• Renee Wertz

From Baby-faced to Tech Savvy, how Cyber Dance Reignited my Passion

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

Why Walk when you Can Dance?

My very first dance class was at Mrs. Stuckey's School of Dance 48 years ago. I can still remember wearing my sparkly purple tutu, and executing step-ball-changes and cutesy hand gestures, while passionately singing, "I've got the cutest little baby face. " I adored Mrs. Stuckey in her red lipstick, glamorously high tap shoes, and little black booty shorts. My enchantment with dance started in that tiny, pink, house-front studio in 1972. I studied with Margaret Stuckey for the next 10 years. I was an uncoordinated disaster at Toe, Gymnastics and Ballet, but I loved Baton, Tap and Jazz! I went on to become a majorette in my High School Marching Band. I did a decade long stint as a group fitness aerobic instructor in the late 80s and 90s, and I have been performing as a Professional Belly Dancer for the past 20 years.


My first dance teacher, the amazing Mrs. Stuckey (1927-2018)

Belly dancing has brought me an amazing amount of joy! But the truth is there has also been some incredible disappointments along the way. My first raqs sharki teacher saw something in me and put me in the spotlight only a few months into my training. She introduced me to everyone of importance and began to groom me to take over her studio. I was green to the belly dance scene and I still had so much to learn. My eagerness and ambition overshadowed my knowledge. That dangerous combination lead to a lot of frustration as I gingerly, and often unsuccessfully attempted not to step on the more experienced dancer's toes. Although I had outgrown the local classes, I continued to practice everyday for hours. I read every resource I could get my hands on. I obsessively watched videos of famous dancers. My entire family knew who Fifi, Dina and Sohair Zaki were. I traveled to workshops all over the US studying with master instructors. Within two and a half years I was teaching my own classes, hosting dance workshops for world class dance instructors, running two dance troupes, choreographing large stage shows and dancing professionally. I felt as though my audiences and my dance students adored me. I was treated like a "superstar " in my local community. It seemed as though all of my dance dreams were coming true.


Wearing a costume I made specifically for an online choreography.

Eventually I struggled juggling so many hats and I felt like everything was crashing in on me. I was realizing that I was simply too inexperienced. I was unhappy with my dance technique flaws and I was feeling exhausted. There were not enough hours in the day for me to accomplish all of my goals. I was struggling to keep my weight in check and I was constantly injuring myself. I felt as though I was neglecting my young daughter, husband and dogs. I made the decision to step down from my leadership position to take a minor role in a different dance troupe. Unfortunately even this has often proven to be more than I can commit to given my extremely demanding job as a High School Special Education Teacher and my chronic physical injuries. Still, since I felt alive when I danced and completely lost without it, I had to find a way to continue to dance despite the challenges being thrown at me.


My first photo shoot

Luckily, I was about to discover the perfect solution to my problems!

A recent photo shoot

Instagram Dance Challenges:

Almost two years ago I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I came across an advertisement for a dance challenge called the #mejanceby4 Four world class dance instructors were teaching a challenging choreography online. Participants were to follow the hashtag, post a clip of themselves learning the choreography, and cheer each other on. The response that this challenge elicited from the world dance community was monumental. The energy and enthusiasm were contagious. I believe that somewhere between 250 and 300 participants started the challenge. I had a new dance goal; I watched every single video entry and sent a sincere message to each dancer about what I enjoyed most about their post. I also devoted myself to learning and videotaping each section of the choreography. I took this challenge seriously! I was most proud of the section of choreography that I titled, "The Happy Teacher."



I performed the section in my classroom during one of my breaks at school. This cute clip seemed to catch people's attention and filming it brought me incredible joy. This challenge re-energized me. I had learned a beautiful choreography, made new friends and refueled my passion for dance. The cherry on top was that I won one of the top three grand prizes. I came away from this challenge knowing that the online platform was part of my future in dance. Since completing this Challenge I have participated in others. Another of my favorites has been the #5starsoriental challenge because I also shimmied away with one of the top three grand prizes. Making it extra memorable was that I met a beautiful young dancer, Ambar, who has became one of my dance soul sisters, and my online accountability partner.


Wearing my prize jewelry from the #mejanceby4 challenge. Set made by Olga Golubeva.

With my dance accountability partner, Ambar, in a #raqswithus post

Online Dance Competitions:

I am an ex-triathlete, a current runner and an all around competitive person. In college I always had to get the highest grade in my class and took immense pride in decimating the class curve. I am such an intense pinochle player that nobody wants to be my partner on family game nights. I have had to stop participating in my classroom game days because I am a bit too aggressive in my attempts to beat my own students. Yep! I am the first to admit that I have issues! Imagine my thrill at finding out I could compete in online dance contests. My dance troupe has entered and won a few dance competitions over the years. Although extremely rewarding, these events involved months of troupe rehearsals, travel and long weekends. Online entries are a less stressful alternative. At this point I have only entered one competition. I suspect that this platform has the potential to become much more popular, and I look forward to exploring the opportunities it provides.



Performing a first place #bellydancedriveonline Shaabi piece with my best friend, Toni Petroski.

Sola Dance Online Workshops:

One of the best online discoveries I have made is a gem of a company in the Ukraine called Sola Dance. The producer of these videos, Tatyana Gavrilov, is one of the most innovative and tech-savvy women in dance. Each month she hosts a world class dance instructor teaching four different choreographies. The lessons are live feed and taught workshop style. You can participate in these sessions for free and there is absolutely no catch!!!!! If you enjoy the free online workshop you can purchase the videotaped version for a very reasonable price. Prices for individual class packages range from $7.00 to $25.00 and you receive the music, notes and the choreography broken into short sections. The segments are videotaped from both the front and the back. My favorite learning tool is the voice over slow motion section. The choreographies are top-notch, intricate and challenging. Although the first few seasons were taught in the Russian language, the last two seasons were taught in both English and Russian. I have actually learned three of the early choreographies that were taught in Russian. Because of the way the videos are broken into segments and slowed down, I could learn them even though they were not taught in my native language. I think this proves how well produced these online lessons are.


