes up to a stranger and smiles, but you’re not you - you’re the puppy. And once you let go and let the puppy take over, you’ll tap into a great source of performance energy. Nothing boosts your confidence like making someone smile.


If you’re suffering from haughty dancer syndrome or stage fright, the cure is to bring more puppy energy into your dancing. The puppy’s friendliness and energy is critical for an entertainer, since it makes the audience feel welcome and sets the party mood. To bring puppy energy to your dance, mark your territory, visit the different areas of the audience, and single out individual people. Avoid being a crotch-sniffer by choosing people who want to participate. If you think you’re too shy, remember that it’s not you getting personal: it’s the puppy.

Next Steps

Make a mix of your favorite entrance songs. Practice marking your territory. Identify good places in the music to visit different sections of the audience, or to single someone out. (There’s no right answer: this is purely a matter of personal style.)

Master this, and your audience will wish they had tails to wag.

To see some puppy energy in action, check out this video from Britain's Got Talent. The dancing is nothing special, but the energy grabs you. (The good stuff starts about a minute in.)

Improvisation Toolkit Volume 3 is in Production!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The next of the Improvisation Toolkit is now in production! Volume 3 will cover transitions in improvisation.

You probably know that clean transitions add polish to your dance, but most dancers don't realize that they also make improvisation easier. When you make friends with transitions, it's easier to chose the next move, to make clear movement "statements" that make sense to your audience, and to innovate in the moment.

In Volume 3, you'll learn:
- How to identify your body position
- The three types of transition: and when to use each one
- A selection of basic and fancy transitions
- How transitions work, so you can create your own
- How transitions help communicate your ideas to the audience

I'm setting a tentative release date of October 25th, but if all goes well, it could be ready as early as late summer.

I'll send more details, previews, etc. soon.

In the meantime, you may want to check out Volume 1: Movement Recall. You won't be completely lost if you start with this volume, but you'll get the most out of it once you've mastered the skills in vol. 1. Vols. 1 and 2 are also available as downloads through

Does Your Dancing Need More "Kitty"?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When I was an intermediate student, my teacher included performance critiques in class. My friend Lilya is a firecracker, and her piece was really exciting. Her technique and musicality were excellent, and she connected with each of us as she danced. And yet, something wasn’t as good as it could be, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

When it was Heather’s turn to give feedback, she asked Lilya what was going on in her head. Lilya responded “I think of myself as a Labrador puppy, running around excitedly to greet everyone”. And Heather said “I definitely see the puppy, and I like the puppy. But your dancing needs more kitty.”

Belly Dance Training Tends to Put More Focus on the Puppy

When we first start working on performance skills, we’re usually trying to come out of our shells. Some of the most common advice we get is to look up, make eye contact, smile, and visit with the audience. And those are incredibly important skills. But we need more than just puppy energy. We need some kitty.

Why Do I Need Some Kitty in My Dancing?

The friendly, high energy Labrador puppy is a wonderful quality to have in your dance. But when we overdo it, we tire the audience out, or worse, give the impression that we’re begging for attention. That makes the audience uncomfortable. Bringing some kitty into your dance balances that friendliness with confidence.

So How Do I Get More Kitty in My Dance?

There are a few different ways to bring some kitty into your dance. If you observe a cat, you’ll notice two important things they do:

Play Hard to Get
If you can, observe a cat: they don’t jump up and slobber on everyone. They walk around the edge of the room, checking you out, and they take their sweet time about it. And when they do decide to pay attention to you, you feel SPECIAL.

To bring this into your dancing, try breaking eye contact for a time. Turn your back on the audience, or look away briefly. Then catch someone looking at you. Approve of their attention, and bask in it, like a cat basks in sunshine. Think at them “Yes, I know I’m awesome. I’m so proud of you for realizing it. You may worship me now.” Another good one is “I have a secret, and you don’t know what it is.”

Make Everything Precious
Cats do everything with intention. Every step they take, every lick of the paw is done as if it were the most important thing in the world. Focus on the sensation of each movement, and milk it for as much enjoyment as you can get out of it.

But Don’t Fake It!
This is not the time to put on your sultry face or your haughty face. The kitty energy is about confidence, not hauteur, and sensuality, not sultriness. Besides, cats don’t put on faces. Why would they need to? They are awesome and they know it.

But I Want to Be Friendly and Interactive!

The kitty is interactive; it just draws you in, instead of jumping up and licking your face. And don’t worry, there is plenty of room for the Labrador puppy too. Our goal is to get you comfortable with the kitty energy so you can mix it up, not to banish the puppy.

High-energy, interactive dancing is wonderful, but overdoing it makes the audience uncomfortable. Bringing some kitty to your dance balances it by giving it confidence and focus. Try playing hard to get with your audience, and moving with intention, but avoid hauteur - that’s not kitty. When you’re comfortable with the kitty energy, you can mix kitty and puppy, to find your ideal energy.

