This post has been in the making for about 4 years. I keep typing it, only to click “delete” and move on to fluffier topics. On a long, late drive home from a beautiful Turkish wedding in New Windsor, NY this past Friday, I finally figured out what to say.
Sometimes, we fear the things we want the most. For instance, somebody might avoid committed relationships because she’s been burned a few too many times and is afraid to get hurt again. Or a salesperson who grew up in a working class family may actively avoid selling to affluent prospects because he finds money to be just as intimidating as it is desirable.
As for me, I used to actively avoid performing for Middle Eastern audiences because I was paralyzed by my own anxiety about “getting it right.”
It all seems silly in hindsight. Friday night, I swallowed my nerves, got out there, and threw down Turkish-style on the dance floor. It was one of those nights where the music took over me and I pulled off all sorts of moves I never would have tried at home – Tulay Karaca-style kicks, crazy spins and hair tosses, crisp turns on a dime – all in 3″ heels, no less. Money was flying everywhere. (I nearly had a heart attack when I counted the tips I earned!) The only time I didn’t have audience members dancing by my side was during my sword dance. And people were stopping me, as I exited the stage, to hug me and kiss me on the cheek.
As I walked to the dressing room, those 30 minutes onstage flashed before me, and it hit me: I got it right. This was the moment I’d been fearfully awaiting all those years.
That next day, feeling like I had just passed an important test, I dissected every minor aspect of my performance. I came up with very little technical insight, but a lot of inconclusive-yet-chewy philosophical stuff. My conclusion? Maybe authenticity comes more from following your heart and your music than following The Rules.
Don’t get me wrong. The Rules exist for a very good reason: to match the most appropriate movements, music, costuming to their respective audiences. But in the belly dance world, there’s a whole lot of navel-gazing (pun not intended!) about what does or does not constitute Good Authentic Dancing. Too often, this means our dance is taught as a series of absolutes: “Always shimmy whenever you hear the quanun.” “Turkish dancers strut, Egyptian dancers glide.” “Sha’abi is only sha’abi if you wear jeans and chomp on bubblegum.”
At the very best, this gives beginners a loosey-goosey framework to start with. At the worst, it zaps this cultural art form of the soul, spirit and joie-de-vivre that make professional performances compelling to watch. Or otherwise, it turns into a more of an awkward character dance than a genuine personal expression through a cultural medium. (See: the “Now I’m going to put on Rompi Rompi, fling my skirt around and do a bunch of fantasy hand gestures to show that I can get down with my Romany peeps” act).
I guess this is what I’m saying. Keep it real, everyone. Give improv a chance. Know your music inside and out. Broaden your understanding of the full spectrum of Middle Eastern and Greek belly dance styles. Smile, have fun, and make mistakes! Don’t be afraid to rough it up once in awhile. If I knew this years ago, performing for Middle Eastern audiences wouldn’t have been nearly as daunting.
A smile is the universal language. It doesn’t matter whether your audience is American, Indian, Egyptian, Bulgarian, Turkish – whatever. If you love what you’re doing, your audience will love what you’re doing, too. Not to mention, a major cultural component of our art: belly dance came from lively social dances that were done at weddings, parties and gatherings. Even when you’re dancing to sad music, you’re smiling through your tears. It’s not a competitive sport. It’s not rocket science, either. Having fun, interacting with your crowd, and connecting to your music is more correct than “correctness” itself!
As for my self-induced Analysis Paralysis? I think it’s finally time to let go and worry about the more pressing issues in my life. Like what color Bella I’ll order next.
Keeping it Real,