Internet “Research”: Life in the Social Media Bellysphere

Dancer (presumably) asks a question an online discussion board. Good. Questions are good!

Said question is about a seemingly straightforward but actually complicated topic that involves major historical changes; changes that in fact have altered movement, costuming, location, language, status, or music, and most importantly, real peoples lives.

Nice people, some of whom have dedicated part of their lives to researching said topic(s) and some of whom have actually lived said topics, reply. Most know not to give it all away on the internet.

Others, many of whom are two, three, four, five steps removed from anything that can remotely be considered a source, offer various opinions freely.

Sometimes the discussion here is good, sometimes it fizzles.

Many of the replies offer references for further study that require purchasing a book, attending a class, traveling, interviewing someone, being patient, suggesting that the question might actually be framed inadequately in order to move forward, or kind hints to do some actual research beyond asking in a facebook group.

Some of that research may not be able to be completed in English.

Some of that research may not be able to be completed in the original querents location.

Sometimes the discussion here is good, sometimes it fizzles.

There is rarely one answer.

Finally, and almost invariably, and now dozens to hundreds of posts in, the dancer (presumably) who asked the original question lets everyone know that the replies are helpful and all but s/he really needs to know now because she is about to teach it/write about it/speak on a panel about it/put themself out there as an expert on it.

Weekly*, you guys.

WEEKLY.

*conservative estimate

 

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Sign of the times

I remember as a ‘baby dancer’* my first belly dance teacher, Leea, would have student nights about 4 times per year for her dancers to perform. She had beginners, working pros, and everything in between, and quarterly we would all come together to support one another and be inspired by one another. This was still a time, albeit the tail end though we did not realize it, when live music was the norm for dancers, and from the beginning I was out there with musicians that I did not realize at the time were incredibly accomplished and experienced in the field (as I grew and developed as a dancer, I would later have opportunities to work with many of them professionally as well and realized how lucky I had been right at the start of my experience as a teenage wannabe…whoa!).

Once a year our studio would also have what Leea called ‘alternative music night’, an evening of in-studio performances where we could dance for one another to non-Arab/Egyptian/Turkish/Greek/MiddleEastern/Mediterranean/Belly Dance music. It was a hoot. People would pull out random stuff that they listened to in their daily life to perform to, from metal to bluegrass, or sometimes people would choose things like rai music—-music from the regions our dances were inspired by, but that normally would not fly for belly dance performances. It was a night to be silly and have fun and let loose and show another side of ourselves. It was understood that it was indeed alternative and not the norm for our normal style of dance.

How things change! Within our subculture of global belly dance, fusion styles and folks utilizing belly dance movement separated from the music and cultural expression have exploded in popularity in the last 10 to 15 years. Today there are communities and studios where having an occasional traditional music night is the alternative to the norm!

The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles.
The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles, not necessarily linearly.

The problem is that movement separated from music and cultural knowledge or expression can often look like (bad) jazz dancing or poorly trained contemporary dance, or look like some sort of burlesque (I use the term here to mean a caricature of sorts). This is certainly not to paint fusion dancers with the same brush—-there are dancers working under the umbrella of belly dance fusion who are doing interesting work of which I am a fan. It is meant to be a general observation and shared memory of how things have changed, and perhaps a small reminder not to assume that because something is newer or developed in a certain place that it is somehow better.

Sign of the times, eh?

*affectionate term for new dancers common in the 80s and 90s

P.S. I chose a photo of Samia Gamal playing a genie named Kahramana in the 1949 film Afrita Hanem, as in the film she portrays various characters, often through dance and costume, as she playfully manipulates the character played by Farid Atrache. An original concept of alternative for modern “belly dancers”, perhaps?

Extremes: Thinking out loud for a bit

The majority of people who came to my workshop reported that the reason they did so was because the word “gentle” appeared in the title. When we got into practice, something became clear: folks had very little sense of there being any middle ground. Either you’re lying around on bolsters with no  “work” involved or doing high impact aerobic asana and sweating yourself into a frenzy. The suggestion that any pose can be done in a slower and simpler way seemed foreign to the familiar models. I couldn’t help but feel that these extremes in practice sensibility, as well as the comments on Facebook, are reflecting a need for lost nuance.”  J. Brown, Yoga Extremism

I love J. Brown’s blog and how he thinks about yoga, movement, bodies, and concepts around simplicity being at the heart of the most complex practice of all. I have been doing yoga for a long time, though mine is very much a personal practice rather than part of my livelihood in any way. Because dance as work has been part of my entire teenage and adult life as a learner, practitioner, performer, and teacher, I pretty much think about everything I do or read or see body-wise through the lens of dance. It is a blessing and a curse, but it’s just how it is.

The quote above resonated with me greatly as an ongoing learner and practitioner of a culturally rooted dance art. I see similar patterns in global belly dance: Our community has its own extremes. We (note: we as a community, not necessary me or you specifically, dear reader) hear jokes about ‘housewife bellydancers’ and often the term ‘hobbyist’ is used with a snide tone of voice or a small eye roll, as if to have a hobby is somehow lesser (I cannot tell you how much I disagree, as do many I am sure, but that is for another post). While attendees of weekly classes are the bread and butter of the locally based dance instructor, there is also a consistent sense that there must be some goal in sight, a progression that is external to the dancer, perhaps the next extreme I’ll talk about pervading the first. On the other extreme, dancers revel in the joy of ‘no pain, no gain’ style study, constantly climbing ladders to new levels, internally relevant certifications, and opportunities to take different classes. It is advertised breezily that if you can walk after the workshop or don’t smell like bengay, you’re doing it wrong. The camaraderie of taking a path of intense physical training is strong and the appeal seems to come from it making one a “real” dancer, as perhaps we think it mimics ballet, our strongest cultural marker of what it is to be a dancer (never mind the weeding out that happens at a young age in professional ballet before the opportunities to take class 8 hours a day are presented).

pain_balletfeet

As a teacher, at a certain point it behooves one to offer performance opportunities to students if you want to maintain class numbers. This has long been a part of our globalized belly dance culture, and while it is how I was raised as a young dancer, and indeed how I operate as an instructor, I find myself questioning it as a ‘must’. As a learner these days, admittedly a bit older and in a place where I have had a performance career already, I find myself appreciating class for just exactly what it is—-class, a place to learn with someone who can teach, a private moment to feel my body and its power as well as its weaknesses, a place to leave my ego at the door and try new things, or some days just to revel in the comfortable places I know I can shine and feel good.

I feel something is lost between the two extremes, namely the social dance aspect or just dancing or taking class for the fun of it. Perhaps my sense is a part of the way the entire scene has changed? For belly dancers who do want to take the path to perform as work there are less jobs than ever, the bands are mostly gone, and those that are around tend to play open stage nights where dancers can sign up to dance for free or for dinner along with a long list of others. Fun for sure, but hardly a job! Another path is to work within the community, as our scene is now large enough to support many of us teaching and performing for other dancers (we use the term ‘on the workshop circuit’). It is a tough life, but one that can be quite satisfying, although ultimately you are rarely reaching the general public with your work, and often the roots—-the Arabness of our form that makes it unique and special—-go by the wayside or become more fantasy than reality, or more myth and legend of how it used to be than the current reality.

I won’t pretend to end this with any great insights or answers. This is an ongoing pattern of thinking for me as I plan future classes I want to offer and that I want to take. There are certainly pockets of joy in our dance form all over, but they don’t always get the attention. Does it matter? Why is that? Check out J. Brown’s piece, and fellow dancers, feel free to let me know if you think I am off base with what you see in our own scene.

P.S. I’m writing from New York, where I have been for most of August!