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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Re-Enchanting Belly Dance

When making small talk with people I am unlikely to see again, I often waffle, obfuscate, or even lie about my life. “I'm a housewife.” “I'm a temp.” “I'm between jobs right now.” “I'm a chemical engineer. At a box factory. Oh, specialty boxes. Very specialized actually. Uh... polymerization. Polymerized coatings. Cardboard polymerization. Well it has to do with structural variables and a proprietary folding algorithm, and, um, would you excuse me?”

When I must genuinely introduce myself, I generally stall as much as possible, but when asked directly about what I “do,” I say that I am a dance teacher, or if I think the company I'm in will not find it too pompous, a “dance artist.” Then I equivocate some more, until the dreaded revelation can no longer be put off. “I'm a belly dancer.” 

I can show you contemporary examples of this sort of thing too, by the way, but I don't want to put anyone on the spot.
And then things spin into apology and meaninglessness. “But I'm really serious. Well, no, actually I'm not exactly a 'professional dancer,' because I do more theatrical work, and it's not lucrative at all. I don't really do the kind of restaurant and party dancing that's commercially viable. Oh no, I don't mean that I do cultural presentations or theatrical folklore. I'm really not very authentic, although I hate to say that, because it sounds bad, right? Oh, sure, tribal fusion is amazing and very serious, but I don't do that either. I do my own fusion, I'm artistic, but I don't like to say that because when you hear 'fusion' or 'creative' or 'so-and-so does her own unique style' that just sounds inherently terrible to me.  And I'm not terrible. I'm really very good. I'm you know, a really good dancer who happens to be a belly dancer. But, like, a good dancer. I'm extremely technical. I sort of take it to a serious place where it's not so constrained by its traditional context or conceptual framework. But it's not technical and 'experimental' like stark and awful and soulless... I'm still making dance that's about beauty but taking it really seriously, being really serious not only about clean lines but about the musicality and the emotional expression and trying to elevate it to an artistic or even spiritual realm...”

Here's the short version that I have not yet adapted to easy conversational patter: I work in a medium dedicated to the viewer's sensual gratification, but I do not pander, and I am deeply dismayed when I am lumped in with those who do; I work in a medium with low barriers to entry but I have uncompromising standards of excellence for my own work, and I am deeply dismayed by the preponderance of people who seem unable to tell the difference.

It isn't even that I find the meretricious gambolings of my less-invested, uh, “colleagues” to be that objectionable.  Belly dance is meant to appeal to the senses, I don't apologize for its sensual nature, and I don't apologize for those who focus more narrowly on one sensual expression than another.  If your primary motivation is to get attention with a skimpy outfit and you want to gracelessly flail in it, I admire your lack of self-consciousness. If doing some nonspecific wiggling enhances your self-esteem or enriches your inner fantasy life, go, sister, go. If you make more money at the the strip club with an I Dream of Jeannie act, I congratulate you on having found a competitive advantage in a difficult line of work.  Even if your intentions are high-minded but you're really just not a very good dancer, I don't want to be a judgmental jerk.  Not everyone's good at everything.

I stumble over the words “I am a belly dancer” because it weighs on my heart to throw my pearls before swine. I consider my work worthy of respect, so I am very tired of raised eyebrows, leers, uncomfortable silences, flustered attempts to not appear closed-minded, and weird uses of “folk dancer” or “empowerment” construed as polite euphemisms. Which isn't to say that everyone's rude or poorly informed. But I don't think I've ever met anyone whose first impression wasn't colored by the assumption of some inherent frivolousness or inconsequentiality.

And I get it. I understand that, when I identify myself as a belly dancer, all you can do is evaluate the nature of my work, not the work itself. There's no reason why you would arrive at the conclusion that I am creative, thoughtful, meticulous, and highly skilled; that my dances are sophisticated compositions, not a pretense for displays of skin; that my material isn't a genre-bound rehash that depends on borrowed interest from tired stereotypes; that only by the most extreme standards would my costuming be considered salacious or would my movements be considered obscene or vulgar; that my dance aims not to provoke lust, but to charm, to fascinate, to delight.

This is why I have spent the last ten years bending over backwards (in many cases literally), trying to be seen, first and foremost, as an artist. This is why my “dance name” is my name: Autumn Ward. As a concession to befuddled speakers of English as a foreign language, I have sometimes Arabized “Autumn” to “Fatima” (get it? F-Autumn-a?) or conflated my initial, middle name, and surname, “A. Leah Ward” to “Alea al Warda,” but I've never done work that I didn't want full credit for, or that would be enhanced by being left open to one-dimensionalization. This is why I make every dance look different from the last one I created, why I spend so much time on each new piece, and can only show perhaps three new dances in a good year, and in a difficult year complete none. This is why I have a blog dedicated to the critical analysis of each of my YouTube videos. With every entry, I cringe at what I know might seem to be ridiculous self-importance, but I see that people remain oblivious to most of what I am doing until I explicitly spell it out. This is why I am increasingly reluctant to put on a bedleh, the traditional 2-piece bra-and-belt bellydance costume, and why I bristle at characterizations of my style as “cabaret.”

