I met Chantal at the Randa Kamel and Ranya Renee workshops sponsored last May by my studio Hayal. Since of us are dancers from Canada living in Germany, we had quite a bit to talk about. One of the topics that kept coming up was the difficulty of finding one’s own personal style in a crowd of influences. I’m delighted that she’s agreed to write my very first guest post on this subject!
Chantal has been bellydancing since 2006, and has expanded her range with studies in a number of other dance forms, including flamenco, African dances, Russian Romany, and contact improvisation. She’s now based in Nuremberg, where she performs and teaches — among other things a course on bellydance combined with pelvic training, a course in which many women with traumatic experiences explore movement. You can learn more about her work at www.cdsmovement.com.
Read Chantal’s post, and then let us know — how do you go about finding your personal style? What have been the challenges? What has helped you learn what to incorporate into your dance?
This style is my style: A reflection
Chantal Dos Santos
Years have gone by since I’ve taken up bellydancing and in that time I’ve seen rounded arms and soft knees straighten out into right angles and muscular accents; I’ve seen ballet training become a prerequisite as pirouettes and arabesques have found a home in the basic footwork and travelling steps of oriental dance (next time you are at a Randa Kamel workshop, count how many times you hear these two terms. I dare you to try and keep track!) Thanks to our modern world full of YouTube videos, blogs, social networks, Skype, and the relative increased mobility of people, one who is fascinated by bellydance does not have daydream of a exotic world far away. Everything you need is a couple of clicks away. But how does one sort through all of this input, and organize it into one unique personal style? This is the step that I’ve reached in my dance practice.
I’ve found I’ve reached a point where the learning curve is very steep. A lot of teachers have left their mark on my dance style, so now I’m at the critical point where I’m sifting through what seems to be a mountain of moves and distilling them into one cohesive set of movement vocabulary. Kind of like trying to create a palatable 3-course meal out of a random assortment of ingredients in your kitchen. Thankfully there is more than half an onion and a shrivelled old pepper among the ingredients in my cupboard, but even the most luxurious dark chocolate will leave a bad taste in your mouth if you sprinkle it with caviar.
For a bellydance enthusiast, I watch an embarrassingly low number of bellydance videos and rarely attend shows. Ever since I’ve relocated to Germany, I’ve kind of observed the bellydance scene from afar, taking the opportunity to engage in other dance forms and somatic movement workshops. I’ve carefully avoided becoming part of the scene. Being part of a “scene” has its positives and its negatives for sure….too much input can be as bad as not enough input. When is enough enough? Fifi’s Jewel, Dina’s large hip circle, the floats of American Cabaret …where does a girl who just wants to dance fit in? Honestly if someone else has done it before, I don’t really want to do it. When I look at a good dancer, I don’t see just the movements, but rather the joy in movement. The way the movements flow together, the character and emotion they bring to a performance, the nuances that make them unique and memorable.
Technique training is and always will be the cornerstone of a dancer’s practice. Without it we can’t reach the level where we are free to express ourselves. I look at it like any spoken language: you first need a certain amount of vocabulary in order to communicate, and continuing to acquire vocabulary increases your ability to express yourself.
I’m thankful for teachers who push students to be their own dancer, and give students the tools needed to get past any fear and discomfort and hone their own style. This past Summer I went to an amazing 6-day Feldenkrais / Contact Improv retreat (hugs and kisses Thomas Kampe and organizer, Sicularte!). The most important point I took away from it were two simple sentences: “You are the expert of your own body. Everything you need to know is inside of you.”
So, I am much more selective now about which workshops I pay for. I have no more qualms about saying “He/She is a great dancer but that topic is not what I need right now”. Now when I choose a workshop, I am focused on what I want to get out of it and also open to the possibility of a pleasant surprise: maybe be I will hear a word of wisdom, or learn a move that gives me a great feeling in my body. That’s what bellydance has to be for me: a great feeling in my body. Whether I find that feeling in straight and muscular, or soft and earthy will play a big role in what comprises my personal style. I’m on my own now, armed with stacks of DVDs, a bellyful of training and a pinch of courage, on the journey to find what feels great, and eventually my personal style. Let the discovery begin!