One Dancer’s Foray into Competition
posted September 27. 2009
In the world of belly dancing lately, dance competitions seem to be the big thing. Love them or hate them, they are popping up all over the country, leaving one to wonder what benefit they add to our art form. In an art form as varied as Middle Eastern Dance, incorporating cultures crossing multiple borders and continents, to what standards do these competitions adhere?
Belly dance communities struggle to define what constitutes a professional dancer, yet still we as dancers surge forward into yet another, even more subjective realm—that of judges and score sheets.
Competitive dance has been around for centuries. Irish step dance competitions flourished in the 1800s; Africans transplanted the competitive “Juba” to the American south and the Caribbean in the 18th century as a challenge of skill and agility. Perhaps our earliest ancestors incorporated competitive dance into their rituals to assert their strength and flexibility. Time, it seems, is all that is required to turn art into competition. Why not? Humans seem to thrive on challenges to better themselves.
I took my first step into the competitive dance arena this year. After doing a little searching around, I ran across the Wiggles of the West competition in Las Vegas on a website. I read comments from previous participants who indicated that “Wiggles” was considered to be a pretty laid back, kind competition for dancers who had never competed before. (The name alone seemed pretty relaxed!)
I signed myself up for the Wiggles of the West competition, and quickly talked my friend and dance partner, Kimberly, into signing up with me. She’s been dancing for 30 years—mostly ballet and jazz—and had competed in other dance forms before, so she was interested to see what a Bellydance competition would be like.
Wiggles hosts competitions in 8 categories:
- Headliner (mature dancers),
- Rising Stars (intermediate dancers who have never received money to perform),
- Hobbyist (those just dancing for fun),
- Alternative (themed solos dancing to non-bellydance music),
- Mini Ensemble (duets),
- Ensembles (more than 2 people),
- Tribal Ensemble, and the big guns,
- Entertainer of the Year (pro, semi-pro, or advanced performers).
I signed up for Entertainer of the Year as well as Mini Ensemble with Kimberly, and she also signed up for Alternative.
Right off the bat, (before either of us even began preparing for the competition) neither Kimberly nor I could figure out how the judges would be able to objectively compare contestants in the Entertainer of the Year or Rising Stars categories! How can proponents of different styles go head-to-head in one competition and have any hope of being judged objectively?
July rolled around; both Kimberly and I (and our husbands) loaded up all our stuff and headed to ‘Vegas. The competition venue was located about a 20-minute cab ride off “The Strip” at Sam’s Town Casino. The venue location was pretty nice for the price! The indoor atrium display with its fake animals was a little hokey, but cute enough, especially for families. When I checked into the competition, I was a little put off by the lack of organization. I’m routinely early, which means I usually catch people at their worst while they are struggling to get set up, so that may have been my fault partially. However, I felt that I was almost expected to already know where to be and what to do that first morning. Indeed, it seemed like some people did have apriori knowledge, but later, I came to understand that some dancers compete almost as frequently as I do laundry.
Despite my initial confusion, I managed to check in and caught up with a handful of other dancers with whom I was acquainted already. It was Thursday, and the competition categories didn’t start until Friday, so Thursday was filled with workshops primarily and, later, with a small dinner hafla.
By Friday morning, I began to realize something that hadn’t occurred to me beforehand. I noticed that many (if not most) of my fellow competitors were not in the workshops I was taking. At least, the competitors in the Entertainer of the Year category didn’t seem to be in the workshops. Perhaps my impressions were partially colored by the fact that there were multiple workshops taking place simultaneously, so people were in different rooms. However, I’m fairly certain a good number of competitors just came for the competition without the workshops. At first I was surprised, but then I came to the realization that nowhere in the rules did it specify that anyone was required to register for the workshops in order to compete. I was left wondering if that is the case at most competitions.
Friday’s competitions began at 3 in the afternoon. When I checked-in that morning and handed my music CD to the person at the desk, I failed to ask if everyone had to be there at 3 p.m. or if check-in time differed for everyone. Assuming that check-in time for the competition was universal, and that the competition would move along at a rapid pace with no more than a few seconds between numbers, Kimberly and I showed up promptly at 3 p.m., fully costumed, with 18 contestants in the category in front of us.
Four hours later, we were still waiting, fully costumed, for our competition category to begin. In those four hours, we discovered that each contestant received 5 minutes of dance time, followed by 15 minutes of oratory by the contest organizer (or at least it felt that way to our bead-indented backsides).
Kimberly and I took the stage as the first contestants in our category at around 7 p.m. By that time, we had waited in costume so long that we were no longer nervous, and we earnestly wanted our performance finished so that we could change out of our dance costumes and eat dinner. Unfortunately, Kimberly still had to compete in the alternative category later that evening!
We watched one other duet following ours (The two dancers turned out to be the winners.) and immediately recognized that our style was different. Isis and Yvonne, both beautiful and highly skilled dancers, performed as a duet and were far more technical in terms of “pops and locks” than Kimberly and I. It felt like contrasting ballet against hip-hop or jazz—you could almost tell we were dancing the same genre—sort of… Precisely at that moment, I had a sinking feeling that the way I danced was not going to be at all similar to the way anyone else at the competition danced!
After a quick dinner, we hurried back so Kimberly could perform in the Alternative category. I’m not sure how to describe that category, other than to say that if nothing else, it was definitely entertaining. In fact, I enjoyed it more than any other category in the show. The category description specified that dancers should incorporate at least 50 percent Bellydance movements, dancing to non-Bellydance music. In the end, though, it was an odd conglomeration of mixed styles, mostly humorous. Friday’s competition ended right around midnight.
Saturday brought the beginning of the Entertainer of the Year preliminaries. Having been educated the day before, I didn’t get dressed or check in until immediately before the category began, and I was thrilled that I had requested to be the first performer so I could then be free to relax and enjoy Las Vegas afterwards. As I prepared backstage, I was struck by my observations of how kind and supportive all of the other competitors were. Nearly every dancer I encountered was encouraging and friendly, willing to share costume tape, eyelash glue, safety pins, or other forgotten necessities. The same was true after I finished my performance and rushed backstage, out of breath and full of adrenaline.
There, helping hands were ready to hug me, calm me down, and offer words of congratulations and encouragement, even through their own pressing nerves. If I express nothing else about the individual performers at Wiggles, I found nearly all of them to be very gracious, professional, kind, and extraordinary women.
I stayed and watched many of the competitors after my performance. I knew almost immediately that I would not make the finalist list. I felt that way less because of a lack of confidence in my dance ability than in a realization that there is a sort of standard format and expectation in competitions of which I had been unaware. Therefore, I hadn’t followed the normal procedures. At least, from the performances I saw at Wiggles, there appeared to be normal protocol. Admittedly, I did not see everyone perform. However, of the dancers whom I did see perform, I noticed that each performance seemed to present a “mini-show” of the sort you might find at a nightclub or restaurant complete with veil entrance, balady or sagat segment, drum solo, and finale. I felt it would have been beneficial to have those expectations or standards stated up-front, if those are indeed standard.
On Sunday, I checked in and, sure enough, I had not made the finals list. I was a bit disappointed, but at the same time, I was glad to be able to watch and not worry about another performance. On that day, I watched most of the finalists and the Rising Stars categories. It was during the announcement of the winners of the Rising Stars category that something leapt out at me, taking me off guard, and raising the initial questions that I had not asked myself previously. I realized, as I sat and rifled through the competition program, that there were a few things that were difficult to overlook.
Most notably, was the fact that several competitors (both those that won and those that didn’t) were intimately involved in the competition planning process, either as volunteers, workshop instructors, sponsors, or vendors, or who had instructors who functioned as judges of other categories. Just briefly scanning the program, with no prior knowledge of affiliations, I counted at least 5 potential conflicts-of-interest.
Having not participated in any other competition, I have no basis of comparison on which to gauge Wiggles. However, the potential for conflicts of interest does beg these questions:
- Should workshop instructors be offered the opportunity to compete at the competitive event at which they are teaching?
- Should competitors be encouraged or allowed to volunteer at the events in which they compete? Should sponsors be granted competitive spots?
- What are newcomers to competitive dancing to make of those relationships?
- Many of the women who won at Wiggles were not connected to the competition in any way, and all of the women who won or placed that I was able to observe were skilled dancers and beautiful performers. However, even the possibility of bias or conflicts of interest at competitive events can serve to cheapen the experience for everyone involved, and to tarnish the sparkle of the trophies that result.
So then, I return to the questions I raised at the beginning of this article and have yet to answer:
- What purposes do competitions in Bellydance serve?
- How will we, as a dance community, continue to promote and support a wide and wonderfully diverse cultural art form within the context of competitive dance?
- What standards should be met, and how will competition organizers protect those standards?
The Wiggles of the West Competition was a fun experience for me, but I don’t know if I will ever enter another competition. Maybe I will, but if I do, it will be somewhere on the East Coast where I feel that I am more stylistically centered. More importantly, I left the competition, feeling proud of myself and of the other dancers I met in Las Vegas, and I will have continued interested in watching the progression and evolution of competitions in this particular dance genre.
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