How to Get Your Mojo Back for Belly Dance
Everyone is an individual, and the secret to rediscovering your mojo is as individual as you are. There are a few solutions you might try:
- Take a break.
- If you're a professional, find someone to cover for you, and dance for fun instead of teaching/performing.
- If you're a student, take a break from performing, or change teachers, or try a new dance style.
- Examine your non-dancing life and address any issues there.
- Start a journal or blog to clarify your thoughts and feelings.
- Book some sessions with a counsellor or life coach.
Above all, be kind to yourself.
I love to dance. So when I stopped looking forward to class and had to force myself to rehearse, I couldn't understand what was wrong. Then I read an article in the Australian dance magazine, Belly Dance Oasis (by Samantha Moore). She referenced a post by Kalikah Jade about "Belly-Burnout". Then, just a week later, Keti Sharif was posting on Facebook on the same topic. I wasn't alone!
When I stopped to think about it, I recalled that I'd had this experience before. More than once, in fact.
After giving up dance to pursue my career in my twenties, I rediscovered ballet in my thirties and loved it. But then my beloved ballet teacher died. His wife continued the classes, and I attended for a while, but even she noticed something was missing. One day, she drew me aside and asked me what was wrong, because (she said) I used to have a spark glowing inside when I danced, and it had gone out.
I thought a break might help, so I decided to try flamenco. A dance teacher had told me, years before, that I'd be a natural for flamenco—"It's written all over your body," she said. Turned out, she was right, and I took to it like a duck to water, progressing very quickly and ultimately performing. But ten years on, I had a major relationship breakup, and somehow, I broke up with flamenco too. I tried a belly dancing class and was invigorated by the relaxed sensuality of the moves, as opposed to the rigid control of flamenco.
Today I'm feeling a little out of love with belly dance, or perhaps I'm feeling that it's out of love with me. It's hit me harder this time because I'm older now, and most other dance genres are now beyond my physical capacity (hip hop at 60+, anyone?). So how do I rekindle the love? First, I need to understand why the love relationship has gone sour.
Googling, I found that belly dance fatigue is startlingly common. How can our beautiful dance form cause this reaction? I do notice that it's mainly professionals who suffer this malaise, and I have a theory. Think back to when you started belly dancing in the first place. Why did you do it? Was it because you dreamed of spending your evenings teaching other women, or rushing from gig to gig? Or was it because it enriched you, gave you the freedom to truly express yourself, made you feel part of a sisterhood?
"Do What You Love" . . . ?
We've all heard the advice that you should turn your passion into your profession—"Do what you love." But is it really a good idea to turn something you choose to do for pleasure, into something you must do to earn your living? Is it the right decision to turn a source of joy into an obligation?
Years ago, I read a fascinating article in my local newspaper. It was by a man who had dreamed of being a photographer. For years, he was stuck in a boring job and spent all his free time taking photographs and learning his craft. Then he came into a small inheritance and decided to use it to open his own photography studio.
At first, he revelled in his new career. After all, don't they say that if you do what you love, it doesn't feel like work? But gradually, he found he wasn't enjoying himself. It puzzled him, until he worked out why:
As an amateur photographer, photography was his escape and his respite, a special time where he could express himself and explore his creativity. As a professional photographer, he was obliged to photograph what other people wanted. Photography was no longer an escape and a respite, it was a job—he was no longer free to enjoy it on his own terms.
I think this is what is happening to our belly dance teachers. We've been told to "do what you love", without realising that turning a passion into a job can kill the passion. Perhaps more of us need to think about why we're so avidly climbing the belly dance ladder?
I read another interesting quote by Alia Thabit in Belly Dance Oasis, talking about the pressure to perform:
Something that puzzles Easterners about the way this dance is taught in the West is...there is this expectation that everyone will become a performer. In the East...it's a playful, fun, social dance; only a tiny percentage are performers. Think about people who do yoga: they don't go to yoga class expecting to become a teacher...they go because yoga enriches their life. We could stand a lot more social dance in the belly dance world.— Alia Thabit
The Pressure to Perform
Of course, there are many dancers who are energised by performing (that used to be me). But I suspect there are many dancers like our photographer, who didn't realise that the freedom of photographing just for himself was a big part of what made it special—and when they turn their focus outwards to pleasing others (whether it's clients or an audience), eventually they forget why they loved their hobby in the first place.
I used to love performing, but now I'm older, I am more conscious of the pressure to perform. More than any other dance genre, it's a big feature of belly dance. Students are encouraged to perform in public, often from their very first year of study.
It's so taken for granted that, like most belly dancers, I always assumed that when a student was reluctant to perform, they were just lacking confidence. I was sure the person would discover they loved it if only they'd try. I think back to all those classes where I (and the other students) "encouraged" someone to join us in performance. At the time, I thought we were gently persuading—now I cringe because to the poor victim, it must have felt like badgering!
