Updated: Jan 6, 2022
"When it comes to precision and technique combined with grace and timing in Western dance, ballet's gotta be Number 1."
At least, it's the dance genre that comes to my mind. Just look at the number of movies in the past several decades with the rigors of ballet in the storyline—The Turning Point, Black Swan, Billie Elliot.
We Want to Express Ourselves with Belly Dance
Now, I realize that many of us are drawn to belly dance precisely because it seems to offer us a dance form that is unconstrained—a sensual movement that we can express the beauty we feel inside the way we feel it and the way we want to move. We don't have to be skinny, or have our hair in a bun or wear pink tights and a black leotard and dance exactly as the teacher says. We have the freedom to costume ourselves as we like, and dance our glory no matter our age or size or shape.
But, here's the thing...when you watch a ballet performed by truly accomplished dancers, it is at once amazing and lovely and astounding in the seemingly effortlessness of the dancers.
Though our aesthetic, our "look," and our energy in belly dance is so different from ballet, to be able to truly express the art of belly dance—to show the music on our bodies—the better we can "speak" the language of belly dance, the closer we can get to transferring that energy to those engaged in our dance, whether that be just ourselves dancing in our living rooms, or ourselves on the "stage" at a party or recital or event. Just like experiencing a great story in a movie or in a book, the better we get at "using our words" of belly dance, the better we can express the music in our belly dance. And arguably, the ballerinas know how to express their dances.
First Encounters "Studying" Dance
My first experience with studying dance—beyond The Bump when I was 11—was ballet. I took a beginners class at the "old age" of 18 at the local community college, and I was blessed to have a magnificent teacher. Anne was a decade or so my senior, and she energized the gym when she walked in to teach. She brought joy to the painstaking process of learning the First Position, which is just basically standing in place!
Here are my 5 tips from ballet training that we can use in our own belly dance practice.
Tip #1 - Practice Your Posture Like a Ballet Dancer
We don't want to copy the posture of ballet. We want to emulate the attention to detail. Here are the major differences that I've noticed between ballet and belly dance posture:
In ballet, the focus is on the body's weight forward and there is a feeling of lightness and upwardness; In belly dance, our body's weight is back and open, and there's a feeling of being grounded, connected with the earth.
Ballet's focus is on the chest being lifted yet contracted as compared with belly dance where the chest is lifted and expanded or open.
In ballet, turnout of the feet is crucial, and in belly dance the feet are most often parallel.
In ballet, our legs are strong, straight columns to support "lightness." In belly dance our legs are almost always bent, and we are "grounded" to the earth.
In ballet, our arms often extend with a curve and stay to the front of the body and embellish moves; in belly dance, our arms can show curved or angular lines and be in front or behind the body and can be the focal point of a section of a dance.
Practice just standing in what I call Basic Belly Dance Posture. Here's a video showing you how to do it. And here's our playlist of Belly Dance Posture Skills.
Tip #2 - Drill the Foundation Moves Like a Ballet Master
My ballet teacher, Anne, always began class with a warmup of drilling the basic moves, and I think this is standard in ballet classes. In one way, it seems boring to always begin your practice the same way, and I often just turn on some music and dance. But almost every time I dance, I spend a good deal of time consciously drilling the basic moves as I chant the rhythm or the beat. This has probably been the single greatest factor to improving my own dancing—continued practice long after I "learned" how to do the move.
Here's a link to our Youtube playlist of Belly Dance Beginner Drills, and here's one to try now.
Tip #3 - Strive for Expertise Like a Prima Ballerina
To the best of my knowledge, ballet has always been a performance dance as compared with belly dance which is largely a social dance with a small number who perform it for entertainment. I think this is why ballet has been so rigorous in training—it's meant as a show. In belly dance there seems to be many more of us who belly dance socially or just for the recital stage (like at a belly dance hafla). See our Hafla Skills Playlist.
It can be really hard to critique ourselves, especially after we've had a good time performing at a hafla, yet this is the crucial point I think where we have the chance to really "level up" our dancing. From the time of my second recital, I began journaling the morning after the show. I'd just sit down with my coffee, and write everything that I think I did well and every instance where I felt awkward or whatever. Then I would practice and practice the difficult parts. I could write a whole blog just on this...and I will! In the mean time, here's a video about how I prepare for a show:
Tip #4 - Practice Equally on Both Sides Like in Ballet Training
I remember vividly being at the barre and executing exactly the same number of pliés with my left hand on the barre, then Anne, instructing us to turn and do exactly the same thing with our right hands on the barre, all to the sound of the piano. This, I think, is one of the biggest areas that belly dancers can improve. In so many classes that I've been in, a choreography is taught, and so we learn moves "one-sided." And as we become better at a move on one side, it's just not fun to do the move on the other side because it's just too awkward-feeling. But that so limits our skills and our dance vocabulary. I urge you to force yourself to take the time to work your not-best side. Here's a video that might help you with that:
Tip # 5 - Attend to the Details Like a Ballet Mistress
How many times have you looked at a selfie then trashed the photo and retaken it? And for what? Well, you had a tiny piece of spinach in your teeth or your eyes were too squinty or whatever. Do that same thing with your dance. Make a belly dance selfie video when you're practicing, and check it: Are your hands "frozen" with your fingers splayed? Are your shoulders tense? Is your hip slide too jerky? Pick an area to perfect. Don't denigrate yourself, just look for a move or a skill that you think you can take to the next level. Check out our blog on motivation tips for belly dance practice.
Share with us in the comments your thoughts. Yallah, Habibi! Let's get dancing!
Level up your dancing with our practice course in the iconic belly dance rhythm. Click to PREVIEW.
© Jennifer Carpenter-Peak & Robert Peak 2021