Gilded Serpent presents...

The Wine Glass or The Wine?

Bert and Dalilah share a glass of wine

Dance Conversation with My Mentor

by Najia Marlyz
posted December 14, 2009

I live in California, renowned for its fine wines, and one of our greatest tourist attractions (outside San Francisco) is the nearby wine country–Napa and Sonoma– where one can go on interesting and informative tasting tours of the various famous wineries. If you are planning to come to California to dance in any festivals or partake of any workshops or seminars offered locally near San Francisco, you will discover that you are near the best wine-producing area and must plan to look into taking a fabulous one-day side excursion!   

It was on one of these wine-tasting tours that a lecturer told our group that in order to be the "best" wine-glass, the glass should be clear in color and shaped correctly in order to show off the wine to its best advantage.  It should not interfere in the relationship between the taste of the wine and the person doing the tasting.  The color of the glass should not mask the color or clarity of the wine and the shape should not make it difficult to taste.

Sometimes, the mere beauty of glassware can be so impressive that it can far surpass the content.

This image popped into my mind quickly a few years ago when I was having coffee with my former dance partner and mentor, Bert Balladine, and once again, we found ourselves comparing our attitudes about Oriental dance as we each experienced it.

What Bert said, as closely as I can recall, was, "I look at my dance as a vessel for myself, not as myself as a vessel for the Oriental dance."

How precise and insightful his analogy was!  As we talked further, I came to the realization that the general lack of understanding of this crucial point on the part of many dancers and dance instructors may partially account for the current lack of passion and emotional content of our dance form in both Europe and the U.S. because most performers concentrate on fine points of technical abilities and execution.

One of the most disappointing developments I have witnessed over the past thirty years—well, since the wee ’70s at least—has been that though technical know-how has risen in general, emotional content of dance waned.  Passion and emotion is what I believe gives Oriental dance its strongest power to fill the need of the human beings performing it and to touch the hearts of those who are the observers.  I used the term "human beings" rather than "dancers" because I believe that this dance of life can transcend ordinary doing into a nearly divine message in the care of a dancer who really has love and respect for audiences.  I also believe that a good amount of stage fright and fear of flop-sweat are born of concentrating wrongly on technical prowess rather than on musical content. 

As Bert said to me that day, "With all due respect to the dance form, if the form over-runs you, it flattens you out.  It is the interpreter of the art form that makes it actually happen."

Please, don’t misunderstand my point here!  I have made my teaching career out of sugarcoating technique to be swallowed by all students who come my way professing a desire to dance.  I have valued and do value and appreciated good technique; however, sometimes during a student dance marathon or festival, in my heart of hearts, I whine over its absence!

Still, complexity and excellence of technique will never over-shadow communication of spirit. 

Oriental dance has been one of the very few dance forms where the soloist is free to convey something of his/her own life understanding to audiences, touching them with the magical electricity intrinsic to excellence in performance.  Unfortunately, not many in Oriental dance have this "it-quality" or even know that it can exist!  Without it, dance performance becomes a mere exercise in movement.

Lately, I have been requiring my students to do things, which may appear, at first glance, to be off the subject of learning Oriental dance.  There was a breath-taking, beautiful movie, which breezed through our area at least a decade ago called "Latcho Drom" that explored “Gypsy” music and dance in various countries of the world.  I recommend this movie to all my dancers.  Also, I have sat down with them to experience the extraordinary talent of Italian opera star Cecilia Bartoli in a video concert as her face fairly dances with emotion and the music wells up from deep inside her, and we’ve viewed the master classes of violin virtuoso, Maxime Vengerov.  These performers in other fields can serve to inspire your dance!

If you want to be an unforgettable dancer, you need to remember what it was about Oriental dance that attracted you in the first place.  Then you must begin to capture (with whatever level of competence in technique you already possess) to speak through your movements and bring your love of mus ic to others. You may find that you can release the shackles that waiting for performance-ready technique imposes on a dancer.  If you compel yourself to wait until your technique is perfect before you dance, you may never learn to allow your spirit to dance. (It is like learning a new language as a child, rather than waiting for adulthood to study it from a book.)

The next time you have an opportunity to watch an Oriental dancer, ask yourself if the dancer is the wineglass–or the wine.  Is the dancer able to present her essence or is she, instead, presenting the "correct" (expected) shape or image and reproducing movement for its own abstract sake?  I urge you to become the wine, not the glass!

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  1. Marguerite

    Dec 17, 2009 - 12:12:38

    The Wine Glass or the Wine…
    Some things that needed to be said. We only hope that people will hear them.

  2. Latifa

    Dec 31, 2009 - 10:12:51

    Najia nailed it! I really appreciate the quote from Bert in which he described the dance as a vessel for himself.  It is too easy to become caught up in technique and lose the essence of the dance or the reason we dance.

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