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?