Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Cheese Stands Alone (In Which Tempest Explains ALL THE THINGS...or at least what makes for a unique dancer...)

Part of my personality involves the drive to know what's going on everywhere in the communities I am involved with- locally, nationally, internationally. (The other part of my personality questions whether this is a good thing, and perhaps it would be better to live in an information black out cave...)

So I notice the who/where/what in the teaching and performing sides of things, and try to familiarize myself with new names/faces involved in events.  And sometimes I get to go "Oh wow! cool! different!".

Sometimes. In fact, that happens a lot less than I would prefer.  More often it's a..."Err..who is this again? They're offering what? Why?" and I start to suspect that I'm in some version of the original "Return to Oz"*  - and it's really just pop a different head on the same body...or just switch out the tattoos.

*(Admission: I saw that movie only once. In grade school (a Catholic school).  And the only part that has stuck with me three decades later is the hall of heads...)

I'm looking at the same sort of movements (mainly combinations), same expressions, same music/musicality, same sort of costuming.  My eyes glaze over and my heart sinks.  It gets worse when I check in on names I haven't seen in a while, and they have seemingly joined in, losing what I saw/considered what made them, 

Then I see a line-up of all of the same, and I wonder how students pick out what to take for workshops?  Same topics, slightly different face? Is that what sells? Why all the same, again and again?

It depresses the hell out of me.  How did we get from unique and diverse views to some sort of globular cloned mass? Is it about fitting in?

Now, it's not really that bad.  I know this. Really I do, but that's the feeling that comes over me from time to time, and I wonder.  Am I missing something? Should I change?

Then the part of me that also made the argument for the cave earlier, slaps me around.  (Seriously, Geminis have cornered the market on a unique form of masochism...) And I count my blessings for the awesome and amazing folks who take my classes and my workshops, because they are solid proof that there are dancers out there who want to sincerely develop their own style. That they want something different, and it truly does matter to them. This reminder makes my heart lift and my spirit soar. And I watch the dancers who I have mentored over the years truly come into their own...and it's so damn beautiful!

It's easy to be a clone. It's easy to look like everyone else. It feels safe. It can feel so right.  But it leaves you mute and backs you into corner, which is artistic death, IMHO. (And for some reason, this here makes me think of the goddess Media from Neil Gaiman's "American Gods"...).  Of course, not everyone wants to really be an artist.  (This is hard for an artist to understand, I must confess...)

Years ago, I was having a discussion with a student about a rising dancer in the year - I didn't quite get why this dancer was popular - they weren't doing anything that was different or unique - instead they were very much a clone of Big Name popular dancer.  My student said, "Yeah, but they're OUR local version of Big Name."  This was somewhat of a revelation for me.  Like the appeal knock-off of a Brand Name Designer purse - you know it's not really Brand Name, but it looks close enough and was cheaper, so why not?  (Which could be a whole other blog post...but let's not go there now...) And so the clone dancer gets exalted for being the local knock-off, gets pushed to the next level, without ever really developing what could make them THEM - finding their inspiration from within, or really being valued for what they could bring to the table utilizing their own ideas/skills.  Without that, they're pretty much guided in the direction to teach how to be a clone, versus how to be your own dancer.

It really is the hardest part - finding your own voice, your own inspiration, your own way of doing things.  It takes a lot of hard work to push through the crowd and define yourself and to do it well.  It also requires a great deal of bravery.

Which also explains the large amount of envelope pushing that has been more prevalent over the last decade. (Actually, a lot of it has gone beyond envelope pushing - it's more like throttling - and someone's knocked over the mailbox and taken out the delivery person in the process.)  

Think about it. You get known for being a great clone. Well, now there's also 50 other great clones - what can you do to stand out?  Lightbulb!  DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! And that tends to involve coming up with something weird/unusual/wacky/bizarre combination of elements because you have to STAND OUT!

But here's the thing.  You may stand out for doing something weird/unusual - but that doesn't make you different or unique.  Or mean that it's a successful, sustainable idea. In order to stand out, you need to be you.  It's not about pulling a stunt or a schtick or a gimmick.  That's a thing.  That's not you. And it's not going to grow with you over time.  Being you takes time.  It's a journey, but in the end, you'll see the difference.  Once that happens, it won't matter what you're wearing, or what music you're dancing to, or what style your make-up is - people will know you for truly being you.

And the best part is? You don't have to have any hard and fast ideas about what it means to be you.  You just have to trust yourself and sincerely explore the possibilities in front of you.  No, that's not easy, but it's so worth it.

Go forth, be brave. Be you!


  1. So many people are afraid to be their true self because they are afraid that they "won't be marketable", or worse yet, ostracized by the local bellydance community for "being that girl who doesn't do 100% all bellydance moves." What they don't realize is if I had to be 100% cabaret bellydancer I wouldn't bellydance at all! That's not me. I'm not a happy, flirty person. I'm not perky. I'm deep, I'm dark, and I like leather and chains. I get enough weird looks being a dark fusion dancer but that's who I am. I get enough pressure from local dancers who want to know why I won't take classes from some famous cabaret dancer coming to town. I'm not interested in how big your name is. All I care about is what you can teach me and how good you can dance. I took a cane class because I wanted to learn some techniques for a parasol dance. You wouldn't believe the whispers and hostility I got from fellow dancers when I brought my parasol (not the sweet teacher). I have people ask me why I seem like I'm on depressants all the time & why don't I smile when I dance. Not me people. I ask them why they seem like they are on speed all the time. People are always afraid of something different- it threatens them and it takes a strong woman to stand up to the hate and resistance people throw at you.

  2. I ran into this in another community and similar things were happening when it came to teachers. Right down to the idea of "but they are the local version of X!" it became exceedingly frustrating because as events started wanting to cut costs it was simply cheaper to bring in the "knockoffs" instead of bringing in the real deal.
    The other side is that all the classes start looking the same. The same thing taught with a different tag line.
    Seeing it also in dance community has made me very hesitant to even want to jump back in to study again. :-(