Friday, October 29, 2010

Defying Definition Part I: The Time Before the Style Wars

The topic of this post has been wandering my brain for quite some time, and I think it's time it gets out from between my ears and to your eyes.  (Aren't you lucky!)

One of the most prevalent issues my students bring to me is identity and definition:  "What style should I be? If I do X here, but Y there, what does that mean? How will people perceive me? What should I do? OMG STYLE!"

When I first started bellydancing, there was very little talk of "style" in the sense of "what kind of bellydance do you do?"  Sometimes it meant what specific culture (Egyptian? Turkish? One of my instructors just called it "Arabic"...), or it referred to what a specific performer/instructor brought to the dance (that's so Dalia Carella, so Shareen El Safy, so Nourhan Sharif, etc).  That was pretty much it.  Bellydance was bellydance.  Sometimes it was folkloric (this is a scarf dance, this is Khaleegy), sometimes it had a Gypsy flair (big skirts! fans!), but it was all definitely bellydance.  Pretty much in the early days of the internet and prior to that, whatever your teacher told you was the word as you knew it - if she told you about any particular kind of style or difference at all.

And then there was Tribal.  More specifically, there was American Tribal Style brought to us by Fat Chance Belly Dance in the mid 1990's a la video tape.  My very first bellydance VHS actually was "Tattooed One" - carefully chosen from so many options in Artemis Import's huge, extensive, and very photo-copied/cut-and-paste physical catalog.  Back in Rhode Island, in 2000, there was no such thing as Tribal anything in terms of classes, just a good 30-40 years experience of bellydance passed on by a few local legends.  I spent hours researching it online, reading the many articles and interviews on Kajira Djoumahna's website (back when BlackSheep BellyDance was "United W Dance"), reading the archives on the med-dance list trying to figure out the differences and similarities, and just learning about as much about bellydance in general as I could. When I asked locally about Tribal, I got a mixed bag of answers, but the best advice was to "go to the source".  (Not able to quite do that at that moment in time, I was able to bring someone to Rhode Island who had at least done so - a Boston dancer who had gone out to SF to study it a bit -  and so we had the first Tribal workshop in RI.  I can't say that I fell in love with it in the format it was presented, but it didn't dissuade me either.)

In 2001 we moved to the Bay Area of California, and the Tribal vs. Cabaret War was kicking off - at festivals and haflas, in online forums and discussion groups, in organizations and across communities.  While there were still arguments discussions about what was more "authentic" - Egyptian or Turkish, modern or classic, American Cabaret a la 1970's, 80's, 90's - the main rage across the internet was Is Tribal bellydance? (And really, keep in mind, back then, Tribal meant Tribal as in American Tribal Style - it hadn't yet been a catch-all term or attached to the word "fusion.") And Tribal-only events began to spring up all over (Tribal Fest in Sebastopol, California was the first to be dedicated to Tribal-style in 2000).  And then more experimental/alternative forms of bellydance began developing and also making an appearance at those events. 

Now is probably a good time to mention that part of the initial appeal of Tribal for me (besides the costuming and earthy movement) was that dancers I saw on "Tattooed One" (and the few Tribal websites of the time) were mainly from the alternative crowd.  They were covered in tattoos, they had piercings and oddly colored hair peeping out from their turbans, and they were all different sizes and ages.  They were definitely not the kind of woman that sprung to mind when one thought of a stereotypical bellydancer.  Having been raised as an artist from a mixed household and pretty much an outsider all the way through school, that acceptance of being different but still beautiful really spoke to me.  And I know a lot of other women felt the same way.  It wasn't so much about it being a different style of bellydance as it was about being open to a different lifestyle/identity.

And that infusion of more "marginal" folks helped push definitions, boundaries, and bring new creative thought to the dance.  In 2003, I launched the Gothic Bellydance Resource ( to document the development and growth of that mode of thinking (in both cabaret and tribal forms).  Tribal Fusion birthed in California and began to grow and change.  Other dance forms like Ballet, Modern, and Jazz found their way more prevalently into bellydance.  East Coast! West Coast! Southern! Euro! Asian! More alternative bellydance events took flight, more workshops on fusion took place, new names charged onto the scene.

