Gaining Respect for Bellydance Artists
Ask Yasmina, Column #15
by Yasmina Ramzy
posted January 5, 2011
I direct and choreograph for four Bellydance ensembles. Two are professional (Arabesque Dance Company and Earth Shakers) and two are amateur (Righteous Rogues and Arabesque Allspice). When traveling, I am often baffled at conduct by members of my own ensembles (and the Bellydance community as well) that I witness on and off the stage. I have addressed a few issues of what I see as performance misconduct on different occasions. Some of these dancers have asked me to make a list of guidelines for them so they can avoid misconduct in the future. I thought I would share it.
The following is a kind of “manifesto” or set of guidelines that Bellydancers could follow that might help contribute to our community of artists in gaining respect; the same respect that artists of other dance styles enjoy such as Ballet, Contemporary, Flamenco, Celtic, Modern, Jazz, etc. Why would such a manifesto be pertinent? More importantly, why is it important that Bellydance enjoy the same respect as other dance forms?
I can say with confidence that everyone who discovers and falls in love with the art of Bellydance will attest to its healing powers whether physical, emotional or spiritual. Most of us want to turn the whole world onto Bellydancing which is, of course, our primary reason for performing. We want to share with everyone, the same joy and fulfillment it gives us. One of our obstacles for not getting audiences into major theatres that seat a few thousand people and charge over $75 for tickets is because Bellydance still has some stigma, but most of all, it is not respected. Even though Bellydance is more accepted these days, it is still attributed very little worth. This is evident in the fact that it is rarely taught as an accredited course and is rarely supported by dance and arts organizations.
How can we turn the whole world onto Bellydance and its amazing healing power if we cannot get the masses to appreciate it enough to attend a performance?
If most of our audience attendees are Bellydance students, colleagues or family and friends, we are not making a very big impact. For the most part, Bellydance is still stuck in the amateur realm. Bellydance as a community activity at an amateur level has wonderful benefits but could enjoy a much greater impact if the art form was also being represented professionally more often. A truly professional representation helps the general image of Bellydance, and thus, it contributes to higher esteem even at the amateur level. In other words, one could be proud that they practice Bellydance as a student, as an audience member, as an amateur performer, and as a professional trying to make a living, even in the nightclub.
Most of the suggestions listed below are common practice for any performing artist, but I am mentioning them because I have witnessed these kinds of activities at several Bellydance events. If any of the suggestions below seem like they are asking more than is necessary, think about how a dance artist of another respected style would conduct themselves in a similar situation.
Try not to fall into the trap of believing that by adhering to these suggestions, the fun would be lost. On the contrary, there is nothing more fulfilling and joyful than respecting oneself and being proud of the art one creates.
Conduct When Performing in a Theatre Venue:
- Never let the audience see the costumes or props offstage–thereby dissolving the magic you worked so hard to create.
- Never let the audience see dancers waiting in the wings or worse yet, watching the performance from the wings. It destroys the magic of the performance.
- Never make any noise (jingling of coin belts, giggling, talking, dropping a prop, cell phones etc.) backstage that can be heard by the audience, again destroying performance magic.
- Never offer encouragements or audible applause from the wings. It sends a message to the audience that the performer(s) needs help and are not able to carry the performance on their own talent.
- Adjusting one’s costume or hair, reacting to a mistake or a fall in a night club performance is totally appropriate and in fact encouraged, adding to the casual and friendly atmosphere. It is not at all appropriate when on a theatrical stage where one is in a fish bowl. Acknowledging a mishap draws the audience’s attention to it, thus ruining the magic again. Leave your hair in your face, the finger cymbal on the floor, or your veil stuck to your bra until there is an opportunity to make the adjustment as part of the performance.
- Spend time learning theatre terminology and etiquette before embarking on performing in one.
- Learn how to conduct an efficient technical rehearsal with blocking, cues, etc.
Note: The theatre is a modern day temple where magic is created which can transform audience member’s minds and their lives through inspiration. Magic is only created in a controlled and respectful environment.
Conduct as a Teacher:
- Learn the subject matter well enough that a deep understanding of who, what, why, where, and how is completely comprehended. Do not memorize and repeat facts without backing it up with the appropriate understanding.
- Do not begin to teach unless at least one of your own teachers says that you are ready.
- Teach only at the level you have completely accomplished. Do not fake a step or knowledge. If you don’t know an answer to an inquiry, say so. (Not only children know when you are lying.)
- Never admonish a student for anything. The student is paying for a pleasurable leisure activity and to learn something. If the student never learns, it is the teacher’s fault. There are never bad students, only bad teachers.
