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

The Decline of Belly Dance?

 

by DaVid Badyal

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

People often talk about how things were better in the world before, and how society is declining. We have the same discussions within our Oriental dance micro climate about how times were better before.

Here are some of my musings on the subject...

First, I would like to say that most of these ideas are formed by my own thought process, meanderings, experiences, and observations. No one should take this as a criticism or a signal of my displeasure with the world or the dance. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity I have had in my career to achieve the things I have with the support, trust, and good will of numerous people. I’m sharing these thoughts to add to your thought process, not to initiate some sort of opinion wars. We see enough of those as it is.

As a male Oriental dancer focusing on Egyptian dance, that started at a point when "no men danced" (though there were a few already), I thrive on seeing the younger male dancers make intelligent, confident, strategic choices in their careers. Choices were few and narrow for a male dancer when I started, yet I didn't have the scorching judgements of social media to deal with back in my day. Now, you get picked apart over nothing as soon as a video appears on the Internet. These young dancers are making their choices despite the constant threat of scrutiny. I really think they are brave! There are so many more male dancers these days all over the globe, and a select few have made a place for themselves on the international arena of dance through presenting quality work, consistent product, and handling themselves well. It makes me proud to know that my humble efforts have played a role in paving the way for them to excel within the dance with a broader platform than what was realistic when I started dancing.

Whereas a male dancer is visible from the moment he starts dancing and must justify his position and priority from that point, female dancers face a completely different dilemma. There are so many female dancers and it is hard to stand out in the (ever so talented, yet) grey masses. It takes courage to be different, original, unique – and yet retain some sort of relativity to this dance form. I thrive on seeing female dancers carve out a place for themselves to counteract these grey masses! I love it! I want to see strong strategic choices. I want to see strong expressive ownership. I want to see brave claims of rightful relevance in the dance. This is fulfilling for me as an artist, and it wins audiences and builds a following.

David

 

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Building a Following

Speaking of following….

One of the biggest flaws in our dance communities, in my experience, is that we dancers in general spend too little time building individual following within the general public, which in turn decreases and diminishes public awareness and acceptance of what we do. It’s been a fashion for a long time to assert oneself within the dance community as an authority through article writing, posting on discussion forums, blogs, social media, and so on. It’s easy to build a fan base within colleagues if one is willing to stick one’s neck out where others don’t – irrelevant of the validity of what one talks about.

It's more challenging to maintain a commercial relevance to the general public, and this is where I personally feel that many of us fall short. I personally, to use myself as an example, started dancing at a time where there were few men dancing and the social acceptance for a male dancer was quite low. I just happened to be fortunate with my age (19-20), my look (“Aladdin”-like), my location (Norway), and the people (venue owners, dance teachers, and mentors) I connected with at the beginning of my career. I also initially didn’t enter Oriental Dance to make a career of it. It just happened, and often that’s how most careers in the entertainment industry happen. I had a strong following and visibility within the general public while dancing in Norway and Sweden thanks to my connections in national media, aided by the novelty and “right time, right place, right look” of my product. I had a strong presence in the international dance community through being an opinionated, happy to share information and thoughts, brat on social media. My following in the general public and the dance today may be more exclusive, but the timing of when I got into the dance initially, with my unique background, and the longevity of my career seems to have allowed me continued validity and relevance to some extent.

Similarly; there are dancers that maintain their relevance in their local communities/markets by putting out amazing product, great marketing, and maintaining a professional presentation. I’ve had the pleasure of assisting many a dancer with these considerations as a coach/brand strategist for dancers. Either way, the point I’m making is this: without a following, a dancer’s career gets stranded, and the dance becomes less relevant as a whole.

David

 

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"Anybody Can Do It"

Another factor impacting the strength with which this dance stands, in my humble opinion, is the oversimplification of this dance in our promotional materials.

Sure, this dance as a discipline can be “low impact”, “easy, fun, exercise”, and for “all body types”. However, statements such as these negate the complex body awareness, social prowess, and intelligent design in Oriental dance. In part, I find that the attempt to promote the fitness aspects over the cultural identity that is integral in this dance causes a lot of misunderstandings in our students – or disassociation, if you please.

If anyone can do it, then what’s special about it? If it’s easy to do, then why bother taking classes?

