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Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 14
Bellydance Journalism
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column.
This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

Revised for Gilded Serpent April 8, 2006

We have all heard a lot of talk during the past couple of years about the need to raise standards within the bellydance profession – the need to convince the public that bellydancing is a genuine art form, not just the hoochy coochy. 

Frankly, I’m disturbed about the ways in which many of you have attempted to achieve these goals.  You seem to think that you arrive at excellence by throwing in the word ‘art’ every time you mention bellydancing. 

How often have you heard a dancer say that she performs the “art of ballet?”  Actually, saying the ‘art of bellydancing’ isn’t even lofty enough for many; it has to be ‘la danse orientale’, ‘la danse du ventre’, or at least ‘oriental dance’.  Others go one step further and seem to assert that you are raising standards by wrapping yourselves up in ten layers of cloth.

When you see a performance by someone like Dalilah of Las Vegas, some will call it entertainment, others will call it ‘art’ – I call it good.  When a great performer weaves his or her magic, labels become secondary.  Bert Balladine prefers to call himself an entertainer and says:

“I believe the titleartist is one which can only be bestowed on a performer by the audience.”

In my opening remarks I’ve said “you” instead of “we” because I’m not a dancer; I’m a musician who dances.  Now I’m going to turn to my part in all of this.  Up to now, I’ve kept silent about some very delicate issues for the same reasons I would suspect motivate other people with influence in the bellydance world – political reasons, fear of endangering the growth of my business, wanting to be considered nice in order to be well liked.  Anyway, I’d like to share some of those withheld perceptions.

Some people have cautioned me against using psychological terminology and difficult concepts in my writing.  In short, I’m being asked to believe that bellydancers are a bunch of dummies.  I don’t accept that.  I think that many of you for your own personal reasons have allowed yourselves to be misled by some of the leaders within the bellydance profession. 

One powerful tool used to mislead is bellydance journalism. 

I’m referring specifically to the write-ups about conventions, workshops, and shows.  When reports about such events give the illusion of being critiques, trouble is close at hand.  After exploring this issue a bit, I’d like to propose a new way of handling news and evaluative write-ups.

First, let me ask you what you think and feel when you read a write-up similar to the following:

By popular demand, _____ has returned for fifth convention in _____.  The event was a great success.  Participants flocked from ten surrounding states.  The classes were fabulous.  The Saturday night show featured the sponsor’s troupe, which dazzled the audience with their array of fascinating costumes and authentic presentations of exotic village dances.  Our special guest was stunning, graceful, and very exciting.  The sell-out crowd gave six standing ovations during the performance.” 

Some of you probably stopped reading such write-ups long ago.  I’m sorry to have to remind you of their existence.  I’ll answer my own question. 

If the article is talking about one particular instructor I have in mind, then ‘by popular demand’ probably really means the instructor called up the unlucky sponsor and begged, threatened, or demanded that she be invited back. 

‘Flocked from ten states’ could mean that there were ten people at the workshop and each person came from a different state.  ‘Fabulous instruction’ could mean that one hour’s worth of material was skillfully stretched into six hours.  The show featuring the dazzling troupe might very well have lasted for five hours with the standing ovations coming when the audience mistakenly thought the show was over and were overwhelmed with joy at the chance to escape.  I don’t mean to be Miss Cynic because actually I’m quite a joyful person usually.  What I mean to say is that many times our reporting of events and the true character of the events are often miles apart.

We hinder our own growth with such reporting because we don’t have the chance of learning from past mistakes.  If an instructor is a fraud, incompetent, or just plain mean, every dancer in the country has to experience that ripped-off feeling personally before the instructor’s business drops off. 

I think that some instructors ought to be run out of business,

not because I have some petty personal grudge against anyone but because some instructors-performers-merchants make thousands of dancers all over the country feel bad.  They turn off many from seeking instruction in the context of seminars and workshops.  Many lose out because of the greed and antics of a few.

Presenting inferior instructors and performers in a good light in print leads readers to question the credibility of the publication.  Indiscriminate and excessive use of praise renders praise meaningless.  For example, Bert tells me he once found himself in the absurd position of receiving a rave review of a performance he never gave:

“How can I be motivated to put forth my best when I know that much less than my best will evoke great praise?”

I’m not advocating taking the opposite tack as a solution – unrestrained negativism in describing events.  That would be still another way of leaving good judgment behind.  We need to distinguish between news and evaluations.  Sponsors of events and guest instructors at these events are fully qualified to write up brief reports on who did what, where and when, for publication.  However, neither the sponsor nor the instructor should pretend to be a critic of his or her own event.  They can pay for advertising space and say whatever they wish about themselves. 

When it comes to evaluating or writing critiques on such events, this should be done by a qualified critic who spells out his or her criteria for judging, then proceeds to comment on those areas which are significant indicators of talent. 

Sometimes it will be difficult to find such a critic because of the rigid encampments that exist in many sectors of the bellydance world.  If a qualified critic cannot be found for covering certain events, then the event should just be written up in the matter-of-fact style of a news article.  I don’t think that we should overdo the evaluative writing.  I think we should be very selective as to what warrants or who warrants a critique and do a good job with those few.  Of course, it’s a little scary to open yourself to the critique of a qualified outsider rather than evaluating your own performance, instruction, or merchandise.  I know for myself that I love to write glowing reports about my own work or ask one of my supporters to do the same. 

However, I think if our profession is to mature at all, I and many others have to give up such self-indulgence. 

Even if I’m the first one to experience the negative critique, I’d like to say that I wholeheartedly reject the position of one editor who brags that he will never print anything that puts down anyone or any event.  Two years ago when I participated in a horrendous show that was written up as a smashing success, I knew that I rejected such an editorial stance.  It has taken me a long time to admit it.

In addition to the news articles and critiques, I think there is a third type of write-up related to a convention or workshop that should appear in bellydance publications.  I would call this the human interest story.  Many humorous or touching things take place during big events. 

By sharing such moments, we foster warmth and openness within our profession. 

I’d like to close with such a note.  As I’ve been giving workshops in various parts of the country, I’ve been deeply moved by seeing the sharing of the workload among my sponsor, her husband, her assistants and their husbands.  Something very special takes place when men and women work together like this.  Just as people use to say that behind every great man stands a strong woman, I’d like to say that personal experience leads me to believe that, with few exceptions, behind every woman successful in the bellydance world there stands a man who is caring and strong enough to be supportive.  With encouragement and support from others, we can all achieve much more.

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Ready for more?
7-20-06 About Cymbals & a Workshop Checklist, Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 13 by Mary Ellen Donald
Believe it or not, playing cymbals can be a real pleasure. Playing them well can greatly enhance your dance performance. Playing apologetic or offbeat cymbals can ruin your dance performance.

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    Either we are a sisterhood of ego therapists and our instructors are politically correct in all they say and do—or we are tough artists in search of ways to improve our art form by ruthlessly weeding out the lame from our herd.
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    It’s an unnerving experience to be “critiqued” by your peers, but my personal opinion then and now is that when you perform in public, critiquing just goes with the territory of performing.

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