Finding Your Voice in a Sea of Schtick

Recently I stumbled across the lovely Asharah’s blog, where she discusses dancers using schtick in place of solid belly dance technique:             <– Read “Schtick it out”

She lays out some pretty solid ground rules, including:

  • “You don’t need to imitate Vaudeville routines.  Frankly, you shouldn’t unless you’ve had some serious acting training.
  • You don’t need a gimmick.  If you think your dance alone isn’t memorable, maybe you should work on finding your voice as a dancer.
  • You don’t need a costume that cost you more than you spent on training in one year.  In fact, I highly recommend you spend more on your training than your costuming.  Otherwise you’re just a pretty girl on stage.
  • You don’t need to dance with the latest prop, and if you do use a prop, be a master at the prop.  Don’t bring a sword, veil, water pot, snake, basket, fire, or anything else on stage with you unless you really know how to use it.  Frankly, I’m not impressed by the mere presence of the prop on stage with the dancer.  I want to see that dancer really integrate that prop into her performance so that she is one with that prop, whatever it might be.”

I am seeing a lot of this as well as I round the tribal fusion circuit. Frankly, I think it’s rather fascinating that tribal fusion evolved as, in my opinion, a liberation from the labels of both American Tribal Style and also cabaret bellydance. When I first saw Rachel Brice dance tribal fusion, I saw it as a means to explore a more artistic side of belly dance without feeling confined to a set definition or culture. Now dancers (including myself, I have videos where I am just a little RB clone, when I first started dancing) are taking this incredibly liberating space… and reproducing the same three or four now tired schticks and gimmicks. Why?

You know what I see? I see a lot of dancers struggling to find their voice as an artist. So how do we find our voices without dwelling so long in what I see as a necessary stage — the “copying” stage? Asharah hit the nail on the head — I feel like a large portion of that is studying technique. Learn the history, learn the culture, learn the DANCE in as many ways as possible and from as many angles as possible — then branch out.

In the meantime, as I embark on this lifelong quest to “learn” the subtleties of this dance, here are some ways I am personally trying to learn and develop my voice:

  • Read books. If you take a look at Asharah’s blog, she has a very nice reading list of books on multiple subjects. I am trying to read books on Middle Eastern history and culture (I liked “Serpent of the Nile” by Wendy Buonaventura, a recommended reading book for Suhaila’s Level II class), books that focus on developing your voice as an artist like “The Artist’s Way”, and even books that are influences you could channel (I recently finished a biography on Mata Hari — fascinating). Read as much as you can that could even REMOTELY relate.
  • Train intensely and diversely. More and more (especially as I work with the lovely ladies of the Bellydance Superstars) I am seeing the importance of training. I think it is always important to have a teacher and a mentor whose skill surpasses your own. Not only will you be learning to your fullest, but constantly being around someone who has taken the time to develop and hone their art is inspiring and ego-balancing. I think too, especially with the whole fusion element, study as many different things that you can fuse with your dance. Try ballet, jazz, modern, acting classes, hip hop… I know personally I keep trying to fuse things, but I don’t have a clear sense of WHAT I’m fusing. Know the ins and outs of the two styles you’re learning before you fuse is a mantra I live by. This summer I’m studying yoga, pilates, Odissi dance, and modern dance while trying to train 4 hours a day of belly dance.
  • Don’t teach too early. Who here has made this mistake? *Raises hand* I started teaching tribal after only dancing a YEAR. I think it’s hard to focus on your journey and your artistic development if you’re trying to cater to others or worse, impress them. I feel like new teachers is where a lot of the recycling schtick makes its first appearance.
  • Use your internet time to search for new knowledge and information. As someone who has seen “Rachel Brice at Tribal Fest 6” more times than she cares to admit, I am now trying to focus on research NEW inspirations and new things. Tribe can be a great resource, but I kinda feel like it’s like a mini-high school — people are constantly talking, reviewing, asking for song names. Depending on the person, this can be a positive or negative resource. My word of advice is spend less time on tribe figuring out every song Zoe Jakes has danced to and instead google “Mata Hari” or “Odissi Dance” or “Martha Graham” and form your own inspirations as opposed to constantly watching another person’s interpretations of them.

Honestly and personally, a lot of this has led to my decision to break away from the tribal fusion label and try something new. I feel like this is really necessary in my quest to become an original artist, because I’ll be the first to tell you that I have not found my artistic voice completely yet. Building my website has kind of thrown that into perspective. Try writing a description for your dancing when you’re still figuring out what you like and how you move!

I hardly believe I have gotten this figured out — on the contrary. I’m right in the thick of this quest, figuring it out as I go along just like everyone else. So yeah, I might look at a badass Rachel Brice solo and be inclined to give in to that urge to imitate and pile on the schtick, but for now, I’m going to resist the urge to buy a crinoline and watch some more Martha Graham videos.

6 responses to “Finding Your Voice in a Sea of Schtick

  1. Totally agree with every single word.
    I’m especially thinking about the ‘Dont teach to early’ paragraph. I’m daning from only 8 months, and I’m only 15, but my teacher said, that she might be moving in about 3 years. She asked me if I would like to take her place. I know I have lots of time to make the decision, but I am not sure if Ill be ready. On the other hand, if I’ll have the choice of working part time after school in some stupid shop or even worse pub etc., or teaching dancing… Well, there is no comparing really is there? 🙂

    On learing new styles and researching… I am trying not to bankrupt my dear mum 🙂 but I hope to learn many more styles of dance – especially belly-dance related in the future.

    I’ve read in one of your previous posts you’ll be coming to England in fall… did you mean Raqs Britannia? I’d love to meet you! Hope touring goes well and you’re having fun!

  2. Here here!
    Totally well said and TRUE. Especially after going to Tribal Fest now for a couple of years, I’ve definitely started to see this happening with tribal fusion, and I think a lot of dancers do need this sort of wakeup call. Well said! 🙂

  3. Hello, it’s me again…

    I just wondered what you meant when you said you weren’t going to try to do tribal fusion anymore. Which style, then? Are you going to pursue lots of different ones to see which ones fit you? Are you still bellydancing or just dancing in general?

  4. I’m often confused by the notion that a dancer needs to have a preordained “style”. Every dancer should find her own style, which is one of the main points of this post. How wonderfully liberating, how deliciously rich and new the dance becomes in each dancer’s mind and body if we don’t box ourselves in to a style.

  5. Came across this post today and just wanted to not be a lurker and say “great post”! Some great thoughts in here. And Asharah’s blog is da bomb, ain’t it? Hope to get to read more of your musings!

  6. Along the lines of reading&training in dance….I read something really interesting about experimentation–in a cookbook, of all places–that I think can be applied to many art forms. Some Chinese master chef (or was it philosopher) insisted that before one starts immersing themself in experiments (or fusions in this case) then claiming them as something original to themself, they should first truely learn as much of the history as possible about what’s already been DONE. Then they can truely say they are creating something original. I’m going to hunt down that anecdote and repost because I don’t think I get the point across as well as it sounded when I read it!

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