Sunday, March 06, 2005

This entry has been sitting on the virtual desktop gathering hyperdust while I've debated the merits of posting it. It's a harsh little essay and deliberately too broad. I've been cautioned by one informed reader that publishing it could lose me more good-will than the gratification I might get from howling in the dark would be worth. But the more I read my email the more I want to post it. So if you don't like me anymore, reader, well, so be it. If you are moved to argue with me, hey, that would be great. Please act like a woman and do your arguing as a response to the Blog entry on here the Blog so others can think about it. There's a link below each entry for you to do just that.

The business of Art disgusts me. The idea of buying, for example, a drawing just because someone else says it is going to appreciate in value is revolting. Warehousing artworks against future sale, likewise. I'm the kind of flaming romantic who knows soul-deep that the point of making art is in the making of it. Selling it is something else altogether. For me, art, creation, is about the doing not about the payoff. If something you make or do is good in your own eyes that should be enough. In the performing arts including dance the performance is the final stage in the realization of a personal vision. I also know there is a drive to perform or to have one's creation or skill or physicality seen or heard and in some way acknowledged. My personal model for performance is the chamber group where people come together to play music. They play standards; they play their own compositions. They play jazz, classical, rock, folk, or any other kind of music. Their aim is simply to play and to play as well as they can. Perhaps they polish work to offer to an audience or perhaps they don't. The joy is in the playing.

Or in the dancing. I've been watching the joy being cut out of belly dancing as a combination of opportunistic commercial interests and bloated egos have seized upon it for their own ends. To me as a longtime observer and dancer these alterations appear to be largely destructive. And worse yet, the disease which has infected our dance is but a local flare-up of larger social ills. It was from this position that the over-idealized description of performance in the last paragraph and bile of the following ones come.

Something has gone abysmally wrong in belly dance world. As I see it lot of the current toxiciness has to do with belly dancers thinking we're entitled to a special pay-off. Too many of us have been running around the dance peeking under chairs and pulling up rugs convinced that if only we can happen on the right spot there's going to be a nice pile of cash there waiting for us to sweep up. And laying there on the dust along side the cash will be heaps of adoration emanating from unknown but awed masses. Oh, that we might hit on the right formula for then surely we shall garner not only pots of lovely money but sweet helpings of intangibles like love and fame or celebrity or our pictures on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

Pardon me, but neither this dance form nor any art is about getting rich and famous. Admittedly, rich sounds nice: Money affords those who have it the possibility of time, choice and independent action. While time and choice and independence do not guarantee happiness they do improve the odds of experiencing it. But money on its own is not the answer. As for famous, well, that's a crock of dung. Didn't your parents love you enough, leaving miserable little you starving for affirmation from strangers? Aw, poor baby...Tell your shrink; don't take it out on the dance.

Art is about love. Art is about passion. Art is personal. Art is something a person does because that person must do it or die. If an artist is talented perhaps the work will be shared. Or perhaps it won't. So what? The crucial element is the act of creation, a single moment in which we humans approach the Divine. And please note: the formal arts are by no means our sole access to such moments. What art isn't about is getting paid or being on television. Getting paid and/or being on television are potential secondary goods (if being on tv can be called a good of any kind) that may occur as a result of artistic achievement. Those are not and should never be our primary goals.

Yet somehow money and celebrity have become far more important than doing something for the love of doing it. The belly press and the internet are full of self-proclaimed celebs, stars in the heavens of their own minds, advertising the fabulousness of themselves and their unique visions of the dance or busily mailing out notices of their exciting upcoming appearances. Women with day jobs are knifing each other over $75 a week for wonder of dancing in front of audiences who care mainly about cleavage if they're aware of anything beyond the plate of food in front of them.

And what's even more pitiful is that too many women entering the dance become socialized to value paid performance as the height of attainment. Under that scheme there is an invariable and inevitable progression from student to professional in which the avowed hobbyist is considered less worthy than the aspiring pro. Pardon me, but this is a damn stupid bucket of crap.

Bring back the love!

