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?




9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Catherine
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 17:52:13

    Totally agree with what you are saying here. It is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about too.


  2. Béa
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 18:58:44

    I’m doing my bit as a teacher- I focus hard on technique in the Beginners classes so that students have a good grounding, but once students get to Improver level, they also work on personal interpretation: I talk to them about what the songs are about, we discuss how the music makes them feel, and how we can express what we’re feeling. And I make them watch video of the best dancers, the ones who show their feelings and draw you into all their joy and heartbreak. I make them listen to the great songs. They know who Oum Kalsoum and Abdel Halim Hafez are.


  3. afradancer
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 19:19:32

    It’s teachers like you who will hopefully make a difference! I wish more teachers thought about this, it seems many do not these days which is such a shame and doesn’t bode well for the future of our dance. xx


  4. Rasha Nour Bellydance
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 20:19:10

    As a teacher, it is something I also spend a lot of time thinking about. Even when I’m working on a choreography, I try to find time in every class for improvisation, and to talk about the music we are dancing to. I can only hope that my students pick up on how much I love the music, and are inspired to take Arabic music seriously as something that they can enjoy for its own sake too.

    I have only been dancing for a relatively short time i the scheme of things (since 2008), so the “cold, polished technique and a pretty face” style of bellydance has been going strong for the whole time I’ve been on the scene. But it didn’t take me too long to work out that I enjoyed watching videos of Egyptian dancers a lot more than I enjoyed watching the dancers with perfect technique who used the music as nothing but a frame to hang their tricks on.

    I agree that competitions can contribute to the problem (depending on the format and the judging criteria), but I don’t believe they are the only cause. And I was encouraged to see, at Miss Bellydance UK last year, that the dancers who placed were those who danced with real feeling, musicality and connection to the audience, and not the ones who danced in a typical ‘competition style’ with gratuitous backbends and high kicks. I think it’s a positive development that most competitions in the UK now seem to be introducing a live music element, which forces improvisation, instead of just rewarding dancers for how much they can pack into a choreographed 4 minute majency.


  5. Jenny Saunders
    Dec 04, 2014 @ 09:22:30

    Afra – you are soooooooo right! Technique and clever choreography can never make up for lack of connection or passion for the music, dance and the audiance watching. I am so glad that the Teachers you choose for Celebrating Dance each year have the passion and enthusiasm for teaching that they do. Thank you.


  6. Sarala Kali
    Dec 04, 2014 @ 16:53:01

    Dance is instrinsicly linked to culture. There is something very misogynistic about how we dull down human (sensual) expression in western society. I grew up in the bellydance community and I disagree that this has just happened in the last 8 years. The bd community has always been attempting to make bellydance more acceptable by eradicating the sensuality. We could learn from Egyptian culture. The women that dance are so fearless; they have to be. I have also been bored to tears with westernized bellydance, mostly because women look so afraid and wanting to please, Egyptian dancers could care less, they know people think they are the worst and they dance anayway. Thats why I think American women could stand to learn about the culture. There is strength in adversity.


    • ondineblue
      Dec 04, 2014 @ 19:16:09

      You make some interesting and very valid points – thank you. I agree that, to a degree, there has pretty much always been a body of dancers unable to connect with the music but speaking from the standpoint of someone who has watched the UK dance community develop across more than 30 years, this has definitely become more of an issue in the last 7-8yrs. It has most definitely been influenced by the what I would describe as an aethos of “style equals substance” . I’ve seen a wonderful improvement in technique and presentation here in the UK in recent years but somehow the passion has become lost/disconnected in the process and this is what worries me the most. Finally **everyone** should be learning about the culture ( 🙂 ) but sadly I think many either find it somewhat daunting, do not have a teacher able to provide cultural information about what they are teaching and unfortunately there are also a lot dancers are simply not bothered about it. 😦


  7. Thea
    Dec 05, 2014 @ 21:34:14

    This has been a problem in almost all dance styles for several years now. I saw it first in ballet. Margot Fonteyn wouldn’t stand a chance today – her technique was far from perfect, her whole performance was based on her musicality and self-expression. Nowadays, if you can’t get your leg up to your ear, you won’t even make the corps. I’m sorry to hear it’s in belly dance now – I’ve seen a bit of that in Australia but it sounds like it’s worse elsewhere.


  8. Keti Sharif
    Dec 06, 2014 @ 00:02:51

    Great article Afra, and sadly true. Competition dancing has created a dulling of the sensual and emotive response…with all that energy going into precision and the pre-meditated “thrill” factor, the life gets sucked out of the art. Its wonderful for a dancer to have a rich vocabulary, which means practicing and rehearsing movements until they are part of natural, fluid dance response. But comps often make me feel like I’m watching an audition, rather than the true, sensitive artistry of the dance.


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