Next Steps
Put on a song you like, and dance to it like a Labrador puppy. Then dance to it like a kitty. Then try to find a balance between the two. Are some points in the music better for the puppy or the kitty?

Already have plenty of kitty?
Stay tuned for my next article, where we’ll talk about how to cultivate puppy energy.

Penny and Lyra, playing hard-to-get with the camera.

How to Practice When You Only Have 5 Minutes

Friday, December 17, 2010

I was having a really bad day. I got stuck at work, missed my bus, and when I got home, I discovered that I forgot to defrost the ingredients for dinner. By the time I was home and fed, I was too tired and cranky to put on my practice clothes, much less actually dance.

Now, there's nothing wrong with skipping a practice session once in a while, but when I miss a practice session, it often turns into two, and then a week. Before I know it, I've missed out on hours and hours of practice time.

5 Minutes Would Have Kept Me On Track

If you want to make consistent progress in the dance, you'll have to practice. This is true whether your goal is to become a professional dancer, or just to prepare for your next hafli. But life gets in the way, and things happen.

That's why you need a practice plan for those days when you can't squeeze in a full session. And, surprisingly, 5 minutes of practice can make a big difference.

Why Practice for Five Minutes? Why Not Just Skip It?

When you're tired, stressed, and short on time, it's tempting to skip your practice session entirely. But frequent practice - even in trivially short sessions - tells your brain that what you're practicing is important. And your brain obliges by optimizing the path to that information.

So while you won't make a ton of progress in those 5 minutes, you'll actually accomplish more in your next full-length practice session.

Plus, you'll maintain the momentum of your practice habit. So practicing will feel like a normal and natural part of your day, rather than a guilt-inducing "to-do" on your list.

So How Do I Plan a 5-Minute Practice Session?

When you only have 5 minutes to practice, you can't waste a second, so it's important to plan your session carefully.

Minute 1: Quickie warm-up
- shoulder rolls with plies (knee bends)
- hip circles
- side stretch
- hamstring stretch
- roll up the spine

It's tempting to skip the warm-up when you're pressed for time, but don't do it! You won't dance as well without it, and it prepares your brain to learn.

Minutes 2 & 3: Nit-Picky Practice
Review the material you're working on. Do this very slowly, focusing on the details: alignment, position, which muscles are working, etc. Be sure to work both sides equally.

Minute 4: Tempo Practice
Practice the material at a speed that is challenging but doable. At first, this will be a moderate tempo. Over time, work up to a faster tempo.

Minute 5: Practice in Context
Practice using this material while dancing. You can improvise, or use it in a pre-planned combination.


Here's an example that I did the same day I wrote this article. I've been learning a new choreography, and wanted to polish up the "compass" hip drops it uses. But I was home for Thanksgiving, and couldn't block out much time for practice. Here's what I did:

1st min: warm-up
2nd min: practicing compass drops in slow motion. I started by just sliding my hip to each of the positions, then added in the drops. I did this slowly and deliberately, making the move as perfect as I could manage.
3rd min: same thing on the other side
4th min: practicing compass drops at medium tempo. I also tried it at a fast tempo, but I wasn't able to do it cleanly, so I dropped back down to the moderate pace. I split the time between the two sides.
5th min: practicing the original combination

But You Can't Make Real Progress in 5 Minutes!

It's true: you won't make a lot of progress in 5 minutes. But remember: we're not concerned with what you can accomplish during your mini-session. Our goal is to "grease" the pathways to that information in your brain, and maintain the practice habit.

Besides, even in the worst-case scenario, even if you never do a full-length practice again, 5 minutes a day adds up to 30 hours and 25 minutes of practice per year. Not too shabby, huh?


While you'll need to get consistent practice if you want to make progress, there are some days when you just can't squeeze in a full session. In that situation, it's actually better to practice for 5 minutes than to skip it entirely. That tells your brain that the material is still important, which makes your later, full practice sessions more effective.

To get the most benefit, be sure to do a quick warm-up, practice one topic slowly and deliberately, practicing the same thing at tempo, and then practice it in a dancing context.

What You Can Do Right Now

When you only have 5 minutes to practice, you can't waste a second collecting your stuff. Prepare your 5-minute practice plan now, before you need it.

Write down what you want to work on, pick out a 5-minute song with a suitable tempo, and place your notes, music, and hip scarf next to your stereo.

Totally Turkish DVD Review

Monday, August 02, 2010

Totally Turkish - Belly Dance

(Disclaimer: I received a free advance copy of this DVD as part of a give-away by the producer)

I'm a big fan of improvisational dance: I'd rather do it, and I'd rather watch it. But even though I rarely perform choreography, learning it is great way to fill the creative well. A good choreography can help you learn new moves, ideas or aesthetics, or help you wrap your brain around a new style or skill. Totally Turkish does it all.


