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The ABCs vs. the 3 Rs

The ABCs vs. the 3 Rs


Why more drilling isn’t always the answer.

Have you ever seen a dancer who had perfect hip drops, but completely failed to capture your attention?

A lot of dancers think “If I could just get that isolation a little bit crisper, or if I could add just one more layer, I would be a great dancer.”

And then you drill and you drill, and a few weeks later, you have a crisper isolation, or another layer. But you still don’t feel like your performance “clicks”.

That’s because most dancers focus on the ABCs, but neglect the 3 Rs.


But I’m not talking about school subjects.

The “ABCs” and “3Rs” are terms coined by Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code* and The Little Book of Talent*. In Coyle’s work on talent aquisition, he breaks skills into two types: hard skills and soft skills.

Hard Skills

Hard, high-precision skills are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time.”

According to Coyle, for hard skills, the rule is ABC: “Always Being Consistent.”

The belly dance hard skills are things you’ll want to be able to perform consistently: technique (moves, layers, prop manipulation, etc.) and repertoire (combos, choreo).

Soft Skills

Soft, high-flexibility skills, on the other hand… aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time… [they’re about] instantly recogonizing patterns as they unfold, and making smart, timely choices.

Or as Coyle puts it, soft skills are about the 3 Rs: Reading the situation, Recognizing patterns, and Reacting effectively.

The belly dance soft skills are things you need you to be responsive: improvisation, composition, musicality, stage presence, and audience interaction.

Any performance art takes both hard and soft skills

      Without hard skills, you’d be a sloppy mess.
      Without soft skills, you’d be a robot going through the motions.

That’s equally true whether you’re playing a violin concerto, dancing the black swan pas de deux, or performing a drum solo.

But some art forms outsource the soft skills

One of the things that makes belly dance different from other art forms is that we provide all of the soft skills. Many other forms “outsource” some of the soft skills to someone else.

That makes more sense if we look at a couple of examples:


Our violist’s concerto is (virtually always) composed by someone else. The violinist’s role is to perform the song, not to create it. The expert skill she brings is being able to reproduce a precise series of difficult bow strokes and finger positions.

In this scenario, a lot of the soft skills are provided by composer, in deciding what she should play. The violinist provides mostly hard skill to execute that vision.

Now, the violinist doesn’t only provide hard skills. She brings a smaller (but still critical!) does of soft skills, to breathe life into the piece.

But her top priority is ABC: to consistently deliver what the composer asks for.


Similarly, our ballerina’s choroeography is (virtually always) created by someone else. The ballerina’s role is to perform the choreography. The expert skill she brings is being able to perform a precise series of difficult steps. (The black swan pas de deux includes thirty two fouttes. That’s a lot. I was damn proud of myself the day I did two. Badly.)

In this scenario, the choreographer provides a lot of the soft skills, in deciding what she should do. The ballerina provides mostly hard skill to execute that vision.

Of course, the ballerina also provides soft skill, to breathe life into the piece. (If you don’t think that takes skill, you try emoting through thirty two freaking fouttes.)

But her top priority is ABC: to consistently deliver what the choreographer asks for.

Belly Dance

You, however, rarely perform someone else’s choreography when you belly dance. You’d either improvise, or use your own choreography. (The main exceptions are troupe work and student recitals.)

Your role is to listen to the music, gauge the audience’s response, choose the best way to respond, and to execute your idea through movement, all while breathing life into it.

You are providing all of the soft skills, as well as the hard skills.
(Yes, the music is the leader, but you are constantly deciding how to respond.)

So you’re concerned with the ABCs, but your top priority is the 3 Rs: read the situation, recognize patterns in the music and audience, and respond with movement.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the hard skills

The hard skills are our foundation.

If your technique won’t support what you want to express, then all that reading, recognizing, and responding won’t help.

If the music is screaming “YOU MUST SHIMMY NOW!!!”, but you can’t make that happen, then all that musicality is going to waste.

Or if it still takes all your attention to make your shimmy happen, you won’t be able to listen to the music and make good decisions about what to do next.

(And if that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up. That’s just a sign that working on your hard skills is a smart use of your time right now.)

You will always have to keep working to maintain and expand your hard skills.

