One of the biggest concerns that I hear from dancers is they don’t know what to do to practice. This article will help give you some ideas on what to practice and how to make the most of your private practice time, through the different stages of dance development. We will start with beginners and work our way to tips for more advanced dancers.

This article assumes the decision to practice has already been made, so I won’t address time management here. I will let you do that. Keep in mind, the more you practice, the faster the improvement. There is no magic happening here or shortcuts. We all must pay our dues. Dedication to practice is the only thing standing between you and becoming the dancer you want to be. So, it’s worth taking the time for yourself to work on something fun and important to you. We all need to do the things we enjoy!

When you are first beginning your dance journey, there are two obstacles to practicing. First, you are unfamiliar with the techniques, and second, you are most likely unfamiliar with the music commonly used in belly dancing.

To address the first obstacle, one must first learn how to properly execute belly dance technique. This is best done by attending classes from a qualified instructor who is very good at breaking down belly dance movement, in such a way, that you are able to follow along and reproduce the movement in your own body. Though DVDs and online videos are a great way to supplement your practice and is a great way to help you recall what you learn in class, it is not a suitable replacement for an instructor. Only a live teacher, can make necessary adjustments and explain necessary details (like cultural, historical context, and nuance) you may not be learning from a video. Especially, during the beginner’s phase, learning the correct posture and techniques are critical to your long term success as a dancer. Not to mention, the teacher’s ability to help you perform the moves safely.

The First Takeaway – Start a Movement List

Once you have an instructor and you begin to learn the movements, begin to take notes of the names of the moves and what they mean. You can use these notes to help you begin to remember the moves as well as their names. When it’s time to practice, take out your list or your notes, and move through them one by one, giving special attention to those moves that don’t come as easily to you. You can download a copy of my Beginner Technique Skill Assessment for a list of beginner movements you should know.

Now that you know “what” moves to practice, take a few moments or even a block of time, and rehearse the movements you have learned, one by one.

The Second Takeaway – Find Music that Moves You

The second obstacle is our unfamiliarity with the music commonly used within our dance form. In short, belly dance, in it’s most traditional form, uses Arabic music from Egypt and the Levant region, which share a common musical heritage. Though you may find music from other neighboring regions, like North Africa, the Arabian Gulf, and Turkey that are suitable for Oriental dance. So, high on your list of first things to do should be to start a belly dance music collection. Please refer to my article Songs Every Belly Dancer Should Know to help you find music to practice to. Nothing gets your booty moving like the music you enjoy.

Once you have acquired appropriate music, you can begin to play this music while you are practicing. Turn it on. Turn it up! …and Move. Have fun and play!

Also, as often as possible, listen to music, even if you can’t physically practice dancing. The more you listen, the more you and your body will become familiar with the common rhythms and melodic tendencies of belly dance music. Imagine yourself dancing while you hear the music. This will give you a great advantage over your dance life.

The Next Step

You are starting to master the basic movements or you’re well on your way. And though it will always be necessary to continue to practice the basics, even for the sake of keeping your body in top condition for dancing, it’s time to put those moves together and make your movements flow smoothly. Now, that you have been practicing for a while, at this stage, muscle memory has kicked in and you don’t have to think about how to make the moves happen, it just does. Congratulations on reaching this stage of your development.

The Third Takeaway – Drill Layers

In this phase, You want to improve flow and apply more difficult techniques, like layering your movements. For example, being able to do traveling footwork, while maintaining good isolation in the hips or upper body with increasing grace and agility.

Hopefully, you are continuing to make your movement list and your list is now including movement layers. A great creative exercise is to create your own layers. Pick a traveling move, then add a movement in the hips, belly, or upper body. Practice and repeat! Some layers you will find easier to do than others, but keep practicing those that challenge you, and keep creating new ones to try, again, have fun and be creative.

Also by this phase, you are growing your music collection. You probably have some favorite tunes and you are beginning to desire to create choreography to your favorite songs. You probably are learning to identify the rhythms you commonly hear in the music. Great, keep that up!

