by Dondi Simone Dahlin
posted September 28, 2009
While most people agree that bellydance is one of the world’s oldest dance forms, it has been the relatively recent advancement in technology (YouTube and the mass marketing of DVDs for example) that have made it easier than ever to see, experience and learn from other dancers. Most of these performances and lessons were publicized to educate and inspire. However, some dancers are using the same music, costumes and choreography in their performances that they first see elsewhere. This begs the question: at what point does copying someone’s original concept or choreography cross over from homage to stealing? It is considered poor form as a comedian to use jokes written and used by another comic, and criminal to use the work of a songwriter without permission. I believe the original creations and choreographies of bellydance artists deserve the same respect.
I recently received an email from my good friend Beata in Germany. She wrote to me that a dancer, Natalya Becker from Russia had copied one of her choreographies and my “Marilyn Monroe” routine and was using both on a DVD being sold for profit. I was immediately curious. I wondered, is it copying if someone uses the same music and many of the same movements but not ALL the movements? The answer inside my head was “yes”. If a person watches videos or live performances of a dancer and uses obvious parts of their routine (especially with the same music) they need to give credit to the choreographer/creator of the dance. The dancer copying the music and movement needs to publicly give notice of one of two things:
- Inspired by dancer X and her original choreography;
- Dancer X’s choreography.
When I finally watched Becker perform the routine that Beata had choreographed, I was shocked. This wasn’t just parts of a routine; I estimated it was 90% of Beata’s original choreography danced to the same music.
YouTube “split screen” clip of Beata and Becker.
Copyrights in Oriental Dance by Beata & Horacio
As an artist I felt puzzled and angry. I know about the hard work that Beata and her husband Horacio Cifuentes undergo in order to generate Middle-Eastern dance masterpieces. Not only do they have a very long history of training and teaching dancers all over the world but they take annual trips to Cairo to produce some of the finest choreographies in bellydance. When they travel to Cairo, they hand-pick musicians to help compose the vision they have for their CDs. They then spend thousands of dollars laying down tracks in professional Cairo recording studios and return home to run their dance school in Berlin, craft high quality DVDs and work on original choreographies. Many of their choreographies take several months to complete. To have someone like Becker come along and copy Beata’s choreography with not one ounce of credit given to Beata has to feel like a punch in the stomach.
Horacio is a master dancer who was a member of many prestigious dance companies including the San Francisco Ballet. He remains as surprised as I do about Becker. He informed me that she stages big shows twice a year and is a highly trained dancer in Russian Folklore, ballet and oriental dance. Watching her dance on YouTube, she is obviously talented. After I viewed Becker’s clips, I searched for her website. She does reference Beata and Horacio and their school on her website. She also notes that she was one of their students and gives them high praise. I had a subsequent email conversation with Horacio after I became more familiar with Becker. He wrote me the following,
“What some of the dancers in our scene do not understand, for lack of education, is that in the professional world it is very easy to obtain choreographies from other artists. You just have to ask permission, pay a fee and give credit…….we are prepared to give our music for a very low fee, and actually would be prepared to permit choreography use for next to nothing, we just want respect. Many ballet companies perform choreographies by international choreographers, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jiry Killian, etc… all the time. The choreographies are considered properties, and respected as such.”
At the time I viewed the clips of Becker I was informed that there were two other dancers on YouTube copying my Marilyn concept…what Marilyn Monroe would have been like as a belly dancer. In short, Marilyn Monroe Belly Dancing to one of her songs followed by a drum solo. In my Marilyn segment on the BDSS “Live in Paris” DVD there is a different female singer than Marilyn Monroe singing, “I Wanna be Loved by You.” In my opinion, the performance was much better with Marilyn’s Monroe’s original recording, which I used before Bellydance SuperStars and on tour with BDSS. But, ironically (and wisely) Miles Copeland chose not to use Marilyn’s original recording when it went to DVD because of copyright infringement.
YouTube clip of Dondi performing her original concept/creation of “Marilyn” with BDSS
In Becker’s clip she is portraying Marilyn Monroe Belly Dancing to “I Wanna Be Loved by You” followed by a drum solo. She is performing my original concept exactly.
Clip of Becker copying Dondi’s original “Marilyn” concept/creation:
In another performance there is a woman Belly Dancing as Marilyn Monroe with an original Marilyn Monroe recording followed by a drum solo (my original concept)
YouTube clip of dancer copying Dondi’s original “Marilyn” concept/creation:
And finally there is another performer bellydancing as Marilyn Monroe at a Halloween show.
