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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.

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