Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sneaky fusion - The subtle influences that bleed into our dance.

I've been thinking a lot about fusion lately.

There is a whole spectrum of thought in the bellydance community about fusing Middle Eastern dance, both on a technical and artistic level. While some dancers believe that the dances should remain "unpolluted" for reasons of preservation or appropriation, others are more willing to mix it up. But this isn't the place for that debate, I haven't got long enough to even cover the tip of that iceberg today!!

Usually fusion, well, good fusion, means a dancer who has a solid training and understanding of 2 or more dance forms, blends them together into a performance that uses elements of both, where the origins are clear. Hopefully this is done tastefully and sympathetically, but not always, which is why people sometimes get twitchy about it.

Some kinds of fusion, like Tribal Fusion, have gained a life of their own and are now taught independently of the parent styles.

But that's still not what I want to talk about today. What I have been thinking about lately is incidental fusion. Where movement, posture, gesture, bearing or stylisation bleeds into bellydance, without really being acknowledged, maybe not even by the dancer herself.

This is a metaphor. A delicious metaphor.

Whether we like it or not, "bellydance" has been subject to fusion from the outset. Many of the "folkloric" styles taught for performance have been tweaked for that purpose generations ago and are no longer strictly authentic. Most infamously Mahmoud Reda took dances from all over Egypt and adapted them for stage and screen. He was heavily influenced by Western musical theatre and film. He even created new dances for regions that did not have a suitable local dance.

Tahia Carioca took her stage name from the Brazillian dance steps she incorporated into her shows.

Samia Gamal notoriously took ballet training which is evident in her arm carriage and graceful movement. I have never studied ballet, but I know that it has an influence on my Oriental style because Gamal's performances, along with several other ballet-influenced Oriental dancers, are inspirational to me.

Cross training in dance styles is not new in Raqs Sharqui, and allowing an "accent" to show through from this training has, in some cases, become important in a dancer's uniqueness.

I recently did a workshop with Ava Fleming entitled "Ballroom for Bellydancers" where I learned that her trademark fluid travelling technique has a strong Latin ballroom influence. 

I also noticed during these workshops, that when I walk slowly in dance, I trail my back toe, partly for balance, partly for ooze. It took me a while to realise that I learned this habit taking Argentinian Tango lessons.

Then more recently I have been working on a short choreography by Collena Shakti. There's no Arabic element in this dance at all, but I chose it specifically because I wanted to cross train in terms of arm pathways, hand awareness (crucial in the Classical Indian elements of this dance) and eyeline. The impact this has had on my Raqs Sharqui was immediate and unconscious. Which was the point. I can drill bellydance arms (and ballet arms, thanks Aziza) forever, but getting out of my comfort zone and learning something new heightened my awareness and forced the learning curve.

While teaching this choreography, Collena explains the influences. The Persian in there is very subtle, it's about posture and bodylines. I wouldn't have seen it if she hadn't mentioned it, but it makes an impact on the presentation that is unmistakable.

In short, the more you delve into it, the more apparent it is that there is more fusion in our dance than we might at first assume.

This got me thinking about how easily our dancing can be influenced. I've written before about how witnessing dance without learning or practicing it can affect our brains and our muscle memory. I wondered how many of the hundreds of performances of various dance styles I have witnessed have left a subtle impression somewhere on my dance. A little gesture here, a subtle element of musicality there.

And it isn't just dancing either. I know that I use poses, gestures, expressions etc from a variety of sources, images and non-dance performance when I create a new piece; every day all of us are exposed to a myriad of sources of inspiration, that are all adding their tiny flavour somewhere. Maybe it will come out, maybe it won't.

I try to be mindful of inauthentic elements creeping into my performance. If they are there I want to know they are there and why. But I also find it fascinating how each of us is building our unique dance fingerprint; created and continuously adjusted by how we practice and what we witness every day.

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