When the passion has gone, what are we left with?

I am writing this in response to this post by Emma Chapman on her blog – http://emmabellydancer.co.uk/one-thing

This has left me feeling very sad, not just for myself, as I love her beautiful and expressive, emotion-filled dance but also because it is such an indictment of what is wrong with our dance community today. I have seen my worst fears realized – that competitions would not encourage higher standards, better performances, etc. instead it would become more about a ‘look’ than the actual dance itself. I have seen this firsthand at the first ‘modern’ competition I watched at a big London event a couple of years ago where the performances were mainly cold presentations of effortless technique, superb costumes and pretty faces – no emotion at all. It was all so very sterile with a large proportion of the competitors wafting with ease across the dance floor without making any attempt to connect with the audience or judges let alone the music! There were just a tiny handful of dancers whose performances commanded the stage, full of expression and passion – those were the dancers who didn’t place.

It is a great shame as, yes there is a place for polish, good technique and a well thought out choreography but without the passion for the dance and the music, what are we left with – bland and as Emma says incredibly boring.

This is not something that has happened over night. I have seen its insidious creep into our dance over the past 7-8yrs or so, influenced to a certain extent by not just by competitions but the ultra-polished and yet often emotionally lacking performances in some international touring shows. It’s not going to get any better until we try to get back to our roots. In many ways I would love to see choreography tossed out the window in favour of listening to the music and reacting to it instead. I have seen and appreciated some beautifully realized choreography over my long career but they had a passion to them, something that seems very lacking today. What is the point of spending hours working on technique and a choreography when the end result is that you’ve sucked all the emotion out of it? What is presented to an audience then leaves them with the impression that there’s more passion and feeling in a piece of Blu Tack!

We don’t just dance for ourselves, we dance for the audience. We are entertainers who should connect with the audience whether that’s with some soulful Om Khalsoum or a bit of wacky shaabi. 🙂 If you cannot manage to draw the audience in, you are lacking a big component in your stock of dance skills, arguably the most important one of them all. Not everyone is naturally gifted with a large dollop of old-fashioned charisma but stage presence can be learned with stunning effect and it seems to me that many modern dancers are completely overlooking this very important skill in favour of presenting their technical skills and a pretty face instead. The end result is painfully boring and an excellent cure for insomnia!

Perhaps we should be going back to the real basics and ask ourselves what it was that drew us into our dance in the first place? I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a desire to learn good technique and put on a sparkly costume (well okay maybe the sparkly costume! 😉 ), it was because the dance made you feel something, it stirred something in our hearts and souls in a way that other types of dance/fitness didn’t. It resonated with us on a deeper level and sadly I feel that we are in serious danger of a major disconnect between looking and feeling the part of the dancer.

There is a breathtaking synergy born of the dancer and the music coming together, regardless of level of experience. In fact it can be more entertaining to watch the enthusiastic amateur dancer because they are still connected with their passion for the dance – they wear this passion on their faces and bodies, lighting up the dance floor and audience alike. Anyone who doubts this should see the performances at Celebrating Dance Festival‘s Delegate Showcase – so entertaining on every level, not a bland performance in sight! This also true of our Gala Show – I carefully vet our teachers to be sure that they know how to connect with an audience and are prepared to wear their hearts on their sleeves. This, for me, is real dancing and it’s becoming more and more of an endangered species.

A very famous Egyptian dancer once said to me that a good dancer is one who feels the music and lives inside it. Forget the steps she said and placing her hand on my heart said “dance from here, it is the only place that counts”.

Am I an ‘old fogey’ unable to move with the times or have other dancers also noticed what is going on and are worried by where it may lead?

Most importantly of all – what are we going to do about it?

 

 

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Turn it off!

We’ve all seen it happening whether it’s from the stage or as a member of the audience – that sea of people using electronic devices during a performance. Have we lost the art of being courteous both to the performers and other members of the audience during a show? Not quite, but it’s not far off! I’ll talk more about general good manners later on but first I want to talk about how modern technology is having a detrimental effect on how we watch and enjoy shows of any sort.

This struck me particularly at the Shimmy in the City show the other weekend. Large numbers of people in the audience shamelessly filming performances or almost as bad, sending text messages. I was really irritated at the young girls sat immediately in front of me from part two – they spent almost the entire time sending texts!

I wanted to run round the theatre divesting all the offenders of their phones and cameras and then yell at them to “watch the show, you idiots!”

Please don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t manage without my mobile phone and I am an avid photographer but there is a time and place for these things and it is not during a performance. Why pay good money to see a wonderful show featuring so many fantastic dancers and then only watch it through the eye of your camera or phone?? Why did you buy a ticket if you didn’t want to actually watch and enjoy the show? Nothing can beat the experience of live performances whether that’s at your local haflah or a star-filled theatre production. Many organisers arrange for a DVD to be available at a later date but even if they don’t, just sit there and enjoy the show instead of focusing on making a poor quality film of it on your camera/phone.

Filming something whilst watching it puts you at a remove from the actual performance because of the barrier it places between you and the performer, greatly reducing  you being able to enjoy the subtler moments of a performance. I know this first-hand as I have been the videographer myself on many occasions. You cannot watch the show and fully enjoy it whilst trying to capture a recording of it at the same time.

Apart from anything else, it is extremely discourteous to everyone else to sit there distracting those around you with the light from your screen. This is particularly annoying in a theatre situation because with the house lights down it is even more distracting and annoying to see lots of small lights dotted all around the auditorium! One of the girls in front of me at the Shimmy in the City show texted someone saying “I’m watching Dina right now!” but she wasn’t, she was looking at her phone instead – what a waste!

Please everyone, turn off your mobiles and put away your cameras so that you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

Good manners cost nothing.

I also want to talk about how I have noticed a general decline in manners and courtesy within our dance community over the years. This could be a very long post if I talked about all the things that come under this umbrella so for now I am going to talk about it in connection with shows, haflahs and performance situations generally.

My main complaints are:

  • As mentioned above, the discourteous use of phones and cameras.
  • People talking loudly whilst someone is on the stage or dance floor giving their all to entertain you.
  • Late arrivals at a theatre who don’t wait until a break in the performances but instead noisily disturb everyone as they get to their seat and make themselves comfortable. Why is it that somehow this always happens when something quiet is happening on stage? At other theatrical productions the ushers stop people from entering until either a suitable break/change of performer or scene or in some cases late arrivals are not allowed to take their seats until the intermission.  Then there are those who arrive late to a haflah who, with no thought to those performing, noisily scrape chairs, say hello to friends etc., instead of making an effort not to distract the rest of the audience from those who are performing. 

     
    I am not saying that at a haflah one should sit there in silence, far from it. What I am asking for is a little consideration for the performers – by all means talk just don’t do it really loudly. It makes it seem like you don’t care about those who are performing and you should ask yourself how you would feel if it were you trying to entertain people who are more interested in chatting to their mates than enjoying the dancing.

  • People buying drinks at the bar and then walking across the dance floor to get back to their seat. It’s bad enough that they may have a spillage making the floor slippery but if they drop something all those dancing bare foot run the risk of having glass in their feet because it is so hard to ensure that every tiny piece of glass is accounted for. Then there are the very rude who, for whatever reason, thoughtlessly walk across the dance floor whilst a performance is going on! I wish this was a rare occurrence but I have seen many instances of this over the years.

These are just a small selection of things that I’ve observed in recent times, all things that are not only discourteous and disrespectful  but down right rude. They demonstrate a lack of respect for those doing their best to entertain you and the rest of the audience who are trying to enjoy that entertainment.

A plea on behalf of all performers and fellow audience members – please, think twice before you do any of these things.

Shimmy in the City

Before I write anything further I wish to make very clear a couple of things:

  • What follows is purely my own opinion based on my personal observations over the weekend
  • On the whole I thought this was an excellent event and worth the money I spent to attend it
  • I would definitely recommend it to other dancers

I went to this event with the co-director of Celebrating Dance Festival, my long-suffering husband John. He shares my enthusiasm for oriental dance (if not quite my love! :D) and enjoys going to dance events as much as I do.

11am Friday morning.

We thought we’d arrived just in advance of the competition starting but in fact that was more of a guideline for competitors to be there to hand over their music etc. Not that we minded as some of our friends had also arrived early so we enjoyed catching up with each other, drinking coffee and making sure we had a good view of the performance area. Between 11am and 12pm I watched as an ever-growing parade of competition hopefuls arrived clutching music, bags full of costumes, props, make up etc looking rather sweet with their hair in curlers. We could see the process as they began to psyche themselves up ready for the start at 12noon.

We had a brief chat with the lovely Aziza of Montreal, a wonderful dancer and instructor we have had the pleasure of hosting and working with in the past. She was on the judging panel and wanted to get there in plenty of time ahead of the start. I also spotted the festival organisers Charlotte and Khaled in the background making sure that everything was set up properly and that their team were all in place.

12:15pm

Now we are starting to get tantalising glimpses of some of the competitors’ costumes, a veritable feast of rhinestones and colour! The judging panel – Orit Maftsir, Mohammed Kazafy and Aziza were taking their places, things were ready to start!

12:40pm

Five dancers in and I am finding myself surprised at how few of the competitors engage with the audience. Instead they appear to be dancing solely for the judges or in a bubble of their own. Many competitors had long hair but far too few of them did enough with it as far as grooming was concerned which marred the look created by beautiful costumes and flawless make-up. A pretty clip, headband or just glossy, shiny locks would have completed the look. There was also a surprising lack in the lipstick department too. Smokey eyes need coloured lipstick when performing, not a nude look. This provides some much-needed balance and expression to a dancer’s face. It might look overdone when not on stage but it’s essential for performing purposes. As the competition progresses I find myself suffering major pangs of costume envy – there were some truly stunning ones on display!

By the finish I realised that I had not seen nearly enough in the way of smiley dancers, even when the music called for it and there was way too much ‘hair-ography’ but maybe that was just me. I had made a note of who I thought deserved to be in the final and was right for all but two (there were 6 instead of 5 in the end) and was therefore looking forward to the final which was a folkloric segment.

2pm The Groups Competition

Six entries and for me the final three were the best of the lot but sadly it appears that the judges did not share my opinions. 🙂

3pm The Final of the Soloist Competition

This was for me very much a mixed bag. I saw some nice ‘okay’ performances and one standout performance against which I wrote ‘WOW!’ in my notes in the same way I had for her oriental. I was pretty sure I knew who would win and possibly who would also place.

With the competitions over I had time to reflect on what I had seen:

  • Very long intros and competitions do not go together under any circumstances at all
  • Nude lipsticks should be avoided
  • You don’t have to wear things in your hair to make it look nice, but you do need to at least ensure that it is glossy and styled
  • If you are planning on waiting at the edge of the dance space to make a very quick entrance, do not stand there looking at the floor, shuffling from foot to foot or generally look like you are switched off whilst waiting for a bus. Once you are in view of the audience/judges you need to consider yourself as ‘on stage’ and behave accordingly.
  • Make time to take a bow at the end – do not just turn and rush off! Even the briefest of bows gives you a chance to offer a final smile to both the audience and the judges and gives a polished finish to your piece.

Now I come to the only part of the weekend which I feel cast a negative light over things – the results of the competition.

Half the finalists were disqualified because the judges deemed that performing shaabi or baladi did not count as folkloric. As far as I can see this was due to a serious miscommunication issue between both the competitors and the organisers and also the organisers and the judges. This left us with the unfortunate situation whereby the person whom everyone thought should have won was disqualified. The problem was compounded by the fact that neither of the festival organisers were available for a second opinion on the matter.

It seems the whole thing revolved around the issue of what the festival deemed acceptable in the folkloric segment of the competition. They knew what the competitors would be performing because this information was provided along with music before the competition got under way, so I can only assume that there was an unspoken understanding that the judges would have no problem with those numbers. Sadly, this proved not to be the case and it led to three dancers being placed who were not the best dancers on the day.

This in itself was a very unfortunate way to begin the weekend but it was not helped subsequently by the lack of a swift apology to all concerned from the organisers. The rights and wrongs of this are still rumbling their way around the internet which is such a shame as it was just one element of what was really such a wonderful weekend.

My suggestions for the future:

  • Competitions require rules, very unambiguous rules. They should be posted on the festival website, sent to every competitor when they register and supplied both in advance and on the day to the judges. It is absolutely no good saying that ‘the judges’ decision is final’ when they and the competitors are not operating from the same rule book.
  • Have a pre-competition briefing and use this to remind everyone again of the rules.
  • Don’t make assumptions that everyone will understand what the festival’s interpretation of such things as ‘oriental’ and ‘folklore’ mean. Provide information to competitors and judges alike making it very clear what your festival will accept. You do not need to try and write the definitive list of what ‘folklore’ actually is, people have been trying to do this for very many years and I doubt very much that we will ever reach a consensus. It’s your event so just tell everyone how you want things interpreted!
  • Even if you think you have all the bases covered, there is always something completely unforeseen that can crop up no matter how well you planned ahead. As a result it is a very good idea to make sure that at least one organiser is always around to be consulted.
  • If something does go wrong and people are quite obviously aggrieved, make a prompt apology. All you really need to say is something along the lines of “We are so sorry that this has happened and we will do our very best to make sure that this doesn’t happen at future events.”

Okay, so let’s leave the competition and its outcome there and move on because this was just one incident in what was otherwise a very good event. An event that I enjoyed very much, as did all of my friends.

Friday evening haflah

I didn’t see a huge amount of this as I confess I spent most of the evening catching up with friends among the traders but from what I saw the music was lovely.

Saturday

As I was unable to participate in the workshops because of health constraints we did not arrive at Fairfield Hall until late morning. I spent most of the day catching up with yet more old friends and people watching generally. No one had to tell me when Dina arrived in advance of her workshop – the buzz of excitement that went through the souk and cafe was palpable! 🙂 Someone told me afterwards that it was ‘the best workshop I have ever taken’ and this was not just because it was OMG Dina, it was because the workshop itself was excellent. 🙂

The Gala Show

Khaled and Charlotte are to be congratulated on putting together a lovely show which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes there were one or two moments where there were things I would have done differently but I think that at every single show I see. When you’ve put on as many as I have somehow you just can’t help it. 🙂 We were treated to a broad selection of styles with lots of wonderfully memorable moments but for I suspect most of us, the most wonderful part of it all was the magnificent Dina.

I have never managed to time a trip to Egypt to coincide with a time when Dina was performing so there was absolutely no way at all I was not going to be in London for this very special event. Dina was everything I’d hoped she would be right from her deliciously wacky costumes down to her signature style which is amazing to watch and unlike any other dancer. I’ll admit it – I was in dance heaven and I will treasure the memory of seeing her perform live for a very long time.

Thank you Khaled and Charlotte for making this happen and for producing what was on the whole a truly excellent event. One which I enjoyed very much and would definitely go to again as well as recommending it to my friends.

Well Done!

Coming Up

Some of the topics that will be featured in the next few entries:

Shimmy in the City
I will be watching the competition, attending the haflah and watching Saturday night’s show.

Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington! 
Or if you do,  please at least make sure that her costume is age-appropriate!

Some of us just want to dance, okay?
Why is gender still such a big issue for our dance?

Celebrating Dance Festival
A view from the inside – what it’s like to organise and run a festival.

Promotion and hyperbole – inextricably linked?

This is a subject that has been bothering me for several years because it appears that the two have become inextricably bound together and I think this is wrong.

It is not a crime to pad things with a little bit of hype, I think we all do that – trying extract the most we can from any experience, talent or qualification. However some people take this too far and we owe it not just to ourselves and our dance community but also the general public not to cross the boundary into fantasy. Dancers who indulge in excessive hyperbole tend to end up believing their own hype and this leads to problems all of their own, which I will talk more about later on.

Truth in advertising and getting the balance right.

When you are writing copy for your website about what you can do and how well you can do it, it is very hard to resist the temptation to turn ‘I teach workshops in baladi’ into ‘I am an expert in baladi.’ The second just sounds so much nicer doesn’t it? What happens then, when you are booked to teach a workshop in baladi and the students discover that you don’t in fact know a great deal more about baladi than they do? They maybe too polite to complain at the time but they will most likely not invite you back to teach anything else and will be uncomplimentary when asked about you by others in the dance community. Didn’t really work to your advantage did it?

A trend that has been around for a long time and really annoys me is the over-enthusiastic and dishonest use of the phrase ‘I have studied with.’ Studying with someone is something you do over a prolonged period, it is most definitely NOT applicable if you have only done one or two workshops with a teacher! It’s much more honest to say ‘I have taken several workshops with. . .’ Dancers who are coached by me, take regular private classes with me as well as attending my workshops are entitled to say that they have studied with me. One workshop on dancing with wings does not an expert make and certainly doesn’t qualify you to go off and start teaching your own workshops on the subject! I have seen that happen far too many times in recent years!

My fantasy is now my reality.

There are a growing number of dancers who I have observed change from being modest and honest about their achievements into strange beings that I find hard to recognise. These are the dancers who are either very ambitious, self-absorbed, have an inflated view of their place in the community or a combination of all three. Commercial considerations are high on their agenda as promoting their ‘brand’ and therefore themselves, becomes the be-all and end-all of everything and they often stoop to marketing practices that do neither their reputation or our dance in general any favours. Mud sticks which means it also sticks to the rest of us simply by association.

These are dancers who make for divas backstage and they have a habit of trampling over everything and everyone to get to where they want to be. I don’t think any of these dancers realise just how obnoxious they become, so intent are they on promoting themselves to the detriment of both honesty and standards. In recent years I have seen this as an ever-increasing phenomenon  and there are several dancers who I no longer have much to do with because they have gone down this route. To be honest I find it quite sad because most of them started out as very nice people.  I’ve also noticed that many of these dancers try to distance themselves from those who gave them their start, either by being their teacher or someone who helped them along the way. For some reason many of them expunge a great deal of their early dance experience and training so that they can say ‘look at me,  I got here with no help from anyone.’  Which is silly really because no one springs into being as a fully fledged, trained and experienced dancer. Just because you want to forget your more humble beginnings as a dancer doesn’t mean that your teachers and fellow students will do the same.

Dancers of this ilk really do annoy me and there are far too many of them around now. Oh how I wish I could prick the bubble of their fantasy, especially when I can see that they are living it at the expense of those around them. There are several around at  the moment that I have been watching from the side-lines, observing as they use methods of promoting and conducting themselves and/or their business that is disingenuous at best but sadly is usually just plain ruthless and calculating. There are a few who are prepared to be deliberately controversial or provocative in order to gain publicity for themselves in complete disregard for the consequences this brings with it. It may provide them with the instant results they want but in the long term this is not good for them and it most certainly isn’t good for the reputation of our dance as a whole. There is a very fine line between famous and infamous!

The old adage of being careful who you piss off on the way up because they will be waiting for you on the way back down, is a true one where the entertainment industry is concerned! Some dancers would do very well to remember this. . .

Welcome!

I never thought I’d find the need for a personal public blog, but here I am! 🙂

So why blog now?

I feel I have reached a point in my career where I can stand back and comment on how things are now compared with how they were when I started out. I have strong opinions about a lot of things and I’d like to share and discuss them with like-minded people. This will be more like a column in a newspaper or magazine with regular posts on particular subjects but not on a daily basis. Please take a moment to read the About this blog page before commenting on an entry.

My blog will serve a number of purposes:

  • To express my opinions about the dance community generally
  • To be thought-provoking without the need to be deliberately controversial
  • To share some of the knowledge I have spent 30 years accumulating
  • To relate anecdotes, interesting stories and memories about my experiences during my career as a dancer
  • To talk about the events, workshops and shows I attend
  • To enable dancers whose opinions I admire and find interesting to post as guest bloggers

 

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