Hot topic: Bellydance competitions part 2

So, you’ve probably guessed already that I didn’t have any notable success in the Shimmy in City Competition – if I’d placed I’d have been shouting it in 48 point capitals! I had an enjoyable day and watched a lot of fabulous dancers. The judging panel consisted of Khaled, Tito and Asmahan, who had heroically stepped in at the last minute after Soraia was denied a visa. I got some really good advice on stagecraft from Asmahan. I was told some things to change and some things to keep. I know what to fix, now to get on and fix it! From a personal development perspective this was a really useful experience.

It was a very long competition. There were around 25 women (a few didn’t turn up so I’m not sure how many actually danced in the end), 5 men and 5 or 6 groups. Then there was a second round for both the women and the men. I’m not sure there needed to be gender segregated competitions. The top men were easily the equals of the top women. I get that as a minority in the bellydance community men can be intimidated, but I think that any man who has the self-confidence to sign up for a competition isn’t going to be put off by having to dance against ladies. It was hard not to feel that there was a certain double standard at work as well. We were told ahead of time that the top three dancers from each competition would dance again in the folklore round and that would determine their placings. In the end four women and four men went through. Work that out as a percentage of the competitors – 80% of the men got another chance to dance! I felt so sorry for the one guy who didn’t get to dance again, that must have hurt. I would much rather see a mixed competition where a certain number of dancers danced again, it would be much fairer to everyone. After all, everyone has such different styles of dance already it really doesn’t matter, right?

Theoretically.

One thing that really stood out to me after this, and the other competitions I’ve watched this year, is that there is a distinct Competition Style developing. It’s oriental, of course, it’s technically perfect in every way but it – and I’m trying to put this diplomatically – doesn’t encourage much personal expression. Which is not to say that the dancers have no expression, far from it, they have beautiful faces and lovely smiles but that’s about it. When I think of all the dancers I enjoy watching they all have very strong personalities on stage and I simply don’t see that in the dancers who win competitions.

Gilded Serpent published a rather timely article last week: http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2011/09/27/jillina-lauren-competition-strategies/#axzz1Zp1Aemsd . The costume and makeup sections I can get on board with. The music section? Not so much. The article suggests that your competition music should consist of 60-90 second blocks of music thrown together to create a 5 minute piece. What? For me, part of the art of dancing is choosing a piece of music and creating a dance to express it, not thinking “Now I will show my travelling steps and turns, now I will show my detailed rhythmical expertise”. My music is not wallpaper against which I display myself, it is an integral part of my performance.

So I find myself in a difficult position. If I want to be a successful competition dancer I need to tone down my on stage persona, smooth out my rough edges, butcher the music I love and use it in a totally alien way. Or I can stay true to myself and the dancers who have taught me and accept that I will never win a trophy or title. It’s no choice at all, is it? Of course I’m going to keep doing things my way! I’ll keep competing, as I’ve said previously the feedback really is useful and next year there’s the potential for feedback from DINA. I can’t turn that opportunity down. In fact I’ve even got some music in mind already, it’s totally wrong for a competition but it’s absolutely right for me.

Hot Topic: Bellydance Competitions

I’ve been thinking a lot about bellydancing competitions, which isn’t really surprising since I am entering one next week. In exactly a week’s time I will either be trying to control my nerves as I wait to dance, despondently watching all the other dancers and remembering all the things I did wrong, or if I’m really unlucky I’ll still be stuck at the Dartford crossing and approaching meltdown. So why am I putting myself through this?

Before I answer that question, a little background. This is my history with bellydance competitions:

1st International Bellydance Congress: entered, didn’t place, vowed never to do it again

2nd International Bellydance Congress: watched

Belly Dance Mania: watched

Jewel of Yorkshire: entered, came second, decided that was it for competitions this year

Randa Kamel of Course: watched

Shimmy in the City: entered, and that’s what I’m doing next week

Two things to note. One, you can’t believe me when I say I won’t have anything to do with competitions. Two, I’m not basing my opinions on a huge amount of experience but at least I am basing them on some experience and not pontificating on the basis of nothing.

I think the first bellydance competition in the UK in recent years was Shafeek’s, which was won by the lovely Tracey Jones. When the competition was announced, if you frequented the online bellydance communities you would have thought it was the End Of Days. “How can you Judge our Art!” they wailed. “It will tear the community apart! What about sisterhood and fluffy bunnies? Everyone will be…..COMPETING…against each other.”

Guess what, they are anyway.

This attitude insults the intelligence of the bellydance community. Thanks to Strictly Come Dancing and all the other shows we are savvy to talent competitions. We know that perfect technique does not necessarily mean the most entertaining performance. We know that what one judge loves, another will hate. We know about behind the scenes shenanigans… 🙂 We know that a title like “Belly Dance of the Universe” only refers to the person who danced at a particular festival on a particular day in front of a few people who happened to like her the best. Seriously. We can put this stuff in perspective.

