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Who’s Afraid of The Badass Belly Dancer?

Over the years, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon amongst the belly dance scene.

Many belly dancers are afraid of other dancers with high skill levels.

And not just afraid. Confused. Threatened.

But shouldn’t we be inspired by other dancers in our field who exude excellence? Aren’t we, as a scene, always complaining about how “no one takes us seriously,” and “we just want to be be seen as legitimate”?

We can’t be afraid of excellence and expect a seat at the High Art table.

Am I Scary?

Since 2005, I have been a serious student of the Salimpour School. And the Salimpour School is known for being very demanding of its students. Now, we don’t need to work this hard. We do it because we love it.

But as I became more and more involved in the school, I noticed that how others regard me at belly dance events started to shift.

And it shifted even more after I earned my Level 5, the highest certification level in the school.

Some people seemed to regard me in higher esteem, while others retreated.

But I’m still the same nerdy and dorky me. I like to think I’m a generally nice person, too. Granted, I’m a little socially awkward and introverted, but if you’re reading this blog, you might be too.

So what happened?

So spoopy.

Adults are Naturally Afraid of Failure

In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus documents not only his foray into learning how to play guitar for the first time as a middle-aged man, but also how the human brain and body assimilate new skills.

While children have the time and brain space to learn complex skills quickly and deftly, adults have to work harder.

But it’s not impossible for an adult to learn something new.

Part of what holds us back is that idea that we’ll “look silly,” or that we won’t be able to do it right the first time. Sometimes we think that we don’t have “the right body” for dance, or that we won’t be able to keep up.

I’m constantly telling my new students that if they want to improve, they have to keep trying. And if they come to class consistently, they have no choice but to get better! It’s science!

And while other dancers in the scene might see me perform and think that it all came to me naturally, I can assure you that it did not. I went to class after class after class because I’m stubborn like that.

The “I”-Driven Audience

Pop quiz time!

Multiple Choice: What do you generally watch for when you’re at a belly dance show?

  • A) To be taken on an emotional journey.
  • B) To be wowed with acrobatics like backbends, the splits, or Turkish Drops.
  • C) It’s all about the abstract physicalization of music through movement.
  • D) You just want to have a good time and watch the dancer(s) have fun.
  • E) You’re watching for what you think you could do so that you can either perform it or teach it. (Hint: This is not the correct answer.)

Even though E) is not the correct answer (the other answers are totally valid), the ego-driven consumption of dance shows still seems to drive our scene. When you’re watching with the “I” in mind, you’re not ever going to have that transcendent experience of watching live art that makes watching live art so extraordinary.

When you go to any other kind of performance, are you watching with the mind of, “What is that dancer doing that I could do better?”

Consumer and Consumed

I guarantee you that I don’t go see Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet with the intention of dancing like them. These dancers are young, in their prime, and absolutely breathtaking in their technical and expressive prowess. But I’m not thinking of dancing along side them in their concerts. I go because I want to be stunned. I want to be awed. I want to be moved emotionally and spiritually.

The same when I go to a concert. I’m not going to see my favorite band and think, “I’m going to learn vocals from her and then teach my students how to do that!”

Granted, a concert might inspire me to work harder on my own dancing, stage presence, or musicality. But I’m not going because I feel that the artists are doing something that I could do myself. In fact, I want to watch performances in which the artists do things that I cannot. I want to witness their brilliance and partake in the results of their hard work, practice, and training.

But the belly dance scene is unusual. So many dancers seem to watch performances in order to pick and choose what how they want to move, or costume and present themselves. But many dancers are also watching for what seems accessible to their own skill levels at that very moment, rather than what might be possible for them over the long term.

And that’s when belly dance consumers become afraid of the badass belly dancer.

Find Inspiration in the Intimidating

One dancer I know gets mad when she can’t do something right away. And she channels that frustration into learning how to do whatever it is that’s thwarting her. And she gets better. Way better. Like, superhero better.

I’m similar in my own way. The reason I started figure skating is because the first time I went skating, I freaked out and had a meltdown (I was about 5 years old). When the opportunity came up for me to take skating classes through the local Parks and Rec program, I wasn’t going to let that meltdown defeat me. I saw the image of skates in the brochure and was determined to try again. My mom asked me at least 3 times if I was sure I wanted to do it, and she made me promise that I’d stick with the whole session. I stuck with skating for 14 years.

