Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I Was Mistaken.

I have to write down a few more thoughts.  It's the accumulation of thoughts and things I have been saying privately for the last couple of years, so I might as well say these things here.

Back in 2014 I rescued some vintage bellydance magazines from a shop in New Orleans.  Not only a glance back in history, what initially caught my eye were articles on Ruth St. Denis (one of my idols) and North African dances. The following summer, I was gifted a bunch more vintage bellydance publications, several of them coming from the city I now live in.  Between the two hauls, the majority of issues spanned the 70's through the 80's.

As I sat down to enjoy them, my eye was drawn away from the prize articles and delicious photos to editorials and articles discussing the state of the dance.  Issue after issue, dancers voiced their opinions about quality of dancers, whose style was more authentic, what was appropriate costuming, who could dance to what music, where was the line between fusion and authenticity, undercutting, 6 week wonders, double-scheduling, lack of professionalism, etc.  With no punches pulled and lacking the art of critique, dancers ripped apart each other, rival events, and so forth.

Rather than being inspired by history, my heart sank. I flipped close the magazine in my hands and looked at the date on the cover. 1978.  I said to myself, "these people have been arguing about the same old shit for as long as I have been alive."  I remember many stories from my dance mentors, so it's not like this was a new revelation for me.  But seeing it in print, page after page...it sucked at my soul.

All that time, and seemingly so little progress on these issues.

I could go into extensive detail about how these arguments have continued to play out for the entire time I have been involved in dance.  How many times the community has essentially set fire to itself in that timeframe -  in ALL of its factions, regardless of what label you want to use.  But I'm tired of/from hashing it out again and again.  Of lip service and no action.

In early 2015, I talked about the decline of the dance community population. Throughout the last two years, I wrote about issues and solving problems, from fostering innovation and expanding community to tackling cultural appropriation and considering why we dance. And so much more, even if it cooled down to about a post a month.

And here's the thing, I didn't just write about these things. I did them. Everything I write about, I practice.  In my classes and workshops, at events, in what I produce and bring to the stage.  And I'm going to continue doing that, even if I'm not writing about it. I know it works, and see the growth.

Y'all can argue about labels and styles all you want, but it's basically arguing about what the gravestone should read and who gets to carve it, all the while kicking the body into the casket.  There are bad representations of the dance in EVERY style, and no amount of labeling is going to fix that internally or externally.  Yes, there's plenty of stuff labeled as bellydance that makes me want to tear my hair out, but that doesn't change what *I* can do. 

It all doesn't matter if there's not a new generation of younger dancers coming in. If we're not fostering an inclusive, positive environment for people to come to.  The hilarity of the young vs. old bitch-off is the "young" dancers are mainly now in their late 30's-40's, so perceptions need to drop on all sides and reality needs to set in. Another divide the drama sinks into, when there are real things to consider.

So if you're interested in growing the dance and building community, here's the bullet list I recommend for doing it:

-To get more interest and classes growing, there needs to be outreach and interest for a younger generation, as well as reaching out more to the general public - a larger, more diverse demographic. Dancers for dancers is lovely, but it doesn't grow the dance.  Promote outside the dance box, and be welcoming to all ages, sizes, genders, cultures.

- ALL areas of the dance need to address the sticky topic of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. It's not going away, and it can be handled with grace on all sides.  Tradition has always held hands with innovation, both can be encouraged and positive for each other.

- ALL teachers of the dance need to address history and culture, connect movement with music, promote professional ethics, behavior, and give constructive feedback.  Even in a "for fun" class, students can be exposed to the cultures the dance comes from, see both tradition and innovation, be introduced to building community, and professional standards.

- Practice collaboration vs. competition. Foster positive and open communication in your town/city/state/country. Separation doesn't help, working together with mutual respect does.  Nobody wins playing shark in a empty fish tank.

My (hopefully) last words on all of this: I don't think we're going to be able to build a bigger community in the next few years to come, but I do believe we can each build a better one where we dance.

And final words by Billy Joel: "We were keeping the faith. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Keeping the faith. You know the good ole days weren't always good. And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Closing Windows & Opening Doors: One Look Back

Photo of Tempest by Carrie Meyer
I feel I have come to the point where I've said pretty much everything I can say in regards to the bellydance community.

For the last several years I've written extensively and passionately about bellydance as a living art, a tradition, and a community. I did it from the combined perspective of a teacher, performer, producer, vendor, audience member, and student; situated on a bridge somewhere in the middle of various generations, styles, and views.

