Lately, I’ve been reading extensively on creativity and high-performance. I secretly hope that just reading the right thing will forever change my ability as a dancer and make me the best I can possibly be. I’m looking for a quick fix, if you will. In my frantic search for the missing ingredient in my dance practice, I picked up a copy of Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else”. I thought I had found my golden ticket. Somewhere in these pages must be the sentence to tell me a great secret to becoming the best belly dancer the world has ever known, and it would not even require talent. I would adopt it into my dance practice and quickly excel beyond my wildest dreams and all it would cost is a minimal used book price and shipping on Amazon.com.
Why was I looking for a quick-fix?
The truth is that for a while now I have felt stagnant. I know I’m not progressing further with my technique. Sometimes I think I might even be going in reverse. I’ve been dancing most of my life, at least 15 years, in a variety of dance forms. Belly dance is my most recent venture and the one I’ve decided to which I will dedicate myself. You’d think with all of those years under my belt I’d be a great dancer, maybe even a professional. But I’m not and it’s not that I necessarily want to be. What I do want to be is a better dancer than I am now. I see others in class progress so quickly, but when I really stop and evaluate myself I feel like I’m just the same dancer I have always been. Nothing special compared to myself a year ago or even four years ago. Do you ever feel that way? Why haven’t years of experience given me the upper hand? Why is it some dancers go on to become great? They become the kind of dancers we pay hundreds of dollars to take workshops or classes with, drool over them on youtube, dare to bid on their cossie on ebay because to simply touch the fabric might make us one step closer to being that flawless.
The truth is that we just don’t work hard enough. There is no quick-fix. Before you reprimand me and tell me your jam-packed troupe rehearsal schedule, privates you’ve taken, and classes you teach, hear me out. You might work very hard and put many hours into practicing belly dance. And when you aren’t improving maybe you say to yourself that you just are not as talented as the other dancers in your class, or your teacher. But if you aren’t seeing the results you want, perhaps there is a different road to take.
“Famous people are famous because they have talent. I’m just normal.”
I’m just normal too, but so are famous people. However, they work harder and differently than the rest of us, according to Geoff Colvin, author and Senior Editor at Large for Fortune magazine. The good news is that you can adopt some of their techniques and habits. You don’t even have to become as extensively dedicated as they are. Afterall, most of us have full time jobs outside of dance or families or both!
Colvin poured through countless articles of scientific research about talent and it leading to greatness. The research covered poets, musicians, chess masters, and athletes. What experts discovered is that talent simply does not exist, and if it does it has little bearing on eminence within a field of work. What actually determines the level of mastery one achieves in a given field is the amount of deliberate practice one pursues. This deliberate practice is quite different from our usual run through of drills in front of the mirror followed by the same combinations we already know. But not to worry!
Deliberate practice is something that can be adopted at any time and can greatly enhance your skill in dance, but it takes some serious effort! Throughout the rest of the article I will highlight a few key points about deliberate practice and lay out a framework for use in belly dance based upon the principles Colvin discussed in his work. I do recommend you read the entire work as it is applicable in many areas outside of dance, and the examples about those he studied (especially Tiger Woods, Mozart, and Jerry Rice) put so much of this framework into perspective.
Using Deliberate Practice to Take Yourself to the Next Level
What is deliberate practice?
1. It is designed specifically to improve performance.
Colvin describes the world “designed” as being the key feature here. We cannot design our own practices because we are not experts. We cannot see ourselves as an expert teacher would see us. They can evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. They can set us in the right direction. If your teacher is not one to give critical feedback on what needs improvement and does more to praise what you do well, ask he or she in private if for a class, choreographic run through, or performance they will take specific note of what is lacking in your technique and give it to you straight. We tend to embrace our dance community as one of love and understanding and I feel that teachers sometimes avoid potentially off-putting criticism unless a student makes them aware that he or she is ready for it. Let them know your goals (not necessarily where you want to go with dance) but how you want to perform it.
According to Colvin, tasks designed to improve performance must “stretch the individual beyond his or her abilities (p. 68)”. He also explains that while this seems to be the most obvious element of any sort of practice, it is most likely what we are not doing. Instead we are most likely “doing what we’ve done before”. It’s what we are comfortable with. In other words, if your brain is ever on autopilot during a dance class, you are no longer strengthening your skill set. The key is finding a “learning zone”. We cannot stay in our comfort zone because there we only reinforce what we already know and we do not improve upon it, but if the challenge is too hard then we become discouraged (“panic zone”) (p.68). An experienced teacher can design exercises to improve what is most beneficial to your practice without frustrating you. But this does not mean the exercise will be easy or even come without any sort of frustration.
