Gilded Serpent presents...

Sound-Byte Bellydance

Najia entertaining at a club

Part One: Evolution of Bellydance

by Najia Marlyz
posted April 8, 2011

Epiphanies can be so rare! Yet, rarefied insights in teaching and coaching still happen. They prompt the most artistic and thrilling of all the learning that can take place in a dance studio. When it comes to any of the arts, it is in these small moments that the nature of dance (or other art) reforms, stretches, and changes to meet needs. 

Last week, while I was working with a dancer new to my coaching clientèle, I enjoyed another little epiphany as she gave me an explanation of what it was that she wanted to accomplish in her dance for her next spurt of growth. It felt as if a heavy, dark door had opened for me with a sickeningly loud squeak of protest.

Through her clear description of what she wanted to learn, I was able to look inside our recent dance evolution and see what we dance teachers in the west have done to change Bellydance here in the U.S., how we have changed and modified it into something it never was in the lands of its origins.

Perhaps what my new student wanted to know would never have been a question in a dancer’s mind even thirty years ago. She said she couldn’t figure out how to dance with out repeating moves “over and over again.” “I bore even myself,” she added.

To explain what I learned in that moment, I will have to start back at my entry into the world of Bellydance in Berkeley and Sausalito, California, at the start of the ‘70s. 

Back then, all of the lessons available concentrated on what we called “TBDM” (typical Bellydance movement) and most people assumed that those who studied Bellydance were looking for something exotic to fill our newly-awakened feminist yearnings for adventure. 

Probably, they were. Most of the dancers of the time were also dabbling in macramé lessons, Hatha Yoga, musical forays into foreign music classes and other artistic oddities, and it was rare that much information would be available to study—anywhere. I had poked through the stacks of the large libraries in Berkeley at the University of California where I had been studying Library Science (librarianship) and found some fascinating old descriptions of early dancers in the works of writers such as Flaubert, but not much was written about Middle Eastern dancing or dancers. With the exceptions of Serena Wilson‘s book of Bellydance instruction and a paperback I found written by Princess Nayeela, a Turkish Bellydancer in Las Vegas, written accounts simply did not exist back in the late ‘60s. By 1970, still, I had never seen a Bellydancer except in paintings and tapestries.

During the ’80s, Orientalist paintings (and there were many) became an object of ridicule by those dancers who were then fortunate enough to be able to fly to the Middle East and learn about the subject first-hand. While I admit that much of the Middle Eastern life depicted by early Victorian artists (circa the 1800s) was romanticized beyond common sense, still, a great deal of it does explain, in one painting after another, a way of life that had passed by in time—sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We aspiring dancers could not study home video tapes because there were none. Sometimes, we saw on TV those jerky old black-and-white films of Isadora Duncan flitting about the garden of her Temple of the Wings in Berkeley or Loie Fuller performing upon her light-box with gigantic, organic veils.  We sat through long Egyptian movies (without subtitles) in San Francisco theaters just to catch sight of the obligatory five minutes of Bellydance worked into the script. There were paintings of dancers in books and museums showing an array of costumes that seemed to imply motions that one could surmise was an intricate turn or a kick or a posturing of an exotic nature, and I was ready to love and emulate them all.

Then, I met Bert Balladine, who became my dance teacher and mentor. He had traveled and studied dance in the Middle East—though he was not of Middle Eastern origin. True, he had been part of a circus tour at the time he began to learn Bellydancing, but he had studied ballet and other dance of the time and also traveled extensively, attending semi-formal lessons in Bellydance along with other members of his circus company who were also dancers in ballet and other forms as well. When finally he returned to San Francisco, he saw that the time was ripe in California for teaching women’s lessons in Bellydance. Opportunity blossomed among the hip crowd, and he began teaching “newly-freed” housewives what he had learned while on tour with the circus.  He was not the first Bellydancer in the nation by a long shot, but he was definitely a pioneer of the dance here on the West Coast and was someone who had been dancing all of his life in show-business of one sort or another. 

At the time, Bert taught Bellydance technique with (predominantly) Turkish roots. He used, for the most part, music that had been recorded in America, for American tastes, by musicians such as George Abdo, Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak, and Richard Hagopian, as well as other Armenian and Greek bands who performed in small ethnic restaurants. At the time, it never entered my mind that it might be considered strange to study what was touted as a “female art” with a male instructor, but I learned quickly that there were only a very few males who danced the form, and they all had female dance partners. “Fine,” I thought, “I will study with him.” As for the music, the more foreign sounding and dissonant to my Western ears, the better I liked it.

