Entertainment and Art

One of the things I think about often is the constant battle between entertainment and art in bellydance.

On one hand many of us paint ourselves as artists, as on par with the dances found in theaters and concert halls.  “Belly dance is just as valid as ballet or modern,” we say.  We say, “belly dance belongs on the stage next to other high performance art.”

On the other hand, we struggle with being entertaining.  Those of us who dance in restaurants and nightclubs must be entertaining.  The clientele isn’t paying for high art; they’re paying for a fun night out with their friends.

So… what are we?  Artists or entertainers?  Do we have to make a decision?  Or is it a matter of knowing how to be both, and being able to present an appropriate performance depending on the venue and crowd.  But if we tailor our performances depending on the client, are we compromising our art for the sake of entertainment?  Where do we draw the line?

For me… I consider myself more of an artist than an entertainer.  But, in being an artist, I can’t forget that I’m also a performer, and performance is entertainment.  How entertaining an audience finds a performance depends on the person and their expectations of what they’re going out to see.  But I won’t perform a piece solely for the purpose of entertaining the audience.  I don’t perform in order to elicit positive reactions from my viewers.  I have to love the song, the performance, and the piece itself.  Personally, I also no longer dance at private parties or do regular restaurant gigs, because those weren’t the right environments for what sort of dance I want to do.  Those audiences want to be entertained and to have fun, not to see something they might not understand.  I’m glad that I have taken those gigs in my early days as a working dancer; for one, they were great experience in dealing with apathetic and some times even rude crowds.  Those gigs also taught me that I’m not meant to be a bellydancing entertainer.  And I don’t see anything wrong with those performances or the dancers who take those gigs.  They just weren’t for me.

I feel most at home on the stage, in a concert hall, or at an event populated by other dancers.  Sure, this narrows my reach, but if I were to perform my style of bellydance at a private birthday party, hired by someone looking for a bellydancer, I think they’d be quite confused.  The private parties and Middle Eastern restaurants are not where I’m meant to perform.

I think it’s important for us to think about where on the spectrum between entertainment and art we want to sit.  We don’t need to choose a single point on this scale.  We can move between the two sides, and ideally, we should aim to find a balance between both that doesn’t compromise our personal vision.

How have you tried to balance art and entertainment?

 

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I don’t have much to add to this conversation, except this: I also prefer to dance for dancers. They “get” it. They see the effort, understand the training involved to accomplish some things and in general are my favorite audience. There are certainly good things to be learned from performing for “the public” at large, don’t get me wrong. I just have always preferred to dance for dancers.

 

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I think about this a lot, actually, because it reminds me of the Art vs. Craft (or Art vs. Design, or Art vs. Not Art) discussion I constantly had when I was an Art History/Theory Major. I eventually dropped out of my MFA program because I got really, really sick of having that conversation!

Anyway, in either case, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I have a creative vision, and I put it into action to make something. I think the process is Artistic but the end product looks like craft/entertainment because I’m coming from the very simple and accessible place of making/dancing for the sheer delight of it.

I agree that in bellydance, there is room on the spectrum for everyone, and so long as dancers choose appropriate venues, everyone wins.

 

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While I understand the kind of distinction you are trying to draw, I don’t see art and entertainment as opposing goals. I see artistry in the presentation of bellygrams and entertainment in dance on the stage. The emotional intent of the performance may differ, but both are meant to speak to an audience (entertainment) and both require skill/training, planning, and intent (art). A restaurant or party performance, when done well, requires emotional projection and meaning, and when these are lacking, the performance suffers — as it does on the stage, as well. I just don’t see artistic vision and the desire to entertain and engage the audience as opposing goals — merely different components of a successful performance.

 

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That’s interesting, while reading your blog post it occurred to me that in Art vs. Entertainment there’s a huge discrepancy in brain usage. Art is meant to be appreciated as an experience on a whole (for example, sights, sounds, emotions etc.) whereas Entertainment is generally more regarded as something enjoyable to pass the time and does not necessarily require thinking (e.g. the least amount of brain activity is while watching TV). Not to say never the twain shall meet, but they can and do overlap and produce something quite spectacular… but not always.

I’ve had conversations with my good friend B about preferences in where to dance, and I think there is a greater appreciation for the art of bellydance onstage, or at festivals with peers where there can be a focus on the performer and their skill. It can definitely protract from the sharing of the experience when obnoxious drunken men are shouting and making cat calls at you etc. It’s the equivalent of of that one annoying fan in a NIN concert telling TR to “shut up and quit whining” while he’s singing “Hurt.”

As for the question, I’ve been cheeky… At our April hafla I chose to dance to “Burn in Hell” by Error in an Iranian restaurant. As you can imagine, quite a few people were confused and gave me some very uppity looks… But I greatly enjoyed it. :) Sometimes “Resistance is Art”

 

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Interesting article, yet again, m’dear.
I think I am pretty well balanced between artist and entertainer, but with more leanings these days toward entertainer. I am the opposite of you, where I prefer to dance for NON dancers. They look with the purest eyes, and I feel I can deliver a message of joy more easily to this audience. I used to feel the opposite for years, preferring to be challenged by trying to come up with new stuff for eyes that have “seen it all”. But after years of that, I found bellydance audiences draining in their attitudes and expectations; and increasingly so as more festivals and more YouTubery proliferates, as I wrote a little about in my “Does Modern Media Kill the Organic Process” article recently on my bloggy blog.

Sure, I still love to dance in, around, among, and for my bellydance family! But I have found there is an innocence to non-bellydance audiences that I enjoy–a pure energy free from the same pre-conceptions I found in the bellydance community.

