Sunday, September 7, 2014

BREAKING BAD: GETTING RID OF PESKY PERFORMANCE HABITS


 I made an "executive decision" to play with my hair for this picture!
Photo: Maharet Hughes


We all love to watch a dancer who looks effortless and relaxed onstage because  it’s a joy to see. This type of natural performance allows audience members to just sit back and become enthralled by the dancer’s personality and connection to the music. But this air of ease and confidence   is often something many performers struggle with, because before we actually hit the stage, we’re hyper from performance adrenalin and nervous energy! Usually this type of laid-back grace isn’t natural, it’s a learned skill, which has been honed and perfected, just like any other type of technique!

One of the things that drives me (and other audience members, whether they are professional dancers or not) crazy when watching a show is a performer who carries over bad habits from their rehearsals or classes into their performances.  It's also the bane of every dancers existence- cause  at some point in our career, we all have had  bad habits that presented themselves in our performances. Dancers of all levels often have difficulties controlling unconscious nervous tics and stressed out gestures when they’re on stage, whether it’s holding tension in their jaws, a glassy  “concentration face” kind of stare or mouthing the counts of the music. We’ve all seen it!

 My own go-to nervous gesture used to be constantly playing with my hair… and not in a sexy, come-hither way!  I looked more like an agitated fifth grader about to take a spelling test than a relaxed and capable  professional dancer.

It took me a long time  to  break that habit…and it also took a lot of cussing  out loud at myself in the mirror while I practiced!  But the work was worth it, I finally laid that unconscious tic to rest, and now the only time I play with my hair onstage is if I do it intentionally.

 To remedy our habits, we need to be vigilant during our classes, practice sessions and rehearsals so that we don’t take these audience distractions onto the stage with us!

Habits- in any form- are difficult to break.

 These unconscious gestures are have become automatic, and the reason they get repeated is twofold. First of all, our habits are almost always something that has been done constantly; whether it is physical, mental or emotional, habits are learned through repetition.

To illustrate this, think of a good habit (like your basic dance posture) and you’ll get the idea.  Prior to your study of dance, you didn’t go about your daily activities standing straight and tall, with the muscles in your abdomen engaged, a lifted ribcage and your shoulders held back and down…. did you?

  Nope, you learned this posture!

 And it took a damn long time to get to the point where this stance became normal for you! But once you got used to standing in dance posture, it became one less thing to keep track of, thereby allowing your brain to focus on more important issues…like executing difficult technique or getting your timing and phrasing down.

Secondly, many of these habitual behaviors have become comfortable, reliable and somewhat pleasurable, because for whatever reason, they make us feel calm and peaceful.  Think of a child sucking it’s thumb and you’ll get the idea. A self-soothing habit (whether it is shopping compulsively, always having a glass of wine with dinner or  making odd grimaces onstage) triggers the chemical dopamine in our brains, which in turn activates our  brain’s Reward Center.  Why does a dog beg?  He knows he will get a treat!  It's a habit.

Why did I always used to twirl my hair onstage? Cause it felt good to do that in a stressful environment…playing with my hair was a self-soothing “treat”,  but it sucked because I not only did it in public, during performance, but I didn’t even realize I was doing it, because I wasn’t thinking about it!

 Once you understand these two concepts, any habit will become a little easier for you to break. You’ll still need will power, and you’ll still need to really re-wire your brain to change the habit, but it can be done!

 Here’s how:

IDENTIFY YOUR BAD HABITS
The best way to do this is to watch taped performances and practice sessions.

 Some of the problem areas you notice will be physical, such as hunched shoulders,  sloppy arm paths, or not finishing each and every movement fully.

Other habits  will be more emotionally or mentally based, like mouthing counts in the music,  looking at the floor, or or making a face while reacting to an on-stage mishap.

Remember  that you’re not watching your performance to tear it apart, but so that you can become a better dancer!  Take an objective detachment, become your own “casual third party observer”.   Watch  your tape a few times and make brief notes on what you’d like to change or improve upon, and then let it go, don’t do anything about it for a couple of days. Watch it again, and see if your reactions to the performance are about the same, or less or more than they were when you initially watched it.  Take notes, and compare the notes from both observation sessions.  Now, what you need to work on will be clear.

