Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Disappearing Divide (the reality of today's bellydance market)

What style do you dance and why does it matter?  Is it really that important?  No it isn't and yet...Yes, yes it is, and it's about time we take a look at it.

Last week I kicked off a poll asking folks whether they considered themselves cabaret/oriental, tribal (ats, its, tribal fusion) or a mix of both/performing multiple styles.  I had a hunch about the changing face of bellydance, and my hunches are usually spot-on, but I wanted to see.  But before we get to that, some background:

When I first got started in bellydance, Tribal hadn't even hit New England yet.  I found out about FatChance BellyDance from a friend who had moved back to the Bay Area - and I scoured the internet for pictures and information about this phenomenon (which included a lot of interviews and articles by Kajira Djoumahna), on top of my "regular" bellydance research and weekly classes.  I bought a copy of FCBD's "Tattooed One" on VHS and CDs by Solace thanks to a gift certificate to Artemis Imports friends and family had gotten me for my birthday. (Remember that huge cut-and-paste catalog?) I longed with all my heart to go to the first Tribal Fest! Boston-based dancer Amira Jamal had gone to study with Carolena and learn more about it - so I eagerly hosted her to teach a Tribal-style workshop in 2001 - the first Tribal workshop in Rhode Island! Then that Fall, I moved to California, I could finally study with FCBD and Ultra Gypsy - and so I did!

All the while, I continued studying "cabaret" in California as well, or as my main teacher Azar called it, "Arabic style" and I studied with more and more classic teachers vs tribal ones.  I was realizing I was much more geared to being a solo artist, and the oriental movements gelled with me more.  But because of my personal styling, theatrical presentation, and darker aesthetic, I found more welcoming arms in the Tribal community. There was no such thing as "Tribal Fusion" when I started dancing, and when that term started to get used, it was applied to folks performing "tribal style" by themselves, instead of with a group, or anything that didn't quite fit into either "cabaret" or tribal group improv, well up until at least 2005-2005.  It didn't matter if you were rocking oriental moves to the core, if you had dreadlocks, tattoos, and fishnets, you were called "Tribal."  Tribal-focused promoters welcomed my alternative workshops - Tribal Fest 5 was the first year a Gothic Bellydance workshop was held at a major event, thanks to Kajira for asking me to do it!(and even today, I am often hired to teach at "Tribal" events, despite my style-base being oriental.)

And during all of this, I spent countless hours on the internet battling the "Cabaret vs. Tribal" divide.

"the divide" doodle by Tempest
I've heard it all, from both sides: "_____ isn't bellydance." "They need to make their own events."  "They keep invading our events." "Now that they have their own events, our events are suffering." "Everyone who does ______ isn't empowering women/is encouraging objectification." "I would NEVER do/wear ______ because __________." "They have no morals!" "They don't understand what they're doing." "They're killing the dance."  (yes, both sides folks). And most of it all coming from lack of information, promotion of misinformation, seeing bad examples of styles, a fear of being/doing it wrong.  And when one side is attacked, rarely do people go "oh, let me try and help you understand what I'm talking about", instead they go on the defensive. For years, I have watched, read, and tried to help bridge the gap. (Largely because I exist IN that gap.)

And in the nearly 10 years that I have been traveling the world teaching and performing, I have met a LOT of dancers from both "sides."  I have people share with me their thoughts and experiences.  Where they started, where they went, and why.  Whole troupes that have changed styles completely because they collectively felt more at home with another style then they started with, or worked to learn both so they could offer more.  I predicted around 5-6 years ago when Tribal Fusion really exploded, "It will eat itself, and then they're going to come back to the roots."  And it certainly has come true, with people who started with fusion going back to learning ATS, folkloric dances, and yes, even oriental (ALL THE ROOTS!).  And in the meantime, cabaret/oriental folks have ventured over and tried the "dark side."  If I had a dollar for every "confession" from a dancer enjoying something they didn't think they would like, I'd buy a designer bedlah or 3.

