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Gilded Serpent presents...
Back to Basics:
a long over-due swing of the pendulum begins
by Najia Marlyz

 I believe that—only recently—the dance community is more than over-ripe for getting back to the basics that attracted many (if not most) of us ‘60s and ‘70s hippie-flower-child-wannabes to Belly Dance.  For over thirty years, I have written articles about dance, and the teaching of dance, for various printed publications: Habibi, The Bellydancer, Caravan, Lotus, and others here and there that have passed out of existence for lack of subscribers. However, none of them had any traction like writing my thoughts here in The Gilded Serpent.  Specifically, my articles about teaching techniques and concomitant dancing techniques seem to have reached into our dance community and sparked many needed changes in a short time due to the large number of readers—worldwide.  However, traction arrives through more than shear numbers of readers, and I see indications that the pendulum has begun to swing back to the more sedate and emotional dance that has the power to touch the heart.

Basic number one:

Belly Dance is most meaningful when we define it as a communication of mutually held emotional response and truths between people. 

It offers a unique opportunity to speak of our vulnerabilities as humans and our finite mortality in search of an infinite immortality.  What? What the duce is she blathering about now?  Well, it is just this: Belly dance, Raqs Sharqi, or whatever you wish to call it, is not (definitively not) on a par with any other stage dance!  It can and should be a most eclectic mixture of dance technique, showmanship, stage-craft, skill, artistry, entertainment, and general tomfoolery. Only the dancer who understands the language of movement and gesture can reach the people with any valuable message. In my experience, not one out of a dozen has ever given a moment of thought to the simple, every day subtle gestures she uses as they might apply to her dance.

That brings us to Basic number Two:

The Belly Dancer must have something to say—some reason to dance.

It is not a valid reason to dance just to become a performer for the sake of exhibitionism.  A dancer must have some inner core reason or personal mission that needs to reach out to people offering something—perhaps solace, a healing laugh, a tearful memory, or an emotion that touches and moves the emotions in members of the audience.  Buoying up the dancer’s own needy ego, while it may happen and may feel deliciously satisfying and fulfilling, should not be the focus of a dancer who aspires to be memorable or to make a meaningful little wrinkle in the fabric of mankind.

Basic number Three:
Belly dance may be a dance of the people, but in its show form, it is not a “folklore” dance per se.  A dancer with a full arsenal of technique and a backpack full of charm and wit should almost never dance employing a full choreography unless the dance is part of a troupe endeavor or an example for instruction.  At its most effective point, Belly dancing is a real-time collaboration between a musician, his musical instrument, his musical talent and the dancer, her skill, and her sense of chemistry of the moment.  It’s as we used to say in the ‘60s, “a real happening.”  Recently, it has been mostly a non-happening—real or otherwise.

Basic number Four:

Belly dancing per se is not an art form. 

Just as painting a picture may (or may not) be a fine art, there is a lot of leeway in this dance form to accommodate both the artist and the hobbyist.  I have seen Arab natives dance so badly that I wished I had a video. Contrary to popular belief, not all Arabs have dance in their blood, not all black people all have rhythm, and not all Latinos are hot.  There is no “all” in anything or anyone!

Basic number Five:

The true artistry in this dance form lies within spontaneous or improvised dance

Much of our Middle Eastern music is improvisation, and consequently, of necessity, our dance must be an improvisation.  Even within familiar song tunes, a great deal of instrumental and vocal improvisation can make the presentation a challenge for those dancers who rely on preset choreographies for their dance.  However, I am not advocating raw, mindless, or wildly abandoned dance to unfamiliar music.  A dancer must be intimate with the music at least on a gut level, if not an intellectual level.  At the very least, dancers must be familiar with the way in which music is composed in order to understand and anticipate its content.

Basic number Six:
Steps and locomotion are only of secondary importance to the form called Belly dance. 

Belly Dance is primarily a stationary dance centered upon torso movements expressing emotions and changing themes that are evident in the music.

Dancers must learn to just “stand still and dance”!  Steps and movement around a dance floor are elements that dancers have introduced into the vernacular of Belly dance in order to adapt it for the cabaret or stage presentation.  Spatial movements (steps) seem strange, foreign, and almost unnecessary to the Arabic and other Middle Eastern cultures.  (However, Middle Easterners are not beyond opportunism, and they will attempt to give us foreigners whatever we think we want.  You want steps, you say?  …workshops? …festivals? …bizarre costumes of gaudy colors with tasteless designs and battle-worthy construction?  We have all that and more!)

Najia Teaches at Rakkasah in 1990
Basic number Seven:
This basic element is the greatest magic of the Belly dance!  One of the most important components of Belly dancing is the performer’s ability to become an actress for her audience. She must learn to access her own emotional core enough to reach out to the music with inner imagery that carries meaning and a sense of completion.

 As I coach my clients so that they attain the ability to reach an audience in a memorable, unique, and creative way, I have found a great deal of help in presenting music to them as a “movie” or a “play” with voices, dialog, plots and subplots, and above all—emotions of all sorts. 

It is not an easy thing to release a dance student’s emotional dimension, but it is a necessity to achieve excellence in dance.

  It is important to me for my students to understand that emotion is a subtle thing within their dance.  Emoting feelings is not accomplished by pushing up one’s hair (sexy at times, but is sex in the music?), closing one’s eyes and holding the belly (perhaps a tummy ache?), tossing your (store purchased?) mane of hair back or laying your finger aside of your nose (and up the chimney she rose?).  Just because dancer “A” accomplished some interesting move (and it worked) does not mean that it automatically translates to the presentation of dancer “B”.

Basic number Eight:

I believe in the Zen of Belly dance: either you have it in you or you don’t.

All a teacher or coach can do is to guide you to reveal your message and your strengths, and perhaps, determine your career moves within dance. There is no exercise, no practice, no magic, and no technique or philosophy that can make a dancer out of someone who does not show a demonstrable aptitude for using movement and expression as a personal avenue to reach out to entertain people in a way that moves them (not oneself).

Basic number Nine:
Back in the ‘70s, I discovered that it is possible for me to transform a competent, but dull, dancer into a dynamic and breathtaking performer, through an simple method of musical analysis coupled with imagery.  A gifted dance coach can bring you to awareness of the possibilities that dancers commonly miss in music.

He or she can take your dance into a new realm of performance that has value beyond a simple entertainment into a complex, worthwhile, and fascinating art form.

  Musical analysis skills make an entirely new field of dreams—if you build it, an audience will be yours and your moment will come!

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