Online learning does present challenges. It takes a certain amount of self-discipline and quite a bit of self-reflection to keep yourself accountable. I have come up with a system that motivates me and I truly look forward to my daily rehearsals.


1. I watch and study the entire workshop.

2. I learn and perfect the choreography in approximately 20 to 30 second segments. This is easy to do because they are already broken down into manageable pieces.

3. I always videotape myself learning the dance so that I can critique my technique.

4. Often I post my practice of the segment on my IG story.

5. Once I fully learn each choreography I put on a costume and videotape myself doing a dress rehearsal style performance. I call it my final exam.

6. I share these videos on my IG TV feed and tag @soladance and the instructors.


Yes, most of the instructors see and comment on my videos. Yes, my followers watch and respond. I don't have a large audience but the followers I have send me tons of love. I vainly confess this positive feedback is highly motivating to me. Yes, later on I often perform these choreographies for live audiences. Yes, I have a daily highly rigorous, focused, and disciplined practice using this method. Yes, although my study is online, it is absolutely individual and extremely social. And yes, I am obsessed with Sola Dance Online Workshops.


I take a lot of satisfaction in adding a photo from each of my dress rehearsals to my montage. I have completed 22 Sola Dance workshops in the past 18 months.


My custom costumes were designed by @sagaat_by_jess @golubeva_design @anastasiya_romania and me.


The new Sola Dance season will be released soon. I am eagerly waiting to see what surprises the amazing Tatyana has in store! Check out the Sola Dance cite

http://class.soladance.com/en/


Check out Tetiana's interview on the Iana podcast series.

https://play.google.com/music/m/Do7vpvkcmmfvsm62rm2jimrye54?t=Ep_87_Tatyana_Gavrilova_Sola_Dance_Online_Classes_as_a_Tool_to_Develop_Your_Own_Style_-_Belly_Dance


Patreon:

Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that allows artists to share work with their patrons. It is an exceptional way to study with a favorite artist that lives in another part of the world. I study weekly with two of my favorite dancers.


Cassandra Fox is the sweetheart of social media. She is adorable, full of positive energy and the equivalent of a party horn. Each week she posts follow along Dance Drills and Thrills and has recently started to post full choreographies. If I feel like I need a shot of fun in my life, I head straight to her Drills and Thrills. It is 100% worth the $10.00 a month I pay! Here is the link to her site:

https://www.patreon.com/cassandrafoxdance


As well as being my main online instructor, I consider Iana Komarnytska to be the hardest working dancer in the world. Her Patreon account is amazing. Each week she posts a lesson, and every month she breaks down and teachers a full choreography. As a monthly bonus, Iana does a full video critique of me. She takes the time to examine every one of my moves and gives me both constructive criticism and positive feedback. This type of instruction is invaluable. I can not say enough wonderful things about Iana as both an instructor and a facilitator in the world dance community. You can find out more about Iana at the following link:

https://www.ianadance.com/instagram


A screen shot from my monthly critique with Iana

Bonus: Iana and Cassandra will both be featured artists in my upcoming project, Biography of a Dancer. Stay tuned for their incredible stories!


An educator by trade, I am fascinated by the potential of online learning. Interestingly, a bonus of my tech-ventures with my dance studies is that they have inspired “old school me” to enter the 21st Century and build an online component into my high school classes. Don’t misunderstand me, I won't ever discount the importance of teacher/student relationships, or the energy exchanged when face to face with an instructor and classmates in the same room. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I tried online classes and I felt that there was little of value, and that they were a waste of time. I suspect that technology has advanced since then, and obviously, I have found my dance training to be extremely worthwhile.


Thank you to my husband, Hans, for the photography.

Whether it be cyber or in the classroom, there isn't a doubt in my mind that teachers

are the key to any efficacious learning environment. Belly dance is such a specialized niche, and the people I am currently studying with are the best in the world. I can't learn what they are teaching from the instructor at the local YMCA. My family, career, running, writing and training keep me extremely busy, so traveling any distance to study is no longer a plausible solution. I love that I can fit my daily dance practices with amazing instructors in whenever it fits my schedule.


I am sure that it helps that I am highly motivated to improve my skills. I suspect that if I was attempting to learn something I wasn't as excited about, such as high school Geometry, I’d probably procrastinate and this study method wouldn't work. I also think that is important that my learning style is a match. The CITE Learning Style Inventory labels me a Social Individual Learner (think best and learn more when by themselves), and currently generational pedagogical models state that as long as they are using technology as a tool, sharing with a team, and receiving feedback, most Generation Xers learn better by themselves. These traits describes me, so it is no wonder I feel like my current practice is the best way for me to achieve my goals.


I think the final reason this study method works for me is that I have found some quality platforms. Besides the high quality instructors, each of these methods has a way to include feedback, a necessary tool for enlightenment to take place. I also believe that at some point social interaction is critical, and the platforms I listed above all have a way to build that in.


Combine a lifestyle fit, a learning style fit, affordability, world class instructors, opportunities to compete, challenging choreographies, individual feedback, making new best friends, magnificent sparkly costumes, and of course dancing...and I am 100% and wholeheartedly IN !



If you have a favorite online platform, free to share it with me.

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