January 20, 2010

Shaking it or faking it?

It happens over and over again in conversations I have. Women find out that I belly dance and then they either confess that they are belly dancers or know a dancer. Maybe it's just a sign of the time, but upon further prodding I typically find out their definition of "dancer" means classes that consist of 6-8 lessons at a gym or dance school. And that friend who dances? Not much more training there either. It seems that applying the term belly dancer happens all too easily, as if one class, one hip drop or one shimmy with a coin scarf satisfies any needed qualifications.

So just when can you call yourself a true belly dancer? A similar discussion emerged when I first started taking martial arts class. Our Sensei would ask the class , "When do you become a true martial artist?" Did it happen when you achieved black belt status or the rank of Master, was it when you successfully landed your first punch or kick, applied a block or take down correctly. Or, did it happen when you first put on the gi (uniform) or simply make the decision to enter a dojo or training facility?

For me, the first time I felt like a true martial artist was the day I was able to focus my mind and energy, overcome my fears and successfully break a board during class. It wasn't the cliche of the board breaking that did it, it was the culmination of everything I learned converging into a single, well-executed, singular and beautiful action. It was, the sense of mastery over that single moment and obstacle.

I admit in belly dance, you have to get students intrigued and excited about the dance. You 'hook' them with coin scarves and shimmies and fun movements. I try not to throw complex or obscure music and movements on beginners, but try and keep with simple, easy rhythms. My secret hope is that they will be hooked and want to learn and study more, just like I did.

When I first started dancing, I went through the motions, dressed the part, learned to use the props and execute the dance moves. But it took time before I really considered myself a true belly dancer. Unlike my martial arts experience, there was no single defining moment. It was more of a slow spiral and gradual realization that I had evolved into that role. One day I realized that I would hear classic Middle Eastern music and it made sense to me. I got it. And, even better, I understood how to dance to it...the right way. I was no longer thrown off by all the strange rhythms or the blast of a mizmar. It just all flowed, and listening to the music made my heart sing and my hips start to move!

Now I meet so many women who claim they belly dance, but also tell me that they either just don't want to dance to traditional music or simply can't stand it. I think that's a dead giveaway that although they do have belly dance moves, that they haven't really studied how to be a belly dancer. They are hooked on the image or allure of the dance, but seem to shy away from the meat of the matter, the really good juicy part of the dance...the culture, the rhythms, and the emotional connection between dancer and audience.

Princess Farhana posted a wonderful story about the need to honor our past as dancers. Her words struck a chord in me, because over the past few years I've been drawn more to "old-school" dance than fusion styles. Now, I love fusion, but I realize that the older, more traditional, folkloric style has a greater pull. It's a need to 'up' my skill level and challenge myself to truly represent this dance and culture. And although executing a perfect hip drop is important, that one movement only represents a small part of this dance form.

So I've made it my personal goal to work more on studying the culture and music. This year I'm excited to start Sahra Saeeda's Journey through Egypt program and work on passing this information onto my students and fellow dancers. Because I want people to know that some times you may dance and use belly dance moves, but it's not belly dancing. And knowing that difference is important to me...and it lets me know if you really are shaking or faking it!

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! Lots to think about and contemplate. I hadn't heard of Journey through Egypt and now I want to check it out, too.