Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Coordination Conspiracy

When you're learning to dance, there are a number of things happening which can make following along difficult and make the dancer feel that they lack coordination. I commented on issues of spatial references and disorientation in my last post, and will cover issues of right/left confusion and mirroring in another. This post is for the whole parcel of other things which are going on, so let's have a little look at them.

Muscle Tension
There is no single way for a body to accomplish a movement; your brain and nervous system knows this and try to select a way of doing it from all the options you have of how to move bits of your body (something called degrees of freedom). When learning a new movement, the nervous system may stiffen up various muscles, to reduce the options of how to move.  As you repeat the movement, your body tries to find an optimal way of moving and things can loosen up again.

The trouble is, as soon as you realise you're feeling stiff and uncoordinated, you become anxious and even more tense.  Tension inhibits movement. The more tense and anxious you are, the more self-conscious you feel, the more tension you put through your body as you try to get or 'grab' for the movement, the more you feel you're behind and that you're making a mess of things, the harder it gets.  So keep a good posture, but otherwise RELAX.

Over-Reliance on Visual and Spatial Cues
Some people are naturally 'visual' learners, but most people have a mixture of learning styles, and therefore a range of memory strategies.  However, dance seems to encourage visual learning. This is great if you are learning, but it's possible for something to go in through the eyes and out through the body without settling in the brain and creating a memory.  It happens with me all the time. When I'm copy-typing, the words go in through the eyes and out through the fingers, and at the end of the page, I probably couldn't tell you much about what I typed. At the end of an Improvised Tribal Style (ITS) piece, I couldn't remember what combinations we had used, because it went in through my eyes and out through my body with enough thought to execute the moves, but not enough to commit them to memory.

I'm often bemused when after 32 counts of drilling something with the class following my back, I yell 'Keep going!' and turn round to see how everyone is doing ... and everyone falters to a stop. If you rely on visual cues and don't use other senses and cues to start remembering moves, a combination or a choreography,  you will be thrown if you no longer have a leader to watch, which could be every time there's a turn! Similarly, if you always rely on certain markers in class, such as a whiteboard at the front, or you always dance in a certain spot, you can be completely thrown when asked to dance in a different place facing a different way. Try dancing things through in your head as you lie in the bath or in bed, dance in the garden where there are no familiar reference points and use as many sorts of cues as you can - hearing the music, feeling the moves in your body, chanting the moves in your head ('back trip-let, back trip-let, step touch, step touch, Maya right, left ...' etc (whatever makes sense to you, but try not to let your lips move!).

Lost in Space - Under-Reliance on Visual and Spatial Cues
Just as you can be over-reliant on what you see, and lost without it, you can get also get lost when you don't pay enough attention to other dancers and your relative position to them and points on the stage/floor. When dancing for the first time in a new space, note where the centre front and centre of the space are, the sides, back and diagonals/corners. Note where your spot on the stage is, and your 'marks' to hit when you move to different places.

One of the things which makes American/Improvised Tribal Style so lovely to watch is the way everyone looks up and out, or at each other when circling, so that they can use their peripheral vision to catch the leader's cues and ensure their moves are synchronised and their spacing good. You cannot do this if your unfocused gaze drops to the floor while you dance, which is a very common issue. As a beginner, you feel self-conscious, and the modest, lowered gaze is a sort of 'don't look at me' signal, as well as a way to avoid looking at the scary audience and watch the leader's feet instead. Smile, or at least set your face in a pleasant, open expression, and focus on where you are supposed to be looking, whether it's a glance down to your own hip, following your moving hand, looking out to the audience, engaging with the other dancers, or just looking in the direction of travel for turns and steps taking you around and across the floor.

Mind the Gap
There's naturally a gap between perception and action. See then do, hear then do, think/remember then do. When you're trying to dance quickly, this gap needs to be as small as possible, and preferably an overlap rather than a gap. The trouble often occurs when you are over-thinking, which can create a mental block, derailing instructions to your muscles, literally making you pause for thought. and you get stuck in serial processing, building the movement layer by layer from the feet up, rather than parallel processing mode, getting the feel of the whole body movement. When this happens, try to find other cues, such as a a point in the music or a repeated combination or series of combinations which you like or find easy, and then stop thinking so hard.

Tricky Transitions and Stuck Feet
Transitions are often about where the next move comes from, thus where the last move finishes.  Problems with transitions and feet which feel stuck are often due to having your weight in the wrong place. For example, if you finish the last move with your weight on your right leg, then it's likely the next move will either stay with the weight on the right, or transfer your weight to the left. If you unthinkingly shift your weight or take a step after the last move, then you may not be able to start the next move promptly, or at all! The moment of confusion, where it feels like you feet are stuck to the floor, leaves you behind the music as your mind starts to freewheel. Don't panic! Find a point in the music where you can pick up again.

