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Fusing Bellydance With Other Dance Forms

by Rebecca Firestone

posted March 14, 2009
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The page title on their web site says “Breakthrough Fusion Competition”, and a subtitle adds, “Who’s changing the face of dance?” 

Billed as “the first-ever competition of its kind in the bellydance community”, the event was created by local San Francisco dancer Cera Byer, who has come up with a new kind of bellydance competition that WANTS people to break the rules, and that consciously avoids a purely “Middle Eastern” focus.

“This is a FUSION-ONLY competition – That’s right… No traditional Middle Eastern categories. No traditional music. No ATS! This is about innovation and the future of the art… Competitors will be critiqued “American Idol Style” … with live feedback from the judges.”

Raven and !st contestantIt was very entertaining, actually, with a live emcee and a friendly atmosphere. The entries ranged from… well, now I can’t remember them all. There was one that was dubbed (by the judges, not me!) the “Santa Nurses” and then there was a guy in a fetish harness. There was one “dark fusion” entry, and one that drew heavily on circus theater. I thought the contestants came up with some really innovative stuff. There was a lot of hip-hop influence, too. There was one group piece that really caught my attention – it was a finely crafted choreography that owed much to Modern dance and was only marred by some superfluous bellydance. 

The venue was a nightclub, clean and rather upscale. The stage, all-white, was small and probably was intended for musicians only. I had to stand on tiptoe in the back and could only see down to about the dancers’ waists. I think a lot of Tribal Fusion has evolved the way it has because no one can see your feet, so why bother with footwork? Unfortunately some of these performances included elements that I couldn’t see.

If Cera ever makes the DVD available commercially, I’d actually recommend watching it – whether or not you like the performances, the contest itself was honest, friendly, and the judges’ comments are very interesting to hear. Just witnessing the process and how the contest was run would be very educational for anyone who wasn’t actually there.

The judging panel was heavy on the Tribal Fusion background: Amy Sigil, Ariellah, Cera Byer, and Meliza Wells. Almost all of them do the Tribal Throwdown. A surprise judge was Brad Dosland, a local dance photographer whose work has appeared many times in Gilded Serpent. He was every bit as savvy a critic as the dancers themselves. The judges sat in the first row, and I couldn’t see their faces, so I couldn’t tell who was making which comments.

Aside from some typical guidelines such as 7-minute time limits, the rules specified no live music, and the music chosen had to be either “alternative or non-traditional for the styles of dance you are performing”. Middle Eastern dance itself wasn’t banned, exactly. But it was definitely downgraded, now considered to be only one of many possible elements, as well as ethnic and modern, which performers could tap into as a source of inspiration.judges

A reader’s position at this point will depend on whether you think that bellydance and Middle Eastern dance are one and the same, and whether you feel any particular sense of ownership over either one of those terms.

Nowhere on the competition web site was the word “bellydance” itself defined. However, the judges could clearly see when contestants were using bellydance and when they weren’t, as could I.

So somehow, somewhere, in some collective unconscious that we can’t describe in words, we all agree tacitly at least on what bellydance is. For the purposes of the remainder of this article, I’ll define “bellydance” as “uses a lot of undulations” to distinguish it from “Middle Eastern dance” which is itself an umbrella term that doesn’t actually convey much.

The judging criteria shows what they felt was most important and included congruence between costume, music and styling, audience connection, whether the fused elements made sense together, the use of new “boundary pushing” concepts in dance, musicality, and smooth transitions. I could really “buy into” these criteria, especially the last two: the contestants’ depth of understanding of their own fusion vocabulary; and dance technique. Technique here was described as having strong carriage, balance, ability to isolate (body control), and quality of movement and line.

It was good to see so much emphasis placed on basic coherence. Even more important than coherence was basic dance literacy: “Does routine contain at least one legible additional dance form to their style of Bellydance?” OK, so it’s not very grammatical. But I know what they meant, and it’s something I’ve been ranting about almost nonstop in my reviews.

So… if it isn’t strictly bellydance, then out of all the styles of dance in the world, why does this word in particular appear all over in the fine print – but not the big title? This is really a fusion contest for bellydancers. And hey, they’re actively wrestling with the whole labeling issue. 

whipI thought the judging criteria were pretty good, and hearing the judges’ comments brought out different aspects of the performances. Some judges were very technical, while others were more qualitative. Watching the contest and hearing the live
feedback was like watching the auditions for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. I was also reminded of an internship I did way back when at the National Endowment for the Arts, when I got to listen to the judging panel discuss almost 4,000 entries for fine-art painting grants.

