Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Another Year of Important Lessons at ODI. AKA How I Need to be Nicer To Myself.

I’ve written and re-written this blog several times so far. Not knowing quite what to write or how to write it. I just came back a few days ago from ODI Second Love and I’m still not 100% put back together. This is a really special intensive. I learn as much about myself as I do about dance. Last year I came home with a profound motivation I hadn’t felt in ages. This year I come home and I don’t know if I can even describe how I feel. It was never going to be the same as last year, but this year was significantly more emotional for me than the previous. Maybe because it’s a place I feel safe to be honest with myself? Because everyone else is being honest too? 

Beautiful Lisbon <3
I did a lot of things I promised myself I would do when I returned from ODI last year. I continued going to Street classes, after I’d been telling myself I was gonna quit because I wasn’t feeling I was getting anywhere. I kept this thing that was only for me and made very few compromises on that time. I joined a performance group with a bunch of dancers that are much stronger and more versatile than I am. I trained so fucking hard, almost every single day in the past 12 months – people started to ask what the hell had happened to me when they saw me because they’d never seen me look so good. I also had to completely re-evaluate my diet in order to keep up with how many calories I was expending in a day. I felt stronger than I ever have been – I did four weeklong intensives in three months and walked out of three of them feeling amazing because I wasn’t even tired or sore at the end. I made work I thought I was really proud of, and I watched my students blossom into these incredible dancers they’re becoming. 

I started to feel less like a bellydancer and more like a dancer. I’d feel like I could actually keep up in my street classes. I could finally remember choreography more quickly because I recognised the movements now. Beginner classes started to be less challenging and I could actually dance in them, not desperately try to keep up all the time. I went to a contemporary workshop with one of my favourite choreographers knowing I would be the least experienced dancer in the room but felt like I could just about keep up with the choreography even if the movement wasn’t perfect – I tried my best and that was really the point. I went alone to a workshop with Buddha Stretch, in a community I’m not really a part of, where I didn’t know anybody – and people who know me know that’s a big deal for me because I’m so painfully shy and introvert. And I spoke to people there – that’s nothing short of a miracle! I would not have done that 12 months ago. I used to do it when I first got into Tribal Fusion and I hated being there alone. 

Daily Meetings
I did almost all the things I said I would when I wrote my blog after ODI last year. Only now that I’m writing it down do I realise that how I’ve made myself feel the entire time I was there last week was absolutely ludicrous.  I realised in the last ODI that I suffer with imposter syndrome (not just in dance but in everything), that I don’t believe in myself enough, that I don’t cut myself enough slack or celebrate my achievements enough. That I am relentlessly hard on myself for no reason other than I don’t know how else to be. 

I spent half of my time at ODI Second Love in tears because of my feelings of inadequacy, because I felt like I’d put so much work in during the past year but none of it showed. When you see yourself dancing every day you don’t see the improvements others do. I felt like I was way behind where I thought I was in my head. I spent too much time this week living in my head and listening to my thoughts instead of embracing the moment and being there 100% committed to movement. 

I want to preface the rest of this blog by saying that ODI was amazing. I am so glad that I did it again. Orchidaceae are the most inspiring, supportive, loving community of people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be involved with. It is an honour to know them and work with them. I wish every dancer in the world could get a chance to experience their magic because they are life changing. I want you to know this, because I want you to know that they did everything for me this past week, and how I feel about myself is nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I allowed all these feelings to come to the surface because they make me feel safe enough to confront them and that’s a good thing.

