Friday, November 27, 2015

The Real Safe Haven

“Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on C├ęzanne
A little while ago I noticed a fair amount of folks throwing around the concept of "the stage as a safe place for our art."  And it really puzzled the heck out of me. In fact I am pretty sure I made this sound.

I credit my years of art school training with instilling within me the concept that the studio/classroom is a "safe" place to learn and grow, but once it goes out to the gallery, anything can happen.  You can practice your technique, charter your concept, execute your theory as much as you want, but once it goes out to the public, it's largely out of your hands how people will respond. So it's not "safe", and by the nature of it, is actually extremely risky and full of danger.

Which I think therein lies in much of the source of stage fright.  Sure, you're afraid you're going to mess up, but much of the fear has a lot more to do with doing it in front of a whole bunch of people, and not knowing how they will react: the unknown frontier. We know this to be true through our own experience as the audience - because of what we have thought when we have been exposed to other people's art on stage. (Everyone's a critic right?) 

The stage and the gallery, these are not "safe" places. You can think you're hitting your target market and sympathetic audience all you want, but you have no control over what people think. Whether you're walking out on stage or hanging your art up on a wall, you are vulnerable.  Whether it's your body as a performer, or your visual art, or the music you play - you become exposed. It is the nature of performing, of putting your art out there.  We hope that we will be treated kindly, with insight, understanding, and respect - but we should also be aware of the diversity of human nature. It's hard to control who watches and comments on your videos and photos when you're trying to promote your work and get it out there. In order to become better performers, stronger artists, we have to accept those risks, process the feedback, and do what we can to protect ourselves in ways that won't hinder our growth or harm us.

Which is why I'm a big advocate for making sure the classroom/studio IS a safe place. Because of the dangerous nature of the stage, the classroom must provide a positive environment to build better artists. It must come from a place of respect and understanding between and among teachers and students.  It is important for students to feel comfortable enough to allow themselves to be challenged. It is vital for students to learn not only how to give but also how to receive constructive critiques.

What I try to do to make my classroom a safe place, in no particular order:
-Cut back on negative talk: whether it's self-deprecation or gossip/gripes about specific people/events/situations, the classroom is not the place for this. There's no room for excuses like "I can't do" or "I didn't do that because" - instead we focus on how we can make it work.
-Address students and others respectfully: All of my students are on the same level, despite how long they have been involved or how long I know them. I may push the ones I know closely a bit more because I can see when they are not giving themselves a fair shake, but there are no "stars." I will also name folks I respect by name and why, but I'm not going name those I don't agree with like "Glitterbibi can't find a beat to safe her life." Instead, I will use what irks me to find inspiration on how to teach my students to do better. Students should treat other as well respectfully.
-Balance general and specific feedback: Everyone can use posture reminders. Telling my class to make sure their chins are up creates a meerkat experience in my classroom that is fun and effective, but I also look for gentle ways to address problems individual dancers have without them feeling targeted or interrupting the class flow too much. We work on critique exercises, including the infamous "crit sandwich cookie."
-Communication: I encourage my students to ask me questions and to come to me about issues and concerns. I also have signals for when we need to cut down on chit-chat and get to work.
-Body/Age/Gender Positivity: All sizes, all ages, all genders are welcome in my classes. I am sensitive to the fact that moves will vary visually from body to body, and seek to help each student discover how to make the most of each move on their frame with their skill level and ability.
-We all Mess Up: I acknowledge the fact that I'm a dork in other people's classes (and well, in my own as well). We all make mistakes, that's how we learn how to do it right. If we can take away the fear of "doing it wrong" in class, students have much more confidence when it comes to doing it right on stage.

We can't protect our students from everything that could possibly happen on stage, but we can prepare them, and give them to the tools to be stronger performers. Which, if you think about it, makes them better audience members as well. Both elements in turn makes for a stronger, more supportive community that continues to elevate and empower itself.

Lastly, while we understand the stage is NOT a safe place, we recognize that beyond the dangers lay the possibilities for growth, transformation, education, and inspiration. That it is a risk worth taking for the artist who wishes to surpass their ego for the sake of enriching their work, as well as those who will come in contact with it.  Together we change.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Lies Beneath

Now that another successful Waking Persephone has come and gone, and I'm back from being on tour, I'm starting work on a series of posts to help foster positive growth and stability within the dance community.  This first post highlights things I said in the community roundtable, and recent workshops. 

