Thursday, July 31, 2014

What is the Right Way to Belly Dance?

What is the right way to belly dance? This question has been swimming around in my head lately, as within the belly dance community there seem to be some fairly opinionated thoughts on this topic. I really got to thinking about this topic after reading a recent article written by Leila Farid of Cairo on Gilded Serpent in which she critiques Ukrainian dancer Alla Kushnir against the Egyptian dancers Tahia Karaoka and Dina, essentially stating that Alla Kushnir's dance is too technique and movement based, while lacking in emotional depth and subtlety.  (Before moving on, I would like to clarify so that I'm not putting words into the author's mouth that weren't said: Farid never uses the words "right" and "wrong" in her article or any variation of them, and ultimately the message of her article that I walked away with was to promote cultural awareness.  But I did see her article setting the stage for this type of discussion, which it certainly did across various belly dance forums and news feeds after it was published.  Therefore this post does not represent some type of response or counter-argument to Farid's article, but rather a progression of thought.)

I have to be honest, when I first entered this art form, I never imagined that there would be so many "rules". Rules about how to interpret the music, what to wear, how to represent culture, how to put together your performance set, and so on. And yes, at least initially, I agree that knowing and studying the "rules" including cultural context, especially for a dancer presenting herself as a professional, is a requirement. Heck, I even posted my own set of "rules" quite recently on when, in my personal opinion, a dancer is qualified to be a professional.  So I'm not proposing some type of dance anarchy. 

But when does it all become too much?  When does appreciating culture and history turn into just drawing an arbitrary line in the sand?  When does following the rules start inhibiting creative expression and personal authenticity?

Coming back to the examples that Farid used in her article, to me when I watch the videos, the main thing I see is that they are different. I don't see that any of the three performances are inherently better or worse. Or that one style stands out as the "right", "correct", or "better" way to belly dance.  I think each dancer is representative of her own style, including the time period and cultural background that she is dancing in.  Watching the three videos, you can definitely see an evolution of style.  In a global context, performance art in general has moved toward a more flashy, in-your-face and frequently trick-based focus.  You may personally like it or dislike it, but I don't think it's either right or wrong, because art can't be put into boxes of right or wrong.  Art just is.  You can personally feel drawn to it, repelled by it, or feel neutrally.  But that still doesn't make it right or wrong.  To me, all art, including dance, exists on a different plane where this type of black and white judgment isn't relevant.

Putting the comparison of Karoaka to Kushir into an American cultural context, I think it's like comparing the talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the professional dancers on Dancing With the Stars.  Astaire and Rogers are smooth and classy.  When I watch them, I can feel myself sink down into their performance, comforted and wrapped up in it.  They are timeless.  Watching the pros on Dancing with the Stars, I am drawn in by their athleticism and power.  It's sexy and fast-paced, bringing me to the edge of my seat.  I like both styles. I can appreciate both styles. And I think there's room for both in the dance world. I don't look at one set and think that their style and their interpretation is incorrect. All art, dance or otherwise, evolves and changes to represent the time period and the location it's being created in, belly dance in Egypt being no exception.

But rather than criticizing evolution or differences, I believe there can be great merit to adaption.  And in terms of developing a personal style, I believe it should absolutely be embraced, because ultimately that's the purpose of art: to enjoy a personal and meaningful communication with others.   Isn't that why we create to begin with?  To sacredly surrender a portion of ourselves to our fellow human beings?  Thus I think the only "wrong" way to dance is to dance in-authentically to yourself.  There's no point in trying to be a copy of someone else, of trying to replicate someones dance in exactly the same manner and fashion.  Each dancer will have her own strengths and weaknesses, and her own cultural and physical background that she brings to the table with her.  While it's important to understand the history of the dance, each dancer needs to also look forward and honor her own journey through it.  I believe that once a dancer knows what the "rules" are, the dancer can make the informed decision to break them if she so desires. Yes, it might mean that some people will dislike her performance.  It might mean that her performance is not traditional or "authentic", but as long as she's not representing it as such (or hired for such), why does it matter?  I think the great Martha Graham summed it all up when she said, "You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something is lost."

Photo Credit: Unknown

Monday, July 14, 2014

Two Steps to Find More Practice Time

We all know in reality that practice is easier said than done.  There are emails to answer, deadlines to complete, Facebook status updates to post, meals to prepare, children to wrangle, errands to run, and clothes to iron.  We live in the age of being busy.  Ask someone how they are, and they’ll likely tell you busy.  In our modern lifestyles, we all have so many demands on our time and never-ending to-do lists, that carving out time for a regular practice schedule gets pushed to the bottom, waiting for that someday, when we're all caught up to peacefully ease into a practice session.  Well, sorry to say, that day will never come.