2. It can be repeated a lot.
“High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts (p. 69)”. That means that repeating the exercises that are developed for you in a deliberate manner cannot just occur once in a while. The more they are repeated the easier it will be to perform at a higher level, both in class and in performances. That is why drills were originally invented within belly dance to refine the basics. But if you are anything like me, drills have become more of a lead and follow type activity, or the part of class I consider the “warm up” before the real fun things happen with combos and choreography. The truth is that drills may be the most important part of your class.
In your next class, attempt to be focused and present and aware of your body during the drill section. You most likely do not need to intently stare at your teacher any longer to know what is going on. Instead focus on your posture, the extension of your rib cage side to side, the range of motion in your hips. Memorize this feeling and use it to drill at home. Drills should be reinforced on your own time where you have control over how long you stay with a particular movement. Even if you end up doing an entire song or evening to rib slides or hip circles, that is perfectly appropriate. One of my favorite notes Colvin mentions is that it takes around 20,000 butt smacking falls on ice before a skater perfects a perfect jump. Imagine how long it takes to do 20,000 rib slides! At least you won’t break a leg or a tailbone. You can handle this drill thing no problem.
3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
Govin notes that “You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: you won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring (p. 70)”. Teachers and mentors are invaluable for giving feedback about your dance performance, but we must also realize that they often teach many students and cannot focus all of their attention on one student. There are many other ways to receive feedback in the dance world. Filming at home practice sessions is a great way to keep a dance progress diary. Films don’t have to extend throughout your entire practice session, but perhaps capture the last few minutes as you review everything you’ve worked on. As you rewatch videos later down the line you will more clearly be able to see how you are changing. Videos are also a great tool to pass along to friends for valuable advice, and perhaps even your teacher. You can also post on dance communities on the internet, just be aware you may have to filter out comments that are not always constructive.
4. It’s highly demanding mentally
“Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration” this is what makes it different from “mindless play” (p. 70). Turning our classes from using our brains on auto-pilot to constantly thinking about the source and motivation of a movement and how it traveling through our body is just as exhausting as it sounds. That’s a lot of moving parts, both literally and figuratively. The goal is to be able to create perfect technique in belly dance not just by reaching a level where it appears, but then maintaining it to such a degree that it changes our entire ability as a dancer. According to Colvin, “The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long” and “this finding is…consistent across disciplines (p. 71)”. Most deliberate practice sessions last no more than 90 minutes to an hour at best. But that’s ok. This is one hour of intense mental focus that will improve countless other hours of troupe rehearsal, restaurant and hafla performance, and more (all the reasons we love belly dance anyways). The payoff will be worth it.
5. It isn’t much fun.
This seems like an unexpected element. After all, we wouldn’t dance if we didn’t think it was fun. Most of us are past the age where we are participating in after school activities because our parents wish us to be social. When we chose a dance class it was because we wanted to do it and we hoped it would be fun. Most of us enjoy doing what we know how to do and deliberate practice requires that we “insistently seek out what we are not good at (p. 71)”. That tends to make us very vulnerable as dancers and as people. It is also one of the reasons that mostly, only high-level performers are able to keep up with a daily demand of deliberate practice. That is what makes them the best and sets them apart! (check out what Colvin says about why they continue to do things that aren’t fun!)
This doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in deliberate practice because then belly dance will not be any fun, nor that all practice should not be deliberate in order to preserve fun. In your dance journey you are going to have to find a healthy balance of both deliberate and a more relaxing approach to belly dance. How often you flip between the two will depend entirely what your goals as a dancer are. If your goal is only to have fun then that should be at the front of your list, deliberate practice aside. If you feel stuck in a rut like I have, at the very least adopting these principles once or twice a week will greatly improve your skill as a belly dancer.
Colvin, G. . Talent is Overrated, What really Separates World-class Performers from Everybody Else. New York, NY: Portfolio, 2010. print.
Do you have any tips to improve personal dance practice? Or suggestions for future article topics? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!
*This article was previously published on the MECDA Levant al Sonora website, which has since been disbanded.