Helsinki Bus Station Theory

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and individual style recently. Everyone knows there are different styles of bellydance, mostly defined by geography and time. For example, the style I do is rooted firmly in present day Egypt. It’s different to the style you’d see in Egypt 50 years ago, or the style you might see in Turkey today. It’s easy for a dancer to be exposed to many different styles of dance through workshops and videos, and to choose the ones they want to pursue further. Finding your individual style within that dance is another thing altogether. After 15 years of studying I think I’m just getting a handle on what makes my dancing my own 🙂 I have it in mind to write a series of posts so don’t be too disappointed that this one doesn’t cover absolutely everything there is about finding your own style!

Which brings me to Helsinki Bus Station Theory. What, you’ve never heard of it? Well, neither had I until it was mentioned in my Twitter feed, and I found the name intriguing enough to read further. The link will take you to a written excerpt from the original speech by photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. Do read the whole thing if you have time. I’m going to use a shorter quote from a Guardian article:

There are two dozen platforms…from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.

This resonated so strongly, and not just because I enjoy extending metaphors as far as they will go. As I said above, it’s easy enough for dancers to try different styles – they are getting on one bus for a bit, rushing back to the station, hopping on another, riding it for a little while then back to the station to get on another. And this is all fine when you are starting out and having fun exploring this amazing shiny world of bellydance but if you want to be of a professional standard you are never going to develop any depth to your dancing by only riding each bus for a couple of stops. There are the bellydancers who describe what they do as a fusion of Egyptian, Turkish, Tribal, Indian, flamenco and whatever else they found down the back of the sofa and claim it constitutes their very own original style. I’ve rarely seen anything interesting or coherant come from that.

It’s another version of know the rules before you break them. Knowing when and how to break the rules is far more exciting than just claiming there were no rules in the first place. When you know the other bus routes you know when your route has diverged and you’re doing something truly original.

My route has been following an Egyptian line for a long time now, and I have worried that at times it’s been following other dancers’ buses too closely, but I stayed on it and it’s taken me somewhere new. You can make a career out of tailgating another bus but it can’t be as artistically satisfying as finding your own way.