Performing at Untitled for Halloween with the incomparable Lady Jack.
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?:
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.”
Recently I stumbled across the lovely Asharah’s blog, where she discusses dancers using schtick in place of solid belly dance technique:
http://bdpaladin.com/ <– 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.