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Gilded Serpent presents...
The Ancient Art of
Keeping Your Mouth Shut

by Neon

The realm of the bellydance forums and blogosphere is growing. It doesn’t yet have the opinion-shaping and think-tank power of, say, the music blogs, but it has the potential of getting there. The web-born citizen journalism phenomenon is vital for bellydance because our genre is mostly ignored by mainstream media critics.

Most bellydance critics, bloggers, and message-board mavens contribute to both positively- and negatively-spirited discussions.  If you visit any of the popular bellydance forums, you will see the same names appear in flaming bitch fests and productive and informative threads. Some discussants are genuinely committed to resolving issues and shaping current trends, while for others, forums are a tool for self-promotion, or an outlet for arm-chair bellydance (after all, discussions and criticism are a lower risk activity than actually performing onstage or otherwise publishing your work).

But, as with music blogs, there is a divide between the voices you hear in the forums and the artists whose work is being regularly discussed. The subjects of discussion and criticism, mostly top-echelon “name” artists or rising stars in emerging trends, are, with a few exceptions, not contributing to bellydance forums and blogs.  The higher up the ladder of creative or commercial success, the quieter the voices, until they die into complete silence.

Though we are all artists and equals in the face of the art we practice no matter how much notoriety we’ve gained through our work, the online “name-naming” discussions end up being the common “artist vs critic” phenomenon, where the critic is free to express herself, while the artist’s lips are shut by the conventions and practicalities of full-time involvement in their creative industry.  

What are the factors that result in this “silence of the stars”? 

It’s not so much that busy in-demand artists and instructors “have a life.” Along with busyness and focus on one’s own work, the biggest factor is the professional artists' need to maintain neutral and productive working relationships with peers in the small world of top-level workshops, festivals, competitions and product-publishing. Shooting off your mouth in the indelible and well-archived online world is a risk, even if your statements are benign and non-personal.  Artists who have gained visibility have a lot at stake.  Any statement has the potential to alienate or disappoint their audiences, fan base, sponsors, and mentors.

And, of course, they won’t be caught criticizing fellow artists.  In our world of grass-roots everything, one notch above the grass the everlasting principle of no peer criticism stands solid.  It’s the unchanging given for most creative realms: Authors are reluctant to criticize fellow authors, visual artists hesitate to serve as judges for competitions, musicians don't review each other’s work, and so on. 

Peer criticism cuts into the delicate mesh of mutual loyalties and closes doors to working together.  This is unacceptable in the small pool of professionals engaged in the same projects, on the same workshop routes, etc. Among professionals, differences of opinion are dealt with strictly in private interface, never via public means. 

Even one’s casual presence in the forums infested with negative-spirited discussions can instantly strip a successful artist of her magical charisma. 

Another tacit rule is “no public complaint.”  Publicly voiced grievance - no matter how well-grounded - can damage one’s image more effectively than a flopped performance or an irresponsible handling of business.

author performing in a clubWhile anyone can go to a chatroom and vent out against an annoying overachieving star, the star herself has to graciously accept both criticism and personal attack with a benign smile and without complaint, or at least pretend she hasn’t heard or read anything, if she wants to maintain her “starlike” appeal.  It’s wrong to think that she has every opportunity to respond to her critics: She doesn’t.  It’s common for aggressive forum contributors to retort, “Don’t we have a right to express our opinion?!” when shamed by fellow posters.  Yes, they certainly have the right: It’s the subject of their criticism who has “no right” to err and who therefore practices the venerable art of silence.

Even though bellydance starhood is nowhere close to mainstream celebrity in terms of stakes and demands, one morning many a dancer wakes up to the realization that she can no longer afford to casually blab on message boards, review other artists’ work, or publicly denounce undesirable bellydance trends.

Dancers who become recognized public personas or publish their work widely have to pay for their visibility by accepting whatever criticism comes their way, and the long-standing arts tradition of not responding to critics is still the safest way to bear that burden with dignity.

