Why I Don’t Roll Up My Spine

The body is a sacred garment.

This post will be part of a series of ruminations on dance technique,  healthfulness, and dancing with disabilities.

Of course, as with everything, it is up to your own personal discretion to figure out what works with your body. I give advice based on what I have learned and experienced.

I grew-up dancing, taking mostly modern and ballet classes, and we always did a similar series of stretches and warm-up movements. I’ve since seen the influence of these warm up movements in belly dance classes as well. There is always the assumption that these movements are good for you, when in fact they are often just what that that teacher learned from her teacher, who learned from her teacher and they may or may not actually be good for you. I think as dance teachers, we have the responsibility to study the body and know why we do what we do.

I didn’t start to question these traditional warm-up exercises till I took a Kinesiology class at Mills College several years ago. There I learn about the bio-mechanics of the body and how movement can positively or negatively effect it.


Everyone knows bending over is bad for your back, so why is it when we do it in dance it’s okay?

One exercise my Kinesiology professor had a serious beef with, was the “roll through the spine” movement. This is something I had done everywhere, from jazz, modern, ballet, yoga, belly dance, and even acting classes. All of these very skilled instructors were using this movement, so how could it be bad? Now, this, like most things, is certainly still up for debate. But, as someone who had dealt with serve back issues in my life as a dancer, I tend to listen when I hear a particular movement is unhealthy for the spine.

Here is an example of the movement:

The spine is made up of vertebrae and discs, essentially. When you bend over and curve your back, the curved section of your spine is putting the weight of your entire upper body on that squishy disc  (the “jelly doughnut” as my professor called it) at the hinge point. Repeated performance of this can cause wear on the doughnut, then leading to a herniated disc (of which I actually have had several).

Here is a lovely illustration of this that I found in an article published by Olga Cabel, a yoga teacher who is also not a fan of rolling through the spine:


The only dance teacher I have heard speak of not doing roll down movements was actually Rachel Brice. I give her mad props for that.

Now, this is not to say that you need to always keep your back straight as a board and never flex your vertebrae. Not at all. Experts advise only doing dramatic spine flexion movements where you can successfully engage your core muscles to protect the spine. Also, try to avoid doing movements where the entire weight of your upper body (your top half and especially your head are HEAVY) is not hinged on your curved back.

Also, NEVER feel like you have to do everything that the teacher does. Modify it if you need to, it’s your body, and it’s your job to keep it healthy.

Whenever teachers do the roll-through-the-spine thing, I always go down with a flat back, do a deep bend in my knees, so my thighs support my lower back, drape myself there for a bit, and then rise with a flat back.

Always remember your health is number one in any dance class. You don’t need to push yourself over your limit to impress the teacher or other students.

Also, on a totally different note, I had my first performance with Black Magdalene the other night! I will post more about it soon, hopefully when photos are in. It was fun, sweaty, an exercise in endurance and mind-over-nerves, and we looked fabulous. This weekend I’m performing at Cues and Tattoos with Red Moon Rising. So many good things happening.

Cheers. xx


Mentoring Yourself

A few weeks ago, I got a soft knock on my front door. I opened it to find  the 10-year-old daughter of my neighbors, a sweet and bubbly girl who I always hear belting soulful songs through the thin apartment walls. She asked me, in an adorable child-like rambling fashion, if I would be her “mentor” for a school project. She and her classmates were assigned to find some adult in the community who had shared interests and work with that person for 6 hours total, broken into one hour a week. She wants to be a fashion designer (and a singer) so my experience as a costume designer is relatable.

My first thought was “ME, a MENTOR?” And then self doubt and negativity flooded my brain for a moment… I thought: “But, I’m a broke office drone who has had to switch careers due to random circumstances a few times and still hasn’t realized my forever dream of being a fiscally successful artist… How could *I* mentor anyone???” But the neighbor girl’s cute little face was peering up at me and I just couldn’t say no.
Sure, I said, I used to work as a costume designer, I think I can share something.

So I’ve mulled over in my brain what I would tell her, teach her and talk about. And then I realized that maybe I DO have wisdom to impart. All of my hiccups and false starts and moments of brilliance, and the successes and failures of my peers, have imbued me with knowledge.
So this little girl and I are going to meet for six sessions and talk about being a fashion designer, and I’m sure it will be great fun. Maybe I will inspire her, maybe I will put a little seed in her mind so she has the confidence to succeed better than I did. That would be awesome.

This whole thing has also got me thinking about how I could mentor myself, both the present and past me. I’ve never had a mentor, and I think I’d like one. Who better to do the job then someone who knows me as well as I do? I think I have had some amazing experiences and learned so much from them. So what if some bumps in life kept me from getting where I wished I could be now? Our challenges and flaws are part of our beautiful imperfections, or as the Japansese define it, “wabi-sabi”,  the comprehensive aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

So here are a few things I would advise to my past self. This is also what I try to keep in mind and manifest as much as I can in my present situation:

Be TENACIOUS. Seriously. Once you decide on what you want to do, clamp your jaws down on it like a rabid bulldog and don’t let go. There will be bumps, periods of doubt, critiques from friends and family, but don’t let this dissuade you. Figure out all the steps you need to do what you love. Enact them smartly. And, of course, don’t hold on to a dream that’s not going to work. Know when to let those jaws open and let it go, but give it a damn good try first.

Don’t go into crazy debt if you can help it. Debt hobbles your future mobility, makes you take jobs for money that you generally might not take, and keeps you from being free enough to realize your dreams sometimes. This is a hard one in our society, especially with the pressure to get a college degree and the obscene cost of tuition. The necessity of a college degree depends on your career goal. And getting a degree as a “back-up” to your artistic dream means you’ve already given-up on it. Really. This leads to the next tip…

BE CONFIDENT. (Just like Atreyu) Those big-busted sphinxes with laser beam eyes won’t get me, OH HELL NO.

Don’t give-up your dreams for your partners. (oh, we women do this too much, don’t we?) Yes, collaborate with, and support your partner’s dreams. But, as Janis Joplin said: “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” Sadly, there are those you may date or even marry that think of their partners as accessories. This kind of narcissist will feign interest in your dreams, maybe even entertain the idea of supporting you in them, but in the end will push hard to make their dreams #1. They’ll manipulate you maybe by placating you with the promise of a little slice of your dream (which often gets pulled away when it’s not convenient enough for them), or by saying that after their dream is actualized, they’ll support you in what you want to do (hint: it’s unlikely this will happen). So then you wake-up one day to find that you’re duty in life is now to be their support team and you’re expected to sacrifice and slave away to make their dream come true. If you complain about your miserable role, you’ll be labeled selfish. So, get the heck out of these situations before they permanently hobble you. (and if you keep picking partners like this, you probably have  co-dependency issues, as narcissists and co-dependents go together like peanut butter and jam.)

When I was 20 I seriously gave-up the chance to study abroad in the theatre department of Oxford-fucking-University because my partner at the time cunningly convinced me not to go. Yes, I will FOREVER kick myself in the ass for that one.
So yeah, don’t give-up your dreams for your lovers. A loving partner will always wholeheartedly support and give a shit about your dreams too. This goes back to BEING CONFIDENT.

Don’t let perfectionism cripple you. You will kinda suck at first. That’s okay. Keep doing it anyway.

Ira Glass said it best:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

It took me a long time to get up the confidence to perform belly dance. I’d been studying for years, but just didn’t feel “good enough” yet. But, you don’t get better at performing unless you perform. And I’m so glad I finally got up the guts to get up there, it has been so enriching, even if I do still cringe when I’m about to watch a video of myself!

Diversify what you do, be a smart business person. It’s not easy to be an artist in this culture. The work is undervalued and under-supported.  You have to be crafty to be successful.
A great example of this is my old-time friend, Skyler Fell. She started learning how to play accordion when I knew her in the late 90’s. She transformed her love of playing this instrument into a full fledged business. To do this, she didn’t just play the accordion, she learned how to fix them, how to teach others to play, and also opened a retail store. Badass.