Vogue with Maria
So for those who know nothing about ODI Second Love – there were three components. 1) Morning classes chosen by each individual dancer to a schedule that suited their training goals. I had an entire week with Maria and Leo, learning Vogue, Contemporary, Hip Hop, Popping and lots of House! I found myself feeling so frustrated in the classes. I’ve been trying really hard with Popping and House especially, and in these classes I just felt like all the progress I thought I’d made in the last year was gone. It’s good to feel like a beginner – which I am, and that’s not gonna change any time soon. But I thought I was getting better and after this week I feel like I’m just back to square one. Maybe it’s cos I spent the summer travelling and not practicing, or maybe it’s just that I’m not doing as well as I thought I was. I thought I was starting to understand the jack in House – now it just feels so alien. EVERYTHING felt so alien. I started to feel like I was the same dancer I was when I stepped into ODI 12 months ago. I felt like I let myself down, and them down. I forget that it’s taken 10 years of hard work for me to get to this point of refined movement quality in Tribal Fusion, and it’ll probably take another 10 to get anywhere near where I want to be. I can’t expect to be an amazing House dancer or Popper after 18 months of classes. I’m 30, not 13. But still I couldn’t help listen to that negative voice in my head telling me ‘you’re not good enough’. When I’ve figured out how to turn that voice off I’ll let you know!

The genius at work <3

2) A group choreography directed by one or two of the Orchidaceae company. For me, the piece was directed by Leo, and it was an amazing experience. Finger cymbals and House – this was something very special. I think I could work with Leo just all the time, she is amazing and I think everyone knows how much I adore her work. The piece was so much fun, and so challenging. I loved every second I was in there with my group working on this piece – the girls I got to dance with were just magic. It was the happiness I needed to get out of my head for a few hours and to think of something other than myself!

Sharing my solo in rehearsals
3) Solo development with an Orchidaceae mentor. I have been working on a solo with Maria Antunes since our first communication back in March. She has mentored me through the entire process and she has been amazing. She set me challenges to complete, video and return for feedback. She told me she spent hours watching them with Google Translate open so she could write back to me. She was so patient with me while I developed the things I was working on (combining tribal fusion with jazz, waacking and vogue techniques). I raved about her to all my dance friends, about the things she was having me do and what it was like to have someone other than myself actually care about what I’m doing and investing time in me. 

I feel bad for the way I was with Maria all week. I spent way too much time crying at her about what a failure I felt. I didn’t like most of my solo but I didn’t know what to do to change that. I was having a huge crisis of confidence which made it hard for me to listen to her trying to reassure me. I felt weak and vulnerable and like I shouldn’t be wasting everyone’s time by being there. I showed other dancers my solo, scared they would hate it, scared I had failed Maria and all the time and effort she had put into working with me. I don’t know where all this insecurity came from all of a sudden. I saw other people doing incredible things with their bodies and these dramatic changes in their dancing from the previous year and on myself I saw the same Alexis I always saw. I couldn’t sit there and listen to people tell me what a beautiful dancer I was, or how lovely my choreography was. I felt like they were humouring me, just telling me what I want to hear. I don’t know why I do that. I don’t know if it’s a very culturally British thing to not be able to take a compliment. I don’t know if it’s because I had teachers that are so insecure that it indirectly seeped into me and my attitude to dance. I feel guilty for invalidating people’s opinions of me with my own inner critic. I realised this week that I truly do not see myself how other people see me. Not even remotely. I don’t know if it’s how I’ve been taught to learn – tell me everything that’s wrong with me so I can fix it, rather than give me positive reinforcement on the things I’m doing well. Maria well and truly 150% believed in me and my ability – so many people told me they didn’t understand why I feel so insecure. I don’t think I understand either. I think part of it is perfectionism and always striving for better – but never feeling like I’m getting any closer to it. Well that’s normal right? Perfection doesn’t exist. I don’t want perfection in the rest of my life, why is it such an important thing for me in dance? I felt guilty that she had so much belief in me and I had so little. I had so much positive feedback during the week, and I think I wasn’t expecting such positive reactions so I just filled that void with self-doubt instead.

Practicing Leo's group piece
I am trying to remind myself that, even if the end result of the solo wasn’t exactly what I felt I should have made, the work that I put in during the past 5 months for it was worth it. I received so much being mentored by Maria – so generous and kind and enthusiastic. I hope that she doesn’t feel bad about how I acted all week. She reminded me that, whatever I believe about myself, I work hard and that’s the ‘secret’ to being a good dancer. She reminded me I need to be less hard on myself. I know that is something I have to spend a lot of time working on – it’s conditioned in me somehow. I think the whole situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I injured my knee during one of the classes. I really pushed through even though I was in pain and the sensible thing to do would have been to rest. I considered telling Leo to cut me from the group piece, but I already felt like I was letting her down by being injured so I pushed through instead. I danced with all my heart in the performance and let the agony wash over me later – on Saturday night with bloodshot eyes from all the tears, I took a bunch of painkillers and drank a shit ton of booze and passed out in bed without taking off my make up… not sure that really helped very much, especially when I woke up the next day!!

