Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tending the Flame Without Burning Out

How would you rate your relationship with bellydance, right this moment? How does it make you feel in a word? Invigorated, inspired?  Or perhaps worn-out, exasperated?

Last month on the Winter Solstice, I gave my "Journey to the Underworld"* workshop - probably for about the 10th or so time I've done it since I first introduced it in Spring of 2009.  I designed it to be a workshop that would address and aid the inner workings of a dancer, instead of the outside.  I had been through several rough years myself, where I asked myself why did I keep dancing? Was it worth it? What was sucking the life out of it?

From long discussions with other dancer friends and the answers from the interview section of the workshop from students, it is clearly apparent that we all come to this dance with one person in mind - ourselves.  The reasons why vary: for exercise, to learn something new, to try something different, to learn about the culture, for love of the music, to build confidence, to join in with friends, to answer the call of your inner magpie (oh shiny!), to lose weight, etc. But at the root of all of these reasons is the same: we do it for ourselves: body, mind, spirit.

As we push further in our journey, excited about our new love for the dance, we encounter other people: teachers, fellow students, the general public, other dancers, musicians.  They influence how we do or don't do things, how we think about our own dancing, others', etc. And then there's life outside of dance: partners, family, jobs, homes, money.  And slowly, the dance becomes about more than just ourselves - for better and for worse.  The longer we're involved, the more we are weighed down with expectations, obligations, fears and negative experiences, community drama, exhausted resources, naysayers, copycats, and self-appointed critics.  Slowly, it all piles up, smothering our spark of love, like a snuffer to a candle flame, dimming it, threatening it, making us question if we should keep dancing.

Which calls in the guilt: guilt about letting down teachers, friends, students, about how much time you've involved, how much friends/family/partners sacrificed so that you could dance.  Along with the guilt comes the fears: "Why keep doing this? Am I really any good at it? Am I doing it right? Am I offending others, even though I am trying so hard to do it right? What was I supposed to be getting out of this again?  I don't feel like going to class, but if I don't go, I'm missing exercise, which makes me feel worse...I'm supposed to perform at this event, but what's the point? I'm tired of fighting/working so hard when so-and-so just goes and ____! I loved this once, but I'm not so sure now...does that make me a bad person?"

It's a difficult place to be in, and we often feel alone in what we're experiencing, but I'm here to tell you, you're not. You are not alone. In fact, there's a lot of dancers in the same boat.

Let me tell you about me: my passion for the dance rocketed my journey - I moved thousands of miles to study in California, where I quickly became involved in a larger growing movement.  My ideas, my work, my look propelled me along even faster, and I got caught up in other people's enthusiasm for what I was doing.  My heart was in the right place, but I didn't have enough experience to balance it out.  My ideas were ahead of my body - I was good and there was talent, but it would be  several years until everything evened up.  Yes, there was a lot of praise, but there was also a lot of criticism - some deserved all things considered, but poorly delivered, mainly out of meanness and jealousy.  People I thought were my friends used my "fame", ideas, and abilities to gain their own traction , then walked all over me.  I didn't understand, as I give freely to those I care about because I have always felt, if I am doing well, so should my friends.  I was hurt, angry, sad, and went from being someone with a lot of self-esteem to borderline insecurity and self-doubt.  I knew I was a good teacher and always felt rewarded by it, but I began to loathe performing.  I felt like everything I did was being scrutinized and compared, out of context or reason - and when that sort of fear grips you, it tends to become self-fulfilling.  Physically distancing myself helped: I ended up in a location where there were no other teachers within an hour of me - and the larger community felt more like "my people" when I got involved with them.  I focused on teaching classes, producing events, and the healing started.

But I didn't realize it until I was on stage at the Gothla Gala in March 2010.  I had been under a lot of stress from everywhere: my day job, producing the event, home-life.  My journey to the actual event involved a missed flight that left me stranded overnight in Detroit.  I was exhausted, worn-out, and fed-up, and about to close the biggest show yet in front of a sold-out audience, with a musician I had never performed with who wasn't playing the instrument I thought he was going to use.  Somewhere in that moment, I just stopped caring about everything and everyone else. I didn't care how the performance would go, what people would think, what would happen afterwards, what it all meant.  I just breathed and stepped out into whatever would be.   And it was in those few minutes on stage that everything changed.  It all slipped away - fears, expectations, obligations; I could feel that flame for the dance grow brighter - more than it had in years.  Everything had caught up: heart, body, brain, spirit, and I found myself in that moment.

I didn't fully realize the implications - I just knew it had felt different, but looking back now, I can vividly see that was the turning point.  All those times I thought about not dancing any more? It was because of everyone else and their effect on me.  How they made me feel. But the truth is - we can't dance for anyone else, if we can't dance for ourselves first.

So if you are feeling exhausted, if you're not sure if you should keep dancing, if you're wondering how to rekindle that flame - clear away the debris.  Clear away everyone else's obligations and expectations.  Reconnect with that part of you that first fell in love with the dance.  Listen to the music and let your body move without questioning it.  Just let it move.  Let your spirit flow and open up and just enjoy how it feels.  Don't think, don't choreograph, don't question, don't critique.  Just be a body discovering the music and open up.

Go ahead, dance for you.  You don't need my permission or anyone else's to do it - just your own. You will feel the difference.

Live. Love. Dance.

*Description of "Journey to the Underworld" workshop: "When was the last time you broke down your own facades and explored the truth of what lays bare underneath? Are you brave enough to look and become stronger as a dancer for it? Being a part of the bellydance community for any length of time affects us in so many ways, many below the surface that can influence how we look and feel about ourselves and others. In this dynamic and unusual workshop, we will explore through exercises and movement combinations the mythic concept of the Descent and Encounter in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures. This is a safe and supportive opportunity to challenge yourself mentally and physically, while discovering who you are or wish to be as a dancer. Warning: This is not a "woo-woo" or "new-agey" class, but it will ask you to push your boundaries."


  1. This is an amazing post, and one I really needed to read today. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, I oh so needed to 'hear' this. And now, moving right along on that path of sustained dance-ability. :) xo

  3. I so enjoyed and identified with this post; thank you for writing it! I always enjoy reading your thoughtful commentaries on dance! :-)