Bellydance Competitions: A Firsthand Account

This weekend was a first in my short career as a bellydancer — I entered my first belly dance competition, the 2009 MAQAM Challenge in the Pro Tribal Soloist category. I have talked about belly dance contests before (see my post “Contests and Certifications — What Are They Worth?”) where I discussed a Gilded Serpent article where Miles Copeland shares his thoughts about competitions.

A few weeks ago, I contacted Kimahri about entering the competition at the last possible second. I got signed up and I had only a few weeks to seriously start working on preparing. Luckily I had enough time to prepare and I could choreograph something really great I could be proud of, right?

…Um, wrong.

Between starting two jobs and life just getting in the way (a continuing problem emerging in my dance career 😀 ), I completely ran out of time to prepare something. On the way down, I gave myself a pep talk — “You’ll be ok… sometimes you don’t do too badly just improv-ing,” “Well… it might be a learning experience. Maybe.” You know. Deeply encouraging self-talk.

Competition morning arrived. Mark and I left my parents house at 8:30 AM to arrive at the competition in Lombard, IL. My category was second. I got to compete against (and I speak completely honestly and genuinely) probably the best 5 tribal dancers I have ever seen in the Midwest — Susan Warner of Illinois, Ayperi of Madison, Jezminda of Illinois (my first tribal teacher!) Eliza of Illinois, and Mae the Bellydancer of Illinois. Not only were they all extraordinarily talented, but every single one of these women were just true professionals — everyone was so supportive of one another and it was a pleasure sharing the stage with these women. What I thought of the competition:

— Susan Warner was obviously an exceptionally well-trained ATS dancer who incorporated flawless cymbal work over perfect hipwork. She did an excellent job of conveying emotion, and I was impressed how she fused a solo performance with ATS technique. Beautiful posture, and overall Susan was just an incredibly genuine person. I praise her for using more patterns that just gallop, and at the one time I took a few eight counts to just focus on her hips, the girl was doing perfect zillwork over perfectly articulated three-quarter shimmies. The girl has SERIOUS skill.

— Ayperi danced with a sword, and I unfortunately did not get to see any of her piece because I was backstage behind a wing, but my family raved about her performance. This girl came all the way from Wisconsin and ended up carrying the first place trophy back home. I’m looking forward to getting my DVD to see her piece!

— Jezminda was THE girl who launched me into the tribal fusion world. I remember going to my first class with her and saying, “I’m a cabaret dancer… I’m not sure about this whole tribal thing.” After watching this girl dance, I was hooked (she also showed me my first Rachel Brice video!). What I really admire about Jezminda is 1) her incredible hip work and 2) her originality. Jezminda did a beautiful double fan dance that had Spanish elements and a ton of characterization — completely unique and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This girl oozes stage presence!

— Eliza dances with the Chicago ATS troupe Jezebelly, who I became a fan of a few years ago after seeing them perform when Rachel Brice came to Chicago. What really sets Eliza part is her beautiful lines of her arms and posture paired with her spot-on technique. Her piece had some really well-played little sassy moments and characterizations. I felt like it was a very thoughtful and well-choreographed wor, truly impressive and just a lot of fun to watch. The audience agreed, and she walked away with the People’s Choice award and tied for second place.

— Mae the Bellydancer took gothic bellydance to a whole new level with her piece. Mae was hands-down the best facial and bodily storyteller I have ever seen. She did a beautiful piece that told a clear story, which I realy appreciated. I feel like belly dance technique is sometimes sacrificed in gothic bellydance while the dancer was focusing on telling the story — absolutely NOT the case with Mae. Not only was her piece technically impressive, but she incorporated a unique prop — she crafted a poi out a wooden ball and a thick rope, a very gothic take on poi. I was quite impressed.

So imagine how nuts I was going backstage — each performance was incredible, I don’t have anything prepared, and I didn’t know my music that well. Right before I went on, however, I had a huge moment of clarity. I looked into myself and I asked what I wanted to present, what I wanted to say, and how I wanted the audience to feel when I danced. I completely got in the most zen state I’ve ever been. When I walked onstage, any half-hearted efforts I had made at choreography left my head. I danced from my soul and shut off my mind competely, something I’ve never been able to do before. 30 seconds before the end of the piece, I remember turning to face the back, and I felt something I had never felt before in a piece: complete and utter exhaustion. I had given all of my energy and stregnth to that performance. I realized I didn’t care how I placed because I had given it everything I had. I was proud of how I did.

After some confusion, I discovered that I had gotten second place. I was really happy with how everyone did, and I feel like first place could really have gone to everyone. It was a tough, tough competition and I just feel honored to have had my first competition have been against such worthy competitors. Ladies, if you’re reading this, thank you for your inspiration and sharing your art and beauty onstage.

Thoughts to leave on:

— Hats off to Kimahri for organzing a professional, classy, good-paced competition. The awards were awarded after each category, and dancers got to take their scorecards and DVD of their performance that DAY. Talk about a smooth and high-class event!

— I think competitions can be a really positive experience or a really negative experience depending on how you approach it. If you go into it focused on ranking or awards you’re bound to either be disappointed or not get a lot of personal growth out of the event. To be honest, for awhile I was stuck in the mindset that I had to get first. But after I watched the other dancers, and I saw how all different we were, I realized… ranks aren’t the most important thing. All of those girls were talented, original artists — what matters is focusing on giving the best performance possible. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the competion of it all. I was glad that what I took away from the event was pride in my work and inspiration from the girls I got to compete with.