YouTube clip of “Halloween” dancer copying Dondi’s original “Marilyn” concept/creation:
I created the Marilyn concept back in the late 90’s after performing Marilyn Monroe impersonations and working as a Belly Dancer for years. I wanted to do something comedic, as I had done before with my “Little Egypt” routine which I have been told paved the way for fusion dancers to wear bloomers, thigh high stockings, bustles and clothing of the 1800’s. In 1990 I was performing singing telegrams in South Florida. My acting agent knew I was a belly dancer and that I also did Marilyn Monroe singing telegrams…he wanted me to belly dance as Marilyn Monroe. At the time I thought it was a bizarre (even stupid) idea and I didn’t want to mix the two. But, almost a decade later I remember thinking that my agent had been on to something and I began to think about combining both acts.
The first time I performed Marilyn was in January, 2000, though the fascination started in 7th grade when a boy in school walked up to me and said, “You look like Norma Jean Baker.” When I discovered that he meant Marilyn Monroe (before she became “Marilyn Monroe”) my whole life opened up and I was now a Marilyn fan at the ripe old age of 11 years old. So, in 1999 when I created Marilyn Monroe as a belly dancer it was a labor of love. I had already studied her for 20 years and now I spent many long hours analyzing her facial expressions and body language all in relation to Belly Dancing. In 2004, Miles Copeland asked me to join the first touring company of “Belly Dance Superstars”. As we toured around Europe, America, Canada and Spain reviews came pouring in and while one newspaper would be heralding me as a “comedic genius”, others would say my routine was “freakish”.
Still others said that I had no respect for Marilyn Monroe and she was probably rolling over in her grave. It was at those times that Miles had heart-to-heart talks with me and assured me that I should continue performing Marilyn every night and to concentrate on the people who “got it.”
Getting a pep talk from Miles Copeland was like getting a pep talk from your Father who you have always wanted to be proud of you. Those were simply some of the best moments on tour and he encouraged me to combine my Marilyn skit with Issam Houshan’s drumming, and to dig deeper into the comedy…to turn it up a notch every night for hundreds of performances, even if some people didn’t get it. It was a long, amazing, evolving and complex journey with Marilyn.
Today I almost always dance improvisational without choreography. For me improvisation is the heart of Middle Eastern Dance. But, when I travel around the world teaching workshops I use the stylings of other dancers and I always give credit. In the early 90’s I learned extensively about rhythms and how to play zils from Delilah’s videos. When I had a career in the Middle East I picked up Raks Asaya tricks from Liza LaZiza and Khaleegi tips from Yasmina of Cairo. I learned about blocking choreography and group pieces from Jillina when I worked with her during the years with “Bellydance Superstars.” Sahra Saida and Shareen El Safy taught me how to tap into the “Egyptian feeling”. And, I often quote Morocco when I speak of history and culture in my classes. These and other dancers have helped make me who I am and I always give credit where credit is due. When I do choreograph a piece in class I inform my students that they are welcome to use the choreography but that I would like to be credited. Shouldn’t all dancers give credit where credit is due? How can a dancer feel proud about stealing original routines from other dancers and sell them or post them up on YouTube for all to see? In the past few years there have been an increasing amount of disturbing aspects in the Belly Dance world, this is just one of them.
I have tried to recall Belly Dancers who have given someone else the credit for their ‘borrowed’ choreography, and I could think of hardly any. I even sat in a gala show in which a dancer performed my entire drum solo choreography, with my chosen music move for move. Before she entered the stage, a two minute biography of her was read into the microphone and yet she never even mentioned that it was my choreography. I sat in the front row and melted into a surreal world of watching another dancer dance my creation completely, all 100% of it. And, yet she presented it as if it were her own.
Contrast this with an experience I had in spring of 2008. I was one of the teachers at Rakassah West. At this renowned festival there is one who always draws what I would guess to be the biggest crowd. As we all packed in like sardines to watch Suhaila and her dance company, the crowd was all a buzz that Suhaila had purchased the choreography we were about to watch from Amy Sigil of I heard $1,000, then $2,000, someone else said, “No, she paid $3,000.” I was smack dab in the middle of an active rumor mill! It was weirdly exciting. It never was clear about how much Suhaila paid and that didn’t really matter to me. What mattered was the high regard and respect she showed to another dance company. Here was one of the top choreographers in our business whose own choreographies are what legends are made of! Suhaila gave Unmata the ultimate “tipping of the hat” by buying the rights to their choreography so her company could perform it. Following her dancer’s performance of the Unmata piece (one of the most fabulous dances I had ever seen), Suhaila came out on stage and gave a bow to the audience. She also held her arm out to Amy Sigil, whom was in the front row crying out of joy, blew her a kiss and thanked her in front of the audience.
