extracted from tribe.net – on the city paper “dissing” belly dance

because this was not easy to find, i’m copying my 2.5-cents over here into my own space, with a link to the original thread. in light of recent events, i am probably too thankful, but in the interest of integrity, this is what i said when i said it. it’s been over a year, but the issues keep coming up, so… from my own dark past (and happy halloween), i present my thoughts on a subject that came up in baltimore. hopefully in a place that people can find it a little faster…

As a reminder, the following material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

i’ve read this thread with interest, and i’ve been very much swamped with dancing stuff and other-life stuff over the past several days, but i do want to chime in with a bit of an “outsider perspective.” i apologize if this is a bit disjointed and incoherent – i really haven’t had time to “write” as much as “spew”…bellydance is a performing art, and as such i have one general thing to say to everyone at all levels – and it’s something i often said to musicians when i worked with them – the only thing that matters, and i have to emphasize that, the ONLY thing that matters in a performing art is finding your audience. it doesn’t matter if that is an audience of one (yourself) or dozens or hundreds or millions. find the people that you connect with. find them at home, in restaurants, in theaters or in stadiums – it doesn’t matter where. find your audience. respect that audience once you’ve found them, and your career, no matter what path you find yourself on, is a success. success can’t be measured in dollars or tickets or t-shirts. it can’t be measured in pop charts or tv appearances. success (and this is my own personal definition, so take it that way), is that connection between a performer and their audience. make that connection, and the rest will play out well.

and now to do some ranting… i’ve said much of this to several people (hi people!) in person, but i guess this is the big opportunity to put it all “out there” in one place… luck you :)

in case it isn’t painfully obvious to anyone here, i do respect the dance and the dancers. i do have a very real personal and professional interest in this dancing thing that you do. i am inherently pro-bellydancing, even if it’s not called bellydancing (and even if inherently is not the ideal choice of words…). i’m also an “interloper” and “outsider” so i probably have a slightly different perspective.

this is an art form, and i think it should be treated like one.

when i first ran into this paragraph in the city paper, i made a quick editorial comment in my own space ( www.rojisan.com/dance/foru…_bellydance ), which essentially boils down to “take it up a notch. please.”

the thread here is a very powerful indication that could very well happen… and for that i am very thankful.

so first, let me say that i am amazed at the depth and breadth in the dance community (speaking in the broadest sense of community) in the area. the variety of talent here is truly impressive. on the dc side of the area, just the parade of world-class workshops and events in recent and coming months is ample evidence of the talent and dedication of the dancers in this area.

as dancers, you live in a slightly different reality – to dancers, names like rachel brice, suhaila, ansuya, jill parker, heather stants, delilah and [sometimes – www.gildedserpent.com/art29/m…iles.htm ] miles copeland mean something. outside the dancers+family+friends, not so much – and that’s ok. just to riff on a comparison from this thread, i imagine most of the dc tribal readers won’t have any knowledge of darcey bussell or alina cojocaru (and how exactly do you pronounce that?). despite grand assertions of “superstardom,” dancers in this field just aren’t quite at the public-awareness level of, say, a michael jackson or a michael flatley, so there’s much room to evolve. bellydance hasn’t had it’s breakout superstar yet – there hasn’t been a baryshnikov that captured the global public’s attention yet… and i do mean yet.

the city paper paragraph is, i think, a valid reflection of the broader public’s perception – even if it’s just the jaded arts&entertainment staff at the local weekly rag – it’s still a perception from “outside the bellysphere.” it’s probably also worth noting that the city paper and similar papers generally run with a relatively dry humor, and when it’s close to home and personal (like this is to many dancers), that can get lost.

there is at least an attempt at humor here, and some respect for the dance is buried in there. even the city paper acknowledges that this is a “trend” – now maybe i’m being overly generous, but at least they didn’t say “worst fad we’d like to throw a robe on” or “ugliest public spectacle” or “what dahell are these women thinking?” so maybe it is a trend (i think more of a cyclical thing myself…). perhaps most important to this discussion, there’s an obvious level of ignorance in the piece – “bells on their fingers” and the thing about hiring people to shake their asses. i think what you’re seeing here is an opportunity, if you twist yourself around and grab just the right perspective. and i don’t mean trading in your zils for bells…. i mean a little education can go a long way to shaping public perception. there’s a big public outside the bellysphere.

