Saturday, October 25, 2014

Is Improvisational Belly Dance Obsolete?

 I've been thinking about this - does improvisation have a place in this day of belly dance competitions & Youtube? There is no denying that it's a new world, & our dance is transforming, as the stage for performance changes. What makes a good performance, & what doesn't? What makes one competitor better than another? Can one go out there & wing it anymore, hoping for the best when one really only has one shot?

  Improvisational Oriental Dance was the hallmark of the 1970s club days. A dancer typically performed to live music 6 nights a week, and possibly several shows a night. A dancer had to be ready to perform to any song & any style; to good music & bad music; to make it look natural, beautiful & entertaining. Improvisation was the skill that allowed the dancer to walk out the door with dance bag in hand & be automatically prepared for anything the night might hold.

  And there was an element of uncertainty & even audacity about each performance. There was always that possibility of magic, what some call "tarab" or athletes might call "being in the zone". Like jazz musicians, we had our own little jam sessions nightly, smoky rooms with dance intertwining with music - perhaps a moment of weightlessness as the music seemed to carry you like hands on a ouija board.

  Not to say that euphoria happened with every show. For each performance where it all came together, there were probably ten performances that were total bores. Not to mention nights where one seemed to have two left feet, or shimmies that just wouldn't materialize properly. But the beauty of improvisation in those days was that there was that possibility, & if it didn't happen one show, well there were twelve more that week where it all might come together in breathtaking harmony.

  I must admit I am woefully set in my ways when it comes to an Oriental solo. I cannot do a choreographed one to save my soul. Even to a canned song I've heard a thousand times I would never think of going out there & doing the same movements to it time after time. But this is where I'm falling behind in the performance space of today's online & competitive dance. The choreographed solos look better on video.

 If you only have that one shot in a competition, or you have that one performance that will inevitably show up on Youtube & define your ability, does one really have the luxury of improv when one could possibly fall flat on one's ass so to speak?

                                                             Doing what comes naturally

 Today's dancers have every gesture, every hand movement, every nuance choreographed, & the result is a polished, professional look. If you want your name known by your videos, it's important that you bring on your best stuff, no leaving it to chance. Improvisational dance to canned music just doesn't seem to translate as well to video because it is a medium of imperfections. In an intimate live setting with musicians those imperfections are forgivable because the dance is a process, not a finished product.

 As I browse through videos of competitions & performances, I see beautiful young dancers with impeccable technique & clever steps. I like what I see, even though something is missing. I guess what is missing is what Oriental dance used to be - not so much clever & crisp, but free form & fluid - amorphous. But who has time anymore to watch a 45 minute Belly Dance solo develop? Four minutes is pushing the attention span of most video browsers. So I totally see the need to pack your best stuff into those four minutes - don't miss a chance to hit that beat with a new & innovative move. Make sure your dance is practiced & perfected.

 So if a slight hint of insolence is detected on my part regarding the slick new style of Belly Dance, I admit I have a kind of love/hate relationship, but that's ok. Time marches on & I'm not one to fight it - it's a global stage & the competition is fierce. I've talked to younger dancers who say they wouldn't stoop as low as to dance in a club or restaurant - that they are stage performers, & that makes sense to me in a way. It certainly brings our dance form into the realm of serious art. And as much as I'm sounding like an anti-choreography curmudgeon, in actuality I produce yearly theater productions entitled "A Choreographers' Collective" & "A Choreographers' Eclectic" featuring group choreographies by some of the finest in the business, & I teach a weekly choreography class.

                                                         Choreography is for troupes

But as I've written here in this blog/memoir, my life as a dancer in the '70s, early '80s was a multi faceted one - dance as part of a real community - you were just one part of a total experience. The camaraderie that bridged cultures, rooms full of testosterone, volatility, intrigue, & glorious music. Perfection wasn't required. I bore easily these days, but I didn't back then. Those shows are still the best I've seen, even after almost 40 years.

I'm still happy I made a living as a dancer in that era. I think it fit my "go with the flow" mentality - or maybe it helped form my "go with the flow mentality". To have piles of cash, to dance every night & not have a care in the world was priceless, a great way to spend one's youth!