On the Weirdness of Dance Certifications

On the Weirdness of Dance Certifications September 23, 2016

If you love to dance, why do you need a piece of paper saying you’ve achieved some basic level of competency in it?

Me and a dear friend dancing ATS at GenCon in 2015. Photo by P. Shypula.
Me and a dear friend dancing ATS at GenCon in 2015. Photo by P. Shypula.

I’ve been practicing a specific dance form, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, for over a decade (ATS® for short). Yes, there’s a registered trademark symbol in it. That’s part of what I’ll talk about in this post.

As I describe in my post, Why Folklorists (Should) Love American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, ATS is essentially an improvised dance form, where the individual dance moves are like words in a language, and the structure of the dance (who’s cuing the moves, how groups are arranged) is like the grammar. The language metaphor is really useful in terms of describing what we do, but it also points to a host of potential problems.

What happens to languages? They grow, evolve, diversify, and fragment. That’s part of the reasons for the “®” in ATS®, to demonstrate that the original creators of the dance, FatChance BellyDance, are THE creators and owners of the idea. Yes, as a scholar of culture I sometimes bristle at the thought that someone can “own” culture, but in this case, I’d draw a parallel to cultural groups that copyright their art forms, and rightly so, to protect their heritage from infringement by others.

At any rate, having a defined cultural center of ATS is useful, because of how it functions like a language. Since ATS is now a worldwide phenomenon, you end up with unintentional fragmentation of the dance langauge. Part of what makes it so powerful is that I could drop into an ATS class anywhere in a dozen+ countries and receive the same standard of instruction, and speak the same dance language as the dancers there (regardless of whether we all speak English or not!). Fragmentation can ruin that.

Living in Estonia for most of a year to finish my PhD, and being able to dance with the ATS dancers there, opened my eyes to the importance of maintaining a mutually intelligible dance language. An important part of how we achieve that standardization is certification.

Now, I’d been belly dancing for 4-5 years already before I found ATS. The idea of certifying in belly dance, of all things, seemed ludicrous to me. I mean, it’s a dance form that already draws from multiple cultural strands, thereby making a critique of cultural appropriation problematic since there’s no single belly dance source or tradition.

Part of me believes, a hip drop is a hip drop, so who needs a piece of paper saying you can do it? Either you’ve put in the work to perfect your technique, or you haven’t. And it’ll be obvious to other professionally trained dancers if you’re full of crap, or if you’ve put in the hours (hundreds’, or perhaps thousands’, worth).

But living abroad changed my perspective on certification. Initially, the idea of certifying in a dance form struck me as bizarre and counter-productive. Then I experienced firsthand how a simple arm position, viewed on a DVD or Youtube, can change drastically when people try to piece together how to teach it, and suddenly you’ve got dancers with elbows bent at 45 degrees instead of 90 degrees or, better yet in the case of the ATS move Chico Four Corners, 135 degrees. You’ve got people who are visually absorbing ATS from watching performances, but not understanding the improvisational principles behind the cue system. That’s changing with the advent of online classes and interactive Skype lessons, but it’s still a thing.

After seeing a living dance language fragment into accidental dialects, I hopped on board the ATS certification train, and I haven’t looked back since.

It took me years to reach this place, but I’m thoroughly on board with dance certifications, when they are relevant to maintaining the tradition. It’s gotta be functional, and not just an expensive piece of paper. Because ATS is fractal in nature, it’s especially important to make sure every teacher (and ideally every advanced dance student) understands how all the pieces fit together, and that requires teachers to have a decent amount of training.

Though the dance form is only a few decades old, we can already chronicle the relationship between ATS and its descendents, such as ITS (which stands for improvisational tribal style, for those not in the know). I love that I’m living in an age where I can document this kind of phenomenon as a scholar, and experience it as a dancer.

I suspect that on some level I’ll always be uncomfortable with dance certifications, but given my decade+ in the ATS community, and all the wonderful things I’ve experienced therein, I’m currently an advocate of certification. It may not be right for everyone at every point in their dancer journey, but for teachers and for people who are isolated regionally, certification can be the lifeline that connects you to the beating heart of the dance form.

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