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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance Performances:
Art or Entertainment?



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What makes the difference between a dancer who makes the audience go wild with enthusiasm over her show versus one who is barely able to hold their interest? Of course, there are many factors that can influence this, such as dance skill, but one that many belly dancers don't think about is the one that comes within themselves: what their motive is for the performance and what they're really trying to accomplish when they step out on stage.

Art is meant to disturb. Science is meant to reassure. - Georges Braque, Pensées Sur L'Art

What is your primary motive when you walk on stage to present an Oriental dance performance in front of an audience? Is it to deliver an artistic presentation, provide entertainment, or satisfy your own personal quest for attention?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Why Dancers Perform in Public

There is a difference between dancers who aspire to perform in public and those who don't. Dancers who want to perform may do so for one or more of these reasons:

  • They want to share their enthusiasm for something they feel passionate about.
  • They want to educate the public on their dance form and the culture it comes from.
  • They have a message they want to communicate through their dance.
  • They want to be the center of attention.
  • They need the money from paying gigs.
  • They find joy in enriching other people's lives through entertaining them.
  • They are filled with the creative energy of an artist and want to share what they have created.
  • If they're performing with a troupe, maybe they like the cameraderie of rehearsing and doing shows together.
  • They've had issues in the past with their ability to be attractive to the opposite sex, and performing as a glamorous dancer is their attempt to validate themselves as a sensuous, desirable man or woman.

Of course, these aren't the only reasons why someone might want to dance as a public performer. In fact, several of these reasons could apply to the same person. But they illustrate the point that people dance in public for very different reasons, and it's often easy to tell by watching someone just which reasons are motivating his or her performance.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




What Happens if You Don't Consider What the Audience Wants?

If you don't structure your performance to match the audience's expectations, you may find the experience disappointing. If you're lucky, they'll just feel a little bored. If you're not lucky, they may heckle you and you'll lose control of the situation. One way or another, you probably won't be invited back.

Let's say you're an intermediate dancer who is just beginning to perform publicly. You've found a singing telegram agency that will pay you to deliver "bellygrams". You're excited because you love being the center of attention, you love to dance, and you could really use the money.

When your first gig to perform at a birthday party comes along, you try hard to do everything right: you take an hour to put on your makeup, another hour to get dressed, and you leave your house 30 minutes earlier than you think necessary to ensure you get there on time. In your own mind, you think you're trying very hard to satisfy this customer.

However, when the time comes for your show, the audience doesn't seem to respond very much to you. For the first five minutes, they seem to enjoy the idea of a belly dancer, but then they start to act a little bored and shuffle their feet as you carefully work your way through all the moves and props that you know. A few people start to call out obnoxious comments, which makes everyone even more restless. At the end of your performance, the applause is polite but not energetic, and the person who hired you pays you just the contracted amount, with no tip.

What went wrong?

The first problem is that your reasons for doing the show were all about you: your need for money, your love for dancing, and your craving to be in the spotlight. Instead of planning a show that would make a birthday party more fun for everybody and provide lasting memories, you planned one that would showcase your skills.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Sarah Neighbors Photography, Hershey, Pennsylvania.




How to Consider the Audience's Needs

When you are preparing for a performance, ask yourself what the audience needs from you.

  • Are they hiring you to make a party more fun for everybody?
  • Do they want you to bring a spot of brightness to the daily routine of nursing home residents?
  • Is it a cerebral showcase of the performing arts organized by the local arts council?
  • Were you invited to present a liturgical dance in a religious setting?
  • Has an ethnic group hired you for a family celebration in which they're hoping you'll present dance moves, music, and props from their particular culture?
  • Has an institution such as a museum or school brought you in as part of their educational program?
  • Has a restaurant hired you to attract business? Is it patronized mostly by "the general public" or by a specific ethnic group?

Each of the above examples requires its own style of music, costuming, props, and dance. The birthday party, nursing home, and restaurant are looking for an entertainer. The arts council may want something leading-edge and innovative. The museum may be looking for a lecture-demonstration with historical perspective. The ethnic group wants entertainment, but it's a different type of entertainment than what a birthday party attended by Americans would expect.

When planning your performance, think about why this particular audience wants a dancer, and then plan the content of your show accordingly. If the occasion is an American birthday party, then you'll want to focus on the guest of honor: place a silly-looking crown on his head, make him get up to dance with you, etc. But if it's an Arab wedding, you should choose romantic or happy Arabic music and consider performing the traditional Egyptian candelabrum dance.

Similarly, if you've been invited to perform a liturgical dance in some sort of worship service, you should probably leave the beads and sequins at home, and consider using appropriate religious music.

If you've been invited to appear in a performing arts showcase, this may be a good opportunity to present your experimental work that seeks to push the boundaries, challenge the audience's assumptions, and explore new horizons.

There's no shame in performing for your own reasons, as long as you consider the needs of the audience in addition to fulfilling your own needs. If you'll be performing at an event with many small children present, that is not the right time to validate your own sexuality with seductive come-hither behavior. But you might show off your special skill at balancing a sword on your head with a mischievous "look what I can do" attitude. And of course it's okay to enjoy being the center of attention as long as you give back the kind of entertainment they're looking for in return.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Carl Sermon, Los Gatos, California.




Why Do You Perform Publicly?

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Poll reflects results since October 26, 2002.



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