Before I expound a bit more on the subject.... In this article, along with pointing out the “silence of the stars” phenomenon, I want to commend the artists who, in the world of instant opinion publishing, choose to practice “the ancient art of keeping your mouth shut.”  I admire you for your courage, persistence in your career and positivity despite the fact that you can’t afford to respond to criticism, correct misconceptions, stop a misguided opinion cascade led by self-appointed critics or deflect a personal attack.  Because you have so much to offer and because you feel responsible about reaching those who want to work with you and learn from you, it’s a sacrifice that, in the end, brings rewards. Let’s acknowledge everything that remains unsaid - in positive spirit... and in silence!

And now a few more thoughts about how “the ancient art of keeping your mouth shut” applies to citizen journalism and verbal communications in the world of bellydance.

With all the sisterhood and camaraderie, mutual support and healing that are present in the bellydance community worldwide, you often hear comments about cattiness in studios and troupes, bitch-infested online communities, cut-throat attitudes on the commercial dance scene, jealousy, and fights over who stole ideas from whom.  These negative phenomena are often blamed on the fact that we are practically an all-female environment, that we are non-mainstream, that we are homegrown as commercial entities, that our art cuts deep into our insecurities with its demands of physical beauty and fitness, etc.  It’s hard to find a dancer - amateur or professional - without grievances against fellow dancers, teachers, students, or communities.  Leaving aside those who enjoy venting for venting’s sake or love stirring up public storms by finding fault with others, most of us have a constructive attitude toward handling grievances: Negative feelings are discussed; negative issues are resolved if possible;  the community is warned of potential problems and dangers; and vicious acts of jealousy and irresponsibility are condemned.  As a result you see a lot of generally well-intended grievance-handling and damage control activity both on the ground and in our online communities. 

Yes, someone has to do the work of publicly addressing negative issues, and many dancers volunteer their time and opinion to perform this duty.  We don’t have professional critics, so the community, including professional dancers, takes upon itself the tasks of criticism and enforcement of standards.  However, publicly raising and resolving negative issues is a high-risk activity if you are a career dancer, and not only because of the tacit no-peer-criticism rule among the top professionals, but also because of the effect this activity has on anyone’s image no matter where you are in your dance career.

Non face-to-face web communication often prompts us to be much bolder, and more judgemental than we are in normal personal interface.  In the heat of the moment, deceived by the immediacy and the anonymity of online dialogue, we take less time to formulate things tactfully and positively.  A cursory read of any bunch of threads in popular forums reveals that many discussants don’t realize that their online voices sound repellently aggressive even when they are not judging or denouncing anyone.  Or, perhaps, they present themselves as totally lacking in confidence and self-esteem, which may be excusable for a casual hobbyist, but is not acceptable for someone who dances professionally or teaches dance.  Online exchanges trick users into feeling that they are in their living room with a group of friends.  Meanwhile, their words are published worldwide, often with no “delete” option, to be archived and search-accessible for decades to come.  Online discussants publicly trashing a fellow dancer and behaving as though the object of their criticism is not present or is unlikely to read the thread, are blind and lacking in the social graces, to put it mildly.

Any word can be misinterpreted.  Does that mean that it’s not worth it to practice extreme caution and discretion, especially if there is a chance that one’s bellydance hobby will eventually evolve into serious committed professional work?  How about artists puzzled at the fact that a shallow dig online reveals that some of their self-proclaimed supporters or sponsors publicly dispensed disparaging remarks  about their work a couple years back?  “I didn’t like what you did then, but I like what you are doing now” works for a fan, but not for a fellow-professional.  A true professional leaves no trail of peer criticism.  An occasional instance of an established dancer “losing it” over a competitor or the direction of the current trends and publicly spilling her aggravations under a pretext of saving “our dance” from corruption, only highlights and strengthens the rule of dignified silence.  The incongruity of such outbursts leaves everyone puzzled and causes the star to resort to embarrassing damage control,  even if she had a point.

As bellydancers we don’t have publicists or image consultants to guide us in our public interfaces. But there are obvious pitfalls that can be kept in mind to avoid the build-up of negative taints upon one’s public image (because your online persona is a very public persona, even if you are not well-known as a dancer).

Take a look at the ramifications of the well-intended communications that can easily bathe us in a negative light.