You also need to be ready to move and ready for the next move. It amuses me sometimes when I'm asked 'Which foot do I move?', when one is supporting the body weight, and one is free to move.  I'm always tempted to give the wrong answer to see what happens. Go through the move slowly and deliberately, noting which foot/leg is supporting and which is free to move, and which foot is supposed to be leading for that step. Make sure you don't inadvertently shift your weight from one leg to the other, for example, by lowering a heel from classic foot position.

Another way to get your feet stuck is to have the weight too far down and back. Remember your posture; lift the ribs away from the hips and keep the spine long, shifting your weight very slightly onto the balls of your feet, ready to move.

Size vs Speed
There is a  trade-off between speed and accuracy of movement which is mediated by size.  In other words, the faster you have to make a large movement, the harder it is to control it and be accurate. To keep control, the movement needs to start smaller. For example, the back-step triplet in my choreography to Habibi Ya Eini requires fairly fast steps (that means transfers of weight) and a peep back over the same-side shoulder as the foot stepping back. To keep it fast, the step back is only small - about a foot length, with the heel scarcely touching the floor, and the look back only involves turning the head and shoulders by twisting the upper body.  If you take a large step back onto a flat foot and turn the body side on, the move becomes too big and slow.

Inflexible Muscle Memory
It is possible for a move to get 'stuck' a certain way, so that you have to fight your muscle memory to do it differently.  For example, if you have been dancing for a while but have almost always only done step-touch moving forward or around on the spot in quarter turns, it can be very difficult to do it on the spot, travelling backwards, or with a half turn. If, as a beginner, you copied the teacher's exaggerated steps, stamping down on a flat foot, you may find it difficult to do the move quickly and smoothly without a tense, flexed ankle. It's good to practise moves with as many variations as you can think of, to build flexibility into your muscle memory.

Doing Too Much
I bless my various teachers for their advice over the years, and this is a subject which has generated some true gems:
  • Sometimes, less is more. Don't try to layer everything, hit every accent, move every part of your body at once or visit every part of the stage in a single dance piece - it's too much.
  • Don't throw all of your energy out all of the time. High energy output all of the time wears your audience out. Allow them to breathe!
  • Do only the moves you need to, and use only the muscles you need to do those moves.
This is particularly true for belly dance, as throwing everything you have at a move can result in a lack of isolation and rhythm.  It becomes even more noticeable in group dances. Sometimes, it's a result of a lack of control and subconscious panic; in trying to keep up, you end up doing twice as much. Start slowly and build up speed, and practise regularly to tone muscles and make them respond you your commands.

Doing Too Little
Apart from forgetting or skipping moves and combinations and looking lost, the main issues with doing too little are to do with where your weight is and that the moves and dancing can look sloppy and unfinished. If it's a four count step, such as a 'forward-and-back' step (AKA Turkish, Ghawazee and probably other things too, depending on the teacher or who you ask) make sure you step (transfer weight) on all four counts.  If you only do three, you'll be on the wrong leg. If you convert it to a forward and back foot gesture, you may end up with your weight on the correct foot, but two counts early. You may forget arm frames and flows, or 'drop' a move before it is finished or centred, which can have knock-on effects in transitions, as well as looking as though you just got bored of the move halfway through.

Know Your Music
It can be very difficult to dance and react to music you don't know, unless it just has a constant 4/4 beat, in which case you could probably pick any piece of music with a similar speed and constant beat and dance the same thing to it. The quarter tones and intervals of Arabic music can sound strange at first, but the more you listen to it, the more familiar it becomes. If you are going to dance a choreography, you really need to know the music.  Initially, you may get too involved in trying to learn the moves to listen to the music properly, and miss cues in the music as a result, so that you end up behind or ahead. Listen to the music over and over, until you know it and could perhaps sing it to yourself, and are familiar with the count, rhythms and musical cues.

You Can Do It!
All this makes it sound as though learning to dance is very difficult, but it's easy and hard at the same time, and sometimes only as hard as you make it.  Over-comparison with others can make you feel like you're not getting it, not doing it well enough, or assuming that others can do it more easily than you can, but you have to try not to compare yourself to others. You may be very self-conscious, but thinking only about the dance and losing yourself in the music can help you forget about that. Take a gradual, mindful approach to learning, and believe that you can do it (because if you believe you can't, then you won't!). Dance like nobody's watching. And practise, practise, practise.

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