And this is why I've been in the habit of trying to make every posed photo an opportunity to portray myself as someone with dance training, showcasing, if nothing else, my flexibility, the carriage of my arms or the lift of my alignment.

I am bending over backwards for you, figuratively and literally, trying to be seen first and foremost as an artist.

When I see photos of belly dancers with their hands in their hair or lounging on a carpet I have a knee-jerk reaction of being NOT impressed. Certainly the publicity posters of ballet and modern companies never feature their stars luxuriously reclining—they are shown gloriously athletically in motion. By comparison, belly dancers appear to be distinguished primarily as pretty ladies who are also owners/wearers of pretty costumes. Some accomplishment.

What accomplishment is on display here?  Which dancer's portrait commands respect for her dancing?  At left, Linda Celeste Sims, at right, Mia Leimkuhler.
At least that's been my attitude about such photos recently.

But here's the thing: I like pretty costumes and pretty pictures of pretty ladies as much as anyone. And I particularly like lush images that show a softer aesthetic: classically-styled pinups, golden age Hollywood and silent film stills, the “Oriental” dancers and chorus girls of the 19th century, fantasy art, fairy tale illustrations, Mucha, Beardsley, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, Parrish, John R. Neill.... I cherish these images. They inspire and transport me. In fact, they affect me exactly as I hope to affect others through dance: with charm, fascination, delight.

And I appreciate that these images, like my dance, are works of creativity, thoughtfulness, and skill. With this in mind, it becomes obvious to me that a beautiful photo of a reclining dancer (or, for that matter, a nondancer in a dance costume) is an accomplishment of styling, design, vision, and craft, representing the real investment of a model and photographer, and whatever support staff they have (or may not have) behind them.

Only when viewed through a filter of snobbery is a model's prettiness, a quality that generally extends far beyond her genetics, not an accomplishment in and of itself. Posing, like dancing, is a real skill of intelligent physicality. What in the old days they rightly called the “artfulness” of one's appearance, the skillful and self-expressive creation of allure or smart style, is a talent clearly not given to all. And, speaking as someone who is not naturally slim, is not as young as she once was, and who owes her figure, skin, hair, and teeth at least as much to a lifetime of careful and disciplined choices and habits as to luck, I very well know that it takes real work to create and maintain an attractive face and body. These accomplishments are seldom vaunted or praised—our culture, while it rewards beauty, sneers at vanity—but I have no reservations about acknowledging their value.

Photographs can only hint at coordination, musicality, and fluidity—the qualities on which even the liveliest and boldest styles of belly dance rely.  Belly dancers waver, circle, spiral, and oscillate. Photos can no more capture these energies than a picture of a candle can capture the flame's flicker. The movement vocabulary of belly dance is contained, never creating the leg extensions and jumps that are the Kodak moments of Western dance. Softer styles do not “explode” on stage, but instead are virtuoso displays of subtlety. These are features, not bugs.

So what is the problem with sensually-posed belly dance photo portraiture? I have to conclude that the only problem is my double standard, that I am too wound up in my personal crusade, and that I'm ready to give it a rest. I can easily do what I ask of others, think critically, and see that the choice to primarily communicate sensuality is not in any way a shortcoming but its own legitimate expression. While some contemporary costuming trends are not to my taste, and some dancers/models lack artfulness, these are failures of content, not medium.

Offering someone the pleasure of looking at a beautiful image is not really so different from offering them the pleasure of watching a beautiful dance.  Perhaps a newcomer runs the risk of being thought not a very good dancer if her pictures emphasize something other than her dance training, but those who jump to this conclusion are unlikely to be belly dance aficionados.  Belly dance photos are not a job interview at the bank: to show sensuality is not unseemly. The fact is that beautiful images are accomplishments of joy, comfort, inspiration, and cheer. They lifts our hearts, soothe our spirits, and fire our imaginations.

Despite the value I place on work, despite the recognition I seek for my work, there's nothing appealing to me about evaluating the success of belly dance through the dour lens of a Protestant work ethic. Belly dance, above all else, is an accomplishment of mystery. Of all the reasons to dance, I can think of none more noble than undertaking belly dance as an act of re-enchanting the world.

Maybe it's time for me to get back in a bedleh. Maybe it's time for me to celebrate sensuality on its own terms and merits. I'm going to assume that at this point, if you haven't formed an opinion about my accomplishments in dance, new photos won't sway your opinion one way or the other no matter how they are posed.  The world can never have too many pretty pictures of pretty ladies.

(Did I really just work so hard on an essay about working hard to justify posting a picture of myself not working hard?  Oh yes I did.  The irony is not lost on me.)