 As I announced last month, I'm taking a hiatus from event producing to focus more on my artwork, writing, witchcraft, and other projects. I will continue to teach and perform dance, where and as my heart and spirit calls me.  I found this piece I wrote back in 2009 for Belly Dance New England, and was published on this blog in 2010.  I find it still very relevant today, so I am sharing it here one more time.

I'm leaving the article intact, copied below - even though I'd probably tweak a few things.  The only thing I'd add, I'm putting right here and it's a list of beatitudes for fostering community of any size: be inclusive, be respectful, be collaborative, be communicative, be engaging, be ever-learning, and be kind. 

"What Is Community?"

I talk a lot about the “bellydance community” to my students, in workshops, online, etc, and depending on the situation, the community may refer to the global one, a regional one, or a stylistically based one. But what does it mean to be a part of a bellydance community? What is its purpose?

I have also said on several occasions that I don’t believe in a “sisterhood of the dance.” Actually, I still don’t, but that doesn’t mean at one time I did. And I firmly believe that the “bellydance community” and (the fabled) “sisterhood of the dance” are two very different entities, and I think it is very important that we all understand this difference.

What do I mean? Read on…

Part I: The Myth of the Sisterhood

I came to this dance (and through most of my life) as a tomboy. I grew up with two older brothers and no sisters. For most of my life, I was hanging out with the guys more than the girls, partly out of familiarity, also most of my female friends threw me for a loop (and under the bus, in the closet, and down the stairs) – I couldn’t understand why they were so mean, cruel, and backstabbing. I idolized my brothers’ girlfriends – they were so pretty, so smart and sophisticated, so above all the nonsense I experienced with girls my own age. Truly, I thought, there must be some magical change that happens, some possible sisterhood in my future. (na├»ve much?)

So in coming to bellydance, hearing these undertones about the sisterhood of the dance, female fellowship, the beauty of “tribal”, etc – YES! Here it is! Here we are, we can celebrate the beauty of our diverse female bodies – all size, all ages, and enjoy the dance together! Finally! I can have sisters! We all love the dance, we love and support each other, we share the joy! Um…wait, why are they so mean, cruel, and backstabbing? “Clearly, you have never had sisters…” was the reply. The truth is, people are human no matter what, and sometimes age doesn’t improve on the lesser traits. And the only way a “sisterhood” is going to exist is in a family-like structure, and with that comes all of the good, and all of the bad. Luckily, you can choose your troupe-mates more than you choose your family, but that doesn’t stop it from being dysfunctional and chaotic at times, as well as fabulous and supportive. So, the “sisterhood” exists more in a microcosm, a contained group working together, and takes a great deal amount of personal work and energy. But putting together 2 or more of these units does not mean that a grander sisterhood will instantly happen. Just like in real tribal communities (meaning non-dance, anthropologically), one tribe does not automatically trust another tribe. Regardless of style or background.

Part II: Community: Making It Work

Now just because the “sisterhood” is an illusive entity does not mean that community has to be as well. Community is about looking past the individual for the greater good and needs of the many who are a part of it. Community does NOT mean we all have to be the “bestest” of friends, but rather, it’s about working together even if we’re not. So let’s look at what purposes a bellydance community serves, how it works, and how we can all build it.

What is the purpose of the bellydance community, what is it all about? I believe there are 5 key elements:
1. Networking & Fellowship (to share the dance!)
2. Education of students, other dancers, and the general public (classes, workshops, events)
3. Support structure for professionalism (upholding wages & standards/fighting undercutting, creating excellent guidelines for students to follow)
4. Providing performance opportunities (haflas, shows, events)
5. Marketplace (to sell/swap goods and services)

Things that a bellydance community should NOT be about:
  1. Bolstering egos
  2. Exclusion & cloistering
  3. Supporting unsavory practices/unprofessional behavior
  4. Cutthroat competition & playing mind games
  5. Spreading misinformation for any purpose

So what does this mean?

