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!

I have a new 6-week fundamentals course starting in mid-June, and I’m starting to work on the details since I have time off of my other teaching work right now.

It’s funny, the idea of starting to work on something, as if it is going from 0 to 60 in 21 days or some such thing. What it really is is a culmination of years and years, decades in fact, edited and culled and put together in a hopefully cohesive manner to present in what will ultimately be 6 hours to a diverse group of random people (random in the sense that they are folks who know who I am and are interested in my classes, and are able and willing to pay a certain amount of money to be in a certain building in a certain city at a certain time over a six week period). But I begin by putting the goals of the course on paper, and working backwards to figure out how to get the group to the point I can say goodbye, and leave them feeling they learned something of value to their own dance work, and also leave them wanting more, knowing how much more there is to learn and having it feel accessible, exciting, and worth continuing with me, or with their other teachers present and future.

This is why I always have to smile a bit at the concept of an overnight sensation. The people who seemingly come out of nowhere have likely been at it for a long while, were prepared, and recognized (and took, or created) opportunities. Of course, in our modern technology driven world the concept of fame has to be redefined a bit, as one can become (virtually) known by many in a relatively short period of time.

Movie Poster for 'Overnight Sensation'
I have not seen this movie, but doesn’t it add something nice and visual to my post?

In the US belly dance world there has long been a teeny element of ‘I am famous because I say I am’. Pre-internet days there were the names that got around, and luckily it was indeed mostly due to talent, but also it was due to the folks who put themselves out there–took the ads out in Habibi, went to the workshops (they used to be called seminars!) or the very few annual festivals that existed and taught, performed, or made the scene. There was a sense of really being able to check people out that brought us all to those annual events—-we had seen their ads in the zines, heard their name from our teachers, maybe even met them, or maybe they were one of the very few who put out VHS tapes of performances from Egypt, or their performances or classes—-but the proof was in the pudding when we got a chance to see them dance. Sometimes it was amazing and I was sure never to miss their show or a chance to study with them, and sometimes it was disappointing. We also had our local dancers who worked in the clubs—-when there were clubs that paid, and not a dancer on every corner willing to dance for their supper. (Note: I am not bitter, I promise, but I sure am glad I am out of the club scene!) They were sometimes better than the ‘famous’ dancers, but they were often busy working, and promoting yourself as a dancer was very different then…you worked, you got gigs from your other gigs and from word of mouth and from colleagues and club owners and bands, and you worked and worked and worked!

I remember when it went from using business cards supplied by the booking agents or your teacher when you went out on a gig to suddenly folks slowly starting to have their own business cards. It was a bit strange! Then we had the med-dance list (an early listserv that was amazing in connecting dancers). I remember one of my teachers asking me about it, “Wait, you sit at a…computer and read things other dancers wrote?! Why?!” Then bhuz.com came along, and there was a visual element to the online discussions rather than a textual one, and dancers started getting their own websites at a rapid pace (I got mine started in 1999 thanks to some geeky friends!). And then in what felt like an overnight shift, to be a dancer of value you had to have a slick website and an image, and to be hip and savvy to the whole scene!

And so it goes. We are lucky that there are lots of amazing dancers out there, as there probably always were, and we can see them immediately via you tube, websites, and social media. Hype still exists, of course, but it is much fancier, and a bit harder to get away with.

The teaching part of the work has not changed that much, though. I go through what I have learned from reliable sources, what I have seen with my own eyes, and what I have experienced, and then I parse out what I want to share and figure out why, and how it all fits together. I honor my teachers past, present, and future, and ultimately, I head into the studio to see who wants to try it all out with me, open to the experience and questions and energy they bring with them that day.

This zigzaggy little trip down memory lane is brought to you by three of my favorite things: Procrastination, Living in the Past, and Coffee!

P.S. I’ll be at Belly Dancer of the Year this coming weekend—-I’m a judge! Check it out if you are in the Bay Area!