Comedy and Bellydance

Not comedy bellydance, sorry.

Stewart Lee on whether comedy is art in an interview with Marc Maron, 11/8/10

“SL: A lot of money is spent in publically funded theatre workshops where highly educated theatre practitioners sit around working out how to engage directly with ordinary people in an audience, how to break the fourth wall, how to take theatre into unusual spaces, and all those things are things that the worst hack comic does every night. He has to walk into a room and recalibrate everything around the space, who’s there, what time of night it is. He has to make in the moment choices that people in theatre win awards for doing, if they do it the slightest bit people go ‘It was amazing, he turned slightly to the left instead of walking straight forward because something had happened in the room’.

MM: It was an improvisational choice in the moment, what a genius

SL: A comic is making improvisational choices from the moment they enter the room. They know, they go ‘You can’t do…that’s not going to work here, they won’t be able to see me there, the bar’s open, the last place you did it was closed’ every single thing is different.”

Bellydancers, does this sound familiar?

Every performance is different for us. We make improvisational choices every single time we perform.

When you perform at a restaurant or party there is no fourth wall to break, you are engaging directly with “ordinary people” from the second you appear. Families, couples, birthday parties, work parties, hen nights, rugby clubs…..all react differently to a bellydancer and want to engage in different ways. Or don’t want to engage at all and stare firmly at their dinner as you shimmy past! Sometimes they are happy to get up and be part of your show, sometimes they want to take it over (I like to have a little sit down at that point and let them have their moment!). The presence or absence of alcohol has a big effect on the average British audience when faced with a dancer. Personally I love audience interaction, as a dancer and as an “ordinary person” but it can be a frightening thing for a performer to attempt. Of all performers I think only comedians come close to the level of audience interaction that bellydancers have, and so far Stewart Lee is the only one I’ve seen actually leave the stage and join them (although I believe a lot of the young comedians are doing it now) like, say, Khaled does. Now there’s a comparison :)

Performing in unusual spaces…I bet we’ve all got stories to tell about that! I’ve had audiences on one side of the stage, two sides at a right angle, two opposite sides (had they all had a fight before I arrived?), three sides and in the round. Unexpected pillars, waiters and children. In a theatre, in a church, in a club, in a school, in a field. Very rarely do you know what the space will be like beforehand. If you’ve danced there before it may be different this time, even in your regular restaurant maybe the tables are set up differently, maybe there is a big table rather than four small tables, maybe tables have taken over your performance space! My students and I danced at a big event this summer which has become an annual gig for us. We carefully planned our entrances and exits based on the stage set up that has been used for the past two years only to find that this year it had been changed. Fortunately we are used to adapting to circumstances quickly and everything went smoothly.

All that’s before you consider whether you’re dancing to CD or have the unpredictability of a live band…

So bellydance and stand up have more in common than you might think, right down to the question of “but is it art?”, and I think that is very revealing. Bellydance and stand up are both entertaining, and I think there is a perception that something cannot be both art and entertainment. Art is good for you, but you’re not supposed to enjoy it. Like sprouts :). Why can’t we concede that being entertaining IS an art?

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!