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!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Tribal Fest History & Homecoming

2015 - Photo by Carrie Meyer
(A little late in posting this - but have been on tour for the last month, so not much time to collect my thoughts! And there are a lot of them...)This year marks 13 years of attending Tribal Fest.  The only ones I have missed were the very first one and Tribal Fest 14 (last year - as the band was hired to play at Steampunk World's Fair in NJ - which is alas, always the same weekend as TF - but we did make a 2 week tour of it!).

My journey into the world of bellydance came via a friend's recommendation that I check out this amazing troupe she had seen performing at a San Francisco street fair.  That troupe was Fat Chance and even in the way back early days of the internet, I found myself going down a fantastic rabbit hole of pictures, articles, and discussion threads.  I read (and re-read) numerous articles and interviews by Kajira Djoumahna, author of The Tribal Bible and founder of United We Dance (which evolved into BlackSheep BellyDance). Through following her work, I found out about the first Tribal Festival that was about to take place - in some place called Sebastopol, California.  A recent college graduate, supporting 2 on an hourly wage as a gallery assistant and having no idea of how to even financially manage a trip to CA, I felt miserably stuck all the way in Rhode Island, unable to attend this mystical event.

2015 - Tish, Nathaniel, and Tempest
So you can bet your binti bells, when I moved to the Bay Area of California the following November, Tribal Fest was top of my list! When TF2 rolled around finally, the same friend who had introduced me to FCBD and I set off towards Sebastopol to see what it was all about. The drive up was a comedy of errors, including getting ourselves trapped and detoured by the Bay to Breakers run and the infamous 101 traffic - but we did eventually make it up there that rainy afternoon.  I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of beautifulshiny things for sale and the amazing performances.

And after that, every year, I have been involved in some shape or form - first with performing and vending, and then adding teaching to the list a couple of years down the line, organizing gatherings (the first Motif in 2007, and live music afterparties at Aubergine) - as well as helping out graphic design in some shape or another.  Through Tribal Fest I have studied with amazing legends of the dance - and shared the stage with them(!), met countless wonderful people from all over the world, shared my ideas with fantastic students, my designs and art with even more folks.  I have encouraged so many folks to attend, including dragging friends out from the far reaches of the East Coast! And even when I moved all the way back East in mid 2007, I still trekked out every year from NJ or RI - to be reunited with my extended bellydance family.

Though I also have to say, it wasn't all butterflies and hipdrops. As I advanced along in my dance journey/career, the vibe started to change for me - I think around 2007. There are so many factors contributing to that feeling over the next 6 years that it's unfair to place the weight of it on one thing in particular.  Instead a culmination of personal issues stemming from relationships, a feeling that there was more of a focus on "what's cool/popular/how weird" by performers/audience than of "what makes good bellydance," making for a stressed greenroom and terrifying stage (unless I was dueting with Anaar, then everything was peachy), less of the super friendly folks from the midwest/east coast attending (due to the rise of some really great events out those ways), dealing with other people's drama llamas, and the stress of having a vending table directly in the auditorium - as it got more and more crowded each year, and the show grew longer hours. (Not ideal for an introvert who relishes quiet.) The mix of all these things made my experiences bittersweet - there were things I truly still enjoyed, but I was also stressed about a lot of things too.
The Decision - Photo by Geish Moth

When 2013 rolled around, being in a new and healthy relationship - and moving to an outdoor vending spot made a huge difference in my outlook.  I was focusing on being more positive and putting negative experiences in the past. However, a few of the folks I encountered weren't on the same page, and that was extremely disheartening.  So I have to confess to being a tiny bit relieved when we were booked for the east coast in 2014.  But it was definitely weird being surrounded by steampunks instead of dancers for that weekend - and watching friends post TF photos of everything that was going on! I felt displaced.

With an invitation to teach in 2015 and the theme of family reunion, I wondered how this year's experience would be.  How would it differ from previous years? How would the changing bellydance economy effect everything? How would it go with some of the "usual suspects" missing? I mentally tried to brace myself for it all.

Didi and Tempest in the Green Room
And you know what?  It was WONDERFUL. Not only did it have all of the sweet parts from years before, but there was an overwhelming positive vibe surrounding everything (at least to me).  Vending went extremely well - probably due to the new Mago Djinn line and focusing more on my artwork.  My workshops were well-attended with enthusiastic students, and I felt great about my performance (which had felt a bit risky coming into it). But what really was the icing on the cake was all of the positive interactions I had with so many people - old and new faces alike.  On one hand, there were so many new folks, coming to Tribal Fest for the first year - and they brought their excitement with them! (Hilary from PA gave me several beautiful flower crowns over the course of the event, that she handmade from the local wildflowers ;))  On the other side, there were long-term folks reaching out, and starting new positive threads. And other folks in my close circle of friends also reported the same.  This news lifts my heart so much on what it means for the bellydance community in general.
The Mago Djinn/Owlkeyme Arts Booth

Some of my favorite moments: watching the opening ritual with Guedra Blessing with Amel Tafsout, catching some of our Waking Persephone teachers perform, spending time with old and new friends, doing some incredible shopping at the Tuareg Jewelry booth (I may have sold my soul to Terri, but I am OK with that), hanging out with Geisha Moth and making use of her special lounge area, and lots of good discussions with fabulous people.

And I'm stupid excited already for next year. I really am!  If you haven't been to Tribal Fest yet - or perhaps haven't been in a while, then I would seriously consider coming in 2016.  And the theme has a sci-fi twist to it: "Dance Long & Prosper" - what's not to love? I think it's going to be a blast!

Lastly, here is my performance, music is "When The Wolves Return" by Ego Likeness - thanks so much to Donna and Steven for letting me dance to it before it was "officially" released: