Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Star Quality? (Part Two)

Ok, so continuing on from Star Quality? (Part I), I want to focus on the 3 major factors I listed: Ability, Promotion, and Personality.  Someone who is an Established Star has worked hard on all of these factors (and most likely continue to). Out of these 3 things, I would say two of them can always be improved upon over time, with some hard work, dedication, and focus:

Ability: This refers to the individual's technique - not only in how well-versed they are in the dance and what they do, but how able they are as a teacher, as a performer.  Let's face it, no matter how naturally dance may come to some, there is always room for improvement and growth.  Some dancers let early praise get to their heads, and stop taking classes, workshops - and often start teaching themselves at the same time.  If you don't get a realistic picture of where you are at, nor do you ever get any more information in, you're going to plateau very quickly.  For those who it doesn't come so easily, or are more critical-thinkers, they're going to work harder, longer, and get farther in the big picture. (Hare vs. Tortoise if you will).  Those who rise fast, but don't grow nor continue to get accolades often vanish as quick as they came. Especially if they came on the scene with just one trick or gimmick in their bag. These would make up a fair amount of Shooting Stars. (Not all, because for some, life gets in the way - a major family change, career, move, health issues, etc - may quickly end the career of a Rising Star, making them appear to be short-lived.)

It is also important to note that someone who is a great dancer may not be a great teacher, and vice versa.  In the current economy, one really needs to be relatively strong at both to do it professionally.  And again, some people are natural teachers or performers, but most are not, and it takes time to acquire those skills and hone them.  And live experience makes a difference.  Heck, for example, it just makes sense that I would be a better teacher now in 2010, then I was in 2005, 200+ workshops later...and if I wasn't, then I wouldn't be getting the gigs and huge amount of return/repeat students that I am blessed with. 

So, when it comes to attaining "star quality" in regards to Ability - you need to be prepared to learn, study, practice, be critiqued, analyze, and share both in the classroom and on the stage.

Promotion: The individual's outlying presence - the image presented online via websites, videos, magazines, business cards, through events and other offerings. Ok, so you've got Ability down - what is your public presence in the world? How easily can potential customers/students/sponsors find out about you? Do you have a website? Business cards? Online video?  Back in the day, word of mouth and perhaps a good business card was all you needed, but this is the Information Age.  If someone can't google you, see you dance a timezone away, or take home a card, you can easily be forgotten. 

And I'm not saying you have to have a ton of money or graphic design talent to do it either, especially not in this day and age, where there's website builders a plenty, super-cheap hosting, and full color business cards for next to nothing.  And it doesn't have to be super fancy either - just clean and to the point.  Honestly, I built my first website back in the late 90's, and I really can't say my web skills have progressed greatly since the first part of this past decade, but I know good design, and I can do it all myself and update it.  So while I don't have the fanciest whistles and bells, I have an easy to navigate website that's updated regularly.  Where folks can read about you, where you've been, where you'll be at, how to contact you. That's all you really need.  Ok that and some good photos.  Which aren't that hard to come by for a small investment of time and/or money, no matter where you are located - and then can be used for all of your promo materials.

Also, don't be fooled into thinking that spending a lot of money on photoshoots and web design will get you there faster either (or expensive costumes), and it's got to be brand-new every 6 months.  I remember back-in-the-day snark from people who said I only got where I was because I had a pretty website and costuming.  Well, both the website and costuming I made from scratch, which was a major investment of my time, on top of everything else I was doing (college, dance classes, being married, working, and sleep somewhere in there..) - so really even if I had bought those things for a lot of money, it wouldn't change the fact that I'm still going strong many years later. So if you have the talent use it - if you don't, find some reliable friends/contacts who do.

It also helps to have an online presence in other ways too, via networking sites:, facebook, blogs, online forums, twitter, etc.  People nowadays have a shorter attention span, so you can't just expect to just sit back and be discovered. You have to be pro-active.

