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.