Scientifically speaking, there is no science to the development and unfolding of an art form. If this one single philosophy could be your shield against the small line of despoiling bullies who emerge with incredible regularity from the depths of some apparent human need, Belly dance or Middle Eastern Dance or Raqs Sharqi would be free to continue being what it once was and should have remained: the different dance form, the rogue dance form, “the back door to show business”, our entertainment, inspiration, source of joy, and tool for personal growth.
Instead, after four and a half decades of participating in the dance art called Belly dance and a variety of other evidently self-embarrassed names, I have observed a cycle in which, periodically, emerging dancers who have obtained slightly more prominence in the craft begin to make recycled attempts to regulate it through instructional devices in order to control it to their own personal ends.
You have probably already met a few of them. Through attempts to control other dancers and students, they become dance bullies and playground braggarts. Their ends, their goals, are always well meant. The objectives always differ just a little bit here and there: elevation of the art of Belly dance, public acceptance, technique superiority, equalization and acceptance of Belly dance by proponents of other dance forms. It makes a convincing a laundry list of desirable values that seem to offer them a greater sense of personal stature. Who are these dancers? Why are they here? Do they elevate the art of this dance form?
Aggression & Misdirected Intent
In the past, along with other seasoned dancers, I have noticed a tendency to excuse some aggressive dancers (who have gained reputations by their tireless clawing for position as “top dogs”) for their youthful energy and their mis-perception of Belly dance, seen through the rosy filters of cultural imperialism of the Western mind into Middle Eastern reality. The first evidence I noticed of imperialistic tendencies inside Belly dance appeared in some of the pages of early Belly dance-oriented periodicals such as Habibi Magazine and Bellydancer Magazine. I recall one such article long ago that I think appeared in an early issue of one of those two titles in which a self-described “army brat” wrote about her soldier-husband’s upcoming deployment to Morocco, and that because she would be living there with him for several years, her intention was to “teach the Moroccans how the dance really should be done” (apparently through her superior grasp of dance technique she had learned in America). We dancers, who were involved in teaching dance at the time, snickered and guffawed over her attitude and promptly forgot about her along with her great plan to teach Middle Eastern Dance to the Middle Easterners. In fact, I do not know what became of her career because we never heard from her again.
Well, then… If we dancers thought we had gotten off that easily, we were wrong! Over the past five decades, there has been a long succession of dancers who have dreamed up various dubious schemes. Some are quite clever, some devious, and some are both clever and devious–to get their own piece of the Belly dance pie. Hopefully, it would be a bigger and juicer piece than anybody else’s. It seemed, and still it seems, an odd choice of grappling wars to me; why not wrestle for a piece of Wall Street or something of tangible value instead of an ethnic dance that exists, for the most part, on the periphery of public interest? The resulting fracas is like a couple of children beating each other over a colorful plastic toy in an ever-widening sea of plastic toys.
The most obvious losing enterprise in this sweepstakes of wresting the remote control for our dance away from others is the process of trade-marking, and copyrighting. Though absolutely legal and valid, the minuscule amount of protection that these legal devices provide is unrealistic (and mostly futile) when weighed alongside the financial and litigation havoc that the dancer/choreographer who attempts to gain control over other dancers creates with this all-too-blatant ploy. At my end of the game, I can tell you that grandma was right: life is too short to be spent in court raising Cain (just kidding) and your own blood pressure. Contrary to your hopes, your patented and protected scheme will not be of any more useful protection or sustenance in your old age than Social Security, and you will take a place in the Belly Dance History Hall of Shame as one of its minor bullies.
Something From Nothing?
To succeed in show business, (an unrelenting and unforgiving bestial dragon even after feeding) you (as a performer or instructor) had better remain at least one or two innovative steps ahead of the pack instead of placing your hopes in tightening your grasp on whatever it is that you think you have created by yourself and your own inventiveness in the here and now. Truly, nobody creates art (or anything else) out of nothingness; each time something is created, it comes from the seeds of ideas and trends that landed in your memory from words and images of the past. The minor invention of one dancer passes onward to another and may become mixed, fused, and transformed into something that has a larger impact on a greater number of people. Then, Voila! Here comes a dominatrix who excels, not in dance, particularly, but in organization and marketing skills. She creates and innovates, not dance, but instead perhaps, technique, or merchandise (or a new way of merchandising) for which the true innovators have no money, time, nor mind to spare because they are busy thinking about movements and composition, music and staging, gigs and costumes.
