Monday, June 6, 2011

Entertaining Dance Vs. Evolving Bellydance

Variety is the spice of life, or so they say.  A show is often more interesting and entertaining for the audience when there is a variety of styles and kinds of presentations, versus all of the same exact style and artist - comparison and contrast between performances allows for palette cleansing, critical thinking, and general overall enjoyment.

When I first started dancing, fusion performances were among the minority, which often made them stand-out in a line-up.  Usually the "fusion" was a blending of dances (say Indian and Bellydance, or Flamenco and Bellydance) or using something un-traditional - like a rock song instead of Arabic music.  These rarely pushed the envelope, but still provided a sense of variety and contrast to a more traditional line-up.  Which generally made them a bit easier to remember to the average audience member, who may not know the amazing differences between a Turkish Romani piece, a Melaya Leff, and an American Cabaret piece.

(It should be stated that even within a given style or genre, there can be a lot of variation - a show on Egyptian dance can feature pieces that are modern as well as classic/Golden age - folkloric, and fantasy - and that will generally be far more entertaining than 20 dancers all showcasing modern in similar lycra costuming and pop music. Same with Gothic - performances can span from industrial and cyber to romantic and steampunk, from dark and mysterious to light and comedic - a lot more exciting than 20 dancers all in black tribal fusion attire popping and locking with angry faces to techno.)

It doesn't take a genius to figure out though, that if a piece really stands out, is in extreme contrast to everything else, it will be recognized for that and get talked about.  And every performer wants to be recognized and talked about (preferably in a positive light). So there has been a distinct trend in recent years to try and out-contrast everyone else in an effort to stand out.  The problem with this is that instead of offering a variety of pieces that compliment each other, a show can become a cacophony of "LOOK AT ME" - which means often that performers then try even harder to be louder and more different.  This can be very problematic on several levels.

On one hand, it is an excellent idea to challenge and push oneself.  In fact, this is at the root of artistry - not being satisfied and continuing to push forward.  But it shouldn't happen solely for the sake of comparison to others - because you can only truly compete with yourself.  When you seek to compete with others, you may stop evolving within the true nature of yourself. Because in order to "compete", it often means making yourself similar to someone else, rather than following your own inclinations.

Another problem is how far do you go before it stops being coherent with the overall thread of things? More specifically, when does it stop being bellydance?  Or does that matter? I suppose it depends on the show and the venue, but I also think a lot of people aren't asking themselves this question.  Recently I saw a piece I enjoyed - it was fun, it was well-choreographed, good costuming, and musicality - and so on those terms, it was very successful.  But then I asked myself, what does this have to to do with bellydance? Besides a few isolations - nothing.  So yes, it was entertaining and done well as dance piece, but it really didn't have anything to do with bellydance - not in the music, or the costuming, subject matter, or the movements - but it was presented at a bellydance show by someone known for being a bellydancer - and that was the fine string that connected it all.  And I asked myself, is that enough?  Especially when less-discriminating audience members are most likely thinking "that was cool! I need to do something like that to stand out and get recognized!"

Likewise, I saw rave reviews afterwards about a performance I had seen live at another event, commenting on excellent technique, musicality, etc.  I watched the video to remind myself of the piece, and I agreed there were some beautiful lines and lovely dancing, but three minutes in, I had yet to see anything bellydance about it.  Modern dance, yes, contemporary yes, ballet, yes....bellydance no.  Was it good dancing? Yes.  Was it bellydance? No.  What someone held up as their best favorite representation of bellydance at an event, wasn't even bellydance.  My mind boggled, and the irony is not lost on me that the main complaint coming out of my mouth, is the same complaint I heard rallied against fusion over the last 10+ years - so if MY eyes can't find the bellydance, then there's something serious going on.

I think it's extremely vital for us as a community right now to consider these questions when watching performances, and to ask this of ourselves, if we wish to continue to be known as bellydancers and perform in bellydance arenas.  We need to be able to recognize the difference between a good dance performance and a good bellydance performance.  It doesn't have be traditional bellydance in order to be good bellydance, but it also shouldn't be so far outside the spectrum that it ceases to retain any of the qualities and characteristics you should find under the bellydance umbrella.  And if these things aren't clear to YOU as a dancer, then it's time to get more educated about traditional bellydance.  In order for us to move forward and evolve, we have to know our roots.

And just because it's being presented on a stage at a bellydance festival by your favorite dancer isn't enough to make it bellydance, or mean it's a good idea either.  Do your research, expand your roots, and get those brains moving people!  Trust me, it's a good thing!


  1. This is such a great post Tempest. And it's so true to the core of what so many of us (myself included) struggle with on so many different levels - that changing point from "Look at Me! Look at Me!" to "I'm going to dance MySelf, and see what happens." And the attention to fusion, and what is bellydance and when does it become much there.
    I love your brains.

  2. This hits so close to home, thank you for positing it! At TF I was watching a dramatic piece I really enjoyed and said to a friend next to me "isn't this awesome?!" and she replied "where's the bellydance?". I was so caught up in the drama, the costumes etc. that I didn't even NOTICE the bellydancing was missing! A great reminder.