Furthermore, there is an emotional trauma when dance enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes are faced with the conformed, restrictive body image of the money-making industry side of the dance.

  • Are we doing our dancers a service by failing to talk about this issue?
  • Should we be clearer on the delineation between the discipline of the dance and the commercial (professional) side of the dance?
  • Would this overshadow the therapeutic, holistic, communal aspects to studying the dance?
  • Is the commercial side accessible to enough dancers for it to be relevant to everyone involved in the dance, and not just the ones that “fit the bill”?
If anyone can do it, then what’s special about it? If it’s easy to do, then why bother taking classes?

 

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Clarity of Dance Genre

The lack of dance genre specifications causes a lack of sense of lineage, belonging, and awareness among our students, and it causes a lack of cultural associations for both students and audiences. When everything becomes “Bellydance” instead of referencing culture-specific dances, then a strong part of what would make a cultural dance relevant dissipates.

This is evident both within our dance communities as well in general society. Students and performers constantly confuse styles when discussing dance works because of lack of awareness of the differences between styles. Professional dancers and artists erase delineations in their presentation packets by simplifying and a underestimating the audiences’ capacity to comprehend. These factors all fade the impact and power of the dance.

One of the most frequent discussions is about how pay was higher, how gigs were more glamorous, how audiences were packing the multitude of venues, how fame was attainable, and glory was bestowed upon the classy elegant dancers of the time. It may have been a reality, or it may just be that the dancers in question are musing about a time where they were more market relevant, or it may be that the market has changed.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Tracey Gibbs Photography, Manchester, United Kingdom.

The fact is; the entertainment industry is less than forgiving when brand identity and product consistency weakens. Declining market share doesn't automatically mean there is a decline in the dance, it’s due to a lack of investment in one’s product in the form of practice, reinventing oneself, and maintaining a consistent product.

We need to factor in that we all age out of the market, and even earlier without a following or a consistently maintained product. It’s no secret that it is a rather traumatic and brutal experience when the market rejects a dancer/artist. Bitterness, depression, hostility, jealousy, envy, and so on are common symptoms among artists, especially when the market phases you out, often sooner than you’re prepared for.

David

 

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Morality and Stigma

The morality of the dance is often revered as the main cause for why the dance doesn’t gain “respectability” alongside other cultural or classical dance forms. You personally might not need to face the realities of the dance in the same way as dancers who perform in the Middle East. However, that doesn't mean that your luxury experience of it is any more valid than the experience of thousands of dancers that do work in the Middle East. They are the actual dance, and in the middle of Muslim societies they publicly dance wearing costumes that are reminiscent of lingerie. Those dancers are sexual and sensual women. They are the real dance. A select few have the privilege to dance in fancy 5-star hotel settings, a select few are chosen to appear in television commercials, movies, and Ramadan shows to become famous. All the dancers we talk about "in the dance" are mostly famous for being actresses, or are former members of folk dance troupes. Only a select few dancers who come directly "from the people" ever reach this worldwide fame.

Some dancers claim that the stigmatization of dancers and the dance itself is the reason for the decline in the dance. Dancers often discuss how sanitizing and sterilizing the dance until the stigma is gone will make the dance acceptable to the mainstream. I applaud their stamina at killing the dance with their own bare hands leaving it void of context, content, and meaning.

This dance is an expression and reflection of life — of the cultural, religious, and social struggle of women/artists. It will never cease to be stigmatized. Women's bodies have always been regulated and restricted be it socially, culturally, religiously, or politically no matter where you are/go. Women are harassed everywhere whether they are top to toe in black or in a bikini. This won't stop just because dancers cut the veins of the dance in hopes that the dead body of it will appease their surroundings. Family members, relatives, and friends won't suddenly revere dancers as some sort of refined artist even if such efforts are made.

What baffles me is that people keep talking about what in their eyes is the decline in dance all while the dance is surviving social, societal, religious, and political persecution in the Middle East. Tell me again how your privileged situation is compromised by the dancers in the Middle East existing and dancing as they should and always have?

I'm sorry. But all of this sounds too much like people that have a chance to leave the dance whenever they please and leave all the baggage it comes with in a snap. Therefore they demand that the dance fit their requirements as some sort of hostage price or they will abandon it.

