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Gaining Respect for Bellydance Artists

Manifesto

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.Stage directions

Conduct When Performing in a Theatre Venue:

  1. Never let the audience see the costumes or props offstage–thereby dissolving the magic you worked so hard to create.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Spend time learning theatre terminology and etiquette before embarking on performing in one.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Do not begin to teach unless at least one of your own teachers says that you are ready.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. Never insult or diminish another teacher no matter how incapable you believe them to be. These kinds of opinions are bestLynette with tip money in bra and belt expressed only among close friends and colleagues privately, certainly not to students or in any kind of public forum.
  6. Class time is all about the students. Performance time is when you are on stage, not in a studio.
  7. 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.
  8. Never abuse the respect and admiration your students have for you by asking them to do your bidding (favours, laundry, errands).
  9. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.)
  4. 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:Nagua dances on a table

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.”

 

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   |       |    18 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Mahsati

    Jan 6, 2011 - 09:01:19

    Wonderful article! Thanks 🙂
     
    I think the only one that I have any disagreement with is “If the student never learns, it is the teacher’s fault. There are never bad students, only bad teachers.”
    I believe that there are no students who are inherently bad or incapable of learning, but there are students who will never learn because they choose not to. No matter how wonderful the teacher, if the student doesn’t practice, they will never improve. Part of a teacher’s job is to make the information/skills available, mentor their students, and continue their own education, but the student’s job is just as important. They must listen, learn, and practice in order to improve and become the best dancer they can be.
    Again – love the article and this whole series. It’s fantastic that you are willing to share your experience and knowledge with all of us!
     
     

  2. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Jan 6, 2011 - 02:01:39

    A very thoughtful critique of the do’s and dont’s in belly dance practice.
    For whom, however?

    If Nagwa dances atop a table, why might that be not a good thing to do for western dancers? I don’t particularly like that, but if a great Egyptian star does it, why might it be a bad thing or disrespectful to the dance?

  3. No Gravatar
    yasmina Ramzy

    Jan 6, 2011 - 03:01:50

    Hi Mahsati,
    I hear what you are saying about students not doing their bit but it could be argued that the teacher could inspire them to practice and try harder. However, I have had students with learning disabilities including attention deficit and these instances have been very trying tot say the least. I do think that if the student is a willing student who is interested in learning which one would think is the definition of a student, then everything is in the hands of the teacher. If the pupil is in class for other reasons (ie: social, vanity…) and not actually trying to learn, they are not really a student.  Glad you enjoy the columns. 🙂 Yasmina

  4. No Gravatar
    yasmina Ramzy

    Jan 6, 2011 - 04:01:39

    Hi Barbara,
    I will try to briefly answer you inquiries.
    “For whom, however?” –  My students and members of my dance ensembles (total of 45 dance artists) asked me to make a list as a guideline (end of first paragraph of article)  – once I had made it, they encouraged me to share it. I was very late with a column as usual, so I thought I would submit the list as my latest column for Gilded Serpent.
    Nagua on a table – The list for Conduct in Night Clubs is simplified and bare bones with further explanation in previous columns. These points were not part of original list. They were added later as I knew people would wonder why I had not covered this important aspect of Bellydance. I recently created a choreography (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY6wrQGLT1Y ) called the Coffee Shop where there is dancing on chairs and drums and would have been on tables had it been safe. Sometimes many kinds of actions are appropriate when serving a character which would not be appropriate in another scenario. In the 80s, Nagua Fouad often did a number which portrayed a dancer in a Turkish brothel. In this same number she would sit on a chair and spread her legs wide, she would perform vulgar floorwork moves etc. Not sure where this photo came from (Lynette, the editor decides what sections to highlight or bold and what photos to use – I always love her humour) or what context the moment is in but she is in a one peice costume which leads me to believe it could be possible, that she was portraying this character or perhaps a movie character of the degenerate Rakasa. Personally, I am not against dancing on tables if it can be received in a manner which serves the artist respect (ie: family event, theatre…). Usually, dancing on a table in a night club represents an image not conducive to garnering respect for the dance artist. I once attended a Muslim wedding in Cairo, all women veiled, where Saad Soghrair had his 12 male back-up dancers danced on the tables and the women cheered them on. Not sure these guys were seeking respect. I guess it is all in the context.
    phew…meant to be brief 🙂
    Yasmina
     

  5. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Jan 6, 2011 - 04:01:22

    Hi Yasmina,

    Thanks much! I would personally not encourage “table dancing,” for safety’s sake if for no other reason, but the fact that Nagwa is here pictured doing it prompted my question. Thank you for the hard work going in to getting this list done. Best, Barbara.

