Review: Shimmy in the City

As you know, my weekend started with the competition. I must say how well it was run this year, the team was very efficient and kept everything moving so we were finished in time for the open stage to start (or to go and find some food before the hafla!). The Peacock Project was an unofficial third in the group competition – “unofficial” because only first and second place were announced at the hafla but when we spoke to Orit later in the weekend she told us we were ranked third. Not bad going!

The hafla was in the same room at the Fairfield Halls in the evening, and there was a band! They played lots of classics and the dancefloor was soon full. We didn’t really get any impromptu performances although Orit went round the tables getting people up and the other stars got up and joined us all on the dancefloor. It’s pretty awesome to be dancing away and then realise Aziza is dancing next to you! It would have been nice to have some party music playing when the band were taking their breaks, but the quiet music did allow for chatting with friends. So much chatting that Nikki, Candi and I were the last ones there and had to be thrown out!

Last ones standing

Go Home!

I had booked myself onto all of Dina’s workshops because I have been wanting to learn from her FOREVER. She did not disappoint. She is an excellent teacher and it was so interesting to learn about her style of dancing, it’s very different to what I’m used to. Her technique workshop went at a cracking pace. The two choreography workshops (shaabi and Oum Kalsoum) were also pretty challenging, with lots of Dina’s characteristic footwork which looks so easy when she does it but is actually very complicated! We got so muddled up at one point that she had to simplify the step pattern for us. Predictably, the workshops were a scrum, although there was space for everyone and Dina was on a stage so she was easier to see. She was also very good at making everyone sit down while she demonstrated. I highly recommend taking a workshop with her if you have the chance. I also popped in to Orit’s shaabi workshop, just because I thought it would be fun, and it was! I felt like we finished a little early, but maybe everyone was a bit tired by then and didn’t want to do much more.

What can I say about the show…..FANTASTIC. What a line up! In fact I don’t need to say anything because you can just watch the DVD trailer:

 

Two sets of really high quality performances and then a full show from Dina! Time just flies when Dina performs, an hour goes by in a flash.

So there you go, despite what happened at the competition I had a super weekend and I’m sure I’ll be back next year.

And I’m done

Friday ended up being a particularly busy day for me because I ended up dancing in the Shimmy in the City competition three times! I’ve already written about being in the group competition with Peacock Project but I also entered the solo competition. I chose “Esmaooni” for my first piece, which is a song I’ve loved ever since I saw Yasmina dance to it in a workshop and it gave me goosebumps. It’s so full of emotion but it’s not your typical competition piece so I was very surprised when I was called back for the final. In fact I didn’t think I’d be in the final at all. We were told that five dancers would be called back, and when I went back to the hall for the annoucement five dancers were called back then there was an “And finally….” followed by my name! I’d been busy preparing with the Peacocks and had missed the announcement that there would be now six dancers in the final. For my final I danced to “Zaki Ya Zaki” which is a fast, exciting shaabi piece in total contrast to the slower, more soulful piece I’d done earlier. It seemed to go down well.

Afterwards I saw Orit (one of the judges) as we were getting drinks and she told me she loved what I did but that I wouldn’t be placed because I’d danced shaabi, and shaabi isn’t folklore.

Well I know that. In fact I said as much when I watched this competition last year, and was surprised that so many dancers including the winner chose to do shaabi in the folklore round. I’d initially been planning to dance saidi, but had changed my mind about a month ago because I was having a lot of fun with shaabi (one of my classes is learning about it this term). Since it was clearly an acceptable style last year I didn’t anticipate it being a problem this year. I certainly got that wrong!

All respect to Orit for telling me though, I am very grateful to her for setting me straight immediately rather than letting me fret for hours about the result of a competition that I’d effectively disqualified myself from. It wasn’t just me either, one other finalist danced shaabi and another danced baladi and we were all disqualified so the eventual result was simply a case of ranking the remaining three dancers. I don’t think the organisers knew what had happened but the word soon got round the audience. When Khaled announced the results at the hafla in the evening he asked “Is everybody happy with the results?” and there was a looooooong pause before some polite applause. He seemed taken aback. When he saw me at the hotel later someone must have explained because he was very, very apologetic.

This is what happened. The judges decided that the folklore round should be exactly that: folklore. Saidi, fellahi, khaleegy, Alexandrian etc. Given what was allowed last year either the competitors should have been told in advance exactly what styles would be allowed or the judges should have been told that actually in this competition shaabi or baladi were allowed in the second round. There was no organiser on hand at the competition to resolve this situation.The organisers knew what styles we were all planning to dance because we had told them when we submitted our entry forms.