this area is saturated with talent and potential talent. there are literally hundreds of dancers, in this form, in this area. i usually figure something in the neighborhood of 1000 dancers around here, and then start splitting that up in various ways to make points about the business of bellydance or something – if only because 1000 makes for easy math. that’s a lot of dancers. but it also demonstrates an interesting question – how “serious” do you have to be to “count” as a dancer? does a 4-week class at the local health club count? does a couple hours working with a really bad instructional video count? do you have to dance in public? says who? i’ll come back to that thought eventually…

it’s basically my job to watch the dancers, but i occasionally sneak a peak at the audiences as well, and i have to say this: it’s a lot of familiar faces – it’s other dancers, and friends, and family and a few strange people like myself that show up at a lot of events. there are a few different “types” of public performances within this dance – there are the restaurant gigs and weddings and gallery openings and such (and those get lots of unfamilar faces, because people are there for things other than the dancers – like food or the bride or the exhibitor), and there are the shows and more formal presentations (and those are mostly familiar faces), and there are the halfas and student recitals and other informal shows (and those are ALL familiar faces). all of these are important – the history of the dance form makes it a more intimate, close experience than most “performance arts,” and this is a good thing. i would never suggest that performing at a restaurants is a bad thing (but i would suggest that it is not for everyone…).

so, i do want to throw my hat in with ashara’s comments (she is generally brilliant, so i’m completely comfortable with that…), and echo this: “WE as dancers need to get our acts together to work on technique and professionalism.” her thoughts are a bit more developed and eloquent than my “take it up a notch,” but that’s where i’m headed… and now i’m going to start making trouble…

baltimore is a strange place for many reasons, but to attempt to answer a couple questions that have come up in this thread… i imagine that the city paper arts&entertainment staff end up seeing so many bellydancers in baltimore for two reasons – one is that there are a lot of bellydancers in baltimore, and the other is that those bellydancers tend to offer their services to arts events throughout the city – cheap or free. so, arts&entertainment reporters tend to be at events where baltimore bellydancers tend to be, and that apparently got a little old.

before you eat me alive, i do understand the importance of getting experience as a dancer in front of an audience, but please, please, please, respect the form and respect the other dancers, and if you’re a student, or generally inexperienced, say so. say so very prominently. don’t pitch yourself as a professional. you’re not. seriously. if john q. public sees a “bellydancer” that’s had a couple months of classes and comes away from that performance with the perception that it’s all “ass-shaking” and “bell ringing” that’s a problem for everyone. i personally have faith that even john q. public can tell the difference between a professional dancer and a beginning dancer – if they have the opportunity to see both. i think even people completely ignorant of the structures and movements and rhythms and styles and culture behind this dance form would be able to look at a[n advanced] student dancer and, for example, an artemis, and recognize that artemis is in an entirely different league (to riff on another analogy from here). the problem is that john q. public doesn’t see artemis – he only sees the street festival, and seeing the street festival doesn’t [often enough] come away from it thinking “you know, i really gotta check out some other bellydancers… that rocked!” in at least one case that we know of, they come away thinking “seen it. blah.”

there’s a wonderful community spirit in this dance, and i certainly don’t want to tear that apart in any fashion. the community spirit (when the communities aren’t too busy being warring tribes, that is…) is one of the greatest things about this dance. but, and i hope i can get away with saying this as a bit of an “outsider,” there’s no quality-control or professional respect in this dance. in most other performing arts, there’s a gatekeeper of some kind – a critic, a producer, an a&r rep, or, best of all, a teacher – that stands between a performer and the public and has the ability and [most importantly] responsibility to say “you’re not ready yet.” in most performing arts, rejection is 99% of the game. actors and models get to endure cattle-call auditions with dozens or even hundreds of equally “qualified” competitors vying for one job. musicians have to audition to sit in the orchestra. ballerinas have to survive the russian dance instructor with a big hickory stick before they even GET to audition. in bellydance, there’s a universal acceptance – and that’s a wonderful thing for what it is – but it’s a challenge you, as dancers, have to deal with when your art form comes face-to-face with the general public.

