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

Belly Dancing:
From Student to... What?

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Once students are hooked on belly dance, it's common to hear them say, "I've been belly dancing for one year. Now I'd like to start performing in restaurants and maybe even teach!"

While it's really great that these students are enthusiastic about the dance form, they often don't realize that it takes more than a year of once-a-week classes to develop the depth of knowledge and skill needed by a professional dancer or teacher. Often, what these students really mean is that they want to become more involved in the dance, performing more frequently, and they assume that seeking work as a professional dancer is the next logical step.

There are actually many stages in the process of maturing from "student who knows a catalog of moves" to "professional entertainer" or "teacher". Further, working professionally can actually destroy the performer's love of dance - there's much more to running a self-employed business than wearing sexy costumes and collecting applause from adoring fans.

Still, there are many ways for students to become more deeply involved in this exciting art form while continuing to learn. Once a person feels ready to take her dancing to the next step, she can advance to "enthusiast". Many people enjoy the lifestyle of participating in the dance as an enthusiast, with many social events, performing situations, and opportunities to continue lifelong learning.

Here are some ideas on how to embrace Oriental dance as an enthusiast:

 

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Watch Professional Shows Frequently

It's astonishing to see how few students go to watch performances by their teachers and other professional dancers in the community. Watching professional performers can teach a student so much about how to work a crowd, how to handle bloopers, how to deal with hecklers, and much more.

Professional dancers are professional entertainers, and they are fun to watch! Yet many students fail to go see them.

Students should patronize local restaurants and nightclubs that offer performances by local professionals. It's especially valuable to see a variety of different dancers, because different people have different ways of approaching their dance styles, relationships to the bands, use of props, choice of costuming, and types of audience interaction. While students will naturally want to go watch their own teacher, it's well worth the effort to go see other professionals as well. Different people use different approaches to audience interaction, choosing music, and structuring the layout of their shows, and there is a great deal to learn from seeing how other dancers do this differently from one's own teacher.

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

Shira

 

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Organize Student Recitals

If a teacher doesn't create opportunities for her students to perform at least a couple of times a year, the students can band together with classmates and set up their own recitals. Even if a teacher doesn't have time to arrange recitals, she might support student efforts to arrange one if the students do most of the work: finding a place to hold the recital, getting the word out to dancers' friends and families, decorating the facility, and bringing in the necessary sound equipment.

The recital could include some choreographed numbers as a group (maybe the teacher would be willing to provide some choreography in class), and the braver, more experienced students could do solos.

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

Shira

 

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Organize a Student Troupe

If a teacher doesn't already have a troupe, her students could consider organizing one of their own. The teacher might not have time to organize and lead a troupe, but she may be willing to help by providing choreography and suggestions.

The students can share the responsibility for hosting rehearsals at their homes, setting up places to perform, burning the CD's or arranging the MP3 player playlists with the songs all in the right order, etc.

Student troupes can start with performing at belly dance events. These are typically called "haflas", "festivals," or "student showcases", and their purpose is to provide performing experience for students.

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

Shira

 

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Belly Dance Events

Some communities have several belly dance teachers, some of whom organize events for everyone. These could include festivals, seminar shows, or haflas (parties). Many offer students opportunities to perform, but it can also be valuable to attend as an audience member even when not performing.

If a given community doesn't have any such events, neighboring towns do.

Dancers who can't find events in their own community can create their own! It can be fun to organize a belly dance party. Encourage attendees to bring potluck snacks and drinks to share with a Middle Eastern theme such as hummus, babaganoush, pita bread, hibiscus tea, etc. It can be fun to research and make Middle Eastern recipes. People can take turns dancing for each other, which is what Middle Eastern people do at their parties.

Video parties can also be fun. Participants can bring their favorite belly dance videos, either instructional, performance, or documentary, then watch bits of each video brought and comment on what they like, what they don't like. By seeing segments of the videos brought by their friends, belly dance students may discover videos they'd like to buy for themselves.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.

Shira

 

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Attend Workshops

Workshops featuring big-name dancers offer dancers of all levels an opportunity to discover new ideas from outside the local community. When the instructor is a well-known teacher, it's very worthwhile to drive a few hours to another city.

Often, workshop events are accompanied by evening shows. These shows enable participants to see many dancers from throughout the region, and measure their own skills against those from elsewhere. Students are sometimes surprised to discover that an "advanced" dancer in their own community looks like a beginner compared to those from another city! It helps gain a more realistic picture of the overall scene.

Attending a weeklong belly dancing intensive or retreat offers total immersion which will develop dance skill in a way that normal weekly classes cannot. It also offers an opportunity to make lifelong friends with the other dancers attending.

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

Shira

 

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Deepen Your Roots

Many belly dance students stay with the dance because it fills a need for them. Examples of such needs could include social time with other women, opportunity to perform and be in the spotlight, excuse to dress up in fabulous costumes, fun way to exercise, creative outlet, etc. These are all great reasons to dance, and they played a role in why I have stayed with the dance all these years.

However, as students learn the choreographies and combinationas, make the costumes, rehearse, and gather with other dancers, it can be easy to lose sight of the Middle Eastern roots of the dance, especially for students whose teachers are focused on fusion.