 TAKE BABY STEPS
 Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your onstage habits weren’t either!

Once you’ve identified the habits you’d like to break, you can start re-training yourself to avoid them in performance. Most experts agree that it takes considerable time and dedication to discontinue any sort of habit…  depending on the individual, breaking a habit or correcting a nervous tick could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months. It’s a process whereby you’re actually re-wiring your brain!


PRACTICE SELF-AWARENESS
 Watch yourself like a hawk in class or rehearsals, be vigilant and merciless…. By that, I mean in noticing and correcting the bad habits, not by emotionally beating yourself up! Remember, you are doing something positive here! Remind yourself  just before you go onstage that you are NOT in any way, shape or form, going to give into falling back to your old habits. Tell yourself out loud if you need to!  You might look like a nut in the dressing room, but it’s way better than looking  compulsive or nervous on stage!


IT TAKES A VILLAGE
 Well, maybe not really… but getting an objective, neutral party to help   break your habits is a fabulous idea! Discuss your habit-breaking goals with your  instructor, troupe leader, show director  or a friend, asking them to point out when you engage in the practices that you want to discontinue.  It will help to have another set of eyes on you, and it will also make you feel a little more accountable and supported.


REWARD YOURSELF
 Go all Pavlovian - every time you make it through a class,  practice or performance without  engaging in the  habit you want to break,  give yourself a little reward.  A  sweet treat, a new pair of earrings, whatever! And  when  you’ve broken  your habit once and for all,   your  biggest reward will be a better performance.

 You can do it!

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   Get a signed copy of  The Belly Dance Handbook: A Companion For The Serious Dancer here:




Photo and graphics: Maharet Hughes

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

DANCERS ON THE INTERNET, PART TWO: #HASHTAGS 101


The mighty mighty #hashtag


  In my last blog post, I mentioned using social media to network and promote your dance classes and events… and I gotta say that one of my very favorite tools for doing just that is the hashtag.

 Most people know what a hashtag is; it’s that “number sign”, the tic-tac-toe symbol hat looks like this: #

 But even though most of us are familiar with hashtags, many of us don’t know how to use them at all, let alone use them to their fullest advantage!

I worship at the altar of hashtags- and after you find out how to use them, you probably will, too!

 Last year at the annual Raven’s Night belly dance event in Washington, DC as many of us were sitting around talking shop into the wee hours, I was asked to give an explanation on hashtag use.  Though it was extremely informal (and just a little tinged with the wine we were drinking!)  Illuminated the idea of how hashtags, function. After that, many of us jokingly started saying the word  “hashtag” in our speech, in front of the words that would be hashtagged if they were being typed on a social media site! It turned into such an in-joke that weekend that a group of us who were already actually got small sized hashtag symbols tattooed on our bodies!

  So, this is the way hashtags work:  if you type the hashtag symbol (#) in front of a word on social media sites, the hashtag and the word will turn blue, indicating that whatever word you type  (such as #dancer) will turn into a searchable term.  That means anyone who is hunting for the word “dancer” will be directed to your post!

  Now, let’s look at hashtag use in terms of promotion. 

 When posting an event flyer or photo on a social media site, many people just leave it at that, using the image only.  Their online “friends” will see the image, and can “like” it.   That right there is good…but it could be better.

 If you use hashtags correctly, everyone   who is interested in whatever you #hashtag will see it!   I’m gonna use one of my own online flyers here as an example.

Post the image, and then type the information in your post to go along with it, like this:

 
Photo & Graphic: Maharet Hughes


TIARA TUESDAYS:  #PRINCESSFARHANA  ’S #BELLYDANCE #SHOWCASE
August 26, 2014 Special Guests  #Jenna  & #Stephanya  #tarotcardreadings by Natalie
#MOUNOFTUNIS
7445 ½ SUNSET
LA CA 90046
 Dinner: 7pm   show: 8pm 
North African Feast $17.50 per person
Reservations a Must!  (323) 874-3333
#Orientaldance #rakssharqi #tribalfusion #cabaret  #LA #Hollywood #entertainment #girlsnightout #danceperformance

Promotion-wise, adding all the info clearly typed is a good idea anyway. But I’ve also hashtagged pretty much anything that could pertain to my event as well, including really obvious things like cities, neighborhoods, the names of the special guests ( so anyone who is a student or fan can see them) as well as specific types of dance or things that people might be looking for if they want a night out in #losangeles! 