to make this very personal and very local – i basically can’t afford to work in baltimore. the baltimore bellydance “scene” (such as it is) basically gives me one opportunity a month (the five seasons, first sundays) to work with baltimore bellydancers. beyond that, i’d have to fight horrible lighting and ugly backgrounds in restaurants with one dancer, to try to get any picture worth keeping, and she’s getting paid so little that she can’t afford to buy anything from me anyway, so my chances of covering dinner and gas for the effort are about zero. don’t get me wrong – there are great dancers in baltimore (some of my favorites), but given the wage-scale in the city and the lack of “show” events, the economics just aren’t there. i end up shooting something unfun (say, something other than a dancer) rather than taking my chances in baltimore. baltimore is in trouble [cue the music man soundtrack…]

now a few random thoughts and criticisms and suggestions… in no particular order

call this an art, and treat it like an art. take it seriously. focus on developing your own skills, and your professionalism. realize that you’re not just representing yourself, but you’re representing thousands of dancers that have dedicated millions of hours [and dollars!] to this thing you’re doing. you may be the first bellydancer that someone ever sees. make sure it’s a solid first impression. make them want to see and learn more.

try, at least a little, to pull this thing in the direction of a profession, together, as a community. if you’re not out there trying to make this into your personal profession, at least don’t cut the dancers that are [trying to make it their personal profession] off at the knees. that’s just mean.

do the festivals, do the gallery openings, do the restaurants, but while you’re doing all those things, do put some effort into organizing some shows, some next-level stuff. do put a lot of effort into getting people from outside the bellysphere to see something impressive with this form. you’ve got the talent in this area. make something amazing with it. in fact, let me know what i can do to help you do it.

this region has some of the most amazing dance talent in the world – you have so much variety and depth here it’s simply amazing. technically it might not be quite as progressive as, say, san francisco, or quite as well-populated as, say, new york, but take a serious look at the talent available here. you should be doing world-class shows. and i’m not saying “world class” as hyperbole – one thing that san francisco and new york can’t offer is the breadth of world culture available in washington dc (there is an embassy for just about every country in that city, you know… you literally have direct access to the world here).

try, at least a little, to expand the pie a bit. i’ve seen so much energy wasted on fighting over “turf” rather than expanding the available turf. find new places to dance. if you can’t find any, make some. there are huge gaps in the local geography (at least in my perception) – look around catonsville/ellicott city, towson/timonium, fells point, silver spring, college park, rockville/germantown, and even out in the direction of annapolis. there are places around here that have dance stuff, but could probably support more – takoma park, georgetown, and out along I-66. regular, consistent shows are easier to publicize than one-time events. look at things like the starlight shimmy (hi zareen!) and five seasons (hi na’lani!) and decoy lounge (hi yucy!). do something every quarter, or every other month, or even every month. do it in a school auditorium or a community center, or an american legion hall or whatever. and when you’re putting your show together, please think of me a little and try to have some light :) i will be there anyway (probably), but good light is nice once in a while…

if you read the previous paragraph and decided that i don’t think the market is “over saturated,” you’re right. at the moment the wameda website lists 13 restaurants/clubs with dancing (and yes, it’s missing some), most of which only have one or two nights a week. there’s about 7 million people in this region. how many of them have seen you dance?

when you’re putting shows together, don’t intentionally schedule your stuff at the same time as other stuff. seriously. that’s just mean. scheduling conflicts will happen, but lots of them can be avoided.

students need places to perform, and they need the support of their dance-mentors when they do it. so consider leaving some room for the up-and-coming dancers to gain some experience under your banner as you expand this pie. find an appropriate place, with a supportive audience, and let the students roll. it’s worked before with the rising star events (hi katie!). don’t eat your young – it’s bad for the species.

don’t send students or baby dancers out and say they’re professionals or even let the public assume they’re “professionals.” for their own sake, and for the sake of the bigger picture, be straight with your audience. remember that thing i said up at the beginning about respecting your audience? this is part of it. the public can be cruel. don’t send your young out for the wolves to eat either – that is also bad for the species.

get over yourselves a bit. realize that if you don’t get to dance at a restaurant or a show, that it might NOT be personal. you don’t have time to hold grudges over stuff like this. someone long ago told me, “don’t attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” so if you didn’t get hired for a gig, maybe the person doing the hiring was stupid. then embrace the idea that we’re all stupid at some point or another and move on to the next thing.

