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Dancers, are you ok?: A Dancer’s Journey to Cultivate One’s Self-Concept

by Mariana Marchese Life in the time of COVID-19 has been many things: devastating, painful, stressful, and difficult to name a few. While we have all been affected by the virus in a multitude of ways, the immediate halt to the art and dance world, specifically live performance, and classes, has been devastating. As a professional dancer, I went from having gigs every weekend to no gigs in a matter of days. I watched my regular restaurants temporarily close or shift to take out only, my previously scheduled large events postponed, and I was looking at the first summer in 10 years that wasn’t going to be full of weddings and private events. I was disappointed, and worried for what this meant for the United States and its citizens, hoping that this would be over by the fall. Instead, it only got worse.

At this point, I was hearing whispers, that turned into statements on Facebook and Instagram from dancers writing that they were going to take an extended leave from “belly dance (or “raqs sharqi”), and that this was their sign to hang up the hip-scarf and walk away from dance. Others were struggling to find the inspiration to dance or take online classes (especially now as we reach the 9-month mark of the pandemic). This is a personal choice, and crisis affects all of us differently, I still had to wonder: was this just a natural reaction to losing that immediate external satisfaction of performing for a physical audience? Or was it survival mode kicking in? Maybe both? I then realized that dancers spend their lives training for “events/mile markers”. For example: haflas, private events like weddings, restaurant gigs, even competitions. Whether a crown or a party is involved, there is a clear start and finish and it’s all centered around the external physical execution of the dance. This is necessary if not the standard definition of dance. The training, the focus on proper technique, and the professional presentation of dance. But is that all it is? Or is there more? Can there be more that we’re just not tapping into? And if there is, do we even know how to do that? I would like to share an anecdote from my personal dance journey that has resulted in an epiphany and re-dedication to dance. I think the epiphany, that I will shortly explain to you, is the missing piece that will help many dancers get back on track especially those searching for a deeper purpose in their dance.

When the world went inside to avoid contracting the virus in March, I remembered why I have always loved to dance. Even alone inside, there was an opportunity to create through movement what I felt when I heard certain music. So, I did what any dancer would do, I put on some of my favorite music and started dancing. The first time I did this, I noticed a few things: First, I wanted my body to do or move a certain way and it wasn’t doing that. Second, I had 3,000 things running through my mind that I was struggling to silence, even for a 3-minute song. Third, I typically film my dancing to either capture an improvised section or practice a choreography. I found however, I was more distracted by the presence of the camera, treating it like an audience member, instead of a silent tool.

As someone who has been dancing for 28 years in both Western and Middle Eastern dance, I know how to change the external: training. So, I got myself on a more rigorous training schedule. I incorporated more Pilates, Piyo, created technique lists to drill on a daily basis, and worked on my physical presentation when filming. I also took more classes and intensives with teachers via Zoom. I immediately had better technique/range of motion and I felt more pleased with the “product” I was posting on social media as well as what I looked like in the mirror during a practice session. That’s wonderful, however, I was still missing something, and the inner dialogue from above was also starting to dip into self-criticism, negative thoughts, and frustration. I couldn’t shake this feeling, and as dramatic as it sounds, I was feeling empty, like there was a hole inside of me and no matter how much sparkle or dance I tried to pour in, it remained.

I watched other dancers perform to try and reinspire my own dance. I watched online halfas or scrolled through their videos on social media, and I had this creeping feeling that I was not the only one who was feeling this disconnection. I wasn’t moved by these performances anymore; I didn’t feel those “warm fuzzies” that I usually felt when watching other dancers. I figured in the beginning of lockdown it was just due to all of us having to learn to perform for our phones, iPads, laptops etc., and not being physically in the same space. But as the months went on, I continued to feel the same way. What was missing? What was affecting dance so deeply? So, I took some time to re-evaluate my own dance. I delved into what raqs sharqi meant to me and what kind of dancer I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I had fallen down the rabbit hole of the Golden Era of Egyptian cinema, enveloped myself in lush orchestral Middle Eastern music and solely focused on videos of dancers that’s presence made me feel alive inside, that I had the biggest epiphany of my dance life. I discovered that what I was deeply missing from my dance was the connection and attention to my inner being/or self-concept. That is what was being neglected. My own internal connection to the external dance practice was not being nurtured. I realized this internal connection to one’s dance is just as important as what one is doing physically. I searched for support for dancers in this area on the internet and came up empty handed. I couldn’t believe that this concept was not widely spoken about and that dancers were simply to “figure it out” or just “go get inspired.” Without the internal nourishment, albeit training, how can dancers be expected to be continual creators while running on empty?

So, I started doing my own research and formulated an actual explanation of what this internal dance connection and training looks like, starting with self-concept. What is one’s “inner self” or “self-concept”? I personally define it as how one feels, sees and has created an assumption about who they are as a dancer. This “self-concept” lives inside each and every one of us, be it positive or negative. I never stopped to consider how important this would be in my dance life. This isn’t a quick fix though, this is a change in mindset that requires a commitment to consistent nurturing and creation of an actual habit to become a more conscious, balanced dancer.