So, this would include the two factors that I think you can always be improving on.  The last one probably could too, but I'd argue otherwise, I think you either have it/get it, or you don't - and this factor plays the most important role of being an Established Star:

Personality: How they come across as a person - as a performer, as a teacher, as a community member. When I think about all of my dance heroes (and they all have been dancing for nearly as long as I have been alive, or longer), there are some incredibly similar traits that they all share.  They're all sincere, honest, grounded, minimal-drama people. They're also all relatively easy to work with - as performers, teachers, and as people. They have staying quality because they have proven themselves to be consistent and reliable over a long period of time. They're not afraid to express their opinion, but they also recognize when it is the best time to do so.  They are respected in their local communities as well as across the globe.  They have a serious work ethic, but also know how to have fun and don't take themselves too seriously either. And they're always open to learning something new.  And most importantly, they don't do it for fame, they do it because they truly love what they do and love sharing it.  

And I really stress that these things are proven again and again over time.  I can think of several Shooting Stars who had amazing charisma, but little real substance, and most people do catch on eventually that they really aren't all that and a bag of pita chips.  People also grow weary of Drama Queens who make too many demands but offer little else in return.  And it's important to be a part of your local community - even though I travel a lot, I still make time for local events, haflas, benefits, because it's important and I care about my community and growing opportunities for my students. 

So if you'd like to be a Rising Star (or are one already!), and would like to see yourself one day as an Established Star - carefully consider all of these factors, and take a good step back and look at yourself.  Don't be afraid to grow, to change, and to expand, and be sure you know you're doing it for the right reasons.

And for the record, I would consider myself Rising to Aspiring Established Star.  Maybe in another 10 years, ok?

Star Quality?

Another question that comes up often is "how does one get to be well-known/considered to be a "star" in the bellydance community?"

In order to answer that, we need to look at what makes a star and what IS a star anyway? There are several different factors at stake, as well as several different "tiers" of stardom if you will. If I was going to narrow the factors down into 3 sections, it would be Ability, Promotion, and Personality:

Ability: This refers to the individual's technique - not only in how well-versed they are in the dance and what they do, but how able they are as a teacher, as a performer.

Promotion: The individual's outlying presence - the image presented online via websites, videos, magazines, business cards, through events and other offerings.

Personality: How they come across as a person - as a performer, as a teacher, as a community member.

The combination of these 3 factors determine which level of stardom one may achieve. Here I have also narrowed the levels down to the 3 most common, which I have dubbed: Rising Stars, Shooting Stars, and Established Stars.

Rising Stars: Rising Stars are typically dancers who may be well-known in their local community, but are starting to break out on their national or international scene.  It can also refer to a younger dancer who exhibits a lot of potential to develop into much more.

Shooting Stars: Dancers who come fast on the scene, and seem to vanish the same way they arrived, for any number of reasons.

Established Stars: Dancers who are tried and true names in the business, who continue to grow and develop, and maintain their staying power.  They are generally among the most respected members of their local communities as well as far beyond. 10, 20, 30, 40 years, they're still around, going strong.

So how is it done?  More importantly, how is it done WELL? Well, we'll cover that in Part II!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Age & Dance - Revisiting Old Thoughts

It's been about 5 years since I wrote THE AGE OF STORYTELLING for the Hip Circle.  A LOT has happened in that relatively short period of time, especially in my dancing - particularly performances and how I approach them, and consider the end result - but as well in my larger life as well - another cross-country move, then a move back to New England, another nationwide tour, and design positions.  And as I work my way towards the mid-30's, I wondered if my perspective on what I wrote has changed much.

In short: no - I still sincerely believe that every woman has something to say through her dancing. But what I would add is that what we say changes.  And how you say it will change as well if you continue to grow in your dance (taking classes, workshops, trying new things, re-discovering basics). 

I would say that my dancing still maintains a dark edge that is naturally part of my aesthetic and personality, but it permeates my work in new ways. Looking back at the pieces of my 20's (from early 20's through to late 20's), it was a lot more confrontational, a lot more angry and hard-edged in a "in-your-face" sort of way. I created pieces dedicated to Kali Ma and the Rusalka, explored gender roles and my frustrations with the dance community. I played with the Noir/20's aesthetic, but kept running back to more Industrial/Cyber kind of Gothic themes, feeling that there was more power there.  There were a lot of good ideas, but at that point in time, my brain was far ahead of my dancing - meaning the concept was there, but I wasn't fully capable of physically executing the pieces consistently. There were points of breakthrough, but not every time - and I was moving too fast through everything (physically, mentally, spiritually).  Few people realize that I had only started dancing in 2000, so when the Gothic Bellydance DVDs came out, I had only been doing dance for 5-6 years - so a lot of things happened at/to me very fast in a short amount of time.  And I think that reflected in my dancing, for better and for worse, and in my relationships with others.

Midway through 2007, my husband and I (and The Mischief) moved back to the East Coast, and while I don't think things magically changed overnight, it was this move that started a new direction in my dancing, which started to emerge the following year on stage.  I started teaching weekly classes (never was the logical thing to do in the overcrowded Bay Area), and while I had always loved teaching, my skills and understanding grew even more - and I focused more on instruction than creating new performances.  And the pace of everything just seemed to slow down as my focus shifted.  I re-visited old performance sets and found new life in them.  I began to create a smaller amount of new performances, and worked with them longer, more intimately, allowing myself time to fully explore them, rather than worrying about presenting something new to "keep up."  And most importantly, my body caught up with my brain. 

As we end the near of 2010, I feel like I have journeyed far more in the last 3 years than I did in the first 8.  I grew into my own technique and claimed it more wholly, with my entire being.  I developed a new perspective on dance, and with that forged new relationships with dancers - both as a mentor and being mentored.  My dance has become more about satisfying my own muses than worrying about what others may think/perceive, and I want to share that focus with others.

So you could say sure, this is all related to growing older, but I don't think it's so much about physical age, as it is about learning to slow down, to shed what's not needed, and give time where it's most important - instead of racing to what's next.  "Next" will arrive when it's good and ready - or at least, when I am.   

(I also recommend checking out Artemis Mourat's article on the Gilded Serpent "Journey Into Womanhood" if you would like to read more about this subject - Artemis is a fabulous dancer, teacher, and friend who I admire greatly. )

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Defying Definition Part II: Unburdening

Labels are heavy things upon our shoulders - let them slide to the floor and go down the drain, and prepare to dance liberated and free.  (a passage from the book of Tempest..)

In my last post, I talked about the time before the style-obsession/wars and previously I talked about the Tree of Style - and today I would like to talk about moving past that and focusing on the dance itself, which is something I believe that all students of the dance can learn from, whether you have been doing this 10 months, 10 years, etc.

On one hand, let it be clear that I am obsessed with information.  I love gathering it: finding out about history, culture, tradition vs. innovation, what causes changes, the effects of those changes, etc.  I love finding out what makes X "X" and Y "Y".  And I love sharing that information.  That is the main reason I created the Gothic Bellydance Resource - to document the developments, gather information, share it and explain it with others.   (And back in 2003-2006 I had the time to really grow it, now not so much, and it's in severe need of an update....but I digress...)  The result of its creation was the building of a definition of that genre/style in ways I could not possibly have imagined when I first conceived it.

That being said, I've never been one to color inside the lines and follow dependable paths and be true to stereotypes.  Not because of some sense of rebellion, desire to shock, or purposely be iconoclastic, but simply that's how my brain is wired.  I have always find the "weird" way to do things very natural, and I track my muses not unlike the errant knights of old - meandering, wandering, yet passionate.

Which translated means: I follow my creative/instinctive whims in all things, especially in dance and art.  Which probably has caused some confusion on the receiving end of things along the way for others.  In order to help others (particularly my students, but anyone who may be in a style predicament), I will share with you some of the hazards of labels I've experienced, and hopefully help you to avoid falling prey to defining others/yourself by them.