if you’re doing restaurant gigs (and these are not for everyone), realize that the restaurant owner is paying you for a specific function – you’re there to make the restaurant more money. there’s basically just a couple ways to do this – you either bring more people through the door, or you keep people there (and drinking) longer than normal. try to expand the dance offerings into the weekdays. if you add 10 new people to a friday night that already has 100 people coming through the door, that’s not nearly as much impact as adding 10 new people to a tuesday night that only has 25 people. if someone gets a new restaurant gig, especially on a weekday night, support that – go to the shows, see the new space, meet the owner, it’s good for everyone – even if you don’t get hired “on the spot.” if restaurants realize that dancers are an asset and actually do improve their bottom line (and aren’t just a novelty thing for their own personal entertainment), believe me, there will be more gigs for everyone.

you do not need to spend any time “dissing” any other dancers. you don’t have to love everyone in this dance, and you may have had some personal issues with individual dancers. that’s fine. you don’t have to work with everyone. embrace the bigger picture. respect is a huge part of being a professional. respect the dance, and respect each other, even if you don’t LIKE each other. if someone doesn’t dance in public, that’s ok – it doesn’t mean they work any less than the rest of you. if someone has a different business approach or philosophical approach, or cultural approach to dancing, that’s ok – it doesn’t mean they’re any less serious than the rest of you. even if they are less serious or don’t work as hard, so what? respect people that dance for no one but themselves. respect people that dance to preserve a specific culture. respect those that dance in a different way or style than you. respec those that dance hard just to make a quick buck on weekends. and while you’re doing all this respecting…

be critical, but be constructively critical. i’ve going to bring up a very sore subject now, and that’s a little article that appeared in the wameda newsletter some time ago – that was critical. and then the wrath and fury of all the heavens came down on the author for writing it and wameda for printing it. well, i hate to rub people the wrong way, but someone needed to get out there and say that stuff. perhaps it wasn’t the most tactful approach, and perhaps the writing could be better, but the nugget of truth in all this is that being critical is necessary in a profession. if you’re all already perfect and the dance is already perfect, and the business is already perfect, why aren’t you all shoveling piles of cash in my direction for giant beautifully framed art prints? hopefully i’m taking some of my own medicine with this thing – it’s getting pretty long and pretty critical so far. it worries me that nearly every critical comment in this thread is prefaced with some sort of “ducking” comment. that says a lot about how the dancers take criticism. you’re all strong women, you can handle it. this will be harsh: if you’re not strong enough to take criticism from other dancers that [probably] know how hard you’ve worked and what you’ve put into this thing, you are no where near ready to be calling yourself a “performer” or “teacher.”

if you’re going to be serious about being a professional in this business of dance, realize that it is a business – and beg (if you have to) to get the magazines, associations, websites and events to provide you with some information on making this a profession and a business. it’s always nice to see pretty pictures and read reviews and personal editorials on gilded serpent (to pick on one site) or in the wameda newsletter (another) – but they can do so much more. ask. you are their audience. artemis does her workshops and her stuff. piper, carolena and suhaila have their certification things (and i’m sure there are others…). that’s not enough.

never stop learning. you’re not that good.

get a real teacher, be a good student. if you’re teaching and you’ve got students that want to perform in public, consider it your personal responsibility to clue them in on things like health and safety and ethics and professionalism and culture. if you can’t do it, refer them to someone that can. there is no excuse for sending “baby dancers” out into the wild unprepared. if you’re out there calling yourself a teacher and getting paid to be a teacher, realize that there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that title, even if the pay scale sucks. taaj and some compatriots have tried to address some of these issues with MEDIA ( www.mediadance.org/ ). artemis has her workshops. within driving distance, there wonderful, truly good people with hundreds of years of professional experience. if you’re in this geographic area, you don’t get to make excuses for missing it.

i’m not totally sold on certifications, but i do think there’s room for some formality in instruction. this is already way too long for most people to read, but if you’ve made it this far, and you’d like me to do a brain-dump on that subject, get in touch with me – i’m sure that will end up being another book-length exposition.

anyway, i have to get back to work… but before i do, i want to say it here at the end, because i do mean it – thanks for what you do.

This entry was posted in Commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *