Thursday, August 25, 2011

Organizing Your Belly Dance Notes

After I posted the "Hoarding" confession regarding my bellydance media and notes, dancer Naima asked:

So what is your recommendation on sorting notes? I have workshop hand outs, workshop choreos, my choreos, my notes, zill/music, etc. I just can't seem to decide how I want to organize them. Everything is in a big binder in order I obtained them only. I tried sorting once and got overwhelmed because I couldn't decide how to sort them.

That is an EXCELLENT question, and I would love to address it. Please keep in mind I am NOT the most organized person on the planet by ANY means, and what works for me may only confuse other people! But I've tried a few systems before, and I'll give you the rundown on five of what appear to be the most common. I personally actually use a combination of systems, with multiple copies of notes in multiple places, and organized mostly by subject matter, so I sort of blend all of them.

(FYI - When I'm discussing notes, I'm talking about printed copies. I'm very old-school and don't like searching the computer for digital versions of my notes. I like to see them printed out in black and white. However, a more eco-friendly approach would be to scan and digitize all those notes and organize them in your computer using one or more of these systems. That keeps the clutter down, prevents you from spending a month's pay on sheet protectors, and allows you to search your files by keyword, which I imagine would be infinitely helpful! Don't forget to back up your files or save them to Google documents, where you can access them from any computer.)

First let's talk about the types of notes we're dealing with:
  1. Class handouts describing what you're learning in class that week.
  2. Workshop handouts given by the instructor to either help you remember concepts or to give additional reference material to what she/he is teaching.
  3. The almost mandatory "list of bellydance moves I've learned" that every student at least attempts to create at some point in her education.
  4. Notes you've taken by hand at workshops or during classes
  5. Notes you've taken on DVDs (instructional or performance) or on live shows you've seen.
  6. Notes you've taken on your own performances or videotaped practice sessions, or from private lessons or other suggestions.
  7. Choreography notes: either yours or someone's else's.
  8. Notes you've taken on non-dance subjects, like music, culture, language, costuming, song lyrics, etc.
If you've never considered taking written notes on any of the above, now is the time to consider doing so. You can learn a lot from disecting and analyzing a videotaped practice session, or from taking notes at a show, or from making that "list of moves" that we all seem to acquire during our early years of education.

Now how to organize them? Let's look at a few different approaches:

1. Chronological
2. Instructor-based
3. Subject-based
4. Combinations and movements only
5. Personal practice system only


Any student who has been taking class for more than 6 months or so probably has a fistful of class handouts, maybe a few workshop notes, and that "list of bellydance movements." Keeping a file folder or binder full of those notes in chronological order is probably the first "system" that most students try. This works great for a few months or years, but at some point it becomes a lot of work to go back through those notes to find a meaningful bit of information.

Personally, I still have all the original notes I received in class or in workshops, (and also printed copies of the handwritten notes I took during those workshops) stored chronologically in a couple of binders, but really more for sentimental reasons. I think of it as my dance scrapbook, more than an actual USABLE resource. While I do believe that thumbing through your "dance scrapbook" can be a healthy experience, letting you see what you've learned and how you've grown over time, it's probably not the BEST system for making use of your notes, especially if they have expanded into larger and larger binders, or even into multiple binders (or in some serious cases, into their own room in the house!)

If you choose this system, I would recommend the following:
  • Separate the pages into years or months or decades -- whatever works for you. Use divider pages to keep the sections clear.
  • Make an INDEX page for the beginning of your binder. Don't feel the need to get overly specific, but general notes like "Stage presence and dynamics, see pps 12, 189, 200" or "Dancing for Lebanese Wedding -- see pps 34, 56, 78." Or "Saidi dance/music pps 12, 18, 145" (or if you don't do page numbers, you can use colored sticky tabs for each topic, or mention the instructor and the date/year.)
  • Make friends with paper flags, post-it-notes, highlighting, and any other attention-grabbing devices, and use them. Flag the important stuff (or what you deem important today.) Highlight the stuff you want to remember.
  • READ your notes! It seems obvious, I know, but who wants to read a bunch of notes when there's dancing to do! Seriously, get a cup of tea and some cookies and just sit down and read through them on a regular basis: once a week for relatively new students; once a month or once every two months if you have more experience, or as your note collection grows. Read through them daily if you're super-motivated or need ideas for your daily practice material.
  • If you attend a workshop or class, take hand-written notes on the material. This is a general rule and applies to all systems. TYPE OUT YOUR NOTES (or at least rewrite them) VERY SOON AFTER THE CLASS IS OVER. This is key -- don't be like me and wait until almost a year later to message your dance partners and ask "What was that funny Reda step thingie we did in Sahra's class last spring right before lunch, do you remember? I can't read my notes." They will usually not remember, or if they do, will get tired of you asking. Rewrite the notes no longer than a week after the class. Place the rewritten notes in chronological order in your binder, alongside any handouts you got at the workshop. (Many times your notes will help you make sense of the abbreviated notes on the handouts, so you'll want to keep them together.)
  • Keep your "list of moves" in the front of the binder, and don't be afraid to add to it on a regular basis, or abandon it as you see fit. (I made a spreadsheet on the computer and after the thing grew to over 3 pages, I abandoned it. But it was a great reference at first, and probably could be pretty useful if I ever would go back and rethink it.) But more on that later.