(I guess at this point you could say Tribal is like a gateway drug, because the relative acceptance of the original Tribal (ATS), made way for all sorts of fusion to come running in the through the bellydance door (for better, for worse.) Ahem.)

Whatever it was (or all that it was), Tribal became hugely popular as we moved further along into the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, and most of the events where Tribal had felt a cold shoulder open up and expanded to include it - on stage, in workshops, in the vending room.  And somewhere along the line, the question of "Is Tribal Bellydance (and should we allow it)?" changed to "What IS Bellydance?"  And with that came a lot of navel gazing.  And it's from this deeper examination of the dance, what makes it what is, where it comes from, and where it's going has made us a lot more focused on what we are doing, what style are we?  This is both a good thing and a bad thing. 

Next Up: Part II: Unburdening

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Accepting the Unscience of Performing Dance

Carrying on with some of the ideas in my previous entry about performing, I want to talk about the unscience of performance. 

What do I mean by "unscience" - when all of the necessary items seem to be present to make a great performance, but it doesn't happen, and vice versa.  You're prepared, the music is right, the stage is lovely, costume fits perfectly, the lighting is awesome, the house is full, and yet, it just doesn't happen the way you thought it would.

Science says that if you have all of the ingredients in the right amounts, at the right temperature, put together in the correct way, you should get a predictable end product.  That's the beauty of the Scientific Method - it helps us prove cause and effect, order and logic.  That the recipe for mice isn't throw some food in a pile of straw in the corner of the barn and you will magically get mice out of thin air.  (For the non-geeks, this was an actual theory under the concept of "Spontaneous Generation.")

Logically, if you're prepared (you practiced, you did your work, the music is done well, your costume is finished and fits, you've worked with that prop 100's of times, you've done this show before, etc), then everything should be good, but not everything is black and white. There's the other variables: the space made you feel weird, the audience was unusually supportive or dead, the stage felt funny, the lights were not bright/too bright, your costume did something weird it never did before, your earring got stuck on your veil...all of these things can happen at any time.  But these things are small variables that rarely can be helped.

The truth is, there are far too many variables in the arts to provide the same exact results every time - and most specifically, WE ourselves are the greatest, most unstable variable.  I have done performances severely jetlagged and half-starved and under-prepared that have been the most incredible, and then at the other end, happy stomach, 8 hours of sleep, totally prepared - and the result was meh.  I don't mean to imply that one must be tortured to get amazing results but rather I am citing ironic examples of when you would expect a good vs. bad performance and got the opposite effect.  All of the elements said it should have been predictably one way or the other, but it wasn't. 

Maybe part of it is level of expectation - if you don't expect a lot, you leave a lot of room for potential satisfaction  If you set your sights too high, it seems impossible to reach that goal, so you're setting yourself up for failure.  If you've done that performance before, you're comparing it to that last experience, which also creates a type of expectation.

So what can you do about it? 

Well, you should still try and take care of all of the constants you are responsible for.  Plan your piece out, practice it with your intended props/costumes, check out the stage ahead of time, eat/drink/sleep accordingly.  In other words: be prepared.  But once you've got those logical components out the way, be open to a little magic and mystery.  Don't over-anticipate what's going to happen, what people may think, how it may compare to last time - instead, allow yourself to be in that moment, and that moment only.  Enjoy it for being NOW.  Accept that anything can happen, and it's not the end of the world, but you will do your best that you can possible do for this moment.  And don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out exactly as planned.  Sometimes, that makes it even better.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Hecate" Performance at Rakkasah East


(click on the video for details about the performance, music, etc)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Stage In Your Head

At this past weekend at Rakkasah East, the question I was asked most on Sunday (about a dozen times or so) was "Do you get nervous before performing? Do you get stage-fright?"  I was scheduled to perform near the end of the day, so I had some time to think about it.

