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Oh Belly Dance!  Come Out Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Is it just me or is anyone else thinking what I am thinking?  

Over the past year I've felt a growing sense of frustration as I've attended local and national belly dance Haflas and theatre shows.  Why?  Because even though these Haflas and shows are presented by members of the belly dance community, more and more of what I am seeing at these events is NOT what I recognize as belly dance.

Tradition is good.  Change is good.

Within the genre of belly dance there are categories that are widely recognized and acknowledged as respected, legitimate sub styles with their own unique costuming, music choice, and expression of a common movement vocabulary.  Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, Greek, American Cabaret, American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion, Tribaret, Folkloric are a few that come to mind.

Within these styles there is and has been room for evolvement.  We have seen Western dancers adhering to the traditions from which this art form has sprung as well as adding to them.  In turn, dancers from the East have begun to adopt some of the props and technical approach developed by Western dancers.  There have been cultural exchanges & influence in music from around the world.  And finally, costumes have also reflected changes that match the progressing styles, traditions and music to which they belong.

I have no quarrel with this when there are elements that I can recognize as belly dance – movement vocabulary, Middle Eastern rhythms, instruments, etc.  

What is that?

However, I am seeing more and more dancers and dancer/teachers:

1.     Performing to (Western) opera, classical, pop, country, blues and rock music.  Indeed, pretty much anything and everything except Middle Eastern music seems to be the order of the day.  

2.     Using movement vocabulary borrowed from Jazz, ballet, modern and African styles with barely a hint of Middle Eastern dance vocabulary to be seen.

3.     Throwing in the token shimmy or hip drop but at points where there is no suggestion of those movements by the music.

4.     Wearing costumes that don't relate to the music they've chosen and sometimes don't even reflect any sort of influence from any sub style of belly dance.

5.     Working out their personal emotions or issues through their dance or presenting their personal “artistic vision”.  In both instances, the performance almost always comes across as self-indulgent.

You have to know the rules before you break them.

As a belly dance performer, teacher and student I am inspired and motivated by other dancers who execute their craft in a way that demonstrates an investment in this dance form – no matter what their style. On the other hand, when I see dancers consistently performing within the above parameters my respect for their experience and knowledge plummets.

As an audience member who has come to be entertained at a belly dance show I am not interested in watching someone perform if they are not there to engage with and entertain me.  Just because you are a belly dancer, love a piece of punk/country/fill-in-the-blank music and have an emotional connection to it, does not mean it's appropriate to use for a belly dance performance.  Just because you've created what you feel is an artistic vision or statement does not make it appropriate if you have given no regard to the venue or type of event at which you are performing – and doubly more so if it has no relation to belly dance and you happen to be performing at an all belly dance show.

To be clear, I am not referring to performances or events that are meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Cases in point: Ala-Nar's "UnBellydance: Danse Orientale Unconventionale" events, Al-Ahsan's playfully fun interpretation of “Shakin' All Over” by Chad Allen which has been requested many times and Deb Pinchbeck's saucy cane version of the Christmas song “Santa Baby” which is also a personal favourite of mine.

Secondly, certain types of props like wings of Isis, fan veils, candle trays and sword have some leeway with music choices since they are not traditional elements of belly dance in the Middle East but are entirely acceptable features of a belly dance performance here in the west.

Then there are dancers out there who fuse elements of other dance style or types of music with belly dance but still remain representative of it's elemental form.  Jillina, Tamalyn Dallal, Aziza, Isadora Bushkovski and many others come to mind.  

I submit that the above types of performances (and the dancers who perform them) are taken seriously as successful representatives of belly dance, because the dancers have learned (and continue to learn) the “rules” before they began breaking them.

So please, belly dance, come out from wherever you are and show yourself!


February 04, 2011