Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is Your Performance an Appetizer or a Buffet?!  My students know how much I love to use food-based metaphors to help our understanding of the dance, and now you will too!

I think one of the key defining elements between determining whether a dancer really is a "professional"  (seasoned, experienced, confident, etc) or an "amateur" (still developing, maturing, growing into their dance, something to prove), is how they approach and structure their performances.*  I've spent countless hours watching dancers perform, from newbies to old timers all over the world, and I've come to this conclusion: the best performances are presented like appetizers, while others are like a trip to an all-you-can-eat-buffet on the mind, and we're not talking a champagne brunch.

The Buffet: Most often, a less-experienced dancer will look at the time-slot they are given, and try to mastermind how to utilize every single one of those minutes and how many different kinds of things they squeeze into that performance.  Or if there is no time-limit, will present as much and as long as they can get away with.  "OK, it says the time-slot is '5-10 minutes' - so I've got 10 minutes to work with, so I can do at least 3 songs, and I think I'll do sword, veil, wings, fans, and mix that with some Bollywood and some hip-hop too!  It will be awesome!!" 

And I'm sure some folks are going, "So what's wrong with that? Variety is the spice of life! Look at all of the things I can do!  Why shouldn't I show off all that I know!?"  Well, let us consider an all-you-can-eat buffet at your typical American buffet-style restaurant.  There tends to be a wide variety of choices: salad bar, taco bar, dessert bar, meat station, pasta station, pizza station, soup station, etc.  A LOT of food, and particularly a lot of different kinds of food you wouldn't typically find paired together --and because there's so much of it, there's often a couple of really high points, a large amount of mediocre, and some really dismal.  And those really good things tend to get taken down by the experience of the rest, and particularly the tendency to overload.

So what does that mean in terms of a dance performance?  Well, let's say you are a really awesome sword dancer, but your veilwork needs some work, and you really just started learning Bollywood fusion a few weeks ago (and are REALLY excited about it!).  Well, while your sword dance is a like a really nice cut of steak, you're pairing it with limp salad and watery mashed potatoes.  The audience may be wowed by the steak, but the limp salad and potato slush are going to take away from that great impact.  Likewise, performing very different unrelated dances (like Bollywood fusion, Egyptian, and Gothic)  in the same set is like having a Thai course followed by an Italian course followed by Japanese- you could, but should you?

How To Avoid the Buffet:

  • Edit, Edit, Edit! Rather than showing off everything you think you can do, pick one or two things that you know you do REALLY well and focus your attention on presenting those things very well, to the best of your ability  Or if it's an experiment or a new thing for you to perform, then just do that one thing and plan your introduction accordingly. 
  • Less is more! Just because you are given the option to use UP TO a certain amount of time, doesn't mean you need to fill every minute.  You don't need to dance every minute, just use the amount of time you need to present a solid dance.  
  • Think cohesively.  What do your different elements have to do with each other?  If the only thing in common is that they're a prop, a fusion, or that you're involved, that's not good enough.  Also, if you like 6 different songs, use those songs when you can give them the best presentation - don't make a schizo-mix.  Love them individually, not parts of them together unless it makes sense. 
  • Be kind to your audience by not overloading them.  Especially when the event features a lot of performers, less time and more focus makes a more satisfied audience.

The Appetizer - Appetizers give us a taste of delicious food, without making us feel stuffed.  The experienced dancer/performer knows that it's important to give the audience a tasty morsel of them without giving away too much all at once.  Rather than using the maximum time allotted or monopolizing the stage, they carefully select and structure their performances to make the most of their music and the concept they want to get across.  In that projected time-slot of 5-10 minutes, you will find them using the lower end (5-7 minutes), not because they don't have more ideas, props, or the stamina, but because they want to present the very best they can do.  Their musical choices make sense with their costuming, props, and movement vocabulary.  If they do more than one song, it provides contrast to the first piece without being disconnected, and flow without feeling like it's going to be 3 more minutes of the first 5.  The Appetizer performance leaves the audience feeling satisfied without being bombarded or bored.  They leave the audience wanting more.

How To Make An Appetizer:
  • Consider what you want to say with your dance, and what's the most efficient way of saying it.
  • Learn how to edit your music so that it flows while fitting within your time.
  • Make sure your whole presentation is cohesive: costuming, music, make-up, movements.
  • Choose your best talents and make it work.  If you don't feel confident about something, don't do it. 
  • Take your time to practice the piece and trial-run your costuming.  The morning-of is not the time to figure out a new prop or costume.
So when you're planning your next performance, consider what sort of audio-visual meal you are making for your audience.  Consider the hafla or show as a potluck, and everyone should be bringing tapas to the stage!

(*there always exceptions to this....for better or for worse, so really it's not such a clear distinction of "pro" and "non-pro", but really part of what makes a dancer an excellent performer who exercises good judgment consistently....)

(And yes, I probably have been watching too many cooking competition shows...)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Make It Purple!

Recently I was explaining depth and variety to my performance prep students, and out came this metaphor/analogy that really turned on the light bulb for them, so I thought I would share:

A common thing a lot of dancers do, especially those new to performing (or strangers to performance technique) is the dance equivalent of doing a painting in entirely blue - and I'm not talking monochromatic (different tints and shades and variations of blue) - I'm talking about using the same tube of blue paint for the whole painting.  Translated to dance: using the same exact pace and movements/movement quality throughout an entire performance.  There may be a movement she/he does really well, but they do it throughout the whole piece again and again, or the movements are all done with the same exact force, same exact meter, throughout. 

You don't have to have a whole arsenal of paint at your disposal to make a good painting that's interesting to look at.  So yes, you love that blue, but what if you had a tube of red paint?  What if instead of blue the whole time, you added some red?  And then what if you mixed the blue and the red together? You get purple!  That's 3 colors (and the many increments of variation found with the spectrum between blue and red when they're mixed together)! 

Back to dance - let's say the blue is your favorite dance combination.  And the red allows you to do that combination slower or faster, or add a new development on top of it that changes the look (purple!).  What are the basic moves that make up that combination, and where you can you go with them? Level changes? Floor geometry? Different arm positions? Suddenly that all blue painting becomes a lot more interesting, and that blue looks even better because you've started to bring in other elements that help make it special.

So make some purple with your dance!

Monday, September 6, 2010

May you forever thirst......for knowledge.

In the land between emerging dancer and professional dancer, the question often comes up, when does one stop take classes? Ideally, never.

There seems to be this myth in some communities that if you're still regularly attending classes or workshops, then you're not a professional dancer.  There are many things that define a professional dancer, and this myth is NOT one of them. (In that same realm of thought, teaching classes or performing at a restaurant doesn't make you a professional dancer either, but we'll save that for another post.)

We'll tackle this topic by common statements:
"But I've gotten as far as my teacher can teach me."
That may be true, but one teacher does not hold all that there is about bellydance, as wise as she (or he) may seem to be.  Every teacher has their own style and preferences, as well as strengths and weaknesses.  For example, I had one fabulous teacher who just didn't care for reverse undulations, so we never did them in class or performances.  It wasn't until I took classes with another instructor that I really understood them and got them down.  Different teachers will unlock different doors, so if you've gone as far as you think you can with one, and there's more teachers in your area, keep going, even if that means starting off in their beginning class.  This is a common and sensible practice, because there are so many approaches, styles, and vocabularies, that it's important to get a feeling for what that teacher does.  Even if you feel you're "beyond" taking a beginner class, it make for excellent practice as well as being great for jogging the memory - as we often get obsessed with complicated moves, and forget the beauty simplicity of the basic core moves. 

Also, have a solid idea of where your teacher is coming from.  Who did she/he study with? How long have they've been dancing? Look into their dance family tree and take a critical eye.  If your teacher has only been dancing for several years and studied with X who's only been dancing for a few years prior to teaching, you could be missing out on a lot of important information.  It's like the telephone game with bellydance.  Sure, "X" studied with the great "Z", but if she only studied with her for 1-2 years, and then started teaching to your teacher, who also only took classes for a few sessions, then a lot of vital information could have been lost. 

"But there's no one else in my area..."
Really? Not everyone is on facebook, tribe, or bhuz - have you done your research? Could there be old school teachers in your neck of the woods who just don't do much online? How about the next town over? 1/2 hour away?  How far are you willing to go for a good teacher? (I have students who commute up to an hour each way to take my classes, my hat's off to them!)

If there really is no one else local to you or your schedule/budget doesn't allow for weekly travel, then there are other options:
1. Workshops - if you can't get to a weekly class, then you should budget for a workshop regularly.  Workshops are great for learning new material, skills, styles, and giving yourself something to think about outside of your familiar range.  Bellydance has blossomed in such a way that there tends to be something going on in most big cities at least once a month, if not every weekend.  (Here where I am in New England, I can get to most places Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hamphire in under 2-3 hours. And there is ALWAYS something going on.)
2. Private Lessons - private lessons are a great way to really fine tune yourself.  It's definitely worth the travel and money, because often just one hour of a private lesson will yield weeks (if not months) of serious focus on things to perfect in your dance.  So maybe if you're not getting enough from a weekly class, ask your teacher about private lessons, or talk to teachers further away that you admire.  It's worth it. Some teachers now offer private lessons via the internet.
3. DVDs & Online Classes- I list these last, because while the material can be great, you're not going to get personal instruction and most importantly CORRECTION if you're doing it wrong.  But DVDs and online classes are a great and often affordable way to learn new materials and styles.