So back to that poll. I posted it in many places.  It was shared by folks of all styles all over. As of today, 250 people answered the poll.  12% identified as only Cabaret/Oriental. 31% considered themselves only Tribal (ATS, ITS, Tribal Fusion).  And a whopping 56% said they do perform both styles or do a mixture.  For a regional example, a similar survey done in New England over a year ago showed a third of the answering population fell into the last category.

What does it mean?  It means it's time to put an end to the us/them mentality for starters.  More and more people are expanding what they are learning.  Which also means that the market has been changing dramatically.  If you're marketing to just one group, you are most certainly missing out.

Promoters need to stop justifying booking on top of another event "because that's THAT market and so it's not the same."  Wake up folks, IT IS. If anywhere from 30-60% of the bellydance market is identifying as cross-over, that means in a crowd of 80 dancers, anywhere from 24-48 people have to choose to between your event and that "other side" event.  At $10 a ticket for something, that's $240-$480 potential that's being split.  And what about all of those potential students who don't know anything about styles yet? And maybe your local community isn't quite there yet - it will be.

Of course, in metropolitan areas that have a large community, there are going to be multiple events happening the same weekend, or even the same night that could interest a large variety of bellydancers - generally a mixture of showcases, haflas, concerts, restaurant happenings, club nights, etc.  But there's so much going on, it can be hard to track everything that's going on, and there's a fan base (or bases) big enough to support lots of small shows.  But if you're looking at putting on a festival, a workshop weekend, or anything similar that requires a huge investment of your time and money as a promoter (and likewise for the customer, who is also living in the same strained economy), going up against another similar event because you're believing the Myth of the Style Divide, you're fighting an uphill battle.

I'm not saying that events have to be all-inclusive - AT ALL.  If your festival event is focused on one style specifically, that's awesome!  But don't schedule it against another festival event, because you believe it's a totally different market.  The smart way to grow your customer base is to continually expand it, that means reaching out to folks outside of your established market.  It makes good sense and cents.


  1. I am SO happy to see the divide shrinking and the borders blurring. Personally, I definitely dance tribal fusion (though I'm moving away from using the word tribal too much for various reasons), but that's simply where most of my training has been and where my aesthetics and music choices lead me. I LOVE to watch Oriental dance, and I study with Oriental teachers from time to time when I feel like they're going to give me some good technique that I can apply to my style.

    Likewise, I see dancers in my community who perform Oriental because that's where their inspiration lies, but they cheer loudly for the tribal dancers at shows and take workshops from big-name tribal instructors because they know they're going to get some good technique that they can apply to their style.

    I feel like the community really benefits from this cross-pollination. Dancers get to see things from different perspectives. Shows have a wider variety, which keeps the general public more interested, too.

  2. To be fair, the poll is a Facebook poll. So the results are skewed toward a generation of dancers who 1) use the internet regularly 2) are on Facebook 3) saw your poll and 4) chose to participate in it.

    For the record, I agree that our and the next generations of bellydancers are growing up in a hybrid world and identify more loosely. But there are a LOT of people not exposed to this poll who would likely vote know...if they participated in the poll.

    PS VIVA LA GAP!! :)

    1. Actually, it was not a facebook poll - it was hosted on a separate site, and was spread on fb, twitter, lj, blogger, and shared on several other lists and sites by others - and spanned a wide variety ages, styles, and locations, and one could only vote once for one option, EVER, so 250 responses is pretty damn good, and the results were rather consistent - with the exception that in the beginning (the first 3 days), those who identified as A or B, not C, were equal, and the amount of C was double of either. The survey I referenced from New England used a variety of media to reach their base and was very extensive (it's linked - so they reached the less internet-savvy old-school styles, which I think would have brought up the cabaret #'s on my own to equal the tribal ones, but then again, I am friends with many of the old school folks who are on the 1970's group, so a glimpse). Is ANY poll perfect? No - but I think if we did manage to get every bellydancer to vote on it, I think we'd get at least a third identifying as a mix as a performer - and even more for those who may define themselves as one style, BUT study more...which is really the point of the whole post: The market is NOT cut and dry, either/or.

  3. The only problem with the poll is that it didn't include a button for dancers who suffer through a major existential crisis every few months.