Diary of a Debut: One Dancer's Story
by Anne-Marie Hood
Submitted by MID-BITS Magazine
Issue #4 Summer 2000
Although I am a seasoned performer in other dance forms, I am new to bellydance performance, especially in restaurants and other more intimate settings. Recently, a fellow dance friend and I decided that it would be a good idea to try out the restaurant thing, to help develop our feeling for the dance, and hopefully just have some fun doing something we love.
Not wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves, we chose a small establishment, but one which has had dancers for years. On an anticipation-filled Friday night we put on our most dazzling smiles and prepared to shimmy the night away.
After our performance we were asked to meet with the restaurant owner, presumably for some feedback, which seemed fine and reasonable; we are newcomers, after all. But the feedback came in the form of a condescending lecture comparing us to “dancers who make $70 in tips”; we were told that “even though you are artists and everything, the whole point is to wow the crowd”.
“Wow the crowd?” What does that mean? I understood some of the owner’s feedback where things like music, length of performance, and eye contact were concerned, but the “wow” part? Still my partner and I decided to make some changes in our act, and try again.
Take two, I think, was a big mistake…
Although our second feedback session with a different owner (at the same restaurant) started out with some truly constructive criticism, it quickly deteriorated into one of those piggish man making far too personal comments to a couple of women in a vulnerable position scenarios. As I listened in horror, an EMPLOYEE made comments about the size of my dance partner’s breasts, how we “show our breasts” when we bellydance, and how my friend especially needs to “talk to the women she dances with from the audience because she has large breasts, and women are intimidated by them”. My smaller breasts on the other hand were dismissed as “not being such a problem” (!) The icing on the cake was the part where the man proceeded to explain that since his restaurant had included bellydance on the menu for 15 years, he - HE! - was an expert at spotting “the good dancers”. The rosettes on the icing came in response to my mentioning that I didn’t like the tone in which the first owner had spoken to us: our “boss” for the evening said “well that’s because you have dark skin. My brother has a thing for girls with dark skin”.
Now maybe I don’t know that much about bellydance. Maybe I take class at a school which, some might say, puts too much emphasis on artistic theatricality, as opposed to entertainment. Maybe I’ve been a professional modern dancer with all its support groups, official mandates, and contracts for too long, but in my book our experience could only be labeled as harassment, and had nothing to do with the quality of our dancing. And yet afterwards, even though I knew both owners were acting like jerks, I began to consider giving up bellydance completely. I was about to throw in the towel, when I read this:
The attractions of cabaret – regular work and money and a chance to be seen are hard to resist… The audience is primarily there to socialize, and pressure on a performer to adapt her style in order to catch their attention is unremitting. Even dancers of integrity succumb to the demand of commercialism that their act appeal on the most banal and obvious level. Flashiness, technical expertise rather than feeling and subtelty, and the overworking of the sexual element have all surfaced in the cabaret act… It is form without substance. --Wendy Buonaventura,The Serpent of the Nile
So here’s my question. Questions, actually, because there are a lot of them. Do bellydancers always feel comfortable in their work situations or do they set their instincts aside trusting the dance itself to take their feelings away? Do they ever walk into a place that isn’t them? Do they make written contracts detailing expectations? What is the difference between “art” and “entertainment”? Should there be a difference? Would bellydancers benefit from joining an organization like CADA (The Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists), which provides accident insurance and standard contracts to dancers, or should we form our own organization? Does such a group already exist?
My final question is this, and it’s a big one. Who is it that defines what constitutes good bellydance? Is it audiences who probably only have stereotyped notions of the dance anyway? Bellydance is an Arabic art form, but what happens when no Arabs are around? Who defines the essence of the dance then? And lastly, is it right for men, any men from fathers to restaurant owners to promoters, to set standards for a way of moving which by its very nature has nothing to do with maleness? Is it possible for us to control our art form, or do we each just want to be admired, no matter what the cost to our integrity?
I have asked these questions to myself. Now I’m asking you, the bellydance community. Let’s talk.
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08-02-2011 11:02 PM #1
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Diary of a Debut: One Dancer's Story
08-03-2011 12:44 AM #2
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Re: Diary of a Debut: One Dancer's Story
It sounds like you had a horrible experience, my sympathies on your entry into BD gigs.
You pose some tough questions and I'm sure that many of the answers will be more in the form of opinion than fact.
Therefore, in my opinion, much as we don't like it, gigs will need to be geared to audience perception, whilst haflas and the like are where we exercise technique and depth of dance. Sad, but money does tend to talk.
That said, no amount of money compensates for that kind of offensive talk from a restaurateur!I'd like to give you some moral advice, but I have questionable morals.
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