So if the purpose of competitions isn’t to find out who is the BEST in THE WHOLE UNIVERSE why do them? For me, it comes down to three reasons: feedback, motivation and recognition.

By entering a competition you can get valuable feedback from a range of dancers who have watched you with a critical eye. After the competition is over you usually get your score sheet, with its almost useless numerical scores and far more useful comments. Judges will often discuss their comments with you which is even more helpful. Of course this is not as good as a private lesson would be, but for the self-motivated dancer it points you in the right direction. By the end of this year I will have had feedback on my dancing from (amongst others) Khaled, Yasmina, Candi, Soraia, Tito and Wael Mansour. The cost of private lessons with all of them, along with the travel expense, would be prohibitive, so I’ll take what I can get and put the hours of practice in later. Speaking to other dancers leads me to think this is a very common attitude. For this reason I am only interested in entering competitions with judges who are named in advance and whose opinions I value and respect.

I have been a self-employed dancer with dance as my sole form of employment for five years so I like to think that I am quite self-motivated. Nevertheless, I have found that competitions push me to work harder than anything else I have done, and I’m not exactly laissez-faire about my performances. Knowing that someone is going to be judging me on every aspect of my performance drives me to practice longer and more effectively, to explore the music in more depth and to get my nail varnish just right 🙂 . The post-performance feedback informs and directs my personal practice for months afterwards. It turns out I am a very goal-oriented person.

As the dance community grows it becomes harder for a dancer to be recognised outside of her local community. I have spent years quietly working away, improving my dance and teaching others. A few friends have put in a good word for me here and there (for which I am eternally grateful) which has opened doors for me, but with more and more good dancers out there even this is not as effective as it was. Winning a competition is your passport to recognition (on Facebook if nowhere else!) and potentially much more work. Soon enough no dancer’s CV will be complete without a title. Instead of listening to endless variations along the lines of “X has been ballet/tap/jazz dancing since she was three/in the womb/a twinkle in her father’s eye then discovered bellydance which struck a chord with her thanks to her Moroccan cousin/Turkish grandma/great great uncle who once visited Egypt” you will be treated to “X, winner of Super Ultra Bellydancer of the Century, has been…”. Now, I can’t write a biography like that because I preferred books to ballet as a child and my heritage remains stubbornly British, but a competition win would be a lovely addition to my CV. Sadly for me, a lot of other, better dancers have the same idea!

I don’t pretend competitions come without their downside. Losing can be a huge blow, from which you need time to recover. They do not encourage diversity. You pretty much have to dance Oriental (although one aspect of the Shimmy in the City competition I am particularly looking forward to watching is the folkloric round). Watching one Oriental dancer after another all afternoon makes you long for a lovely baladi progression, but it would be a brave dancer who did that. With sameness of music comes sameness of costumes and interpretation. I haven’t seen a particularly diverse range of ages and body types in bellydance competitions, but then again I have only seen a small subset. I would be interested to look at a wider sample. The spectre of dance politics is always hovering in the air, no matter what steps are taken towards putting together an impartial judging panel.

However, competitions are not going away. No festival is complete without a competition now. Personally I would prefer to see an open platform where you could ask for feedback (for money, of course) but the days of open platforms are gone so I will embrace the new. Until I lose again. And then I’ll only stop for a little bit, no matter what I say afterwards 🙂 .

So why do you enter, or not enter competitions? Why do you judge, or decline to judge them?

Public Relations

The relationship between bellydance and the media is complex and fraught with pitfalls. It’s all too easy for an uninformed, rushed or lazy journalist to fall back on tired old clichés: wiggling, seduction, sultans, “I’ve got the belly for it!” blah blah blah blah BLAH. But not Nikki Lott of the Dallas Observer! She has managed to misrepresent bellydance in a whole new way, by lining it up alongside vajazzling and masturbation! For her “article” on the Texas bellydance festival Ya Halla, Y’All she managed to be inaccurate and offensive, to reduce women to their body parts, to ignore the men of bellydance and the women who may not have those particular body parts, and (most damning of all for someone who has presumably been to a writing class of some kind at some point in her life) to spell “finger cymbals” incorrectly. From this latter point I suspect she falls into the lazy camp.

If you really want to read the original it’s here (for now): http://www.dallasobserver.com/events/yaa-halla-yand-146-all-belly-dancing-festival-2277215/ but rather then give them the page views I suggest you read Ozma of Japan’s response here: https://www.facebook.com/#!/notes/ozmas-costumes/ive-got-your-finger-symbols-right-here-missy/10150255647361618 or some of the comments on the Dallas Observer Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/#!/DallasObserver Princess Farhana has posted a particularly fine “finger symbol”.

