Saturday, 14 February 2015

Finding the balance in bellydance performance.

Being a performing bellydancer means fulfilling a complex set of requirements. As performers we are entertainers, our job is to use our skills to bring joy to the audience, to make their event better, or their evening more memorable.

However there is a whole lot more to it than that. We are also artists, we tell our stories, express our interpretations of the world, sometimes we even challenge our audiences and hope they come away with a new perspective.

Then, as skilled practitioners of Raqs Sharqui, we are custodians of an art that, for most of us, comes from a culture different to our own. We become implied ambassadors for Middle Eastern art, culture and music, and the impression our audiences take away from our performance, will undoubtedly influence their overall impression of our artform and its origins. Through this we have a unique opportunity to educate our audiences, and eradicate (or inadvertently perpetuate) harmful stereotypes.

Artist, entertainer or educator?

To an extent individual performers choose where they lie on this spectrum. Some dancers are avid students of Middle Eastern culture, the visit regularly, study with local teachers, they learn the language, they learn to play Arabic instruments, when they dance, they dance as much like a dancer from their style's country of origin as they can, in the most authentic costumes.

Some dancers are aiming for Tarab, that perfect sychronicity of movement, music and emotion. Some are more focussed on being authentic to themselves, telling their own stories. Sometimes this means deviating from cultural authenticity, perhaps fusing Middle Eastern dance with Western danceforms. Sometimes this means pushing the boundaries and challenging audiences in a way that provokes thought and invites criticism.

Entertainment is our last dancer "class". Whether the dancer gets her greatest satisfaction from bringing the party, or because she finds this to be the best way to ensure  a solid income as a professional performer. Being an entertainer means knowing your audience and tailoring your sets to excite and impress them.

Finding the balance by knowing your audience.

Of course in reality no one fits neatly in any of these categories, and the savvy performer will learn how to adjust their sets to fit an appropriate balance for each occasion.

I came to this as a stark realisation when performing at a public event. It was one of the first I had done as a solo professional, after previously preparing performances under the guidance of my teacher. Feeling full of the awesomeness of Raqs, I opened with a bit of Classic Orientale piece, to an instrumental version of an Oum Kalthoum song.

I didn't get far into the performance before I realised my mistake. In this public setting with the audience essentially being passers by, a more subtle performance was unlikely to grab their attention.

A promenade performance needs to be eye catching, your audience is not likely to stop and watch for the full set, so I needed to prioritise being dynamic and conveying a simple message, over  indulging my artistic side. Cultural integrity is great in this setting, it would be a missed opportunity to reach out to an audience who wouldn't normally be exposed to Arabic dance, but I had to get their attention first.

Now, for contrast, sometimes I go into schools to teach and perform. In this setting I have a captive audience, I don't need to work so hard to encourage them to engage with my performance, though I do need to hold their attention. My function in this setting is to provide a cultural education, so I am likely to be performing at my most culturally authentic, probably in a folkloric style. There is a little room for personal flair, it wouldn't be a performance without it, but it is my responsibility to make sure that my audience comes away with an accurate idea of what Middle Eastern dance is all about.

As a final example I am going to take a performance at a niche, dance event, such as Gothla. The audience will be dancers, in the vast majority, who will generally have a good education in the dance and it's origins. They have seen  a lot of performances, authentic, and less so, and this is the ideal forum for individuality and innovation
I know that no one in the audience is going to go home thinking that my performance is an accurate reflection of Egyptian culture, and this is the appropriate forum to dance the material that might be misunderstood in a more conventional setting. However when I dance in a fusion style, I always do so with mindfulness of the foundation, and respect for the danceforms that I am working with, so a touch of the education/culture portion remains.

Every performance will have different requirements, and every dancer will make their own judgements about how they will play their balance for that situation, while others will specifically pick their performances to fit their personal preferences. I'm happy to dance with fire fans to Western music at festival, others market themselves solely to more traditional/culturally authentic settings. Some restaurant dancers aim to give an accurate Cairo nightclub experience, while others invest more energy into interacting with the audience and raising a party atmosphere on more Westernised terms.

Bellydance is a complex and varied artform, with niches for all kinds of performers and all kinds of audience. I love this diversity of opportunities and expression.

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