This could be a pretty useful system if you spent a lot of time studying from or attending multiple workshops with a handful of teachers, or if you enjoy training in multiple "styles."

I worked with this system for a while, and I still use it to some degree. I had individual binders for Suhaila Salimpour class, workshop, choreography, and general notes; Shareen el Safy workshop, choreography, and dvd notes; Ansuya class, workshop, and dvd notes; Tribal workshop notes -- etc. (Alternately you can section off one big binder into compartments for each "style.")

Currently I have a big binder that's all notes on "Egyptian Style" from instructors like Tito, Dina, Raqia, Shareen el Safy, Sahra Kent, Ranya Renee, Faten Salama, and my teacher Nashwa. (I suppose I should actually create a sub-section of the binder for just Reda Troupe technique, and maybe I'll get around to doing that someday.) I read through this one about once a month, and try to work through the concepts and practice the movements at least once a month.

The advantage to this system is that you keep all of your notes regarding special "techniques" or "methods" all together. This can help a lot if you are trying to focus on or specialize in a particular technique at that time. Having a binder for Tribal and a binder for Egyptian style makes it easy to create a personal practice session based around one concept or the other. I currently have one binder for Suhaila/Jamila material (and nothing but Suhaila/Jamila material) so when I feel inspired to work with her method, I pull that binder out and practice whatever I turn to.

The disadvantage to this system is that if you don't do extensive study with any one method or any one instructor, then you'll just end up with a bunch of mostly empty binders. Also, it can be difficult reconciling what two instructors tell you when that instruction differs. I have movement notes from one dancer that say "never start in the front" and notes from another dancer that say "always start in the front." This system is best left to the student who understands the variances in the "continuum" of a chosen style or method.

My recommendations for using this system:
  • Don't try it if you are a very eclectic student, studying from multiple instructors and in multiple styles or disciplines, unless you really really really want to be able to focus on each system individually.
  • Make use of that index page. Instructors like Shareen el Safy often teach choreographies and include detailed information about the music and the composer, or the first dancer to dance to that piece of music. You don't want to lose this info, so make a note of it on your index page.
  • Consider adding additional notes, comparing and contrasting different instructors and different methods. (Learning Reda technique is good. Comparing Reda technique to general Oriental dance technique, looking at what was changed and stylized, and anticipating what Reda would do with movements and choreographies you've already learned is even better!)


Sorting by subject can be a relatively organized system, but it's also the most unwieldy system when you're dealing with a lot of notes. I use a modified version of this system, with multiple copies of notes in different locations: I have a file cabinet full of individual file folders on subjects from Algerian dance to Zeffa, and several binders devoted to specific subjects: choreographies, Egyptian dance, personal practice notes, performance analyses, etc.

