Monday, June 22, 2015

The Cure For The Common Clone

It's one of the truths of evolution: diverse roots make for a stronger gene pool.

Continuing on our exploration on how to keep moving with the changes with the bellydance economy, I wanted to try and tackle something I have heard a lot of folks comment on over the last few years: the homogenizing of dance styles.  More specifically, personal style being overpowered by cloning/copying - meaning that X, Y, and Z dancers all look like A dancer - moves, make-up, music, costuming, facial expression - mostly devoid of their own personal sparkle in the equation.

But wait! All artists must learn from the masters, and they learn by copying! 

Yes, but as an artist transitions from being a student to being a professional (on their way to being a master themselves right?), they are expected to start producing their own unique material.  And if you copy from only one style of master (say the Impressionists), then you're narrowing your educational base severely.  Also, learning isn't about only picking to study what you like.  There are plenty of art movements/styles I don't personally like, but I still needed to learn about them. Why? Because having a strong foundation means having more to choose from as I grow - that I understand the history, the rules - and how they were broken.

No matter how much I may love the artwork of Andrew Wyeth, if I put up a show of consisting of paintings copied directly from his work, but presented it as my own at a gallery, it wouldn't fly. I could use a similar style of painting, approach to light and subject matter, but the imagery and expression would need to be entirely me.  So students copying their favorite dancers and trying the material out at recitals and haflas, or dancers presenting choreography as a homage to a certain dancer (with permission/fitting a themed show) is one thing - but if you're claiming to be a professional dancer, you'd better be presenting your own work. The same is true for teaching.

But wait! There was such an explosion in the dance community over the last 15 years - more teachers, more access to material, online videos, more shows, more workshops, more festivals - shouldn't that mean more diversity?

It could, but booms also mean that things move faster than perhaps what is best - so more teachers with less training, more performers without proper backgrounds, more and more events produced by folks without experience or focus, etc - essentially leading to over-saturation.  And as the economy continues to get more precarious, event producers have been more likely to to hire names that they may think will guarantee their investment - but even those names will stop selling out their workshops when all of the events seem to have the same names, and there are less students to go around.  And if the majority of those names all have the same background/style, then the students are essentially learning from the same genepool, producing more of the same.

How was it different 10, 15, 20+ years ago? Fewer events meant that there were less chances to study  which means taking advantage of that event when it happened in or near your town. More often than not, those local events also only featured one or a few teachers, versus a large roster festival (destination event!), so the producers cycled instructors and styles taught every year.  So no matter what style you learned from your weekly instructor, you got an infusion of something different a few times a year that definitely impacted how you saw the dance.

Weekly in-person classes - another changing creature.  DVDs and online classes are great for on-demand instruction - and exposure to diversity (if you make those choices) but you're not going to get the same level of feedback (if ANY - cause if one of my DVDs starts giving you feedback, it's probably possessed...) one gets in a weekly class.

Another factor is the Combo-Nation. ATS, ITS and assorted TS variants are based on a system of codified combinations devised to allow for cohesive group dancing.  While different troupes can surely come up with their own combos or "accents" on existing combos, the system is still inherently based on clearly identifiable moves that are performed for a set number of beats, counts, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with that in itself, but when a dancer decides to branch out into dancing solo (which was at the root of Tribal Fusion when it started), it can be very hard to break out of using that system.  Another by-product of that system is the tendency to override the music - while a combo could be fast or slow (and therefore applied to fast or slow music), unless it was crafted and choreographed for a very specific section of that music, it can rarely capture all, let alone even some, of the nuance of the music, if it has to be in so many repeated counts with certain movements.  If the dancer hasn't been immersed in how Arabic music works and the art of improvisation without relying on combinations, something special is lost in translation when they move into a soloist format.

But if that's what all the community/audience has seen and accepted as bellydance for the last decade, it unfortunately becomes the standard.  And folks like to follow what's popular - it's safe.

(Here lies the ironic situation of now being that cranky older dancer going "damn kids, get off my lawn! that's not bellydance!" which is pretty much what I heard 15+ years ago bringing Gothic Bellydance on the scene.  Is it the same? Not quite, because we mostly understood what rules we were breaking back then, and had the foundation.  The drama was more about fear of dark concepts and looking weird making it "not bellydance" verus not understanding the music, improvisation, or cloning someone else.) 

So what am I doing about it?

I am very proud of the fact that of my students who have gone on to be professionals - none of them look like Tempest-clones. (If you see such a thing, it is most likely someone who hasn't studied with me personally.) How/why? I teach foundation of music, movement, and culture alongside fusion concepts. I encourage them to dance and dress to what suited their bodies and personalities.  I recommend other teachers and workshops for them to study with.  And I'm always studying myself as well - never stop learning!

I produce bellydance events designed to introduce them to concepts beyond what I offer - particularly Waking Persephone. I have designed WP to be an event that offers any style of dancer a complete experience that gives them a buffet of choices.  I have heard some ill-informed snarkery that seems to think because we don't have certain "big names" in our line-up, that we're somehow poorer for it, or didn't have "connections." (insert maniacal laughing) As if hiring a famous dancer was some big elusive mystery (it's not) or that I haven't been an internationally-hired teacher/performer for at least a decade now and didn't know pretty much everyone (I am and I do).  Nope. I could build the perfect formula event based on the usual model, but I'm not interested in that. The point of WP is to focus on folks who are doing things differently, who you may not have heard of already (but should get toknow), and to give established folks a chance to do something they're really excited about, but rarely get to offer. It's essentially an exercise of the Anti-Popularity Game. It's rather risky because we're going against the grain, but the results make it oh so worthwhile.Every year, we help more dancers find their own personal styles, learn to speak with their own voices, and grow their foundation.  That is pure win.

(Yeah, that was some shameless self-promo, but this is my blog.)

So worried that your dance feels like something from the Bellydance Borg? Here are some things to consider:
  • When was the last time you took a weekly class?  If that's not available, how about a workshop?  How about a private lesson?
  • When was the last time you took a workshop with someone you hadn't heard of/outside of your style?  Next event, check out the OTHER names on the list and sign up for something different.
  • If you're coming from a TS/TF background, be sure to study some Oriental/Cabaret, and in particular, learn more about Arabic music.
  • Add to your practice some free-flow taqsim (no combos), for 1-3 songs.
  • Costume for your own body and for your own personal tastes.
  • Want to see someone different at your local event? Let the producer know!
  • Consider what it is you want to say with your dance - because you should be saying something, in your own voice. 

Raq on folks!

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