However, by using two simple steps, I think you'll find that you can find the time to practice.  It doesn't need to be a complicated process of rearranging your entire life or trying to reshape your personality.  Two steps.  That's it.
Step #1: Block Out the Time 
The only way to have time to practice is to make time.  A magical day free of responsibilities and demands will never come.  You have to buy out the time.  So right now, before you read on, pull out your calendar, iPhone, planner pad, or whatever system it is you track your schedule on and look at your upcoming week.  Where in your week can you find time to practice?  You don’t need large blocks of time to do it.  Fifteen or thirty minutes here or there can really add up.  Find a minimum of one hour in the next week, either all together or broken into pieces, and pencil it in right now.  Block out that time for yourself before another activity fills it up.  Too many activities already on your calendar?  Then assess which commitments you really either have to or want to fulfill, versus which you said yes to out of pressure or feelings of obligation.  Your time is valuable, so use it to engage in activities that are fulfilling and meaningful to you. Presto!  You have a date with yourself.  Now keep it!
Worried that you won't stay accountable to yourself?  Then sign up for a class AND pay for it in advance.  When we invest financially in ourselves we are much more likely to follow through with our intentions. 
Step #2: Just Begin
Of course inevitably, when that day and time rolls around, there will probably be an assortment of new stresses that have come up that you originally did not anticipate.  You might be tired from the neighbor’s dog keeping you up the night before, or your husband’s snoring.  You might feel like you really should do the dishes first or give the kids a bath.  You might just feel burnt out and that an hour zoning out in front of the TV would be so much easier.  Whatever excuse or obligation it is, acknowledge it, and then let it go.  The hardest hurdle to cross is just starting.  It’s that initial step from inaction to action, from routine to change, that always likes to present itself with so much resistance.  Just begin.  Don’t think about it, debate it, or rationalize it.  Like Nike says, just do it.  If you had one whole hour written down and that seems like an unbearably long time, tell yourself you’ll do a minimum of five or ten minutes.  Once you start, you’re almost guaranteed to continue on longer.  This time is sacred to you.  Honor it by showing up.

Photo Credit: Unknown

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

When Should A Belly Dancer Go Pro?

This is a topic sure to bring out varying opinions and I'm certainly not the first person to bring it up.  But I would like to pose the question: when should a belly dancer turn professional?

Over my years in the belly dance community I've heard a lot of different opinions on this.  In the interviews (see "Discover Posts by Topic" below) I've done of other professional dancers, there has been a wide range, with some interviewees saying as low as two years of experience, and some up to six years. On belly dance forums, I've frequently read rants from seasoned dancers about "flash in the pan" students turning pro too soon, and how their lack of well-rounded experience reflects poorly on the community as a whole.

Many times, I think there absolutely is truth in dancers turning pro to soon.  I'll admit that I think I myself was one of them.  At two years into my belly dance studies, I was in the right place at the right time to obtain a job teaching belly dance at a nation-wide fitness chain, and therefore launched the professional stage of my belly dance career rather early.  However, in hindsight, I can see that at the time I didn't have all the components and training necessary to truly be a professional dancer.   Having had a background in dance, I'd picked up the technique and movement vocabulary fairly quickly, but I was lacking in many of the other tools I now believe a professional belly dancer should possess.  Even now, many years later, like most professional dancers I'm constantly continuing to learn, working to hone my art form, and frequently humbled by the knowledge and skill of other dancers.

However, at other times, when I hear dancers rant against the newest performer on the block, I don't always agree that it's a lack of professional qualifications and skill set, but more about the seasoned dancer protecting her business and her paid dance opportunities. 

So when should a dancer go pro?  I don't think it's as simple as putting a number of years of study into the equation; that once you complete your requisite years, voila, you're ready.  Nor do I think if you can list studying with certain teachers that you'll be better or sooner qualified.  Everyone learns at a different speed and pace.  Everyone has different goals for what it is they want to achieve out of their dance.  Everyone has a different background of other dance, athletics, and movement vocabulary that they come from.  Everyone has a different personality and comfort-level with being on a stage.  And for some dancers, no matter how many years they log, they may not ever be ready to go pro.  In short, I don't believe there is a simple answer.

Thus, more than a quantitative number of years or who you've studied with, I would argue that it's more of a matter of reaching certain qualitative milestones.  This is the list of criteria I would look for in a professional dancer.

For Performing:
  1. Mastery of technical belly dance movements, including proper control, alignment, and precision.
  2. Competency in use of finger cymbals and basic patterns.
  3. Understanding of Middle Eastern music styles, rhythms, and instruments.
  4. Knowledge of the history of the dance and the key players, both past and present.
  5. Ability to artistically connect with and interpret music, giving a performance that is nuanced and layered.
  6. Appearance that reflects level, with professional-grade costumes and stage makeup and hair.
  7. Knowledge of the various styles of belly dance, and the related history, music, and costuming.
  8. Minimum of knowledge of, if not actual experience with, dancing various Middle Eastern folkloric styles of dance.
  9. Ability to perform both choreography and improvisation.
  10. Competency with at least one other belly dance prop (likely veil, but may vary based on the style of belly dance performed).
  11. Ability to exhibit confidence while performing, including capacity to relax on stage and put audience at ease.
  12. Professional demeanor at all times while performing and teaching.
  13. Understanding of how to run a business, comply with applicable regulations, and interact with customers.
For Teaching, in addition to the above:
  1. Must be able to effectively communicate with students, design class curriculum, and explain breakdown of movements.
  2. Instill proper positioning for safety of students.
  3. Ability to diagnose technical and artistic issues that arise with students.
Succinctly, being a professional dancer means amassing a pretty large toolkit. It's not done overnight and it's not for the casual hobbyist. But it's amazing to see a well-equipped professional dancer practice her craft.

Alright then, anything that I left out? What else would you add to the list?

Photo Credit: Unknown