Observations about Belly Dance This Summer

Observations about Belly Dance This Summer July 11, 2017

Being a folklorist, I tend to notice patterns. Here’s what I noticed at multiple belly dance events this summer  (much of it related to broader culture).

I’m coming off a couple of major dance events in the past month: Tribal Revolution and Shimmy Con (ATS® Technique for Teachers got its own post). Both events featured a spectrum of dance styles, instructors, and performers, but I noticed some common threads I thought were worth elaborating on, since they reflect on larger trends happening in the U.S. right now.

Pre-performance selfie from Tribal Revolution.
Pre-performance selfie from Tribal Revolution.

There were a lot of theatrical/expressive/angsty pieces

…I mean, given the current political climate, can you blame anyone? But I find it fascinating that as folk dance with roots in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa, belly dance has moved in directions that keep it linked with contemporary concerns.

This performance, “Immigrant” by Zohara, perfectly exemplifies what I’m talking about. It’s so beautiful and so expressive I want to watch it over and over, but I also take the point the dancer is making, that immigration is a contemporary social issue that requires our attention. Not every piece I saw in person at my dance events was so explicitly political, but many of them were just drenched in feels, which I find noteworthy (and this applies more to Tribal Rev than Shimmy Con, possibly because tribal dancers in my experience are more open to exploring the darker side of human experience than cabaret/Oriental dancers, of which there were many more at Shimmy Con)

Watching choreography is painful when it’s obvious which parts were whose ideas

Maybe this is just because I’ve been dancing over half my life, but it’s pretty clear to my eye when members of a troupe aren’t all on the same page about the tone/enthusiasm of a choreography as well as its technical execution.

When someone’s really feeling the music, or moved by the music, I can just… tell. I suspect many other people can too, though it’s not always easy to articulate what exactly is going on. To connect this to the broader cultural context, I can similarly tell when someone’s heart isn’t in whatever they’re doing, whether it’s socializing, being present in a relationship, being a citizen of a country taking a turn for the authoritarian (*cough*USA*cough*) or whatever. Again, I think most people can sense this, but whether they are conscious of it or not is a different matter.

I viewed a lot of beautiful group numbers over the last few weeks, but I found my attention divided between watching the group dynamic as a whole, and watching those dancers who were clearly shining because they were feeling it so much that their moves clearly synced up with the music that much better. Maybe it’s wrong of me to assume that those dancers were the ones who came up with those parts of the choreo, but it seems like an intuitive place to go.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on choreography. I do strongly dislike it for myself (though I know I need to practice it precisely because I suck at it), hence most of my solo work is improvised and hence my main group dance form is ATS® which is of course group improvisation.

Done well, choreography can be aesthetically pleasing and compelling. I just don’t know the magic trick to get everyone on the same page dancing together in a group without a structure in place like ATS® provides, and by the time we’re there, we’re back in improv-land. I’m tempted to try my hand at choreo, though, since I’ve recently encountered some tribal fusion concepts in workshops that I think would be really wondrous if implemented properly in a group. Which brings me to…

Teachers centering their students’ experiences is the best and most beautiful thing

It moves me to tears when this happens, and even though I’m someone who hates crying, I’ll go on record saying it doesn’t happen often enough.

The teacher-student connection is one of the notable ways that dance connect people, in addition to the performer-audience connection. When a teacher really shows up for their students, I can tell, and it changes the entire dynamic of a workshop. This is true of the academic classroom as well, and I think it’s true in a larger cultural setting too; I know it’s trendy for educators to hate on standardized testing, but that shit does not center student-based learning experiences and I think that’s part of the reason why it fails so hard.

I had fantastic experiences with a couple of instructors in particular in the last couple of weeks. Silvia Salamanca is one of the most compassionate, dynamic, student-centered teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from (plus as a performer she is visually stunning, as here). And Deb Rubin shared so much anatomical knowledge with us, at times (I suspect) altering her entire lesson plan just to impart some helpful tidbits about how to properly engage the right muscles, so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves by accidentally creating long-term muscle imbalances.

Belly dance has so many nuances, in both emotion and body, that it’s delightful to study with people who get it and want their students to have the best experiences possible.

To wrap up, I’ve had some great experiences dancing with my community over the last few weeks, and even in moments where I’m like “huh, that wasn’t my favorite piece in the show” or “wow, I REALLY need to work on this part of my own dance practice” there are insights to be gleaned.

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