Just don’t do it at the expense of the soft skills.

If your hard skills are competent (not perfect – competent for your level), it’s time to make sure that you’re not neglecting your soft skills.

In general, you want your hard and soft skills to be close to equal – don’t let one outpace the other.

The problem is that hard skills are easier to learn

It’s not that the hard skills are inherently easier. It’s just that the ABCs are easier to teach in standardized environements like classes and DVDs. Learing the soft skills takes more ingenuity, so there are fewer resources out there.

So how do you work on your soft skills?

Remember that the soft skils are about uncertainty. They’re about flexibly responding to changing circumstances.

So put yourself in changing circumstances!

Get out there and perform

The most uncertain, changing circumstance is a live performance. This is especially true when you’re improvising, but still true when you choreograph.

No matter how many classes you take and how much you practice, there are some things that you can only learn out there on the dance floor.

So get out there and perform in whatever way is most appropriate for your level. If you’re a newbie, sign up for a beginner-friendly hafla or student recital. If you’re a more advanced student, ask your teacher if you’re ready to sign up for a student night at a public venue.

Give a fake performance

If the idea of performing in public is terrifying, create a fake performance environment. Ask a mentor you trust for some performance coaching. Or get together with some classmates and perform for each other privately. (Add some snacks, and you’ve got a private hafla.) Or give a show for an audience of stuffed animasl.

But no matter what you do, approach it as a real performance: dance it full-out, with no do-overs, and no “thinking face”.

Uncertain practice

If even that is too much, create uncertainty in your practice. If you’re working on hip circles, don’t just drill. Put your iPod on random, and interpret whatever you hear using only hip circles and variations.

What you can do right now

A great place to start is to take stock of your skills.

Hard skills:

How would you rate your technique, considering your current skill level?

Look at things like accuracy, precision, the breadth of your movement vocabulary, speed, balance, posture, layering, etc.

Soft skills:

How would you rate your soft skills, considering your current skill level?

Look at things like musicality, texture/dimension (using space, shape, time, and energy), stage presence, expressiveness, show planning, cultural knowledge, and improv or composition skills.

Then make your plan

If your hard skiills are weaker than your soft skills, then keep working on your ABCs. Grab a video, schedule a private lesson, or just block out some time for focused technique practice.

But if your hard skills are outpacing your soft skills, it’s time to work on your three Rs. Pick just one soft skill to work on, and decide how you’ll create the changing circumstances that will help you exercise that skills.


Make sure that your soft skills keep pace with your hard skills, and you’ll never be that boring dancer with the perfect hip drops.


Need some extra help?

If learning to put together a routine is one of the soft skills you want to work on, join me this summer for Rock the Routine. We’ll cover how the 6-part routine is structured, what the audience expects, and how you can deliver it in the moment.

This 7-week online course begins Friday, July 26th, so sign up now:

Join us now

Your Turn

Do you need more work on your ABCs or your 3 Rs?

What skill (hard or soft) are you most excited about learning?

Do you have any tips for learning soft skills?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


* Note: any links marked with a * are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that I will get a small commission (typically a few cents) if you make a purchase through them. If you’d prefer that I not get that commission, just search Amazon directly for the title you’re looking for. That’s 100% okay by me.

  1. Fikriyyah says:

    God…this is so true. I have always had a problem with dancers who do not embody their music but have great technique. I like the 3R’s scenario to get people thinking more about the soft skills. Thanks for the inspiration…I will share these thoughts with others.

  2. Excellent article, Nadira!! Love the analogy of ABCs and 3Rs to explain to students the “whole picture” of belly dance or any other performance art.

    • Thanks, Leyla. There’s a lot of good stuff in Coyle’s work. I get something different out of it every time I read it.

  3. Great article!

  4. It’s interesting to me because I do both Oriental dance and classical Indian dance where you always dance your master’s choreographies (unless you one day become a master yourself which I never will!).
    So I use my skills very differently – I am very much into improvisation for raqs sharqi and all choreo in bharata natyam….

    I am already thinking about how I can include these skills in my future teaching….

    And just for Nadira: A chain of endless fouettés 🙂és_en_tournant
    (yes, I had to look them up because I am mostly untouched by ballet education)


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