- A technique break-down of some of the moves, steps, and spins used in this program.

- A three and a half-minute choreography to the song "Benefese"

- Finger cymbal patterns for the entire choreography

- A short tutorial on dancing to slow, Romani-style 9/8 music


1) The choreography is attractive and fun, and fits the Turkish aesthetic well.

2) The song used is in 4/4 time: virtually all the Turkish-style DVDs out there focus on dancing to music in 9/8 time, so this fills a major gap in the DVD market.

3) The choreography is full of fun and novel moves, steps, and combinations. These are very adaptable, so you're not just learning one set choreography; you're adding a lot of new material to your repertoire.

4) Ruby is friendly and confident on camera, a lovely dancer, and she knows what she's talking about.

5) She includes detailed instruction on which muscles should be working, using their anatomical names and pointing to them.

6) The production values are strong. The video is filmed behind the instructor, facing into the mirror, which usually isn't my favorite perspective, but it's framed and angled carefully, so you can see everything you need to.


1) Not everyone will be able to do all of these movements safely

As the DVD disclaimer warns: this program is for fit individuals, and experienced dancers. If you have injuries or limited strength/mobility in your knees, back, feet, or neck, you will have to adapt or omit some of this material.

Ruby does include important safety tips for many of these movements, mostly by reminding you to engage your abdominal muscles for support. (The pilates workout on her Flawless Floorwork DVD can help you connect with and strengthen these muscles.)

However, these safetly tips often came after she demonstrates the move (sometimes several times). This is a perfectly appropriate place to give these tips, but since some of the moves are particularly demanding on your neck, back, or knees, you should be careful not to follow along with her demonstrations. Wait, watch, and listen before you try it. Better yet, watch the entire DVD first.

I would also have liked to hear some safety tips for:

- protecting your neck during hair tosses and sways.
Those can be dangerous without the proper technique, especially without warming up your neck. (There was no warm-up on this DVD.)

- protecting your ankles and knees
Turns and pivots can put a lot of stress on your ankles and knees, especially if you are practicing on carpet. This is something dancers always need to be aware of, but it's especially important to remember during this program: this choreography uses a LOT of turns and has you perform them VERY quickly.

If you are not healthy and strong, you should take the turns, hair tosses, sways, and backbends VERY carefully, and at your own pace. You may need to get input from a live teacher.

2) The pace of instruction is brisk.

The choreography is taught in fairly long "chunks". Since the combos move quickly, and most are fairly complex, I would have found it easier to learn in shorter chunks. Viewers who don't have strong choreography "uptake" will need to rewind and repeat the instructional sections.

3) Some of the step patterns weren't described

Ruby demonstrated some of the step patterns without describing what she was doing in words. She did demonstrate them slowly, but said "step, step" or "1,2". I would have preferred to hear more description, such as: "step front, pivot to the right", etc. I'm pretty comfortable with the "follow the bouncing butt" method, but since these combos involved a lot of quick directional changes, more verbal description would have been helpful.

4) The zils section felt rushed

I was very pleased that Ruby included zils on the DVD, and the visual format was innovative and effective. You watch Ruby's hands playing the patterns, while she simultaneously performs the choreography in split-screen in the lower-left. The pattern is written at the top in number format. (i.e.., 1-3-3-3-7)

However, the demonstration was done at full speed, and Ruby played the whole choreography straight-through, instead of breaking it down by section. Plus, she didn't describe the zil patterns in words, so if you're not familiar with the number notation she used, you'd have to pick up the patterns entirely by ear. The audio of the zils wasn't great, which made that difficult. (It's *extremely* hard to get good audio of zils, so this is perfectly understandable, but it added some frustration.)

It's doable, but you're definitely swimming in the deep end of the pool.

5) The Romani section didn't really fit

I felt that the Romani section didn't really belong on this DVD. It was authentic and fun, but the rhythm instruction was weak, and it didn't have much bearing on the rest of the program. (As Ruby pointed out, Turkish Romani dance is the root of Turkish orientale, but the demo didn't illuminate or add to this.) I would have preferred that Ruby spend that time on breaking down the zils, and save the Romani material for its own DVD.


This DVD is a must-have for strong intermediate through professional dancers in good physical shape (feet, back, neck, knees), with good choreography "uptake" (or just some patience). You will learn a ton of great material, and get a good feel for the Turkish orientale aesthetic.

While this program is a fantastic resource for those who are ready for it, it may not be a good choice for you if you:

- are a beginner or advanced beginner

Your body is probably not ready to do some of these movements safely. And unless you have a lot of experience in another dance form, your probably haven't yet developed the body awareness to know which movements are safe to try.

