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Make Your Dance a Conversation

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On the first night of every Level 1 session, I do some orientation and introductions. I tell them about sign-in procedures, tell them where the bathrooms are, what I suggest they bring in their dance bag, and the like. I also tell them about the class culture, and what to expect–nuggets of advice such as reminding them to not compare themselves to other dancers in the room, but instead focus on their own growth from week to week, month to month, and so on. In closing, I talk about my open door policy, and drive home an important pillar of my teaching: that I consider class to be a conversation, not a lecture. That the more they ask questions, contribute ideas, give me feedback, the better teacher I can be for them. That interaction is the key to making our classroom a safe and powerful space to work together.

So today, I am watching ‘Art in the 21st Century’, a documentary on PBS focusing on artists in various modern mediums. One artist says that all her life, she has wanted to be the center of attention. She tried ballet, and diving, and other forms of performance, and then got into ceramics and eventually painting. She goes on to say:

“In the beginning, the art enterprise was doing something important, beautiful, sort of all by yourself. As I got into it and matured, I saw that the most important thing about doing artwork was communicating, and having something like a conversation through the work. I thought about making pieces partly for their formal values, but also very much for the kind of a response I would get.”

And I said HELL YES!

I realize the same philosophy of “conversation” I hold to in my teaching, is how I approach my performance as well. I venture that this is largely why many other dance and performance forms I pursued in the past didn’t stick with me like tribal bellydance has. There is an interactive quality to tribal bellydance, both between we dancers on the stage, as well as we performers with our audiences. It is not a stock set of moves, set up the same way with the same energies each time. Instead it is a conversation right there: between us as we negotiate the ins and outs of our choreography, and then in turn is interpreted and adapted based on the stage we are on, the energy of the event, and the *response we are getting from our audience*.

I find this kind of interactive “art in the moment” to be infinitely challenging and fulfilling in a way that a choreography doesn’t quite reach. Not to be misunderstood, I still love choreography, and find there is a sort of energetic freedom of expression that choreography feeds in a way that improvisation doesn’t which is still key to my approach to dance, but that sense of conversation…that chance to express a feeling and share a presentation that is unique to that moment…a presentation which invites a response and morphs as a result of interactive feedback from the audience (whether they are aware of that or not) is like nothing else I have experienced. Yes, one could say that when I did any improv back in my theater days it was in a similar vein, but that is in an overt way, and one which required me to take on a different persona, be someone else. The beauty of tribal bellydance is that it is all an unspoken understanding–we don’t ask the audience for the name of a place and an object to get started for one–and throughout I need be nothing other than a conduit of self and my family of sisters! Our greatest goal is to give of ourselves, and hopefully get a positive, supportive response in return, feed on that, and give it back yet again. Building and building with each moment, in a feedback loop of positive energy!

Which of course got me thinking about some of my favorite performances which demonstrated this: my first magical moments watching Gypsy Caravan with their familiar welcoming energy, my vicarious experiences watching Wendy and Sandi and Carolena who dance with a playful comfort and connection that is unsurpassed, watching my students take their first steps into performance and seeing them light up with recognition of the power they hold between them. I find that some of my favorite soloists also harness this interactive energy–Cassandra is always so connective in her dancing, bringing you into the moment with her; Aziza has the amazing ability to make you feel she is looking right at you when she dances, even in an audience of hundreds; and so on. These dancers make me feel like I am part of the conversation, I am not being “lectured” to. They are engaging me, and inviting a response from me, not just up there to tell their story whether I want to hear it or not.

And that is the mark of a great *entertainer* to me. The desire and ability to not only be giving so much of themselves, but asking we in the audience, “What can I do for you? What do you think?” Dancers who take time in their rehearsals to really consider what their audience will enjoy, what they want to give to their particular audience, and what they hope to receive from them in return to feed off of and interpret back to them…dancers who have an interest in that relationship, those are the performers who thrill me to the core. I am left cold by the dancers who are only up there for themselves and care only about their experience on the stage (public masturbation), or at the other end of the spectrum dancers who only care about getting some kind of contentious reaction out of the audience–trying to get a rise out of them, through shock or schtick or some other contrivance. The most innocent of these are the newer dancers who don’t know there is any other way. Dancers who were raised on a steady diet of antagonistic performances know only how to deliver the same. They don’t know what it means to cultivate a conversation with their audience, and for some once they discover this option, it sounds like too much work.

Because it is a lot of work, and it can be scary! What if you go in with one hope or expectation, and the audience doesn’t grok what’s going down? Anyone who has been performing even a short period of time has likely run into the “why the hell are these dancers interrupting my conversation?” crowds, and being able to still deliver an energetic performance can be a difficult proposition. You may walk away feeling a bit empty–you brought your part of the performer contract, but the audience didn’t deliver on their end of the “deal”. But haven’t we all had these experiences in everyday life? You smile and joke with a checker who barely registers your presence. You join a conversation at a party which quickly deflates when you arrive and you are left wondering if it was something you did or said (or didn’t do or say). You and your partner who are usually stellar at hearing one another fall into a week long rut where you can’t seem to understand or make yourself understood, and vice versa? It happens (and the old “Mercury in Retrograde” has become such a go-to for the blame!). But it doesn’t mean you suddenly shift your mode of communicating so you just talk talk talk and never listen or respond. You get through those rough moments, and go on communicating, and build on your relationships into the future. It truly is a two-way street, and we learn new ways of expressing ourselves more effectively, and ways to adapt to different personalities and situations. So, too, with our improvisational performances. It takes practice, patience, and trust.

Is your performance a conversation? Is your classroom a conversation? In what ways do you find this to be true for you in your dance, or not? Would love to hear more from you, as always!

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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