"Why do I need to learn more? My teacher never corrected me and always told me how great I am! I am fabulous!"
Don't laugh - if I put it here, I've heard it and seen it. First off, if your weekly class has more than a handful of people, your teacher is far less likely to be able to offer individual corrections.  Especially on basic things like posture and footwork, if the focus is getting a choreography down - or there's 30 people in the room, it's very hard to see that your posture goes out of whack when you start moving or that your transitions aren't smooth.  Next up, a lot of teachers are fearful of giving critique.  They don't want to hurt your feelings/don't want to chance losing your business/don't believe in it/don't know how to give it. Yes, it's a beautiful dance, and everyone should do it, but when students start moving into professional arenas, teachers need to be realistic with them.  Just because you got some praise doesn't mean you know it all.

"But MS SUPERSTAH DANCER said I was the best thing she's ever seen since sliced bread!"
Get out more and don't get a big head.  I've seen some "big name" dancers deliver the same line to numerous dancers of varying caliber.  Which means they either have a goldfish memory "oh look a castle!" (swim, swim) "oh look a castle!" or they know how to milk sycophants because it's good business for them.  Trust the people who have seen you develop, ask for real feedback, what can you improve on - because there's always something to work on.

"I just don't have the time."
If you say this, AND you're teaching AND you can't make room for one thing a month to improve your dancing, then maybe you shouldn't be doing it.  It's hard to hear, but some folks should be taking classes instead of teaching them.  If you have the time to teach every week, then you have the time to learn more.

"But if I'm still taking classes, won't other professional dancers look down on me?"
If they do, they're not much in the way of professional. Every single dancer that I have studied with in the past and continue to work with now, still works to expand their knowledge, regardless of whether they've been doing this for 10, 20, 30, or 50 years.  And they always have something new and interesting to share - and sometimes they discover it conflicts with something else they had learned, and it makes them think/grow.

So, what does it all mean?  If you're serious about bellydancing - whether you want to perform it or teach it (or both), never stop learning, never stop being a student.  And you will continue to grow and improve in your dance - which is really the best way to be the dancer you want to be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guest Post by M'chelle

M'chelle (of Kansas City, MO) posted this piece today, and in the spirit of "Dancing is for everyone, performing is not", I wanted to share this with you.  The title link will take you directly to her blog, her name link will take you to her website.  The bullet list at the end is especially critical for both teachers and students. 


A Plea to my Dance Community - by M'chelle

With the rising popularity of bellydance, and the rising fame of dancers like Ansuya, Rachel Brice, and Sharon Kihara (amongst so many others), there are more and more aspiring dancers fighting for the same jobs.
On one hand, this is awesome - more competition, in theory, should raise the general quality level of performers. The more commonplace bellydance becomes, potentially the more understanding there will be that we are not strippers. The more the public sees bellydancers, especially at venues like Cultural Fairs and Outdoor Child-Friendly Festivals, I feel, potentially, the less we we be associated with sexually explicit nonsense.

However, all that theory and conjecture is just theory and conjecture, and is totally dependant on the very individuals who are undertaking these performances. Baby beginner dancers (and I have been guilty of this myself) have an unerring tendency to get so excited about the prospect of performing or teaching, they rarely take the time to consider whether or not they should be performing or teaching, or for that matter what is in fact a fair price for any performance or class. On top of that, most people hiring bellydancers have no idea what the difference between a quality performance and amatuerish jiggling really is. The idea of mentorship between teacher and student is sadly lacking, at least in my dance community. There is very little interference when it comes to advising young dancers not to perform or teach.

Once again, I'm guilty of this myself - I've had students come up to me, thrilled because so and so heard they were bellydancing and asked them to come and teach a workshop at a wine bar or private lessons out a garage or living room - and invariably these lessons are free or so cheap as to be painful. The idea of appropriateness also seems to be completely lacking. Yes, you can bellydancer is burlesque inspired costuming - but doing so to sexysexy music at a street fair is not the best idea when so many of us are trying to elevate this dance form from the level of cheap entertainment to high art to be regarded with the same amount of respect garnered (to my perception) as ballet dancers and aerialists.

I am, of this moment, making a vow to be honest with my students when they ask about the possibilities of performing and teaching, and to be truthful when informed about already accepted gigs and classes. And I think it would be really excellent if other bellydancer teachers would vow to do that same.
I don't fee like I'm ready to be a mentor yet - there's still so much that I'm trying to figure out, not only about the business of bellydance, but about my place in it - and I have a really excellent mentor helping me to do that.

If you are a beginning dancer, hoping to be a professional one day, take the following, put it in your practice journal, and anytime some friend or neighbor or coworker asks you to come perform at a party or teach a little class, re-read it, and answer yourself honestly.
  • If I take this job, will I be representing this art form at a level and in a manner that shows respect not only to my teachers, but to every other dancer that has come before me?
  • Am I willing to charge the going rate for this job, so as not to be taking money out of the mouths of other dancers in my area?
  • Will taking this dance job elevate the dance form?
  • Do I have the appropriate costuming/music/style/skill level for this performance?
  • Have I talked to my teacher about whether or not this is a good idea for me at this point in my dance-life?