These things I know to be true:
- Belly dance is performative.
- Belly dance is social.
- Belly dance moves in a space between performative and social.
After reading Amity Alize’s thoughtful blog post about how we’re dancing “at” our audiences instead of “with” them, it made me think about how this dance has transformed over the past decade, particularly in the hands of dancers who are not from the culture. Of course, I am one of those dancers, and I admit that I have indulged in dancing “at” my audiences.
We even see this shift from dancing “with” or “for” to “at” in the language of gathering in our genre. The Arabic word “hafla” has shifted from meaning “party” to meaning “student performance.” For North American audiences a “hafla” is almost always a student show or a less formal performance event. Originally it would have meant an actual party, often with live musicians, where everyone comes to eat, celebrate, and dance together…. without a dance performance.
The Experience of Witnessing Dance
When we put ourselves on a stage, we have entered a transformative space. To me, it feels like entering a spiritual building or a house of worship. Everywhere not on the stage is profane, and the stage itself is sacred. I feel different on a stage, even during rehearsal or a simple walk-through.
The stage is performance space. The audience is viewing space. The edge of the stage is a fourth wall, literally dividing these two realms. The theater stage inherently divides audience and performer.
We see this division a lot in contemporary dance. Dancers move with little attention paid to who is watching them. Choreographies are created without fronts or facings, much like in the tradition of Merce Cunningham who subverted the notions of upstage and downstage, instead making everywhere a front… even when his dancers were on a proscenium stage.
Audiences are treated as auxiliary to the performance. It’s more like we’re witnessing a dance rather than engaging with it, observing it as though we were anthropologists traveling to research a foreign culture. It’s our job as audience members to be quiet and reverent and not disturb the ritual that we are seeing before our mundane eyes.
Witnessing a Social Experience?
But belly dance… Belly dance has its roots in social gatherings together in salons and living rooms and community spaces, and retains this sentiment even when the dancer is a professional performer. The dancer (I’ll be using the feminine pronoun here not to exclude those who do not identify as female, but because most professional dancers in the Middle East are female) is the connection between the performance space and the audience space. Literally. The dancer moves between the band which sits behind her, and the audience in front of her.
Those of us who are trained belly dancers understand that the audience is an integral part of the performance, to be engaged with the dance, the music, and the sentiment. They are not there just to witness movement and emotion, but to be an integral part of it.
In fact, when I auditioned for my MA program at Mills, one of the professors commented to me: “You’re the only one who acknowledged that there was an audience.” And I didn’t belly dance at all. We were instructed to do 1 minute of improv based on a very loose score of textural words. I didn’t even know I was being more performative than the others. I just did what I’ve been trained to do.
Sharing Belly Dance Through Performance
But what about the great performers of oriental dance? From Sohair Zaki to Nadia Gamal to Nagwa Fouad to Fifi Abdo to Dina… they are in constant movement conversation with their audiences. Even when they are on a formal stage, they interact with their band and their audience as if they are all on one physical level. Sometimes the dancers will descend from the stage, bringing her performance to them… but they were never separate to begin with.
But if you watch many dancers in the diaspora who are from the culture of origin, they are not in conversation. They wish to speak their dance, and we the audience are obligated to shut up and listen. Even if we might not want to.
And it feels, well, strange. Because we’ve taken a dance out of its cultural context, even in a performance setting, and tried to shoe-horn it into a Euro-American concert dance context. Unless done thoughtfully, it often doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel like belly dance.
Belly dance is a shared experience.
Tying Audience and Performer Together
As belly dancers, we must make ourselves vulnerable to the moment of movement. Vulnerable to the emotion of moment. To the audience, to our music, and to our own selves.
That is the sublime magic of this dance form… to transcend the imaginary lines between audience and performer, to tie them together. Even at the Arabic hafla, when a woman takes her scarf and winds it about her hips, she has literally tied together the space between viewer and performer, because she is both of them at once.
When we are performing, whether it be at the student salon, with a live band in a nightclub setting, between tables at a restaurant, or on a proscenium stage, we must remember that belly dance is a shared experience between music(ians), dancer, and audience. We must burst through that imaginary fourth wall to connect with our audiences, even if they are sitting.
We cannot just step in front of an audience and expect them to care about us. We shouldn’t take the stage and expect to regale our audiences with our personal experiences and emotions without being fully aware that a performance is a conversation… not a lecture.
You’re Sharing with Your Audience
This means performing with true and real and vulnerable eye contact, gestures, and acknowledgement. It starts with your entrance and doesn’t stop until you are finished. Watch as Fifi Abdo does her entrance promenades, smiles at the audiences, greeting them and her band, and doesn’t ever shy away from them. Dina literally runs from one side of the stage to the other to say a kind of “hello” to her audience. At the end of her act, Nadia Gamal graciously bows to her audience after her wind-up and spin, then turns and thanks her band.
We should be grateful for those who choose to sit and witness our movement and those who make our music. We cannot take them for granted.
We must remember that we are the space between viewer and viewed, between stage and seats, between music and listener. Like so much of this dance form, that role is a huge responsibility, and an enormous honor.
Go forth, perform, and be generous.
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