Would you like to have an expressive face when you perform bellydance?
Are you exuding joy on the inside but showing a blank face on the outside?
Does the thought of baring your soul on stage make you cringe?
Would you like to be able to perform with an uncensored and open heart and feel connected emotionally to your dancing?
These questions hit a nerve with me, perhaps they do with you too.
The fear of looking silly, feeling embarrassed, being vulnerable and feeling uncomfortable is one of the most powerful forces that drives the way we live our entire life, let alone how we approach our dancing.
It pains me to say it, but as a teacher I’m guilty, in the past, of teaching techniques, movement and routines with 95% of the focus on technique and then a quick 5% of time reminding my students to smile and make sure their faces are animated.
I can see now that when I started out dancing (and teaching), I completely neglected the importance of connecting emotionally when we dance. Thankfully this is some years back now and I’ve evolved my teachings to incorporate feeling, expression and emotion.
But learning, myself, to show emotion through whole body expression has been an inordinately hard part of my bellydance journey and is still something I constantly work on.
I still often have to dig deep, be brave and push myself out of my comfort zone when it comes to fully and visibly investing my emotions into performing, teaching, writing and filming. What if people don’t like it? What if somebody posts a mean comment? Am I really good enough to put my heart and soul into this? How can I look confident when I still feel like I don’t have enough training?
These are thoughts we all have about our dancing and – I’ll be honest – they never go away. So if you’re waiting to feel 100% secure and assured before you grant yourself permission to fully and openly infuse your dancing with feeling, you’re on the wrong track (somebody had to break it to you, sorry).
Now here’s the good news. There are ways of developing your dancing along unabashedly expressive lines (which don’t involve putting yourself through mortifying and cringey experiences). I’m going to give you 6 easy ways to get you started.
First though, realise that you have to change the way that you are currently approaching your dancing. I know this sounds obvious but hang in there with me. When I say you have to change I mean that you actively have to stop doing things in a way that is comfortable and familiar to you and start doing them in new – uncomfortable – ways.
You must be wiling to be uncomfortable while you adjust to a new way of dancing.
When we talk about going out of our “comfort zone” we think of it as metaphorical. It’s not. It’s very physical and you will feel tangibly uncomfortable. The problem here is that, when this happens, our instinct is to return to what feels familiar and comfortable, e.g. looking at the floor when we dance, having a blank face.
But if you hang in there, keep going even when you’re out of your comfort zone, you can start to be more expressive, feel better and change the way you dance.
Feeling uncomfortable means that you are changing (literally, growing pains) and visible results are on the way. Learn to recognise that uncomfortable feeling as a sign that you are doing something meaningful and important and that exciting changes are on the way.
These days I love that slightly queasy, fearful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I go for a new dance goal because it means I’m doing something with real meaning. I know that I have to go through that stage as part of the “adventure”. So don’t give up when you feel unprepared or out of your comfort zone, just go with it.
Being more visibly expressive when you dance is related to confidence and confidence comes from doing (you may want to check out my article “What to do when your confidence takes a dip”) so you’re going to have to get stuck in and take action before you see any results in the way you look and feel when you dance. Don’t worry, we’ll start with small milestones, we’re talking baby steps.
I’m going to give you 6 exercises to implement in your dancing, but I don’t expect you to put them all into practice straight away. Instead, you are going to aim to act on each of the exercises one at a time for 10% of the duration of your dance to start, then 25%, then 50%, until you’re up to 100%.
The point is to keep nudging yourself forward and out of your comfort zone bit by bit. It’s about steady progress, not perfection. I love using the % technique as it means you can set yourself an achievable milestone without being overwhelmed.
- The first thing you’re going to stop doing is looking at the floor. You’ll likely feel some resistance to this but remember, you’re going to aim to keep your eyes off the floor for 10% of the time to start with and go from there. This might seem like a small thing, but where you place your focus with your eyes and the angle of your head makes a huge difference to the expression and feel of your dance. Lifting your gaze can make you feel exposed and vulnerable, so don’t be surprised if this is harder than it sounds. You may look down because you are concentrating on the moves, but remember: your face is part of the move.
- Next, you’re going to get specific with the feeling and mood you’re aiming for by using language. Think of words that describe the mood, character and emotion that you want to portray in your dance. If you don’t know what you want to feel when you dance then it’s time to decide. Listen to the music and think about the stylization of the choreography. For example it could be connected to joy, power, elegance, playfulness, fun. Use any descriptive words that make sense to you, even if they seem a bit bonkers: sultry, aloof, fun, cute, electric, cold, dry, velvet, spiritual, earthy, wild, sexy, lost, symmetry. Keep going until you start to see a character emerge. This is a starting point, a way in for you to connect emotionally with your dance beyond the choreography, there is no “right” answer – you can’t do it wrong. Now you have a specific idea of the characterization that you’re going to portray, set your intention to embody it when you dance, starting with your face. (We’ll look closer at how to do this in the next point.) Remember, we’ll start with 10% and go from there.
- When it comes to putting expression into our face during a performance we mainly think of smiling which in turn leads us to force the corners of our mouth up. Yep, the “fixed grin syndrome” we’re all terrified of (the result of which is usually cheek ache). I want you to forget about smiling with your mouth per se and instead think about manifesting your emotion with your eyes. This will give a much softer and sincere look and feel to your facial expression. And if you’re getting carried away with the moment of the dance, go with it and let it show! Remember, start with the eyes.
- When it comes to dancing the easiest way to embody emotion is to be genuinely passionate about it. Think about your attitude towards the routine and the music, do you take it for granted that you or the choreographer and the musicians have created this piece of art for you? Some of the most expressive dancers you’ll ever see are so wrapped up and absorbed in the whole miracle of movement to music that there isn’t any space left for self-doubt or shyness. Get into the music and fall passionately in love with dance every time you perform. Remember, we’re starting with 10% and building from there.
- Imagine that it’s 5 years from now. You have 5 more years worth of bellydance training, experience and performances under your hipbelt. You’re now in the top level class at your school and you’re one of the best dancers in your local area. Other students comment on how good your dancing is and ask you for help and and advice because they aspire to be like you. You’ve mastered techniques and maybe even done some professional work. How would you dance when you perform? What would you look like? How would you behave on stage? Start dancing like that now.
- We talk about “giving” a performance and that’s exactly what it is, a gift. So I want you to be generous, not stingy. The way that you dance is extremely special and is unique only to you, never make light of that fact. When you put yourself forward to perform in front of people you must respect the fact that it’ a two way situation: the audience is there offering you their attention and your job is to communicate your dance as best you can. Make it easy and pleasurable for your audience to take you in. Give them the chance to be fascinated by your dancing by giving as much of yourself as you can.
- One final bonus point on how to feel expressive when you dance: Be grateful that you have the ability, freedom and choice to be able to learn to dance as well as perform. I hope, as I write this, that you are, as I am, in the extraordinarily lucky situation to be physically and mentally well enough and have the social and political freedom to practice dance.
Now I’d love to know: what has helped you to overcome shyness and fear of embarrassment when you’re dancing? I’d love for you to tell us in the comment section below as it might be exactly the advice somebody needs.
Thanks for reading.
Hugs and hipdrops,
Ps. If you’re curious about learning to bellydance with us here in Reading, UK, take a look at our upcomng courses – we start next week!
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