Here are just SOME of these confusions that have been shared with me (and that I expect other dancers have experienced in their own ways):

-That I do/teach/perform Tribal/Tribal Fusion dance. Nope, I have studied ATS/Tribal, but nowhere as much as I have studied cabaret/oriental/folkloric, and that has always been my main vehicle in my instruction and my performances.  I have been very much welcomed at Tribal events (Tribal Fest, Tribal Fusion Faire, etc) because I present non-traditional material that is applicable to all styles of dance, and for many years, that was the only kind of venue it was considered acceptable.  Things are starting to change, and that's great, because it opens up more people to what I offer, which really can be applied to all styles across the board.

-That people are afraid that I will judge their performances for not being "Goth enough." I don't own a goth-o-meter.  If you want me to critique your piece, I will in the context you present it to me in, and since Goth is such a large genre with so many subcultures, that there's a lot of room to play with.  But first and foremost thought is, what do you have to say with your dance? That is what is most important to me and can help me give you the best feedback if you want my opinion. Which brings us to the exact opposite of the same confusion:

-I don't fit your expectations/stereotypes of what is Goth. One of the most laughable reviews I have read criticized my appearance, citing I wasn't "freaky" enough because I'm not covered in piercings and tattoos (I have two tattoos, and I have my ears pierced, that's about it.) Anyone who has been a Goth through the last 10-20-30 years can tell you, it's not a look, it's a mindset, a way of thinking and perceiving the world.  I find beauty in dark and unusual things that most people don't see/care for/fear.  I'm not here to play who's the darkiest dark, ooky-spooky, stereotypical-looking dancer - I'm on a dance journey, and that doesn't involve satisfying anyone else's expectations but my own. I don't construct my performances seeking to satisfy the status quo.  Which pretty much means you never know what will show up, but it will be different and yet distinctly me.

-That because I do fusion, I don't care about tradition/culture/etc. Quite the opposite, I care very much about roots, tradition, and sacred concepts - and deepening my understanding of them.  Much of my art (dance and visual) is about my exploration of history, traditions, folklore, myth, and how that relates to myself, society, and everything else.  Frankly, I'm genetically engineered to fuse - I come from a very, very long line of people who married outside of their culture/faith/nationality.  I really believe I am hard-wired this way because I have approached everything in life with this perspective.  Ask my parents ;)

* * *

There are lots more (and if you have some you want to ask/want me to clear up, please feel free to comment!), but I think many dancers can relate to these points if you just exchange out some of the style names.

And it's not like I went out there and made any of these statements to lead people to believe these confusions. Quite the opposite, as I'm rather vocal in what I believe and practice. But it happened anyway.

Part (most) of the problem lays in preconceived notions, misinformation, and personal baggage.  People bring to labels what they know (or lack there of), and unfortunately a lot of people are quick to judge/dismiss, instead than saying "You know what? I don't know, let's ask or do some research?" I think it's out of fear - being afraid to ask, being fearful of showing you don't know what you're talking about.  But the thing is, you'll never know if you don't try or ask. You can't grow that way.  Don't be afraid to ask questions.

And if you hold yourself to your own labels (or those that are applied to you), you limit your experience.  It's one thing to ask yourself is a certain piece venue/audience/event appropriate, have you done your research and practice, does it all go together cohesively- and another thing to be afraid to move out what you've already done because of fear.  Fear of what other people may think, fear of misunderstanding, fear of being perceived as something else.  You can't control what other people think.  What you can do is to present the best you can to your ability and to frame it properly (does it have a write-up/introduction, are you presenting it in the best situation, etc), and let it be.  The first stitch in creating a pattern has to start with change - otherwise, it would be a straight line. 

And trying something different is not a lifelong commitment by any means.  Whether I paint in acrylic, oil, or watercolor, I'm still painting, and I'm free to use whatever resources I wish, given I take the time to learn the technique to use them. The same is true for dance. And it's totally ok afterward to say to yourself,"You know what? that style doesn't work for me."  But at least you tried it and expanded your experience and know more because of it. 

So don't let labels define you and your dance.  If you hold them too closely, you risk getting the most out of your dance and who you are, who you can be. Dare to defy them, let go of the baggage, and just dance.