It happens time and time again, the idea of taking a belly dance and the reality of doing it are not the same. What looks like such an easy move where you just shake your tush and twirl your arms, in fact, requires training, muscles and coordination. So, what do you do as a beginner if you just can’t seem to get past the first shimmy? Well, to begin with, you have to put in the time to practice and come to class. In my years of dancing and teaching, I have taught dozens of six-week beginner classes. There is such a difference in the skill and confidence level of students between the fourth and sixth class, but often many students don’t return past a first or second class. There are always the situations where life gets in the way, events come up and belly dance classes slip a little lower on the list of priorities. However, I think there are many cases where students get easily frustrated or feel impatient because it is awkward learning new movements and techniques.
As a teacher, it is hard to strike a balance in class between teaching moves that translate for use at a club or with friends that weekend, and creating a strong movement foundation that will help students several weeks or months down the road. But, the hard work will pay off! So, here are my suggestions for ‘surviving’ the first several weeks and months of belly dance class.
Be patient with yourself. I cannot tell you the number of times people seem anxious that they do not have a move down after 15-20 minutes. When I remind them of this fact, it seems a little silly, but it really does happen. So, remind yourself that this is a new experience and proficiency will not happen within the first hour!
Do not compare yourself with other students. Each student comes to class with different physical experiences. Some people work out a lot, but skill in those activities does not easily translate to belly dance. Others may be involved in limited physical activity and need time to just get their body used to the movements. So, instead of comparing yourself against others in the class yourself against where you were an hour ago, a week ago or even longer.
Embrace the awkward. No cause for alarm if your moves don't look like your teacher's movement after a few classes. The truth is, dancing well takes effort and time, and there are many unglamorous and awkward moments along the way.
Recognize that there is a learning curve. One thing I love about this dance is the fact that it is an equal opportunity activity. Believe it or not, students do not always struggle with the same moves. Some people understand undulations in a heartbeat but cannot figure out the traveling moves. Others have an innate ability to pick up staccato movements, but the squishy stuff like circles, figure-eights, mayans and sways initially elude them.
Acknowledge (and trust) that your body will progress at its own pace. It has been my experience that you may mentally understand a movement, but your body needs a little more time to either relax, let go or just comprehend what it needs to do.
Dress the part. I know it sounds funny, but if you wear loose fitting, baggy, unattractive work-out gear, the chances of you feeling graceful, sultry, and beautiful in class are pretty slim. You may have to work up to it, but over the course of weeks, or months I see students go from baggy to fitted pants, oversized tops to fitted tops and cute class apparel, and not only do their moves improve but so does their attitude!
Ask questions. A skilled instructor can explain a movement to you half a dozen different ways if you are having troubles with it. So, if you are not feeling it...or seeing it...ask for clarification. I almost quit belly dancing because I could not do an undulation. Really. So, when I started with a new teacher, that was my first question (or was it my last desperate hope?) And guess what, she had me undulating in minutes. So, go ahead...do not be afraid to seek clarification.
Understand that one class does not define an entire teaching series. The reality is each class is a different piece of a puzzle, and just deciding on dance class based upon one experience may not be prudent. You can certainly figure out if you like the studio, the instructor, the location, the cost, or even the time of the week. But, if you are serious about learning the dance, give yourself time to see how things unfold.
Keep coming to class. If you miss a class, do not be afraid to come back. Yes, there is a chance you may not understand everything that was covered in the last week or more, but just being in class on a regular (or semi-regular) basis is much better for your body than not coming at all. It is very common to have a mix of belly dance experience in one class, so don't worry skilled instructors know how to adapt a class based upon student skills. Personally, I would rather see your lovely face in class and help you get back on track than wonder if you just got too discouraged to come back!
Relax and enjoy the process. Really! The benefits of belly dancing go far beyond physical changes. This dance really is transformational and if you stick with it, you will typically find lots of new friends and experiences along the way. So, keep plugging away at those shimmies, and have fun while you are doing it!
Author's note: this post was part of a blog I published ten years ago (wow!)- and while I was updating my website I pulled a few "blast from the past" posts - but honestly these tips still ring true and haven't aged a day.