That said, you can pick up some great new material. Just stick to the traveling patterns and turns, and ask your teacher for help before you try any of the head tosses, torso flips, or back-bending.

- have injuries or physical limitations

As I mentioned earlier, if you don't have strong and healthy feet, lower back, neck, and knees, some of these moves will not be safe for you. You will still learn a lot of useful material, but be careful as you follow along, and expect to adapt the choreography.

- are easily frustrated

This choreography includes complex combinations with lots of directional changes. If you have slow choreography "uptake", or if you have weak spatial awareness, this program may move too quickly for you.

That said, if you can summon the patience to keep pausing, rewinding, and practicing, you'll be very glad you did.

You can pre-order from Amazon

What Questions Do You Have About Transitions? (Plus a Give-Away)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Volume 2 just shipped last week, but I'm already starting work on the next part of the series.

Volume 3 will cover transitions, with an emphasis on using them in improvised dance. My goal is to get it out by the end of October of this year.

I have a pretty detailed outline for what I plan to cover, but before I get too deep into my own plan, I'd like to make sure that I address YOUR questions about transitions.

Tell me about your transitions questions in this survey

The Giveaway

And because I can't resist a give-away, one survey respondent will win a free copy of the Improv Toolkit video of their choice. (Or a coupon for a free copy of volume 3, if you've already got 1 & 2.)

The Fine Print:

I'll choose one winner at random from among the eligible survey respondents at 5pm EST next Tuesday, March 16th, 2010.

No purchase is necessary in order to be eligible to win, but you must answer all the questions and include your name and email address, so I can notify you.

The winner will be notified by email. If the winner does not respond to the notification within 14 days, they forfeit their prize, and I'll choose another winner.

This is NOT limited to the US, and I can give you your prize in either NTSC or PAL format.

How to Learn Choreography More Easily and Efficiently - By Doing it Backwards!

Friday, March 05, 2010

When you fly in an airplane, you hope for a smooth flight. But sometimes take-offs are shaky and flights are bumpy. In the end, all that really matters is a safe landing.

Flying instructors know this, and so their earliest lesson is not how to fly the plane, but how to land it. Flying students practice landings over and over again, because not only do they need to be able to land the plane safely, but they need to feel completely confident doing it. Worrying about the landing could cause them to make a mistake.

Give Your Show a Safe Landing

This is equally true for belly dance. No matter how good or bad your show was, what the audience remembers best is a strong finish. And even if your show is going well, worrying about what comes later can sabotage your performance.

Even so, most of us start from the beginning of the piece when we learn choreography. But you'll learn more quickly and remember it more reliably if you start from the end and work your way backwards towards the beginning.

Why Shouldn't I Start From the Beginning?

When we learn choreography from the beginning, we practice the first combination, then the second combination, and then we practice both of them. Then we learn the third combination, and practice combos 1, 2, and 3. And so on.

Combo 1

Combo 2

Combo 1 ---- Combo 2

Combo 3

Combo 1 ---- Combo 2 ----- Combo 3

Combo 4

Combo 1 ----- Combo 2 ----- Combo 3 ----- Combo 4

Can you see what’s happening here? The early combinations get much more practice than the later ones:

Combo 1

Combo 2

Combo 1 ---- Combo 2

Combo 3

Combo 1 ---- Combo 2 ----- Combo 3

Combo 4

Combo 1 ----- Combo 2 ----- Combo 3 ----- Combo 4

By this point, you've practiced Combo #1 four times, but #4 has only been practiced twice!

And it only gets worse as you continue; if your choreography has 12 combos, #1 will get 600% more practice than #12.

This Directly Impacts Your Performance

This means that when you go to perform your choreography, you’re going to get less and less confident as you approach the end. The sections you're most familiar with are in the past. That sets you up for a stressful show, and that stress can ruin your performance.

However, if you start from the end, you know the later combinations inside and out. This means that when you perform it, you get more confident as the piece progresses. This confidence boost brightens your stage presence and helps you be your best. And even if you fall on your face early in the show, you can still count on a strong finish.

How Do I Learn a Piece Backwards?

In order to learn a piece backwards, we use the standard procedure; we just start at the end. Here’s how:

1) break the choreography up into a logical “chunks” or combinations. For this example, let's assume that your choreography yields 12 combinations.

2) learn the very last combination (combo #12)

3) learn the previous combination (#11)

4) practice combos 11 & 12 together

5) learn combination 10

6) practice combos 10-12 together

Continue in this fashion until you have added in all the combinations. Then practice the whole choreography until you're confident about the early combinations. By this time, you should be extraordinarily confident about the later ones.

