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?