 

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I see all quality dance as visual art entertainment. In the different genres there are more “distant” forms, such as for stage and there are more interactive forms such as night clubs, weddings and restaurants. But they both have the possibility to have components needed to move the emotions, evoke thought and delight the senses. I believe those are things integral to both art and entertainment. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive nor do I see them at opposite ends of the pole.
The most interactive and responsive audiences by far that I’ve seen are the ethnic audiences, when you are performing styles they identify with. When performing Indian dance I’ve seen people cry. With Arabic dance- people sing along and gesture the words back to you. It’s a hoot when a guy clutches his heart and falls over on his friend. Giving people a “taste of home” – is truly a joy. In order to be done well however it has to be both artistic and entertaining.
If it’s art but it’s not entertaining on some level, you’ll lose your audience.
If it’s entertainment but it’s not art- I don’t think you’re dancing with commitment, although you might possibly be doing some technique.
That being said- I don’t generally take the “drunken American festival audience”, or the bar audience. I don’t dance for people expecting me to “take it off” and I don’t do “embarrass Uncle Bob” gigs. I dance for ethnic audiences, for GP audiences who are expecting me and I dance for dancers.
When choosing music for ANY kind of show- I choose music that moves me. I have to love it to dance to it.
The good venues blast the music and have waiters try to stay out of the way as much as possible – which makes for a more fully focused audience on the show.
I think performers of all kinds need to keep their audience in mind. A paying audience should get what they paid for. Family friendly means family friendly etc.

 

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Very thought provoking! As for myself personally…I feel as a new performer I need to work much harder on bringing BOTH aspects into my dance. Funny enough when I am performing in the troupe that I’m in, my biggest gripe is that I feel we are lacking in both art and entertainment. I believe part of the issue with that would be the fact that we are relatively new to dancing with each other, some of us relatively new to dancing, among other issues. But it bothers me walking up onstage and executing moves in a performance that lacks the passion or expression of art and IMO, lack in the entertainment area as well. When I dance solo I feel more expressive, and therefore more like i’m creating art. I don’t chose my movements around what someone might like but rather how I feel the music and interpret it. I believe a great performance requires both. Art and entertainment. This is personally why I enjoy your performances so much Asharah. I always feel like i’m seeing something new and fresh, like your performance is baring yourself. I also find myself always entertained….while you’re not changing your performance to suit the audience, you are still connecting and interacting with them…making it entertaining! I strive to try and bring more of both into my performances.

I will say that while I do enjoy dancing at events with other dancers, I agree with the above poster about the reactions of a crowd who doesn’t know much about belly dance. When i’m at dancing events for dancers, I find myself really inspired and I enjoy being out in the bellydance community. At times it can feel a bit clique-ish or intimidating and I feel like I don’t quite get much feedback but I also know this is with all groups of people. As a new performer I feel like when I dance for a group of folks who don’t know much about belly dance, I feel as if I just get a great energy from them. They are seeing something new, enjoying themselves and having fun with it. I find I have a lot more people feeling comfortable coming up to me telling me what they like and even in some cases what they don’t like. It’s good feedback for me, and I really like knowing that I am bringing belly dance to people in an enjoyable format.

It’s funny that you posted this. Recently I was talking to some folks and we were having a discussion about how some of the well known dancers, like yourself :), have certain movements that become attributed to them as like signature movements I was wondering if there was pressure to always perform them. Like at Spring Caravan this year I really enjoyed your opening number. It was much slower than a lot of the other performances I have seen of yours, different than what I had personally seen before. But I enjoyed it nonetheless and was really glad to see another aspect of your dancing!

 

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Dance is a communication, you are making a connection with an audience whatever style you are dancing just the same as an artist who paints a picture communicates with his audience even if they don’t understand what he was trying to say. Dance is meant to be shared and although I agree you place your dance where you feel happiest it should never be excluded from being seen by many.

 

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I’ve been thinking about this very topic lately, since our move to Kentucky I’m now doing restaurant gigs where previously I was only doing stage performances. I’m actually welcoming the change and feel that it’s helping me overall as a dancer as well as refresh my cabaret technique, it’s kind of neat really! So far all the crowds have been very nice and respectful, I’ve even gotten some private lession gigs from it, so it’s been positive for me. I’ve practiced/performed at least 4 distinct different styles since I started bellydancing so maybe that’s why for me it doesn’t feel weird. The best thing about it is that it’s helping me deal with my stage fright so when I do perform a stage show again I’ll remember the moves and technique I wanted to present instead of muddling through…

 

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This is a really interesting question. “How have you tried to balance art and entertainment?” Well, I actually quite enjoy working on the art of entertainment, the art of delivering an experience to your audience. Not necessarily as mindless entertainment, but..well…the only example I have is the difference between watching any romantic comedy staring whoever and then watching Amelie, or The Fall, or hell even Requiem for a Dream. The romantic comedy may be entertaining, but watching Amelie affected me. It was beautiful, it was art and i couldn’t look away. It’s nice when I can give an audience that kind of experience, and all while I’m completely loving my song and the dance and the moment. Ah, lovely.
Now sometimes the experience you give them is disturbing (like Requiem). Or visually stunning. (The Fall) Or allow them a peek into the dark side (Pan’s Labyrinth) There is an art in delivering these experience, in my opinion.

And then, every once in a while, I just need to get this piece out and I’m just not considering the audience reaction at all. Those are fun, too. But for different reasons. More therapeutic, I think.
Great discussion, great blog…

 

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