The Towel Factor


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What Douglas Adams can teach belly dancers about performance

In the sci-fi comedy classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*, the Guide advises interstellar hitch-hikers to always carry a towel.
Not just because towels are useful, but because having one makes people think that you’re a respectable sort of person. And that makes them more likely to lend you other things that you may have “lost”
The same is true in belly dance.
Regardless of your actual level, there are some things that signal to an audience that you know what you’re doing.

When you have them, dancing that is just competent looks polished and professional.

When you don’t, even excellent dancing won’t land quite right.
Do you know where your towel is?

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In the sci-fi comedy classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the guide advises interstellar hitchhikers to always carry a towel. Not just because towels are useful, but because when you have a towel on you, people tend to think that you’re a respectable sort of person, and that makes them more likely to lend you other things that you may have “lost.” And the thing is, the same is true in dance. There are some things that will signal to an audience that you know what you’re doing. When you have these things, dancing that is just competent will look polished and professional. And when you don’t have them, even excellent dancing just won’t land quite right. Why is that?

Well, one of the things that I become more and more aware of the longer I dance is that most of belly dance is generic belly dance. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most of the pieces that we do are specialized, so each section of a show has special requirements. You wouldn’t dance to an introduction, veil, or drum solo in the same way. There are cultural genres that we use, like Egyptian Saidi. And there are specialty skills like floor work or sword balancing that have their own conventions. And to make things more complicated, these all overlap.

But the thing is, if you zoom in with your microscope and look at all of the individual moments or make a list of the moves that you actually use, you’ll find that most of the things that you actually do don’t fall under one specialty or another. It’s generic belly dance. Easily 80% of what you do on stage will be the same handful of moves that you learned in your first year or so of classes. This is true when you’re a baby performer, and it’s true when you’re a seasoned professional. So clearly it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

=And we have a ton of tools to help us make the most of our generic, basic vocabulary. But today I want to focus on just three that I think make the most difference in how the audience receives what you do. -The first is genre-specific knowledge. And these are all of the things that an educated audience would expect from a dance piece in that genre. This may include specialty movements, gestures, musicality, or other specific conventions. And the thing is, if you mostly use your universal belly dance vocabulary, follow your instincts when it comes to responding to music, and then just sprinkle that dancing with elements that show your knowledge of the genre, then you’ll come off as pretty knowledgeable.

The trick here is that you do need a decent amount of material. For example, throwing in one or two token gestures won’t really cut it. But if you have a substantial amount, you can still make the majority of what you do fairly generic material that you can draw on in many different types of pieces.

So a good starting point is 80/20, 80% of your universal knowledge and 20% of specialty stuff. For example, if you were dancing with a veil, that would look like 20% specialty veil movements and 80% dancing with your body, your arms, traveling, turning, and so on, just while you happen to be holding the veil in a pretty position. And that would actually come across really nicely. Now, when you become a veil expert, you might choose to do a high percentage of veil tricks, but you might not. It might vary by any given show.

Now, the second technique is polished arms. Our arms are the frame for everything that we do, so they’re always relevant. And in venues with bad sight lines, sometimes they’re the only thing the audience sees. So the more polished your arms are, the more of a polished impression you give. And that same impression will bleed through into the audience’s perception of the rest of your dancing. So for polished arms, you want to focus on strong extension. Imagine shooting energy out of your fingertips. You need clean lines, so the positions that you’re in are attractive and consistent. You can use the mirror to check on this, but it’s especially helpful to use video so you can see what happens while you’re not watching. And I always learn the most when I get a photo shoot. That’s when I find out all of the quirks in how I’ve been holding my arms.

You also want to work on smooth transitions. So practice pretty and comfortable ways to get from position A to position B. But also an overall awareness of your arms, the sense that your arms are always a conscious choice rather than falling out of your attention, can make a big difference in how the audience sees them. One thing that happens sometimes, especially when you reach the top of your attention budget, is that your arms may suddenly go lax, and then suddenly whip into whatever the next position is. And that’s a tell.

And our third technique is to have a relaxed, open expression and body language. Putting forward an image or a sense of relaxation goes an incredibly long way to how the audience receives you. If anything about your body language is expressing that you seem nervous, then they’re gonna feel bad for you, and that doesn’t help them enjoy your show. So here are a few quick tips. One is separate your teeth. Even if you’re not smiling, don’t let your teeth touch each other. This opens up your expression tremendously. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes a huge difference.

Another is to make sure that you keep your eyes up. It’s okay to look down briefly to direct the audience’s gaze, or if you want to have an introspective moment, but most dancers, especially in that tricky newly-minted zone where you’re out there performing but are still a little nervous, most dancers do this way too much. So a good rule of thumb is an absolute maximum of 20% of your time looking down, 80% at a neutral level or higher.

Another thing that you can do to have relaxed body language is to make sure that you’re dropping your shoulders. Often your shoulders can hold a lot of tension that can give away your nerves. So be sure to roll your shoulders back and down, and if you find yourself tensing up on stage, just do this one arm at a time, right shoulder, left shoulder, as a little shoulder roll, and it will still look intentional while giving you that reset that you need.

And the last body language issue is holding tension in your forehead, your mouth, your jaw, or elsewhere in your face. These are major tells, and they’re super common. So be sure to learn what it feels like in your body when that’s happening, when it tends to happen, and then work towards consciously relaxing. And again, this is one of those situations where video may give you more information than practicing in front of the mirror. But it makes a huge difference.

Now, none of this is a replacement for education. Of course you’re gonna want to keep growing your skills and your knowledge. But the thing is, fake it till you make it is a time-honored showbiz technique. And that’s for a reason. That’s because there are a lot of things that you can learn most efficiently by doing them, and there are some things that you can only learn on stage. So that means that you have to be willing to put yourself out there and make mistakes, sometimes in public, in order to grow. And that can be terrifying. You get so afraid that you’re going to let the audience down that you panic. But when you use these techniques, when you know where your towel is, you can make your dancing seem way above your level, and you can step out there being confident that even if you’re not dancing to the standard that you aspire to, that you’re still doing a good job.

Now, out of all of these, expression tends to be the hardest one to apply. So you may want to check out my video, “Expression in Improv.” This has some techniques to help you relax, open your expression, and be more communicative with the audience on stage. You can find that at, and if you like what you’re hearing, leave us a review on iTunes. It helps us out, and it helps other dancers find the show.

Your Turn

What do you think makes a dancer more credible to the audience?

What other tips do you have to share for genre knowledge arm polish, and body language?

Are you a Douglas Adams fan? If so, what’s your favorite of his books?

Is there another topic you’d like us to cover on the podcast?

We would love to hear from you.

Leave a comment below, or better yet, leave us a short voice message. Maybe we’ll even play it on the air!

Want More?

If keeping an open expression is challenging for you (especially in the heat of the moment), check out my video, Expression in Improv.

Check It Out

p.s. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are Amazon affiliate links. This means I get a small kickback if you use them to make a purchase.

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