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Does the music make the dancer?

posted in: ethics, Music | 0

When I first got together with a troupe, we were a democratic group, with no director. Everyone contributed music and costuming and choreographies to their best ability. There was one member who always brought really diverse music that was fun to move to, but it was never anything event remotely Middle Eastern or North African. Some of it we used for variety, sure. But when she kept bringing less and less appropriate music (by our opinion of course), I had to ask her about it. Her response was “I don’t really like Middle Eastern music.” And I had to ask her, “They WHY are you into bellydance?” And yet today, this is a very common sentiment…bellydancers who don’t care for bellydance music. How does that compute?

While I am a big proponent of being able to play with lots of different music to add variety to your dance, particularly when we perform for mostly bellydance audiences (and who wants to hear Miserlou again), I would think one of the base requirements of being a bellydancer is listening to, appreciating, and dancing to Middle Eastern music. Otherwise, I would think any number of other styles of personal expression would make more sense: modern dancer, interpretive dancer, or world fusion dance is my favorite.

So before I make this sound like I am just judging other people and don’t know of what I speak, I myself have also struggled with this topic.

When my first pro troupe was younger and trying hard to establish our own voice, we began venturing in a lot of different directions to seek unique inspiration. Some were closer to bellydance, and some were much further afield. Not just with movement, but the music, too, was getting further and further from bellydance. We were having fun, and we were getting lots of workshops and performance opportunities, and it was a real peak in our troupe history. But the more we became known for our fusions, and our non-bellydance stylizations, the less time and energy we spent on bellydancing. Pretty soon, our music, choreography, movement vocabulary, and costuming had collectively grown so far from bellydance, I had the realization that we weren’t really bellydancers any more–at least not primarily.

That is when I had to decide: did I want to be a bellydancer or not? So I told my troupe that I wanted to be known for being good bellydancers, and I didn’t want to spend my time with the other fusions so much any more. And to do that, we needed to be spending our time working on our bellydance technique, developing an ear for bellydance music, improving our finger cymbal skills, and drawing primarily from inspirations within the genre and not so much from without. So we made a significant shift in our repertoire, and hopped back on the bellydance path and never looked back. We still did fusion choreographies, danced to a good chunk of world beat music, and as ATS based dancers, our foundations were already a bellydance fusion. But we were rooted firmly in bellydance in all we did: we anchored our performances with Middle Eastern and North African music, and carefully considered new movements and concepts that could take root in our vocabulary to make sure it suited the aesthetics of a bellydance presentation.

I still get requests for the workshop and performance material we were doing all those years ago. People really enjoyed it, we had a great time, and as a teacher my workshop income was about twice as good then. It’s hard to take that kind of loss as a businesswoman, and so I have a unique understanding of and empathy for other teachers and performers who aren’t really bellydancing any more, but continue to get a lot of work and notoriety from the community. But for me, I wanted to bellydance, so I made it my personal focus to study, teach, and perform the music, movement, costuming, and culture which supports that goal.

Just my personal experience, for what it’s worth.

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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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