Dance Theory and Practice

What Can Effortless Mastery Teach Us about Belly Dance Practice?

Effortless Mastery is a book written by Kenny Werner, an American jazz pianist and educator. It’s about overcoming dysfunctional fear-based practicing and playing music to achieve effortless mastery. I first heard it referred to by Alia Thabit in relation to belly dance. At first glance, the connection may not seem obvious, but have you ever been afraid of making a wrong move, or felt your body wracked by tension, or felt ‘stuck’, making the same mistakes over and over again while dancing? Strategies from Werner’s book can be used to overcome these (and other) issues in dance. I highly recommend reading the whole book to learn about Werner’s journey and how fear affects listening to and playing music, as well as practical steps to overcome this. In this blog, I’ll focus on the practical aspects, exploring how Werner’s strategies can be used to build your personal dance practice, and start a journey towards ‘effortless mastery’ in dance.

Werner’s method is a slow one, he suggests practicing only one thing at a time until it’s mastered, on the basis that it’s better to learn less material really well than more material superficially. Why does this make sense? You’ll make the same mistakes over and over again if you learn lots of things superficially. If you actually take the time to achieve mastery you will stop making the same mistake, and will be easier to learn more material in the future. For me, one of the things I’m working on now is having purposeful (not flappy) arms. If I keep learning off lots of dances without taking as long a time as I need to address my arms, I will still have flappy arms years later.

Werner proposes a four-step method to achieve effortless mastery. And one step must be achieved before the next. This could take weeks or months or years, but that’s ok, it’s a journey, not a race.

1. Find ‘the space’

Stand in your dance space. Observe your body and physical sensations. Detach into ‘the space’.

2. Stay detached while moving

Play any music. Find ‘the space’. Move freely without consequence. You are detached (the observer). If you lose ‘the space’, stop the music, pause, find ‘the space’, and start again.

3. Effort = the distance between you and mastery

Decide in advance what you are going to dance. Put on the music, and as in Step 2, stay detached while dancing in ‘the space’. Go on a fact-finding mission, take notes of what didn’t work, for example by recording and re-watching your practice. Again, if you lose ‘the space’, stop, pause, find it, and start again.

4. Effortless mastery

Address the issue(s) you uncovered in Step 3, one at a time. Effortless mastery, according to Warner, is doing these four things at the same time: dancing effortlessly, dancing perfectly, dancing in time, and dancing the entire example. In your practice, aim to do three of the four, typically dancing effortlessly, perfectly, and in time (not the entire example). That might mean practicing a few seconds of a dance at a time over and over again until each bit is mastered, building up to the entire piece. This practice should be done in ‘the space’, slowly and deliberately, in no hurry to move on until each issue is overcome one at a time.

Next time you dance, try out this method. Try to find ‘the space’, where you can detach and observe your body while you move to music. When you’ve found it, start a targeted practice where you notice what’s not working with your dance, without judging. Keep yourself in ‘the space’, and practice that bit that doesn’t work until you can dance it effortlessly, perfectly, and in time. If you lose ‘the space’, stop, take time to find it, and start again. Keep doing this until you can dance the whole piece effortlessly, perfectly, and in time. This takes time, so don’t be disappointed if progress feels achingly slow. Over time your dancing will blossom from a tiny seed to a beautiful flower.

Recommended Reading

Werner, Kenny. 1996. Effortless Mastery. New Albany, IN, USA: Jamey Aebersold Jazz.

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