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How to get better at something you already know.

I’ve been brushing up on my sword skills lately. Just like when I was first learning that skill, working with the sword is giving me a different perspective on the rest of my dancing.

It wasn’t just the challenge of doing two things at once. The sword itself was acting as a confounder.

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This was professionally transcribed, but it probably still has some errors. If you catch any, drop me a line at I’d love to hear from you!

As I mentioned in a recent episode, I’ve been working with the sword more lately. Two of my classes asked for it but I was a little bit rusty. That was me, not the sword. So, I’ve been adding it onto my regular practice. Just like when I first started learning the sword, working with it gave me a different perspective on the skills that I was practicing. It wasn’t just the challenge of doing two things at once. The sword itself was acting as a confounder.

What is that? Well, if you want to gain a deeper understanding of a particular dance skill, trying adding a confounder factor when you practice. That’s something that makes what you’re trying to do more difficult. Why would you do that? Well, a confounder forces you to be honest about the details of the thing that you’re working on because when you’re already familiar with a skill, it’s really easy to gloss over the details. It’s hard to notice all of the subtle things that are going on when you’re doing something that you’re already pretty good at. Adding a confounder that increases the difficulty, forces you to notice all of those little things.

What kind of confounders can we add to a practice? Well, one option is the one I already mentioned. That’s a sword or another balancing prop. These can make you much more aware of other things that are going on in your body like bobbing up and down. Another option is to add ballroom dance heels. These make you much more aware of your posture. Either they completely ruin your posture or they force you to be extra careful to maintain good dance posture. You can also try practicing at an incredibly slow speed because at super slow speeds, if you’re cutting corners, you’ll know. If you’re working on arm movements or arm carriage, adding wrist weights can help a lot. You can layer a shimmy on a movement that you already know as long as you’re already pretty confident with the move. Or, if you’re working on traveling steps, you can try tying a TheraBand around your knees. This is something that one of my occasional teachers had me do in order to make sure that I stop taking quite as big steps as I was accustomed to doing.

How do you practice with a confounder? Well, first you need to make sure that you scale back your expectations. Even though you’re already pretty good at the skill, the confounder is going to make it much harder so you need to prepared for not being able to do it quite as well as without it. I also recommend that you go back to the basics. Start with the easiest skills and work your way up. As you’re working with your confounder, notice what’s hard when that’s present. For example, when I’m working with a sword, I noticed a tendency to bob when I was taking steps, which caused my sword to wobble. Try to figure out why that difficulty happens. I realized that I was straightening my legs a little bit every time I shifted my weight.

Then, brainstorm some ways to overcome that. I found just that being more deliberate in how I moved my legs during the weight shift, I could absorb that bobbing instead of letting it play through to the sword. You’ll want to practice making that correction while the confounder is present until you can do it comfortably and on autopilot. Once you get to that phase, I recommend that you take the confounder away and see if you can maintain that change or do you revert to your old habits? Then, I recommend that you revisit the same confounder and the same practice content a few months or even years later. For example, when I was first learning the sword, it made me much more aware of bobbing but now on the second round, I’m becoming much more aware of how soft or harsh my steps are.

Now when you’re working with confounders, there are three major gotchas you need to be aware of. The first is that you should not use this when you’re learning a brand new skill. That is a recipe for overload. Confounders are for refining and deepening skills that you already are decent at so if you can’t do it decently on autopilot, it’s too soon to add a confounder.

A good confounder also shouldn’t take up a huge portion of your attention budget by itself. For example, finger cymbals take a lot of attention to play and so they don’t leave you enough attention free to focus on improving the skill that you’re actually working on. Now I am a huge fan of zils and I definitely recommend practicing and playing together but that’s not a good founder. It’s a skill in itself. A sword, on the other hand, takes some getting used to but once you get the basics of balance down, keeping it on your head really isn’t that hard until you start moving and adding the other skills.

Another gotcha is to make sure that you don’t over correct. The way that you do your movements with the confounder present is not necessarily the way that you want to dance all the time. For example, working with the sword made me really aware of my bobbing tendency and that made me aware of any full body movements going on. If I was bobbing or swaying, it became really obvious because it made the sword wobble. The thing is, I didn’t want to get rid of that entirely because perfect isolation looks robotic and dead. A little bit of bob and sway makes your dancing more graceful, not less. So, practicing with the confounder gave me awareness of those things and so that allowed me to choose the right amount of them when I work without the sword.

Let’s summarize what we’ve covered. When you want to refine or deepen a skill that you’re already pretty decent at, adding a confounder can go a long way. You can add a balancing prop, high heels, weights, really slow tempos, or other confounders to help you notice the tiny details that you may have been glossing over. To get the most out of your confounder, start with the basics, mindfully explore what becomes hard, what it takes to address it, and practice that both with and without your confounder. To get the most benefit, choose a confounder that doesn’t take up too much attention in itself and use it with skills that you’re already decent at, being careful to watch out for over correction.

Finally, be sure to revisit this every so often. Like me, you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn the second or even the third time around.


Your Turn

What are your favorite confounders?

Do you have any other tips for making a sword piece more artistic?

Got a question or topic that you’d like me to talk about on the show?

I would love to hear from you.

Leave a comment below, or better yet, leave me a short voice message. Maybe I’ll even play it on the air!


Want More?

Here are the Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse episodes I mentioned:

Three Things You Can Put in A Dance Besides Steps with Alia Thabit
Theatrical Techniques for Belly Dancers with Anasma and Ranya Renee

And if you don’t want to miss the rest of this series, subscribe to the Belly Dance Geek News. I’ll send you a monthly digest of these mini podcasts, plus invitations to our monthly online radio show, The Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse, and other geek-tacular resources.


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