Close friends have followed my career as a competition dancer and made me promise earlier this year that I would stop doing them and that this would be the last one. It’s unfortunate that it had to end like this. I have gained a lot from competitions, the process has taken my dancing to new levels and I like to think that a few more people know who I am. In the two competitions I’ve done this year I’ve been the only finalist from the UK (in fact the only entrant from the UK!). An unanticipated side effect is that competitions have also made me mentally tougher. Every performer needs a thick skin and putting yourself up for that kind of judgement certainly helps you develop one. But another unanticipated, and much less welcome side effect is how cynical they have made me and this is why I am done with competitions. I see them rewarding beautiful, but ultimately superficial dancing, rather than the emotion-filled performances that I love to watch. More than one judge has told me about panels they were on where the results came down to dance politics (who wrote the choreography, who works at who’s festival etc.). That’s disappointing. And as for the video-based competitions that are popping up now…those are nothing more than a test of your social networking ability.

I don’t think that bellydance competitions are necessarily bad. People who have never seen or taken part in one tend to write them off as some kind of sequinned Hunger Games, which is simply nonsense. If anything competitors bond through adversity! If you’re the kind of dancer who doesn’t crumble under pressure and likes a goal to work towards then you can get a lot out of taking part in a competition. Just don’t pay any attention to the results. I used to think that all the results of competition told you was who was the dancer the judges liked best that day, but now I know that they don’t even tell you that.

 

The Peacock Project

It all started almost a year ago, after the Shimmy in the City competition. A couple of people independently had the same idea: could a group of solo dancers come together and learn a dance well enough to perform in a competition? Forming a dance troupe is nothing new, but forming a dance troupe whose members live in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter and London is pretty ambitious.


View Peacock geography in a larger map

Geography was not in our favour, but we thought we could work round that with regular emails, phone meetings and video sharing. What was in our favour was the fact that we were all friends already and had similar styles of dance. Caroline, Elspeth, Hannah, Moyra and Zafirah all knew each other from their time in Edinburgh together, Zafirah and I go way back and I met the others because we kept on seeing each other at Randa’s UK workshops :) so we knew we could get on as a group.

We needed a name though…at first we just referred to what were doing as “The Project”, with the understanding that we’d think of a proper name later. That turned out to be a bit harder than we thought, weeks went by and still noone had any ideas. It wasn’t until we were discussing costumes that inspiration hit. We were discussing colours, Zafirah suggested peacock colours and there was a collective “Oooooooooh!” on the line. It was a short step from there to “The Peacock Project”. There was some discussion of translating it into Arabic, but having heard Arabic names mangled by many MCs over the years it seemed that English was preferable.

The first step of the project to choose our music. A magency was the obvious choice, it’s a good piece of music for a competition anyway and the structure would allow different people to choreograph sections without the difference in style being too jarring. After a bit of editing to bring our music in under the time limit we all chose sections and got to work on our own. We wrote notes and made multiple videos – after all it’s hard to demonstrate the parts for six dancers on your own! The fluffy chicks were a particular highlight.

We had a deadline to work to: our first weekend rehearsal together in Edinburgh. This weekend was focussed on teaching our sections, learning the other sections and seeing if our grand visions could play out in real life. By the end of the weekend we’d learned the whole choreography and had our formation changes mapped out. With videos to help us we went our separate ways to practice, practice and practice some more.

Our second weekend rehearsal was also in Edinburgh, but this time the pressure was on because we were going to perform our dance at the Edinburgh Big Dance on the Sunday afternoon. Elspeth was also taking part in other Big Dance activities, performing with her students and coordinating a bellydance flash mob at the museum. If that wasn’t pressure enough our Friday night rehearsal was much shorter than planned after torrential rain caused landslides which left Zafirah and I stranded on trains for hours, so we had even more to do on Saturday! We remembered a large amount of the group work, and started hammering out the rest of the details, asking questions about issues that had arisen in our solo practice, making decisions on what worked and what didn’t and finding our style as a group. It all worked out in the end and we did our performance on a very gusty stage to an enthusiastic crowd of shoppers.

Our third (and final!) rehearsal was an afternoon in London and sadly one of our flock couldn’t be there due to prior commitments. This was our chance to really dig deep into the details of the choreography and tighten up our formations ready for the competition at Shimmy in the City this Friday. It was also our dress rehearsal, in costumes made by the talented Celia of Edinburgh as well as our in house peacock designer Hannah.

Let me spell it out: we’ve been planning for a year but we’re doing this after five days of dancing all together, and not everyone was there for all of those days. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved together. Everyone has contributed in different ways, whether it’s choreographing, teaching, finding rehearsal space, organising travel, editing music, making videos, making costumes or feeding hungry peacocks. I get really tired of people characterising bellydancers as catty divas, this project has shown just how well a group of solo dancers can work together. We’ve formed a cohesive group but you still get a sense of our individual personalities when we dance. As a choreographer it’s been liberating to be able to write choreography for a group of dancers where I know exactly how many people are dancing (ask anyone who has tried to choreograph for a class performance why this matters!) with no restrictions on what I can ask them to do. As a teacher it’s been educational to learn how other people hear and interpret the same piece of music, and be reminded of the different ways we have of learning and remembering. As a dancer it’s been amazing to work with people who love this dance as much as I do. The Peacock journey will not end on Friday!

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?