It's been over a year since I wrote this piece expressing my cumulative observations on the decline of the bellydance economy, and the rest of the year I spent writing about exploring possibilities, considering our community and our artform, and overcoming terrible things.
In retrospect, I've spent a lot of time through the years writing missives and sharing thoughts and ideas in my workshops and events. I've been a main voice on the forums and threads defending fusion, trying to build the bridge between tradition and innovation, advocating respect on both sides, trying to open up a dialogue. In 2008, I remember a distinct point where I said to myself, "If it's going to be called Gothic Bellydance, it'd better be Gothic and it'd better be Bellydance" - and consciously moved forward on building a better understanding of the roots and elements of fusion - for not only myself but those I teach and reach. And through it all, trying not to have a Cassandra complex about it.
At a recent bellydance festival, two of my workshops were mini-intensives that included discussion: one involved the history of Gothic bellydance, which lead to where we are now. The other was about developing personal style, which also found its thread reaching to where we are now. And I realized I have been a lot more gentle online than I am in person about this stuff. Probably because it's very easy to be misunderstood online, when you can't see my face and hear my tone (and see my hands) -not to mention so many people skim versus read comprehensively nowadays.
So I'm saying fuck it, here are three of the biggest issues facing the bellydance community and ideas about what to do about it:
The Younger Dancer & Cultural Consciousness
For the last several years, the oriental dance community has been trying to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, and it seems finally that more folks in the Tribal Fusion scene are starting to do the same. Directly related to this issue is the severe drop in popularity of bellydance among younger people. Sure there's been a social shift in how younger people schedule their time, how they take on new practices/ideas, but the number one thing I am hearing from young dancers - and other young people who are possibly interested in bellydance - is that they're wary of its connection to cultural appropriation.
The younger generation is both globally minded and extremely socially conscious. Add to that the fervency of internet backlash with people eager to point "You're doing it wrong!!!" without ever opening up an actual dialogue or offer solutions on what is "doing it right", and you have people who are afraid to walk into a potentially big steaming pile of mess. I can certainly understand not wanting to come under that sort of fire from your peers and people you don't even know. No one wants to be embarrassed or yelled at. I also suspect that other culturally-linked art-forms may also be experiencing a similar decline for the same issues. It's not going to change without two things:
1) the eventual middle-ground balancing of public outcry on social issues, where instead of the extreme sides yelling out each other, more people have effective communication in the middle of it, to reach understanding and exchange information.
2) the bellydance community as a whole works on continuing to improve respecting its roots through cultural outreach, grounding instruction through that cultural lens, and focusing on teaching and presenting appreciation vs. appropriation. It means re-evaluating some things, and change is never easy, but there's room for it.
If you're unsure of what cultural appropriation is, there are many articles, blog posts, and threads going on about it. In a nutshell, are you stripping the dance from it's roots entirely, or addressing them? Are you consciously fusing or doing whatever you feel like without considering the outcome? Are you listening to feedback or ignoring it? Are you making money off the dance without respecting it?
When's the last time you saw real innovation that was based in bellydance? Not a costume, not a prop, not some other dance form with an undulation thrown in. Innovation isn't about doing some crazy to stand out, trying to out-do each other far above the atmosphere while leaving the roots behind. Not someone copying some other glittery star with a slight twist of eyeshadow, but true personal style, new thoughts being evolved, while still rooted in the source? There's a few newer dancers on the horizon, but a lot of what I've seen lauded as the next big thing is just another emulation of something else - at least for now. Innovation means having strong personal voice and style that isn't quite like any other one person.
In the oriental/traditional community, there's certainly some interesting folkloric trends evolving out the culture itself, and the main sticky point is who's allowed to teach it first, who got there "first." I see the former point being rooted in cultural trends/developments, and the latter about who gets to benefit from the market - which leads to other issues we'll get to shortly.
With the demise of the largest Tribal/fusion festival out there - and many smaller events folding/retiring, I see a lot of folks wondering "Where do we get our trends from? Who do we follow?" Having watched the development of fusion over the last 17 years, I think it could be a blessing in disguise, because I feel the boom we experienced both blessed and damned us in many ways. It's time to look both inward and everywhere for inspiration. Ask yourself what do you want from your dance, what inspires you to dance - not just who inspires you.
What happens when you study from only a handful of "names" who all take from the same creative bin? Not much room for new growth. Innovation happens when you pull from very different boxes, and find what works for you, and it takes a long time to develop, like fine wine. That means studying outside of your immediate discipline, exploring new (to you) teachers and styles. And realizing that performing does not equal studying.
It also means creating community, which means going to classes and events, and interacting with other students and teachers. The more you open your circle, the more you learn, the easier it is to find your own voice and get proper feedback as well from. Which in turn means, when you innovate, you've got a solid sounding board to work off of, versus working in a vacuum.
We've already got enough copies, let's see some originals. Working towards real innovation will be integral to reaching outside of the bellydance microcosm.
Getting Out of Our Microcosm
How many events and programs are geared for dancers by dancers? How many shows are we now performing to just ourselves? Not there's anything wrong with that, but we're not expanding the pool of people seeing our art-form if we're advertising exclusively to ourselves. We need to be considering how to expand to a larger audience: how to market to them, how to get them to the shows, and then get them in the classes. Who are you targeting with your dance and why? Who would be interested in finding out more.
Then, if we are performing to the general public, what are we presenting to them? Are we being specific about what we're presenting, or just throwing whatever we feel like at them? For example, over the last several years, there's been something of a trend to perform in more and more casual clothing (and I'm not talking about folkloric presentations). There are many reasons for it: budget, comfort, modesty, etc - but there's also a helping of "not knowing better" meets a touch of "lazy." It's a lot of work to get all of the make-up on, and bedlah can not only be expensive but also really darn uncomfortable....but when we present our dance to the general public, we not only need to make sure the proper information is being put out there via an emcee or program, but that we're following professional stage protocol - for all dancers. The thing about all performance arts - they're about selling the fantasy, the power of the experience. I am not talking about selling "oriental fantasy" but rather the stage appeal of someone seeing an art presented beautifully and saying to themselves "Wow! I'd love to do that too."
As teachers, it's not only about teaching students a choreography - and the roots of the music and movements they are doing, but also how to look professional on stage. Sure, there are folks who get into bellydance just for fun or for fitness/health, but that doesn't mean not caring about proper presentation. We need to instill in our students a respect for the stage and the work involved to getting there - and that it takes more than 6 weeks to get there.
So for the next show you plan, consider not only the importance of what you're putting on the stage and how you're doing it, but who are you seeking to put into the audience and how to reach out to them.
In learning and loving this art - and wanting to see it flourish, we need to consider our own personal responsibility to ourselves, to the dance, to the cultures it comes from, and those we present it to. We need to be ever-learning, ever-thinking, and ever-exploring. We need to treat ourselves, our teachers, and our students with respect. So what's your next dance move?