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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 10
How to Avoid Being Eaten by Sharks
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column.
This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.
Revised for Gilded Serpent April 8, 2006

I invite you to join me…
on a psychological sojourn…
when I am frightened…
and I feel…

When I am frightened, and I feel my sense of self-worth being threatened, I often dip into my crazy bag and come up with some kind of extreme response: a shouting fit, a quiet, rigid stance, or a proclamation of new restrictions.  Is it the same for you?

Fortunately, most of us feel our sense of self-worth threatened only occasionally. Sometimes we get this feeling over surprisingly small matters such as a husband’s dislike of a casserole over which we labored all afternoon

Not so fortunate are those people who feel threatened most of the time, limping from one extreme response to another.  

My formal psychological training and experience leads me to speculate that such people have experienced very stressful childhoods that have robbed them of a good solid sense of self.  That is, to survive at all, they had to cling to whatever fragment of self they could conjure up.  Perhaps they exaggerated this fragment and ignored the development of many other important aspects of their beings. 

Such people, dancers included of course, often attempt to surround themselves with those who will bolster and support their distorted self-images; they tend to choose anyone who does not threaten them.

Those among us, who are content to be feeders of the threatened person, give up our own individuality, and we may pay dearly for doing so!

You are probably questioning what all of this talk has to do with Bellydance!  Well, it does not have any more to do with Bellydancing than it does with any other activity!  However, since most of the problems one encounters while studying, teaching, or performing the Bellydance have much more to do with human issues rather than problems in the dance per se, I’d like to examine this topic a little closer with you.  My expectation is to heighten your awareness.  Perhaps you can save yourself a lot of trouble as you pursue your dance career or involvement in the world of dance.  (Once a social worker, always a social worker!)

My travels around the U.S.A. have made something very clear to me: every Bellydance community contains at least one of the above-mentioned “easily threatened people.” 

Sadly, in many instances, those who are most easily threatened also wield a great deal of power.  Currently some of you are—or have been—their feeders.  You might ask yourself what it is about you that would lead you to accept such an uncomfortable role.  I am sure that you gain something very important for yourself, or you would not do it, but I am suggesting that you try to find a more satisfying way of gaining the same thing or something better.

Below are more details concerning those among us who whose sense of self-worth is very easily threatened. 

I have been the recipient of ALL of the statements quoted below!

They are repressive:

  1. “Mary Ellen, you don’t know how happy we were to find your books.  Way before you wrote them, we tried to use our background in piano and write down (in musical notation) some of the Middle Eastern rhythms we heard on the records.  We brought our work to class, but loudly, our teacher scolded us and told us never to do that again since there was no connection between our piano lessons and our Bellydance music.”  (I am surely glad I did not consult with their teacher when I was thinking of publishing my books!) 
  2. “My teacher told me that if I ever studied with any other teacher she would throw me out of the company.  Studying with her was a very special pleasure.  I did not know any other teachers who had troupes.  I did not dare to study anywhere else.” 
  3. “Sometimes the music would inspire me while I was dancing in class.  My cymbals would pick up the accents of the music, and I would flow with it.  When that happened, my teacher stopped me and said that a Bellydancer should never play anything other than right-left-right throughout the dance.”  (Please beware of the ignorance lurking behind some voices of authority.)

They delight in public denouncements:

  1. “I was chatting with a few of the students during the break and mentioned X who had been a member of the class and the troupe until recently.  My instructor overheard me and rushed over to our group.  She glared at me, and with a voice filled with tension, she warned me never to utter the name of that dancer in her presence!  She continued delivering a detailed account of how awful that woman had behaved.”
  2. “Often I would go into her class in a good mood, but two hours later, I would leave, feeling like no responsible citizen would want to bring another child into this horrible world.  She would point out the ills in just about every aspect of Bellydance and in the entire socio-economic order of things.”  (With so many people around willing to pay money to feel bad, I sometimes wonder why I work so hard at helping people to feel good.  You guessed it: the social worker rides again!)

