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Judging in Germany
The Summer Festival and the International Raks Sharqi Contest 2006
in Berlin, Germany
by Dondi Simone Dahlin

photos by Klaus Rabien

On June 24th, 2006, Berlin, Germany, was an explosion of excitement as the country’s soccer team had just defeated Sweden in the race to the 2006 World Cup. Police barricaded the streets as ecstatic drivers stopped in the middle of the thoroughfares and poured out of their cars to hug, cheer, shout and revel with anyone standing near. The German flag was flying everywhere; something that had not been witnessed this heavily in over 50 years due to the embarrassment of Hitler’s reign decades before. I sat at an outdoor café in the midst of the explosive celebration with Horacio and Beata Cifuentes who own the largest Oriental Dance school in Germany. With us was Tito, dancer extraordinaire from Cairo, Egypt. Tito and I, along with Malika of France, had been invited to teach and perform as part of Beata and Horacio’s summer festival.

The five of us also made up the judging panel of the Raks Sharqui competition that brought together competitors from Russia, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, France, Cuba, UK, Czech Republic and Poland.

The weekend was a huge success due to Horacio and Beata’s fastidious attention to quality in all aspects of planning the event. Along with organizing the workshops, competition, vendors, public performance stage and gala show, they also hosted and organized a children’s program with over 30 dances for tiny tots and pre-teens including ballet, lyrical, modern and Middle Eastern dances to the participants’ parents’ delight. The event was held at the opulent Russisches Haus – a magnificent theatre with a vast lobby, winding staircases and plenty of room for all vendors to maintain their large booths of Middle Eastern wears. And, just so the kids would feel even more comfortable on the large stage in the regal Russisches Haus, their teacher Horacio Cifuentes used the concept of taking on the persona of a worm, wolf and other characters to subtly coach the dancers along during their performances.

When the little ones didn’t make their queues on time, Beata held their hands, and led them from the wings as they tearfully and shyly walked to center stage. Instead of yelling at them back stage because they missed their queue, she told them, “If you are courageous and go out on stage now, you will be rewarded with big points!” 

There was no doubt in my mind that these “points” were made up of love, support and compassion that all young performers need. This nurture rather than tear-down-and-build-up attitude is rare in a dance company and so beautifully typifies all that Horacio and Beata strive to be.

The long journey to Berlin from the West Coast of the United States is not an easy one, especially in these tenuous days of travel. But the most difficult part of the weekend for me was to be a judge at Horacio and Beata’s 2006 Raqs Sharqui Contest.

Even though Horacio and Beata gave us excellent guidelines to build our opinions on, I felt conflicted.

There were many criteria to rate the dancers with the ballots being categorized into three different areas including technique, artistic expression and appearance.

Subsequently, these categories were further broken down into costume and body, make-up and hair, choice of music, coordination and control, repertoire of movements, use of stage, flow and harmony, phrasing and interpretation of music, choreographic balance, and artistic expression. We were to give a ranking of 1-10 for each category with 1 being lowest and 10 being highest. Sitting in my seat watching these beautiful dancers is when the numbers suddenly became so arbitrary to me. I knew that some dancers would probably get a 10 from some of the other judges because they were “typically beautiful” and “typically good.” 

In other words, they were appealing to the masses. But I knew that they weren’t a 10 to me. I also knew that some of the dancers would receive low scores from the other judges but I would be the odd person out giving high scores. 

There was a dancer at this competition who was gifted with talent, beauty and a very unique style. But, she seemed to be only about 40 percent Raqs Sharqui and the rest of her performance was a mixture of jazz, modern and acrobatic. In our briefing before the contest, Horacio and Beata told us emphatically, “If the dancer is not dancing Raqs Sharqui then she should not get a high score.  She must dance Raqs Sharqui.” As I was watching this dancer, I knew that she was not traditional Raqs Sharqui. Her movements were wild, almost frenzied at times with straight legs, high kicks and jazzy arms.

Would she have been accepted on the big stages in Egypt? Yes. Would she have been categorized by Egyptians as Raqs Sharqui or even Modern Egyptian? I don’t think so. Should she accrue more points than someone else who carefully stuck to 100 percent Raqs Sharqui in feeling and technique and who also was highly skilled? This dancer took a risk in displaying a very energetic and unique style. And, I love risk takers, but this was a RAQS SHARQUI contest and I was told to NOT give high points if someone didn’t fall into the category of Raqs Sharqui. Because of this, I couldn’t give her my highest score, even though I thought she was the most confident and professional performer. She received the highest score from every other judge, which didn’t surprise me at all. I am sure the bottom line for them was that she was gorgeous, exciting, fresh and professional.

The original idea of “the dancer must dance Raqs Sharqui” naturally went out the window with the other judges.  

The moments I spent judging this sensational Raqs Sharqui-ish dancer were difficult, but it wasn’t the most difficult one of the day. The most difficult was for me to judge a dancer who was wearing a less flashy costume than the others and was approximately 20-30 lbs overweight by society’s standards. If she were in the professional category it would have been easier for me to deduct points from her ballot. After all, there was a section for us to judge on called Costume & Body. I was reminded in the briefing, “If a dancer looks cheap or she is very fat you should not give her a 10.” This comment had me immediately thinking, “Why can’t a very fat woman be a 10 if she has all the necessary polish, talent, skill and grace of a professional dancer?” Maybe in our society a very fat woman would never be a 10, but in my own opinion, she very well could be. 

Obviously, this is the area that I could have justified dropping this particular dancers score – professional dancers must adhere to a certain look that society has placed on women. But she was in the amateur category. 

What about categories like amateur? Are we to judge by society’s standards or what WE like and don’t like?  Should we punish the “fat” dancer for her extra flesh even if she is just as skilled and talented as the thin dancer? Or, are we in the Bellydance world at the turning point of only accepting thin, svelte figures in our field? These are important questions for any competition as Bellydance competitions become more popular, especially for dancers who have high skill levels and grace as this young woman did. It was her body that lacked tone and her costume that lacked sparkle, but her talent was strong. After the competition the conversation was buzzing among some of the judges and one commented that, “The performers need to work out and take care of themselves. The larger girl needs to go to the gym.” It struck me as a sad and misinformed comment since I knew the dancer who won the professional category was probably naturally thin (based on her tall body and small-bone structure) and the one who was overweight very well might go to the gym everyday. The body type of a woman does not always represent how well she takes care of herself. “She needs to take care of herself” is a remark I have heard many times amongst professional dancers when observing heavier dancers. I find it shallow and ignorant. It is a typical comment of people who lack wisdom about metabolism, hormones, chemistry and the unique make-up of every woman’s body. 

It is also an easy out for judges who need to find a reason to drop a dancer’s score…especially if the competition is tough.

As an interesting side note, a couple of months before Horacio and Beata’s competition I had traveled to Hilo, Hawaii, to The Merrie Monarch Festival. It is a hula competition that has been running for 38 years and is considered to have the best and most professional Hawaiian dancers competing from all over the world. The winners of the competition are featured in television commercials, magazines, in parades and in brochures. Many of them are approximately 50-150 lbs overweight and the words “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “feminine,” and “amazing” are used to describe them. I, along with other audience members, felt these women were some of the most stunning women I had ever seen in my life. Why, in this particular dance form in a dance contest of this caliber, is weight not an issue? What is it that makes us view fat Polynesian Dancers as strong and beautiful, but fat Bellydancers as lazy, overweight, homely or other negative images that are so often used to describe them? 

After the 2006 Raqs Sharqui competition ended, Horacio and Beata made sure that every contestant received his or her ballots in the mail. Grids, scores and results were compiled. Horacio and Beata sent me the final grid for this competition, and I noticed that for the professional category Irina Popova of Russia and Ivana Aladina of France were one point away from each other taking first and second place, respectively. 

This is quite momentous and important for the competitors to be aware of. With the grid, the competitors could also view the breakdown of their rankings in every category. 

Horacio and Beata’s judging ballots were well thought out and covered many different aspects of the person’s performance, which is ideal. These ballots were some of the most thorough I have seen. However, with EVERY competition I believe there should be a small area for the judges to write a comment or two in to justify the score…something beyond the numbers. This is the only way that the contestants will learn from their experience. Additionally, it holds judges a bit more accountable to be constructive and intellectual. A judge will be less likely to say, “I just didn’t like her.” They will have to use their brain and come up with a valid reason why they just didn’t like her. Constructive criticism should be a rule, not an option. Simple comments like, “please work on your arms,” or “your costume was unflattering because it was too small” take less than a minute to write and mean the world to the competitors. 

These constructive comments can help a dancer in her development and to move to the next level of her craft.

Although, I once received a comment from a judge that said, “Those things on your hips look like cancerous tumors.” I am not sure how intellectual or constructive she thought she was being, but after I got over being hurt, it did force me to scale down my freakishly large tassels that one of my boyfriends called “UPS packages.” So in the end, it was a good thing. If contest hosts don’t have an area for extra comments and don’t give the performers their individual ballots, then the competition will lack an educational element. The competitions will simply be entertainment and titillation for a hungry audience waiting to see who wins and who loses.

If you are considering signing up for a competition, I say just do it!! There are plenty of competitions that can be found on the internet and several just around the corner including Belly Dance of the Universe in Los Angeles every February and Horacio and Beata’s Summer Festival in 2007. For more results from Beata and Horacio’s Summer Festival 2006, please visit www.oriental-fantasy.com. If you live in Europe, or want to visit Europe, take advantage of a great opportunity to compete with women from many different countries, which is a unique and incredible aspect of this event. If you win, you will take home fabulous cash and prizes. If you don’t win, you will not have lost, for you will be rewarded in ways you will least expect it through friendships and personal evolution. When dancers enter competitions, I don’t believe they can emerge from the journey without having had grown and improved physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually through discipline and focus. For this we should all be grateful to the hosts of bellydance competitions who work so hard to make them happen and provide a venue to perform in and goal that we can work toward as artists. Competitions are experiences that ask for courage and hard work. They are an experience you can always be proud of and that you will never forget.

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