 There is so much information on this specific “post” that it would only fly on Facebook.  It would be way too long for Twitter, which only allows 140 characters per post, so in that case, I would just use #bellydance, not the whole shebang!

  If I wanted to post this on  #Twitter, I would click on the image on #Facebook  (  aka #FB) which will then come up with all the information I have typed in to go along with it, copy the URL, and paste it into my  Twitter post, adding something short  like: 

 “ Come to my #bellydance show 8/26 in #LA ".

If you are  posting on #instagram ( also known as #IG)  you have a lot more space  for text and can use #unlimited #hashtags

 Got it?

#Hashtags are a #huge part of  #socialmedia , and also a really #important #promotionaltool too!   
Once you’ve mastered the concept, you can even have #fun with them… like this:

#learnsomethingneweveryday
 #ihearthashtags
 #hashtagabuse






Wednesday, July 30, 2014

FOUR MISTAKES DANCERS MAKE ON THE INTERNET





Often, there is so much administrative work that needs to be done to keep up a healthy dance career that I find myself thinking,

“ Shouldn’t I be dancing instead of sitting at a my computer?”

In a perfect world, the answer would be a big, resounding yes. But in the real world, most dancers are the stewards of their own career.

We’re our own booking agents,  public relations  staff, travel agents, and interns. Most of us  don’t have “management” to rely on,  we’re  our own bosses…and that means we also wind up doing all of the work!  For many dancers, this part of their career is something they don’t bargain for when they were dreaming of dancing professionally. But  doing  this  often tedious work  is really what enables us to be successful at what we really want to do, which is dance!

  Lately, I’ve been getting  a lot of emails  from dancers approaching me with marketing and promotion questions.  I decided to do a series on this blog answering  some of the most frequently-asked questions  I receive, so here’s  Part One:  Four Mistakes  Dancers Make  On The Internet.



1)  YOU DON’T HAVE A WEBSITE

 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you need a professional website.

 It’s important for many reasons- it allows people to see what you look like, read your bio, access dates you’ll be performing and classes or workshops that you’re teaching, buy your products and services, and to get a feel for what you do.  The people who visit your site will be able to “see” you, to contact you, and to take you seriously, realizing that you truly are an artist and businessperson, not just a dabbler. It doesn’t need to have all the latest bells and whistles, but it does need to impart the who, what, where and why of your dance career.

“But I have a Facebook page!”  I can hear you cry, “Isn’t that good enough?” No, it’s not.  Not if you’re serious about your career.

Ok, a Facebook page is better  than nothing,  but  you  still need a website!  Your website and your Facebook page should be linked.  If  for some insane reason  you  don’t have a Facebook account, this brings us to:

2)  YOU DON’T HAVE A PRESENCE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media is awesome in general, but it’s especially great for connecting with your fans, students, potential students and/or sponsors or for selling costumes, engaging in spirited discussions, shop talk and conversations about dance history, and for joining groups that will inform you about your area of interest.  These interactions are so important for our careers!

If you aren’t  actively involved in social  media, you’re doing your dance career a  serious disservice.

Social medial equals free marketing!

  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram  really are where it’s happening, they’re terrific  promotional tools which  can  link you to others who share your interests. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true.  If you don’t have accounts on these top sites,  take the time to set one up and learn how to use them. They’re fun, yes, but they’re also extremely important  to you as a professional.   Students, fans, show producers, casting directors and potential  clients  for private parties look for  dancers on social media all the time. You can get hired, get professional  advice, learn about auditions, acquire students ,new fans and buy costumes via social media.

If you’ve been holding off on this, now’s the time to explore it…which brings us to:


3) NOT USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Many dancers literally shoot themselves in the foot while using social media.

One common mistake is to set up a page on  (any) social media site, and then let it die a long, slow death by not doing anything with it.  Ok, so you set up a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram page…and   you can’t see the big deal about it.  You’re not so happy with it because you have like, four followers…. and you’d much rather be playing Candy Crush Saga or Bubble Witch or whatever the hell is the new addictive time-waster.  Right?  You can’t see what’s so great about having a dance-oriented professional page, cause nothing is happening.

