Certifications and Contests: What Are They Worth?

Came across a little article on tribe where Miles Copeland, owner of the Bellydance Superstars, discusses his views on belly dance contests and certifications.

Miles has a lot of interesting opinions. It’s intriguing reading, especially coming from a business standpoint. And after working closely with him, I can you one thing with a certainty: Miles Copeland is a brilliant, intelligent businessman that has been doing this for a looong, long time. I certainly put stock in what he has to say about the business aspect. I learned a lot from him just setting up the merchandise table with him and talking to him about products. I found what he had to say was definite food for thought.

Miles wrote:

“There appears to be more and more people getting into the Bellydance act, advertising events, contests or whatever who promise to film the entrant/student/winner/participant, then to release them on the market via DVD/video, imagining this is a great enticement to get dancers to become involved.  What the unwitting participants who fall for this “ come-on” are failing to realize is that by adding themselves to such a DVD, they have no quality control and they may become less interesting to some entity like the BDSS or other professional organizations that can, in reality, help advance a career. Simply put, it takes a lot of investment to build a star, and it takes a lot of investment to do a proper job filming one.  To take on that challenge, naturally, a producer would want a dancer who is not already readily available on the market in another product so that her rarity value has become diminished already… From my pure business standpoint (and I am certainly not the only one), a fresh dancer is 100 times more interesting than a dancer who has already had film clips out on DVDs from other companies.”

And:

“Another unfortunate development is the idea that winning a contest is a short cut to developing status in the business that can be used to hype a dancer’s credits as a teacher. It’s as if the contest win were a diploma, her ticket to teach! Yet, from experience, I can tell you that the worst judges of musicians are other musicians, just as the worst judges of dancers are other dancers (especially ones that cannot ever give you a job and have to pay the price of the choice they make).”

And more:

“More often lately, the BDSS organization is asked to give out certificates to students who have attended a series of BDSS workshops… If I were to fall into this practice, I would, in short order, have thousands of students of talent, as well as students with no talent, armed with a “BDSS Certificate”, inferring that they were Bellydance experts. This might make me more money in the short term, but it would not help Bellydance overall. It would, in the long run, undermine the reputation of the BDSS.  If we ever do give out any sort of certificate, it will be to dancers who deserve a credit and “have the goods”. I have hundreds of Bellydance resumes on my desk.  I never read them because 99% of their credits are meaningless and tell me nothing unless they are a credit from a reputable school where study happened over an extensive period of time.   What good is a certificate, saying you took 10 lessons with so and so?  What does that tell me?”

My thoughts on the matter:

1) IMPATIENCE. I think, in general, one of the largest problems plaguing the bellydance community is our impatience. I feel like dancers nowadays (I include myself in this category) are SO IMPATIENT to progress. There’s this desire to learn as quickly as possible so they can go out and teach. I heard a story of a girl that took less than a full semester of belly dance classes and is now hoping to teach others. Belly dance’s greatest strength is also it’s greatest weakness — anyone can do it. With ballet, there’s no faking pointe — you can either dance en pointe or not. With bellydance, it is really easy to “fake it until you make it.” And this furthers the cycle — what is a young belly dancer supposed to think when they take a few classes and realize their skill matches their teacher’s? Would it not seem natural to go out and teach yourself? “Hey,” the dancer thinks, “I know as much as her. I can teach!”

We need to stress to our fellow dancers and in our communities the idea that you have to train and learn for years before you are ready to teach (think back to those martial art movie montages of them training for a billion years). I believe it is essential to always have a teacher, and especially one who inspires you with their attitude and skill. For this reason, I have ALWAYS sought out teachers who’s skill wildly surpasses my own (Kandice Grossman, Suhaila). It’s easier for me to be patient with myself and check my ego when I see my teacher performing something that will take me years to perfect, and I am reminded of the years of training and preparation that they have undergone. But hey, I know for a fact that I began performing and teaching to early. I know how tempting it is, and the more I learn, the more I realize I have yet to learn.