And generally, my answer is no. I don't get stage-fright, and I rarely get nervous before performing.  Nowadays anyway.  I actually don't think I have ever really had stage-fright in the classic sense, going all the way back to grade school plays.  This is probably not surprising to people who encounter me in the classroom or on the stage, at events - as I tend to appear very extroverted.  But I'm a true Gemini, and my normal state of being is Introvert.  Something clicks over when I need to teach or perform, but I'm not a social butterfly and I prefer sincere interactions. 

But I have in the past gotten nervous before a performance for both good and bad reasons.  The "good" - there are people in the audience I greatly respect and value their opinion/feedback, and I want to do well for them.  In this situation, it's not a matter so much of whether or not I will make them happy, but realizing because I respect them for very valid, solid reasons (and generally the feeling is mutual), then they will understand me, they want to see me do well, and they want to help make suggestions to improve the dance where I can.  I still get the occasional butterfly when I dance before my dance heroes, but it helps lend energy to the moment rather than stifle it.

The "bad":  psyching myself into thinking that a performance at a certain event can make or break my career.  And I think I did my less-than-best performances in the latter category.  For years, I considered myself a better teacher than a performer, and that's what I had to live with.  But as soon as I stopped setting myself up against a large mainly-imaginary goal and worrying about what people I didn't even know/care for/respect thought of me - everything changed.  Being immersed in the design world these last couple of years (aka "real world") 40+ hours a week helped too - it helped put everything into perspective.  There will be other performances, this one performance in this one spot is not the end-all be-all, and you can't please everyone - because everyone has their own baggage that they bring to the table.  Some people will like it, some won't, some will love and some will hate, and all are exposed to the same piece.  It's their experience to your experience and you can't control it.

It is not a matter of "not caring" as so much it is giving respect to yourself and your dance.  While you are on stage, exist for that moment in time, that point in your journey of dance.  What came before and what will come after doesn't matter in that moment.  There will be things that happen that are out of your control (costume malfunctions, bad lighting, music skipping, slipping, missed choreography), but these things do not define who you are as dancer.  And most of all, don't forget: breathe and HAVE FUN!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Art & Bellydance

The following is actually a post I wrote on bhuz in 2007 - I just came across it reading a current thread on a similar topic (those "related topic" links are handy!), and I thought I'd share it here:

One of my greatest pet peeves is the misuse of the title of art when it comes to bellydance. Nothing grates on my nerves more than a hodge-podge collection of random costuming, music bits, and BD moves being displayed and then defended as art.

It's another one of those umbrella terms that gets sullied in overuse without support.

I do believe that bellydance is an art in's a performing art, just like the other forms of dance - it takes skill to achieve and serves to express the human condition - our soul, our hearts, what and where the rhythm brings us.

But I'm also very aware that my position comes from a life-long study of visual art. I started attending formal art school when I was in first grade, and continued on all the way through college, and may eventually go back for a masters (when I have time lol), but my main purpose for that is to learn another art-form (like weaving/fabrics/apparel), which I can do without getting a masters degree ;)

I graduated from RISD - one of the best and toughest art schools in the nation. The criticism I receive over my dancing is nothing compared to the brutality of the crit wall in foundation and major classes, and lasting upwards of 4-8 hours long each time. My parents were not and are not easy-going, praise-giving type of people, and I have and do work professionally in the I would say I have a very thick skin, nor do I seek praise for what I do. I don't think I would be where I am without these traits.

I'm telling you this because I mean to say, when I call what I do art, it's not an excuse. Whether I'm creating visual art or dance, I approach it the same way. First, what is it that I wish to say? How can I best say it? What media will best accomplish my intent (for dance this would be music/costume/moves), and how will this possibly affect my audience? (I say possibly because you just never know until it's done how it is seen through others eyes, and generate ideas and concepts you may have never considered...which is all part of the artistic process.)

And I teach these qualities in my workshops and emphasize to my students to THINK before they dance. Again, if you're going to do fusion, you should know 1. why you're doing it 2. what you're fusing 3. where and how is it going to work?

If you can't answer those questions before doing a performance, I don't think you should be doing it. And you'd best not call the sorry result art. Art is NOT an excuse, it's a language---and you either speak it well, or you don't.