Overall, I gained a lot from the experience and I’m glad everything happened exactly the way it did.

Open Forum!

Let’s get some discussions going, folks. I realized while writing my last blog post, “Obsessive Tribe Checking Disorder and Youtubefrenia Outbreaks!” that there are probably tons of great articles, blogs, resources that I’m not blogging about. What do YOU want to discuss? What articles moved you lately? What are you confused about?

C’mon, I wanna know!

Obsessive Tribe Checking Disorder and Youtubefrenia Outbreaks!

Sharon “Shay” Moore: the co-director of Seattle’s Infusion Tribal. If you have been on tribe at all, chances are you have read this woman’s work. In case you don’t recall the name, Shay is that woman on tribe who responds to posts with such insight and accuracy that you’re left in front of your computer, your hands kinda awkwardly drifting over the keys, thinking, “Well darn it, why didn’t I think of that?”

Sadly, I have never gotten to meet this wonderful dancer in person, but we are friends on tribe. I have been following her tribe posts for quite some time, and I’ll tell you, this woman has a good head on her shoulders. I recently found this article on Gilded Serpent, titled, “Does Modern Media Kill the Organic Process?:

http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2009/07/16/sharonorganic/

Some of my favorite snippets:

“Our art as performers exists in a finite amount of time and is never the same twice – no matter how we might strive for consistency, we are not carved of stone or molded metal. As a moving, living, breathing conduit of our art, we are always changing so our art is always changing.”

“…In recent years, in Tribal Bellydance, the expectation to impress or entertain seems to fall squarely on the performers with the audience taking little to no responsibility for their part in the equation. Audiences expect us to deliver an emotional response to them like so much cheesy pizza, while they sit back and wait for it to fall in their laps. And if we don’t hand it to them as “promised”, they find fault with us as performers. Add to that, when we take our art from one venue to another, somehow the expectation is that it should have changed and evolved significantly in the time between, however short. If they see “the same thing”, instead of feeling a responsibility within themselves to try to see it in a new light/from a new perspective with a richer understanding with fresh eyes, they chalk it up to the performer failing them for not bringing them something ‘new and cutting edge.'”

“Basically, no wonder performers these days are so hungrily seeking the next new fad to lead the pack with. The message being sent by bellydance audiences is that if it isn’t the newest, nuttiest, oddest, strangest, sexiest, most different thing on that stage, then it won’t be worth trying to focus their narrow field of attention. But what will last? Being true to ourselves.”

Shay has written an article that, like so many of her tribe posts, threatens to make me stand up and clap in my own house. (My cats are used to these crazy outbursts… they give me that arch cat look that says, ‘Why is that lunatic jumping around again?’ before rolling back in their patch of sun.)

Youtube, tribe, blogs… good lord, I have such a love-hate relationship. I can’t think of another dance form in which the internet has played such a tremendous role. Since BDSS never holds auditions near the Midwest, I was happy when BDSS offered “The Future of Bellydance,” an online scouting site. I love that hours after the Indigo perform at Tribal Fest, chances are I can see their performance on Youtube. I like that teachers like Ansuya and Suhaila are embracing the technologic dance age by offering online classes.

But Shay is absolutely right — this internet age, with all the good it brings, also brings problems. Yes, I love being able to see what the Indigo has thought up this year for Tribal Fest — but I don’t enjoy watching the video and realizing for the next year all I will see in the tribal community is vaudeville and crinolines. (Can you imagine how the Indigo feels? Like Shay said, they must feel enormous pressure to raise the bar — and when they do, they know their great ideas will be copied and regurgitated for years after). I also get a sinking feeling when a dancer dances a beautiful piece and all the Youtube comments say is, “OOh, what’s that song?! I have to dance to it!” I also didn’t enjoy realizing early in my dance career that I was probably spending more time on tribe than I was training. Once that realization hit, I put down the mouse, backed away from the computer, and admitted that I had a problem: I was addicted to a website (Hundreds of bellydancers each year are diagnosed with Obsessive Tribe Checking Disorder… often, it is found in dancers also suffering from Youtubefrenia. Absolutely sobering statistics, no?)

Joking aside, I am grateful for the role the internet has played in my short career as a dancer — especially as an aspiring artist living in the Midwest. I mean, heck, I got into tribal because of Rachel Brice’s Tribal Fest 06 video. Living in Missouri, it is absolutely wonderful to get to see my favorite dancers without flying to Cali. And I do know that the internet will play a pivotal role in my future. I was talking to Asharah about how to do this art form full time, and her first piece of advice was, “Get as much internet exposure as you can.” Think about it: how many artists rely on blogs, frequent Youtube videos, tribe, and websites to get their name out there?

Shay said it best: “Keeping my mind and heart on my troupe sisters and what we want to say with our collective voice, is a surefire way to keep my own creative well overflowing for a long time. It ensures that what we create together will be authentic to us. Dancers could take more risks, and if it didn’t work out, live to dance another day.”

Internet is a great tool, but that’s all it is: a tool. At the end of the day, are you dancing to make people gasp or are you dancing for you? I would suggest to any dancer that finds themselves suffering from Youtubefrenia or OTCD to step back, go outside, journal, go for a walk, listen to your iPod on shuffle… figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don’t try to be someone else, be you! Remember what Ben Folds said: “I do the best imitation of myself.”

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?