Beware of Controlling Schemes
“So what does all this have to do with me?” you might be right to ask. As a new dancer or new instructor of dance, I think that you already know the answer: you (and nobody else) must insure that your own dance spirit remains free in the face of those who seek to make you feel inferior to them through the public belittling of (for instance) your performance fees, your personal comportment during a professional gig, your choice of movements during the dance, your costume choices, or your technique for making meaningful dance movements. Though you must ask for the guidance of other dancers and teachers in order to learn in the first place, you must be the one to determine the validity of each piece of information offered as it relates to you, your body, your circumstances and your goals. Also, you must analyze what it is, exactly, that an instructor is offering you in exchange for the money you are paying for group lessons, workshops, festivals, seminars, private lessons, choreographed dances, CDs, DVDs, costumes, etc. What does the instructor gain from the transaction beyond the currency? (Dance instruction does not generate “big bucks” even for the most famous of Belly dance teachers; so, you can pretty well suppose that instructors are not just teaching for the money alone!) If your answer is in part that she or he gains control over where, how, when, and if you dance, and whether or not you are qualified to dance at all, that instructor is attempting to at least contain your ultimate achievements through dance as well as invalidating the decision of the person who seeks to hire a dancer. Something may be amiss here, but you have the power to stop being bullied by not accepting it as a given, much like boot-camp or a series of hurdles in your roadway to stardom.
Gs Award of Self Promotion, Click to see full sizeA Lengthy Career Through Your Own Resources
Your viability in show business depends heavily on your audition, your last performance, your personal charisma, your belief in yourself, your own hard work in practice and rehearsal, your own ambition for yourself, and flat-out serendipity rather than a piece of signed paperwork to hang on your wall as if you were an academic, not in a trophy or title, not in permission to teach, nor to dance in your teacher’s trademarked or copyright format.
If you are an instructor in search of longevity of your career by training and influencing others in the art of dance, let it emerge as the inspiration you offer to them rather than a fancy paper certificate that says they have achieved elevated dance stature among all dancers by meeting your rules—no matter how right, true, correct, and proper you believe they are, in all things related to Belly dance. Remember too, as you look back into dance history, those dancers, who feel they need to make boastful claims of being the “first” having done this or that, arrived at that insignificant juncture by the prompting and inspiration of all those who have tread stages before them, whether they studied with them or not, no matter how clever and new-age they may seem to be right now. Perhaps they have thought of a new way to put the Lego bricks of dance together, but that does not make their dance the essence of your dance or the ultimate height your dance may attain. Their empires were built upon the well-picked bones of ideas and shimmering happenstances of those who danced before them, and certainly, well before you were toddling about your mother’s living room, dancing with the “Teletubbies” or the Australian “Wiggles” on television.
Crimes, Fibs, & Misdemeanors
It reveals insecurity for a dancer to claim that she or he was “born with Belly dance in my blood” just because some great-grandparent came from a Middle Eastern country or that somehow, the osmosis of your being close to someone who is famous makes you famous. It is egregiously arrogant to issue certificates (other than recognition for special participation or personal appreciation) that are akin to scholarly achievement unless you teach dance for a scholarly institution such as a university or the Julliard School! How many ways do you wish to set yourself up to be hoodwinked and pay for the privilege? Or perpetrate the same upon the careers of others? What does your piece of paper with the fancy border mean to audiences? Why does your certificate need to be renewed every few years or yearly? Could it be that the certificate issuer needs your cash periodically? What does the certificate give you beyond the obvious self-assured confidence? Do you need some proof of performance scholarship that your actual performance may not warrant? How pathetic is that?
Undercutting & Intimidation
In regards to the issue of dancers undercutting one another in grappling for the few gigs available locally (in your area): If a dancer from out of your area dances for one thousand dollars per gig, and you dance for two thousand, but you can’t get enough or the best of all the possible gigs because that other dancer is willing to travel and seems to be deliberately “undercutting” your price, does that mean you are a better dancer than she, and that she is being unfair to you, your aspirations, and your just desserts? Does it mean that it is customary and desirable to bully her into submission to your expectations wherever possible whether your assessment of the value of a dancer to the person hiring her is reasonable or not?
I am convinced that the outcome of most of these outlandish price schedules cooked up by dancers are mostly irrelevant to the needs of potential employers, who simply hire a singer or magician or clown instead. Anyway, the competition to secure gigs for oneself by dictating how others should comport themselves all evens out in the wash; you will receive what your dance is worth, no matter how vocal you are on the Internet, and the result is irrelevant to what another dancer is able to earn by her dancing. One cannot control the playing field in the performing arts by becoming yet another bully on the dance playground, although many have tried and will, no doubt, keep trying. Trash-talk and attempts to intimidate other dancers by local or imaginary specifications does not elevate the dance overall, no matter how noble one’s aspirations. If anything, the dance bullies on the Internet and the “international” workshop circuit may, for a time, appear to have the upper-hand, but they only win when dance students choose to let them win by default.
Deflating the Puff-pigeon Syndrome
Many times, when I read glowing, ecstatic reports about some dance event that I have attended that was mediocre at best, all claims of excellence that originate from that source (and from that time forward) diminish for me. A prudent dancer must temper her own claims about herself with humility because, someday, she along with all the bullies and all the exquisite dancers (about whom nobody ever heard) will all be the white bones upon which new dancers will perform and make their career marks. We can only wish them a safe journey by enjoying the creations we make for ourselves, here and now, on our individual dance journeys.