And lastly, I know this speech has been up and down the internet and is like, so 2012, but I still love it.
Just make good art:

I am trying now to follow my own advice, to listen to my inner mentor, and follow these tips as best I can and repair the part of my life where I did not listen. And I think that leads into the very last bit of advice for myself, just do your best and don’t be hard on yourself, you’re amazing just by being. “Success” means many different things.

As for how I am going to mentor my little fashion designer friend, I think I’m just going to encourage her in her dreams, tell her never to give up on them, and we’re going to have a really fun time drawing and sewing purses.

Dance Updates – Shimmy Till Ya Drop

So I have been a busy dancing bee the last few weeks.

I have two big performances coming-up later this month. The first is with the band I recently joined as a dancer, Black Magdalene.
I really love love love this band’s music, it’s right up my alley, and perfect to belly dance to. So go check out their songs. And my co-dancer, the fabulous Ruby McConnell, is incredibly talented, it’s so lovely to dance with her!
We’ve been rehearsing weekly to try to get me at least a little up to speed with their choreography. Whew! It’s a lot to absorb, but such a great time. The dance style incorporates various belly dance styles, from ITS to tribal fusion to modern dance.
I’m also working on a redesign of some of the dance costumes. I’ll post about that soon. Think lovely lace and velvet and sparkly things, oh my!

The second performance is at Cues and Tattoos. It’ll be my first time performing (or even attending) this iconic belly dance festival, and I’m EXCITED. I’m performing with Ruby’s student troupe, and taking a class with the amazing Gypsy Fire Bellydance. This is at the end of the month, and I’ll be writing a whole big juicy post about it.

Aside from these two projects I’ve been dancing quite a bit on my own too, and doing much needed strength-training exercises.  I’m trying to get my chops up so I can last for Black Magdalene’s long sets!

In addition, (YES, MOAR DANCING)I’m thinking about adding some performances to April as well … stay tuned.

Creativity Necessitates Eclecticisim

I found this fantastic post over at one of my favorite blogs today:
Why Creativity Necessitates Eclecticism: Nick Cave’s Influences and Inspirations, by Maria Popova

The subject of the blog rings so true to me, especially this quote:

“It is clear that Nick Cave was only able to reach his significant artistic heights through appropriating ideas and aesthetics from his heroes and influences and melding them into something uniquely powerful.”

It also reminded me of yet another fantastic Louise Brooks quote:

“I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and I learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplain act.”

Ones influences of course do not need to be genre-specific or even art-specific. Robust creative inspiration comes from all places. This stage of inspiration in the creative process is listed as “The Sponge” in this wonderful explanation of the stages of creativity. The endless thirst for inspiration has always driven my artistic projects. And I love stepping out of my genres to find this inspiration, I find that helps with innovation. Finding lots of sources to pull from ensures that I’m not just another Zoe Jakes imitation, or what have you. (Love Zoe, of course, but I see a lot of literal imitation in the belly dance world.)

It got me thinking about my eclectic influences, so I’ve decided to make a list of some of them:

Louise Brooks, of course.

Neil Gaiman

Siouxsie Sioux


Jamila Salimpour

Rachel Brice

Egon Schiele

– All of my former dance teachers. Including my wonderful high school modern dance teacher, Sandra Foster-King.

bell hooks

Betsy Johnson



Alphonse Mucha

Sarah Bernhardt


– Greek and Celtic Myth

Kathleen Hanna

Jeanette Winterson

– My moms

And here is a funYouTube find. This is a video of a recent class of my high school dance teacher, Sandra Foster-King. I spent so many hours in that exact room dancing my heart out in my teenage years. What a treat to see her next generation of dancers. That time dancing in high school had a huge impact on my development as an artist.

Who are your eclectic influences?