When Bert and I began to partner-up, both dancing and teaching in the Greater Bay Area and beyond, there were no existing festivals for Bellydance and no pageants or contests between dancers. It seemed enough of a challenge to secure gigs or a spot dancing in a Broadway Cabaret. Another of Bert’s students, Sula Frick, ran a dance studio in Walnut Creek, California, and she had the innovative idea of starting a “pageant of Bellydancing” that would feature a small workshop for dance study and be followed-up by a contest to find the best Bellydancer—The Bellydancer of the Year Pageant! Bert and I performed together in Sula’s workshop and show, and we helped judge her contest—and we found it a grueling task!  Numerous dancers entered the contest, and all of them were required to dance to a vinyl-recorded routine by George Abdo called  “Raks Mustafa.” The routine was approximately 15 minutes long, and with so many contestants, the process of judging was daunting. I swore I would never judge another contest again (although, I relented a couple of times because of Sula’s persuasive arguments).

Nonetheless, what I did not realize was that the contest itself would begin to change, perhaps forever, the face of Bellydancing in the Western countries.

Over the years, the horrific task of watching many performers who had been trained for stamina in the trenches of professional Bellydance performances became too much to bear for the tender sensibilities of so many impatient audience’s derrières on hard metal chairs. The result was that the time allowed for each performer shortened—and shortened yet again. Contests with fewer contestants proved unworkable because it was the families and friends of those dancers who were competing who paid for tickets, making the production possible financially, if not profitable, for the sponsor.

Soon, more contests sprouted up with new sponsors who thought that they could improve upon Sula’s formula—until today. Now we have perfected the skill that I regard as the “Sound-byte Bellydance”: a brutally foreshortened Bellydance routine.

Najia and veilTo accomplish what I consider this New-Age style of Bellydance, one has to perfect one’s ability to present the obligatory entrance, middle, drum solo, and finale in seven, or even fewer, minutes! In many instances, this has become an entrance, drum solo, and finale.  Some Sound-Byte Bellydance consists only of an entrance and an elaborately choreographed drum solo while others pack in sword play, veils and other props! Because this is contest dancing, the contestant often feels compelled to “throw in the kitchen sink” (as Bert used to say). “Throwing in the kitchen sink” meant that the dancer must execute, in rapid-fire order, every step, movement, and gesture that the she had ever learned, often with an over-lay of shimmy and burst of Gatling gun-like finger cymbal playing. To assure that the contests are sufficiently influenced by inbreeding, the winners of the contests have often become the newest members of the panel of judges; therefore, each future winner would beget dancers who could excel at frenetic speed-dance. Rather like current day speed-dating procedures, contestants can be culled quickly and efficiently and next to no reality has to develop between the performer and her music as long as she stays on rhythm.

The entire performance of Bellydance used to be more satisfying and artistic, precisely because of elongated presentations allowing for development in the routine, usually exceeding fifty or sixty minutes on-stage without a costume change or a break, two or three times per night.

American dancers expected, in order to be professional, to dance non-stop for the lengthy time, much like the long Thursday night radio concerts of singer Um Khalthum were, and a dance set was comprised of an entrance, several tunes or songs, veil-play in the style of Turkish dance (on second thought, more like the veils of our classic forerunner, Loie Fuller), handling of a specialty stage prop such as the sword, cane, snake, candelabra, etc. as well as dancing the obligatory drum solo (while playing finger cymbals throughout), encouraging audience participation, and collecting tips to be shared by the dancer and her musicians, and at last, the finale. Phew! That was arduous work! It was skillful, athletic in physical flexibility and stamina, and it required quite a lot of play-acting and Orientalist fantasy as well as stagecraft. 

We dancers learned what we could about the dance and some of the Middle Eastern culture—in spite of the fact that few of us could even dream of going to the Middle East. We learned the differences between Western music and Middle Eastern music. We quickly learned all we could about show business so that we could hold our audience’s attention for such an extended length of time, and we learned how to work with live music and how to search for recorded music that could produce in us the inspiration to keep dancing. As I mentioned before, very few of us had gone to the Middle East, and not many of us had ever seen a real, live Middle-Eastern dancer, or even a real beaded Bellydance costume made in the Middle East. We learned to bead and sew our own—a process that took an average of two to three hundred hours for each costume. Most of us haunted flea markets and antique stores for items we thought we could incorporate into a convincing costume that nowadays would be considered Orientalist—or possibly some sort of fantasy tribal effect. Many of our early costumes were imaginative and made of objects that were saved from the Victorian times and the early travel souvenirs of our ancestors who steam-shipped abroad.

