Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Captive Audience: Understanding the "Performing" part of Performing Arts

I'm back from China!  And there was no access to blogger whatsoever while I was there, so I finally now get to post this, which I started on two weeks ago before I left!  Unfortunately, we've also been without power at home, due to Hurricane Irene, so thanks to work for having electricity and the interwebs...

Essentially, there are two kinds of dancing: social dancing - which essentially is dancing with other people and performance - dancing for other people. (And while you can argue while dancing at a club, some folks may be doing both, it's not what we're about to talk about here.)  Bellydance, it's folkloric predecessors/companions/roots and such, are most often done as social dance "over there" - but also has a long history of being a performing art - from the modern day performers in Cairo, leading wedding processions and dancing late nights at hotels and clubs to the historical Ouled Nail in Algeria and Shikhat in Morocco, to cite just a few examples.

Here in the US, we most often are using and considering the dance as a performing art - but it is often passed along to students in a quasi-social dance context.  Meaning, the art and performance aspect of the dance aren't as strongly emphasized as they should be, all the while, students are pushed/encouraged/rush to perform without the proper constructs to benefit both themselves and their potential future audiences.  Or perhaps the constructs are given, but are ignored. 

What am I getting at? It all relates to my frequently-asked-questions to my students worldwide "Why are you performing? What are you saying with your dance?"  It's the next step after you figure out the why and what of YOU and your dance - "What are you saying to your audience? What about THEM?"

Yes, this dance can be amazing vehicle for self-expression and exploration.  It can help you grow in ways you could have never imagined. It can help you figure out things about yourself, your life, your relationships, your health, your family. It can connect you to people and cultures across the world, new and old traditions, beliefs and customs.  It is truly awesome - a gift, and a blessing.

However, this does not mean that an audience must be made to witness every portion of that personal journey in explicit detail. 

Meaning? It's great that the dance can be a vehicle for change, but that doesn't mean that every concept your brain/heart comes up with, is appropriate to share with an audience - or more specifically, just ANY audience.  It doesn't give you the right to hit everyone over the head with your sexuality, relationships, triumphs, and sorrows - especially if they didn't sign up for it.  Don't hold others captive (in the worst way) because you see performing the dance solely as a means to work out your issues. I'm not saying you can't explore these topics in dance, but it's important to consider two things:

"Depth of Detail"
A lot of new performers make the mistake of thinking, in order to get an idea across, they need to be as blatant as possible.  Actually, great pieces are often made up of exactly the opposite - concrete concepts expressed abstractly.  The human mind is greatly capable of taking a few sections of a line or idea, and making the connections without aid.  For example - a dotted line.  It's not a continuous line, it's something made of dots, that is translated into a linear concept by our brain, making it easy to write upon and guide our hands. (And while we're at it, what you're reading right now is made up of dots, but you're not seeing those individual dots are you?  No, your brain is connecting them and making them into recognizable letters.) In my "Dancing on the Right Side of the Brain" workshop, one of the exercises the students do is to perform a story without any props or costuming, all to a set piece of lyric-less music, and they are given very specific concepts they need to get across. It never fails that every time, a lot (if not all) of them panic at the thought, but they ALL manage to pull it off.  So, you don't need everything and the kitchen sink to get a point across - and that props, costuming, and even the music are tools to help expand that concept, but it's the root of your dance movements and personal expression that truly relate what you need to say.  That should be the starting point for all of your performances - at the bare bones, what can you say? What gets the point across most simply and effectively? Everything else is ornamentation. Make the dots, let your audience draw their own lines.

"Venue Appropriateness"
This one is a real biggie. There are many levels of performance options nowadays for bellydance.  Haflas, theatrical shows, restaurants, cafes, clubs, themed events, etc. Nearly all of these things have different audiences. There's the dancers-for-dancers audience (meaning your audience is mainly other dancers), there's the general public audience (made up of non-dancers, who may not have had much exposure to the dance), there's target audiences (audiences who go for a specific theme, culture, or subculture - an art crowd, a mainly Middle Eastern crowd, a Gothic crowd, a Steampunk crowd, a Tribal crowd, an Oriental/Cabaret crowd, etc), and there's the mixed audiences (mixture of dancers, general, family perhaps, etc). 

Your potential audience is a pretty important thing to consider, because they're the ones you're dancing for. If you make the mistake of considering them in a more social context - a sort of strange "I'm dancing with me, and they're along for the ride" - you're disconnecting from your audience and disrespecting the communication that can happen between you and them.  I'm not saying the audience is the master of your performance creation and what you should do entirely, but you do need to consider them, and how you can best relate to each other. Who is your potential audience? What are they expecting? What do they know about dance? If the show is a Gothic-themed show, then the audience is going to be expecting something along those lines, making it a good venue for darker material, but not so good a venue for a typical restaurant set. A hafla that has both dancers and a lot of family members of all ages allows for variety, but should be considerate of all-ages and family-friendly in attire and subject matter. If it's a general public-exposure and they don't know a lot about bellydance, then pulling out your weirdest fusion concept is not a great idea - it not only confuses the audience, but makes a bad/incorrect connection with bellydance in their minds. If you ask yourself these questions, and sense an issue, then a course-correction is generally an excellent idea to allow for the most successful presentation and reception.

