Monday, February 3, 2014

The Tastemaker Challenge

Gertrude Stein (portrait by Pablo Picasso)
writer, patron of the arts, revolutionary tastemaker & bad-ass
I am easing my way back into the World of Visual Arts. Not only does this trek involve making more artwork (drawings, paintings, etc), but in order to put it out there, it also means engaging the trappings and patterns that are part of selling and showing artwork. Some of them are good, and some of them are utter bullshit. 

Art is a very subjective thing - what one person loves, another person will hate.  It is also a rather abstract entity that a lot of people find difficult to understand.  Art is definitely a necessary thing in our daily lives, but it's much harder for the average person to feel like they have an educated opinion on what is good art and what is bad art.  Downright intimidating actually! Compared to more concrete activities we interact with, such as cooking (it's either good, ok, or bad food) or building/construction (safe/effective/made to last or dangerous/shoddy/temporary), it gets a lot harder to judge art without training and sufficient exposure - not to mention factoring in a person's personal experience that will affect how they interact with art.  Often people feel more comfortable with a piece of work or a particular artist if someone else tells them it's good/great work.  If it's in a museum, or hanging in a gallery, for sale at a print shop, or sold for a lot of money at auction, it MUST be valuable, and therefore good/great work! Hard to argue with that, right? It makes sense. But not every piece of artwork by a famous or "great" artist is a successful piece of work.  Not every piece in a museum is a masterpiece. And not everything hung in a gallery is great art or made by a talented artist.

A museum may have an original by Picasso or Monet, but they're often more focused on the name, than whether that piece of work is a truly a great example of that artist's work. Not every piece of artwork by a famous artist is automatically a successful work or masterpiece. A gallery may hang a certain artist because they have a popular/trendy style, or an unusual spin that may make their work standout or cause controversy in the press, even though it may not be as successful or original as a less-personally dramatic artist. 

So what does this post and thought-process have to do with dance?

Dance is an art - a performing art most specifically.  In traditional visual art, we're often looking a painting on a wall or a sculpture, separated from the actual artist. But in dance, it becomes much harder to separate the dance from the dancer. We can look at the movement, the costuming, the musicality, but we can never really separate that all from the fact that we're looking at a human being.  Even more so in bellydance, which is often a lot more personal, more intimate in its setting and presentation than big stage dance productions.  

And in recent years, the term/concept "Cult of Personality" has worked its way into the bellydance community - referring to when someone's charisma, quirks, placement, connections, and/or associations have garnered them a lot of attention and personality - perhaps more so than what they bring to the dance itself.  There's a lot of enthusiasm and popularity surrounding them, but there's also the suggestion that they would not be where they are at on their dancing merits alone. Sometimes there's just flat-out jealousy involved in the use of this term, but other times, it can have a pretty solid (yet possibly unpopular) argument in reality. 

Which brings me to the intersection of art, dance, and the subjective opinion. It really takes years to be able to understand what is good or great dance (and how to do it), just as it takes a lot of training to understand what is good or great art.  When we start to learn dance, we tend to believe that anyone we see who can dance or perform better than us is a good/great dancer - and we often also simply absorb in our brains that whomever our teacher believes is a great dancer, must be.  It's really not that different from believing that anything hanging in a museum, gallery, etc - must be great art. We want to go with the popular opinion and be right - we want to be seen as having good taste!

But not every performance by a famous/popular dancer is really great dance. Sometimes it takes several "drafts" to make a piece really successful.  Or sometimes, it's just not a great or well-thought idea, not practiced enough, was "phoned in", maybe they were sick, etc. Or maybe just one of the parts is working: the costume is eye-catching and expensive-looking, or there was a neat combo or trick, or the music was different, or maybe they were conventionally beautiful human beings. When I see performances being lauded as "great" and "amazing" - but they fall flat for me - I have to wonder if people would say the same thing if there wasn't a name attached, or one of those aforementioned "working" parts.  If a "no-name" dancer did the same performance under the same circumstances, would it still be celebrated? If they were older, overweight, or not conventionally pretty, but everything else was the same? These are the things I ponder. Because often, I don't think we're really looking at just the dance - it's very hard to separate out the human doing the dance.  And how we may feel about that person, or how they make us feel about ourselves or beliefs.

So how can we have better, more-educated opinions about what we're seeing? How do we become our own tastemakers?   Here are some suggestions:

* Try to separate the name from the dance.  Don't automatically assume that because it's a big/popular name, what you are about to see is great, or vice versa.

* Ask yourself what do you find successful about what you are watching?  Is there anything that you found distracting or unsuccessful?

* Does the dance match the music completely, not just a few spots? Does the costuming work with the dance, or does it distract you from it?

* If there are multiple dancers, how are they interacting? Are their movements truly precise and in unison when they are supposed to be? Or are they off? How is their stage spacing?

* If there are multiple pieces/parts, do they flow together? Is there contrast? How are the transitions?

* If there are props, how successfully are they being used?  Are they truly being danced with, or are they just an accessory of distraction? A gimmick?

* How does the piece make you feel? Ask yourself why.

* And if it's being described as bellydance - what makes it bellydance in your eyes?

Asking yourself these questions isn't about criticizing who you're watching.  Rather it's about evaluating what you're seeing, and in turn helping further your own dance journey.  As you figure out what works or doesn't, what YOU like and don't like and WHY, you can make more educated decisions about your own dance style. You CAN be your own tastemaker! 


  1. I think these concepts would be really useful to use when watching a DVD or YouTube, because you can watch it multiple times to go beyond your gut reaction and really get down to the nitty-gritty of how you feel about a piece. I find this sort of analysis harder to do in person, because I will get really swept up in a show and I forget to think ;)

  2. This was a such a great post. It summed up the mixed feelings when watching a may usually like as well as a dancer that is very popular. I also thought your check list was a great way to view the positive and negative of any dancer. I always enjoy your wonderful insight on these difficult subjects.

  3. I think the same applies when evaluating a teacher, especially master teachers. Some people might never admit that a workshop was not good or that the way the teacher teaches is not perfect. Obviously different things work for different people and the same applies to watching a performance - what one likes another person frowns upon.
    But I´ve been to a workshop with a master teacher and paid a lot of money for a workshop which in my view was quite disappointing.
    It´s a sensitive subject cause people probably feel guilty when criticizing these dancers but one can criticize and still be respectful, right?
    I wonder if they ever get real feedback on their workshops, cause usually it´s only the good things dancers say to each other. They unfortunately tend to keep real criticism for themselves.

    1. I think that evaluating a class or workshop would have slightly different criteria - as it's not a performance, and it's a different kind of interaction (and asks for a different kind of a participation from the "audience", equally dependent on their skill level, learning ability, etc) - but I agree that critical thinking also applies. Most workshop instructors and event producers (including myself on both accounts) welcome feedback - and as a producer, I pass along feedback to my instructors. But I am also hearing more and more from dancers I know that they're disappointed in a lot of the "big names" out there - that the workshop didn't cover the material it promised, that it was too basic, or a copy of someone else's. They choose to vote with their feet and their dollars.