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Interview: a Conceptual Influence from Beyond the Bellysphere

What is an example of a conceptual influence from outside belly dance? Any concept inspiration from any other area of arts or life...

[My segment begins at 5:23]

[A transcript of my segment follows below.]
There is a book I want to mention, a work of popular psychology, called the Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron, and her name is spelled A-R-O-N. In this book, Dr. Aron describes High Sensitivity as a relatively common personality trait—it's about 15-20% of people—and she discusses ways that people who have this trait can identify it in themselves and learn to use it constructively and regard it as an asset. When I first found out about this idea about this highly sensitive population, right away for me I made a connection to belly dance. [I suspect that a disproportionate number of people involved in belly dance have this kind of high sensitivity. ] Our dance is very emotional, very expressive, but subtle—very nuanced. Over and over again we use and we hear this phrase “poetry in motion”... We are not living in poetic times, so to have this poetic impulse, this interest in poetic movement, I think reveals a lot about the kinds of people who are drawn to this dance form.

Or maybe it just reveals a lot about me, but cultivating an appreciation for my sensitivity has been very valuable to me, and it definitely affects the way that I construct dances. As I said, we are not living in poetic times. If you look at the way we interact with technology, the way our TV and our movies have this fast short-attenion-span camera work and quick editing, the way our food and our medicine are industrialized, I think it's very easy to become accustomed to this superficial way of just passively skating along. You know, people say that this is why there's so much interest right now in zombies in popular culture, because we intuitively have this sense that there's a dark side to this quick-fix gratification, that it can degrade us. But belly dance, I think, can be an antidote to that. It has this amazing capacity to be a vehicle for poetic expression, poetic experience. It can be a doorway into the extraordinary, into this beautiful, tender, transcendent, other realm of experience. Or it doesn't have to be profound, it can also just be simple and happy and fun and joyful, but it always has, or, always has the potential to have, this extraordinary romantic quality. Working with this in mind—understanding and engaging with this poetic aspect of belly dance, I think is.. has [made] a big contribution to why my dances look the way that they do, why they have this unique look. It sounds trite to talk about heart and soul, but I don't know how else to describe it. I am dancing from my heart, through the whole thing. From the dreaming up of the ideas to the sequencing together of the choreography to the actual dancing, the actual performance. Even in the way that I kinesthetically click in, in the way that I align my body... I dance from my heart.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview: What Prompts the Evolution of your Dance Style?

Filmed January 2013I know many of the readers of this blog are outside of the US.  My international fans continue to dazzle and humble me with their foreign language skills—most of you speak English better than I do—but for those who do better reading than listening or who just want to plug the whole thing into the google translator, I've also included a transcript.

What prompts the evolution of your dance style?
[My segment begins at 1:20].

Well, over the past few years I've been very fortunate in that I've had several opportunities to do nontraditional work in video and theatrical settings, so on the one hand I have been trying new things like crazy, but at the core of how I'm dancing, I'm not actually sure that my style has evolved that much. In terms of pure aesthetic, I think there's a distinct signature to the way that I move that really has stayed quite consistent across everything that I've done. I've always been very invested in training for precision, and taking care to articulate through as full of a range of motion as possible. So in all my dances no matter what the conceptual idea is, the technical qualities I think are always very consistent—there's a basic clean supple look that's always there.

If anything has changed, though, beyond style and technique, I think it is probably that the presence of my personality in my dances is more apparent now than maybe it was... What I have always loved about belly dance is its softness and subtlety, but I used to really struggle with the fact that for many audiences, at least Western audiences, in nightclub and restaurant settings, a lot of that subtlety is totally lost. So, as a result I started focusing more on prop work, fast finger cymbals, adding high-energy and acrobatic elements into my dancing... Which was a good development, to a point, because it really increased my technical range, but it was maybe not the most artistically honest direction to take my career.   I'm not a party person.  I don't have an uproarious personality.  So it was not a good choice for me to focus on these loud dances. Now I'm very much back to lyrical work, still using some of the flashier moves, but for texture, where it's contextually called for, not with the same kind of shock-and-awe, attention-demanding, approval-seeking motivation that maybe was there once.

I think we all have a tendency to devalue our natural gifts, and it was incredibly useful for me to realize, and to remind myself, that anyone can do splits and backbends and... Not anyone. Other dancers, athletically elite dancers—can do these tricks and these gimmicks—but there's really no one else who can create work that is like mine in terms of lyricism, intricacy, details, delicacy.  These [qualities] are... That's where my passion is. That's what I take pride in, that's what I want to be known for, and that is the creative imprint that I want on my work. So again it's not really an evolution because I feel like my career sort of went in a big loop and left me back doing the same things that I always wanted to do when I started out, except hopefully now with a little more polish. But, what is behind that I guess is just the desire to be honest, and perhaps having greater courage to be honest. I don't... I won't spend time on projects unless they genuinely appeal to my artistic sensibilities. Which sometimes are a little different from maybe what's in the mainstream.