The Eternal Beginner; or, Beating the fear of choreography with Jillina

Bellydance has been a source of joy and frustration to me. Joy, because it’s the dance that really speaks to my soul, the dance that feels right on my body, the dance that helped teach me to feel comfortable as a woman when I was just becoming one. Frustration, because the intensity of my studies and work, the frequent moves during my twenties, and my own fear and self-consciousness have kept me from progressing beyond beginner.

I took my first bellydance class almost ten years ago in Toronto. In that time, I’ve taken classes and even quite intensive workshops in Connecticut, New York, Berlin, and Texas. But the longest I every stayed with one teacher was right at the beginning — since then I’ve had trouble finding classes in one city, in the next I had trouble finding a studio I liked, in another city I spent too little time, and the class I took this spring with a teacher I liked was cancelled without notice. Despite the fact that I’ve done much harder classes, when I go to a new teacher I describe myself as a beginner. There is so much I still don’t know, and I don’t want to be the annoying student who judges herself to be intermediate. But this does mean I’m always breezing through the basics, and never really learning to put things together.

(The funny thing is that when I put on music and just jam, I have no trouble improvising…)

My worst fear is of choreography. Maybe it’s due to the memory of trying out for arts school when I was ten, and a dance teacher running through complicated steps which everyone around me could magically pick up. They all turned left, while I was turning right! The truth is, choreography is not something I pick up quickly, especially if it’s not introduced with music or doesn’t really make sense with the music. I’ve never quite figured counting out. But taking regular classes this spring taught me something: I can learn combinations and choreography if I practice them really incrementally, and repeat them often. I’m not the person who can watch twenty-four counts’ worth of moves and repeat them afterward without a hitch, and perhaps I never will be — but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn if I’m willing to be more patient.

So, today, I decided to work on beating my fear of choreography. I searched my video library for a DVD that would have simple choreos with repetition, and came across a video I’ve had for ages: Instructional Bellydance With Jillina – Level 1. I thought the mix of quick review of the basic moves and small, manageable combos would be just right — and it was. Jillina first introduces the combinations slowly and then drills them 3-4 times with music. After teaching the seven combinations, she then goes through them again, but modifies them into a choreography to “Alf La Waila Waila,” and has you practice that.

Part of my resolution was that I would not try to do the whole video. My current condition (28 weeks pregnant) means it would probably be unwise anyway. But I wanted to see if I could really learn a few combos if I applied myself, rather than doing the program as a whole and always feeling that I can’t keep up. So today, after working with Jillina’s technique review, I just focused on the first three combinations. They were simple, easy, but lovely with the music. (I’m not one of those people who think bellydance has to be incredibly complicated to be beautiful.) When I found that a particular transition or movement was counter-intuitive, I paused, and kept rewinding and repeating the drill until it felt natural. And I added my own breaks to repeat everything from the top. Finally, after learning the first three combinations, I stopped the video and practiced all three together several times on my own.

I found slowing down like this really liberating. Jillina gives no instructions for arms and hands except when she’s choreographed snake arms, so once I had internalized the combinations I found I could follow her or improvise my own stylization. And, to my surprise, the process of learning combos and footwork was not as difficult as it usually is. I will probably do some pilates tomorrow and pick up the Jillina again in two days, and see how much has entered muscle memory, how much I need to relearn, and how things go with the next combinations. But for now, I’m excited, for the first time, about choreography.

What are your experiences learning choreography?

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2 thoughts on “The Eternal Beginner; or, Beating the fear of choreography with Jillina

  1. I'm the complete opposite. I have this freakish brain for choreography where I can remember combinations months after they have been taught but then my improv…Oh, it's bad BUT getting better. I love reading student blogs. Check mine out and I will continue to read yours

    beginningbellydance.blogspot.ca

  2. i says:

    Thanks! Weirdly, it never occurred to me that other people find choreos easier than improv, although so many people seem to have trouble with improv you'd think I'd have noticed. Then again, I noticed on your blog you were talking about in-class improv — now that, to me, is a totally different beast. It's so much easier to improv on my own when I'm just feeling and enjoying the music!

    Btw, I'm from Toronto too — that's where I started taking belly dance lessons over ten years ago. I can't believe all the bellydance stuff I missed out on by leaving!

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