The Fourth Takeaway – Practice Combos and Choreographies

One of the best methods to guarantee the practice of technique is to practice it within combinations of movements. Anything over a few 8 count’s worth is a good place to start. Combos and choreography force you to refine your flow and transition, because you have to move smoothly from step to step, move to move, within the tempo of the music.

You can definitely create your own short combos/choreography or you can learn someone else’s. Once you have something you like and want to develop, keep practicing it over and over. You might ask, “how many times should you practice a combo or choreography”, “when do you know you have practiced enough?” When you can put on the music and flow through the movements without having to think about what comes next. When there is no hesitation in your steps or movements.  When it becomes natural. The music begins to move you, without much thought.

The Final Phase

..and the longest phase, for most of us. Welcome, you rare jewel YOU! You are among the very few that make it to this point. Don’t think for a minute that the most naturally talented are the only ones that reach this level because it’s NOT TRUE. DEDICATION is the only requirement. I’ve met many “aspiring dancers” over the years, in my classes or from other’s classes who have amazing natural ability, but without the dedication, it is all a waste. On the flip side, I know dancers, either in my own classes or from other’s classes, that doesn’t seem to catch on as easily, who are determined and have a passion to dance, who become great and win competitions. From the beginning, you must never judge your own potential. We are all potential! It really comes down to paying your dues… SO KEEP PRACTICING EVERYTHING YOU ALREADY KNOW.

The Fifth Takeaway – Just dance!

There is a common phenomenon among those that “get involved” in middle eastern dance, once you practice this dance form long enough, it becomes your default. When “the Carlton” was your default dance move in clubs, now, the only things that seem to come out of your body are chest shimmies and hip drops. At this phase, the dance has really become a part of you and you use it as your main means of self-expression.

This phase is the longest one, the one that really never ends, at least until you die or quit dancing. Here is where you get so familiar with the music and moves, you have acquired your share of choreographies, you have created some yourself, and you find the moves flowing even without choreography – you are improvising!

Improvising is a natural progression of you becoming very familiar with the moves and the music. However, I find the greatest obstacles in this stage are mental blocks, rather than technical issues. You may get caught up in the feeling that you may be repeating the same movements over and over again, or the feeling that if you pause while dancing, you won’t be able to start again and will be on stage frozen with nothing to do. You must learn to trust yourself on stage rather than choreography. In fact, once you “let go” on stage, you are much freer, because you don’t have to worry anymore about the steps.

The Six Takeaway – Get in Unfamiliar Territory

If you are dancing to music you already know, a great improvisation exercise to challenge yourself is to dance to the music you don’t know very well, if at all. Hit shuffle on your iPod and dance to whatever comes on.

Dancing to live music is another worthy improvisation challenge for dancers, especially if you are unfamiliar with the band, because they may not play the songs you know in the same way you know them. The arrangement may be changed, the instrumentation may be different, they might end the song in a different way or transition into something else unexpectedly. These are all great challenges to exercise your familiarity with belly dance music, as well as your listening and adapting skills.

Once you practice dancing to the unfamiliar, you will begin to trust yourself more and more, so no matter what song comes on, you will be able to handle it.

The Seventh Takeaway – Dance from the Heart

Throughout your dance life, you will continue to practice all the previous takeaways,  but the last stop along your progression is the most challenging for most dancers and this is the one that is least developed in most dancers. Not because, its technically difficult or because it’s hard to practice, but because people don’t understand that dancers are also actors. Once you really embrace this fact, you can then find resources and teachers to help you develop these skills.

One drill you can do is begin listening to the music and allow the feeling of the music to resonate feelings within you. Allow those feelings to manifest themselves in your dance through facial and physical expression. This will seem weird (or fake) at first, but if you allow and develop this skill, you will be able to connect with your audience in a much deeper way. You will be amazed by the reactions and comments you get when you really master this. People will say that you touched their heart or that you really made them feel excited or happy.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article and for investing in yourself. I hope this article will help guide you along your path. Time doesn’t allow me to go in-depth into the many ways to practice, techniques, drills, things like improvisation, and dancing to live music. Again I highly encourage you to get with a qualified teacher that can help you more specifically develop these skills, but this article will, at least, show you general areas of exploration and get you started on your way.