MacGyver taping my knee :P

We talk a lot about dancers having egos. When they’re so overconfident that their egos get in the way of them getting better. When dancers won’t try things because their egos get in the way. When they won’t be seen to fail because they don’t want to hurt their egos or damage their reputation. I feel like I’ve been challenging that in myself for a long time – I do go to classes and make mistakes, I do put myself in positions where I am the worst dancer in the room. I think I have tried to supress the notion of having an ego so much that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to actually allow myself to be proud of what I have done and to acknowledge that yes, the hard work has and is paying off. And that people see it and I am allowed to see it too – and I’m allowed to celebrate the good things that happen. That’s not having an over-inflated ego. That’s just allowing yourself to take some pride in the things that you do. 

This morning I woke up with my dance journal and indulged myself by writing down all the positive things that have happened to me in dance. All the things I am proud of, and allowed to be proud of. All the exciting things that I’ve done and am going to do. Things people have said that I haven’t forgotten. It felt weird to do it but I think I needed it. I wrote four pages of things I needed to remind myself I had achieved in the past 10 years. I realised that I shouldn’t feel as insecure as I do. That I have done amazing things. I have made a positive difference to the Tribal Fusion community in the UK whether I allow myself to believe that or not. Dancers want to keep working with me year after year – whether that’s through Juniper Project or my weekly classes or workshops or private lessons or hosting me. They keep coming back, so I must be doing something right. I got Rachel Brice to come back to the UK after 7 years away – people tried, but no one else managed to do it – that was no mean feat. I have taught in more than 20 different countries. I put Tribal Fusion on the stage at International Dance Festival Birmingham. I produce one of the biggest Tribal Fusion festivals in the UK. Because of dance I have family all over the world. I’ve gone from an Adult Education bellydance class to an internationally recognised performer and teacher in 10 years – that wasn’t just by chance, that was all through hard work and dedication and I can - and should - allow myself to be proud of that. And most of all, people that I love, admire and respect believe in me and my work (even when I don’t) – what more could I want? I did this nice thing for myself today because I needed to remind myself of these things. Not to boost my ego…. Or maybe yes, to boost my ego, because right now it’s in shreds. I needed to know that I remember all of this positivity when I’m in my darkest moments. 

I'm not ashamed to admit I cried!
My friend Katie summed up dance like this, and I think it is perfect: It is both magical and brutal at the same time. Being an artist is really hard sometimes. I want to move forwards by forgiving myself for the way I felt last week, and to acknowledge that the inner critic is always gonna be there – but that she can be a real asshole sometimes and I don’t always need to listen to everything she says. 

I want to say thank you, especially to Maria for her patience while I bared my soul with plenty of tears and for her kind, reassuring words all week. And for helping me to grow during the past 5 months. You have no idea how much I appreciate you and everything you did for me during all that time. I'm sorry I didn't show it as much as I should have.

Cymbals - the gift that keeps on giving!
And thank you also to Leo for your belief and for looking after my knee. Thank you for choosing me for the group piece that I loved doing so much! I hope it won’t be the last time we get to do something together. And you’re still my favourite teacher! ;) 

Thank you Piny and all the Orchidaceae girls for creating this space for us to learn and grow as artists and as people. You are all super special. Thank you also to my fellow dancers that were so open and gracious in sharing their work and their souls. I will be back next year - I hope that ODI will be around again then! And next time I promise to come with a better attitude towards myself :)

Family <3
Teaching the teacher a thing or two! ;)

Love these crazy people!


