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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Value of "Professional" Choreography

When I choreograph Oriental dance, I generally approach my work as a music visualization, structuring my composition to reproduce the architecture of its accompanying music. Since most traditional Oriental dance music makes use of repetition with variation and of nested call-and-response phrasing, my choreographies tend to take this same form. I typically show musical recapitulations with movement phrases danced first on side, then danced in a mirrored version on the other side.

I am a fan of balanced composition.
Some dancers may be surprised that an accomplished artist uses symmetrical combinations. At the time I am writing, September of 2014, it is not unusual to encounter the sentiment that it is “more professional” to construct choreographies so that they make no use of repetition, regardless of repetition in the accompanying music. Inspired largely by competition aesthetics, but also by influences from the greater consumer culture, many dancers aspire to switch up to a brand new combo at the start of every musical phrase, and do not use the structure of their music to inform the structure of their dance.

To me, traditional-context belly dance choreography that places asymmetrical movement phrases on call-and-response music seems superficial and clumsy, no matter how sophisticated the individual movements or how beautiful the technique with which they are danced. I perfectly understand free-form movement when a dancer is following the meanders of a taxim. I also understand free-form movement, even to structured music, in the context of improvised dance, when a dancer shares her exploration of music with an audience in real time. But to me, the whole point of choreography is not to simulate improvisation, but to show the results of already-completed creative exploration. I create choreography to take advantage of the additional possibilities an artist unlocks when she prepares, with care, in advance.

So, when I first heard free-form choreography described as “more professional” I was bewildered, and, honestly, dismayed by what I perceived as a slight to both my own aesthetic and to common sense. How had my colleagues become so enthusiastic about dances that use music as nothing more than an atmospheric metronome?

After some reflection, though, I've now come to agree that free-form choreography is indeed the professional's hallmark. I don't mean that my tastes have changed; rather I've thought a little more deeply about the terminology. The pro dancer, the wage worker who depends on entertaining merry-makers and pleasing an employer, absolutely demonstrates professionalism when she continually switches things up.

Having worked in restaurants and nightclubs, I know firsthand that a relentless barrage of novelty has the greatest appeal to the short attention span of a typical contemporary audience in a commercial context. (Wings! Next I'll balance a tray! How about some audience participation? Everybody dance! And let's have some veil poi! You've seen cane, but have you seen flaming cane? On roller skates?) I would like to think that Middle Eastern audiences, who in theory have a greater connection to Middle Eastern music and have historically embraced a more subtle aesthetic, would be less receptive to novelty-based choreography. But some of the most haphazard-looking sequencing that I've seen recently has come straight from Egypt, and many of today's most-admired Egyptian-style stars construct dances around accents, spins, spine-whipping body waves, and ceaseless shimmies, paying minimal attention to melody instruments. In the world of Tribal Fusion, too, there's a marked increase in frenetic showboating. With this in mind, a planned and polished atmosphere blast may indeed be the most reliable way to win the acclaim of the undiscriminating masses and secure paying work.

But our dance deserves to be valued for more than the wage a dancer earns. With the greatest admiration and respect for those who succeed at the absurdly difficult task of earning a living through belly dance, I encourage dancers not to lose sight of other approaches and other perspectives. Our community has a tendency to assign the highest value to that which it considers “authentic,” so some may choose to arbitrarily adopt Egyptian, Turkish, or other culturally-conventional aesthetics. We also reward dance which is “professional,” too often forgetting that image, personality, networking, and business savvy strongly affect a dancer's success in the marketplace. But just because a dance is authentic and professional does not mean it is an artistic success.

Good dance can come in all kinds of packages. The mainstream of belly dance is the popular expression of our medium, something like what top-40 pop is to music.  I don't mean to imply that all popular entertainment is necessarily superficial formulaic fluff, only that, like music, fiction, movies, and other creative arts, belly dance can shine in folk, commercial, and "high" art expressions. The popularity of mass-market paperbacks doesn't diminish the value of literature. Or, to those who enjoy it, of fan-fiction published in internet forums. The popular embrace of slickness and novelty simply should not constrain the aesthetic of every dance. Our “niche” products—folklore; fakelore; historic and vintage styles from bygone eras; various permutations of “tribal” dance with attendant acronyms; Goddess invocations; conceptual work in and beyond fantasy, gothic, and steampunk contextual transpositions; my own idiom of “exquisitely crafted belly dance theater”—do not each speak to everyone, but they are cherished by their devotees, and they are the creative wellspring on which the commercial sphere depends. An artist is not diminished if her work speaks only to a select audience.

I value work that shows deftness, sensitivity, and heart. I appreciate creativity, refinement, and rigor. I feel most proud of my most self-expressive work, and I generally prefer to see and study with artists who similarly invest their dances with their own distinctive signature. I value “authenticity,” but to me this means an attraction to artistic honesty rather than an indiscriminate embrace of Egyptian trends.

But to each her own. The Extreme Dance Blast has its fans. And even if it isn't my cup of tea I do appreciate the technical skill of its presenters. I wish more of my colleagues had this perspective. I feel like most of those who, like me, are left flat by haphazard sequencing want to throw the babies of technique and choreography out with the bathwater of the latest trends. I hear from too many dancers who draw the incorrect conclusion that choreography, by definition, is a demonstration of having memorized a laundry list of arbitrarily assembled movements, and that only artists who improvise have a deep and meaningful engagement with music. I see an anti-technique backlash too, led by dancers who seem to not understand that technique can be cultivated as a tool, not something one might only pursue as an end unto itself. “Just give me a dancer who does three moves, but does them well,” they say. “These technique queens are trying too hard,” they grumble.

As the kids (sort of) say, don't hate the game, hate the player. Actually, don't hate the player either. Any given three-move dancer may truly be a delight, but complex expressions that use complex vocabulary have equal—or, I believe, greater—potential to charm, to intrigue, to entertain, to transport. On the flip side, I have abundant, character-building, personal experience with the potential for complex expressions to end in complex catastrophes.  We're still learning our way through this new territory. While some may prefer to stay metaphorically down on the farm, we, as a community, have seen Paris. I love the farm and I love visiting the ladies who call it home, but it's absurd to tell us all that there's no point in exploring beyond its fences. (Young people and international readers who I just lost: try this.)

Having myself participated in more than a little grumbling over the flailings of six-week-wonders who don't try hard enough, I won't malign any impulse that causes a dancer to try “too hard.” I applaud any dancer who is trying at all. I want to give particular personal thanks to those who try hard. In fact, if you are willing to try hard, I challenge you to try even harder. Watching belly dance grow and change, I greatly appreciate the highly technical vocabulary and clean body lines that have blossomed over the past decade, a development in which I like to think I've played some modest part. Now, I hope to encourage a parallel evolution, and inspire dancers to put as much thoughtful refinement into the way moves are sequenced as many of us now put into the moves themselves. Not every dance needs to be choreographed, not every choreography needs to aspire to the level of high art, and not every artistic choreography needs to be a music visualization, but our skill as choreographers needs to catch up with the new sophistication of our vocabulary. I am confident that it will. With risk comes the potential for failure, but ars longa, vita brevis, and you are not getting any younger. If you fail, I'll try not to judge, and I'll try to to keep telling everyone else not to judge you either. On the other hand, you might do something great, and I want to see it.

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