Consider the following when putting together a subject-based system:
  • Keep separate binders or files for subjects like costuming, ethnic or region-specific dances, music theory, music lyrics, Arabic language, and Middle Eastern culture. These subjects can easily grow into very very large stores of information, and if you can separate them out, it will help you access all the material more easily.
  • Keeping a binder solely devoted to choreographies can be a great resource when you need to plan a show or work on a piece you learned two or three years ago. I like to thumb through mine every now and then for an old choreography to "resurrect" for a hafla.
  • Make friends with someone who owns a photocopier. Or scan your original note sheets and print out as many copies as you need in order to file those notes in all of the appropriate places. I have Habiba's notes on Andalusian dance choreography in three places: once in the original chronological "dance scrapbook" binder, again in the file on Andalusian dance, and again in the binder full of choreographies.
  • Subject-based notes can be great for concepts and ideas that maybe you don't think about during every practice session. I have a binder I've named "Performance Study Guide" and in it are copies of all my notes on stage dynamics, presentation and performance skills, choreographic theory, improvisation, and anything I feel I need to consider when preparing a new dance for performance. Another binder is all notes on concepts that I want to include my classes: ideas on how to vary the texture or dynamics of a movement, exercises for improvisation, classroom games, etc.
  • Although you can make one binder for all of your "Notes on DVDs" it's probably more helpful to break down those notes into individual subjects too. If the DVD focuses more on concepts in dance or movement rather than specific technique tips, you might get more use out of the DVD and your notes on it if you filed those notes in your "Performance Study Guide" binder, or your teaching binder.
  • Don't let this system get out of hand. If you have a file cabinet or big book shelf and are comfortable with 100 individual files/binders on 100 individual topics, then great! But if you find yourself overwhelmed by multiple files/binders full of information you're not even sure what to do with, then consider just picking a topic or two and focusing on those for a while. It's not necessary to keep a detailed separate binder on Tunisian rhythms if you aren't currently working on Tunisian dance. Keep those notes in the original binder or folder, (or make one big file of "stuff to work on later,") put that binder on the shelf (or put the file in the cabinet) and come back to it when you feel ready. It is actually possible to over-organize. Don't let that happen!


This is the least helpful system to most advanced dancers, because at some point we realize that the list of moves we started during the first week of class has either (a) gotten way too ridiculously long, or (b) pretty much topped out at a total of 10-25 by just describing the movement shapes. For a new student, it's a great resource. But don't stop there.

Some instructors suggest that students make notecards of their movements, sorting them by "sharp" or "soft" or "traveling" moves. I think this is a great approach for learning choreography and improvisation. We do tend to grow out of a need for this after a certain amount of experience, though, and we want to explore more facets of the dance other than just movement.

If you ONLY keep notes on movements, you're missing out on the music and the culture and the real spices that infuse our dance and keep it fun and exciting. Consider keeping those workshop handouts too. Consider taking notes that aren't centered around the movements themselves. You'll be a much more well-rounded dancer in the long run, and you'll get a lot more out of your classroom and workshop experience.

If you like to keep notes on combinations, do you find yourself ever actually going back and reviewing or USING those combinations? If not, consider making a simple practice choreography using only the combinations from a particular DVD or from a single workshop. See if you can vary and change up the combination enough to make it really fit the music like a glove. That's what your instructors want you to learn from those combo workshops and DVDs. Don't collect combos like baseball cards -- USE THEM!


This one works for some people, but not me. Basically this theory is to throw away old notes on stuff you already know and only keep the notes on things/movements/concepts you haven't yet mastered. I hesitate to throw any notes away because I never know what I might forget (and also because I'm an information hoarder.)

So I modify this. I have my "Personal" binder, wherein I keep my notes on personal practice critiques, my analyses of videotaped performances of both myself and the classic dancers, personal practice goals, copies of notes taken on DVDs I'm working with (like Ranya Renee's Balady DVD and Nadia Jamal's Improvisational Tooklit), and notes relevant to whatever concept or choreography I'm currently working on. It's my "to do" list, sort of. But I still keep all the other notes in their original forms. I just can't bear to throw them away!!

So as you can see, I use modified versions of most of these systems. Yes, it means a lot of paper and sheet protectors. Yes, it means a whole file cabinet of notes and book shelf full of binders. But I like being able to go into my study and pull out the binder on Egyptian Musical Studies, for instance, and have access to all my notes on music in Egypt. I like to look through the binder on Suhaila method for inspiration in creating a Suhaila-style finger cymbal drum solo. I like being able to grab the "Egyptian style" binder to compare modern Egyptian dancers with my notes on those from the Golden Age, or to contrast all the variations of the "Jewel" step. And I like to thumb back through the years of workshop notes in my chronologically-ordered "Dance scrapbook" if only to giggle over what was just SO HARD in those first years, and puzzle over why I ever thought Hadia's "Tales of the Sahara" choreography was too complicated for me.

Anyway, this is what I've gathered over the years on ways to organize my dance notes. I hope this information is of some value to you dear readers, and especially to Naima, who inspired this blog post. And please, if you have a different system or found a way that works for you, leave me a note in the comments section!

1 comment:

Naima said...

Hmmmm, I'm going to have to chew on this for a while. I think I am primarily a subject based organizer but as you mentioned it is easy to get out of hand. As it stands my notes are so spread out and unorganized any kind of sorting would help get me started. Thanks for the post!