Is Your Bellydance Stageworthy?

Originally posted 

I’ve been mulling over some thoughts lately about bellydance as a performance art and the quality of the dance being presented. Bellydance has a foundation with folk dance, was then featured in movies, and now we have modern stage shows with glitz and glamour. There are many dimensions of performances depending on the audience, venue, and type of dance being performed. I feel some disappointment when I attend a show and it feels like the dancers did not have an awareness of what they were presenting and how it could be viewed. I know I’m not alone, in a recent blog post where I discussed “Bellydance Style Wars“, dance technique and stage worthiness came up in many responses.This blog post is not about being mean to beginner dancers or based on any particular show I have attended. This is about an overall environment that has been prevalent in the bellydance communities I have been a part of in my 12 years of dance. Some of the things I’m going to talk about, I have done, I now know better and try to do better.

Know What You Want

Do you know what you want from your performance? Is it telling a story? If it is telling a story, is that theme apparent to someone not familiar with it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you know about a theme or character that you might forget that not will know. Don’t rely on a printed program to educate your audience, use your dance, costuming, and music to clearly connect the dots. Your audience can then enjoy your performance rather than wasting time trying to figure out what the heck is going on. If you are unclear on how to do this, find a mentor to help with staging, presence, and storytelling. Go outside of the bellydance community as needed for education and inspiration.

Many dancers, myself included, share our personal life journey through dance. Being witnessed on stage is powerful healing medicine. That said, be aware that if your piece includes references to violence or abuse, let your audience know beforehand so they can decide if they want to participate. Notify the stage manager or emcee ahead of time so they can give a little introduction and warning. Recently, I was watching a Berkeley High School dance program and they did an excellent job of letting us know that an upcoming piece included the sound of gunshots and a fake firearm.

Once you have a very clear idea of what you want, run your piece by people who aren’t familiar with it. Get their insights and feedback. Even people not familiar with bellydance can provide critique about the overall flow of your creation. Your future audience will appreciate this effort. Know Your Music & Props

Music and songs are what inspire us as dancers. Honor the piece(s) that you choose to dance to. Does it make sense to perform that particular song for a particular event? Will it be confusing to audience members who don’t know you? If you answer “yes”, please consider how to address this. It might mean dancing that piece at another time. When you are on stage you are an ambassador of bellydance, you are showing people how it’s done, don’t confuse them.

Make a clean edit of your music. If you don’t know how to edit your music, find someone who does. I offer music editing services for a very reasonable fee. There are many others in the community who do as well. Avoid sudden musical transitions that cut off a phrase mid measure or have sudden changes in volume.  Listen to your music on speakers other than just your computer. Turn it up really loud in the car or at home. If a part of it makes you cringe, it’s going to make your audience cringe. Fix it. In other words, don’t scare your audience.

If you choose to dance with a prop make sure you know how to use it safely and consistently. If you are uncertain with it on stage the audience will know. They will feel concern for you and worry while you are dancing. They won’t actually see your dancing. Don’t make your audience fearful for you. Accidents do happen while performing. A cane gets dropped, veil decides to revolt, or a sword plops on your foot. If you are able pick it back up and carry on with the performance. Avoid the “oh shit” face and just keep dancing. Sometimes a playful finger waggle at the offending prop gets the audience to relax.

If you have injured yourself, do not keep dancing. Make an exit and attend to your body. The audience does not want to see a dancer who is bleeding or in discomfort. Sometimes adrenalin makes this difficult to know the extent of the injury. However, if there is blood or you are on fire, take care of that.

Know Your Abilities

Dancers are often eager to jump into performance before they are ready. Another bellydance blogger, Alexandra, wrote “Anyone can be a Bellydancer“. Bellydance is one of the dance forms where this phenomenon happens with startling regularity. So much so, dance teachers have even created a term for this, “Six Week Wonder”. This is a student who attended a few classes and then decided they were 100% ready to perform, or even teach. These dancers are generally unwilling to honestly look at their skills and take feedback about readiness to perform. Although bellydance is something that can be learned by everyone, not everyone is going to have the ability or desire to perform in public. In my opinion, performance needs to stop being the end all be all for encouraging dance students to progress.

