Monday, February 23, 2015

What's Missing in Competition Belly Dance?

 I was going to write a blog on Belly Dance competitions after attending Belly Dancer of the Universe (BDUC) last weekend. Then I read Luna of Cairo's blog (& I urge you to read it), & felt she covered all the bases and then some. Enough that I no longer felt compelled to add my two cents. Read here for her insightful comments:
But then I got to thinking about the nature of competition & the belly dance competitors I've watched, & thought I might have something more to expound on. 

  I'm not going to bad mouth competitions or competitors. I am the mother of a former gymnast/dance team competitor, and after years in the stands, I've grown to respect highly the hard work, hours of repetition, & the palpable improvement of one's craft that competition promotes. I've had my share of belly dancers I've coached win competitions & always found it to be a fun & creative endeavor. I enjoy going to the competitions - the well prepared dances, the suspense, the beautiful costumes. Occasionally I watch them on Youtube if someone recommends a particularly good video, though I gave up actively searching for them due to lack of time & often boredom. And I have to separate belly dance competition from belly dance. It's really a different animal (for better or for worse).

 To expound on the different animal concept - let me just say this "competition vs authentic/artistic" is a battle going on in all of the dance world. Academic dance, ballet & modern dancers eschew & revile competition dance. They believe it's flashy, depending heavily on tricks & develops poor technique. I understand this argument & agree to a point. Yet there's something to be said for whipping out ten pirouettes & chucking an arial cartwheel into a double illusion. Competition dancers learn to be tough & learn to push their physical abilities to the limit, & consequentially it's changed the face of dance. It's raised the bar for young jazz/contemporary/hip hop dancers looking to make a living - you have to have some tricks in your arsenal. The traditional dance establishment is seething about this, but hey, at some point you have to face reality & realize you can't turn back the clock. 

  So let's just once & for all say that there are two different animals in our world as well - Belly Dance & Belly Sport. American & European competitions to an extent, have kept more of the dance in competition - so let's face it - Belly Sport is a Ukrainian/Russian phenomenon. But with all of the competition dance, I've noticed an element often missing from all these competitors. I've tried to put my finger on why the majority of videos & competitors I've watched leave me cold, even though the technique, creativity & packaging can be flawless. And this goes for all competition that requires some artistry - gymnastics, ice skating, ballroom dance, etc. Then I realized I was over- analyzing & it comes down to a very basic ingredient: Entertainment. 

  A belly dance competition isn't the place you'll find true tarab. Just the nature of the atmosphere & 3 or 4 minutes of canned music isn't enough to send a dancer into another world (& nothing worse than feigned anguish to lyrics not even quite understood!). Yes, getting in the zone - being totally in the moment is necessary, but if you prefer the dancer to really feel the music rather than perfectly execute steps, this is rarely the venue you'll see that either, although still important to strive for. Competition is, as I said before, just different.

  So what separates the wheat from the chaff? **Entertainment!** Yes, that elusive quality that dancers forget about. So often a competitor wants a pre choreographed number packed with bells & whistles. They've seen the well trained & polished dancers win, & feel this is a formula they need to join the ranks - & often that's all it takes. So if all dancers are executing their steps well, have the beautiful costume & polished look, how do they stand out in a sea of similar competitors? 

  This is my answer - get up there & entertain - show that infectious joy that brings on spontaneous hoots & hollers & the audience to their feet! Difficult you say? Damn right! I often think perhaps it's even an innate talent, since I've seen so few really entertaining competitors. So many are serious, frightened or choreograph silly gimmicks that come across as a little embarrassing.  Trying to turn inward to show raw emotion rarely works in this genre. True entertainers will stand out like refreshing rays of sunshine & make you, the audience, feel good (or any other emotion!) about life. Now that's a quality to aspire towards!

  So take a look at two competitors of a different stripe (takes little more than 1 minute), one executes a beautiful floor exercise with great skills & perfection. Then look at the second video & see another competitor, equally talented & perfect. Which one regularly gets the perfect 10s? Which competitor do audiences wait to see & rise to their feet when she does her thing? Which competitor makes me, watching on my computer, get goose bumps, laugh out loud & just plain old feel happy? 

                 A beautiful competitor with excellent execution which I appreciate, but quickly forget

                  A simple seat drop puts a lump in my throat & brings the audience to their feet

  This is what I want to see at a belly dance competition - that dancer who make my heart soar. Do I prefer a dance competition to a real, artistic, organic belly dance situation (nightclub, theater, etc)? No I don't. But it is what it is & it's not going away any time soon. In actuality it is possibly becoming THE way a dancer makes a name or gets the opportunity to be onstage in front of a large audience. 

  So let the games begin. Be well prepared, find music that brings out the best in you, get the ba-bam costume, & here's hoping you will bring the element of entertainment to the table. The world could use a lot more joy.

  In closing I want to include a video of my students who have won tons of competitions. Not conventionally beautiful, not a lot of bling - but the cheers say it all. That extra something special. This year they were inducted into the Belly Dancer of the Universe (BDUC) hall of fame for their many wins in all categories. Now that's entertainment!:

                             Recreating their 2014 BDUC first place choreography & performance. 
                                                                  Viridiana & Roxana