  • One casually participates in an online discussion that soon turns into a bitch fest.
    For anyone unfamiliar with the writer, your character and motivations, all that will be remembered of you is that you participated in a nasty online brawl.  If your goal is to increase your own visibility through hanging out on bellydance message boards, you’ve just achieved an undesirable result - visible “in a wrong way.” Sound paranoid?  If your stakes are high enough that this may apply to you, you will know it.
  • One publicly criticizes her peers (in a constructive, benign, well-intended way)
    First of all, although we all function as both creators and consumers in relation to our own and others’ work, there are distinct parameters that make one look more like an artist, or more like a “civilian.”  What would you rather be in front of your fellow artists? Publishing peer criticism places you permanently in the audience.  Whether you realize it or not, when it comes to your public image, you can’t be both an artist and a critic.  People’s minds follow familiar routes: An artist who criticizes other artists loses her artistic appeal. This behavior does not inspire our peers, fans, or the public to recognize and respect the artist in us, even if our criticism is constructive and well-deserved. On the surface you are still a part of the artistic community, but something is lost.  Having experienced flames of criticism and resulting pains of self-doubt, artists share a certain dignity and reserve that are glaringly absent in an individual shooting her mouth off to criticize peers.  In professions with traditional restraint about publicly criticizing fellow professionals, it never depends on whether the person being criticized is wrong or deserves the criticism.  It is a blanket rule, and this is what gives it a human, rather than legalistic nature: It sprouts from our need to belong and survive, from our vulnerability and our duty to support each other in victory or defeat, on the right path or even in error.

    Secondly, a typical perception of peer criticism is that it is caused by jealousy or the desire to bash a competitor.  No matter how justified one is in her criticism, there is no escape from this perception: The moment one word of criticism is uttered about a fellow artist, all eyes will be on YOU, scrutinizing you for evidence of jealousy.  And even if there is no evidence it will be conjured up, because, again, people’s minds follow the route of least resistance, and jealousy or competitor-bashing is always the most plausible explanation they find.

    And finally, while a critic believes in the existence of clear-cut standards by which art can be measured, for an artist these standards are blurred.  That’s why we see spectacular out-of-the-box style and technique work expanding bellydance audiences and honoring the nature of bellydance as fusion art from birth.  After years of saying “this is not bellydance” about this or that style, critical voices fade away and the maverick artists prevail every single time.  So, again, if one cares about her standing among artists, think twice before letting the critic in you utter her judgement. 

    One of the traditional roles of an art critic or historian is to find a balance between the established aesthetic and the innovations of avant-guard artists who undermine it.

    This is the form of criticism that is vitally needed in our field. As a community we spontaneously do some of this, but, unfortunately, most of our discussions end up revolving defensively around “it’s not bellydance,” while it is totally possible to discuss such matters with an open mind, and with neither overt nor masked aggression.

    “Casual” criticism often posing as statements of personal taste (“She is just not my cup of tea”) is as unflattering to the critic as a full-blown lashout.  If you are one of the artists and you behave this way, this behavior leaves an impression of an uncaring and unsupportive attitude.  If you consider yourself an outsider to the artists’ community, then your judgement better transcend the “I like it / I don’t like it” mode and be substantiated if it is to sound respectable.  Some believe that if the subject of criticism is famous she is unlikely to be harmed by the statements of an amateur critic. This may be true, but the more well-known the subject of unsubstantiated criticism, the more dirt sticks to the critic.  The bottom line on this issue is that the artist needs strong appeal and popularity to be able to deliver her work far and wide, while the image of a critic is similar to that of a policeman - she performs an important function, but she is not good material for a popularity contest and should endeavor to draw her gun as rarely as possible.
  • One publicly defends bellydance from undesirable “corruptions.”
    The unavoidable public perception is that this is a job of a critic or an arts activist, not an artist.  Again, this is not an image that appeals to either the general public or your potential students and dance enthusiasts.  Artists are known to live and let live, it’s a perception as ancient as art itself.  If you have nothing to lose, you may as well go ahead, but if you have something at stake, you’ll curb your zeal, and let the audiences make their judgements, even if they are not “educated” enough.  Any audience perceives your dance as a product, while for you, the creator, it is a process.  In this sense, any audience is somewhat uneducated in relation to any artist’s individual creative path or given work. The natural selection of the arts evolution rarely meets the activists’ expectations.  Moreover, it typically goes straight for the forbidden fruit, assisted by the wave of curiosity inadvertently raised by the opponents of the new trend.
  • One publicly complains about copycats. 
    Public complaint is destructive to the image of the complaining party.  But, above all, has it ever occurred to you that complaining about imitation makes YOU look like a copycat?  We all are familiar with the ubiquitous type of a dancer who believes that she is the sole source of all great ideas, styles, terms, or designs etc. in bellydance.  Commonly, a superficial look reveals that the ideas are, of course (like any ideas in the art world) adaptations of someone else’s ideas from somewhere else in the world of arts.  Meanwhile the sensitivity to the issue of imitation always points to the insecurity in the complainer’s self-perception.  The most imitated artists don’t complain about imitation.  It’s the type described above who is usually a staunch copycat herself, and, yes, she complains non-stop, her mind focused dead on the imitation issue.  Trend-setting artists are used to being imitated, it is a way of life in the arts, and there is nothing wrong with it whatsoever.  If you believe in your creativity and practice it in its fullness, by the time the epigons arrive with their imitations, you are already far ahead exploring and developing new ideas.  In addition, a lot of imitation is beneficial to the arts, because it helps to sort out and establish the most productive trends.  So the copycat complaints make one look “stuck” and unsuccessful, even if that’s not actually the case.

