Saturday, July 11, 2009

What are the “Basics”?

When designing any course of study a teacher needs to consider what are the basics that their students need to master. The basics will form the foundation of future learning. A poor foundation will mean that a student could be unable to reach their full potential.
So, with belly dance what are those basics?

There are several areas that need to be addressed:
  • Physical skills
  • Dance skills
  • Performance skills
  • Cultural and historical context

Physical skills

A basic requirement for a dancer is co-ordination and control. Without this they are unable to use their body to express movement. Tied to this is automatic abdominal control to enable many of the standard moves to be performed safely. This is the automatic response of the body to protect the back and use the deep abdominal muscles.

In belly dance flexibility is a lesser requirement. Most belly dance does not require extreme range of motion. However, balanced flexibility is advantageous. This will allow a student to maintain good posture with minimal effort. Reasonable range of motion in the hips and lower back is also beneficial.

Unlike many other dance forms raw strength is not an issue. Apart from some folk styles there is little jumping required and no lifting. However, physical endurance is useful to enable a dancer to train over long periods and maintain good quality movement.

Only once the body is in a fit state can the teacher focus on “moves”. A belly dancer needs to be able to move parts of their body independently from each other. They need a basic vocabulary which includes moving the hips up and down and in circles and moving the shoulders and torso in typical movement patterns.

The initial – or basic moves – need to be physically safe for the new dancer. Moves such as mayas which are standard in many belly dancer’s vocabulary are not safe for many new dancers with insufficient abdominal control to perform them safely.

Dance skills

Building from moves, a dancer can learn combinations and travelling sequences. These need to be more than just exercises in movement but also be an expression of musicality. With a new dance style many students will need to be taught how to interpret the music by their teacher.
Many teachers include the ability to remember and perform choreography in their basics. Others do not. For some it is the ability to improvise to the music that is important.

Some teachers consider prop use (eg veils, zills, and cane) to be basic. Personally, I’d rather see a dancer secure in their body before adding an extra layer such as playing zills.

Performance skills

Although in the long term, stage presence, emotional communication, costuming and make-up are important in the dance, I would not count them in the initial basics.

Cultural and historical context

I would however include an introduction to belly dance’s cultural and historical context as “basic”. Why? Because without that the students might be learning dance – but they are not learning “belly dance”. A lack of context leads to poorly informed students believing anything with an undulation in it is belly dance. It leads to people who are unable to distinguish belly dance from hula. It helps many of the inaccurate myths bred. Shining a bright light on the background of the dance and distinguishing between belly dance and creative movement is an essential part of a belly dance teacher’s core job specification.

Teaching this while keeping the learning fun and extending the student’s dance ability is really what it is all about.

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