One of the many thoughts that ran through my head as I watched the chaos build, ebb, and spread online in mid-September is that these things were simply more rocks hitting an already cracked and compromised windshield, more bricks building on a crumbling wall, more weight on a thin sheet of ice.

To put it simply: the "bellydance community"* is not as strong as we'd like to think it is. A strong community knows how to properly and responsibly react to and handle problems.  It knows how to provide adequate support, help foster resolution, and clearly communicate. It repeatedly sets up and holds to positive examples of professionalism while addressing personal needs. And if it doesn't know how to do these things, it learns how to do them in order to become stronger.

I believe it is very important to stand up against objectification and fight sexual misconduct. But in order to best address those and similar issues, we need to make sure we're already taking care of ourselves and each other solidly. There is a significant level of harm that is done by dancers to each other through slander, theft of intellectual property, undercutting, and other shoddy business practices.  These very rampant issues cause much harm to our community - personally and professionally.  But they are rarely dealt with head-on and more often ignored for the sake of the cult of personality or "being nice."

So what can we do?

It all comes down to communication.

Communication is the cornerstone of community. Good communication fosters growth, stability, and solidarity.  Poor communication drives wedges, feeds negativity, and brews distrust.

It is very easy to get carried away with things we read online, misconstrue them, and feed into controversy.  But more often than not, all of that can be avoided entirely with a few easy steps.  Words can build and words can break, so it's up to us to use them effectively. So here are three points that can help us all build a better community:

READ. Practice comprehensive reading.  Before you share an item or reply to something, read it. Then read it again.  Then read it at least one more time to make sure you understand it. Then read what you wrote. And re-read it before you hit enter.

ASK.  If you don't understand or unsure about something, ask. And by ask, I mean, politely, concisely ask for clarification. "Could you please explain or expand upon what you meant by ...?" Then read (or listen to) the answer and review. Ask can also mean questioning yourself and your own thoughts: exercising critical thinking.  Why do you believe something to be true? Do you automatically agree with someone because they're your friend or your teacher, or disagree with someone because you don't know them or heard something about them? Why is that?

BE DIRECT & OPEN. This is probably the hardest part, but it definitely solves the most amount of problems. Women especially can have a hard time communicating with each other when they are afraid they may disappoint someone or make them angry.  Or read much deeper into something beyond what was meant by it. Have a problem with a person? Respectfully address THAT person - not your buddy, not their friend, not everyone but them and vaguebook it.  Instead, by being clear and upfront about concerns and issues, you can meet most issues head-on before they fester into serious problems.  FYI - being direct does not mean having license to be an asshole. I have seen some folks be very abusive under the heading of "I'm just telling it like it is." Remember to address people respectfully (even if you disagree with them), and consider how to address the problem and works towards finding a solution.

Hinging on that note of respect, here's the other vital part about understanding community and making it strong: what do we ourselves bring to it? If communication is the cornerstone, we are the earth underneath it and the stones built on top of it.  How stable are we? How much do we honor our own integrity?

It is very hard to treat others with respect if we don't do it to ourselves.  How often are you self-negative about your own body and abilities? If you are very critical of yourself, it stands to reason you will be critical of others.  Likewise, if you fail to have compassion for yourself, it's very hard to have it for anyone else.  Everything we build starts with us, as individuals.  How we treat ourselves often dictates how we treat others.  And probably the hardest piece of advice on this whole page is "be kind to yourself."

By addressing ourselves and each other with positive intent and constructive thinking, together we can build a better community for all of us. Which means that what lays beneath the icing is some gloriously fantastic cake.

(Yes I'm ending this on a food metaphor when I started out with a construction one.  Because cake.)

*(I put that in quotes because there are many different groups and communities - regionally, stylistically, by troupes/groups/associations. You could say that the controversy mainly impacted the Tribal community, or that the Oriental community is more grounded - but neither statement would be entirely correct either.  First of all, over 60% of dancers participate or work in multiple styles, so they're usually involved in multiple communities.  Secondly, one merely needs to look at old bellydance magazines or recent forums to see there has been and is just as much drama in the Oriental/Cabaret scene, for decades. And also, the advice here can work for EVERY kind of community...)