Saturday, 21 February 2015

Diva skills, Don't be shady, be a lady!

Continuing with my series about making yourself a better dancer and performer through the example of drag queens.

Today we are looking at shade.

It is well understood that drag queens can be mean and catty, sometimes this is intentionally mean, sometimes it is friendly banter, often it is somewhere inbetween. In fact "reading", the art of wittily and incisively pointing out someone's flaws as seen in Paris is Burning, is pretty much a sport in itself (that link has NSFW language). Being read is the natural companion to the important performer/artist skill, of not taking yourself too seriously; it's interesting to watch the reading challenge on Drag Race, and note the queens who really get in on the joke - they are often the better entertainers. A good read makes everyone laugh, even the subject, but when an insult it blunt, vicious and not intended lightly, it becomes "shade". The title of this post comes from Stacey Lane Matthews, who in season 3 of RuPaul's Drag race made a point of rising above the shade-throwing antics of her peers, and it is this that I would like to focus on.

So what has shade got to do with bellydance?

Quite a lot actually. We are part of a diverse but tight knit community of passionate artists, so sometimes people disagree. Bellydancers are all kinds of people, different ages, different music tastes, different aesthetics and different dance styles, so it is human nature that "tribes" and cliques will form.

The dance circles I move in are generally very pleasant and supportive. We recognise our shared love of the dance and celebrate our differences. I do occasionally encounter a shady dancer, or find myself witnessing a fevered debate between dancers whose ethos or opinions clash. I also know dancers who have been involved in more unpleasant rivalries within the community and it gives pause for thought.

Shade is not good for the community.

It appears that a lot of shade comes out of a perceived competition between dancers. Insecurity or a need to "get ahead" sometimes leads to dancers putting each other down. The truth however is that there is not a limited amount of talent to go around. You are not going to get better by dragging others down, and if you could, would that be a sweet victory? Only you can dance your dance. Bring others up with you, don't trample them, raising the quality of dance performances in general is good for all of us. If you really wish to get ahead, save the energy and use it productively to become a better dancer instead.

When dancers consider themselves rivals, it divides the community. Teachers who support each others events, haflas and workshops aren't sending their students away, they are igniting and rekindling their enthusiasm for the dance by offering them increased opportunities. If we trust our students to recognise the value of our classes, and endeavour to deliver good teaching whilst working on our own dance and knowledge, they will come back. If they don't enjoy our classes, then they won't keep coming, whether there is another teacher to go to or not. If we introduce them to a teacher who suits them better however, we keep them in the community. Maybe they will come back for our workshops and events. Maybe they will come back to class if, in future, their interest shifts more towards our speciality. By helping our students to find their niche, even if that is with another teacher, we nourish our students, we strengthen our community and we earn their trust.

Shade is not professional

It should be go without saying that public, uncivil arguments, spreading gossip rumours or insulting individuals is ungraceful and ugly. I don't want to take classes with a teacher who is unpleasant, whether that be in person, or passive aggressively on social media, to me or anyone else. Dance takes up a huge amount of my time, I'm going to spend it with people who are positive and enthusiastic. Professionalism is not just for people who make their living through dance either. Being pleasant, tolerant and tactful opens doors and is a great way for every dancer to help make everyone's dance experience better.

Is shade ever OK?

So is it ever ok to throw shade as a dancer? Or are there better alternatives? Sometimes it's not entirely appropriate or healthy to be all sweetness and light, is shade sometimes appropriate?

Counters and defence

Sometimes people behave in a way that damages our community, like undercutting, behaving unprofessionally (tarring the reputation of other performers by association) or presenting poor quality or sleazy performances in a professional setting. Many of us work very hard to ensure our dance is perceived as the skilled and serious artform that it is, and it can be immensely frustrating to see people damaging our reputation and livelihood, either willfully or through ignorance.

Another instance you might consider is when an individual is throwing a lot of shade themselves. Should you counter it? Or find another way?

The truth of it is, that if you start badmouthing (or badtyping) other people, you are not going to come out of it well. You can't sling mud without getting your hands dirty.  When people hear you say bad things about other people, the bad feeling that comes from that ends up being associated with you, not your subject, no matter how much they might deserve it. So first and foremost, consider your audience. It's probably OK to whine about the dancer who behaved badly at your local restaurant leaving the organiser sworn off bellydancers forever.... in private, in your own circles, to others who share your disappointment. It's not OK to post about it all over your professional Facebook page. If you have to vent, do it to someone you trust, who knows you well.

It might be appropriate to tactfully approach the individual and explain the issue to them. Most good teachers and mentors school their students in professionalism and etiquette, some slip through the net. Be gentle and supportive and you might be helping them on the path of being a great member of the community.

Some individuals know better, but refuse to do better. You can't change their mind, but going around warning people off them isn't going to help you either. What you can do is demonstrate your own values, professionalism and skill. People aren't daft, they'll realise for themselves.

When is shade not shade? When it's T.

There's a phrase that you will hear amongst drag queens: No T no shade. It's like the drag equivalent of "no offence but...." T stands for truth, and sometimes we need a good tactful dose of truth for our own good. There is a fine line however between being honest and being rude.

I have a few close dance-friends who I trust to "serve T" in a supportive and enriching manner. They get to be brutally honest because I can trust them not to break me in the process. We all need people like this, at the very least someone who will tell you if you are about to make an almighty fool of yourself or drag you off stage if your skirt is tucked into your knickers.

But this sort of truth shouldn't come unsolicited. Don't critique a performance unless you are asked for your opinion, that's rude and potentially damaging. Similarly it is better to walk away than give a half hearted or backhanded compliment. One of my favourite instances of shade was Aretha Franklin's clipped response to a question about Taylor Swift "Great gowns. Beautiful gowns."  Technically a compliment, but with scandalously shady intent. Make sure that your feedback is heartfelt and clear.

So this brings us full circle. While bantering or giving honest feedback with your closest dance buddies is great, there is really no situation in dance when putting down another person is the optimal route to take.

Don't be shady, be a lady!

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