The feels!

As we say on Tumblr whenever a fandom is emotional: “The feels!!!”  What this means is, “This [scene, character, plot development, fandom news] is so moving, I can’t even put it into words.”

When I was younger, I didn’t pay must attention to film or actors.  I never wanted to be an actor, so the whole acting thing never captured my full attention.  Sometimes I would watch the Academy Awards shows, but I didn’t really understand what made a great actor.  Little did I know that acting, honest, true, and visceral acting would impact my life as a dancer as an adult.

Suhaila Salimpour’s belly dance format receives a lot of attention for its physical dance drills and technique, and rightfully so.  Glute squeezes, muscular execution of movement, proper alignment, stamina, sweat: all very important elements for any belly dancer’s training.  What doesn’t get attention is the equal importance, if not emphasized importance, the format places on acting in Level 3 and beyond.  We don’t explore acting deeply until Level 3, because at that level, we’re expected to have such strong muscle memory and physical training that the emotional work can glide along on top of it.

When I say “acting”, I don’t mean “pretending”.  Nor do I mean that we only do theater games such as “Machine” (although we do those with outstanding acting coach Sandey Grinn but with an added layer of emotional depth).  When I say “acting”, what I really mean is what the great acting instructor Sanford Meisner called “liv[ing] truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”  Suhaila and Sandey guide us through sometimes gut-wrenching exercises to get us in touch with our true feelings. These exercises are exhausting, and we go through a lot of Kleenex.  It’s a bit like finding your inner 5-year-old.  Young children aren’t aware of their emotions, they just feel them.

When you watch a truly great actor, you aren’t seeing him or her pretend to be a character; you see them become the character.  There is no barrier between them and the person they are portraying.  Sometimes this is referred to as “Method Acting”, although the term refers to several different approaches, including those created and explored by Constantin StanislavskyStella Adler and Lee Strasburg.

I’ve started to pay more attention to actors in the shows and movies that I watch.  The actors who really capture my attention are the ones that live in the moment.  It’s clear that they haven’t thought about what they’re going to do, or how they’ll say a line. The director yells, “Action!” and the actor is there, in character, just being, not thinking.  They have completely stepped out of their own way to be the character.

One actress who has really caught my attention is Jennifer Lawrence.  Now, I admit, I was a fan of The Hunger Games book series before the movie was released, but it is Lawrence who really makes the movie.  Of course, she is in nearly every shot, as she plays the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers in place of her younger sister to be in the annual fight-to-the-death in a future, totalitarian North America. Lawrence approaches her character without fear, without forethought.  She has researched her character, but she hasn’t said to herself, “OK, first I’m going to make this face, and then I’m going to do this with my hands.” She just does it.  Her colleagues say that she would be goofing around on set, being herself, and then be completely in character when filming a scene… and then she would return to being herself right after the director yelled, “Cut!”  When her character is about to be sent into the arena, she’s visibly shaking out of fear.  Later in the film, when pouring water over a severe burn on her leg, it looks as though she’s actually in pain.  Lawrence isn’t playing at being in pain; she is in pain, but the burn on her leg is just prosthetics and makeup. One fan said she’s brilliant because she isn’t afraid of doing the “ugly cry”, and I think that assessment, as simple as it is, is spot on correct.

I’ve also recently discovered BBC’s series Sherlock, a modern update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The writing and direction is fantastic, but the acting is impeccable.  Martin Freeman’s John Watson is subtle and emotional.  You forget that you’re watching an actor;  you truly believe his limp, his confusion, and eventually his pain. (No spoilers here.) Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is equally brilliant, but for completely different reasons.  As a Sherlock with probable Asperger’s Syndrome, he is incisive, analytical, and emotionally detached, until someone close to him is either hurt or in danger.  His eyes shift from cold to warm, instantly.  Cumberbatch himself probably isn’t emotionally detached and analytical; but he lives it in the series.  The acting on this show isn’t obvious; real acting must be honest, and sometimes honesty isn’t in your face.

Where am I going with all of this?  As dancers, we must be real on stage, and having an understanding of acting helps us in finding that truth under “imaginary circumstances”.  We must have an instant emotional reaction to the music to which we are dancing.  I know that if I think about the piece I’m about to perform too much, if I try to shoehorn a story into it, the piece falls flat.  I’ve thought about it too much, and my head gets in the way.  In order to be real, we must get out of our own way and just be.  I’ve seen plenty of performances where the dancer has little-to-no emotion on her face; I have also seen the opposite where the emotions were Vaudevillian and over-acted.  It’s rare when either of these approaches are emotionally successful.  Both can be entertaining in their own way, but emotionally they often fall flat.

A dancer or an actress can train herself to feel and express her emotions when she is performing.  It takes a dash of fearlessness, and she must trust herself to “go there”.  Some of us fear that once we “go there”, we will never come back.  So rarely is this true.   Dancer Sera Solstice said in on of her workshops, a long while back, that you must be willing to “give your throat to the wolves”.  When we dance without fear of judgement, of negative feedback, of rejection, that is when we are most powerful.