As a Teacher:
As teachers, we need to realize that we must be positive examples for our students and are responsible for their exposure to the bellydance community outside of our classrooms, and how they behave once they’re out there. It is our job to not only guide their class experience, but help them interact positively with other dancers and teachers, and bring them to the larger community as informed students. We all have our opinions of what we like and dislike in the dance, but it’s important to be tactful and respectful in expressing those opinions. You can’t make yourself look better by being rude about other area dancers and calling them names – rather, this drags you down as well, is a negative experience for the students, and can definitely come back to bite you in the bedlah.  As the saying goes, you get more flies with honey than vinegar, and it’s far better to teach by positive example then a tear-down. It also our responsibility to be as educated as we can about what we teach and discuss so that we can share this knowledge with our students which brings us to the next category…

As a Student:
Aren’t we all students? (we should be!) As students, we must be respectful of not only our teachers, but others as well. It is up to the individual student to listen, to practice, and to learn as much about the dance as possible – and never stop doing this, no matter how many years you’ve been dancing – there is ALWAYS something new to learn, and there are always basics to review. Even if we can’t do regular classes, taking workshops whenever possible will always present you with new ways to explore the dance. Don’t be afraid to attend cultural events, haflas and shows, even if you’re not scheduled to perform. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Is there a style you don’t understand? Ask your teacher about it, read up on it, take a class on it. It is far better to be educated than ignorant. You can always learn something from each experience, even if it’s not your “thing.”

As a Performer:
If you’re a professional performer, then maintain industry standards. Stick to the going rates, and work to improve them whenever possible. Don’t undercut for “exposure”, “experience” or any reason! Yes, we all love the dance, but dancing for free/less in venues where a rate has been established doesn’t benefit the dance. There are plenty of opportunities to share your love of the dance – benefits, haflas, etc – without damaging what others have worked hard for and making their living from. Take care of your costuming, dress appropriately for your gigs, have a cover-up, and keep your behavior professional when you are in costume! You never know who is watching, and yes, your naughty behavior can reflect badly on other dancers! Also, respect your fellow performers and event coordinators at events by arriving promptly and prepared, have your music labeled and ready, don’t hog the dressing room, be aware of what’s happening on stage, and be a good audience member – which means if you’re in the audience, smile, interact, and be supportive for ALL dancers. Again, you never know who’s watching and hearing YOU.

As a Vendor:
Vendors are the source of shiny goodness in our community, and are often the backbone of events. The fees vendors pay to be at an event help pay for the venue, the instructor costs, sound gear, etc. By supporting vendors, we support our whole dance community. But it is also important for vendors to speak positively, plan accordingly, be responsible for their wares, and be respectful of the space and other vendors. Remember that you are the gateway for students, and it’s important to educate them about what they’re buying and its value.

As an Event Coordinator:
Event coordinators provide many things for the dance community: ways to showcase the dance, offer workshops and classes, vending opportunities, networking occasions. There are so many things to consider when putting on an event – venue ability, dates, draw, economy, etc. Sometimes, a date can’t be helped – an out of town instructor just happens to be visiting friends/family or a tour has a specific schedule, and when he/she is here, well, that’s when they’re there. But when we have options in when and where, we need to really look hard at the calendar. New England is a relatively small area (seriously folks!), and it’s a good idea to consider what’s happening anywhere from 1-3 hours away from you, and who the target audience is. It is also important to network with other event coordinators and discuss plans with them for the coming year. Having 3 events within 2 hours of each other, on the same weekend that all have to do with Cabaret or Tribal Fusion is a bad idea for everyone, especially in this economy. When you can plan otherwise, space accordingly, that way all of the events can be successful and be supported, rather than making customers chose between one or the other. One idea is to have local/area studios/teachers who host events regular to get together and choose a weekend of the month (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc) to hold their events, so that everyone has the best chance to support each event. If a weekend has a possible conflict because an unexpected visiting instructor, then talk to who has that weekend and see about switching. Again, it makes it a win-win situation, and spreads good will in the community!

Some things to remember:
  1. You don’t have to love everyone to work with them. Part of being the bellydance community is being a good business person, and being community-minded. That means working together, despite differences for the greater good of the community
  2. There is a lot of room in bellydance for both tradition and innovation. Be respectful of both!
  3. It’s not all about you. You weren’t asked to be in a show? Then instead of bitching, don’t be afraid to ask about it and put yourself out there!
  4. Not in a show cause it filled up? Go and support your fellow dancers anyway! (see #3 again)
  5. You won’t lose students just by exposing them to other teachers and dancers. If they were meant to follow another path, they’ll find it, and sometimes they follow two or four.
  6. If you want people to support you, you have to support them, it’s part of the cycle.
  7. A good bellydance community is something EVERYONE benefits from, and it’s true that what you put into it, you will get out of it. Be positive, be supportive, be respectful, and remember that we’re all in this because we ALL LOVE THE DANCE!