I wasn’t even at Tribal Fest this year, but its reach is far…
My first reports came from close friends who had attended. And I noted something key in all their reports. They very offhandedly reported “Oh you know…Our Favorite Troupe So-and-So was great, Super Famous So-and-So was great, just like we expect. But you should have seen Troupe Blah Blah (detailed description of bad dancing and distracting illogical fusion). Oh man, and then The Blah Blah Dance Group tooootally (detailed description of more bad dancing and overused schtick)!”
And this is from friends who are NOT gossip-hounds who were just waiting to dish. This truly is a sign of a phenomenon that has been growing more and more in the tribal bellydance community in particular. For the purposes of this metaphor, I will call it Bellydance Rubbernecking.
So you know when you’re driving down the freeway, and there is a car accident along the side. Everyone slows down to take a look. You don’t even want to see it necessarily, but human nature being what it is, you can’t help but step on the brake and turn your head to see the details, which if dramatic enough, you will later report to the next person you see. And when you and everyone were stepping on the brake to “rubberneck” to watch the wreck, everyone was slowing down the entire flow of traffic, not seeing maybe the beautiful view of the flowering spring trees off the other side of the road, or the classic 65 Mustang gliding past like liquid love, and certainly not paying attention to our own driving. We get hours of backup, because we couldn’t keep our eyes on the road. Nobody gets to their intended destination…
I don’t blame us for this tendency, really. It is human. But when it comes to dance, we are definitely becoming guilty of giving our time and attention to the wrong side of the coin. While the strong, consistent dancers continue to give us 100% of what we say we come to these events for, the squeaky wheels are getting all the grease. The raucous, raunchy, drunken, shock-jock, skin-peddling, comedy/theater-to-hide-poor-technique, never-seen-before-props-which-don’t-make-sense-or-uplift-the-dance, anything BUT bellydance with a few undulations thrown in… these are the acts that are getting all the attention, while the dancers doing the real work of elevating the dance form, through hard work and dedication to the roots and branches of the Bellydance Family Tree, are being overshadowed by all the sound and fury which signifies nothing. Broken-robot dolls, hip hop, modern/interpretive, ruffle-skirt vaudeville jazz, straight up burlesque… Watching so many of the videos, I was left wondering “where was the bellydance?”
I would rather see a less skilled dancer dancing their heart out than any level skilled dancer performing bad acting and adding some illogical prop/fusion to try and hit on the “next big thing” everyone wants to copycat for the next few years.
Frankly, as audiences, we have our own role in this phenomenon. We have become awfully jaded, and often dismiss anything we have “seen before”, no matter how skilled and meticulously executed…no wonder dancers feel they need to work so hard to create something, ANYTHING, that will get the attention of people who are used to 24 hour news cycles, 30 second commercials (which we can skip with our Tivo’s, or watch on demand on our computers!), and instant gratification…but this is a topic of another post, methinks…
Sadly, I find that the culture tribal bellydance has been fostering lately is so reminiscent of high school, where everyone is vying for Most Popular. I have long felt that tribal bellydance has become synonymous with shock-and-awe. Many outsiders look into our world and, thanks in part to our own Bellydance Rubbernecking, look to the schtickiest and least authentic examples of what our dance is capable of presenting. This vortex of misguided energies fosters not only inauthentic living/dancing, but creates an atmosphere of cliquishness and even subtle competition within our own “sisterhood”.
I suppose for the dancers guilty of poor performances/choices, any press is good press, right? But that’s exactly why this cycle continues with a vengeance. For people who are driven by attention, even negative attention is attention. By giving them the “press” if you will, they continue to stay in the limelight, and will encourage them to continue along the path they are on, and it will encourage others to follow that path, in order to try and keep all eyes on them. And our students and other new dancers who would be guided by our gaze–they will look where we look. Where do we want them to be directing their attention?
In essence, like the car wreck rubberneckers, Bellydance Rubbernecking slows down the whole flow of tribal bellydance; which I think most of us agree we would to to see flowing to something greater and more respected internally within the greater bellydance community, and externally to the general public at large.
I already sound like a broken record, but Asharah is setting a great example by focusing on what she felt was good, strong, and inspiring at the festival. You can see her blog post here with her brief reviews. And then she posts a fantastic follow up which addresses the overuse of schtick in bellydance today, which is timely in its posting as I was writing this very blog post over here.
I wanted to close with one more anecdote and related thought. An enthusiastic student of mine had never been to TF before, and was excited to go. She went alone, and signed up for tons of workshops, and was eager to see what the world of tribal bellydance beyond our local scene had to offer. She went to the Friday night show, and was so frustrated to have paid to see tribal bellydance, and instead was served up burlesque, random schtick, and non-bellydance performance art–and thinking the entire rest of the festival would be more of the same–she didn’t go back to watch any more performances all weekend long, and doesn’t plan to return to the festival again. She was grateful for the tribal workshops she had signed up for, but felt the show and theme of the event overall was not as advertised in the name “Tribal Fest”.
What was once “Tribal Fest” has really grown into something else entirely. And I hate to say it, but no one else has the courage to say it, so I will. Now that the promoters have opted in recent years to direct the festival in a different direction than they originally intended, and personally call it “for freaky people”, with “anything goes” verbiage on their own website; I strongly feel that retaining the name “Tribal Fest” causes a lot of confusion which is misrepresenting tribal bellydance the world over, and is a disservice to the community to keep the name with this new festival focus. If the promoters want an “anything goes” Burningman-type event, then by all means, please press on with that! And name it appropriately. Sure, lots of tribal bellydancers overlap with the other genres and aesthetics that Burningman events encourage; but in name this event claims to represent Tribal Bellydance as an art form, and as it has less and less actual tribal bellydance, or bellydance at all, it doesn’t make sense to call it by the same name any more. I would like to see either the festival return more to its bellydance roots (unlikely), or encourage the promoters to find a new name for this new festival focus.
I am aware that my opinions and attitudes I have begun to express this year may get me black-balled from the festival, and I am regretful of that. I still think this festival has great value, and is a lot of fun! I would enjoy teaching and performing there again. I applaud all the hard work that goes into producing it, and all the hard work, love, and joy that goes into many of the performances presented on the stage. I simply think it’s time to shift gears one way or another, and in its current incarnation shows a great deal of disrespect to the art of tribal bellydance to present every sort of dance, theater, and fantasy role-playing in its name.
That was a lot of thoughts to dump out, but it’s something I have wanted to express for a long time, and what is this blog for if not to share these kinds of thoughts.
In the interest of trying to keep my Bellydance Rubbernecking to a minimum, I will continue to try to keep this blog uplifting and encouraging, and focused on the positive and inspirational, for both myself and for all you who might come by to share in it. From time-to-time I will pull out my soap-box like this, but ultimately, my goal as a dancer is to find joy and channel it to my students, audiences, and friends. And this blog will continue to be such a conduit.