How Teaching Dance Got Me Out of My Creative Slump

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, educator, and dancer — and now, a dance teacher.

I’ve been a belly dancer for over 20 years, and while the pandemic changed how I dance — I mostly teach classes on Zoom now, and perform virtually rather than at hookah bars and art shows — I wasn’t expecting to find inspiration in teaching online. I viewed Zoom as a burdensome necessity, not something to get excited about… yet that all changed just a few months ago.

In the belly dance world, we are having a number of conversations about cultural appropriation, how best to respect the source cultures our dance comes from, and so on. These are necessary but challenging conversations. However, between those and the burnout from my day job as a college lecturer, I was feeling my creativity wane in recent months. I would teach my college classes during the daytime, lecturing to a room filled with half my students while the other half Zoomed in due to social distancing restrictions, and then I’d teach dance on Zoom at night. I cooked most of my own meals and fit in exercise where I could. But my inspiration to practice dance on my own, rather than scrape by with the bare minimum needed to still be a good dance teacher, seemed to evaporate.

I was surviving, not thriving, and my art was suffering for it.

Then I got a wild idea.

I’d spent a chunk of summer 2020 taking online classes from a dance studio in Poland, where they study and teach the same type of belly dance I do: FatChance BellyDance (FCBD) Style, which is geared towards group improvisation, so we could theoretically dance together and sync up even if we don’t speak the same language. My teachers at the Siren Project had brought in flamenco props like fan and manton (silk shawl) to liven up the dance style, and, eager for novelty while in pandemic lockdown, I’d enrolled in a bunch of their classes. Because our shared dance style provided a basic template for the existing moves to have props layered onto them, I was able to pick up the stylization pretty quickly. The new props challenged and stimulated me, and gave me ideas for solo pieces to perform in virtual shows in the fall.

When 2021 rolled around, I was still just fiddling with these dance props in soloist mode. Burnout was creeping in. My dance students kept complimenting the solos I put on Instagram and YouTube, and finally it occurred to me: why not teach flamenco fan (the prop that I’m strongest with) to my dance students?

I got excited. They got excited. And then I got to work: in January I filmed a number of instructional videos and put them up on YouTube, unlisted, for my dedicated students to view. We organized some Zoom practices outside of our normal “class” times. I found myself motivated to polish up the movements and ensure that I understood them well enough to teach them, which meant more time fiddling around in practice mode. I had to film myself and see myself on video repeatedly to make this work, which also spurred me to make sure my form was excellent.

After a few months of this, a performance opportunity came our way: a show specifically devoted to dancing with props, open to any global practitioner of FCBD Style. Some of us would have to enroll in an online workshop in order for the group to be eligible to perform, but we were planning to do so anyway (all of the workshops were dedicated to baskets, another fun prop that we often dance with). I conferred with my troupe and my student troupe, and we decided to apply to perform. Both groups were admitted to the show, and that gave us extra drive to continue to learn and practice virtually, with a handful of masked in-person practices thrown in.

We realized fairly quickly that dancing even familiar moves with a wooden flamenco fan in one hand presents plenty of challenges: you have to make sure the fan is aligned against your forearm in many movements which takes body awareness, and you have to make sure the fan isn’t tilted too far to one side or another, to ensure that the audience (even if imaginary, even if virtual) can see the full shape of the fan. If, like us, you dance in long full skirts, then any time you bring the fan to hip level you have to make sure you’re not mashing it into the folds of your skirts. When learning to flick the fan open or closed, you have to learn not to accidentally fling it (we have all been guilty of this error at one point or another). Still, even our mistakes made us smile and laugh, and continue to bond with one another and study hard.

Given that I’d been feeling burned out teaching online for most of the last year, I hadn’t been expecting creative inspiration to come my way in the form of yet more teaching online. But I’d been lucky enough to figure out what sparked my motivation: getting to apply something I’d learned to a new situation and teaching it to a group of people that I absolutely love dancing with. And we are, to my knowledge, the only group of dancers in the U.S. studying this style so we can perform it live and improvised, rather than being forced to stick to solo work or rigid choreographies.

Not everybody is in the position to study with artists halfway around the world and then teach the material you’ve learned to a group of dedicated students that you may or may not have already cultivated, I get it. I think this idea could be reframed in a number of ways, such as offering to lead a session of your artist’s or writer’s group to implement a new technique that you’ve learned, or volunteering to run a short class for a local youth group. Simply going out of your way to learn something new, and learn it well enough that you could transmit it to an audience that it’s well-suited for in terms of technique/skill level, would hit the novelty and challenge aspects of creativity that can be hard to come by right now (not to mention community, which is an essential ingredient in my experience of the arts as well).

I was grateful to find a trick that would get me dancing beyond the couple hours per week that I was already committed to teaching dance on Zoom; for a few months, it felt as though my flamenco fan was in my hands for half my waking hours. I’ve come out of the experience a better dancer, as well as an artist with a couple more tricks in my creative toolkit to keep me engaged when feeling despondent.

Jeana’s students happily gave permission to be used in the header photo. Here’s a video of the dancers in action: