I’ve had this blog post sitting on my WordPress dashboard for at least 3 months now – but as soon as I’m about to click “Publish,” I retract. It’s tough to talk about your challenges and your artistic growing pains on your own commercial website. Especially when you’re in the business of glamour and intrigue.
Nobody likes to be put in a box. Most of us artists and creative types hate labels. In belly dance, however, it seems to have become fashionable to apply these generic descriptors to what we do – “I’m a tribal fusion dancer,” or “I only perform authentic Egyptian style.” It’s a little bit Breakfast Club, as if you’re only cool if you hang out with your own clique. Heaven forbid, you’re a “Randa” and somebody generously compares you to Suhaila Salimpour! Isn’t it funny how we hate when others label us, but we feel a sense of comfort and pride in typecasting ourselves?
Enter my struggle. Last year, until somewhat recently, my goal in life was to out-Egypt the Egyptians. Not that I particularly loved that style of dance – I always thought it felt rather awkward on my lithe, athletic, petite build – but it’s pretty fashionable right now and I thought this might make me feel more marketable. Or even more – dare I say it – authentic. I kept this up until I realized just how much my audiences love my extroverted energy and my flashy moves – and just how much vibration shimmies make me look like a shivering chihuahua! All I wanted was to feel raw, real and vibrant onstage again. Like Austin Powers, I’m finally getting my mojo back.
The beauty of being an artist is that there are infinite ways to express a feeling, a mood and an aesthetic. It seems as though the belly dance community at large is losing touch with the power of individuality, favoring big, ballsy, over-choreographed productions and mass-produced costumes. Where did the homogeneity come from, anyway? Certainly, if you spend lots of time on Bhuz, there’s always a heated discussion on authenticity or an attempt to categorically define “good dancing.” A YouTube search will pull up thousands of virtually identical performances to the same 6 songs. And virtually every workshop in my area these past 3 years has been an Egyptian choreography. It can all appear so….”Hip drop x2, spin, arabesque…’Watch me emote!’…spin, arabesque, ‘Now here’s my sad face!”
And not to single out Egyptian style – I’m sure this phenomenon exists in other currently fashionable styles, like tribal fusion. And I’m sure when American Cabaret style comes back into vogue again (I’ve seen so many indicators that it’s already on its way), it’ll get overwrought and overchoreographed for the new millennium, too.
At this point in my dance life, returning to a “new and improved” version of my original style feels like something of a homecoming. Most of my audiences are non-dancing Americans. Generally, they’re more wowed by the way I connect with a crowd than by the subtle precision of hitting just the right accent in the music. And they like the big “power” moves – deep backbends, lots of spinning, flashy hair flips. If I can get out there and improvise confidently, that frees me up to put on a great show. What’s not to love?
At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with identifying closely to one specific style, whether that’s Egyptian, Turkish, or gothic fusion. Ultimately, what makes a dancer marketable for the long haul is not how well she conforms to a fashionable style – it’s her ability to stay true to herself and dance as if she owns the place, every time.
Keepin’ it Real,