 But did you think  to yourself  “If I Build It They Will Come?”

Nice fantasy, but that isn’t how it works! If you’re using social media for marketing, you need to put the necessary time into your page, or…pun intended…it’s gonna go belly up really quickly.

 “But I don’t have the time!”

This is a common complaint many dancers have.

 Make the time- remember,  social medial equals free marketing!

  Do some posts and interactions with your morning coffee…  you can even set an alarm  so you don’t go over ten or fifteen  minutes and get sucked into a rabbit hole. “Like” a few pages or make some comments while you’re waiting for dance  class to start… log on from the dentist’s office, while the baby’s asleep, at a dog park, a show, the airport or in line at the grocery store …where, I daresay, you’re  probably already shimmying up a storm, practicing as your groceries are being bagged!

 In order to get an audience, you have to engage an audience. Like courtship, you have to woo people to your page.  Invite people to your page(s) and make sure there is something interesting and fun for them to enjoy…so they will be sure to check back for more updates. 

 Don’t blast out event  promotions non-stop, it will be off-putting to your followers…though you do need to be consistent with announcing a gig or a class, cause posting one time isn’t going to cut the mustard.  People visit many different pages, and their newsfeed is getting updated by the second  by all of their friends, as well as all the pages they like. 

That means your  event post will come and go in the blink of an eye, so you definitely have to post multiple times. Just don’t over-do it, and please, for the love of god, don’t tag people  who wouldn’t be interested, or whom you know won’t be able to come to your show.  Inviting people from other states or countries  won’t help your event- cause they will not be able to attend and will just get annoyed cause you’re being spammy.

  Engage with  others by  “liking” and commenting on their status posts, be personal and personable!  Make sure your social media interactions find a balance between the fun stuff and hard-core promo or people will start tuning out.  Lots of pictures are always good,  in fact,  sometimes I’m kinda shocked by how few dancers post   pictures…cause they’re pretty much like digital calling cards! If you look sparkly and appealing, others will react favorably. The phrase “Every Picture Tells A Story” comes to mind.


3) OVER-SHARING ON SOCIAL MEDIA
  Ok, so I’ve just told you to  post a lot of stuff…pictures, event announcements, videos, etc.   But if you have a  fan page or group set up just for   your dancing, please keep it “on topic”.    A really common  mistake- and one that  makes many  people actually  feel  embarrassed for you- is to “overshare”  or post TMI , the abbreviation for  “too much information”.

 If you’re running a dance oriented page, people don’t need  ( or want!) to know that you’re having your period,  fighting with your significant other,  having a rough day emotionally, fell  off the wagon, or that a relative died…or you  broke a nail.

  Your professional page should reflect your professional dance career.

  It isn’t a tell-all site, or a place to get virtual hugs.  Use your personal page for that kind of post…if, indeed you really and truly want to post all your dirty laundry on the internet.

  Presumably the reason you made a dance page  on any social media site  is because you  are in the midst of having a dance career.  It’s doubtful that you would walk into your day job and complain about any of this stuff, right?  If you want your dancing to be your day job, then you need to behave professionally when you’re online.

 There are a few exceptions  to this rule. For example, if something went horrendously wrong at a gig, but it turned out to be a funny story- something that many dancers can relate to- then go ahead and post away! Similarly, if your addiction is glitter, buying or making costumes, or   something like that- as opposed to  some sort of  illegal controlled substance- go ahead and post  about it…cause everyone will relate to it!  And if   something terrible happened, like your sprained your ankle and need to cancel  some gigs, go ahead and post  that.  It will be a way of letting everyone know  (all at once)  why you aren’t showing up for a show or shows. And in a tough situation like this, which again,  every dancer can relate to it, you will probably  be pleasantly surprised at how supportive and generous  the dance community can be!

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Watch for Part Two in this series, which will  help you find your way in navigating social media sites  to their greatest advantage.



  Purchase an autographed copy of The Belly Dance Handbook: A Companion For The Serious Dancer  here: