Inez Ponce de Leon - Artist, Writer, Scholar, Educator

Inez's Diary: T -19 days: Ten Things I Learned from My Belly Dance Teacher

I first met Wendi in a graduate class on the nature of science at Purdue. We didn't talk a lot during class - so she didn't know that one weekend, I completely wrecked my laptop just watching belly dance tutorial videos. Three days after I tossed my laptop in the trash, I was back in class, and there was Wendi, inviting all of us to take belly dance lessons under Purdue's Mirage.

So I thought: sure! I had no laptop to speak of, and I had nothing to help me cope with the cold. Therefore, belly dance.

Four years later, I'm teaching my own classes; I'm raising my own troupe; and I'm going insane picking out a song for my solo. Four years later, Wendi and I both have our PhDs; we're half a world apart; and we're still dancing.

I don't think I've paid enough tribute to the Wendi who wasn't just a mentor and classmate, but the Amirah who was a teacher and dancer as well. I've learned a lot from her, and I haven't forgotten any of the lessons. Ask my students. They get earfuls every meeting.

American Cabaret, American Tribal Style, Improvisational Tribal Style, and Tribal Fusion - Thank you, Wendi, for all the lessons in all the styles. I learned a lot, and I'm passing it all on.

Belly Dance is a great equalizer - Belly dance is for EVERYONE, regardless of size, skin color, nationality, height, weight, gender, religion, even planet. You are judged on the emotions you convey AND your technique: anyone who criticizes dancers for not being "sexy" enough doesn't deserve to be part of belly dance - because belly dance is NOT about being sexy. It's about loving yourself and expressing yourself. It's an art, no matter what the mass media tells you.

Everything is a step-by-step process - You learn cabaret and oriental - then you go to tribal style - then you go to tribal fusion. Learn the footwork first, then layer the movements, then add strong arms, then add the stage presence. Be patient. Whether it's onstage and under the lights, or out in the real world and on the street, you can't have everything immediately. You learn everything slowly, and that's how the lessons REALLY stick.

Use your muscles - Thanks to Wendi, I've memorized most of the major muscle groups in my body. I dance with muscle squeezes, and not just shapes, in mind. Muscle control also forms the base of my classroom lessons. Class, use your oblique. Now try using your knees. Now try squeezing one of your glutes. See how different they all feel?

ARMS! POSTURE! - I've nicknamed myself the Arm Nazi in class. I don't let 5 minutes go by without checking everyone's posture. In belly dance, the arms frame all movements: well-positioned, strong arms highlight the simplest movements and make them beautiful; undisciplined arms can turn even the best dancers into floppy puppets. So yes, everyone: ARMS!

Speaking of which: POSTURE! Feet forward, knees soft, pelvis tucked under, shoulders up and back, look straight at your audience, arms out to standard, dance like a queen. I've had the routine memorized, thanks to Wendi, who never stopped pushing her dancers to do better. From my first few minutes in class to the very last moments with the Mecca Shiva dance troupe, no one was exempted from the posture check. The posture brought out the best in all of us; it made me walk taller; it made me even more confident... and to this day, no one in class hears the end of it.

Stage presence changes everything - The most technical dancers look dead with zero stage presence; the simplest steps look even more complex and beautiful when the dancer's eyes are afire with life. And it's not just about a plastered smile and a single look of enjoyment - real stage presence is about being filled with the music, and letting it glow through your skin. Someone once taught me to nurse the fire in my belly, and then let it live in my eyes. A dance, then, could never be called a performance unless stage presence was part of the package.

With zero musicality, your dance is just exercise - It's probably one of the most important lessons that a teacher can pass on to her student, but it's also the most difficult to impart. What is musicality, anyway? It's playing the music through your movement, so that it appears as though the music is coming from your body. It's becoming a vessel for the music, so that every step conveys a note, a pause, a verse. It's what makes the "cute" parts "cute"; it's what makes your fellow dancers go "whoa"; it's what makes the audience go "awww". And it's a lesson I teach nearly every meeting, as I ask students to name what instruments or music go with what kinds of steps. Musicality even influences what songs I choose to dance to... which brings me to...

Pick a song that you can play with - I've made a lot of mistakes in song choices. I picked pop songs that had nothing but beats. I picked melodic pieces that had nothing but violins. I picked dance songs that nothing but drums and repeating vocals. Today, I carefully sort through songs. I look for the dramatic pauses that abruptly go into smooth strings, or the smooth vocals that suddenly stop, or the verses that end with "cute" drumbeats. I need big songs for group numbers, and small songs for solos. I need the right song that will make every dance a real performance.

Know what the song means before you dance to it - El Enab compares women to fruits. A long and slow start - the taqsim - demands slow movement and emotion. Don't pick the religious songs even if they sound nice. And for goodness' sake, look for the song translation. All these lessons have helped me dance better, especially since I'm careful about what kind of stage presence I need in order to do a song justice.

Before you fuse, learn about what you're fusing - I didn't realize how important this lesson was until I started watching more fusion videos. There was flamenco fusion, where the dancer couldn't dance flamenco and didn't have a clue what tribal was. There was hip hop fusion, where the dancer didn't know any hip hop and wasn't even good at tribal. So I've made it my mission to learn more, because no fusion is true fusion if it just fuses what little you know of X and Y.

So Wendi - thank you. From the bottom of my heart, from a grateful dancer, and now, teacher, thank you. May you continue to inspire more dancers.

Watch Wendi's grand-dance-students, the Illuminata; as well as Inez; and many other dancers at this year's Belly Fest! The show starts at 7 PM on September 7, at the Irwin Theater on the Ateneo campus. Find out more at http://bellyfest.asiapad.com