Please note, I say the word “rules” with my tongue planted firmly in cheek. You know how much I hate rules and just how much I love breaking them. But if anything is ironclad in the arts community, in this case belly dance, it’s the importance of being original.
Hey, when all’s said and done, I’m aware that there’s no such thing as pure originality in the arts. We all collect inspiration from various sources, but the best artists cleverly conceal them. Or at least, that’s the ideal scenario. I’ve noticed one common theme in my conversations with my creative friends lately, and that is “Original People and the Copycats who Rip Them Off.” It happens to photographers, makeup artists, DJs, cosplayers, and yes, belly dancers. I would tell all those uncreative people to become statisticians or accountants, but that’s a slight against every math whiz I know who also excels in the arts.
Bottom line is, every artist should cultivate their own signature style and make originality an internalized rule. Don’t be the belly dance equivalent of one of those $3 “Gucci” purses that you get in Chinatown. Be the real deal. Or don’t sell your dance commercially until you know who you are.
While I believe originality is an innate quality, you can break free of some common barriers that prevent you from showing your authentic self to the world. For what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on how to sing in your own voice and awaken the real you in your dance:
- Find a Mentor: It’s a phenomenon that’s WAY too common in the belly dance world: misguided performers who say, “Maybe if I copy what other professional belly dancers are doing, then I, too, will pass for a professional belly dancer.” I am incredibly lucky that my first real mentors both encouraged me to find myself before I went out and started seriously marketing myself for private gigs. While I’ve absorbed little bits of both of their dance styles, they championed my uniqueness and encouraged me to study with other instructors, do moves that looked good on my body type, and only do the types of gigs I loved. As an up-and-comer, I managed to avoid the common “rookie mistakes” of becoming a cookie cutter clone of my instructors or feeling ANY sort of lasting urge to emulate anybody else. Any good teacher should help you do the same. If you can’t find that type of mentor in your community, consider commuting to your nearest large metro area and studying with somebody you admire.
- If You Have Nothing Original to Say, Don’t Write It, Blog It or Choreograph It: Plain and simple. If you can’t generate your own performance choreographies, then maybe directing a troupe isn’t right for you. If you have to “borrow” content from other belly dance blogs in order to look like you have something to say, then maybe blogging isn’t right for you. If you’re struggling to write your own bio or FAQ section, then get somebody else to do it for you. Best case scenario, unoriginal work will put customers to sleep. Worst case scenario, you might tick off the wrong person and get a C&D letter in the mail. There’s a fine line between “the most sincere form of flattery” and “law suit waiting to happen.” Nobody knows where the line is drawn, but I wouldn’t recommend that you test it.
- Know Thyself: A good exercise that everyone should try: ask at least 5-10 of your closest friends, colleagues or family members to write a short blurb about your strengths. Ask them which sterling qualities of yours shine through. If you’re feeling “stuck,” read the list and relish it. Then, let your authentic self radiate through every facet of your dance, from your performance to the way you package and sell it. And ideally, if you have copycats of your own, they will at least be forced to emulate your style in a more authentic way, or otherwise appear awkward and/or phony as YOUR style fits them like a cheap bedlah. I always get a kick out of bloggers who take a bumbling stab at my conversational tone and my wedding-and-party-themed blog posts. If you want to emulate my style, at least throw in a run-on sentence or a dangling participle or two!
- Fill the Funnel: Always, always, always funnel in inspiration. Keep your eyes and ears open wherever you go. Let it all in, and sift out whatever doesn’t work. And don’t just limit yourself to other belly dancers. Get inspired by nature, movies, literature, feelings, whims, muses, rainbows, unicorns – you get the picture! Broaden the aperture. The more sources you draw from, the more diverse and unique your style will be, and the less you will feel a need to emulate just your Top 5 favorite performers.
- Go With Your Gut: In interviews, Donald Trump has repeatedly said that, despite having worked with numerous advisers, his gut feeling is the single thing that has never steered him wrong. I won’t be a Forbes cover girl any time soon. But I can strongly relate to this Trump-ism. When I first started dancing professionally, I received a lot of “helpful” “advice” about some of the edgier stuff I was doing. But I ignored them. Yes, that sometimes makes me feel a bit of an eccentric whackadoodle. Yes, I occasionally get hate mail. But my style works for me and it works for the people who sign the checks. Bottom line? If you have a gut feeling that something will be successful, go with it. You might fall flat on your butt, but we all make mistakes and move on.
- Love What You Do – You can steal a choreography. You can knock off a costume design. You can plagiarize a website or “borrow” very heavily from a blog. But passion is the one thing you CAN’T convincingly fake. And copycats are generally lacking in it, otherwise, they’d channel their love of the dance into generating their own original work. So be happy. Be connected. Be present. Love your music, your dancing, your audience, your costume, your idols and mentors. And see if anyone can match that.
- If All Else Fails… – Get back to the drawing board. So many belly dancers, especially some of the younger ones, “go pro,” and THEN find themselves. I think 9 out of 10 dancers have got it backasswards. Find yourself, THEN seek paid gigs. Of course, we’re all a work in progress. But if you struggle to create original work, or you’re hell-bent on being just like your instructor or somebody else in the community, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking time off to re-invent yourself. Once you figure out what moves you, what bores you to tears, what you love, what you hate, who your ideal clients are, and what differentiates you from a crowd, your entire life gets easier from there. I promise.
Final summation? Be proud of who you are, and let it show! You will love it, your belly dance peers will respect you for it, and you will stand out even in the most saturated market. As Judy Garland said, “Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of somebody else.” Any questions? Class dismissed!
About Carrara: Always imitated, never duplicated! Carrara is a professional belly dancer offering elegant, authentic Middle Eastern dance performances for weddings, corporate functions and high-end special events in Central Florida (Orlando, Melbourne, Daytona Beach). Read more about Carrara or follow her on Twitter @CarraraNour.