Know Your Venue:
Style & the Savvy Performance Artist
by Laura Rose
posted May 14, 2009
This article is not for those dancers who have picked one style of belly dance and live, sleep, breathe and dance only in that genre. Dedication and commitment are noble and commendable, but those are not exactly the qualities I am going to address here in my first article. This article is for “carnies” (like me). We are the dancers who want to dance everything, know everything, try on everything, and play all the characters under the rainbow. This article is for the working artist, performing in Bellydance.
As performers and entertainers, it is important for us to understand that we are being perceived. We are being watched. We are on stage, for cryin’ out loud! We must know what our body looks like, and how it dances. We need to know exactly how it reacts when we do this or that without looking at it. We must be able to see ourselves from the view of the audience. I believe the savvy performer considers the cerebral perception of what we present as well.
There is a lot of fear around how Bellydance, Dance Orientale, or Raks Sharki is presented. I identify as a performance artist. I can raks sharki it up all night long, but that’s not where my only interest lies. I am a good belly dancer. I can dance confidently to 6/8, 9/8, 10/8. I can isolate, undulate, shimmy anywhere and everywhere. I’m physically articulate. I listen to my music.
I can learn a choreographed pop-Bellydance, and I hold my own while improvising to the live music of Arabic musicians. However, I can also do a handstand. I can also dance to the sound of birdsong or shoes in the dryer. I believe that I offer more to this world as an entertainer if I learn to utilize and cultivate all of my talents.
That does not mean I have to use every part of my talent or interests in every show.
As a performance artist, it’s important that we think about what we are presenting to whom and why we chose to present it.
My experience with Burlesque forced these questions upon me, and I think they are just as important for Fusion dancers. Are you trying to educate? Are you trying to shock? Are you trying to escort the souls of your audience members from this pedestrian world into a feminine realm of mystery (or something like that)? Are you expressing your most raw self or donning an exotic character? However you answer (and for me, it changes all the time) be comfortable in your stance. Be proud and prepared in what you are bringing to your audience. If you find yourself feeling guilty or ashamed before stepping on stage, then you might not be exploring the dance format that is right for you.
While examining motivations behind a piece you’ve created, or are preparing for a gig, you must examine your potential audience as well. This is where I caution, "Know your venue!"
Not all formats of dance, fused, burlesque, or otherwise are appropriate for all audiences in all venues. The most skilled, authentically costumed dancer with a beautifully choreographed Middle Eastern dance can flop at a rock show. The most original, in the moment, but technically perfect Punk Rock Tribal Ballet Modern Creole Jazz Flute Fusion Bellydance could completely not read at a Middle Eastern music and dance festival. There are miles of subtleties in between, and that’s why we must also look at our motivations.
For example: I’ve been hired to belly dance in a variety show. Here are some questions I ask myself when selecting or creating a piece for it
- Am I the only Bellydancer?
- To whom will this show be marketed?
- What’s the biggest name on the lineup and who are the followers of that performer?
- Have they seen Bellydancing before, and if so, what kind?
- Who comes to this venue?
- Am I performing for mainstream America or a subculture?
- Can I identify that subculture?
- What are my preconceptions about how this group views women, femininity, sensuality
- Do I want to delight them with what they expect to see, or do I want to shake them up a bit?
- What aestetically compliments the other acts or groups within the show?
I encourage every fusion Bellydancer and performance artist to utilize your Master of Ceremonies. Despite how much forethought you put into the message of your dance (or lack thereof), the audience might not "hear" you. Politely ask the MC to give a brief explanation of what you are doing. You don’t have to disclaim anything or discredit your own dance, but clearly explain to the MC (maybe even with some note cards) what style of Bellydancing you are performing and ask the MC to announce it as such. If you have a knowledgeable MC and a patient audience, it may even be appropriate to ask them to mention something about the history of the style you are presenting.
As artists, sometimes we want to shake things up. A scene gets stagnant or you want to try the "any-publicity-is-good-publicity" approach. I think it’s still important to consider your audience when this is your goal. How will the audience receive this shock? Will it make them think and discuss what you have done or just hate it? Is it actually going to challenge any preconceptions or just cause them to roll their eyes?
Personally, I believe that to pull off something dangerously edgy and thoughtfully shocking (while still providing entertainment) you might need to offer them something as well. Something like, oh, say…skill!
Do what you are doing exceedingly well, and then, even those who hate it will say, "Well, at least she can dance." Your technical proficiency could be your foot in the door to the judgmental brains you are trying to reach. Also, beware of becoming pigeonholed! Your one shocking performance can speak much more loudly than the hundreds of more "traditional" and beautiful shows you’ve performed. I’m not saying, “Don’t do it.” Just be ready for it. As a multi-faceted performer trying to make a living, I get frustrated when I’m chalked up as only as a "Gothic Bellydancer" or "Delilah’s
Daughter" or "Burlesque Artist". I’m proud of my entire body of work and who I am, but the labels are always there. Just be aware when you are planning what you present to whom.
Lastly, you must consider your audience and venue when it comes to costuming for Fusion dancing or wearing overtly sexy outfits.
Are there lights? Frequently, Fusion dancers are working as dancers in bars or clubs set up for small rock shows or dance parties rather than theatrical performances. Your sweet-but-edgy black costume will not show up in these venues! If everyone else in the show and venue is wearing black, the stage is black and the lights are…only something to be desired, you will not stand out, despite how incredibly you may dance.
This is often a terribly charged conversation topic! However, think about for whom it is that you are performing. If your flesh is showing, will it detract from your dance? In some crowds it probably will—and to your benefit I guess, especially if your dancing’s not great. (Let’s assume that that’s not the point for anyone reading this publication.) Your costume should add to your overall piece, as well as complement and accentuate your movement style. If you are doing an artistic piece for an art crowd that is expecting something…”artsy”, then it is completely appropriate to use your body in ways more artistic than mainstream Bellydance might allow. If you are show casing "traditional" belly dance for the general public, for heaven’s sake, keep your top on.
Dance hard, dance smart and dance often!
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Ready for more?
- 5-4-07 Part 1- Booking a Party
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Audiences in the Middle East, especially Egyptians, see bellydancing as something to be participated in, critiqued, and loved (or hated) with gusto.
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- 3-14-09 So, If You Cut up a Rose, is it still a Flower? Fusing Bellydance With Other Dance Forms
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.
- 5-11-09 Ask Yasmina #6 : Abhinaya, Personal Journey, What’s Missing? by Yasmina Ramzy
Tapping into the source will change the quality of your movement, your interpretation of the music and your emotional connection to the movement and the music.
- 5-5-09 One Hip in Each Camp, My Experience of Working in Both the Arabesque Dance Company and the Arabesque Orchestra
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- 5-3-09 The Quintessential Performer: Attitudes for the Stage
What can you rightfully expect of an audience of persons who are not, themselves, involved in performing (or related to you)?
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