Not all meetings between bellydance and journalism end in such EPIC FAIL, there are plenty of well-written, informative articles out there. I was delighted when I agreed to be profiled by a Cambridgeshire magazine and was sent a list of thoughtful questions. I’ll be honest, some I struggled with but overall I was happy with the final article http://www.explorermagazine.co.uk/2011/02/emma-chapman/ . Much happier than the last time I made it into print in the *spit* Daily Mail. That came about after I had persuaded a local paper to write about an event I was putting on (and desperately needed publicity for), which was then picked up on by an agency who thought they could sell the story to one of those dreadful women’s magazines you see cluttering up the dentist’s waiting room. Instead it was picked up by the right wing rag and also the Telegraph online. Not what I would have chosen, and so I’ve been wary of courting such publicity ever since.

I have turned down appearances on breakfast TV (you want me to get up at WHAT time?) and local news, because my experience (or rather, that of other bellydancers I have seen) is that it will inevitably degenerate into “Let’s show the host how to do it HA HA HA LOOK AT HIM TRY TO SHIMMY” and I’m not in the business of humiliating people or turning my art form into one big joke. I have resisted the overtures of Britain’s Got Talent and Got to Dance, programmes who will fit bellydancers into one of only two categories: hot sexeh chick or sad deluded housewife. We are so much more complicated than that. I will not compromise my integrity in exchange for wider recognition.

One opportunity I was sad to turn down was almost two years ago, when I entered the draw to be part of “One & Other”, Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project. That really would have been fantastic publicity, not just for me but for bellydance. A highly public platform (quite literally) in the name of Proper Art 🙂 ….sadly when my name came out of the hat it was for a time slot I just couldn’t manage, because I was getting married!

Emma’s Soapbox: “Why Yes, I Am a Professional Bellydancer”

Last week the following video went round the online bellydance community.

It made me laugh, in a hollow, sad sort of way. I decided to write about it.

   In this post I will consider the following question: what SHOULD a professional bellydancer be? I am addressing anyone who considers themselves to have reached a point in their dance career where they can represent bellydance in public outside of a hafla setting[1], whether through performance or teaching. Student dancers, relax, I’m not talking about you :). These are the standards I hold myself to. I am not claiming to be perfect and I have not always managed to fulfil all of these in the past, but when I fail to meet these standards I do my best to make sure I learn from that and do better next time.

   So what makes a professional bellydancer?

Getting paid to dance
   Well, yes, this is the most basic definition of a professional but actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. To quote my friend Kitty Kohl : “Somebody can behave professionally and still be a student, and they can be earning money as a teacher and a dancer and be totally not professional in any way.” Sometimes a professional will choose to waive their fee, for example, in support of a charity, but even without money changing hands they still give a professional standard performance. Discussions about money and professionalism are often derailed by arguments over what proportion of your income comes from dance, which is simply not relevant. In situations where you would reasonably expect an entertainer to be paid (birthday party, restaurant, wedding…) you should be paid, even if you only do one gig in a year.
   There’s more to it than that. You should be getting paid a fair price, and if you’re not sure what that is you should ask. Hint: don’t ask a restaurant owner :). You shouldn’t be undercutting the other dancers in your area and if you don’t understand why then you are not ready to be a professional dancer. If you think the standard of your dancing means you should be paid less than the average (“50% less than any other dancer!”) you are certainly not ready to be a professional dancer.

Technical standard
   I wish it went without saying, but you must be able to bellydance well. I could write a whole other essay on what it means to “bellydance well” but for now I will stick to “execute isolated movements clearly and gracefully with good posture and demonstrable knowledge of stagecraft”. I’ve been involved in bellydance for over 12 years and have seen the overall standard of dance in the UK rise but still I come across videos that make me shake my head in sadness when I see that the dancer claims to be a professional or worse, teaches other people. And don’t come to me and say “But I only teach beginners!” because you will unleash a rant which makes this polemic sound like The Little Book of Calm!
   A professional dancer should also have the necessary background knowledge for whatever she is performing. Know the style of music, the style of dance that goes with it, what the words mean etc. You can’t assume that your audience is totally ignorant. Maybe I am there in the back row, judging you 🙂 If you are a fusion dancer, know what you’re fusing. Do you really feel “boxed in by styles” or are you just not prepared to put in the effort of learning about them? Believe me, it will show in your performance.