But If I Learn It Backwards, How Will I Understand How the Dance Unfolds?

The downside of this method is that it doesn’t let you observe the structure of the dance as you learn it. So before you begin to learn a choreography backwards, watch the whole piece once or twice to get the lay of the land. If you’re learning it from written notes rather than video, walk through the choreography once without music to mark it out.

Make a note of any repeated elements and other patterns. This helps you understand the choreography, and gives context to the combinations as you learn them individually.


  • If the choreography repeats a particular section several times, learning that segment first may give you a sense of accomplishment and some anchor points. Then proceed to the final combination, and work your way backwards as usual.

  • When you learn a new combination, practice the transitions into and out of it as well.
  • So when you learn Combo #10, the “chunk” you’d practice would include the transition from Combo #9, Combo #10 itself, and the transition into Combo #11. This will help you integrate each new section into the whole piece.


When you learn a choreography from the beginning, the early parts get more practice than the later ones. As you perform it, you’ll always be less confident about what’s to come.

If you start from the end and work your way forwards, the later parts get the most practice. So even if you have some trouble at first, you can count on a good ending.

The process of learning a choreography backwards is the same as learning it forwards. Start with the final combination, add on the previous combo, practice them together. Then add on another combination, practice the whole thing together, and so on.

Before you begin, you may want to watch the choreography a few times to get familiar with its structure.

With this method, you can expect many happy landings.

Improvisation Toolkit Volume 2 is Here!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Volume 2 of the Improvisation Toolkit has arrived! It's 7.5 inches long,
weighs 3.2 ounces, and has brown eyes. (In the cover photo, that is.)

Okay, that's a corny metaphor, but I sure feel like I've had a baby!

I'll be picking it up at the manufacturer's in 89 minutes, and heading
straight to the post office after that. So those of you who pre-ordered should
have your copies soon!

Just a few more things:

1) The deadline for the give-away is 5pm EST today. If you're already on my
mailing list, you're already entered. If not, you can join at:
(details in the original post below)

2) I *still* haven't gotten around to taking the private sale link down, so I'll
leave that up until I leave for the post office at 5. (vol. 2) (vol. 1)

How to Improve Your Musicality with Selective Listening

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I made this video late, late at night, and in my PJs. I filmed it back in December, as an assignment for my article class, and always planned reshoot it in the studio, with natural light, makeup, etc.

But the topic of musicality has come up over and over again this month, so I'm taking that as a sign.

So I'm squelching my vanity and sharing this with you now, PJs and all.


Why You Need to Make Mistakes In Order to Improvise Well

Friday, February 05, 2010

When you raise tomatoes, you have to constantly prune away the “suckers”, the new shoots the plant tries to grow. If they remain, they’ll suck the plant’s resources into growing new stems and leaves. But when you find them and get rid of them, the plant can focus on its job: making tasty tomatoes for you.

Mistakes are like Suckers

It’s human nature to fear mistakes, but they’re especially terrifying for dancers. After all, the audience’s eyes are always on us. So we become perfectionists, and fret about tiny mistakes that our audience would never notice.

Fear of mistakes sucks away our attention and our creative energy. And since those tools are critical to improv, it can be devastating. So we get even more afraid.

But what most dancers don’t realize is that making mistakes will actually improve your improvisation skills. We need to welcome mistakes, and deal with them appropriately, if we want to improvise successfully.

Why Are Mistakes So Important to Improv?

Mistakes are important in improv because they teach you what does and doesn’t work for you.

When you dance, you have a huge pool of movements and combinations to choose from. However, not all of them fit the music and flatter your body.

If you choreograph your performance, you can take days or weeks to sift through these options, and decide which you like best.

When you improvise, you have to make those decisions in a split-second. But that split second is all you need if you have already sifted out many of the bad ideas. And you do that by making mistakes.

The trick is to make them in a safe place.

How Do I Make Mistakes in a Safe Place?

The safest place to make mistakes is in the privacy of the studio, so get in there and practice some improvisational dancing. Your goal for this practice session is to make mistakes. Be sure to do it mindfully: acknowledge the bad ideas, welcome them, and then let them go.

You’ll resist making mistakes at first, but remember that our goal is to prune away the bad ideas during practice, when nobody is looking. That way, you’ll have mostly good ideas left to choose from when you improvise.

So go make some mistakes. Welcome each snafu. Greet each bad idea with open arms. After all, this may be the last time you ever see it!

But Won’t I Make Faster Progress if I Focus on Usable Material?

Nope. Focusing on good ideas will help you generate a list of usable material more quickly, but that list doesn’t help you improvise.

The ideas that are inside you – good and bad – are going to come out sometime. You can’t stop them. If they don’t get their moment of freedom in the studio, they will break out on stage.

