Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder

When you watch a dancer, what are you looking at and why? What wows you the most?

 Have you ever gone back to watch a video of a specific dancer or style of dance that blew you away years ago, but doesn't give you the same feeling now - or perhaps the exact opposite? Something you thought was "boring" has now become captivating?

Ever wonder what changed?

I'm not saying it was aliens, but....

(Just kidding...)

What changed was you. Really.

An integral part of my formal fine art and design training over the years has been the task of considering the audience.  This means thinking about what will capture their attention, how it will make them think, and what it may make them feel. It also means contemplating who your audience is. For a fine artist, the sum of this work is to consider how much of impact your work may have on others, so that you're not just creating art in a vacuum. For designers, it's about selling product (services, items, ideas). And well, sometimes both worlds overlap - and it certainly applicable to the performing arts.

In the realm of my professional work as a designer, this trained me to watch how people react to things: what they get excited about, what they dislike, what causes a trend. Not just for art or jewelry, but for dance as well. It's really quite fascinating - both in person and online. (Peoplewatching!)

So back to you: Your own experiences inform and flavor everything you see.  The more you learn about something, the more you will see - and how easy or difficult that process was for you personally will also affect what you see.

What do I mean?

Think back to the first time you ever saw a dancer perform live, prior to taking classes/starting your dance journey. You most likely took her (or him) in as a complete experience - the fluidity and grace of the movements, the sparkle and flash of the costume, their smile and gestures, and how it made YOU feel - excited, wowed, inspired.  It didn't matter if that dancer was a newbie in an airport special or a grand master of the dance in a Madame Abla.  She was the epitome of beauty and magic to you.

As you started to take classes, the next time you saw a dancer, your focus was most likely on technique.  You were learning how hard certain movements can be, so the more difficult the moves on stage appeared to be, the more you were impressed.  Who cares what she did with her face or what she wore, did you see those amazing isolations???

When you started to tackle issues of costuming, suddenly you were paying a lot more attention to what other dancers were wearing.  What worked, what didn't worked. And how it could look on you! Who cares if it worked with the music or the moves?

When it's time for you to perform yourself, whether that's crafting a choreography, doing improv, or somewhere in between, and choosing music, you start to notice how other dancers put together their dances. You also start to notice how other people respond to those performances as well. You wonder how they may respond to YOU.

What style you learn also informs how you view a dance.  Human beings often feel more comfortable watching something they have familiarity with.  Something they can measure up as a "doing it right" or "doing it wrong." If you're totally unfamiliar with a style unlike the one you're learning, it may be difficult for you to enjoy because you lack a frame of reference, except you know it's not what YOU know.

When you truly learn what musicality is, and how to apply Arabic musical concepts to the movements, regardless of the style of music, you start seeing performances in a whole new light.  That excellent "technique" back from the early days might not make sense any more when he pops his chest to the "dum" or she does hip drops on the "tek".  You start to see folks dancing over their music, and you discover the amazing quality of breath and stillness.

When you start to understand stage presence and the value of deepened expression, you really begin to notice facial expression (or lack there of) - and when a dance says something to you as a whole, or leaves you cold. You get excited when you see a baby dancer truly enjoying herself, and find yourself on the verge of tears as a veteran of a dance  pulls from the depths of her heart and holds you in the palm of her hand - without a single "trick."

And lastly over time you learn that when you watch a dancer, you can't compare them to you or to anyone else  They are their own dancer with their own story, journey, and path to follow.  You enjoy that for what it is, and the only dancer you compare yourself to, is the dancer you used to be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

7 Keys to Finding Happiness in Bellydance

Less is More:  When it comes to dancing, less is more. Don't throw everything and the kitchen sink in there.  Remember to breathe, and remember to have breath. And not all of that statement is about air intake.

More is More: But when it comes to costuming, more is more. And not just your costume, don't forget stage appropriate make-up, hair, and accessories. BE SHINY.

Be inspired, but be you, which sounds easy but is very difficult.  Imitation is easy and short-lived.

There is always more to learn. If you think you have learned everything there is to know about bellydance, you're nowhere near the finish line (of which there isn't one anyway), and especially NOT BETTER than anyone else.

The One & Only Truth: For every "truth" in bellydance, there are at least 3 supporting facts and at least 3 facts that also disprove it. Culture is always in flux and history is full of nuance. If anyone says their way is the ONLY way, they're wrong. Move on. 