  3. Excellent! Needed to be said way back when and needs to be said now!!

  4. Thanks for this! I enjoy great belly dance, and I enjoy great dance. I appreciate the distinction being made.

  5. I'm gonna agree on your first point, but play devil's advocate on the second. ;-)

    First: I completely agree that it seems like the majority thinking right now is that we have to distance ourselves from everyone else and stand out. And this definitely has been pushing the "WTF" envelope. (As well as the copycat envelope: everyone thinks that so-and-So is "famous" because of her style, and wants to emulate that style in order to garner their own attention. Blah blah blah, BTDT, got the tshirt and gave it to Goodwill a million years ago.)

    However, the "is this bellydance" issue has always seemed to me to be a smokescreen.

    Why can't we have Modern Art pieces? Why can't we have Hip Hop? Or Jazz? Or Hooping?

    Why do we need to add any bellydance to it at all?

    Maybe some of us are just dancers.

    As long as it is named as such (truth in naming has always been a big deal to me), why not?

    And why would festivals or haflas discriminate? Why not showcase Modern/ Lyrical/ Tap/ hell, even ballet if it fits into the overall aesthetic vibe. (I could see someone rocking the Black Swan dance at TF.)

    Honestly, I am just wondering... at this point, I am so open to seeing any kind of dance at all as long as it is GOOD/ interesting/ art and not just someone practicing to their teacher's favorite music.


  6. Great point Alexis - it really does come down to truth in advertising - we have a duty to our students, our audience, etc - to discuss what we're doing and why, especially since far too many people don't even stop to consider these things. Consider the number of "tribal fusion" newbies who say that traditional bellydance ISN'T bellydance b/c it's not full of pop-locking tricks and glitches.

    And it's a matter of where is the best place to present these pieces and WHY. If it's barely or not even bellydance anymore, why present it at a bellydance event? If it's a celebration of all kinds of dance, a variety show, etc - then it makes sense and has it's place. Good dance is good dance, but I think it's also important to consider how it's being presented.

  7. Personally, I think that the sudden lack of bellydance in "bellydance" choreographies is a symptom of a problem, rather than the problem itself. What we need to explore more deeply is the rabid attention seeking prevalent in our community.

    I am a die-hard fusion fan, and I'm the first to admit that sometimes when I'm building a fusion choreography, I'm tempted to throw in some outlandish dance move from my outside training that I know a large part of the community hasn't seen before. What I crave is a strong reaction from my viewers. But I don't care if Josie Schmosie who's been dabbling in bellydance for 2 years reacts to my work. I want one of the Big Guns to notice me. I want them to see me and tell me if I'm going somewhere with all this.

    What this boils down to is that I want someone beyond myself to have an investment in my work. I think dancers today are bending over backwards to find a mentor figure for their work. They don't JUST want the stardom. They want someone they respect to come down from their pedestal and say that they believe in them. Too many teachers these days are happy to take their students' money (large sums of it I might add), but the relationship ends there. I can name on one hand all the aspiring dancers I know who have a mentor who's willing to fight for their students' work. I don't know if I can blame dancers for their attention seeking behaviors, when they want so badly for someone to just tell them if their chest lift is coming from the right place. I know I'm rambling, but I think it's superficial to label all this razzmatazz as just a plug for stardom.

    Responding more to the second half of your post, I honestly don't know what to make of this sudden lack of bellydance in pieces being proclaimed as great examples of our art. I think it's a bit early to judge this trend, because I do see some potential in it to expand the dimensions of the bellydance genre, but the whole thing might just go off the deep end. A lot of our great "bellydancers" are good in other dance genres but not professional caliber. Yet the expressivity of those techniques continues to resonate with them, and I think that's where they and our community are getting a little lost. Bellydance is by far our most fulfilling practice, but we long to feel that same resonation in our other unfulfilled practices/dreams. (Sorry this is so long! lol)

  8. Hi Jenna! Thanks for your input! I believe the crucial point to consider regarding mentorships - it has to start with a relationship, and that has always started in my experience (both as a mentor to dancers, and those that mentor me) in the classroom, NOT on the stage. I see hundreds, if not thousands of dancers perform on the stage every year all over the world - and while I may make a momentary notice of someone on stage, the next step really happens in a workshop or the classroom (and more often, I meet them first in the classroom THEN take time to really watch them on the stage), because that's where you truly get to know someone, and see that they have a desire to LEARN and develop - and therefore worth the investment of time, energy, and emotion to form that mentoring relationship.

    Another unfortunate trend (and I also believe it's related to the lack of actual bellydance) are people who think they've already learned it all in their first 2-5 years and that's it, so they stop taking classes, workshops, etc, and only focus on the stage. IMHO, if they don't have the time or thought to walk into a workshop and seriously learn, then they aren't worth the investment. The people who have mentored ME still take workshops, so if someone who's been dancing 30-40 years sees the value in it, then me at 10-20 years can, and especially those from 1-10 years.

    Mostly, I think a lot of the people screaming for attention on the stage are not thinking about expanding their knowledge and understanding of the dance, I think they want to be famous.

    Lastly, it's not a "sudden lack" with the popularity machine - this has been trending for the last decade, especially heavily on the west coast, but it's out here in the east coast too, and even in Europe - heck, it was a trip to Europe in 2008 that made me come back with a vengeance to focus on "if it's Gothic Bellydance, it's got to be GOTHIC and it has to be BELLYDANCE!" - and 4 years later, I'm still yelling it.