So give the bad ones their time to shine in the studio, where they can’t embarrass you.


Fear of making mistakes is natural, but it is a liability when it comes to improvisation.

Improvisational dance requires that we make decisions in a split second. We can inform that decision by making as many mistakes as possible before we step on stage.

The best way to do this is by mindfully making mistakes when we practice, so we can learn what does and doesn’t work with our bodies.

It may be tempting to focus on good ideas, but this won’t help you prevent mistakes when you improvise. The bad ideas are going to come out sometime. By welcoming mistakes when we practice, we can improve the odds for when we perform.

Next Steps

Go to your practice space, and make some mistakes. When an idea isn’t working for you, acknowledge it, and then say goodbye to it. Because now that you’ve pruned it from your mind, it can’t suck away any more of your attention.

Haiti Giveaway Winner

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The winner of the giveaway for Haiti is Tondo of Windsor, Ontario.

Tondo made her donation to the Red Cross of Canada, and her prize is a personal video critique worth $125.

Congrats Tondo!

Authentic Facial Expression: It's About Doing, Not Being

Friday, January 15, 2010

Authentic Facial Expression: It's About Doing, Not Being!

I was a child actor. Not the kind of child actor who robs a 7-11 in their 20s. Just the kind that does a lot of plays and makes a little money, but never gets even locally famous.

One of my most valuable lessons came not from my professional work, but from my high school acting teacher. While we were rehearsing for Steel Magnolias, she told the cast to try to "be sleepy". We stretched, we yawned, and, frankly, we overdid it.

But when she told us to try to stay awake, it was a very different story. As I watched my cast-mates shifting in their seats and fighting to keep keep their eyelids from drooping, I didn't doubt their sleepiness for a second, even though it was mid-morning on a Saturday.

So where did that authenticity come from?

Expressive Is As Expressive Does

What we are is, very simply, the result of what we do. A friendly person is someone who does friendly things: says hi, asks if your cold is getting better, etc.

Similarly, when we discuss stage presence, we tend to talk about states of being, rather than actions. We say that we want to "be expressive" or "look intense", and so we focus on the concept of an emotion, like happiness, sadness, etc., rather than on the actions a happy or sad person might take.

But just like we can't authentically make ourselves "be sleepy", we can't make ourselves "be heartbroken" or "be entranced by the clarinet". When we try, it comes out looking awkward and cartoonish. (You've seen quite a few "Dina faces" and "sultry faces", haven't you?)

It's obvious to the audience that we are intentionally putting on a facial expression, rather than letting our faces reflect our authentic feelings. And that is a violation of their trust.

Why Is the Face So Important?

When you dance, your facial expression is what the audience relates to first. Most don't have any belly dance experience, so the movements themselves don't give you any common ground.

Facial expressions, on the other hand, are nearly universal in the human family. So your face is what draws the audience in and convinces them to follow you on the emotional roller coaster of your performance.

But that connection is based on trust. Before they put themselves in your hands, they have to believe that what's on your face is really in your heart.

How Do I Make My Expressions Authentic?

There is a remarkably easy and straight-forward way to maintain an authentic expression: silently "talk" to the audience in your head.

This sounds silly and almost trivial. But carrying on a silent conversation with your audience is a powerful tool for creating believable expression.

When you motivate your dance with that internal conversation, your face follows along automatically. It will authentically reflect what's going on in your body and in your heart, rather than what you think you should display to the audience. And the audience will believe you.

But I Don't Know What to Say!

Almost any statement will create an authentic expression, as long as you direct it to a member of your audience. However, you'll get the most authentic results from statements that are related to your performance, and that you make in your own words.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

You can talk about the audience:
- Hey, it's you! (this works even if you've never met them before)
- I'm so glad you came!
- You two make a lovely couple!

You can talk about yourself:
- I am the best dancer you've ever seen
- I am an elegant princess
- I am a nice girl from the village

You can about what you're doing:
- Look at that shimmy go!
- My hands are just fascinating
- Wasn't that last move cool?

You can talk about the music:
- The rhythm is so yummy
- I love the sound of the clarinet!
- This song is about lost love


In order to be authentically expressive, we need to focus on "doing", rather than "being". Focusing on states of being encourages us to paste on a false expression, which alienates our audience.

"Speaking" to the audience silently is the most effective way to create an authentic expression that will foster a genuine connection. So take some time to compose your own list of statements in your own voice. Then put on some music, and give it a try!

With a little practice, you'll master it so thoroughly that even my acting coach would believe that you're a nice girl from the village.

Need more hand-holding?

A guided version of this exercise is featured on the bonus DVD "Nerves and Expression", which comes with the premium version of my DVD Improvisation Toolkit Volume 1: Movement Recall. Click here to order.