As a student who is looking for your next step in the dance, it can be valuable to spend some time building your knowledge of the Middle Eastern culture that the dance came from. It's particularly important to move past stereotyping and Othering. A little knowledge can help with this.

Once you start learning more about Middle Eastern culture you'll discover new sources of inspiration that add depth and interest to your performances. If you hope to teach someday, this knowledge will make you a better teacher when the time comes.

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

Good places to start:

  • If your teacher doesn't use Middle Eastern music in class, seek it out on your own, then practice with it at home and develop solo performances to two or three favorite songs. Nobody expects you to like every Middle Eastern musical genre that ever existed, or even every song in one genre. But with a bit of exploration, you may find specific titles that you can enjoy dancing to. My article Introduction to Middle Eastern Music can help you get started.
  • Do some reading on the life stories of famous dancers of the past. A good one to start with is Badia Masabni, particularly Priscilla Adum's arrticle The Lady and Her Clubs. Other dancers whose life stories were so interesting that biopics were made about their lives include Shafiqa al-Koptiyya, Imtithal Fawzy, and Hekhmet Fahmy.
  • At large belly dance festivals, attend all lectures that may be offered on belly dance history and culture. Ask the dancers who organize workshops in your community to look at bringing in someone to teach a Middle Eastern folkloric style such as debke, schikhatt, or Saidi.
Shira

 

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Assemble a Music Collection

Just as carpenters require a tool collection to craft beautiful items from wood, belly dancers need their own tool collection to craft exciting performances. The most basic tool a belly dancer requires is rich, emotional Middle Eastern music. Middle Eastern music is particularly essential for dancers who dream of performing professionally someday, as most professional gigs require it. A belly dancer who doesn't know much about how to dance to Middle Eastern music is still essentially no more than a beginner, even if she has been dancing for over 10 years.

A good way to start learning about Middle Eastern music is to attend events where belly dancers gather, then approach performers whose Middle Eastern music you enjoyed and ask questions. What country is it from? What is the song title? Who is the artist? Around what decade was the song popular? What are the lyrics about?

Look for music that brings out your best. Once you start performing, you'll find you need a variety of songs to inspire you and keep your performances fresh and interesting.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by "K", Santa Clara, California.

Shira

 

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Join Internet Discussions

While it's important to learn what you can from your teacher about belly dancing, it's also very valuable to talk with dancers in other communities. The Internet offers an excellent way to discuss our art form with fellow dancers all over the world!

Use these forums to get advice, learn more about the history of the dance, seek ideas for ways to develop new performance venues in your community, and feel involved with the greater dance community. Read what has been talked about in existing discussions, and add your own questions or comments. Initiate a discussion about a new topic that interests you. Ask for music suggestions.

Learn about the nuances of what makes a birthday party performance for generic North Americans different from a wedding for the local Egyptian immigrant community, and how that differs from a performance in a formal stage show sponsored by the local arts council. Post a video of yourself performing a solo and invite members of the forum to critique you, but prepare yourself emotionally for the possibility that you will probably receive recommendations on how to improve.

Internet discussion groups come and go, but two that have stood the test of time include bhuz.com and bellydanceforums.net. There are also a number of groups on facebook.

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

Shira

 

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Read Books and Print Magazines

Most belly dance classes focus on movement technique and choreography. Many offer little to no information on belly dance history, Middle Eastern culture, background about music, or business skills needed by professional dancers.

In this electronic-media era, many younger dancers question whether there is a need for printed books and magazines. However, these publications still can serve as a valuable part of belly dance education by introducing you to topics you might not have realized were important. As a belly dance student, you might not know which questions you should be asking, and a magazine will offer you some guidance by providing articles about topics that established dancers think are important.

There are several belly dance magazines to choose from. Subscribe to one or more. These will bring you a regular dose of how-to information, news, and product reviews, and they'll help you feel more connected to other belly dancers elsewhere. You'll find out who's who, and discover ads for intriguing vendors.

Click here for a list of magazines that I am aware of.

Books package a large amount of information into a neatly organized format, whereas web searching often leads to haphazard bits and pieces. However, it is important to choose carefully when picking books to read about Oriental dance, because there are many that contain many errors in their claims about dance history.

Click here for a reading list suggested by Shira for learning about belly dancing history and culture.

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

Shira

 

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In Conclusion

There are many ways to participate in the dance without becoming a "pro". In fact, many talented dancers never do become involved in the "professional" circuit. Instead, they perform at belly dance "insider" events, nursing homes, arts festivals, county fairs, etc. Some would rather spend their evenings at home with their families instead of arguing with restaurant owners over pay. Others don't fall into the age group or body type that restaurants and talent agencies are willing to hire. Usually, there's only a tiny number of professional dance jobs in any given community, and a large number of dancers competing for them. Also, professional dancers often have very few dance friends because of the heated competition for a small number of jobs.

So look for ways you can find joy in the dance, socialize with other enthusiasts, and enjoy lifelong learning. It'll be rewarding, and when the time comes that you truly are good enough to teach or get the paying job, you'll have more experiences and knowledge to share with students of your own.

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

Shira

 

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