I later learned, from Suhaila, that the performance I saw at Rakassah had started to blossom a couple of years earlier. Suhaila was at Tribal Fest in Oregon and Unmata was also there. She saw Amy Sigil’s (Unmata) choreography to a drum line piece of music and she decided to highlight Amy’s work. She approached Amy to teach her dancers that specific choreography. Amy went to Suhaila’s studio many times and was indeed paid for her choreography and instruction. She also knew from the beginning that Suhaila was going to present her piece at Rakkasah. She always gives credit to Amy for her work and has since worked with Vashti and Tanja. Suhaila credits and compensates choreographers and dancers she works with and because of that keeps the professionalism of Belly Dance at a very high level. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in our business. I asked Suhaila for some of her thoughts on the subject of copyrights. She said,
“In the Belly Dance World we are so far removed from ’the real dance world’ at times that things like the issue you are writing about can get confused. I think that if we conduct and model ourselves from the dance world (not the belly dance world) we will have a better chance of being accepted in time.”
Obviously Belly Dance has been evolving for hundreds if not thousands of years and we all have borrowed movements from other dancers and performances of the past. There are only so many moves a body can make and similarities will always be present. Musicians, dancers, composers and all performing artists will continue to glean their inspiration from other artists along the way. However, to intentionally steal and copy someone’s choreography, concept or artistic creation for their own personal gain and not give any credit is a practice that has nothing to do with artistry, principles, or integrity. And, until Belly Dance has those three aspects as a firm, solid foundation, this dance will never be raised to a legitimate dance form.
Ready for more?
- 10-17-06 Judging in Germany, The Summer Festival and the International Raks Sharqi Contest 2006
photos by Klaus Rabien, Berlin, Germany. "It is also an easy out for judges who need to find a reason to drop a dancer’s score…especially if the competition is tough."
- 2-17-06 Belly Dance Superstars ~Raks Carnivale!
Am I jaded because I was part of the company for so long? Am I unable to view the show from unbiased lenses? How I yearn to have virgin eyes, seeing belly dance for the first time.
- 11-4-05 A Weekend with Horacio & Beata Cifuentes, Part 2, For me, if I am still thinking about it and what I gained from it as a dancer, months or years after I took it, then that is a “golden” workshop. Making it “golden” takes the effort of a lot of people involved.
- 10-13-05 A Weekend with Horacio & Beata Cifuentes, Part 1, .
What is it about certain workshops in which the profundity and joy of the workshop stays with you long after it is over?
- 3-8-05 Belly Dance Super Stars Video Review
Produced and Directed by Jonathan Brandeis Executive Producer: Miles Copeland. "… However, as there is no audience, most of the dancers have a difficult time conveying the emotions of the dance to the video viewer. Only Jillina and Dondi seem to overcome this obstacle. "
- 9-11-09 Are You Breaking the Law? Dance Workshops with Foreign Nationals
It is the sponsor’s obligation to deduct this; if it is not deducted and the full fee paid to the foreign teacher and discovered several years later in an audit or investigation, the sponsor will be forced to pay the taxes then and may even be fined.
- 7-11-09 Certifications & Contests: Are They Meaningful?
Its as if the contest win were a diploma, her ticket to teach!
- 3-27-08 To Buy or Not to Buy – A Guide to Mass Market Belly Dance Instructional DVDs
Most producers ask or hire others to write glowing reviews. You will often see the same people reviewing a producer’s entire line of product. Those are suspect. Look for the one-off comments. They will give a better overview, along with anything less than 5 stars.
- 7-16-07 Music Copyright Law for Belly Dancers (or for any Performing Artist)
From Hollywood blockbuster movies down to clips on YouTube the law is the same and it applies to anyone who uses someone else’s music for their own purposes.
- 7-27-04 Belly Dance Superstars at DNA Lounge
More eye candy! Performing in one of the most trendy clubs in San Francisco! Dondi plays Marilyn.
- 4-10-02 "Does Learning Constitute Copying? My Musings about Sharing Dance"
I could still feel her pain as she spoke…