“An old Cherokee tale tells of a grandfather teaching life principles to his grandson. The grandfather tells his grandson, ‘Son, on the inside of every person a battle is raging between two wolves. One wolf is evil — it is angry, jealous, unforgiving, proud and lazy. The other wolf is good — it is filled with love, kindness, humility, and self-control. The two wolves are constantly fighting.'”
The little boy thought about it and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf is going to win?”
The grandfather smiled and said, “Whichever one you feed.”
My bad wolf, pardon my French, is a huge bitch. She’s always telling me I can’t do things, scoffing at me when I think about the future and a career in dance, and is constantly pointing out my flaws. She’s irrational, completely psychotic, cruel, lazy, and lets her pride prevent her from taking risks. She holds impossible standards for me and does not forgive easily.
Call it what you want: Jung would call it “the shadow,” “The Artist’s Way” has named it the “Inner Critic,” call them your personal demons. I like the wolf because I like the imagery — I fight to keep the negative forces that rip and tear away at my psyche and sanity at bay, and it has been as savage and cruel as a wild animal. I have been fighting this creature most of my adult life, and I have noticed what it prefers to feast on. As artists and dancers, there are things we can do to prevent feeding those fears and insecurities that inhibit our art.
1) Stop comparing. This is one of the hardest things I think for dancers to turn off. Observing proper technique and negative, pointless comparisons are two completely separate things. In classes, I have been attempting to develop my dancing blinders. I try to only watch my teacher for proper form and then copy it on my body. Other than that, I don’t look at the other dancers. We’re all on our separate dance journeys. To quote Ben Folds, “There’s always someone cooler than you.” In the same vein, there are always better dancers than you and worse dancer than you. There’s no point in comparing.
2) Tear yourself away from the mirror. The mirror can be a great tool, but can also be a huge hindrance. In my experience, mirrors tend to exacerbate the comparison problem (see above). I find Suhaila-style drilling (walking around in a circle with hip movements) very useful because there’s only a small portion of the time that you can look in the mirror. While in front of the mirror, I check back in with my posture, technique, arm position, etc. and then try to hold it and commit it to muscle memory as I continue around the room. Getting in the habit of developing body awareness through feel and not sight (you know what your body looks like and can commit the right form to muscle memory without having to see yourself) is extremely useful — heck, that’s what you’re doing onstage! I know that thinking, “I look great in practice, why do I look like crap in performance videos?” leads my bad wolf to sneer, “Maybe it’s because you just suck.”
3) Cut out toxic people. Certain people have a way of getting under your skin. These people try to convince you your dreams aren’t valid, try to stand in the way of your success, try to convince you that you’re nothing without them, insult you, ask too much of you… there are countless ways that people try to manipulate you or poke at your weaknesses. I have tried to eliminate people in my life that want to bring me down, and instead I try to surround myself with strong, inspiring women. You don’t deserve to be treated poorly by anyone, and sometimes you need to just need to cut the toxic people off from feeding your negative wolf.
4) Practice non-self-deprecating humility. Why is it that women have a hard time not being self-deprecating? I bet you if you complimented 5 women who you know fairly well, 4 out of 5 would come back with some comment about their flaws. I personally have the hardest time accepting compliments, and used to launch into a laundry list of my faults any time someone said something nice to me. What I try to do now is smile, thank the person, and offer them a genuine compliment back. Obviously not everyone that compliments you is going to be someone you know well, so even a “Thank you for the compliment, that’s so thoughtful of you to say” is enough. The second part of this point is humility. Gaining self-confidence and getting egotistical are two completely separate animals. I try to balance my ego by training with the best instructors I can, setting goals and trying to reach them, and constantly remind myself I have tons more to learn. I think a lot of egos come from stagnancy. If you are always training hard and working toward goals, it’s easy to remember that you could study belly dance a lifetime and there will still be a wealth of things to learn or perfect. Socrates said it best: “The wisest man is he that knows he knows nothing.”
Belly dance has always been more than just exercise for me. It has been my therapy. It has reintroduced me to my sexuality, sensuality, and femininity. I have learned how to treat myself kindly and with respect. But most importantly, through working on this art form, I have learned how to become a better person toward myself and others. My hope is that more women can have the positive experience I have had with belly dance. Through dance, we can practice healthy ways to cultivate the better parts of our personality, and that WILL spread to how you live your life outside of dance.
I would like to end with a little affirmation that is meant to nourish our good wolf:
“I will observe proper technique in others without negative comparisons. I will surround myself with people that encourage my positive growth, and I won’t give my energy to those who want to bring me down. I will honestly observe my strengths and weaknessess, and I will cultivate confidence free of ego. I will love myself, laugh at myself, and forgive myself while I’m learning. I am proud of myself and of my art. I am an artist.”