So there you have it, the suppressed entry. I know I’m being over general and I know this is a fast once-over on several complex topics. From now on topics will be smaller and much more tightly focused.

Thank you for your patience.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I think you made a lot of good points. This ongoing craze for outside validation hurts us all.

When did it stop being good enough to be a hobbyist? Why, all of a sudden, does everyone need to be a big star?

And, if it is so important to be a big star - why do these dancers spend more time and money on their promo packets than on their dance training? Sometimes I feel like we have the worst of both worlds - the clueless unprofessionalism of the amateur world and the grasping opportunism of showbiz.

The DIY aspect of belly dance (for me) has always been part of its charm, but not when mixed in with all this ego tripping.

Stella said...

Wow! Thanks so much for posting your excellent thoughtful observations. Let's both hope that people will read what you and I had to say and start thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting issues which this brings up for me is the American need for justification. How we spend our money is a HUGE issue. Let's face it, belly dance is expensive. Classes, workshops, music, hipscarves, costumes. They all add up very quickly. We have a bit of an accountants mind set where our pleasures and luxuries come into play.

There are other outlets for other art forms. In most major cities and many minor ones, if you can play an instrament, you can join a local symphony or band. If you paint. there are generally many places you can display. There are set schedules of performance (recitals) and exhibitions. Most, though not all, belly dance studios and teachers don't have these things in place. There comes a point when a performer needs to get out of the studio and interact with other artists and members of the puplic. When you have been dancing in a vacuum for so long, you aren't necessarily open to growth and greated understanding.

I don't see the need for fame and fortune as much as simply a desire to make this rather expensive hobby pay for itself. And maybe a little more. What bothers me is when I receive e-mails from young women who want to learn to dance because they want to become professional within a year. Most are very upset when I start tot tell them what that will take. The dedication, the classwork, the cost both to their finances and their social life. Their way of being.

Maybe what needs to be emphisised more in class and in the press is the personal satisfaction of this art form. Maybe we need to coach our students that this is soemthing which comes fromt he heart much more than for the wallet. I spent 6 months dancing on Venice Beach, CA. One day I was so disgusted with the people on the Boardwalk that I said, never again! My Godfather, wise man that he is, said when this becomes work, and you do't want to go, you need to stop doing it. When there is no longer personal satisfaction, stop. Wise man. But what I learned from this was how to handle myself in any situation. How to deal with difficult crowds and how much I enjoy performing. This is something which you will never get from simply dancing in the studio.

I carry that into my Coaching practice. When I stop loving what I do, I need to look at why I am doing it.

Perhaps the thing which we, as dancers really need to do, is to dfind and develop more opportunities for performance in non-paying opportunities. Haflas, Communitiy art programs and yes, even the occassional unpaid restaurant showcase. And teachers need to choose to de-emphisis the proformance aspect of the art. Many teachers are the ones who put so much pressure on their students.

Okay, that was a little rambly, for which I apologize. But, I have great love for this art and would like to see it continue to expand to the point where it gains respect from the general public as well as from within.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Tahira that one of the catalysts of this phenomenon that Stella rightly points to is the compulsion to pay off the expenses of belly dancing. I have more than once been caught in the crooked vice of trying to "break even" -- as if that were remotely possibly, even in terms of a jobs to costumes ratio. That said, often when I step back from my pattern of blowing money, freaking out, and whoring myself for jobs, I realize that in the mad rush to get the costume, get the job, and OOPS! resurrect that choreography or technique that's been flagging in the midst of it all -- well, I'd forgotten DANCING. I'd forgotten about that wonderful transcendental experience, the joy of getting lost in the music and the movements, the joy of connecting with my own body and feeling strong and healthy and in control. Instead, I just felt out of control.

I recently canceled a job that I had grabbed just for the money. But when I -- or rather my partner -- stepped back and reminded me that my last experience there had been horrible, among other things -- after our huge fight about priorities and common sense, I realized that he was right! Why was I so intent to keep a job that I knew would suck? For a lousy $150? Was I THAT low? Was the job really that important? Whether or not he or I was overreacting, I know that when I canceled that job I felt so good. I felt like I was in control, that I decided what was important, not my purse, that that a gig wasn't worth my pride, my safety, or my love of dancing. That night, instead of driving an hour to an unpleasant job, I danced at home for myself, my cats, and my mom. And I was SO HAPPY.