They thrive on grandiosity:

  1. “In our class, several of us students told our teacher we felt shaky about our Bellydance technique.  We repeatedly asked her to help us with our technique.  However, her only response was, ‘You can get that from any other teacher.  I’ve gone way beyond that level!’  Her response always left us feeling frustrated and confused.”
  2. “Whenever I criticize about something specific to my teacher, she doesn’t seem to hear me.  Instead, she sets me up as a representative of one viewpoint, herself as a representative of an opposing viewpoint, and then proceeds with a lengthy series of arguments to prove that her viewpoint is the correct one.  She does not fight battles; she wages wars!  She does not aim at doing something well; she has to do the best in the Universe.”

They live on the level of Love or Hate:

  1. “I thought we were good friends.  We shared many confidences.  She turned to me for support when many others had turned away.  That is why I was shocked one day, when, out-of-the-blue, she lashed out at me with an unforgettably fiery tongue!  From then on, I felt very shaky when relating to her because I never was sure of when I might become a victim of her hostility again.”
  2. “We were good friends.  She got me dancing jobs, and I was very appreciative.  One day when I began to strike up one of our usually lively conversations, she deadened her voice and coldly turned away.  We haven’t spoken since.”
  3. “He smiled at me a lot.  He was always charming and complimentary.  He acted as if everything I did was perfect in his eyes.  Suddenly, he turned completely against me!  Then, just as suddenly, he went back to his old charming manner.  Now, I know how phony he is, and that behavior disgusts me.”  (I feel for you.  I am a trusting person, so when I experience such an abrupt turnabout, I feel extremely vulnerable, too.)

One need not point a finger at other dancers and self-righteously label them as “crazy.”  It could be that your reasoned response may stimulate growth within them. 

By realizing that someone is one of the easily threatened types, perhaps you will be able to relate to them in a way that is less draining for you. 

If you ever gain the confidence of a dancer who is easily threatened, one of the kindest things you could do is to suggest that she or he seek professional counseling—since you don’t feel able to resolve such conflicts.  Unfortunately, most of us need to have the roof cave in upon our heads before we will seek the right kind of help.  

Often, the easily threatened person will try to envelop you, making you feel as though you are a very important person in her life.  If you fall for the flattery and let her into more of your life, you are inviting trouble! 

One important tip to remember, when relating to such a person, is to put firm limits on the nature of your involvement with each other.  You might agree to share a few specific activities and nothing more. 

You do not want to open up your heart to this person, especially regarding your feelings about other people, because they will twist your secrets against you when you begin to squirm out of the relationship with them.

 I assume most of you want to trust others; so, I know this may sound cold and paranoid.   However, I will take that risk.  Of course, I am advising such precautions only when you are dealing with people you know to be easily threatened.  It is my hope that you will be relating to other people in a trusting and open way.

I have been sharing a little advice concerning how to relate to an easily threatened person. I have assumed that you have decided that you can gain some good from the relationship

However, sometimes you have to come to the agonizing conclusion that you would be better off not relating at all! 

In that case, I suggest that you withdraw with as much dignity as possible, as soon as possible.

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Ready for more?
2-9-06 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 9, Can't We All Get Along? Dancers and Musicians by Mary Ellen Donald
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1-16-05 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 8,Leadership Risksby Mary Ellen Donald
When you lead people, you take certain risks. One such risk is that of self-revelation.

4-12-06 How to Prepare for a Superstars Audition by Samira
Also, remember that a professional troupe is a business. So if mixing business and pleasure turn you cold, this may not be the right artistic outlet for you.

4-11-06 Adventure Amid the Tempest: The Biloxi Fest's Near Brush with Hurricane Katrina, by Sydney
Consequently, we did not allow Hurricane Katrina stop us from driving 450 miles to immerse ourselves in and perform with Mark and Ling Shien Bell of Helm! MORE PHOTOS ADDED!

3-30-06 Interview with Magdy el-Leisy by Lynette
Ballet gave me freedom to create my own style. I didn't go to folklore school as a child so I have more freedom to express my own style.


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