Already have Volume 1? You can also get "Nerves and Expression" with a premium pre-order of Improvisation Toolkit Vol. 2: Structure, which will be released on February 24th. Click here to pre-order.

Donate to Relief Efforts in Haiti, and Be Entered to Win a Free Video Critique

Make a donation to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or Heifer International by Tuesday, and be entered in a drawing for a free video critique worth $125.

Here's how to enter:

1) Make a donation of at least $20 to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), or Heifer International by next Tuesday, January 20th.

2) Email me confirmation by 5pm EST next Wednesday, January 21st.

After you have made your donation, you should see a confirmation page with the details of your donation. You can print that to PDF or send me a screen shot of that page. (Here are some instructions.)

Alternatively, you can forward me your confirmation email. (My confirmation from the Red Cross took a few hours to arrive, so don't worry if you don't get it right away.)

Send your confirmation to me at

3) I'll use a random number generator to choose the winner on Wednesday, and contact that person by email.


  • Sooner is better, folks! The more aid we can get to Haiti now, the less suffering there will be later on. I'd make the deadline much sooner, but I know some of you won't see this in time.

  • If you're outside the US, you can donate an equivalent amount in your own currency.

  • If you've already given to one of these causes, that's great too. I'll count any donation dated between January 15th and January 20th.

  • If you donate $50 or more, you get TWO entries. If you donate $100 or more, you get THREE entries.

  • (If you donate $1000 or more, well, you rock! I'll just give you a free critique outside of the giveaway.)

  • The winner will be notified by email, and must redeem their critique by January 21st, 2011. The prize is transferrable to another dancer.

  • Yes, this does exclude those of you who give by phone or give to another organization. I'm sorry about that, but I have no way to get confirmation without an email receipt, and I know what the receipts for the Red Cross, MSF, and Heifer Intl look like.

  • If I receive any fraudulent donation confirmations, the senders will be ineligible for the giveaway, and should feel very ashamed of themselves.

  • I'm running this giveaway in good faith, but things happen. If there are any misunderstandings or loopholes, their resolution will be at my sole discretion.


I've heard that there are quite a few scams that are trying to profit from this disaster. When you make your donation, be sure to go directly to the web site of the organization to make your donation.

This idea was inspired by one of my students, Ellen. She's a nurse, and emailed me within a few hours of earthquake to let me know that she'd be missing class so she could go serve in Haiti. I'm so proud!

What Can I Do to Help You in 2010?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

My friend Dave Charest posed this question today, and it's a good one. So now I'm asking you:

What are your goals for 2010?

What can I do to help you get there?

Leave a comment below!

How NOT Winning the Lottery Helps You Get What You Want


How NOT Winning the Lottery Helps You Get What You Want

One of my family's Christmas traditions is that everyone receives a lottery ticket in their Christmas stocking. When I was little it was fun: you'd play the game, scratch off the ticket, and maybe win two dollars to blow on candy. But as I got older, I realized that there was a much more subtle present there: the permission to dream about what I really want.

Small Dreams

When we dream, we tend to dream small. We limit ourselves to what we think is realistic and achievable.

Must of us don't acknowledge the full scope of our hopes & dreams at all.

And when we do, we immediately dismiss them as impossible. And set our sights lower.

So Why Do We Do That?

I think it's a matter of fear. Fear of success is a cliche, but I think there's some truth to it. If we set our expectations low, we think we'll be less likely to disappoint ourselves.

But that hobbles us.

So How Do You Break Out Of That Pattern?

Give yourself permission to dream big. You don't have to buy a lottery ticket, but it doesn't hurt.

But just imagine that you won the lottery. Imagine that you had all the money you could want, and 24 hours of free time per day.

And ask yourself:
- how would you spend your time?
- if you didn't have to earn a living, what would you make your life's work?

Now, most people say that they would quit their job, buy a nice house, and a fancy car. And go ahead and indulge those fantasies.

But as you keep imagining, you'll find that your lottery fantasies change. They get more detailed, and more personal. These are the ones that matter.

But What Good Are a Bunch of Daydreams?

Your lottery fantasies may be over the top, but if you look to their roots, they'll reveal what's really important to you.

Not what you think you SHOULD do like get a good job, settle down, etc. They'll tell you what you really value.

And once you know that, you can start acting on them now, with whatever time and means you have today.

My Own Lottery Fantasies

In my lottery fantasy, I would:

- Support my mom, who's disabled

- Found a scholarship at my high school

- Travel, especially to countries whose languages I've studied

- Dance full-time

Once I realized what values underlie those fantasies, I started working towards them in small ways:

- I send my mom a grocery card every month

- I give to my school's scholarship fund

- I joined a language conversation exchange

- I got serious about making dance a business

Tiny Steps Add Up

I haven't made the sweeping changes I would if I actually won the lottery, but these tiny steps are adding up, especially in my dance career.

