The Dilemma of Dance Standardization
In 1997, Shareen El Safy embarked on treading the treacherous waters of examining effort to standardize belly dance language in her article for Habibi, “What’s In a Name? In the Direction of Adopting Standardized Terminology.” She opens with the fact that we, as a community of practitioners, can’t even agree on what to call the dance that we do, let alone agree on names for movements and steps. She also argues, after giving examples from various dance traditions, “Beyond the obvious advantages of preserving lineage, theory and practical teaching methods over long periods of history, a written syllabus may be universally applicable even though the dance is removed from its original geographic location.”
Because dance is not easily captured—even in different bodies at the same time—codifying, recording, naming, and notating it has been a challenge for centuries. And doing so is a controversial topic in the genre of belly dance, because we must discuss issues of appropriation, imperialism, and language. And I’ll even say that to agree on standard language also means confronting issues of ego and commodification.
In most discussions of standardization in belly dance, the same concerns come up again and again: Who gets to decide the terminology? What language should it be in? Folk dances don’t need to be standardized! Why do we even need a standard language; it’s a hinderance to creativity and finding the feeling! (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
Outside of belly dance there are many forms that live on in today’s bodies, but often because of painstaking reconstruction by dance historians or fierce dedication to teaching the next generation a movement vocabulary, often with associated standard names for steps. Let’s look at a few of those traditions.
Global and Historical Dance Codification
Hawaiian Hula was outlawed by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, and was kept alive in secret because a kind of codification. Hula has specific and agreed-upon names for steps. An ‘ami is always an ‘ami, and an uwehe is always an uwehe. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t contemporary choreographers in the Hula tradition who don’t create interpretive dances. Patrick Makuakane and his halau (school) are famous for performing dances rooted in Hawaiian folklore and tradition as well as more experimental works, like, say, his hula to an Eminem song.
In the past 40 years or so, hip hop dance (and I don’t mean hip hop created for the stage, but rather in its street, aka folk, forms) also has set names for steps. The Running Man is different from the Roger Rabbit, and the Cabbage Patch is definitely not the Prep. Every dancer will have their own “style” of doing each of these steps, but they’ll also know the difference, with an implicit respect to those who both created and named them. Other street dances, too, have set names for movements. In Vogue, your house family will certainly know what a Dip is, as well as the difference between a Duckwalk and a Catwalk.
In Western Europe, there have been efforts to not only name steps but also write them down. English Country dance, for example, has been teased out from the notation in John Playford’s The Dancing Master, published in the 17th century. At the same time, French King Louis XIV commissioned the Beauchamp-Fuillet notation, in which dance steps are aligned along a musical staff.
Which brings me to my point. Codification and notation.
Codifying the Body
Codification is the means by which we agree that certain movements or steps are called certain things. That means when I use the term, “Basic Egyptian,” you know what I mean and will be able to do this step without my needing to break it down. This also means that I can say something like, “Walking halftime downbeat on the right in releve, with an interior hip circle going counter-clockwise halftime downbeat on the right, arms in modified second.” and you’ll know what I mean without having to see me do the movement.
The essential element here is that we have to agree that certain words mean certain things. In this way, the codification becomes a language. In a ballet, for example, practitioners from the youngest girl in her pink tutu to the prima ballerina at the Kirov, understand that First Position is standing with legs straight, heels together, legs externally rotated at the hip. The physical muscular technique of getting in to this position has developed over time along with our understanding of the body and progress in somatics and sports medicine, but the visual result is the same. Different schools of ballet might want different degrees of turn-out. But First Position is always First Position.
I don’t want to suggest that ballet is somehow superior to other forms because of the specificity of its codification. I could have used the Hawaiian ‘ami. Or Vogue’s Dip. Or Odissi Chouka.
Within codification is an implicit agreement on the physical technique of executing that movement. We use terminology to describe movements (say, that only involve the hips, like a Twist or an Interior Hip Square), or steps, which involve the whole body (like Basic Egyptian), so that we don’t have to break these movements down into their physical technical execution every time we have to transmit them to our students or colleagues. When I say “Twist” you will know what I mean. The technique is understood.
Now on to Notation
Notation is the means by which we write down a dance movement. Movements have been written down with loose reference to step names or descriptions of movement, and they have been recorded through complex systems of symbols and signs.
The more detailed the notation, the more the movement can be preserved.
Now you might ask, with the advent of everyone having a video camera on their smartphone, why do we even need notation systems?
Well, have you tried to reconstruct a dance solely from the video? Wouldn’t it be much easier if you also had not only a dancer describing the movements, how to do them, but also notes to which you can refer while practicing this dance in the studio?
Notation allows us to explore the movement in a different modality, but also gives us a reference by which we can pass on the dance to our colleagues and our students.
And, with all the recent talk about belly dance losing popularity, or even that the dance is declining in its own regions of origin, then you’d think that having a means to notate and record oriental dance would be lauded and valued. But the question remains: Who does that work?
The answer? The ones doing the work.
It’s no secret that I am a student of the Salimpour School, and one of the things we do exceptionally well is our notation system. It has been developed through years of refinement, even working with engineers to make sure there are no inconsistencies or contradictions. Our notation system often relies on accompanying music, or at least, an accompanying beat.
This system is very specific, and can be used to describe the wide range of oriental dance styles. A capital “H” will always mean “Home Position” (with no need to break down Home Position, because a student of the Salimpour School not only knows what this is, but learns it in their very first class). A capital “S” means “Side” while “Sgl” means “Single” (as in our famous glute squeezes). There are also means for describing facings, whether you like to use the image of a clock on the floor, diagonals or sides, or upstage and downstage.
Codification Fosters Understanding and Creativity
Now, to an outsider, this might all feel unnecessarily technical. And if a dancer creates a dance knowing that they have to notate it, yes, their creative process can be stifled. The mastery is in creating a dance, and then being able to accurately describe it and notate it in our agreed-upon language. By doing so, it forces us to be deliberate and make conscientious choices about our movements, directions, and facings.
And it must be noted that other dance forms with detailed methods of standardization and codification have not been limited by the words used to describe their movements. We can look to my examples of Hula, hip hop, and even ballet to see that notation does not curb creativity. In fact, I would argue that it fosters and helps develop it, because that structure gives dancers something concrete on which to build their own personal interpretation of movement and music.
The Limits of Notation
No matter what, words and symbols will never convey the embodied or corporeal essence of a dance. It’s near impossible. If words and symbols could capture the nuance, expression, and temporality of dance, then we wouldn’t have to dance at all.
There is absolutely no substitute for the physical practice of actual dance. No words or symbols will help you, the dancer, learn or create movement. You must be present, embodied, and… practicing. No matter how detailed or impeccable, no notes are going to enable you to learn a choreography or compose your own like mindful, deliberate repetition.
But to be able to record what we have done in time and space and pass that on to someone who was not present in that time and space with us when we did those movements is incredibly valuable. Particularly when it comes to preservation and technical progression.
As it is, the records of dance history are not nearly as rich or varied as those from other artistic traditions. We can trace visual art back thousands of years. Music, too, we can reconstruct from traces of notation, early recording systems, and more.
But dance? We often have to rely on visual art in order for us to have any sense of what peoples in the past did with their bodies. And even then, is that sculpture dancing or running or just gesturing to a friend?
As Shareen El Safy notes in her article, “Standardized terminology will provide a structure upon which creativity and individuality can flourish, promoting the evolution of the dance form.”