The contest was held in an intentionally supportive atmosphere. Some of the numbers were definitely far out there but the judges were careful to be tactful and present their comments in a positive and usable way. They were very encouraging of the contestants and even I, the cynic, tried my best to applaud and encourage them. It’s not easy to bare your soul in a contest like that.

The contest included a professional emcee, in this case a young, hip lesbian comic from Sacramento who does not seem to be credited on the competition’s web site. She was very personable and worked hard to keep the audience and the contestants up. The gala show which followed – yes, it was a long evening, from 5-10 pm – included performances by Ariellah, Gibson Pearl, Nanna Candelaria, Crystal Silmi and RaksArabi, Damage Control Dance Theater, and Amy Sigil’s group UNMATA

I’d never seen UNMATA perform live before. They were very strong and had terrific energy. Amy Sigil has tremendous stage presence, with her long limbs and million-watt smile. It was interesting that Crystal Silmi’s bio says she’s a long-time student of Suhaila – her troupe seemed to be mostly hip-hop with only a slight bellydance flavor.

So… does all this mean that Tribal Fusion is now a mature genre? Well… it’s getting there. Contests like this could encourage people to apply a more critical approach to their own dance, now that they have a safe space to be critiqued by their own chosen “village elders” as it were.

The only thing I could wish for is a deeper appreciation for, umm, Middle Eastern dance.

And I say this even though traditional Middle Eastern styles were performed by two people in the show, Nanna and Gibson. It’s almost like Middle Eastern dance and American cabaret bellydance are now relegated to the sidelines and fusion is suddenly the new big thing. I understand where they’re coming from about feeling restricted by a foreign culture that, for some people, is so far from who they are (particularly the LGBT community, that’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered for those outside of California). This particular event treats fusion as a sort of postmodernism
that approaches all source material as equivalent in value without a preservationist’s restraint, and yet it’s also simultaneously being defined as bellydance.

One thing about authenticity and this may not be the right place for this particular tangent. But why do we seek to preserve aspects of local culture, such as dance, food, and such? Because other elements of those cultures might not be so nice and we want to preserve what’s good and unifying, like participatory dances. We want to avoid things like xenophobia and racism that separate us and drive us apart.

Saloon GirlUnity, not war… that’s really what being a “global” culture is all about, right? Unity, right? However, the World Trade Organization is also an expression of globalization and globalization is not always a good thing. Fusion (or fusion bellydance) is “the folk dance of a globalized culture” – a globalized, homogenized YOUTH culture. The fusionistas are right about one thing though – too much tradition stifles innovation, and so we need to spice things up somehow. But I haven’t gotten to my point yet. 

In our idealized vision of traditional cultures, preserved under glass or in amber like some exotic insect, this sense of coming together, this sense of humanity, is one of the reasons preservationists seek to keep the old dances alive. But to me personally, the essence of a traditional culture is its sense of human value, not the external trappings. Not aromatic desserts, not haunting melodies, not holy books, but plain old humanity. Simple human dignity is the real aim as far as I’m concerned. And one of the most important ways we affirm each other’s dignity is through hospitality. 

In the past, one of my biggest peeves with the Tribal bellydance community was its perceived cliquishness, which I experienced firsthand. I’ve busted my ass to get to shows where no one would even acknowledge my presence afterwards! Baffled, I muttered to myself “Where’s the love?” It was a really creepy experience, “dark” and not in a good way. I mean, if someone pays money to go see you, the least you can do is act like you’re glad to see them. THAT, to me, is a “core value”. 

Traditional values such as hospitality can be very important, even critical to survival. I also believe in the semi-sacred role of an entertainer to extend this hospitality and raise or shape the energy of an event. Nowadays, most entertainers think only of “look at me!” because that’s our mass media culture making everyone feel like they have to be a rock star. All that happens is some performers end up with inflated egos. That’s fine, be a rock star, just don’t take my money and then ignore me once I’m in the club.

From this perspective, this event was every bit as “authentic” as the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp way out in the woods of Mendocino. The promoters were not solely interested in self-glorification or making a buck; they really tried, and succeeded, in creating an inclusive event. They were both open-minded yet rigorous in the judging, and I felt that their comments were entirely valid and worthwhile.

I’ve never been to another bellydance contest. I might say the same thing about a “cabaret” contest, namely, that they don’t respect Middle Eastern dance enough. I think in this case they made a lot of conscious choices, came up with a clear vision and mission statement, and they made it work. Next year, I might try competing in this one. After all, I’ve dished on some of them, now it’ll be their turn.

More pictures from this event on the Community Kaleidoscope post date of January 6, 2009.

Have a comment? Send us a letter! Or add your comments below.
Check the “Letters to the Editor” for other possible viewpoints!

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