Professional development
   There is no standing still in dance. As soon as you stop trying to push your dancing forward you start going backwards. The opportunities for professional development have simply exploded in the time I have been involved in the bellydance world. You don’t need to travel abroad to train with world-renowned dancers, but if you do want to there are plenty of people to help make that happen for you. Artists from Egypt, the US and Europe regularly visit the UK for festivals and intensive training weekends and of course we have some superb home grown teachers. There is a mind-boggling array of DVDs available on every subject related to bellydance, no matter how tangentially. And of course there is YouTube which is an amazing resource for different styles, dancers and settings if you can navigate your way through the dross. I will note here that “free classes on YouTube” are worth exactly what you pay for them. There is absolutely no excuse for stopping your dance education, and why would you want to? Learning is awesome!
   If you are also a teacher then professional development also covers teacher training and health and safety. There are quite a few bellydance teacher training courses available although it looks like JWAAD is going to dominate the field for some time (disclaimer, I am JWAAD trained). There are also more general courses for teaching exercise to music such as that offered by the YMCA. You should seriously consider having a first aid qualification and some venues will require you to have one. Before you all email with me with the names of perfectly good teachers with no qualifications don’t bother. I KNOW THAT [EGYPTIAN TEACHER] HAS NO CERTIFICATE. I think that anyone starting out on their teaching careers NOW should undergo training.

Appearance
   Oh boy, this one is a mine field. I think bellydance is more inclusive then most other dance forms when it comes to appearance. A wider range of body shapes and ages are acceptable to most audiences. For example, I would never have made it as a ballet dancer and even if I had I would have retired by now! However, we still have to dance in a society with certain expectations of what a bellydancer should look like and whilst I think many of them are ridiculous that is not what I want to write about today. How much each individual performer chooses to fulfil these expectations is their own business.
   I am more interested in the cosmetic aspect of appearance. You should be well groomed, by which I mean clean (!), with suitable hair and makeup and a good costume. Good costume – now there’s a potentially loaded term. A good costume is well made, fits you and flatters your shape. It doesn’t reveal anything you don’t want revealing (I think we can all agree that bellydance should be family friendly). It’s appropriate for the style of dance you’re performing, the venue and the time of day.
   Your costume doesn’t need to be a $1300 designer creation. It does need to be a costume i.e. “a bra from Target” with a few sequins stuck on it will not do. I cannot say this often enough, but a costume bra is very different to a lingerie bra. You can use your bra from Primark (I guess that’s equivalent to Target) as a base for your costume but it needs more work than ten minutes with a hot glue gun. Hint: if the original straps are visible it will always look like you are dancing around in your underwear. I wish I could forget the dancer I saw performing (in a professional setting) in white leggings, a coin belt that shed as she danced, and an undecorated bra from New Look. How do I know it was from New Look? Because I saw the exact same one there the day afterwards. Her costume was a perfect reflection of her dance ability. I had to be led away quietly for a strong drink.
   Student dancers, please don’t be worried. If you are performing at haflas a simple long skirt and coin belt with a nice top is just fine as long as it satisfies the principles in that second paragraph. Just be aware that if you want to step outside the hafla setting you are going to need to invest money and/or time on your costuming.

Business skills
   If you are earning money from dancing at some point you need to be registered for tax purposes, and that means keeping records and accounts. You also need to think about public liability insurance (you’d be extremely foolish to start teaching dance without it), music licensing, advertising, creating and maintaining a website…in short, pretty much everything a small business start up has to consider. You have to be able to deal with clients and customers in a professional manner. Can you accept a compliment? Can you handle a complaint? Can you deal with competition from other dancers, ideally without creating a rift that splits your community in two? This brings me onto…

Supporting the dance community
   You can support the dance community in two ways: by playing nice and by not being an idiot. In other words, by taking positive actions and by avoiding engaging in negative behaviour (but I prefer the glib version!). So: playing nice. This includes everything discussed so far in order to be a good role model for the up and coming dancers in your community. It is also attending classes, workshops, haflas and festivals and encouraging other dancers or your students (if you teach) to do the same. You could go further and organise an event for your dance community. It is also important to show your support as an audience member, if you swan off as soon as your performance is over, or spend all your time hiding out in the dressing room, or sit scowling through every performance other than your friend’s (and I’ve seen all of these!) it will reflect badly on you.
   Alas, without infinite time and money it is impossible to show positive support to everyone. You can still support the community in other ways. Not undercutting is a big one. Not allowing your personal feelings towards other professionals to interfere with your participation – we’ve got a small sandbox to play in which is why we have to play nice. Not scheduling your events to clash with someone else’s. Not representing bellydance in an inappropriate or sleazy way. I could go on but I think you get the idea.

   I believe all of the above points are the absolute minimum necessary to make a professional bellydancer. The relevance of each is down to the individual – maybe your website is not as important to you as your training, for example – but no one point is sufficient. No, not even the one about being paid. The obvious next question to ask is “What makes a GOOD professional bellydancer?” and there’s a lot more scope for argument there!

[1] I make this distinction for the following reason. The definition of a hafla varies between regions but it is always an event put on by the bellydance community for the bellydance community, rather then the general public. A hafla is in no way inferior to any other performance setting.