If you feel that because all these communications take place in our narrow bellydance circle, misperceptions of your personal image are less likely, or not as important, you may be yielding to a delusion.  The current bellydance scene is mostly internally-oriented, focused on the art world rather than on the general public. 

As a modern commercial artist, your career begins with your ability to sell yourself to other artists, dance hobbyists and students.  Fail to do this and you may be doing five parties a night in clubs, with occasional TV appearances, articles in the local press, and some overseas gigs, but end up with no name, no recognition for your art, and no support to develop your own creative ideas.

Only our own artistic environment can give us the resources and the support we need to flourish as true creators.  Any mass-market oriented venture eventually comes back to the bellydance “family” for the support needed to survive.  So it’s vital that we save our best behavior and most discreet and reserved attitude for our own circle, to project only kindness, acceptance, and stoical resolve in our struggles.

You can’t “undo,” or “unsay” your statements, or delete people’s perceptions of you, so why risk closing doors by yielding to an impulsive urge to tear down a poorly-conceptualized performance or indulge in the self-righteous gratification of bellydance activism?

The age-old mantra of bellydance teachers: “Don’t perform publicly until you are ready” (often dismissed as “The bitch doesn’t want competition”) goes beyond performances at local restaurants by beginner students who “misrepresent the dance.”  It applies to all the avenues emerging in our age of ubiquitous publicity, and cutting-edge opportunities for self-promotion, guerilla marketing, self-publishing and distribution. The age of total publicity puts in our hands the tools that are double-edged weapons. Instant worldwide opinion publishing is one, and it is the sharpest of all weapons.  Even if your dance skill is not yet professional grade, your thinking and sense of your artist’s responsibility must be professional-grade to be involved in public discussions or self-promotion without damaging your image and your chances for future success.

There are many icebergs in the cold waters of publicity. Uploading a YouTube clip of one’s messy improv in a dark and unglamorous local venue is not good publicity if there is any dance career goal in mind.  A less than flawless performance by a rising star captured by fans or friends at a workshop hafla and shared with the world will slow down her progress. 

When we use our marginal abilities to produce our own publicity materials and products, and run our own PR (which is commonly the only way, since there is little money in dance to hire professional services), the result is often a second-rate image - from unflattering photography misrepresenting the artist’s visual potential to low-value vanity products and poorly-conceptualized aspects of one’s creative work, such as stylistic branding that locks you into narrow and dated boundaries of style. It’s hard to be your own publicity police and censor when a significant impetus of involvement in dance for so many of us is sharing.  And yet it has to be done.

