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Dance lessons from a guitar book – Part 1

August 15, 2010 Leave a comment

One thing that guitar practice taught me is that one should focus on the process of a creative activity much more then the actual end result. Learning how to practice is the most important lesson of all.

I learned this from classical guitarist Jamey Andreas from her book: The principles of correct practice and her blog posts on her website Guitar Principles. You may find it strange that I take dancing tips from a guitar book, but the book changed the way I viewed creativity, talent, and practice ethic. These apply to nearly every creative activities, and some can be easily translated to refer directly to dancing. I still haven’t read anything that exposed the same truths to such an extent.

Let me list you the lessons that apply to dance practice.

Muscle memory can work for you or against you: Many body effects and power movesvrequire extensive repition to build up muscle memory. This doesn’t mean that I repeat the same movements over and over again without paying attention. If you make the same sloppy mistakes in practice, then your muscles will repeat those wrong movements in your dancing. If you switch between incorrect movements and correct movements in your training, then your technique will become unreliable, meaning that sometimes you do it well, sometimes you don’t.
I don’t mean to say that making mistakes will destroy your dancing immediately. It’s just important to pay attention and focus on repeating the movements as correctly as possible, as often as possible.

Don’t neglect frequency of practice: We all understand that you need to practice endless hours, but we tend to allot practicing time to special days. We dance multiple hours on those days, trying to make up for the days we didn’t practice.
Daily practice is far more effective, however, even if we can’t spend four hours each day. Smaller daily practice segments are far more effective than one large training blocks. Even if you can only spend half an hour a day, do so.

Be aware of the experience of practicing: Jamey Andreas put up a sign over her office that stated “I don’t know how to play the guitar”. This reminded her to experience playing like it was her first time.
If we repeat an action many times, we tend to block out the experience. This means that if we have too much muscle tension which locks up our movement, we block out the discomfort. It seems normal to us after endless repetition. But you need to feel aware of such things and correct them when you feel it. Always play the beginner when you dance.

Practicing movements slowly: We often execute our moves far too quickly in our practice. Some of this may represent impulsiveness, but often, we just try to gloss over our sloppy mistakes. It’s much more difficult to execute a slow arm wave and keep up the illusion. This may make you feel the need to perform it as quickly as possible. However, this only teaches you to perform it sloppy.
If you want to execute a move well every time, then try to practice it as slowly as possible. It requires focus on the sensations of the movement and break down how each movement affects the next. If you are solid at lowest possible speed, you can perform at any speed that you wish, under any circumstance. It’s maddeningly frustrating, but nothing has helped me so much.

Hitting a wall: I used to think that the beginning of your training was the most frustrating. You want to dance well, but you lack the skill to do so, and you spend all of your time practicing foundations. What a drag.
You know what’s worse, though? Much, much worse? Hitting a wall when you’re an intermediate dancer. After months of progress, your dancing doesn’t advance, no matter how much time passes. And your dancing seems to break apart when you’re in front of people.
This happens when you disregard the importance of correct practice. You thought you were going faster by ignoring foundations and attentive practice, but that will catch up with you sooner then you like.

I’ll list more practice tips in part 2. It will deal mostly with talent, passion, and expectations.

The Tao of dancing – the no-mind flow

June 13, 2010 2 comments

Michael Jackson: Thinking is the biggest mistake a dancer could make. You need to feel. You become the bass, you become the fanfare, you become the clarinet and the flute and the strings and the drums.
Martin Bashir: So you almost become the physical embodiment of the music.
Michael Jackson: Yeah.
-Michael Jackson in Martin Bashir’s Living with Michael Jackson. source

Can you imagine the following: You dance, feeling elated. Slowly, you realise that your surroundings dissolve into nothingness. You begin to move without any directions from your mind. You perform moves that you never performed before. All of your fear, self doubt, your ego, even your thoughts melt away. You dance like a person possessed.

Meaning of “Elsewhere”: 1) The direction I attempt to push my style. 2) The Zone – the state of disconnection I experience while dancing. When I focus on my movements to the point that I am oblivious to my physical setting, I am mentally elsewhere.”

David Bernal on his dancing name. source

This may sound like hyperbole, or a romantic notion meant to enhance the mystic aura of the performer. Perhaps, but there is truth to it. It remains one of the great goals in any creative activity. A scientific explanation exists for this quasi-religious experience. Our minds can only process a certain amount of information. When one performs an activity with extreme concentration, your mind dispenses nearly every other sensory sensation. It feels like having an out-of-body experience.

How can you attain this extreme concentration? Definitely not by trying to focus really hard, as it seems. The type of mental relaxation can occur only after performing the techniques thousands of times. How long, how often? In the above clip, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi mentions a study that puts the number at ten years. The non-fiction journalist Malcolm Gladwell mentioned the same studies in his book Outliers. More precisely, he puts the time at roughly ten thousand hours of purpose-driven practice.