So, when my student asked to learn to dance in a more interesting way, it dawned on me that the effect of sound-byte dancing for the myriad of shows and contests has caused a metamorphosis of Bellydance and has produced Bellydancers who are fixated upon and overly-skilled in nearly meaningless movements and steps.

Few of them know how to present a dance that has “tarab” (feeling), drama, or musical content, because they are so skilled at frenetic movement to the point of absurdity. Most know how to dance on the beat, some actually dance on the rhythms but few know how to listen to the music with both ears. They are predictable and boring as well as lacking meaning in spite of the fact that they attempt to “throw in the kitchen sink.”

In a follow-up article, I will attempt to unravel further for you the personal art of dancing a full length set without your having to bite the head off of a snake or dance in ragged fishnet tights, wearing combat boots for attention. Perhaps I may convince you to study and/or teach your entire dance as an expression more fulfilling than those on YouTube snippets.

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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Apr 10, 2011 - 11:04:07

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!  Thank you Najia!  I’ve watched this transition from long enough to develop a feeling of tarab and real musicality to sound byte belly dance and have been dismayed by it.  You’ve described my feelings better than I ever could and will refer others to this article.  Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. Barbara Grant

    Apr 10, 2011 - 01:04:51

    Dear Najia, Leyla Lanty, and Terry Del G:
    I was going to say the same thing in my comment to this article that you, Leyla, said in response to Terry’s: go and read the other (in this case, Terry’s) article. In my own experience as a dancer/teacher, “teaching steps” primarily does nothing to improve a dancer’s knowledge of the music or art of the Middle East. It can even pose a hindrance to understanding, as when a dancer needs to think, “what _steps_ might I apply to this piece of music?”
    Najia has a unique take on all this, suggesting that contests, themselves, play a strong role in the development of the dance in America. It all seems rather like ice-skating or gymnastics, with judges seeking to award points on movements and their level of difficulty. (But what happens to the artistry?)
    Although I believe that in America, routines must be shorter than those on a Middle Eastern stage (to cater to the tastes of the public) this does not mean that “the kitchen sink” must be thrown in to every dance performance. I really hate seeing that, myself.

  3. surreyya hada

    Apr 12, 2011 - 08:04:44

    Another great article from you Najia.  Reading for the 4th time now and anxiously awaiting the next installment.  Just wonderful.

  4. Amina Goodyear

    Apr 12, 2011 - 12:04:12

    THANK YOU, NAJIA – You said it all:
    “Read more: Gilded Serpent, Belly Dance News & Events , Sound-Byte Bellydance
    Copyright 1998-to current date by Gilded Serpent, LLC 

    it dawned on me that the effect of sound-byte dancing for the myriad of shows and contests has caused a metamorphosis of Bellydance and has produced Bellydancers who are fixated upon and overly-skilled in nearly meaningless movements and steps.
    Few of them know how to present a dance that has “tarab” (feeling), drama, or musical content, because they are so skilled at frenetic movement to the point of absurdity. Most know how to dance on the beat, some actually dance on the rhythms but few know how to listen to the music with both ears. They are predictable and boring as well as lacking meaning in spite of the fact that they attempt to “throw in the kitchen sink.”
    Couldn’t agree more.

  5. Bony Fotia

    Apr 13, 2011 - 02:04:26

    Excellent article!

  6. Nyla Crystal

    May 12, 2011 - 04:05:20

    Yes, an excellent article and great resource/perspective for newer dancers! I happily left the world of cheerleading and the craziness of dancing to 50 5-10 second music clips mixed together only to find it again in belly dance. While I understand the time logistics of belly dance competitions/haflas, I always have a hard time chopping up an already shortened arrangement to squish into a time slot of 7 minutes along with a drum solo, intro, and exit music.  I was already used to throwing the kitchen sink into one 5-7 minute piece from cheerleading and that seemed normal to me until I started dancing longer bellydance sets. After the first “kitchen sink” dance in my set, I still had 15 more minutes to fill and realized the importance of not using my entire dance vocabulary in the first song!

  7. Enisa

    May 13, 2011 - 05:05:45

    7 minutes? That’s luxuriously long by European competition standards, here it’s more like 3-5 minutes! And the competitors have a very aggressive vibe, if you happen to sit in the first few rows, you end up feeling beaten up like a boxing bag by the sharp energy of every single move (not to mention the excessive leg kicking that seems to be all rage lately)
    The article is great and Najia is right on point, as usual

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