Individuals who create opportunities in the dance world, such as event organizers, workshop hosts, and entrepreneurs running dance companies don’t see the kitchen where our careers are cooking. They only view us as the final product - eligible or not eligible.  They have to work with everyone and stay  away from engaging in loyalties or feuds between dancers.  The need for productive and smooth work relationships precludes the party doing the hiring from spilling her opinions.  You won’t hear “do this and we’ll hire you.”  We get no outside hint or help in choosing the direction for our careers.  By the time you want a high-end engagement in a prestigious dance company or on the workshop circuit, it’s too late for adjustments or damage control - you have arrived there as a finished product, not as a process. The wealth of opportunities to broadcast ourselves in text, print and video easily turns against us by creating a trail of our published opinions, self-doubt and self-criticism, creative experimentation that should have been kept “in the kitchen”,  and a mesh of unnecessary relationships from confrontations and inadvertent alliances in spontaneous online exchanges.  And that is leaving aside such minor things as spilling the mundane details and daily aggravations of our lives in blogs which may be okay (keeps you looking real, not a “plastic” perky star) but may also be pretty uninspiring for those who view you as a leader, motivator, enthusiast and personal example.

Our dance world has healing and uplifting currents, but it also has razor-sharp underwater rocks.  Between having something to say and actually saying it there is a world of pragmatic thought and a test of our wisdom, hence the “Ancient Art” as the refuge for artists embattled by criticism, and the accompanying golden rule "If you don’t have anything positive and substantial to say, don't say it.”

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
1-2-08 Dance Today! Bellydance with Neon DVD review by Dina Peace
My pride, however, was not insulted. Go ahead Neon, clap your hands and count from one to eight as if I just stopped teething yesterday. I don’t care; I want to learn how to be a better bellydancer and if I learn effectively from a professional performer who reminds me of my kindergarten teacher, then so be it.

8-5-04 DVD Review - "Instant Bellydancer, Curves, A Crash Course in Belly Dance" by Neon, Review by Mara al-Nil. So, with a somewhat more open mind, I popped the DVD into my computer and from the opening shot found myself captivated!

4-12-03 On the Subject of Critique

  • The Critic; Real Critics Don’t Mince Words by Najia El-Mouzayen
    Either we are a sisterhood of ego therapists and our instructors are politically correct in all they say and do—or we are tough artists in search of ways to improve our art form by ruthlessly weeding out the lame from our herd.
  • The Emperor’s New Clothes by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
    Until we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one outside of our community will accord us the respect we desire.
  • Critiquing, the “Agony & The Ecstasy” by Nisima
    It’s an unnerving experience to be “critiqued”by your peers, but my personal opinion then and now is that when you perform in public, critiquing just goes with the territory of performing.

8-15-06 Bellydance Journalism, Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 14 by Mary Ellen Donald
One powerful tool used to mislead is bellydance journalism.

5-9-08 Carl Sermon's Photos from the Hoover Hafla
Event produced by The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of MECDA on February 10, 2008, at Hoover Theatre in San Jose, CA

5-8-08 The Dance Zones of Egypt: Sahra Kent's Journey Through Egypt Basic 1 Workshop Report and photos by Debbie Smith
Although not strictly speaking a “dance”workshop, for each zone we got up to learn some characteristic steps and posture, and gestures associated with each dance zone/style, a good way to blend the theoretical with the experiential.

5-5--8 Dances along the Nile, Part 2: Raks Al Balas by Gamila El Masri, Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3
Ah, the poor balas (water jug). This is one of the most underestimated and ignored of the dances along the Nile.

5-3-08 Improving Breathing for Better Dance Performance by Taaj
We also hold our breath when we concentrate or get nervous. This brings tension into our bodies. The more tension we have, the more shallow we breathe. It can become a vicious circle!

5-2-08 Live a DanceDivas’Life! Interview with Jane Yee Shan Chung by Lisa Chen
Then I saw the Suhaila technique workshop announced on her website and I just signed up without knowing exactly what her format is. I am the only person who did not learn Suhaila format before at that workshop. I was so naïve, I simply wanted to give it a try.

4-23-08 to ? From Toronto, Ontario, Canada The International Bellydance Conference of Canada Video reports by Gilded Serpent Staff
including Masouma Rose, Shira, Lynette Harris and many others. Reports are presented in video format inbedded all on the same page. Wednesday Evening show- "Remix 2007", Daytime activities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Main Stage Shows from Thursday and Friday Night. Yet to come-- Saturday Night Gala performance at the Ryerson Theatre, Sunday Daytime acitivities and Sunday Night at the Nightclub "Myth"

4-21-08 Strained Relations Comic by Pepper Alexandria
Hi! Remember me? I'm your long lost cousin!





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