Finding a Teacher and Getting Started
I received a nice email recently from a guy who was wanting to learn Belly Dancing, and was asking many of the same questions, and grappling with many of the same issues I did when I first started. If I asked these questions, and he is asking them, I figured that others would be asking them too. Hence this article. It does repeat some information found elsewhere on this site, but I figured that it would help to have it all in one place.
The man driven to be a Belly Dancer is a man driven indeed. But if there is no help for it, he must first ask himself if he is secure enough in himself to enter the feminine world this dance occupies.
Are You Ready?
I have seen several males come to beginning Belly Dance class. Most of them last exactly one class! Why?
I can only speculate. Possibilities include:
- He felt clumsy and awkward, especially in the presence of so many graceful ladies. "I'll never be able to do this."
- He was put off by the perceived "femininity" and/or the feminine context in which the class is taught.
- He might have even been put off by my presence, rather than re-assured. He may have seen my movements, decided that they looked too "feminine" on a male, and that he didn't want to look like that!
- Any or all of the above made him very self-conscious!
Regardless, walking into a Belly Dance class is a daunting idea to most males. It needn't be. Most Belly Dance classes are very much welcoming to a male. Just be prepared to feel awkward, alien or otherwise less than comfortable. It will pass quickly, I promise!
I suggest you give yourself AT LEAST 8 weeks. See if you find yourself improving and less self-conscious. This doesn't mean you have to be Mr. Belly Dancer of the universe, but are you improving? Then take it from there. Trust me, you'll be improving, however slowly, after 8 weeks - especially if you practice!
There are only a few pre-requisites for joining a beginner's class:
- You must be reasonably secure in yourself.
- You must respect women.
- You must be able to function in a feminine environment. This means the gals will talk girl talk. This actually is fascinating! You'll be privy to a world most men never see, and it is quite educational!
- It helps to have a sense of humor!
- You must be able to walk.
- You must be willing to work hard!
Finding a Teacher
First, and foremost, you'll need a teacher if at all possible. Videos, books, and the Web aren't the same. As I state in my Male Belly Dance FAQ, you'll probably have a female teacher, and you'll probably be the only male in class.
Your prospective teacher must first of all be willing to accept a male in her class! Most will (including most "big name" teachers!), but some will not. Reasons some will not include:
- She has had males before, and they came to hit on the females or ogle the "eye candy".
- Another teacher she knows has had similar problems.
- She's afraid a male in the class will inhibit bashful female beginners.
- She doesn't have a clue what to do with a male student!
- She is one of the rare Belly Dancers who doesn't "believe in" or like male dancers.
- She's OK with male Dancers, but is into "female empowerment" or similar.
If you encounter reluctance in a prospective teacher, your best bet is to respectfully move on. However, if she's the only teacher in town, you might be able to persuade her to give you a try (maybe private lessons at first) unless her objections are the last two listed above.
But regardless, do not be a problem! You won't be welcome back, and worse, you'll ruin the chances of other males who are sincere. I cannot stress this enough!
I'll refer you to Shira's Page on finding teachers. She tells you every trick to unveil (no pun intended) that elusive teacher, including a HUGE directory.
How are you going to act?
One of my teachers had never had a male before - the poor gal didn't know what to do with me, and worse, she didn't know if I was for real or not. She loosened up after she met my wife; I made a point to bring her (my wife) to one of my teacher's performance venues. As for "what to do with me", it didn't take her too long to figure out that the answer to that was simple: Treat me just like any other student!
How you act in class is crucial. Being in the minority is an odd feeling. I go the extra mile to put my dance sisters at ease. I make it a point to mention my wife early and often - this way they know I'm not "on the make", and it also answers that other usually unspoken question "Is he gay?".
However, if you're not married or have a steady girl, don't hide it, they'll find out sooner or later anyways. You'll have a tighter line to walk, no question; but it beats deception. You'll have to figure out other ways to make the gals feel safe around you - I unfortunately cannot offer you further advice for this situation.
If you're openly gay, you deal with this fact all the time. It is no secret that many male Belly Dancers are gay, perhaps even the majority.
