Beyond the Restaurant;
How Can We Bring Bellydance to a Wider Audience?
by Charlotte Desorgher
posted April 18, 2012
I’ve always had a dream to bring bellydance to the wider public – after all, we bellydancers love our dance and millions of ‘ordinary’ women gain enormous pleasure from learning it. Yet we are not taken seriously as a performance dance. Bellydance is rarely featured on TV, except as a novelty act (introduced with nudges and winks) there are no West End or Broadway shows featuring bellydance and even the Bellydance Superstars struggle to gain an audience beyond aficionados, despite having someone like Miles Copeland behind them.
I’ve had some small success with my own student shows; I have a large student base (there are about 1,000 active students in my school here in the UK) and each year we put on a big show held in a high profile local theatre. Friends and family fill the theatre easily and the show gets an incredibly enthusiastic reception from the audience, many of whom say they had no idea how rich and varied bellydance is.
But I’m under no illusions. That audience wouldn’t be present if wives, daughters or friends weren’t performing. And despite people saying we’ve opened their eyes to the beauty and spectacle of bellydance, the truth is that ours is still very much a niche and hobbyist dance genre.
Mainstream dance journalists don’t take us seriously either – at least in the UK. Editors of mainstream dance magazines tell me they are not interested in featuring bellydance because they see it as a hobby dance, without any real artistic merit.
Does it matter? Many dancers prefer to stay within the "community", performing for knowledgeable and enthusiastic audiences; others are happy to dance in the restricted space offered by a restaurant, to audiences who may or may not want to watch. Bellygrams and parties offer further performance opportunities, although once again, we are often booked as a novelty act or for the purpose of embarrassing a birthday boy and few people care about how well we dance, as long as we look pretty in a nice costume.
Personally, I always found restaurant dancing and bellygrams embarrassing and frustrating, even before I got too old to want to show my bare flesh in close-up! On the other hand, performing solely for bellydance audiences feels incestuous to me, and usually pays very poorly, if at all.
I also think that dancing only for our own community is not helping us raise our performance standards. We have a tradition of being very supportive towards each other when we dance – zhagareeting and clapping along to anyone who does a few well-timed hip drops to a favourite piece of music. Of course, as a teacher I want to encourage my students as much as possible when they perform, and that supportive attitude extends through to my behavior when watching any bellydancer.
However if we stand back and watch most hafla and showcase performances objectively, we have to be honest and say that, in comparison to other dance genres, the standard is very low.
Of course this is largely down to the fact that most bellydancers come to the dance fairly late in life, unlike other dance forms where children start training in their early years. By far the majority are hobbyists with full time jobs, so are unable to take the daily class that mainstream dancers expect, and even if they could, there are precious few advanced classes available in most towns and cities.
As I suggested earlier, even if there were the opportunities to study at a really high level, there just aren’t the career options for performers beyond restaurant dancing and "bellygrams". Most full time bellydancers (and there are very few of us) earn our money from teaching, not performing.
We are plagued by a vicious circle. The vast majority of bellydancers have no structured dance background, so technical and performance standards are low compared to other dance genres. Therefore we are not taken seriously as a dance form and don’t interest mainstream producers. Therefore bellydance doesn’t offer a viable career option for most young aspiring professional dancers… and so the circle continues…
It’s difficult to see how we can break out of this cycle to become anything more than a novelty act, restaurant entertainment or hobby dance.
I have had some salutary lessons in the past couple of years in how poorly bellydance plays against other dance forms. Two of my best dancers were on Britain’s Got Talent in 2010 and this year I auditioned my troupe for Got To Dance – a dance talent show on UK national TV. All the girls involved are not only good bellydancers, they are also young, attractive and very televisual. The choreography was strong, the costumes were good and the dancers were well rehearsed. I felt confident that they would be warmly received.
In each case my dancers got through to the televised stages in front of the judges. In each case the response was lukewarm to say the least. The judges on each show said the girls were the best bellydancers they had seen and put them through to the next stage, but they got no further. More importantly, as a member of the audience I was really struck by how the atmosphere in the auditorium fell when they were dancing – the bellydancers just didn’t fill the stage with energy in the way that other dancers did.
I think this is primarily down to bellydance’s history and the way it has evolved. Bellydance originated as a folk dance and it’s from a part of the world where women’s energy is not encouraged to be outgoing. Moreover, the fact that it has traditionally been performed in a small space such as a restaurant or nightclub means it is ideally suited for such an environment. Beautiful shimmies, clever layering and an ability to draw the audience in is perfect for close-up dancing, but it doesn’t translate well to the big stage or TV screen.
Mahmoud Reda wanted to legitimize Egyptian dance and to do so he knew he had to bring it to the theatre. He also realized he had to fuse it with Western dance forms, such as ballet, to be taken seriously. Reda-style Egyptian folkloric dance is obviously not going to appeal to a mainstream Western audience, but I do think we have a lot to learn from his approach.
I believe that if we want to become a mainstream performance dance form we need to look hard at other dance genres and learn from them. Personally I think we need to bring in techniques from styles such as ballet, jazz and contemporary if we want to create dynamic stage performances for a Western audience. I believe we need to develop greater dynamic and emotional range than we are used to using and we need to train our bodies in the way other dance forms do – to ensure we are strong, flexible and properly dance fit.
I’m starting to work in that way here in London, creating a tough advanced course incorporating the type of hard dance conditioning I used to do in my daily jazz class when I was training as a professional dancer in my 20s. I’m also experimenting with developing a style of bellydance specifically geared towards the big stage (Jillina seems to be doing something similar with her excellent Bellydance Evolution touring shows). Personally, I’m inspired both by West End musical theatre and the phenomenon of Riverdance to try to create truly spectacular performance pieces.
Of course just creating a more exciting style of show isn’t enough – if we want to gain the attention of the general public we need mainstream producers to be interested in producing (and sourcing funding for) a high profile bellydance show. That’s something else I’m working on at present and keeping my fingers crossed it will come to fruition. But, if such a show were ever to be a possibility, we need to be very sure we can step up to the plate in terms of having strong, West End or Broadway standard dancers and exciting choreography and staging.
I know many dancers will disagree with my conclusions and my approach, but I’m not saying for one moment that we should give up our intimate performance environments or our community haflas. My first love will always be true Egyptian-style bellydance, but I think that if we want to appeal to a mainstream Western audience (and personally I do) then we need to add something else to the current bellydance mix.
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