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Musings on Learning a New Dance Style.... Especially as an Adult

When I am in Germany, for at least a little while I can convince people I speak German. I understand far more than I can actually say. I can listen to people talking and more or less understand what is being said. I can con people for a little while that I am a German speaker. I can answer simple questions, and I know many words, but when it comes to structuring a sentence as a German speaker would,  I get found out – I am merely an observer of German language, and when it comes to actually conversing I am a beginner at best. Say something complicated to me and I freeze. I can’t freestyle in the language, but I know enough words to understand what is being said and to speak a few rehearsed phrases. I have managed to get away with it long enough to convince people I speak German, in the past. I studied German at school, more than 10 years ago, so somewhere in that brain of mine, it is still there, just waiting to be rehearsed enough to speak again, I’m sure!

When I am in Portugal, there is no doubt that I do not speak Portuguese. They think it’s cute if I ask, ‘dois caf├ęs por favor’, but they know I don’t speak Portugese, and they know I don’t understand it either. When I listen to conversations I understand nothing. Just like with Italian, and Finnish, and Japanese and Khmer, and anything that isn’t even close to my native language. 

Language is fun. It is entertaining to surprise people when you know some swear words or phrases – like a special trick. I love language, I love seeing the roots of language too. But I am utterly useless at learning them. I can remember the tricks (swearing) and niceties (hello, thank you, please), but anything beyond that.... good luck! I am, however, quite accomplished at speaking, writing and listening to my native language – English. I should be – I’ve been speaking it for the past 28 of my almost 30 years. 

So what is this all about? Isn’t this meant to be a dance blog? Well, yes it is, and there is a purpose for my ramblings on language. When I teach ITS, I explain it as a language – stall movements are words, combos are phrases, and the dance itself is a conversation between dancers. I explain that you have to say something the same way every time in order for everyone to understand. If you say it the wrong way, it causes confusion – the meaning gets lost in translation. If you dance ATS, we can understand you for a while, but there will come a point where you do something we don’t understand and vice versa. 

I think of the entirety of learning any form of dance as akin to learning a language. And the older I get, the harder I find it to retain that information. My brain cannot hold more than a few phrases in Portugese, and my muscle memory isn’t quite what it used to be either! 

I know that I am capable of speaking multiple dance languages – but all of them have the same root language. Bellydance is like the Latin root to the multiple languages I speak: Tribal Fusion, ITS, ATS (bit rusty on that one!), Suhaila format, Jamila format. Because I understand Latin (bellydance), I can speak those other languages and pick up the words (movements) in those languages more easily, and can retain them more easily because my muscle memory (and brain) has a reference point to work from and draw from. Having said that, my fluency in Oriental style is akin to my German – I can get away with it for a little bit, but underneath it all I’m not an Oriental dancer – when it comes to speaking it with a ‘native’ – anyone who dances Oriental dance as their primary style – I get caught out as a fraud. My true dominant language is Tribal Fusion. 

Where am I going with this? Well, for the past 9 months or so I have been studying Street Dance. And I am experiencing the same frustrations I experience with learning languages. I find it SO HARD to retain words and phrases that I feel I’ll never be fluent in any language other than English. I hate being monolingual. I want to be able to speak a second language. But I don’t have a natural talent for it (unlike my brother, who is fluent in three languages, and pretty good in two or three more). Not that this is an excuse for my monolingualism – it just means I have to work so much harder to retain language. 

These boots were made for dancing, even if it's badly!
I feel this way about my studies in Street Dance. I go through peaks and lows – during a peak moment I feel like I’m finally getting it – that I have the groove in my body, that I can remember the steps and how to do them, and I can repeat the phrases my teacher throws at me. In a low I can’t tell my right foot from my left, I feel like I’m totally grooveless, and I can’t even vaguely imitate the sequence. The things I am the best (using that word very loosely!!) at in my Street Dance classes are Popping (because I know already from Tribal Fusion how to contract and release my muscles), and House (because I use a lot of footwork already in my dancing, I can pick up the footwork quickly). However I still face crazy frustration with these styles, and the rest of the Street styles. I feel like the essence of them comes and goes from my body – and I know this is merely repetition and learning to relax. I at least don’t feel like a damn ballerina in class any more!