When you decide to start performing for audiences, you are taking on multiple responsibilities.  You're representing not only yourself, but your dance genre, community, style, etc.  Any time you dance for others, you're starting off a chain reaction.  You may not think what you do in your town on your local stage may effect dancers outside of it, but it's entirely possible and often does - for better AND for worse.  BELIEVE in this responsibility, because it does affect you, and others. 

Lastly, you're not just dancing with you, you're dancing for them; you're responsible for reaching out and trying to connect with your audience in the best way possible.  Respect them, communicate with them, acknowledge their part in your performance. Otherwise, you would really only be dancing with yourself.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tribal Revolution Performance

Update: blogger and facebook accessible at least at Beijing with that, here's my performance from Chicago's Tribal Revolution this past June, music by Nathaniel Johnstone (created for my DVD).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Yiwu Market, where I'm heading....
When you hear/see about "design emergencies" on Project Runway, most people don't really consider that it applies to the "real world."  I always liked PR in concept because it reminded me of my time at RISD, which pretty much meant going from one design emergency/challenge to another - but college as we know, rarely is the "real world" either.

My "other" job though as a fashion jewelry designer for a major company is as "real world" as you can get, and while sometimes we have a normal schedule, it really is about extreme problem solving with no lead time and limited supplies.  Things happen fast without little notice and miracles must happen. Hence, I'll be on a plane to China on Friday and gone for at least 1 week, if not longer.  China blocks facebook, among other websites (and possible google/gmail, which means this site as well, since it's run by google), so I will be more or less MIA until the end of this month.  And since I will be half-way around the world from my normal position, 12 hours+ ahead, please refrain from trying to call OR text me, under penalty of disembowelment.  If you need to get a hold of me, please e-mail me at "tempest(at)" (fix appropriately to send), and I will do my best to get back to you when I can.

I have several blog posts I want to get up, but time is really short, so if I can access this site, I will post them weekly - if not, then when I come back. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Art School for Bellydancers

At the end of July, I taught the first "Museum Quality: Art School for Bellydancers" intensive in Indianapolis.  It was 3 days-long with approximately 24 hours of instruction total, and I am extremely happy with the very clear results that I saw - they literally transformed in front of my eyes over those 3 days. 

Despite repeated praise from students and peers alike that I seem to exude confidence on the stage and in the classroom, I must confess that every time before I teach, there's a sense of anxiety involved.  Even after leading hundreds of workshops and classes, over half a decade of teaching dance (and much longer for art and metaphysics) - there's still a little trepidation of "will I give them what they need/want/expect?"  Museum Quality was no exception, not only considering the length of the intensive and the intimacy of group, but also presenting visual arts-based concepts to dancers. 

A lot of people nowadays seem to be talking about art and artistry in dance (new bandwagon?), but few of them come from a fine arts background.  I'm seeing a lot of concept being thrown around without much connection to real and helpful execution that makes for truly better dance, and especially bellydance.  Quotes are nice, but the ideas need to be able to truly flow down and exist in the body in order to take hold. You can't dance just in your head.  Not in my studio.  My regular workshops often incorporate artistry on different levels (especially "Dancing on the Right Side of the Brain", "Journey to the Underworld," and "Strange Presence"), but I wanted to go deeper, farther, more comprehensive - really making the concrete connection with fine art, so I created Museum Quality.

So I incorporated visual arts exercises (from critique technique to hands-on drawing), drawn from my 30+ years of fine art experience/education, and used them as tools to get the students to not only be more creative in their dancing, but to be more present in their dance and look not only at the details, but the whole picture, and bring their musicality to the next level. I carefully balanced the visual arts exercises with dance time application, lecture, and discussion, striving for the right mix. I know the processes worked for me personally, but the question was - would they work for other people?  Especially those from a variety of styles, levels of experience, and not necessarily familiar with the visual arts?

The resounding answer across the board was YES.  One of the things I pride myself on as a teacher is being able to adapt to what the students present need, versus trying to cram a static syllabus down their throats.  I believe you can maintain structure while being versatile without losing focus and form.  I also believe you can implement change without ripping apart everything a dancer is.  That's not how you nurture style or self-worth. So as we moved along through my intended points, we were able to work on what they needed most, while building on their inherent skills, and it really paid off.  Everyone was on board for the challenges I presented and even when they were uncomfortable, they were still willing to try what I threw at them, and it showed amazingly well in the results.

I am so proud of these women and what they accomplished, and look forward to watching them to continue to grow as dancers.

Learn more about what Museum Quality is here.