Tag Archives: ats

Belly Dance: It’s Harder Than it Looks, but You Should Do it Anyway

Take enough belly dance classes and you’ll see her: The nervous but glowing newbie, bounding in in her $12 jingly hip scarf and yoga pants, inspired by some video she saw of a belly dancer where she thought “I can do that!”

She comes in and is ready to SHIMMY. Because, of course, she’s going to pick that up in the first class, and in no time she’ll be a brilliant dancer, awing her friends and family with her amazing moves.

But then, in the midst of the class, she realizes how crazy freaking HARD belly dance is. Her hips won’t shimmy, she can’t figure out how to make a belly roll happen, and when she tries the movements she looks nothing like the other dancers. Her enthusiasm turns from joyous to deer-in-headlights.
So after a couple of frustrating classes, she never returns.

This is, of course, a tad of an exaggeration, but similar experiences happen all the time.

I have to admit, I had no idea how hard belly dance was going to be when I took my first class. I grew-up studying ballet, tap, modern, jazz, and swing dancing. I had lots of performance experience. I was going to breeze into class and pick it up in no time, I just knew it. I’d always been a very “hip-oriented” dancer. I had this in the bag.

But then, those first few classes, I became so frustrated.

Belly dance uses muscles I wasn’t used to activating. I could not, for the life of me, activate my glutes separately in order to make my hips lift, belly rolls from down to up just weren’t happening, and walking while doing a vertical figure-8 was the most mind-boggling thing ever.

But, I would not be dissuaded! I took classes once a week, I supplemented with videos so I could practice more at home, and I shimmied while doing everything: The dishes, vacuuming, and even unconsciously in public. Eventually, my muscles activated, and my body got it down. Months went by, and my movement vocabulary started expanding, it felt more and more comfortable in my skin. What bliss! Finally, I could shimmy shake it like I’d always dreamed! But I think it took me, even with my years of dance experience, about a year of hard work to feel like I’d reached a more intermediate level.

I think we do have this perception in our culture that folk dances are less disciplined, less complex, and thus easier to do than the dances we perceive as high art forms: Ballet and Modern. But that’s not really the case.

I don’t want to dissuade any potential belly dancers from taking classes because they’re hard. Quite the opposite. Things that are challenging are SATISFYING. This dance is a complex flower that will slowly bloom for you over time, not some cheap dime store entertainment to be fiddled with and then discarded. You will get an awesome workout, you will get more in-tune with your body,¬† and you will look badass while doing it.

I feel blessed that my first teacher was Dilek Hoss, who was teaching Suhalia Salimpour technique Level 1 style classes. It was very meticulous and technical, and while it wasn’t as immediately gratifying… I took a 6 week class and didn’t learn much in the way of choreography, only drills… I know it made me a better dancer. A strong foundation is where it’s at. Yes, that means LOTS of “boring” drills.

So there it is. If you want to belly dance, realize it’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be a journey, but if it sings to you in your heart, you should DO IT.

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Connection: The Heart of Tribal Belly Dance

I love group dancing, more than any other style. This is why American Tribal Style captured my heart.

When doing Improvisational Style Belly Dance (ATS, ITS, etc.) the class participants bond and interact more than any solo-oriented dance I’ve ever studied. You have to, because the dance form is, like the name implies, improvisational. Each dancer learns the language of movement, then small to medium groups of them perform it, with one person in the front as a lead. The group rotates regularly to share the lead spot.

It is so beautiful and exhilarating to experience the “mind meld” moments we have while dancing. Sometimes you’re in the back of the group, fixed so keenly on the lead dancer’s every gesture, that you just KNOW what she’s about to do even before she does it, and you both glide so seamlessly as a flock.

I grew-up attending modern and ballet classes, and these are so singular feeling. The students shuffle in, stand separately, stare at the teacher, then they shuffle out. In ATS/ITS you stand close together in a pod of dancers, you tune into each others movements, and you make intimate eye contact, and you SMILE at one another. It’s magical.

One of the other reasons I think I was so enamored with ATS right off the bat was that it reminded me of something I saw in a dream (or past life memory?) many years ago. As a teenager, one night I had a vivid dream of dancing with other women. It looked to be somewhere in Western Europe around the middle ages. Myself and the other women were dressed in plain, country style dresses, with little flowers woven in our long hair. We were dancing in a circle in the grass, cloudy sky overhead, and my soul was bursting with joy and contentment. The feeling was so connected and grounding, being one with myself and my sisters.

Fast forward to a few years ago, the first time I was exposed to ITS movement. I was taking Sabrina Fox’s Tribal Fusion class in San Diego (Tribal Fusion is different- it’s a mostly solo dance form). Sabrina¬† mixed it up a bit that evening and had us do a little ITS style movement. Since I had only taken Cabaret and Tribal Fusion style classes up until this point, the movement was totally new to me. The class was instructed to form the classic “horseshoe” shape particular to Improvisational Tribal Style, then we danced in groups in the center. I felt so lost! But it was fun.

Then we all shifted out of the horseshoe shape and started circling the room doing grapevine¬†shimmies, and I had a flash of that dream where I danced with other women in the grass. I was suddenly filled with that same exact joy I’d felt in the dream, and I almost came to tears right there in class.

So perhaps one of the reasons why I love ATS so much is that is reminds me of dances I’ve done in another life. Regardless of the past life connection, I think it resonates with many people simply because circle dances, and communal dances have been a part of so many cultural histories. We can’t discount our genetic memory. Many of the modern Western dances that focus on mostly the isolation of the individual don’t give us that same human connection that we really need. In our compartmentalized, nuclear family structured, transient capitalist lives, dance like this is nourishment for our starving souls.

And, of course, I couldn’t close this post without a little video of Fat Chance Bellydance, the mamas of ATS…