  6. No Gravatar
    yasmina Ramzy

    Jan 6, 2011 - 04:01:35

    Your question was great. I should have used it for my next column. I am sure Lynette put that photo exactly with that in mind. She is a great journalist who likes to instigate people exchanging ideas. Nice to meet you.
    Yasmina

  7. No Gravatar
    TribalLover

    Jan 7, 2011 - 02:01:21

    This may be a purely tribal view but the costumes most of the Cabs wear is what gives BD a bad name.  If you look like a stripper you will get treated like a stripper.   You are supposed to be sensual beings, not sex slaves.

  8. No Gravatar
    Sumayah

    Jan 7, 2011 - 01:01:32

    Hi TribalLover,
    As a cabaret/egyptian style dancer I’m taking offense at your comment. You seem to be calling all cab-style dancers strippers! I can assure you that cab-style dancers (just as much as tribal style dancers) are sensual beings…and not “sex slaves” as you’ve insinuated.

  9. No Gravatar
    BJ

    Jan 7, 2011 - 01:01:39

    Interesting points all.  I would like to respond to the conduct of a teacher. I am an amateur bellydancer who has had quite a few different teachers. Having had the misfortune of being “belittled” in class and made a spectacle of, I have come to the conclusion that many teachers really shouldn’t be. You may be a beautiful, capable dancer, but that does not automatically give you carte blanche to teach. I was so disheartened I never returned to this persons classes. Since then I have been blessed to have several great teachers who know that you actually learn from your students as well as teach them.
    This particular teacher was given the blessings to go out and teach and I have seen so many in the community that after dancing only a couple of years they begin to teach. Knowledge of the history and mystery of this dance are lost as are the solid techniques, etiquette and the things you speak of here because they themselves are to new to the dance to have absorbed all its amazing stories and have not yet technically become proficient enough to teach (and perhaps even lack good teaching skills)
    It would seem it creates a whole bevy of bellies who have not been given the best instruction they can have, and they don’t know any better because they are new to the dance.
    I am fortunate to live in an area where some very good dancers live and teach though I would love to actually study with dancers from other countries to expand my knowledge.
    My teacher speaks very highly of you Yasmina and when I watch you I know why =)
    Thanks for providing a forum such as this…..

  10. No Gravatar
    Lynette Harris

    Jan 7, 2011 - 01:01:29

  11. No Gravatar
    TribalLover

    Jan 9, 2011 - 01:01:20

    And which dancer does the stripper look like?  Not the girl wearing an actual skirt!  I’ve never seen a tribal dancer who had huge cutouts on her butt, like so many cabs I see.

  12. No Gravatar
    Yasmina Ramzy

    Jan 9, 2011 - 06:01:41

    Tribal vs Cabaret, stripper vs artist, sexual expression as positive vs negative…..mmmm…..okay, next column. Lots of good material here. Regarding comments above concerning Tribal vs Cab apparel, I see as out of context and missing the point of what I have written. However, I do note the hostility and emotion from both sides. Don’t quite understand why. Perhaps, is the cartoon saying we are all sister dance artists and no point hating on anyone?

  13. No Gravatar
    Sumayah

    Jan 11, 2011 - 07:01:58

    I think the point of the cartoon is to highlight that all of those performance styles do have some common ground (the strip tease was influenced by the early ‘oriental dancers’ of the Chicago World Fair).
    Yasmina, you make excellent points in your article…I really enjoy reading them!

