We recently came across Christy Greene’s blog post “Why Certify”, in which she provides her thoughts about belly dance certification, specifically Suhaila’s format. She gave us permission to repost her editorial in our blog. Please take a minute to sit in a comfortable chair, drink a cup of tea and read the full editorial below.
As class was finishing the other day, the group was discussing what they needed to know to certify for Level 1 this coming October. One of my newer students asked me why would someone certify: what did it mean and what would be the point. I answered her question but somehow, my answer seemed inadequate. It has gnawed at me for days. I gave my reasons for certifying: to be held accountable, to have measurable progress, to legitimize myself as a teacher and as a practitioner of the dance, to accomplish and move forward in a program like any other serious course of study, and to begin the deep emotional work, which starts in Level 3.
These are all totally legitimate reasons for undertaking Suhaila’s certification program, but I feel that my brief overview of an answer did not give proper weight to the underlying motivation.
Perhaps because I have been in the program for some time, I take for granted my decision a number of years ago, to pursue this format. Perhaps some of my reasoning has evolved. Perhaps I rushed through my reasons because part of me thought: “I do it because I am a professional and need accreditation, but that most of the students I teach don’t need that” … that is so far from the truth.
I made the decision and commitment to bring this certification program to all belly dancers in Calgary because I believe in it. Because of the dancer, performer, and teacher it is creating in me. I believe in Suhaila’s format more today than I did the day I tested for Level 1 because I have seen the results in other dancers. I have seen the results in myself. Why certify? Here’s why.
Belly dance is a popular recreational activity for many women and some men, and it is an activity chosen primarily for fun, to spend time with girlfriends, to get in shape… Those who love it and stick with it often credit the sense of community they have found, perhaps they enjoy the opportunity to perform, to wear the fabulous costumes, or to move in a way that women want to move but aren’t often given permission. All excellent reasons to try, to stay, and to make it a lifelong habit! But what about the rest of us … those of us who, yes, love it for some or all of these reasons, but who want more? Who want to be challenged more deeply, above and beyond the current norm; to be the best dancers, the best artists we can be?
Now, I’m not talking professionals here, but people who want to continue to be challenged all of their belly dancing lives, be they professional or recreational. Are we left with supplementing our dance of choice with more technical, challenging dance forms such as jazz and ballet? Don’t get me wrong, I take three ballet classes a week, along with weekly modern, jazz, latin, dancehall, yoga and whatever else my schedule allows me to fit in along with my online classes and the classes I teach. Cross-training is necessary if we want to be the best dancers we can be. But, we have an incredible opportunity to take our dance of choice farther than anyone in the history of this dance ever has before, thanks to Suhaila’s format.
I am currently listening to the audiobook Talent is Overrated, which breaks down the reasons why some have achieved excellence in their field, while others have not. A key ingredient in the long-researched debate surrounding nature vs. nurture, is described as “deliberate practice”: the focused time spent working on specific tasks related to the goal and the repetition of these tasks, which are specifically designed and from which progress can be measured. The tasks are hard, usually not fun and require a good deal of commitment of time and energy.
Suhaila has developed a program that allows us as belly dancers to take part in deliberate practice. Through a process of doing repetitive drills that are specific, challenging, and require a great deal of effort over a long period of time. Our progress can be measured by our increasing ability to to perform these progressively more challenging drills proficiently — proven through the testing process of her level system. We have the opportunity to undertake a course of study that is by every measure as difficult as any formalized western dance form. And this describes only the physical side of her program.
Part of the trouble we encounter here is one of the reasons belly dance is so popular: we can all do it. Every woman with every body and every background can learn it, most can perform it, many can teach it. There is no accreditation, no certification body to which members are held accountable, no measure by which any new student can determine to which teacher is worth giving their precious time and money. And to be frank, there is huge resistance to the prospect of the sheer amount of mental and physical work that would need to go into it for each of us to actually be the best dancer we can be. We live in a quick fix world; and in a field of pretty good, we can all be at least good. There is not much that we see done on the belly dance stage that most of us couldn’t do ourselves with just a bit of extra effort. There is a huge status quo we have to overcome if we are going to progress as dancers, as a community.
This is not to say that our dance and the culture surrounding it doesn’t already hold a good deal for us to learn. It does. We have regional folkloric styles from which the popular / modern styles have been shaped. We have a plethora of rhythms within a wide range of music with which to become intimately aquainted. We have a good deal of historical and cultural context from many countries and from ancient and modern societies to consider. There are a number of traditional and non-traditional props, not to mention all avenues of stylistic evolution that have turned tradition on its heels in the past couple of decades. But the problem with folkloric based dance is that it tends to be rather general. “Moves” tend to be one-sided/uni-directional and are traditionally taught in the watch-and-follow method that tends to be rather vague, by instructors who are often unable to break down the movement. The beauty of Suhaila’s format is that it allows us a very specific context to break down any movement into its origin, musculature and timing such that any “move” that is taught can be reversed, turned upside down and inside out, done halfway or three-quarters of the way, layered with another component in a completely different time signature; and it all makes perfect sense and is repeatable and teachable in its finest detail. It takes away the general and the “kinda sorta”, and leaves us with such specificity; students of her format have the opportunity to be infinitely better dancers and better teachers.
I adore excellence. I am not satisfied with good enough. I would be bored to tears if I didn’t have the massive challenge that is this program in front of me. I don’t want to “feel like” I’m improving as a dancer. I want to know exactly where my weaknesses are and then, know exactly what I must do to improve. This course of study gives immediate feedback. The layering is so complex, either I can do it or I can’t; but the structure behind the layering is so specific, that it is “easy” to go backwards and work on the individual components until I can do the exercise in its entirety.
I aspire to the kind of excellence this program offers. This doesn’t mean I have to be the best belly dancer by any measure. I got over my competitive nature when I hit 30. But I will be the best dancer I can be, and I will work to make that happen. I owe it to my audience, to my community, and to myself. This program is not easy. It isn’t fun to stand alone in my studio, drilling away to Suhaila’s or Andrea’s voice over the sound system “rightleftrightleftrightleftoneandtwoandthreeandfourand” for hours a day. But I do it, because I know it works. I drive myself across the city twice a day to my extra dance classes. I put on the silly tights and I endure the humiliation of being the least competent ballet student, because I know that this is what it takes to be a better dancer. And I do love it.
We don’t need to aspire to be professional belly dancers to get with the certification program. Most of Suhaila’s students are not professionals. Most do the program for the same reasons my students come to class: for fun, for community, for physical fitness, eventually to perform…but what about doing it for one more reason? Why wouldn’t we want to be the best dancer we each can be regardless of whether we are performers, teachers or lifelong junkies? I say we each take this incredible gift of Suhaila’s format and see just how far we can really progress . . . how much we can surprise ourselves. Let’s see what Calgary and the world can become, together.
Christy (Maya) is performer, teacher, workshop promoter, event producer and student of belly dance. She currently holds Suhaila Level 2 certification. Click here to learn more about Christy and Eighth Wonder Studio. Click here to read Christy’s original “Why Certify” Blog which was posted February 2012.