Now, as you're most likely the lone male in the class, you have a difficult decision to make - where do I stand in class? Most beginners want to hide in back - a new male student will most likely be doubly inclined to hide in back! Some males, myself included, stand in back because we are large, and we want to be considerate of our dance sisters and not block their view. However, others stand in front for the reason that they do not want to be seen as ogling the gals - another trick to help put our sisters at ease. Both viewpoints have their merit, regardless of where you end up, you keep your eyes on the instructor and off the other gals!
Be friendly and talkative after class, not during. Let your sisters get to know you - to know you is to trust you and relax. When they start treating you like one of the girls, you've been accepted!
Do check with the teacher to see what s/he wants you to wear in class. Generally speaking, harem pants, a hip scarf, and some kind of top are the guidelines. Some teachers disallow hip scarves with coins (coin scarves) while others encourage or even require them. Bal Togs, a well known dance-wear maker, makes a male tank that works very well for class. I tie mine up to make it midriff baring as I get hot in class!
Several recent discussions with my dance sisters prompts me to add: It is apparently fairly common for transvestites or transsexuals to want to take a dance class and want to wear a skirt. A dance class, especially a beginning dance class, isn't the place for anyone, male or female, to have one on as the instructor needs to see your leg/feet positioning. There are intermediate and advanced classes that involve "skirtwork" - that is the place where its appropriate.
The Learning Experience.
Ok, now you've found a teacher, your dance sisters like the novelty of having a male in the class. So how do you settle down to the serious business of learning, and integrating your personality with an artform that, while not inherently feminine or masculine, does reside in a feminine context (subtle, but VERY important difference!)?
What do I do? What moves should I concentrate on? What moves should I avoid? How do I look masculine, not like a "prancing fairy"?
What you're asking is something EVERY male dancer asks, and must come to grips with. At the end of the day, the answer is "What works for YOU".
I strongly recommend you read these articles:
- My Male Belly Dance FAQ, especially towards the bottom - some of it duplicates parts of this page.
- Belly Dance Tips Page 1 and Page 2, glossing over what you aren't familiar with yet.
- Male Belly Dancers, are we Feminine?, for a bunch of ideas on "gender issues" that you may be wrestling with.
- The Gender Rant may not directly apply to your situation, but will at least give you an idea of where I'm coming from.
Understand these articles are MY pontification on what works for ME. Not too many other male Belly Dancers have their own philosophy on their websites like I do (I'm just that kind of a guy!), but those who do, or whose philosophy can be seen from their pictures; said philosophies vary widely. My philosophy may not work for you, feel entirely free to differ and find your own road!
Male Belly Dancers play that most dangerous and exhilarating game of all, playing with gender expectations. Where you fit in will change as you mature in the dance. When I first started, I wouldn't wear a coin scarf - "too feminine". Once I got over that, I won't dance without one - not only are they cool, but they give much needed feedback, especially for shimmying.
If I had a nickel for every Belly Dancer who, at one time or another, said "I'm just doing this for fun/exercise. I have no intention of performing!", I'd be a very wealthy man! One of my teachers tells us she was like this - and she is a wonderful performer!
However, once you decide that "maybe" you do want to perform - shock, horror!, then you'll want to be "Belly Dancer of the Universe" before you set foot on stage!
Don't be too much of a perfectionist. No-one wants to look ridiculous on stage, BUT OTOH, most teachers have a simple choreography or two that you can learn and be able to perform it. Most gals take from 6 weeks to 6 months - it took me a YEAR!! You learn more from 1 performance than from 10 rehearsals.
What I didn't understand until I did it was that a "student nite" performance is INTENDED for less than perfect performers. The room will be full of other Belly Dancers. Will they see your every flaw? You bet they will, in a way no outsider ever will. BUT, and this is the most important "BUT"; they will also be more forgiving because they've all "been there". And the fact that you're male will increase their respect for you because you're out there doing it!
Terrifying? You bet. Check out my article First Performance, a Tale of Terror?. As one of my teachers says "That was TERRIFYING, when can we do it again?"
Performing has the poorest reward to effort ratio of anything I can think of: "8 Weeks of sweat, anguish, and sore muscles for 3 minutes, 45 of glory." as one Belly Dancer once put it. Neither she, nor myself would trade it for the world. Performing is highly addictive, be forewarned! I came up with this quote years ago with Greek Dance: "If you're not a Ham when you start this business, you will be by the time this business gets through with you!" And it is just as true, or even more so, with Belly Dance!