  14. No Gravatar
    Melody Gabrielle

    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:01:42

    Interesting article and there are many points here that I agree with.  There are several points however that I feel inclined to comment on. 1. “learn the subject matter until you fully comprehend it” I’m not sure what this refers to.  The dance history/ethnography? The dance move itself?  I’m not sure its fair to say anyone fully comprehends these things.  I also think everyone is guilty from time to time of repeating facts that appear to be correct only to encounter some evidence to the contrary later.  Its sorta the nature of scholarship and learning.  But generally I agree there should be standard of competency for a belly dance teacher, but its not in anyway spelled out or enforceable in our community.  2.”Do not begin to teach unless at least one of your own teachers says that you are ready.” This sounds like a really nice guideline but in my experience its completely impractical.  I have encountered teachers who send there intermediate students (as in they have an advanced class too) out to teach simply to make more money for their belly dance empire.  I have also met teachers who were so completely absorbed in their bitter jealousies that they didn’t believe anyone who studied under them was every qualified to teach.  You can not simply rely on someone else in the community to decide if you are ready to teach or not.  I believe its a complex question that requires a lot of research into what is acceptable in the belly dance world as a whole and also what is happening locally.  These things need to be balanced very carefully and there are no easy answers. 3. “never admonish” and “never diminish” good point.  Hopelessly idealistic but nice none the less.  At this point I don’t think I know any teachers with proper conduct (hopefully myself ).   Certainly I don’t know any that follow all 9 of these rules of conduct.  Moving on to the nightclub performer section.  I am confused if this is intended to be just about nightclubs or if it also applies to restaurants.  I am going to assume it applies to restaurants and that my experience therefore is relevant since I dance at a restaurant.  Several of these points are intended to make the dancer more aloof especially say not sitting at peoples tables.  I tried this when I first started working at the restaurant and I discovered that people where hurt and offended that I did not make myself present after my set so they could chat and talk and tip me.  It is a family establishment after all why would it not have a family atmosphere with the belly dancer.   However, I do agree with part of the implication behind this guideline which I would describe as not flirting after your show. The last point I want to address here is the point about never undercutting the going market rate in your community.  I have been concerned about this for a long time.  To determine the going market rate of my community I need several data points grouping around mean with a reasonable  standard deviation.  In my community it ain’t happening.  People dance for anything and everything.  When I started dancing at my restaurant I had been trying to book a restaurant gig for 6 months to no avail so I began to worry about my prices.  I asked everyone what they would charge and I received everything from about a 4th of  my asking price to double my asking price.  Finally I just had to chuck all the advice and ask myself what am I willing/needing to work at and how do I negotiate that out of the restaurant owner.   Anyway my real world experience was messy and no single set of guidelines would have got me through it.
    http://www.numinousdance.com

  15. No Gravatar
    Lynette Harris

    Jan 19, 2011 - 12:01:27

    Check Michelle’s article list just below the article- how to charge what you are worth, and Nanna’s article “what do you charge”.
    Many of the points above are talked about more fully in Y’s previous columns. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  16. No Gravatar
    Melody Gabrielle

    Jan 19, 2011 - 12:01:40

    Thank you, Lynette, for pointed out Michelle’s article.  I had not noticed it since it wasn’t linked in the article.  I very much appreciated this article.  I do however find it interesting that it is assumed that people always get what they pay for.  Some very expensive dancers are poor dancers and some great dancers are charging very little.  Anyway just another complication.

  17. No Gravatar
    A_Dancer

    Jan 28, 2011 - 09:01:02

    Yasmina thank you so much for addressing (or should I say creating) a rules of conduct for performance! I believe you are on to a crucial point – if the dancers of bellydance don’t treat the dance and themselves with respect and professionalism, why would or should anyone else? What an amazing day it would be for this dance to be held in the same regard as other forms of fine art. Now this vision may not be for everyone (some dancers may cherish the fact that they are not ‘mainstream’ – I have to admit, I fall in that camp more often than not). However professional conduct regardless of how casual or off the beaten path the performance environment only serves to make the experience better for the audience and fellow dancers.
    Thanks again for this article! I don’t think this important topic is touched on enough. You could probably even explore professional conduct/performance behavior guidelines  in greater depth in a future article to your reader’s edification as well.

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