Advice for Dancers : Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies
by Linda H. Hamilton
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A former Balanchine ballerina and popular "Dance" magazine columnist offers sensible advice for coping with the highs and lows, the achievements and challenges, the lifetime rewards and ever-present heartbreaks of the dance world
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Entertainment or Art?

by Najia Marlyz

If it ain't broke, don't fix it! However, for many years the field of Middle Eastern dance has become "broken" in the minds of some of its more adoring aficionados and dancers, both in its countries of origin and in its new western locations such as Europe and the United States of America. As dance formed in countries of the Middle East, it had a certain proscribed status and not a very elevated one at that! It was always called "Dance" (in the local languages, usually Arabic, "Raks") but was often modified with a descriptive name such as "Raks Assaya" (cane dance), "Raks Beledi" (dance of the countryside), "Raks Shamadan" (dance with candelabrum), etc. or in Turkish "Danssi Oryentale".

But let us set the issue of titles aside. Dance was included in major and not so major life event celebrations such as weddings, engagements, births, and other family gatherings in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

Often included were standard movements such as the dancer roundly and soundly caressing her own clothed belly as she danced, sometimes undulating and rolling her abdominal area as she did so. The movements were, and (I must emphasize) still are, seen by westerners as salacious, if not just plain crass and silly.

The fact that the gestures arose from the cultural connotations of marriage and procreation in Egypt has little relevance in America. At any rate, some of the dance movements are considered ridiculous (meaning laughable) and somewhat peculiar.

The dancer who possesses a great deal of muscular skill and some modicum of artistic judgement may present herself as a solo entertainment artiste ("fanana") and may even eventually be considered a "star" who commands considerable remuneration for her shows. Another dancer may simply be a skilled member of a troupe, which is rare in the Middle East, as we, in the west think of troupes. The current day troupe dancer would not be considered an "artiste", since she would never be expected to make individual artistic interpretations or communicate individually with the audience. Most often, troupe dancers are like chorus lines; that is, to especially shine or do anything differently from the choreographer's direction and intent is to subvert the whole group effort. The standard is to move as the others move, and not to stand out in any way. In this case, the true opportunity for artistry lies with the choreographer for the group, but since the choreographer does the work without benefit of the audience in attendance, it is not possible to respond to the energy that would be created by an interactive communication.

I realize that the newly developed western troupe forms (namely American Tribal Style and Neo-tribal Style) attempt, in a small way, to address the problem of lack of spontaneity by following a lead dancer who does the "spontaneous" choreography. Why this does not fully work is that the leader is extremely limited in her rate of response and choice of movements and steps and detail.

The fact is that her fleet can only move as quickly and responsively as its slowest and least talented "ship". Like a fleet of ships, innovation and anything extraordinary can spell disaster and will result in chaos.

So when I speak of the "fanana" (or artiste), I do not include any troupe dancer.

There is also a difference of note between the Middle Eastern Entertainers' troupe and our western idea of a troupe. (Notable exception: The Aswan Dancers of San Francisco who are not afraid of slapstick) In the old days of Egypt, until the turn of the last century, entertainment troupes consisted of dancers, musicians, magicians, jugglers, acrobats, and comedians.

They went from party to party and were highly sought, though, unless you were an entertainer yourself, you would not want your daughter to marry one. It was not a desirable trade.

So is it any wonder that the Western public cannot suddenly deem Belly Dance respectable but an ART form too?

It is possible to be an artiste in a non-art form in the sense that one may be skilled, professional and artistic at the business of entertainment.

Our collective problem in Middle Eastern dance centers about an accumulative and rapidly growing disenchantment with being considered mere "entertainers." We find ourselves rated by other dance forms as a non-disciplined ephemeral form of entertainment with little or no artistic content. The beginning level Middle Eastern dance students who are most shocked at the difficulty they have relaxing enough to learn Middle Eastern dance technique are often ballerinas. Disciplined ballerinas imagine that whatever the skills are, their own prepossessed and hard-won dance skills will allow them to master this "non-disciplined" technique in a couple of lessons, at most!

In our quest for recognition, we have created a fertile ground for women with lots of time on their hands and, sometimes, voracious capacity to collect data from strangely obscure sources to create "That" which never was. We can manicure the movements, name them, and infuse elements from the ballet--which has earned its recognition. We can consider ourselves educators of the general public, and do other such gyrations, but we are loath to face the fact that this is a dance done to create fun. It is fun to dance. It is fun to dance solo. It is fun to show off. It is fun to dress up. It is fun to be applauded and remembered, and to have touched the life of another in a moment of celebration and happiness.

It is not fun to realize that, by nature of our origin, we are inclusive of all those would-be dancers who come to play, and so we are rendered unable to be exclusive of dancers (and self-appointed instructors) who are less than competent, nay, damned bad and ill-prepared! We are forced to accept guilt by association.

We find ourselves becoming the therapists and supportive "sisters" of untalented dancers who sometimes are far beyond us in education and sheer intelligence but dearth of emotion and grace.

In order to feel barely equal to the other dance disciplines that do not accept everyone who wants to perform, we struggle relentlessly with minor issues. Our issues have been as picayune as what to call ourselves, what to name our dance form, how to credential our dancers and teachers so as to exclude some who are not to our liking and personal standards. However, in the act of becoming exclusive or by demanding stricter standards, we change that niche the dance originally filled; namely the living dance of the people in honor of celebrating life itself by use of music, and dance.

It is an anomaly to exclude individuality in a form whose basis is predominantly personality and emotional content, and whose technique are often secondary.

Though we may long for recognition and status among other dance forms and institutions of education, and we may ache for accolades from the general public, at what cost? If you give up your red dress because society says red is uncouth and it is uncivilized to wear red, and you make a pink one to wear instead, you no longer have a red dress or your own element of self-expression. Middle Eastern dancers must gather courage, wear the red dress and be satisfied with the stir it causes in gentle society.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
6-7-99 Becoming a Fanana of the Belly Dance-
Instead of a musical slave, I believe it is your calling as a dancer to interplay with the music.

12-24-03 Dancing Inside Out

10-28-03 Raks Assaya Instruction at Najia's Studio
Demonstrated by Rawan El-Mouzayen (Arab-American, age 3)

5-23-03 The "It Factor"
Between the two men, my dance teacher and my artistic lover, how could I not learn to bring the movements from the core (heart) to the outside?

3-2-03 Painting Dance -Fabulous!
I'd like dancers to understand how the ideas of color, texture, tone, shading, etc. can also apply to the art of speaking through movement.


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