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Bellydancers “Gotta Have a Gimmick"

The Excessive Use of Props

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by Fayruz
Photos by Arthur Gianoukos
Posted October, 2011

The other day, I was reflecting back on my farewell party at San Francisco’s Al Masri Restaurant in early July 2011, remembering so many good things about the night: the large crowd that came to see it, (It was packed and there was standing room only.) the number of performers, (I think there were about 10 dancers.) and the quality of their performances. The quality of their dancing was incredible! One thing that I noted that was particularly interesting about each dancer’s set was that there wasn’t an excessive use of “stage props”, and by that term I mean a "gimmick". 
All of the performers knew their music and gave us performances that presented his or her own interpretation of the song. We got to know every performer a little bit that night, and it was lovely! 

I’ve gone to other shows, and while I often see dancers present an interesting interpretation of a song, I also notice more often that the performances seem less concerned about the dancing and more concentrated on their gimmick and demonstrating the skills to get the gimmick right.

I get the impression from watching such performances that a prop wasn’t incorporated in the show because it helped the dancer express an emotion in the song, but the property was intended to be the focus of the performance.

At times I’ve seen so many props used, I start to wonder if I came to watch the dancing or watch the skill and proficiency of the dancer with all of these stage properties. Of course, I’m wowed at the skill with the object, but honestly, I remember nothing about the dancing. In retrospect, that’s disappointing. 

SausanAfter an evening of reflection I had these observations about the dancing on this night:

  1. Each performer’s costume complemented the song choices and personality.
  2. If veils or finger cymbals were used, they helped to add pizazz to the entrance and complemented the interpretation of the song.
  3. We enjoyed a singer and dancer duet that was about the music and how they interacted.
  4. The men danced with the cane (assaya) because, well, that’s what Egyptian men do; I don’t think any of the ladies had included music for the cane.
  5. All of the performers made sure they had an energetic entrance.
  6. All of the performers put themselves–rather than a prop–as the center of the performance.

I think that the last point is key, and why people go to see a show. Sometimes, as a performer, we think people come to see a show to be wowed and impressed, and to give the audience an "experience." However, let’s face it: Belly dancing on its own is an "experience."

Furthermore, at least to the Egyptians, the skill of the dancer is demonstrated by what she does in her improvisational moments.

Egyptians recognize a choreographed number a mile away, and do not hesitate to let you know that they recognized that it was choreographed. As for performing a competent and captivating improvisational set, it’s not about using props; it’s more about creative movement in the moment and inventing something new.

author Fayruz

NaiyaTerry Del GiornoWhen we dancers are in the mindset that we need to create some crazy "experience" for the audience, we try to come up with whatever will be unique to entice the audience to come back for more. Certainly, audiences want that, but that doesn’t mean that the audience wants always to see outrageous props or gimmicks. Audiences want to see how creative the performer can be to keep them entertained through body movements, the stage environment, and how the dancer interacts with the audience. However there are times where a prop does make sense to help draw the audience into the mood of the show and keep them focused, such as a larger stage environment where stage presence needs to be at 120%.

About the party–everyone in the restaurant stayed until the end of the show to watch the dancing and get to know the various personalities on the stage. To them, the dancing and the various interpretations of the music were the real entertainment. 

The next time I start thinking that my show might be too boring, I’ll remember this show and how much fun everyone had.

I will remember that I don’t "gotta have a gimmick"! I just need to know my music, be creative with movements, try something new and daring (going for the improvisational aspect) and let my audience get to know me.

That’s what they really want anyway.

*(Author’s note – the "gotta have a gimmick" comes from the song lyrics in the movie Gypsy”.)

Keenan and Numair

 

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   |       |    4 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Oct 14, 2011 - 01:10:31

    Fayruz, thank you for a great article! I’m not a fan of excessive prop usage, believing it detracts from the dancer and her artistic ability to master the nuances, particularly in the improvisational passages.

  2. No Gravatar
    Vilia (Atlanta

    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:10:03

    I just want to comment on this article by Fayruz.  I thought it touched on a subject that had often frustrated me in the latter years of my dancing days.  I was never a connoisseur of the cane, sword, pot or fire, but I used zills and the veil, which were not considered props back then, but more like extensions of the dancer.  The other props I mentioned were rarely used in clubs and restaurants as part of a regular show.  Many of us kept our zills on throughout our shows, which generally were twenty to thirty minutes long, and it was possible to hold them in a way that did not inhibit graceful hand movements or “clang” when not being used. 
     
    There came a time, however, towards the end of my dance career, when dancers who were not as adept at improvising with live music or were less able to carry a full show began using props as a means to maintain their audience’s interest.  This is not to say there are those dancers who are very skilled at using sword/cane/fire etc. who cannot also be wonderful dancers at the same time.  I have seen many who can do it all and do it extremely well.  However, too often these props can be used to mask a lack of skill when it comes to actual dancing, yet the unsophisticated club/restaurant owner and some members of audiences with short attention spans or lack of a discerning eye regarding talent want only the “wow” factor, and consider the ability to manipulate a prop while moving without whacking, stabbing or setting oneself (or others) on fire to be the ultimate test of dancing ability.  In reality, of course, these are two entirely different skills, but the lack of acknowledgement of that fact is one of those unfortunate lessons in showbiz.  Fayruz came at the subject from a slightly different angle, but made the point nevertheless.  Thank you, Fayruz! 
     

  3. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Oct 20, 2011 - 03:10:45

    Villa, you are probably more skilled than I. Not only did my zills clang (at least a little) when I wasn’t playing them, I didn’t even develop nice arm movements because I had them on from Day One. As a result, I was more concerned about focusing on this “prop” than with developing the graceful arms so necessary to this dance form. This is why I never suggest zills for new dancers.

  4. No Gravatar
    Suzanne

    Oct 26, 2011 - 11:10:31

    I think using too many props is completely uncalled for. Zills are a regular thing for me in my dancing and I think that is all the “props” you need. I am an Atlanta belly dancer and a ton of the dancers here use way too many props. Wings, cane, sword, fire…..sigh….the list could go on and on. And what is aggravating is that a lot of the restaurants nowadays are requiring that you do fire. And if not requiring, it is their preference. In my opinion, zills and veils are fine. But, these extra props like fire and such are totally unneccesary! I think it takes away the magic from the actual dancing! Props literally turn belly dance into a circus act. I mean, who really wants to see somebody dancing around with wings looking like a shiny butterfly? And who wants to see someone balancing a sword on their head? We are called BELLY DANCERS not MAGICIANS. Seriously if this is what people want, then they need to request Criss Angel.
    Also, half of the time, these so called “fire dancers” are not even skilled. They just put a flaming sword on their head and go out and dance. And to me, it’s not even that exciting as people make it seem! I’d rather watch traditional Egyptian belly dance. Props are major overkill!

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