The most likely cause of losing your love for the dance doesn't come from within, it's almost always an external influence. Remove those influences and seek new inspirations, and you'll find a renewed sense of love. If you let others take the joy from you and you do nothing to change it, then in the end, it falls on you, not them.

Always wear underwear. Always. If it involves a stage or performing for anyone besides your cats...wear underwear.  I mean it. No butts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Let's Cut the Crap, Kill the Cult, and Fix The Boat

The years of my career where I worried about what people thought of me were the worst: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I didn't get into bellydance for fortune or fame. I got into it because my soul called out for it. I remember attending a world music concert where the band did a short piece inspired by the Zar, and the ayyub rhythm sounded like the voice of a long-lost friend I never even knew I had.  The beauty and sensual power of the oriental dancers I would see live at the local restaurant  transformed and transfixed me. The images and VHS tapes I would soon see of Tribal dancers moving together sung out to my heart. The music, the movements, the cultures, the costuming, the mystique - it all spoke to me.

It also whispered to the little girl deep inside who never had any sisters and had a long line of "best friends" who ended up moving away, going to different schools, or were more concerned about stuff than actual friendship. It touched the bruised young woman who was too skinny and flat-chested, too smart, too much a tomboy, too weird, too artistic, too not interested enough in the popular, typical things. It wasn't that it promised her sisterhood, but it showed her women working together beautifully to make art in motion - and that was inspiring.

And I think that same whisper comes to many women (and men as well).  That not only does this dance offer all of the amazing history, music, movements, and culture AND a chance to foster self-esteem and self-expression, but it hints at a place that feels like home. It suggests a common language, a unique understanding, and a social ground for those who don't quite fit in.

"Welcome to the Toilet" brought up a few discussions that made me think about that promise and appeal. Several dancers talked about the feeling of being unwelcome and/or not a true part of the classes they were in or festivals that they attended - which was very sad and distressing to me.

Sure, you could suggest that maybe those individuals who found the classes/events unwelcoming just aren't good at socializing and it was all in their head - that it was them, not the teacher, the rest of the class, or the event itself. That perhaps they expect for the teacher to instantly be their buddy/friend or for there to be open arms at registration check-in. But I don't think that's fair nor accurate. Unfortunately some folks in certain positions have confused exclusive and inclusive - and forgot how to be welcoming to newcomers and others.

I think some people come into this dance to feel accepted, become empowered, and think that this is now their opportunity to make up for whatever slights they experienced in their youth. That now is their time to be "cool" and begin to structure classes, troupes, and events around that model.  Human beings are very social animals, so we naturally want to foster groups where we feel we belong - but the issue comes when we start to believe our group is the only/best/coolest/whatever group.  Those individuals end up re-creating the very scenario they felt slighted in from years ago. And then it stops being about the beauty and power of the dance, but whether or not anyone else "belongs."  The popular opinion of the perceived elite becomes almighty and a cult or clique is formed.

But one style is not "cooler" or "better" than another - we're all in the same boat.  Yet folks get hung up with being part of the "one true style." They want to feel that their style/group/troupe/event is THE best - but why? Being different doesn't equate to being wrong (or right). Your path is exactly your path, not anyone else's, and there's no way to compare it.  Dance isn't religion. And throwing around canon (yes) balls around only damages the boat we're all on.

I certainly wasn't prepared to handle a lot of what I experienced from around 2004-2009. I was muddling around doing this thing that was inspiring to me, and suddenly I was under the magnifying glasses of many people I didn't know, being told what I was doing wrong or right, how I met or didn't meet their expectations or definitions, what I should or shouldn't be doing, complete with sudden new best friends, advocates, frenemies, and adversaries. Dance stopped being so much about this beautiful exploration of culture and self, and about what other people wanted/didn't want. There were several times I seriously considered quitting dance altogether.

Then I re-discovered dance for myself, and what drew me to it in the first place. I found inspiration from within, as well as considered what it could mean for others and their own experience.  Most importantly, I stopped caring what "everyone" thought and found happiness in reaching across ALL the borders. Why be just be or think one way when you enjoy the diversity of many?

I have worked hard to make sure that my classes, events, and workshops have been and are welcoming for all.  We have joked that it's a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  The dance should be available to everyone to learn and enjoy responsibly and safely. It's not about being cool or special or popular - it's about sharing the dance. We can do that across styles, genders, and origins - and have a fantastic journey together.

I'm pretty sure we all learned about sharing somewhere around kindergarten. So let's go back and remember those important lessons, kick out the high school behavior, and grow this dance in healthy, positive ways.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Groucho Marx who said "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."