As a male dancer - I too have faced stigma. Stigma that I normally wouldn't have faced if I had just gone to law school or danced mens' folk dances from Northern India, or even Egypt. Stigma that usually is reserved for women. I've felt it. I've seen it. I've experienced the unwanted advances, the entitled hands on my body, the overbearing comments, the social and cultural condescension, the "you are less than" attitudes. Of course, I'm not a woman, so my experience is not at all comparable or reflective of what my dancers, students, colleagues, and friends face. And they face it no matter what they wear, where they go, who they are. These things won't go away just by being a "good girl". The world doesn't stop demanding ransom for your rights and pleasures because you fulfill the first demands.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo of DaVid was taken at the Theatrical Belly Dance Conference in New York City.

I have spent my whole life dancing. I've spent my whole life looking out at the "accepted" society out there from backstage, and one thing I can say - there is nothing you can do as a cultural artist to change the attitudes that are out there except be the best at playing with their own restricted thinking. This dance is about facing the short-comings of how we restrict ourselves with our mindsets/personalities/fears - and general societal mindsets and, sorry for the expression but, spitting it right in the face with intelligence, training, confidence, and yes - also costuming. It takes a lot of courage and I'm not sure I personally went far enough in my career (but people seem to enjoy what I do so I am grateful.) this dance is about something personal.

What this dance is not about is throwing on a costume, feel sexy, and exotic for a moment and then going back to being a judgmental foreigner again. The dance is not a costume you put on for Halloween to be wild and crazy - to then blame temporary intoxication until next year.

It is easy for us foreigners - be it geographically outside the Middle East, or socially outside the dance in Egypt itself, to point fingers and make noise and then go back to our lives. But who are we pointing at? Based on what? Oh we are conveniently hanging the "Costume of Dance" in the closet for next year while being judgmental participants in general society? What a privilege. People with such privilege will never be faced with the same decisions to make as the women that have no choice or alternative but to dance. Once you are a dancer in those societies - it is a stamp that follows you for life. You can't have a career change when you age out of the market. You get married and get hidden away, or you dance.

So, the next time we all become judgmental about, for example, Dina's costuming; remember, she is the dance because she has no other alternative. And ask yourself, who are you to talk? Who are you to have two faces where you conveniently are a dancer when it fits, and a part of society at large when it fits?

David

 

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Closing Thoughts

These are the type of thoughts that keep me in check and have colored a lot of my decisions in my career.

Go be brave! Face yourself! Face the world! - with intelligence, strategy, a plan. And stop worrying so much about what choices other dancers make....rather, understand why they make the choices they make. Learn from them.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kitty Lam, Hong Kong, 2017.

David

 

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About the Author

DaVid of Scandinavia is an internationally touring Middle Eastern dance artist, choreographer and dance coach. Norwegian by birth and East Indian by heritage, DaVid trained in Punjabi Folk dances from an early age under his father, Ustad Tarlochan Singh, former member of the award winning Layllpur Khalsa College Bhangra Team. A performer since childhood, DaVid is known for his precise technique, delicacy in artistry and expressive finesse along with his refined musical sense. He draws from his dance and music training, linguistic and cultural explorations in his dance and teaching. This has led him to performance and instructional engagements in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Switzerland, Croatia, Ukraine, England, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Canada and in the United States. DaVid offers dance training and coaching through the DaVid of Scandinavia Dance Academy (DOSDA), founded in 2005, based in San Diego, California, USA and through online services. He also provides dance education and certifications through his D-Ranged Intensives programs.

DaVid has trained in Middle Eastern dance with Ms. Safa (USA/Norway), Dr. Lee Figenschow (Norway), Ms. Lena Helt (Sweden) and dance dignitaries from Egypt, Norway, Sweden, and the USA. He has pursued studies with numerous teachers and coaches in Middle Eastern dance. DaVid, an aknowledged mentor himself, continues to receive the generous guidance of many of the Egyptian, Norwegian, Swedish, and American dance elite mentors. DaVid studies movement and ideokinesis with John Diaz.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jaki Hawthorne, Atlanta, Georgia. Taken at the event Black Orchid Danse, Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010.

David

 

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