It’s not just the students who do this. Some instructors/directors are so eager to have a performing group that they forge ahead without making the effort to consider how their group represents them on stage. Not every person who attends class wants to perform. Not every choreography is appropriate for every student. Not every show is meant for every student. Instructors/directors also need to be honest about the quality of their group and if it is really ready for the performance. If you have a beginner group, create a beginner friendly choreography. Your students will appreciate growing their confidence with movements they know they can do with consistency. Keep the challenging parts to a minimum so the audience doesn’t get distracted by being concerned for the dancers on stage.

Know Your Stage & Audience 

For most bellydance shows, there is an audience. They might be seated at the same level or seated down below the stage. The audience wants to enjoy your show, it is up to the performers to give them that. Many of our shows have our friends and family watching, they may love what we do no matter what. And there will be people there who don’t know you, include them in what you present. If you are on a raised stage be aware of your costuming, wear underpants/shorts/leggings under a skirt. Watch for stage curtains that might want to get personal with your props. Pay attention to where the lighting is best and stay in that area.

If you are presenting bellydance as bellydance, use costuming, music, and movements that clearly show off your talents in this area. If you are presenting an emotive, fusion piece, make sure your audience understands what you are doing. It might be better to save that wonderful piece for an event or audience where it can be fully appreciated.

When performing have compassion for your audience. Keep your sets varied and interesting. If you have a longer set time for your solo or troupe, be prepared to offer a diverse set. Create an engaging entrance piece, dance with a prop you know very well, engage the audience with a drum solo, and then exit leaving them wanting more. If you feel that you just want to dance to one 4 minute song, then do that. Dance the heck out of it and be done. Just because you have a long set time allotted doesn’t mean you have to fill it.

Know Your Event

You have an upcoming performance, do you know what type of event is is? Different events have different qualities to them and audience expectations adjust accordingly.

For a hafla (bellydance party) or smaller community event, the audience is generally made up of bellydance community members and close family members. These are great to try out that new prop you want to dance with, or new song that you need to get a feel for that might not be perfect. This is a great time to get feedback about the flow of a choreography or dance set. These tend to be informal and open to all sorts of styles of dance expression. Student level performances will be expected, they are a supportive environment for a dancer to explore their movement. There also might be times for group social dancing, no costumes or makeup required.
Bellydance festivals are a mixed bag with student troupes and professionals. Some events will invite performing groups, some are open to all with a “first come first served” admittance. Festivals can be a great challenge for a student group to really push themselves to be their best. I’ve seen many spectacular beginner groups, and I’ve seen a lot of other groups where I wound up feeling embarrassed for them. Generally I’m impressed with the professional groups of all styles. They bring their “A” game no matter what and an audience appreciates that. 

Then there are the showcase and gala shows. With these it’s expected that the groups dancing will bring their very best. Audience expectations are a bit higher for cohesion, technique level, music choices, stage presence etc. The audience wants to be amazed and made to feel something.

If your group is invited to dance in an event like this, take some time to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses so you can give the audience what they want. This is not the time to bring out the pieces that aren’t as strong or might not fit the theme. Don’t make your audience annoyed that they paid money to watch you dance. 

Final thoughts It can be hard to be objective about your own dance or dance group. Finding a mentor or someone who can give you constructive critique will propel you and/or your troupe to a new level of being amazing performers. Also, it might mean that sometimes you turn down a performance or tell a performer they are not ready. I still remember when I was a baby dancer I asked Amy Sigil about my entering a competition. She was very kind in telling me that I wasn’t ready, I was welcome to try and that I might be frustrated with the results. I waited and glad I did. Although I probably didn’t wait long enough, I like to throw myself into the deep end and see what happens.

I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these ideas that I’ve brought up. This was a longer than usual blog post for me, as I realized I had so much to say. I hope you read this and understand I am not out to shame anyone, just making some points that need to be floated out there and considered.

Happy Shimmies!