2) DVDs. How does this impatience rant fit into this article? I’ll tell you. I have heard from many dancers that being on a DVD is the way to start a career. Look at Asharah — her (extremely excellent) DVD launched her career. Younger dancers see this and I think the “it doesn’t matter what a DVD is like, I NEED to be on one.” Therefore, the artistry and years of experience that have gone into DVDs like Asharah’s, for example, are NOT present in the DVDs that are impatiently been churned out. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again — the best advice I ever got was from Petite Jamilla. She said, “Think of yourself and your art as a business. How would you market YOURSELF?” I think once a dancer has learned to respect dedication and the years of training that have to go into this art, this skill comes. What would you, as a business, want your name on? Would you want some of your early performances forever immortalized on a DVD? I think Miles brings up a good point — if you’re going to do a project like a DVD, do it well, do it right — don’t hurt your business by having your name forever associated with inferior product.

3) CONTESTS. This was interesting for me to read, because I have been considering entering a contest as a tool for furthering my career. But Miles’ comments got me thinking — your contest win is really only as significant as the dancers you compete against, the same way Lance Armstrong kicking my ass in a bicycle race isn’t really a significant win for him. “Yet, from experience, I can tell you that the worst judges of musicians are other musicians, just as the worst judges of dancers are other dancers (especially ones that cannot ever give you a job and have to pay the price of the choice they make).” This comment made me think. I agree and disagree with it. I think people see different things when they watch a dancer — I do think that artists see art, and businessmen see business prospects. In that sense, what I see as beautiful and stirring may not be marketable for the masses. It is true that if a dancer in a show I’m organizing sucks, it’s not really something that negatively affects me unless it keeps occuring or if it significantly detracts from the quality of the show. However, my rebuttal to Miles’ point is this: a lot of BDSS’ audience is… dancers. When I watch a dancer, I can see so much more than just the movements. You can see a dancer’s influences, their training, their confidence, how open they are to the audience… these finer points can be lost if the analysis comes from a pure business standpoint.

4) CERTIFICATIONS. Here’s where Miles and I differ. I am level II certified in the Suhaila Salimpour School of Dance, and I believe every penny I have spent on my certification has helped me become a better dancer. I learned proper form, I have drilled millions of glute singles and undulations, I have an introduction to formal dance training.  When I say I am level II, I believe it says that there is a certain standard of excellence that my technique MUST adhere to. I earned that right through my sweat, tears, sore muscles, and bruises. If you take ONE workshop with Suhaila, regardless of how you feel about the testing process, you will see that this training and format liberates you body to present and combination of movements you desire safely and effectively. Now, I’m not an elitist. I know tons of incredible dancers that aren’t certified. And I don’t look down on their choices — the format is NOT for everyone. But I find it incredibly offensive when people tell me I’ve wasted my money and time. I would never say that to a fellow dancer, and I don’t deserve it either.

All and all, I thought the article was interesting to see from a business standpoint. What are your thoughts?

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2 responses to “Certifications and Contests: What Are They Worth?

  1. I think the article was interesting but biased. It made me feel like he was talking as though bellydancers aspire to be only in a “professional” troupe like his as opposed to someone like Asharah (as you mentioned) who’s made a name for herself through hard work. If a dancer is going to make a dvd, she needs to a) be at the pro level of dancing and b) pick a great production company. That’s why I love World Dance New York. They pick women who are already strong dancers on their own and give them quality videos.

    To be quite honest, I’m not a fan of bellydance contests or groups like BDSS (though I do love their shows and dancers) mostly because I feel like it is moving away from the meaning of why so many women are drawn to the dance in the first place. It feels over-commercialized and missing that grassroots feel. In regards to contests, I think it’s great to be humbled by the fact that there will always be a better dancer out there but bellydance is not about winning or losing. It’s about dancing from your heart and sharing that love and warmth with others. So whenever I see someone trying to make the big bucks off of something like this, it hurts. I’m pry a bit overly sentimental but that’s what I get for going through the j-school that’s anti-advertisement. If you want to enter a contest for more performance experience that I can understand, but not to say you beat out however many girls.