Although it can be scary, we have to trust our instincts, no matter how emotional, livid, sorrowful, or exuberant they might be. And sometimes when we perform so in the moment, our movements might not be pretty.  Sometimes we must do the “ugly cry”.  When we experience real emotions on stage, our audience will feel them too.  Humans are intrinsically connected through feeling.  In the end, dance isn’t about tricks or gimmicks; dance is about conveying emotion on top of polished and solid technique. Great art is about connecting with our viewers, audiences, and souls.  I’ve started to judge art by how much it makes me cry. If a movie or piece of music or dance performance makes me cry, either out of sadness or joy or even overwhelming emotion that I can’t even identify at the time, then I know it has succeeded. I really want to feel something visceral and real.  And what moves me might not move you.  What moves you, and what about it grabs your heart?



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I’ve been approaching this in a few ways, lately. I’ve found that my choreographed pieces come from my personal experiences. Because they’re stories I want to share, I can’t fake the feelings that develop when I perform them. When it comes to improvisation, I approach it as a conversation among myself, the music, and the audience. We’re all getting to know each other, and we’re going on a journey together.

It’s something that I constantly work on as I look to move beyond the intense bitchface that I’m known for having.




    I love this assessment of choreography vs. improvisation. And I never thought you had “bitchface”, but I think I always look like I smelled something awful when I dance.




      soo interesting- I have dove in to the L3 material and find myself feeling more vulnerable although- when “letting myself feel more” I like to come across as a tough lady that has all her ducks in a row- but the dance seems more powerfull to the audience to the artist ( any dance) when you “give your throat to the wolves”

      and i totally hear you on the bad smell dance face- I feel like I have that too- lol




Haha I love that gif! I like your insights on this one.

I think this is where a lot of ATS misses the mark. It takes a long time to get that muscle memory happening to the point where it is comfortable to dance spontaneously and for the followers to ALSO be dancing and expressive and not simply following a long. I have been working on this in my own dancing, too, after seeing one video of a performance where I was definitely “there” followed by one where I definitely was spacing out and unfocused or for whatever reason not fully into it. Amy is also always busting on me to “give me more face!” Now when I drill I have this mantra that goes, “This is the most fascinating and delightful thing I could possibly be doing right now!” I think it is helping. Rachel Brice also does a lot of simple theater and dance games in the 8 Elements intensive that helped me. On one hand, I think it’s possible to work on the acting/emotive part simultaneous to basic training like that, because having a vision about what you’re communicating in your dance helps shape even the fundamentals. On the other hand, I can see in my own training I need TONS of repetition, maybe even more than most people to nail down the movements to gain enough confidence to be expressive on top of that.




Flissy – I agree with you, and I think ATS is a unique case. It’s a craft, in one sense; when we learn ATS we are learning a system of movements so that we can dance with other dancers who also know the system of movements. We don’t learn ATS so that we can make personal art, really. ATS in its essential form isn’t a means for expressing a wide range of emotions. In a way, though, it does have a built-in emotional perspective, which I think is, “I’m so happy to be dancing with these ladies and sharing what I love with you, the audience.” And I think “joy” is a perfectly valid emotional perspective. :)




I think ATS is its own dance entity in this regard; the point of ATS is, in my opinion, less on “performance”, and more about interaction and emotion between the dancers themselves. One of the things that drew me so strongly to ATS over more “traditional” forms of bellydance was the elements of collaborative work, and what I perceived as the underlying stories told between dance partners in the formations. While ATS is gorgeous to watch from an audience, it’s the partners with a strong underlying connection who really make you “wow” when you see them perform the same movements and formations you may have learned yourself.

I think that same “wow” factor carries over to all dance forms, and most stage & acting performance in general. You can go through the movements exactly the same as you were taught, be technically correct in all aspects, and still leave a viewer “cold” if your heart isn’t in it.

(I totally agree with you. Is what I am saying. ;))




It is hard to present an emotional perspective other than “we are a strong, united and joyous group with ATS/group improv. In my former troupe we did one piece that was notable for that, which was to “Home” by Rohan. The theme was basically about findings home, and we used that for the staging, beginning in a circle facing out, breaking off into different groups to try to find our place, ending in a circle facing in. Within that it was all slow improv. Judging by the audience response (lots of tears) it was effective, but i’m not sure we were ever able to really replicate that with other pieces. it’s much much easier to throw together a set that looks cool then it is to develop and present one with a specific perspective.




I found this post really thought-provoking. For me, this is one of the most difficult parts of dancing. With technique, you can be confident that if you have good teachers and practise diligently then you will improve, but it is much harder to know how to work on the emotional side.

I’m quite shy, and also British, so I come from a culture where people don’t openly display their emotions and don’t really use gestures or body language much compared to people in Europe or the Middle East. So even though I may feel strong emotions when listening to music, I often struggle to translate those emotions into appropriate movement, because my own ‘natural’ culturally ingrained reaction is pretty much to display no outward signs…




Thank you so much Asharah for writing about this! I studied Meisner a bit in school, and recently I’ve been thinking so much about the intersection of acting and belly dance. It’s exciting to hear that Suhaila emphasizes it in her classes.




    Cool! And, yeah, Suhaila studied with Meisner (I’m not sure for how long), but it made such an impact on her and her approach to dancing that she now has all of us in Level 3 and higher study him and his acting techniques. GAH repetition! :)



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