For a long time, I assumed that you just can't make a good living as a dancer, that the best I could aspire to was be a professional-level hobbyist with a day job.

And while that was my assumption, that was my reality.

But since I got serious about my business, and started treating it like a job, the changes in the way I treat it have made a big difference. I get more successful every year.

I haven't quit my day job, but I'll be in a position to go to part time in the next year or two.


We tend to limit our dreams to what we think is possible, but when we do that, we limit what we can achieve.

Give yourself permission to dream big. Think about what you'd do if you won the lottery.

Look closely at your answers, and see what values and goals lie at the heart of your lottery fantasies.

Then find some small steps that you can take today to move them forward.

Take one of those steps today. Do the same thing tomorrow. Over time, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve.

When I was a little girl, the New York State Lottery motto was "All you need is a dollar and a dream."

But really, all you need is the dream.

How “Up and Over” Eye Contact Can Improve Your Stage Presence

Friday, December 11, 2009

When Jillina swept onto the stage and winked at me, I almost jumped out of my seat. I have mixed feelings about the Belly Dance Superstars, but in that moment, I felt like a star-struck fan: the Jillina just winked at me!

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that she couldn’t possibly have singled me out. I danced on that very stage three years earlier; you can’t see any faces in the crowd when the stage lights are on.

And then it hit me; she must have been using “up & over” eye contact.

What is Up and Over Eye Contact?

Up & over eye contact is a technique I learned from my mentor, Amira Jamal. Instead of making direct eye contact with your audience for most of the show, you look up and just over their heads, and focus your attention on an imaginary back row.

Why Isn’t Regular Eye Contact Enough?

Eye contact is an important part of belly dance and stage presence. It establishes a personal connection with your audience, and makes them feel included in the show.

But direct eye contact has some gotchas:

  • It’s easy to focus too much on the front rows & make the rest of the audience feel left out.

  • If, like me, you get a lot of energy and confidence from connecting with the audience, you may use eye contact like a crutch, and end up focusing all your attention on the one or two people who are most responsive.

  • Few of our venues have sloped seating, so the audience’s eye level is usually lower than yours. To make direct eye contact, you have to look down slightly, which leaves out the other rows, and gives you a double chin.

  • If you’re dancing in a theatrical setting, you may not be able to see with the lights in your eyes. So you have to be able to give the impression of eye contact without being able to see your audience.

  • How Do I Make Up & Over Eye Contact?

    Look to the Back of the Room
    To make up & over eye contact, gaze just over the audience’s heads. If it’s a large space like a theater or function hall, you can look at the back rows. But if it’s a more typical small venue like a restaurant, you’ll actually have to go over their heads.

    Focus Your Gaze
    Now focus your attention on a particular spot. We need to give the impression that we’re making eye contact with someone back there. An unfocused gaze is a dead give-away. It helps to imagine an actual person there.

    Spread it Around
    As you dance, change your focus to different areas in the back of the room: pay attention to the left and right corners, as well as to the center. I like to imagine that my gaze is sprinkling glitter over the audience, and I have to “sparkle up” the whole group by the end of the first song.

    Throw In a Little Real Eye Contact
    Keep your gaze in the up & over position for about two thirds of your show, but be sure to make occasional, brief eye contact with individual people in different parts of the room.

    But Won’t Fake Eye Contact Alienate the Audience?

    Strangely, no! Up & over eye contact spreads your attention across a wider area and makes your presence seem larger than life. It’s like giving the whole audience a group hug: you don’t have to touch each person individually to share the love with the whole group.

    And because your gaze is focused, the audience members in that part of the room will believe that you are making individual eye contact with them.

    Dos & Don’ts

    Do: make up & over your default gaze.
    Don’t: forget to focus. Imagining an actual person there helps.
    Do: make occasional direct eye contact with real people.
    Don’t: let yourself focus on just one person (a friend or particularly supportive audience member) or section of the audience for too long.
    Do: pay some attention to the front section of the audience.
    Don’t: let your chin drop for more than a moment.


    Eye contact enhances your stage presence and builds a connection with your audience. But direct eye contact used ineffectively can make the other audience members feel left out.

    Up & over eye contact gives your audience the impression of direct eye contact, while still making the whole room feel included.

    The key is to look up and over your audience’s head. Focus your gaze, as if you were looking at a real person. Be sure to move your gaze to different areas of the back of the room, and make direct eye contact occasionally.

    What You Can Do Right Now

    Practice the up & over technique during your next class or practice session. You don’t need an actual audience; just look up and over where their heads would be. If you master up & over in an empty room, using it on a real audience will be a snap.

    All you'll be able to make each one of them feel just as special and as Jillina did to me.

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