I recently invited one of my very best friends to a belly dance show, in which I was to perform. She was thrilled to attend the event and brought along her enthusiastic twelve-year old daughter. After seeing several acts by different dancers, the girl leans over to the mother and says, “Do those dancers even like to dance?”
Ouch! That is not the kind of question dancers want to hear. The reason for this inquiry: no one was smiling.
To be fair, not all the dancers were stone faced. After the show, the daughter willingly gave me her opinion. She listed three dancers she felt had a great connection with the audience (me included, thankfully). But, three acts out of fifteen seemed low to her.
I have never been a person to discount the observances and opinions of a child — any child. Kids are very attuned to emotion and instinct. This particular child has been born and bread in a professional theatre family. She already has a lot of experience acting on stage and she also studies dance. So, of all the opinions offered by children, I trust hers implicitly. If she questioned the performances, there was a reason.
Criticism is always hard to hear — believe me, I know first-hand. I faced this very same moment as a child. At seven years old, my mother came backstage after my dance recital. She hugged me and said, “Sweety, you did a great job out there. You hit all your marks and moves. But… it didn’t look like you were having any fun. Perhaps you should try smiling a bit more.”
That moment changed my life forever — for the better. It was one of the best things my mother has ever done for me. I had been dancing since the age of three. I knew, at seven, that I wanted to be a professional dancer. Though my mother is a most loving person, she also understands that helping a child grow is not done by always giving constant reassurance. Sometimes, honesty is the best course of action. She is right. Her criticism was a great motivator. To this day, every time I dance in front of an audience I hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me to smile.
That doesn’t mean I have a perfect performance all of the time. Sometimes I blow it. Sometimes I forget the choreography (always 16 counts that I have never forgotten before). I’ve dropped my cane. I have caught my veil in a chandelier. I was once performing floor-work, and while in a back bend, a customer said, “Um, Ma’am, you’re on fire.” That was the day I learned to be more careful while using open-flame candles.
But the one thing I always do, is make eye contact with the audience. And smile.
That is not to say all performances require smiles from ear to ear. A dancer should exhibit a range of emotions while performing, depending on the music. A sad song should be expressed with great emotion and with choreography to match the tone of the music. Belly dancers can be playful, fearful, shy, sexy…anything it takes to express the emotion and tell the story of the dance. But no matter what feeling is portrayed, belly dancers must be engaging. They need to connect with the audience.
What is the problem?
There are several reasons the dancers do not engage with the audience while performing.
First, more often than not, belly dance shows are filled with both professional and student dancers. Not that non-professionals can’t smile. They certainly can. But it is true that student dancers are often unsure of themselves. If students are consumed with trying to remember choreography and how to perform a move, it is easy to forget to smile. Often the face becomes vacant while the wheels spin in the brain. With time, students become more comfortable with their dancing and learn to relax.
I also believe some of the fault lies with the teachers (me included). We spend so much time breaking down moves, making sure lines are straight, and trying to keep everyone on the beat, that we often forget to emphasize the importance of stage presence. Perhaps if we reminded students to smile more, they might have more success.
I sometimes wonder if stylistic evolution in belly dance plays a role. I’ve been belly dancing for just shy of twenty years. During that time, I’ve seen a huge shift in belly dance costuming and music.
When I took my first belly dance class, cabaret style was the norm. Everyone bought a jingly hip scarf, sequined tops and belts, flowing silk veils and skirts in bright and bold colors, had false eyelashes fake gems at the tips, and used lots and lots of glitter. Who doesn’t want to smile when dressed head to toe in glitter? And what audience member doesn’t smile faced with a bouncy dancer and a happy music beat?
Since then I have witnessed the intense rise of American Tribal Style belly dance (ATS). Coins turned to tassels, silk to cotton and burlap, the predominant color became black (though still with very colorful accents), fake gem eyelashes were replaced by darker eyeliner and glitter was on its way out.
Lately, I have noticed an even darker shift. The colorful tassels of ten years ago are often non-existent. Costumes are mostly black, with accents of black lace or black street underwear showing. Sometimes the fabric is torn around the edge and the outfit includes black army boots and fishnet tights. Eyeliner is caked on and even lips are lined with black (or at least a dark burgundy). The music is heavier in tone. What was considered “Tribal” has evolved into “Goth” belly dance.
Now, I’m not trying to put down my Goth belly dance friends. I truly appreciate all forms of dance. In fact, sometimes I’m a little jealous because I’m not sure I could pull that act off. My niche is cute, with a little side of sexy. Goth is way out of my comfort wheelhouse. So, more power to you ladies!
I’m also not arguing that Goth dancers should be all smiles. That wouldn’t fit the theme of the dance style. Though they should still engage an audience with a strong attitude and eye contact.
I just wonder, are audience members reacting to all that heavy attire and music? Audiences react to the subject in front of them. Children are often more impacted than desensitized adults. Is the darker tone interpreted by children as “not having fun?” Thinking back on my young friend’s comments, I can’t be sure. All of her favorite dancers were cabaret dancers, but they were all also professionals. Did she like them because they were pros or because of the glitz? I suspect it’s a little of both.
I also took my three children to the same show. Coincidently, they all picked the same three favorite dancers. Of course my youngest daughter liked the blond (who looked like Elsa from the movie Frozen) best.
If the tone of the dance does play a major role, have we lost the fun in belly dance? And does that really matter?
Who is Your Audience?
Perhaps we need to take a moment to ask ourselves, who are we dancing for? And why are we dancing for them?
I have a belly dance colleague who signs all of her emails: “Dance as if no one is watching.” It’s a lovely sentiment. And yes, we should all enjoy the rapture of dance. Because if we are not having fun, then what is the point of doing it at all? Turn down the lights in your living room, turn up the music, and dance. Dance with unabashed exuberance. Dance the way you want to dance, wear what you want to wear, dance in your underwear (or without any clothing) for all I care! And love it.
However, if you are dancing on stage or in a restaurant in front of an audience, you are not dancing for yourself. You are dancing to entertain others. This is what a professional dancer does. And if you are not a professional, pretend to be. I believe we all have a responsibility to ask ourselves the following questions: Who is my audience? How can I entertain them best? How can I connect with them to put on the best show possible?
Those who organize dance shows also have an obligation to their audiences. For instance, when I design a show, I put great thought into the placement of acts. I start the show with a happy and enthusiastic number to welcome the audience and get them excited. I also end the first act with a well-executed and enthusiastic number to persuade the audience to come back after intermission. I rotate props — one wing number, followed by a zil piece, then a somber veil song, then back to an upbeat number. The second act builds to an exciting finish with the most talented professional dancers.
Sometimes I make other types of adjustments. If the show will be performed in an old folks home, I’d advise turning up the music for those hard of hearing. If the show will be in an elementary school, I’d suggest wearing a full-length, full coverage baladi dress. And for goodness sake, if you are dancing for an American audience, ladies, please, shave your visible body hair!
Who is your audience?
At the End of the Show
At the end of the day, the choices are yours. Your costume and music are up to you. But whatever you choose for your performance, do what you do with flair. And engage your audience. If your music is dark and heavy then stare your audience down and draw them into your world. If your song is soft and lilting, milk it for all it’s worth and take your audience along for the ride. And if your song is happy and bouncy, then smile baby. Smile.