Anonymous said...

The only point on which I'm inclined to disagree with you here is the one of payment. You seem to be implying that requiring payment for a dance job is somehow indicative of a greater ill. Too many dancers take unpaid jobs "for the love", ultimately denigrating what it is a belly dancer does.

Nobody can expect to get wealthy doing this thing, but no other entertainer adds ambience and appeal to a venue for free.

Anonymous said...

I didn't take it as meaning that, more like payment shouldn't be the end-all, be-all criteria of whether a dancer is good or not. Plenty of dancers get paid who totally suck. Lots of dancers who gig for pay don't even like it, they just have an idea that's how you know you have -made it-

I wish there was another way for people to get a feeling like theyre going somewhere with their art, besides making websites... and business cards... and blowing $800 weekend trips to some competition on the other side of the continent... and (as Stella points out) knifing one another over $75 gigs.

If we as a community stop buying into this, then people might start realizing there are other ways of validating oneself as a dancer. Stop making paid gigs equivalent to the seal of approval.

If other ways of validating ourselves become available, maybe that will clear the field for dancers who make their living off dancing to get paid wages they live on.

No one in the real world will ever care that you were Princess Belly 2005, and so yeah a lot if it is about showing off, or getting validation if you prefer sugar-coating the message. Showing off and getting attention are important to all of us, but come on. It's getting ridiculous, with all the hype people give themselfs.

Why do we need to show off this way? Not everyone needs to make their living off dancing. I've do, and it's not glamorous. Sometimes I wish I could go back to being a hobby dancer, and just dance for the love of it, instead of it being my job. Things were a lot more fun back then.

Maybe it's like youth being wasted on the young - only, amateurism is wasted on the amateurs!

Kyria said...

Surely anyone who expects fame and fortune from bellydancing in the US is missing a crucial bit of perspective and probably can't be reasoned with.

Meanwhile, the truly mercenary are pursuing standup and reality TV.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stella:

My web police won't let me reply directly to your website but I wanted to put my 2 cents into the fray.  If you can cut and paste this into your BLOG that would be great.  You can post it under my name with return e-mail if you want.
I would like to offer another consideration for those of you who have the desire to dance but are not inclined to pursue the night club scene.  We of Project Cheer/Mystical Motion Dancers have spent the last 22 years in community service/volunteer work and it was time very well spent.  Performing for the sick, handicapped, shut-in, etc gives you an outlet for your creativity, satisfies your need to perform and garners more love than you know what to do with.  We never expected to make any money - if we got paid at all it was a few dollars for car fare - or had the hope of networking into "paying jobs."  We did it for the joy of dancing and sharing that joy with those in need.  

While we started out as a "student" group, as time went on and our experience grew the level of our performances rose to a very professional quality.  We took great pride in each and every one of our shows and went into each one as if it were a stage production with well planned, varied shows and well thought out costuming and makeup.  We had the satisfaction of knowing that at worst we just made people happy and at best we helped someone through a personal crisis (we have many stories and many letters attesting to this) and this was more than enough payment.

The unfortunate part is that whenever we were preparing a bio we felt compelled to justify our existence as a volunteer organization with a list of professional credits as well - as if volunteering (i.e. not getting paid) made us inferior dancers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We even ran into problems with this misconception when we held open auditions for our troupe.  Even though we clearly posted our need for "professional level dancers" (not to be confused with "professional dancers" being those dancing for payment but unfortunately not always talented) we were besieged will calls from dancers who had no performing experience, had been studying for short periods of time, had studied other forms of dance but were "quick studies and could learn our choreography" and some who did not yet even own a single complete costume.  We even had teachers sending their student level dancers to us for "performing experience" as if being "only volunteers" made us lesser dancers.  This is not to say that we did not attract some very fine dancers, but many times, even though we were very clear about the fact that our aim was not making money, that we were not agents and were not going to find them jobs, these dancers drifted away to other troupes who promised "paying gigs."