But I don’t think that tenacity always happens with belly dancers.

Many adult belly dancers want to be able to do something right away. And, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in being able to do something immediately. And, of course, a dance class can’t be full of only things that the students can’t do—not only is that bad pedagogy, it’s bad for business.

But danger lies on the other side of the spectrum. We can’t just tell our students that they’re amazing all the time. This creates a false sense of accomplishment and creates praise-monsters. We tell our students that they’re at an intermediate level when they’re still beginners. (Aren’t we all beginners, though? That’s a philosophical question for another day.)

Let Excellence Inspire Us

So, the next time you see a dancer with mad skills, instead of asking yourself if you could ever do that yourself, sit back and enjoy the show. Marvel at the versatility of the human body. Respect the years of study and training that dancer brings to the stage. Be wowed by their technique.

Let them take you on a journey.

That’s the magic of live art.

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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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3 Responses

  1. I agree with much of what you say here. But I want to point out what influences me in regard to excellence in belly dance. Technical ability for its own sake seems to take priority among many younger dancers. I see this especially with some of the otherwise fabulous dancers of the Bay Area like the former Bellydance Superstars. As a member of the audience as well as an experienced dancer myself, I notice that my soul is often not stirred by technical prowess. There seems to be among some a desire to showcase mastery for mastery’s sake. I am far more influenced by how the dancer feels while they perform. I know that Suhaila makes a point of addressing this in her certification system. But often even she seems to be motivated to dazzle for dazzle’s sake.

    To me the artistry of belly dance is that it joins different aspects of the human experience. The physical prowess melded with an expression that moves the heart. I would love to see that second part emphasized more.

  2. Okay, so I was standing in the shower thinking back to this and had to come find the article. These my thoughts I had to share…with utmost respect:
    you were a fucking badass much long before you were immersed in Suhaila’s….
    I’m talking like…2001?
    And you weren’t scary because you were kind and disarming to anyone who felt threatened, much like a few other leaders in our community that I highly respect. Those who have seen the highest success also hold this same personality trait…I see that as no coincidence. And we actually have them(and you) to thank for teaching us how to reach out and be funny, silly, supportive, and kind. I’ve thought about this breakdown of personality-types in the bellydance world (admittedly oversimplifying):
    1) phenonmenal: beautifully kind and generous, often spiritually open, grateful, loving, sometimes silly and disarming
    2) socially awkward: introvert artist/nerd trying to act social and just really loves dancing
    3) caddy, threatened by others, likes to think about their own greatness
    4) super laid-back, sometimes detatched sometimes not totally invested, or just busy with other stuff
    5) player: looking for the opportunities, yes to everyone who might hold a potential opportunity

    Most people have a little bit of all 5.
    Most of us are a #2 (at least most who are reading this).
    Extreme talent can exist in any of these.
    Extreme skill can be in any of these.
    Most likely to succeed at a reasonable level will be #1 and #5.
    Most likely to have long-term success is #1.
    Many of us have had good teachers that are a #3 and then open our eyes to #1 and then fell in love.
    Most of us can change our personality over time to be better people when we have good examples.

    One more thing I was thinking:
    With all due respect: This article seems half-finished. I was trying to scroll down to read more but there was no more. I would have liked to learn more about others experiences in the scene beyond Suhaila. I feel like your breadth of knowledge of that scene and observations are truly unique in their depth and people could learn a lot from them.

    1. Thank you Sera… It means a lot that this piece stuck with you enough for you to chew on it for as long as you have.

      With regard to the article being unfinished… I think it’s because I’m still thinking about these concepts myself! That’s the flexibility of a blog, rather than trying to submit articles to a formal publication. I’m sure I’ll update with more thoughts about it in the future.

      I also admit that I live in a bit of a Salimpour School bubble with regard to belly dance, but I’m trying to get out there more! I spent quite a bit of time incubating and training after moving back to CA: 3 years training with Suhaila intensely, then going to grad school to get my MA. I feel like I’m starting to attend more events, but that can be difficult financially.

      I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about this subject in the future. 🙂

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