My "Elvis Impersonator" metaphor sparked much discussion on facebook, as well as off, and sparked several good questions/comments from friends and students.
One good point that was brought up is that we learn by copying. This is very true. We start out mimicking our teachers, often trying to get the look of the moves down, their expression, their costuming. We learn by doing what they're doing. We see great bellydancers and we wish to also capture that essence of them, to look and be like them. This is not an uncommon desire in the least. But we'll come back to this.
It is not unusual in the visual and performing arts for students to copy the works of masters. Several times throughout my training as a visual artist there were assignments we had to try and copy the work of a master. Some of them involved copying the work as closely as possible, in the same medium. Some involved making a copy and then an interpretation. One of my favorites was for Freshman Foundation at RISD where we copied only a section of a master (mine was Van Gogh's "Cafe Terrace at Night"), but we had to do it entirely in gouache (a type of opaque watercolor paint that is designed for the masochistic), and crop the section in such a way that it was still interesting and meaningful. What these exercises teach us is not to paint or draw exactly like the masters, but to teach us about the technique used, how color was applied and balance, how texture was created, how a focal point was achieved. Essentially, it teaches us the skills involved in how to put together a viable work of art. But once the skills are established, the artist is expected to use them to develop their own work, their own voice - not to use those skills to turn out more copies of another artist's work. And it's important to note, the copied "practice" artwork is NOT exhibited at a professional level.*
So what does that have to do with bellydance? Simply put, if you wish to put yourself out there as an artist and specifically a professional**, you need to have your own voice. Yes, you are going to learn styles and moves from your teachers, but you are NOT your teacher. You do not have her (or his) experiences, life, inspirations. You are YOU. You have your own experiences and life to live, and inspirations to find. Those moves and those songs need to be told in your voice. This is the only way to really develop your own style. And if you wish to teach workshops and get out there, it's best to do it with your own material. Likewise, if you're going to dance in big shows and put yourself out there, why not be known for your own dancing? You're not going to find the answers all at once, but if you set your sights beyond that dancer you idolize, you'll find a much more satisfying experience. You'll find you.
And it's not going to happen overnight either, it's an ongoing journey. Who I was as a dancer and a person 10 years, 5 years, or even 2 years ago is not the same person and dancer writing this blog at this moment, and I expect to continue to grow and change in 2, 5, 10, 30 years.
*there are artists out there using the methods of masters or copies of masters paintings to make a name for themselves, but these works are often created with a twist on the original, or some sort of modern commentary - again, the artist is adding their own voice to the piece.
**now if someone has no plans whatsoever to become a professional dancer, but rather just want to learn dance, do it as a hobby for fun, etc - then they would be on a different path. Not everyone needs (or should be) to be a professional dancer or an artist.