Dancing is acting without words.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many of my colleagues in the tribal and fusion bellydance scenes speak so despairingly of cabaret and oriental bellydance.

A few nights ago, Natalie Brown and I went to see the new Bellydance Superstars show at the lovely Newberry Opera House in Newberry (surprise!), South Carolina. As I watched the oriental dance group pieces, I noticed that although the dancers were beautiful, trained, and performing lovely choreography, the pieces lacked a certain depth. And I find this to be true for a lot of oriental dance pieces, particularly ones performed to music written specifically for dancers (rather than, say, instrumental versions of Umm Kalthoum songs). Then, I realized… I love watching oriental soloists, and oriental dance is inherently a solo dance. The connection between the dancer and the music, how she relates to the notes, the instruments, and the lyrics of the song (even when dancing to an instrumental) is the core essence of true oriental bellydance. New students of bellydance who go to a Bellydance Superstars show rarely see the beautiful connection between a solo dancer and the music, except when a lead dancer performs a drum solo with Issam Houshan. Even then, however, we never have the full experience of watching a solo dancer perform to an Umm Kalthoum song or a melodic taqsim.

I think, in order to work effectively as a troupe or company choreography, group oriental dance pieces must have a specific emotional perspective. It’s not enough for the dancers to be beautiful, elegant, well-costumed, or technical. Every dancer performing a given choreography must find an expressive head and heartspace that relates to the overall emotion of the piece that she’s performing. The emotion must be consistent throughout the company, too. And EVERY dancer needs to “go there” in order for the performance to truly succeed and reach the audience on deep, emotional level.

Part of why I think some dancers are turned off by oriental dance and so attracted to the style that is so often referred to as “tribal fusion” (the modern blend of ATS, oriental, and club/freestyle dance made popular by Jill Parker, Rachel Brice and the Indigo, and early Urban Tribal Dance Company) is that tribal, in its parent form of American Tribal Style (ATS), has a built-in emotional perspective. ATS’ emotional perspective is, “I’m so happy to be dancing with my sisters, and you, the audience, should feel honored that you get to see this special moment between us. We are regal, beautiful, and powerful.” Tribal fusion group choreographies often project this perspective, even if the dancers themselves aren’t expressing themselves fully. Tribal fusion projects a mystery that oriental dance choreographies often do not.

In order to be a successful dancer of any style, oriental or tribal or folkloric, we must project emotion. Acting and theater training and exercises are key to developing this skill. Not all choreographies have to be heart-wrenching or deep or depressing. Sometimes a choreography really is about pure joy or love or excitement. If we are performing a piece with which we do not connect with emotionally, we can’t just “fake it”. Being able to project an authentic emotion is a skill that we dancers must develop. The audience can tell when we’re not “there” emotionally. We must find an emotion within the piece and within the movements in order to sell it and make it real. Dancing is acting without words. As dancers, we must be able to express emotions through our movements and not be literal about them. We are not mimes. Dance is about using the whole body to project an idea, emotion, or story. And true, honest, and raw expression is difficult and requires training. Actors train for years to be able to own their roles and be real on stage and/or film. When we perform choreographies with a troupe or company, that fact doesn’t change, regardless of what style we’re performing. A dancer must train her body as well as her expression. The two skills go hand-in-hand, no matter what style of dance one is performing. True emotional expression isn’t going to convert all tribal style dancers into lovers of oriental dance, but I think it might be a step in the right direction.

 

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Omg. There is a dancer who one of my Oriental-style teachers has approached for being an understudy in her professional company. She smiles and looks pleasant when we perform the group dances but I feel that it’s so fake onstage, and I guess the director doesn’t see this. Many dancers are just not willing to “go there” psychologically.

 

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over 10 years ago, I think those elements of Tribal and Fusion definitely brought a deeper sense of story and emotion, compared to the general offerings of the regular community (and I would say that cabaret/oriental was moving away from that “over there” rawness and more about perfection/pretty/tricks) – I think that’s why GBD took off so well, because it gave a different level/concept of emotion to explore. I think in the last 5-6 years, newer crops of dancers, especially tribal fusion, maybe be falling prey to the same cycle of thinking it’s about the costume or the tricks – because they’re not learning ATS or older traditional styles/folklore etc (and perhaps it was their teachers who were bored with cabaret, etc, so that is spread without critical looking)- and therefore, the emotional content also goes out the window.

 

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Yes to what Tempest said! I very much agree that this is the case. Above I intended to give just one example of what can happen with a dancer not connecting regardless of subgenre (wasn’t just saying it to bash a fellow dancer, who is a pleasant dancer otherwise), but I do agree that it is seeping over into all genres at this point.

 

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YES! YEEEEESSSSS! I am a strickly cabaret dancer and I wholeheartedly agree. I really dislike watching cabaret troupes because it just seems like a bunch of people trying to get from one move to the next. What drew me to cabaret ( and continues to do so) IS the personal connection to the music. I can appreciate all kinds of bellydance for different things but it is true that they all seem to have their place when they shine. Cabaret soloists definately do.

 

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oh yeah and also as a response to the first comment about a lot of dancers not willing to “go there psychologically”, the growing problem with a lot of cabaret teachers ( especially the new crop), is that the emotional level is SIMPLY NOT TAUGHT OR EXPLORED. Which is a real friggin shame.

 

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I couldn’t agree more. I do think it’s possible for emotional expression to exist within group oriental dance, but it’s really hard to make it happen. I much prefer to watch soloists. This is one of the reasons that I’m sick of the BDSS.

 

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i have to agree with the first comment about “going there,” as well as a lot of Tempest’s post. and by “going there” i don’t mean being brooding and moody and all that (which i think is where TF gets a lot of it’s “mystery”), but if you’re dancing happily, be genuine about it.

and i guess sometimes i’ve seen people put the wrong motivation behind oriental dance than behind tribal fusion; or i should say, what I consider to be the wrong motivation, where it becomes all about appearance and “look how hot i am in my costume, oh geez!” it’s all about the surface and the glitter, and less about actually investing emotionally — whatever those emotions are.

even if someone is technically good, but void of emotion, the performance just isn’t as interesting. it works similarly with music.

 

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I think this is a little judgmental. Group dances of any style CAN be emotional IF the right people are dancing. But if the group is dancing a certain style and not all of the members are connected to the music, then it will make the whole look “off”. But if each member was into the music, it would be a different story.

I wonder if some of the Bellydance Superstars have lost their own spark. When you do something so often and for a living (same songs same moves night after night) sometimes you forget why you are doing it. It becomes a job. It is rare to find someone who preforms for a living and who never becomes dulled by the repetitive nature of it.

 

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[…] thanks here, also, to Asharah, the Bellydance Paladin, for her thought-provoking posts about emotion and dance, which have helped me dig even […]

 

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I am very happy to be reading this. I was feeling all alone in this…
I would like to add something about groups. It IS possible to have the emotion there, even night after night. Actors do it and so do good dancers. It is imparitive that the choreographer or director, give direction. They must tell the dancers the story, the idea, the feeling, the goal… SOMETHING. And if it’s not happening, then go a little deeper, give a little more direction.
Not all actors resonate with every liine but they must find a way to make it work. As dancers, we are fortunate. We usually get to choose our own music. But when we don’t, we have to find a way to make it work.
Having a bad night is acceptable. It happens to all of us. But when all the dancers in a number are emotionally absent, it doesn’t matter how good the choreography is.

 

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