However, Street Dance is not my German – it’s my Portuguese. I can (sometimes) parrot the phrases my teacher gives me – probably with a really bad accent (i.e. not getting the groove quite right!) – but that’s it. I cannot go away by myself and put together a sentence. I cannot freestyle in this language. And I feel hopeless – like I will never get to that point. As I am a dancer by trade, I am facing this thing we so often face as adults with a certain skill set entering a similar arena – that feeling of ‘I should be able to do this’. And I know that this is preposterous – I am a mere beginner in this style but that thought of should keeps niggling at me. 

I think this is a common problem among adults. I see it in my adult students, I comfort them when they shed tears of frustration, and I reassure them when they feel angry at a perceived lack of quick progress. I encourage them to enjoy the process of learning a new skill because how often do you get to do that as an adult? How often do you get to really immerse in the experience of learning. To be selfish and do something purely for you and your enjoyment? I’m not sure if it is the fast food nature of our modern world, or if it is because of the ‘I should’ thing that goes around my head, but I share the same feeling my students have when they come to class – I want to be good now. Right now. 

I often ponder whether I felt like this when I first started learning bellydance, and especially with Tribal Fusion. Back in those days, I didn’t keep a dance journal, as I do now. I didn’t write about the frustrations and the small victories. It didn’t occur to me that this was even something I should consider doing. Now I write about my thoughts and feelings towards dance all the time – about the eureka moments, the things that need more work, things I notice about myself during my practice, and about the things in the community that bother me or push me further. I wish I had kept a journal back then, because maybe it would reassure me now, more than 10 years later, that it’s ok to suck for a while. And that I will probably suck for a good few years yet. I am not a natural mover, and bellydance is now so ingrained in my body, I have to be patient that the body will learn new patterns of movement. It just has to process it in its own time. I wish I had some record of when I felt like I was finally getting good at bellydance – especially Tribal Fusion. Because I worked hard for it. And maybe it will take the same amount of hours for the other dance styles I practice. 

Ok, I've got 10 years to get this....
When I came back from the ODI last year, I set myself a very lofty goal. It is certainly not something I believe I will be good enough to do this year, next year or even the year after that – but I want to do it sometime in the future – to participate in a battle in one of the street dance styles I’m practicing. And when I think of this goal, it fills me with the same fear I get when I think of speaking more than a few sentences in German: I’m afraid I will look stupid. 

I am certain that I looked stupid a million times in dance class over the past 27 years so I don’t know why I worry about this now as an adult. I am also certain that nobody noticed when I looked stupid in class cos everyone else was so busy worrying about their own shit that they didn’t even consider looking at what I was doing. It’s very humbling as a teacher to share the same psychological experiences that I know my students have, but for a different dance style. 

I am still keeping the battle as my long term goal. I don’t know when it will happen... but I will set a deadline of before I’m 40! Hahaha! 

At the end of the day, I realise that regardless of whether we’re talking about learning a new language, learning to cook, learning to drive, learning a new dance style, or learning pretty well anything – the key word is practice. Little and often will help you to see vast improvements. Getting feedback from experienced people will help you to grow. And not being afraid to make dozens of mistakes along the way will serve you very well. I have to take my own advice and remember that once upon a time, I was also brand new to bellydance, unable to isolate my body, move my hips independently of my chest, or keep a shimmy going for longer than 2 seconds. Going to new classes now, and being utterly useless (despite claiming to be a professional dancer!), fills me with contradictory thoughts – 1) I wish I had studied more styles when I was younger and for longer (that’s regret right there!), and 2) An acceptance that if I hadn’t just dedicated the last 10 years of my life to becoming a good Tribal Fusion dancer, I would probably not be doing this for a living right now. Swings and roundabouts!

So I will close with one of my favourite quotes, a joke really. A little reminder not to beat myself up too much, and accept that just because I’m trying to come to a new dance style as an older version of myself doesn’t mean I can’t be good at it.... eventually!

“Excuse me Sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice lady.... you gotta practice!”