Now I understand those reluctant performers much better. Though I still enjoy dancing in my sixties, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed performing. When I'm offered the chance to perform, I'm inclined to grab the opportunity automatically—"This is what I do; I'm a dancer"—but I always feel down and dissatisfied afterward because I know the performance fell far short of what I was aiming for. My aging body simply isn't capable anymore.
I recognise that the sour taste after a show is affecting my overall attitude to belly dance. Perhaps for me, the solution is to forget performing and learn to enjoy dancing for its own sake?
Perhaps for students who are experiencing pressure from the teacher or their fellow students, a firm word to the teacher is required?
The Pressure to Achieve
Another pressure is the increasing expectation that everyone should be eager to be educated.
When I started to learn belly dance, most teachers simply taught Egyptian or Turkish cabaret-style belly dance (raqs sharki). You learned the music, the rhythms, the technique, the steps—in the same way you learn them in ballet or modern jazz. When I did ballet, although I read a lot about the background and theory of ballet out of interest, I didn't study it seriously. Many professional ballet dancers would have done less study than me.
In recent years, perhaps due to concerns about cultural appropriation, it's no longer enough to take that approach in belly dance. If you don't study the "cultural context' of the dance form, you're doing the wrong thing.
For teachers, that means a lot more financial and time pressure, immersing yourself in Egyptian culture and learning all the folkloric dances and music that have fed into belly dance over the centuries. One belly dance teacher told me that if you haven't done all of that study, you are not "a proper belly dancer", regardless of how beautifully you can dance!
For students, it may or may not be a problem. It's a problem for me. I was attracted to belly dance by the emotional expressiveness, and the variety and complexity of movements, from sharp and cheeky to soft and sensuous. But now, thanks to this drive to be culturally educated, teachers have started devoting entire terms to folkloric dances instead—which, by their nature, are social dances designed for non-dancers, with simple, basic steps. The steps present no challenge, and there's no opportunity for emotional expressiveness (apart from a friendly smile). I'm bored, and long for the days when I could just dance and not have to be "educated".
For me, the solution is to hop from school to school so I can miss those boring periods, but that is not always possible.
Overwork and Underwork
This reason applies to teachers and performers rather than students. If students are overworked in their daily lives, they may not feel like going to class—but if they can drag themselves to the studio, they'll usually find that a good hour of dancing restores their energy and good spirits. The solution is simply to get there!
It's rare for teachers or performers to feel overworked—quite the reverse, in fact, as dance gigs can be hard to come by and class numbers ebb and flow. However, most professionals have a "day job", or family responsibilities, or are studying, and trying to juggle that with their dance career can be exhausting.
The solution is simple in theory—be willing to turn down gigs or reduce the number of classes you offer. It's not so simple in practice, because what you really want is to do more dance work and less day job. One solution, if you can afford it, is to look for part-time work, or another occupation which is less pressurised or has less overtime.
Underwork is a common stress if you're trying to make a living from your dancing. Unfortunately, there's no easy solution, other than to accept that very, very few dancers make a full-time living at it. Another source of income is essential if you're going to find a solution.
Fatigue, Illness, Depression
When you lose your enthusiasm for dance, it's not always the dance that's at fault.
You have a life outside dance and that may be what's affecting you. If your "real life" is affecting your mood, then dance can be a valuable tool in lifting your spirits—but that doesn't mean teaching and may not even mean going to class. It means going into your bedroom or spare room, closing the door, putting on the music and letting it wash over you. If it makes you dance, let it. Dancing out your frustrations can be cathartic.
You may need help to identify what those outside influences are. Putting it down on paper can help—perhaps start a journal. Talk to a friend, or ring a helpline. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to seek out a counsellor.
If your negative feelings are oppressive or persistent, they’re beyond the scope of this article. Please seek professional help.
Feeling the Weight of Expectations
Even teachers and performers at the peak of their career can experience burnout. For them, it's particularly hard, because of the expectations of them. They may have a full diary of bookings stretching to the end of the year, a full calendar of classes, or a big show they're expected to create. How can they take a break without disappointing a whole community of people?
You can try to push through. Again, journalling can help. A course of regular sessions with a counsellor or life coach may not reignite your passion, but it can bolster your determination to plough through this bad patch.
Or you can seek someone else to cover for you while you have a break. If you can choose this route, you're likely to recover much faster than if you try to keep going.
However you choose to tackle your burnout, I wish you success. Good luck!
There's a surprising number of articles on this subject—at least, surprising to me—which just goes to show how common this phenomenon is.
Here's Helen Santa Maria's take on the subject. This post from Belly Dance at Any Size expresses much the same emotions. Or you can check out Carmelita's post (I like the way she talks about recharging your shimmy batteries!). I also found articles on Gilded Serpent and Sophia Ravenna's blog on how to go about recovering from burnout.
© 2020 Marisa Wright