Some types of philosophic systems deal with this mental state. Take the concept of wu hsing (aka Mushin) in martial arts. Your reactions and actions come in battle should not from conscious decisions and strategies, but reflect the “correct” response to the situation. These natural reactions come only after extensive training and the repetition of drills thousands of times. You have learned the drills and the moves so often that you don’t even think about them. They have ingrained themselves into your memory, and they manifest themselves without effort. You perform the necessary movements with minimum of thought and effort.

This is connected to the more general concept of wu wei in chinese taoism (the religion of the “correct path”). Wu wei is the concept of not interfering with the natural flow and dispensing only the minimal amount of effort in your actions. Your actions are the “correct” reactions to the flow of the universe, and they are not tainted by your own intentions, wants, or ego.

Another relevant body of philosophy are the teachings of Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. He stressed the importance of stripping your prejudices, ideologies, habits and preconceived notions. Only then can you assess each situation according to its own merits. Your ego and beliefs only hinder you from attaining truth. They reduce your concentration, or as he put it, your higher intelligence. Any organised thought is useless, truth can only be found by the individual in each situation. Truth is a “pathless road”. Read this three page (summary) by Aldous Huxley, if you are interested.

There is a specific reason why I mention Wu Hsing and Krishnamurti. Both influenced the philosophy of Bruce Lee. His most memorable anecdote explains the origin of his belief that one should empty one’s mind before the actual activity and adopt the formless characteristics of water.

After four years of training Wing Chun with the famous instructor Yip Man, he grew frustrated that he could not attain the relaxed mental state and minimise your effort in battle (the wu wei concept of minimal effort). Yip Man told him to abstain from training for a week and reflect on the need to “[f]orget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.” Bruce Lee retired and meditated on this, but got nowhere. He sailed to the nearby lake, but not feeling any relief, he punched the water in anger.

Right there, he marveled about the qualities of the water. It was struck, but not wounded. You could try to grasp it, but that was impossible. Water only seemed to be weakest, softest substance. In reality, it could be the hardest substance in the world.
In that moment, a bird flew past and cast its reflection in the water. Lee began to reflect further.

[S]hould not the thoughts and emotions I had in front of an opponent pass like reflection of a bird flying over water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached – not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.
I lay on my boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.

Bruce Lee (1997), Ed. John Little, The Tao of Gung Fu, p. 137

He believed strongly in Taoism, but started incorporating eclectic schools of philosophies and methods of practice, true to the principle that truth must be found individually along a pathless road. He thereby revolutionised mixed martial arts and became the most known martial arts icon in the world.

Don’t believe that these methods apply to dancing? Well, did you know that Lee won competition prizes as a cha-cha dancer?

Bellydance isolations for poppers

April 27, 2010 1 comment

Perhaps the greatest criteria to determine a good popper is the ability to isolate. Isolation refers to the ability to move a certain parts of your body independently from other parts of your body. The robot, the boogaloo, popping, and waving are based on the ability to isolate.

Some important body parts to isolate are the upper torso, the shoulders, and the head (this includes the neck).  I am finding out more and more how shoulder isolation can improve nearly every dance move, particularly arm waves and body waves.  Chest and head isolations are necessary to execute one of the most impressive moves in popping.

Quick question: Which dancers need the greatest isolation abilities? If you said bellydancers, then you have a great short-term memory. Perhaps because isolation is so important for them, the best isolation exercise I have found are from bellydancers.  Remember when I posted that piano players have the best exercises for the fingers? Inspirations to improve your popping can come from surprising sources, and this is no different.

Check out these two videos on shoulder rolls and torso slides. Karen Sun Ray Coletti (and another, unnamed assistant) teaches you shoulder and upper torso isolations.

If you’re not convinced, you can always go back to the great poppers, like Tyson Eberly and his zombie walk exercise.

Isolation exercises may seem tedious, but they can save you years of time and frustration. You’ll see the results quickly in your dancing.

Categories: Outside inspiration

Piano finger isolations

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Fingerwaves and liquid digit moves are incredibly impressive. They require a lot of control over your fingers, and you will benefit if you practice isolation exercises.

Sometimes the best exercises come from outside actual popping. In the case of finger control, the best isolation exercises that I have encountered come from piano. This makes sense since piano players require extraordinary control over their fingers.  The most typical problem is the inability to move the pinky independently from the index finger, although moving the index finger independently from the middle finger represents another obstacle.

Greg Irwin produced a series of exercise videos dealing exclusively with digit isolations. I found a series of clips with different exercises. I recommend to watch all of them (they’re very short), but this seems like the most useful for beginners.

Of course, some of the great poppers have produced their own useful finger exercises.

There are many different exercises, so start searching. Digit moves and fingerwaves can add a lot to your regular dance routines, even if you aren’t a raver.

You may be reluctant to do so. While isolation exercises may seem tedious, they save you a lot of time and frustration. You’ll see it very quickly if you try it.

Categories: Outside inspiration