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Expanding Traditional and Innovative Approaches

Report from NY Theatrical Belly Dance Conference
Part 1: The Panel Discussions

by Thalia
posted September ?, 2010

For the past three years, dancers Anasma and Ranya Renee have been developing the New York Theatrical Bellydance Conference. This July, the Conference evolved into a five-day event featuring instructors and speakers from across the United States, Canada, Spain, and Sweden, a full schedule of workshops, panel discussions, three curated programs at the Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) Theater, and less formal shows in local nightclubs featuring live music. The programs at DNA featured solo and company performances aimed to demonstrate a variety of theatrical treatments of belly dance. Performers included Dalia Carella and the Dalia Carella Dance Collective, Alchemy Dance Collective, Kaeshi Chai with Bellyqueen and PURE, Samara and her Mosaic Dance Theater Company, Dunya and the Core Alembic, the Not the Jamal Twins: Ranya and Roula, Fahtiem, and Angelika Nemeth.

What is Theatrical Belly Dance?
As with any new label applied to the genre, a question of definition consistently arises from fans and skeptics of the burgeoning theatrical belly dance category. Wisely, the organizers have incorporated panel discussions in the Conference’s roster of events since its formation. Questions engaged have included:

  • Does belly dance presented as “theater” require story line or scene?
  • Is it defined by the physical performance space as the name “theatrical” denotes?
  • Does the label imply more pronounced acting technique or charisma?
  • Is choreography required?
  • Aren’t all belly dance performances theatrical?
  • And finally, does theatrical belly dance have to be fusion and contemporary, or are traditional folkloric styles also ‘theatrical’?

According to their stated mission, Ranya Renee and Anasma do not aim to present a single definition for theatrical belly dance but to offer more formal theatrical techniques on a wider scale to those working in the field of belly dance and to open conversation about the evolving classification.

Coining a new label often results in reconsidering the terms of "traditional" belly dance.

Friday’s panel discussion, "Theatrical Bellydance: Tradition versus Fusion," featuring dancers Aepril Schaile, Elisheva, Hanan, Dalia Carella and Morocco opened this debate. Responding to a question about the use of narration or story line, Elisheva linked her story-oriented approach in response to a human need to find meaning in experience. She added that her use of story became more overt when she consciously committed to dance as her professional medium. Morocco responded by offering a wider, historical context, observing that traditional Middle Eastern dances emerged largely from group dances in communal settings. The rituals or events being recognized provided the meaning, reason, or story behind the dance. The community provided a specific audience, that understood the context and also provided the physical setting or "performance space."

In a sense, communal context provided some the “theatrical” elements that must be applied by the dancer in contemporary dances.

Le MeriAfter the eventual rise in popularity of solo dancing in Middle Eastern settings, Morocco continued, “meaning” was evoked primarily through a dancer’s interpretation and interaction with a song’s lyrics, meaning that was shared between the performer and audience. This context and connection is often absent if the dancer doesn’t speak the language. Another panelist responded that, as a dancer in that very position, creating and implanting her own story or external meaning offers the potential to add a layer of personal authenticity to her work.

To segue into a deeper discussion of fusion, panelists paid tribute to figures who moved traditional dances from communal to more formal stage settings and provided access to folkloric material previously unavailable. Dalia Carella referenced contributions of American dancer La Meri, who traveled to India extensively in the early 20th century and brought the classical Indian dance form to stages in the United States. Another panelist spoke of Mahmoud Reda’s treatment and re-envisioning of Egyptian folkloric dances in Egypt during the second half of the 20th century. Validating or elevating the status of belly dance by transferring it onto a formal stage is a goal that often appears in discussions of contemporary styles. This aim is also to reach a wider audience. One must ask……

Regarding fusion, all presenters agreed a strong background in both dance styles being fused was necessary to present a grounded and valid fusion. Morocco referred to what might be her coinage, "fusion versus confusion."

Audience members challenged the panelists by asking how a less experienced dancer can be sure he or she has mastered that second form enough to put it onto the stage. Interestingly, this question revisited the idea of community. Elisheva stated that learning a new dance form does not always have to result in performance of that form. Studying a different form helps a dancer see what void needs to be filled in belly dance; seeing what is in the void can initiate creativity or a fusion of ideas. Panelists agreed that meeting other dancers in different dance communities is one of the most valuable aspects of studying and mastering other forms. Dance has always drawn people together, in many cases women, to create.

Dalia talks to panel
Panelists (left to right) Dalia Carella, Hanan, Aepril Schaile, Morocco and Elisheva

and moderator Raqsie (Andrea Muraskin) discuss the topic "Theatrical Bellydance: Tradition vs. Fusion."

caption for top photo:Morocco relates her experience pioneering bellydance
and rock n’ roll "fusion" in NYC in the 1970s while
contemporary bellydance fusion artist Elisheva looks on. Moderator Raqsie at right. Photo by Eric Troudt.

The Body as Theatrical Medium

Friday’s panel, "In Your Own Skin: Presentations of the Body" featured Blanca, Kaeshi Chai, Roula Said, Sarah Johanssen Locke, Zoe Anwar, and Zahava and was moderated by Raqsi (Andrea Muraskin). After a series of technically oriented questions regarding the importance of posture, body placement, internal awareness, and gender issues (does traditional cabaret dancing get too "feminine"?).

The conversation took a more inquiring turn when the panelists were asked about the complication of dancing for audiences that have cultural or erotic assumptions about a dancer’s physical appearance.

Kaeshi Chai addressed the thorny issue of performing for audiences who prefer their dancers have a “Middle Eastern” look. Chai stated that when she receives such requests, she sends someone who fits the description though surprising an audience that doubts her ability due to her ethnic identity does have some gratification. Roula Said, who is Palestinian-Canadian, suggested the reverse situation also has drawbacks; some audiences have higher or different standards for dancers who not only have the desired look but are of Middle Eastern descent.

All dance forms experience some form of audience bias, ranging from cultural, aesthetic, and age-related expectations. What was at issue here, however, was whether or not “theatrical belly dance” techniques can address these difficulties. A move from the traditional nightclub setting and audience to a more formal stage could relieve some of these expectations. In addition, panelists agreed, a dancer’s intention and personal vision should ideally outweigh expectations from any audience. Johanssen Locke said that finding a performance venue where a dancer can express her vision authentically is crucial. Panelists agreed that a dancer’s confidence is ultimately crafted through her time spent in the studio, faith in her art, and her abilities will ideally override her concerns regarding the expectations from he audience.

Conference attendees were not finished discussing cultural dilemmas.

As this panel was wrapping up, an attendee who performs frequently in New York and has traveled in the Middle East, asked the panelists to discuss their experience of dancing for cultures that have a reputation for disregarding a dancer’s reputation as well as her body. The participant stated that she is not certain she feels comfortable dancing cabaret style for Arab audiences anymore. This provocative topic, potentially fueled by our own culture’s stereotypes and judgments, was cut off due to time constraint; however, Roula Said pointed out that avoiding Middle Eastern audiences would also rule out a population that can potentially understand the musicality and the subtle nuances a dancer has developed in her dance whether working in traditional or experimental styles.

Part 2: The Performances
Coming soon!

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