The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

Let’s talk about the Ego.

I admit that I don’t have a background in psychology or even a strong background in philosophy… so if I get little nuances in definitions wrong, I suspect someone with more knowledge than I will call me out, and that’s ok.

Ego, Ethics, and Dance blog post by Abigail Keyes

The Ego Separates You from Me

Ego, in the strictest sense of the word means “I” in Latin. It is our sense of self. I am not you, and you are not me. It delineates each of us from one another.

In a contemporary context, however, Ego has taken on a larger and often more pejorative meaning. When we talk about someone having a “big Ego,” we mean that they are full of themselves, that they are self-centered, and that they are willing to make self-centered decisions at the expense of others. This contemporary interpretation is slightly different than the Freudian original, which included the psychological counterparts of the Id (primal drives) and the Superego (internalization of cultural and societal norms). For this blog post, I wish to use the more contemporary idea of Ego as a force that drives our need for recognition, praise, and attention.

Using Our Ego for Better Performance

In a performance context, the Ego can get the better of us. Dancers are notorious for wanting to please, to get the praise and approval of our teachers and peers, and to be on stage. We want to be seen and recognized. A friend of mine who is studying childhood development and dance said that we dancers are “Praise Junkies.”

The Ego, the self-driven aspect of each of us, is not entirely bad. The Ego allows us the confidence to take the stage without fear. It allows us to feel good about what we’re doing. It drives that dopamine rush to the head, that the Id then laps up like a thirsty dog. But the Ego is a trickster, a nasty beast that we must keep on a very short leash.

And I don’t think there are many other dance forms out there that placate and pander to practitioners’ Egos as much as American belly dance.

Focus on Performance and Appearance

So many of our festivals have been based on wanting to perform. Performance is an essential part of being a belly dancer; it is a performing art. But I think we must ask ourselves why we want to perform. Because we want our audience to tell us that we’re good? To show off our skills? Are we seeking validation? Are we hoping to be hired as an instructor at next year’s festival? To perform means, roughly, to do something with the intent of it being seen by others. We might seek validation from our peers that we are Enough, because, perhaps we are not Enough in other aspects of our lives.

So much of the business of belly dance is based on wanting to look good, whatever that means. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costuming, photography, jewelry, and the costs required to attend the festivals that give us opportunities to perform, including lodging, transportation, and food. Even our workshop attendance fees feed our Ego. We take workshops that offer us quick and easy tricks that we can instantly incorporate into our own performances so that an audience will ooh and aah over us during that short 3-5 minutes that we are allowed on stage. Our performance times get shorter and shorter as festivals want to give more opportunities for dancers to perform… because the demand is there.

The Ego Influences Our Decisions

Our Ego, as it feeds our Id, blurs our vision. We are willing to make decisions that contradict our own ethics, because we want to look good and we want people to praise us. Maybe we don’t even examine how our Ego is affecting our choices.

This is why some belly dancers want to perform professionally and teach well before they’re ready. This is why many belly dancers often spend more time and money on costuming, travel to/from events in which they are performing, and one-off workshops than they do on deep and consistent training. This is why some belly dancers wish to take workshops with famous instructors, hoping that somehow that fame will rub off on them, that that famous instructor will ask them on stage with them, and somehow transform the student into a superstar.

The Ego drives these decisions. Every decision is a choice. Every choice we make determines our personal code of Ethics. Philosopher and psychologist William James aptly called this the “ethics of choice”: “What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.” (James, Consciousness and Freedom, 41.) Basically everything we do today affects our tomorrow.

But what if we let our Ethics drive our choices, rather than our Ego?

Self-Reflection as Antidote to Big Egos

Self-reflection is paramount in the realm of Ethics. And self-reflection requires humility, and humility requires that the Ego take a back seat.

Take a moment and write out your answers to these questions: What do you stand for? What do you believe in?  To whom will you give your money? What are you willing to put up with as a student, a practitioner, a customer, a consumer? (A recent blogger wrote “What’s your Shit Sandwich,” i.e., what are you just not willing to put up with?) What are the values of the people, businesses, entities to which you give your time and money? What is your limit? Do you have one?

Are you going along with a crowd to look good, or because you truly believe in their cause? Are you defending someone only because they have something to offer your Ego? Are your decisions hurting others? How could you minimize that pain? Are you asking questions not only of others but of yourself?

Everything you do is a choice. Make those choices worth it.




5 thoughts on “The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

  1. Thank you for this excellent and thought-provoking post. I wonder, too, if any of the sub-styles of American belly dance are located more on either end of the spectrum. Does memorizing choreography vs. learning to improvise impact one’s ego involvement? What about group forms vs. solo forms vs. the styles that teach dancers to do it all? I’m not trying to set up to say that any one style is better than any other, just pondering how the stylistic elements of the dance might interact with a given individual’s ego more or less (which probably depends a lot on the individual).

    • Interesting ideas.

      I suspect there isn’t a correlation between improvisation/choreography skills and one’s ego involvement. I say that because at the higher levels of the Suhaila Salimpour Format, we are all expected to be proficient in both, and those dancers are some of the most humble and gracious people I know… Of course that might just be a bias on my part, but most of these dancers are also not hungry for performance opportunities, costuming, or other avenues that I see in other sub-communities.

      I do wonder, though, if being a dancer in a company does help mitigate the ego thing, in that everyone has to behave for the well-being of the group.

  2. Would you say there’s a difference between drive and ego? Like an experienced student’s drive to go pro, for example. Maybe they’ll want to audition at a restaurant or sign up for a paid local show or festival just to try it out, see how the process works, and start experiencing what they need to do to take the next step. I often see a lot of backlash from the bellydance community whenever a fledgling takes this step. The student is viewed as hot headed, or as someone who doesn’t know their place. Sometimes even when a student expresses curiosity about the next step they’ll be quickly stifled and told not to think about it because “it’s not about the money” or “it’s not about performing”. If it’s your goal to go pro, yeah, it kind of is about those things. It shouldn’t come from a place of needy ego, but from the job description. We all start somewhere.

    Of course, you want your art to come from a place of love and passion, but ultimately, you want to pay your electric bill, right? The best way to get experience is to DO. The best way to get ahead is to MAKE things happen and not just dream. I feel (at least in my area) that there lacks a safe way for students to cultivate this experience without facing undue harshness from their elders. How do we separate ego from drive to grow and improve?

    Your article resonates loudly with me, and I thank you for it! I’m going to spend some time on those ethic questions.

    • Interesting ideas. I think that student would need to evaluate their experience and the reasons why they want to “go pro” (because, let’s face it, there isn’t much money in belly dance). Is it really about money? Is it the “prestige” of being a “professional”? Is it because it’s a more tangible marker of progress? That line between not-pro and pro? What does professional even mean in our art form when there are dancers performing in restaurants for money who have only been studying for 2-3 years?

      Ultimately, though, the student should consult with their instructor. It’s really the responsibility of the instructor to determine whether or not a student is ready to perform professionally. It’s also partially the responsibility of the instructor to provide performance opportunities so that students can earn their stripes and hone their skills. I probably wouldn’t have pursued restaurant work if Artemis hadn’t started that ball rolling for me. I think there’s often a missing element of mentorship in belly dance; somehow dancers think that they can do it all on their own (which, I think, is driven by ego). Personally, I come from figure skating, where I had at least 2 coaches who were always looking out for my own interests, determining whether I was ready to test for the next level, and also told me which level of competition to enter. I think we need more of that in belly dance.

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