- Never insult or diminish another teacher no matter how incapable you believe them to be. These kinds of opinions are best expressed only among close friends and colleagues privately, certainly not to students or in any kind of public forum.
- Class time is all about the students. Performance time is when you are on stage, not in a studio.
- Each student is different and learns in different ways. A good teacher is one who can adjust accordingly. There is no one formula for teaching any given step or idea.
- Never abuse the respect and admiration your students have for you by asking them to do your bidding (favours, laundry, errands).
- As a general rule, stay out of your student’s personal life and don’t let them into yours. With lines clear about the role you play, you can be a more effective teacher.
Note: To be a teacher is to hold a huge responsibility. You never want to be the reason someone turns their back on Bellydance. Real teachers help their students to grow as human beings through the subject they teach. Leading by example is one of the most tried and true teaching methods.
Conduct as a Member of the Community:
- Sometimes, if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all. If another dance artist asks for your honest opinion of their performance, then out of respect for a fellow artist, you owe that person your honesty, not a meaningless compliment, so that the artist can grow and learn. If you are discussing a performance or an artist honestly and there are some negative points being made, keep these discussions amongst close friends and/or close colleagues where the criticism can become a learning and awareness exercise. Never insult or diminish another’s performance publically, no matter how low your opinion is of them.
- After a performance, in the event you may be in the presence of some of your audience members or students, remember that you represent the art of Bellydance and all Bellydancers, all over the world, in all times. Do not diminish the legacy of Samia Gamal or Sohair Zaki by conducting yourself in a manner that demonstrates a lack of self respect – ie: being uncontrollably inebriated, displaying anger through foul language, dressing overly provocatively. If you enjoy these activities, then by all means indulge, but not when you are seen as a representative of the art of Bellydance.
- Know and be aware of the difference between a professional artist and an amateur. Labeling oneself as a professional when one is, in fact, amateur, damages the image of the entire art form and its practitioners. A professional is regularly paid a professional rate for their services and is prepared with appropriate promotional material such as photography taken in a professional studio with professional lighting. Professional artists act in a business-like manner demanding such things as a contract, a non-refundable deposit, a proper dressing room, proper stage or dance floor and adequate sound system, thus instilling respect in their clients for the artist and the art form they are engaging. There is nothing wrong with amateurs performing in all kinds of venues, however, they need to represent themselves accordingly. (In the mainstream dance community, the titles are “Emerging Artist” and “Professional Artist”.)
- Bellydance can be a highly sexual dance expression. The movements and the costuming are usually enough to convey an embrace of sexual joy which is one of the main beauties of Bellydance. However, it defeats its purpose when it becomes overt and literal. As well, the effect of Bellydance is defeated if another person becomes jealous or insecure because of your conduct around their significant other. You want all of your audience members to feel comfortable and love you. This point pertains both on and off stage.
Note: We are all aware of Dina’s overt glory on stage but offstage, she is very articulate and dresses very tastefully forcing us to acknowledge and respect her highly sexual presentation of Bellydance and not write it off as meaningless. Her unfortunate hotel room videotape disaster was not her fault. However, the incident did set the image of Bellydancers as artists back a few notches. Fortunately, Dina is highly educated and was able to regain most of her popularity by presenting herself as articulate and respectful of herself.
Conduct as a Nightclub Performer:
I have already written much on this subject in previous columns but suffice it to say that many points listed above concerning conduct in the community and in a theatre venue remain pertinent in the night club. I will just offer some highlights of the usual list:
- Never show your costume or even your face if you can help it before or after your performance.
- Never sit with customers, especially tables of men (or male dance artist at a table of women or… You get the point).
- Never accept money or tips in your belt or bra.
- Never pick up tips off the floor.
- Never dance on a table.
- Never let an audience member touch you unless you have invited it (and in the event it happens, punch that person in the face).
- Never undercut the going rate in your community for fees charged for performance.
Note: The above guidelines are simplified but the point is to respect your art and yourself. More details and explanations can be found in previous columns # 1, 7, 8, 11, and 12.
I am sure that this list of guidelines meant to help garner more respect for the art of Bellydance will inspire even more guidelines that others have thought of and/or I will remember at a later date. However, I think it is a good start and at the very least, hopefully cause some reflection and discussion.
Gaining respect for the art of Bellydance and its practitioners will not happen overnight, but if we all do our little part, it may happen sooner than we think. As Ghandi said, “Be the change.”
Ready for more?
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