Once I made this connection, I started working on my own approach to my dance practice. I worked to train both the internal and external equally, therefore enabling me to feel more confident in my performance, and actually enjoy dance as dance not just preparation for a gig or a show, but a moment of conscious movement. Now, I’ve found a deeper passion for dance, I feel like my own creativity has returned and I’m excited to dance in a more vulnerable and exciting way on a consistent basis.

I could go on for pages but hopefully now, your interest is peaked. So, I invite you to dig into why you dance. Why are you a dancer? Why does it bring you so much joy and happiness in your life? If you are feeling disconnected, disheartened, or frustrated but know that you want to keep dancing, I recommend you work to train internally so that when it is time to hit the stage again, you will be ready and infinitely stronger (inside and out). But how do you go about strengthening the inside? Here are some of my suggestions on where to start to get in tune with what’s going on inside you.

  1. Write down your goals, then consistently chart your progress for 30 days.

  2. Write 5 affirmations every day for 30 days

  3. Establish a mental routine that helps you master your thoughts.

  4. Commit to meditating every day for at least 15 minutes.

I will break down the above list so you can see the reason for each number on the list. I hope you challenge yourself do them all for 30 days. I’ve personally seen incredible change in myself in 30 days, change I didn’t know I needed. All of these things work together for your greater good, and you can only succeed by implementing them.

1) To help you get motivated, I recommend getting a beautiful journal that you can dedicate to this internal dance practice and start with writing out your goals for 2021/2022. Be as specific as you can be (these can be big goals, little goals, just things you want to accomplish in your daily practice). Don’t edit yourself, just get your goals down on paper. Then you’re going to check in regularly to see if you’re on track to meet your goals, met your goals or need to tweak or reset some goals. There are no wrong answers or failures, this is an exercise in accountability.

2) Affirmations: affirmations are statements, best written in the past tense as if they have already been done or in the present tense and you are simply re-affirming their power. You’re going to pick 5 powerful affirmations that speak to you and you’re going to either write them every morning, right before you go to bed or right before you start your practice. Here are some examples: I am a spectacular dancer, I was booked for 8 weddings this spring, I am the house dancer at the new restaurant in town, I was booked to teach at an out of state workshop. You can get even more specific: I perfected and aced my troupe’s choreography, I no longer have stage fright or keep them general, it’s up to you. The purpose of these dance affirmations is to start re-programing your mind and consistently feeding yourself a positive, uplifting and encouraging mental routine that is self-serving instead of self-deprecating. Remember, as they say, “thoughts turn into things.” Focus on creating positive thoughts about yourself as dancer on a consistent basis.

3) Your mental routine is the unconscious pattern of thoughts that you believe and entertain daily. This is going to be eye-opening process and hard at first, so be kind to yourself. I would like you to start by observing what kind of thoughts you are having about your dance, your technique, your performance and even your body. Once you start taking a good hard look at what you think about on a daily basis, you will likely find your mind is running wild, free reign, no discipline in sight and likely tearing you apart. If you find the majority of those thoughts are making you feel insecure, insufficient, unqualified and unsure in your dance, it’s time to make some major changes in your thought pattern and affirmations is my favorite place to start. Any time your mind starts to dip into, “I can’t do that combination,” or “This costume looks terrible on me,” you’re going to immediately replace it (feel free to say it out loud! Speak it into existence!) with something empowering. For example: “I’m an amazing dancer, or “I look fantastic in this color.” How do you feel now that you stopped that negative thought and replaced it with something good? This will take some practice but remember good thoughts make you feel good, keep up the good thoughts, you deserve to feel good, especially about your dance.

4) Meditation: If you are new to meditation, try this tiny mental exercise first. Set a timer for 5 minutes, sit in a chair (somewhere comfortable but try not to lay down) and close your eyes. Here is the million-dollar question: can you sit in silence for 5 minutes with an absolutely spotless clear mind? Spoiler alert: The answer is no. So, when the alarm goes off ending the 5 minutes, write down in your journal all the fleeting thoughts that went through your mind. Maybe it was just one thing, if so, what lingered for you? If you have a lot of “brain chatter”, easing yourself into meditation with guided meditations is the best way to go. You can find great guided meditations on YouTube and the Insight Timer App. I recommend meditation as a means to quieting the mind. If you incorporate this into your life already in a spiritual capacity that’s wonderful. If you don’t, I recommend you give it a try. My approach is to help you focus (especially before you dance).

I hope these tips help you re-focus in such a dark time. Your dance is very precious and if you’re able to, you should. If you’re still struggling or don’t know where to start, I encourage you to try just one of my tips to start, what could it hurt, right? You can only benefit from dedicating a little more time to yourself. My 4 internal exercises should help you train your self-concept and start to enable you to have more consistent productive practice sessions, teaching sessions and of course more polished performances. I look forward to a new year full of revitalized, rejuvenated and passionate performances of dance!

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