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Monday, May 21, 2012

Why We Suck at Dancing, and What We Can Do About It

A Very Rare Vent from Alay'nya - "Why We Suck" - and (Most Importantly) "What We Can Do About It"

OK, darlings. Let me come clean. I've been dancing for almost thirty years. Teaching for over twenty. And during that time, I've seen a whole lot of belly dance. And very most likely, you have as well.

And now that I'm moving out from the "writing Sabbatical" (the three years that it took to move from a raw draft to a published book, and the first year "soft launch" of marketing), I'm back to dancing again. And to watching you dance. And watching our friends, our teachers, and whomever else we can find.

And I'm back with one of my original opinions of the quality of our performances. Overall, we kind of suck.

The best that we can say - the kindest word - is that most of us are "enthusiastic hobbyists."

Claudette Dessorgher says this much better than I could - or would - until inspired by reading her article in Gilded Serpent, Beyond the Restaurant: How Can We Bring Bellydance to a Wider Audience?:

However if we stand back and watch most hafla and showcase performances objectively, we have to be honest and say that, in comparison to other dance genres, the standard is very low.

Of course this is largely down to the fact that most bellydancers come to the dance fairly late in life, unlike other dance forms where children start training in their early years. By far the majority are hobbyists with full time jobs, so are unable to take the daily class that mainstream dancers expect, and even if they could, there are precious few advanced classes available in most towns and cities.

Ms. Desorgher goes on to make a number of useful points, and she offers suggestions on what we can - and should - do as a community. (This really is a good article. Go read it.

But to elaborate on her point: Most of the time, our shows are simply boring.

There's a reason for that.

Dance is not just a "visual" performing art. When we go watch a dance performance, unless it is really very technically good - and visually engaging - we're not going to be greatly enthralled. If we want a simple "visual" performance, we should watch the American Ballet Company performing one of George Balanchine's classic works.

But you know what? Balanchine is cold. His work is abstractly beautiful, but it doesn't engage me emotionally - even when the music is lively, and when the dancers are smiling and sparkly. And even watching interesting patterns as they move and fancy choreographies - that doesn't do much for me either.

That's because there is a real difference between Oriental dance (belly dance) and classic ballet. Oriental dance is meant to be an emotional expression - an emotional communication between dancer and audience (or dancer and musician and audience). And it is also a kinesthetic - a visceral - experience.

Ms. Desorgher suggests that one reason that our overall "community-level" performances are not as exciting as they could be is that many of us start late in life. Also, many of us don't have access to advanced classes.

All true.

But that still misses the point.

We don't look as good as we might because, by and large, we're not present in our bodies as we dance. We're way too often in our heads. (I've seen dancers count their way through choreographies; haven't you?) Dance is meant to be in our bodies, not our heads.

All too often - actually, most of the time - we're not "connected" in our bodies, either. That means, we are separately moving around our body parts. We may move an arm at the same time as we do a hip drop or a turn, but for most of us, the two movements are not "connected" inside our bodies. And it shows. It really shows. We look a whole lot more as though we're following the leader in an aerobics class than we are doing a dance.

Finally, we are - as a community - seriously deficient in three major areas. First, we don't have a "principles-based" approach. If we take a look at our sister art (actually, our "brother art"), T'ai Chi Ch'uan, we'll see that it comes out of Principles. At least, if you're studying with a really great teacher, it does. (For an example, check out Peter Ralston.)

Second, we're deficient in understanding and consciously using our "emotional vocabulary." Instead, we have a set of stylized gestures. By and large, we don't know or understand how various movements - whether a gesture or a movement in space - communicate very specific emotional messages.

Third, we're by and large still locked up in our bodies. Most of us have not yet done the emotional release work that allows us to effectively convey dance to our audience, and to experience a dance movement throughout our entire being. So if we're locked up, if we're not released, then our audience gains nothing by watching us.

Ideally, though, we take our audiences into a different state of being. We take them on an internal, magical story-ride, and they find a certain sense of release - an emotional experience - in watching us dance.

How to get there?

Well, I've just committed to Lynette Harris, Founder and Editor of the Gilded Serpent, to do a series of articles on just this topic. And because dance is visual/kinesthetic, I'm going to have to follow up with video. So this is a commitment, from me to you.

But one tiny little first step that each of us can take?

Do yoga. Get those hips, pelvis, and lower back released. Then do your hip shimmies and figure eights.

Also, the next time you're going to perform - warm up before you go on stage. You'll look a whole lot better if you do. Really. Seriously. Take my word for it. It will help you look better, feel better, present better, and minimize the likelihood of injuries.

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