Are you doing tricks or are you making art?
In this age of YouTube, Facebook, “on demand” television programming, and short sound bites (bytes?), many of us are conditioned, whether we are conscious of it or not, to expect a “Wow” factor when we watch a performance. We can fast forward someone’s YouTube video to look for a cool trick or cute combination that impresses us. Often, we’re watching each performance, even live ones, or even especially live ones, with a “Show me what you got” attitude. And because of this, many belly dancers go on stage with a “Let me show you what I got” attitude in return.
I think that the short performance time slots we are allotted contributes to this approach. How on earth can I get your attention in a hall full of vendors, friends, and other distractions in 5 minutes? First I must have ear-catching music to get your attention in the first place. Then, once I have your attention, I must have a cool costume to keep you visually interested. Then I must perform “cool” and “impressive” tricks to keep your attention. These tricks don’t even have to be particularly difficult. A belly flutter is not really difficult at all, but I can tell you that it’s a surefire way to get applause and cheers. The same goes for sustained shimmies, Choo-Choos, and backbends.
Are tricks art? Does that kind of performance take the audience on an emotional journey? Is getting people’s attention why you want to dance? Honestly, I’m not sure that the dancers who take this approach to performing even know that they are doing it. It’s easy to get addicted to the cheers, the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” of the audience without reflecting on the nature of it. The “show me what you got” attitude is so pervasive, in the United States particularly, that it’s difficult to know that we’re buying into it.
Would you go to the opera with this attitude? Probably not. Most operas are 3 or more hours long. Last week I went to the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tosca, and it was three hours long. I was entranced the entire time. The story, the singing, the acting, the orchestra, the arias swept me away and when Tosca herself leapt to her death out of despair, I cried.
However, because of the festival culture, even at local haflas and recitals, we belly dancers are forced to present ourselves as artists, dancers, and people in the span of 5-7 minutes. Tosca had three hours.
Even though we must often compress our performances to fit festival and hafla time limits, I believe it is still possible to take the audience on an emotional ride, even if it’s a short one. To do so means eschewing the temptation to impress or be cool or edgy, or even to play the “role” of the belly dancer. By choosing music that truly moves us emotionally, beyond, “This song is so awesome!”, and costuming ourselves in ways that reflect the intent of our performance (Urban Tribal Dance Company’s performance to Murcof’s “Memoria” is still one of my favorites, and they were wearing simple tops and Melodia pants), we can move away from, “Let me show you what I’ve got.”
And, as audience members, we have to shift our focus. We have to watch a performance not for cool tricks or for movements that we want to learn from the dancer on stage. We have to sit back, detach ourselves from our egos, and let the performance wash over us. Some performances aren’t successful in this way, but many are, and I think that we miss a lot of the more subtle and artistic presentations because we constantly want to be impressed. If we just sit and let the performer take us on a journey, we can have a collective artistic and emotional experience, and both performer and audience can walk away fulfilled.