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Thorn of the Rose:

Making Friends with Criticism

by Najia Marlyz
posted 1-16-09

Criticisms about my dancing used to get under my skin in a way that almost felt debilitating, but that was in the beginning of my dance career, before I had danced many professional gigs. Now, thirty-five years later, it still hurts to see young dancers question whether or not they should even continue to study dance because of criticisms that have burned their egos and distorted their perception of their dancing, disputing their right to be part of the Middle Eastern Dance community.

I remember how that felt! However, it did not take more than about three or four years of battering by recklessly tossed words and jealous brickbats for me to start putting things into a better, more useful perspective. It didn’t happen overnight, but somehow, I learned that meeting and surpassing the criticisms of other dancers and of audience members could serve me and strengthen both my resolve and my ability to absorb new technique. I found a performance coach to whom I could bring my personal dance concerns as well as the things that were most difficult for me to address: criticisms that were barbed and intended to injure me.

My coach, Beatrice, who was not a dancer but a performer with a sense of humor and plenty of wild experiences playing gigs of all sorts, taught me that I had to make friends with the criticisms or they would, as she was fond of saying, “eat you alive”!

Without feedback, a performer can go along her merry way for years, confidently repeating a “stock performance” that is acceptable but not outstanding, substandard but without reprisals, un-inspired but not without applause! Without constant criticism, it is possible to believe that one has accomplished a satisfying and worthwhile career in dance and yet, blithely missing the pinnacles. If there is one thing I can tell you for certain, it is that dancers who are without much talent, and who are, therefore, no threat to other performers, receive accolades, awards, and other acclamations that exceptionally talented and accomplished dancers will never hear!

Audiences often root for the underdog and will applaud almost any effort in the attempt to support budding entertainers.

I can think back to dancers who appeared, quite literally, for years—dance after dance—without ever a change in procedure, technique, music, style, or their entire stage persona because of the overly generous nature of patient audiences!

Thorns make the rose ever more precious; though one’s ego rarely treasures moments of having felt the sharp thorn of stinging criticism. If the dancer is open to criticism—valid or invalid—it can open the door to the process of re-evaluation that otherwise might never happen.

It is difficult not to over-react in defense of one's artistic position, but an occasional healthy examination of one's dance (and/or dance instruction) can literally save a dancer from an early “burn-out” or a deadly “automatic pilot” style performance. I have seen dancers who trust their stagecraft so much that they arrive at a gig breathless, disheveled and unprepared; however, becoming complacent about one’s stage essence has been responsible for the downfall of many a career.

A few years ago, I encountered a conversation between one of my professional coaching clients and a group of women who were involved with the community of Oriental dance in one form or another. When it came her turn to self-introduce, she said, "I have been in Oriental dance about ten years, and I am currently studying in California with Najia Marlyz, who was one of Bert Balladine’s dance partners."

One of the women exclaimed, apparently horrified, "How can you possibly do that? She's so opinionated!"

I cringed when I first heard about it, but I was thunderstruck with happiness when my coaching client said she had answered that that my opinions were precisely why she wants to study dance and performance preparation with my guidance. I was so glad to know about this conversation, because it gave me an opportunity to reflect upon a coach’s image among people who have never worked with one. My initial reaction was, for a moment, concern that my stage name would be forever smudged because I have always (well, almost always) voiced my personal perspectives on dance, revealing that I (and other coaches too) do not believe that coaches worth their salt should “go along to get along” when it comes to achieving quality in professional dance.

After our conversation progressed a little longer, I realized that my dancer was proud, not only of her choice to work with a professional dance coach, but prized my opinions and point of view because I care about the dancer as well as the dance and its essential components: music and responsive, quality movement. My opinions and interpretations, like those of other coaches, are not inflexible. They are offered to dance clients in the same way that a discussion of the interpretation of scriptures in a religion might alter or change one’s perspective on a religious subject: you cite trial and error, past experiences, add in qualifying conditions, and hash out a conclusion about what would make the dance movement more:

  • personal,
  • fitting,
  • musical,
  • aesthetic,
  • amusing,
  • and satisfying
    —all at the same time.

Artistic opinions are born of thoughts that meld conscientious and un-conscious mind-play with one’s physical being. Therefore, new options open, which are able to provide inspiration to creative efforts such as dance.

So much of what we allow pass as a finished dance amounts to little more than repetitious body-movements set to music when it could be so much more inspired and breathtaking with just a bit more musicality and willingness to try something from a different point of view. Experiment!

As I glance back in time, it seems that the finest teaching I have received in both the arts and sciences came directly from those rare individuals who cared enough about their subject to be opinionated about it.

Since when have we begun to fear owning an opinion or “trying one on to see if it fits”? Even the word itself: criticism—has decayed in our overly touchy-feely era of ego-driven dance and has become a word that is synonymous with negativity. However, I believe that criticism has received a bad rap: We should never consider criticism (either the rosebuds or the thorns) as an out-and-out negative per se but a concept that drives one to positive change and a challenge and opportunity for one’s growth. This is a case in which looking at the shortfalls can create something of more value—something of impact!

While it is true that a critic writing his critique or review often attempts to be balanced with a positive comment to counter-balance a snide comment (employed to make his readers sit up and take notice) audience members are not bound by such a “fairness doctrine”. They feel free to snicker, roll their eyes and say that they hate you and hate your ugly costume and that you are an awful dancer just because they were in a foul mood and you think you were having an off night. However, with any luck, you will have trained yourself to pay attention to overheard remarks, fleeting responses, and then, you will either remove your offence from your performances, or otherwise, ram it home to the hilt and make it into your trademark style (like comedians who use the “f-word” repeatedly).

I speculate that the reason that it is so difficult to read accounts of a dance or a dancer is that we have become so socially fearful of hurting each others' tender feelings that our so-called art critics and reviewers do not allow themselves to publicly own up to having any strong feelings (or opinions at all) about anything out of their fear of reprisals!

My opinions on many dance concepts have changed radically over the years. I am most grateful to the half-dozen or so editors who have given me a forum in which to share concepts that is wider than my private student demography—in spite of a general growing intolerance for feedback from our community in the name of supportive behavior. If we truly supported a dancer, we would not allow her to continue performing and teaching some of the collectable garbage movements and silly gestures that are intended to pass for authentic Oriental dance style in so many workshops across our country and in foreign lands too.

Additionally, it pleases me that the dance client I mentioned before understands the coaching process well enough to share her conversation with me, because it gives us the opportunity to explore the criticisms together and for me to become comfortable with my ownership many of my long held dance opinions.

Who would want to study with a teacher who was "opinion-less"? What bland pabulum our dance history and dance future would become!

Those dancers who aspire to become memorable, unique, and outstanding dare to ask “why”! They dare to form an opinion and apply and openly receive artistic judgment. Exceptional dancers welcome the opportunity to voice their opinions and hear the opinions of others. They can engage in reasonable discussion, and still boldly stand up for their opinions and challenges to their basic technique without becoming angry or hurt. As a consequence, dance understanding grows and perceptions change, rendering all dancers “works in progress”.

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Ready for more?

3-13-08 Enduring Open Criticism: A Student’s Question about Feeling Humiliated by Najia Marlyz
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11-7-08 Gift of the Muse: Finding and Using “Dance Energy” by Najia Marlyz
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9-9-08 Bert & Me: Vignettes From Our Partnership by Najia Marlyz
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1-8-09 Apprenticing at ADC by Laura
At first rehearsals were terrifying. The girls were learning new choreographies and positioning and I would follow along in the back, feeling like a bit of a dolt and getting in everyone’s way.

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