    Certification is not for everyone. But it is more about the process than that piece of paper you earn at the end of the day. I know that some teachers have their own versions of certifications and levels to ensure that the girls who end up in their troupes, or taking over classes have had the proper training. Nothing wrong with that. We need a good solid foundation. Every dancer is carrying down the artform and if that gets lost then it will be next to impossible to bring it back. Like the contests, certification is nice if you don’t let it get to your head and do it for the right reasons and not to boost your credits.

    In terms of teaching, dancers should wait a couple of years before they start running their own classes. However, I think that if you aspire to be a teacher you do need some experience. You wouldn’t just throw a woman into a kindergarten class and expect her to know how to teach kids to read without having first gone through school as education major. Same with dance. That’s why I think it’s good to have student teachers or to lead the occasional class here or there with the guidance of the master teacher. There are some things you just have to learn by experience. You may be the best dancer in your area, but if you don’t have the communication skills and know-how to transmit to your students, then you will ultimately fail. So getting the practice in some capacity early on will help shake out the kinks so when you are ready to start teaching regularly and on your own, you’ll be prepared more thoroughly.

  2. What I always love about your posts, Erin, is that they are thoughtful, well-reasoned, and always bring up great points. Personally, I wish more people would take the time and thought that you do to present their case. Some thoughts I had in response to your thoughts:
    1) Commercialism. I hear you on that — I have a very protective love of the simplicity, purity, and almost primal element of belly dance. It’s a dance for women, by women to strengthen our community and sense of self – that’s such a beautiful thing, isn’t it? But I also feel torn. I truly do think that the Bellydance Superstars’ goal is to find amazing, artistic dancers and further promote a positive view of belly dance in the United States and abroad. Whether the big stage shows they present qualify as art to each particular audience member is interpreted as art is impossible to control. I think there are a lot of dancers who see this loss of that pure and primal element of belly dance as completely desecrating the art form, and I can see validity in that argument. However, I do respect BDSS for taking dancers and furthering their careers. Take Rachel Brice and the whole tribal fusion movement (which had been performed in Cali for years before she joined BDSS, I know) and exposing it to dancers worldwide. I know I started dancing because I saw Rachel Brice dance on a BDSS video, so I do have a soft spot for that. It’s nice to see that dancers get the exposure they deserve.
    2) I think one of your main points was, “contests and certifications can be great if you know how to handle them.” EXCELLENT point. I know Suhaila-trained dancers who are in it for the certificate and the bragging rights and I know people who enter contests to toot their own horn. If you enter a contest or certification with the goal of improving yourself as an artist at dancer as a motivation, I think neither can go awry.
    3) Teaching. The student-teacher point was a great point to make, and I’m quite glad you did. I see no problem with a young dancer training early on to be a teacher and participate in events like student teaching. Again, it goes back to motivations, ego, and situation. I think it is wonderful for well-established, well-trained teachers to show dancers like us the ropes of teaching and learning through their experience (which is why I am grateful to be teaching under Kandi’s tutelage). What I am not comfortable with is ego leading the path to teaching – “I’m good enough, I’M going to teach!” (which obviously is the last words I would ever picture coming from your mouth, Erin – this whole point is not directed at you at all! However, I do feel it’s important to be reminded of).
    4) If I had to identify and underlying message to what I was trying to hint at, here’s it: Fellow dancers, let’s not be in a hurry to rush our education. Let’s enjoy the ride, constantly check our ego while staying positive and true to ourselves, and let’s try and further our education and personal growth as much as possible, even if that means certifying in a format or competing in a contest.

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