I believe that every member of our troupe that was with us for any length of time came away with a great deal of satisfaction in our accomplishments both in their growth as dancers, in the good work they had done and in the good will they had spread in educating more of the general public in what "belly dance" is really about.  We got to dance, we had a chance to create and we got to share our talent with lots of people.  

Yes, there are times when I regret not being more well known in the dance community but I will never regret to good that I know I have done.  I have always had a full time job which has supported my hobby so I have never needed to chase down paying jobs so in this respect I am fortunate.  

So - long story short - get out there and volunteer!  Talk to us if you are interested or work through your own channels but you will never regret that you did.

Ginnie Werner

Anonymous said...

i'm an artist i keep making art because of the love in dueing it
american capitalism cannot give the full value to what dancers and artist go through,when i teach painting or drwing in the local art schools everyone wants instant
gratification,went they graduate of course they want the top new york dealers,win a grant and have a codo loft space in soho.some do it,but many give up.i'm older now and know the pit falls of an real artist life,every major artist going back to the beginning of self expression has had to battle the public,relgion,the middle class etc.i reinvent my art every day i keep it fresh,i 've been drawing the dancer for25 years,i use this as foundations for painting and sculpture,enough from me 6/6/05

Christina Karras said...

I'm pretty new to the Pro scene. I decided to attempt it because I wanted the opportunity to dance to live music, to detach from choreography and to offset the money I blow on my passion. Imagine how difficult it is to be in a market with very few venues and tons of dancers - Phoenix, AZ. Not to mention a tiny M.E. community. Everybody knows everybody too. So the knifing comes with an embrace some say. I try to keep out of the politics but even the musicians pull you into the rumor mill. Last night I danced 2 shows (always word of mouth and referrals) and they were both weird. I got groped shamelessly at my first gig and then was barely tipped at all in the next. I felt so pissed off after the first that I wondered why the heck I even bother to perform outside of the BD community. Today I knew I needed some insight before I decide to drop out completly. I am so glad I searched. This blog is the most brilliant set of ideas I've encountered in ages. Thanks for the reassurance that I'm not alone in having mixed feelings. My art is valuable and enjoyable because it belongs to me and comes from my heart and soul.

Unknown said...


I read this blog because a link to it was posted on Bhuz. I couldnt' agree with most of your comments more. I have recently left the teaching and performing arena of MED because of the race/competition to become "the best", "the most famous" or "the most knowledgeable" that you describe so well. And of course the underhand behaviour of those I have come across whose agenda is one or all of the above.

However, five years ago I left the corporate rat race of information technology and studied at college and became a photographer. What I do is art, every time. I cannot help but put my heart and soul into any photograph that I take or subsequently manipulate, digitally or inthe darkroom. BUT although I do this because I love it, my PRIMARY reason is to earn money. The business that my hsuband and I have grown over the lat five years supports not only us and our two children, but four employees too. All of whom are artists in their own rights (cosmetics, photography, set design etc). They too love their work but they are working with me because they need to earn money. It is my strong belief that it IS possible to earn money and stay true to your art.

In the words of Andy Warhol:
"Good business is the best art of all"

And taking a slightly different slant, but definitely worth thinking about, from "Reading Lolita in Tehran", by Azar Nafisi:
"Art is no longer snobbish or cowardly. It teaches peasants to use tractors, gives lyrics to young soldiers, designs textiles for factory women's dresses, writes burlesque for factory theatres, does a hundred other useful tasks. Art is as useful as bread".

- as the poster who beautifully describes her experience as a "volunteer" dancer will no doubt attest.

Best regards and thank you for speaking your mind. It is something we don't do enough.

Kathy Cheung

Anonymous said...

Love your observations. I do agree, however, that it costs quite a bit of money to make art happen. So, it is a wonderful feeling when your art pays for itself and you can continue improving yourself and investing right back into your training etc.

But if your main focus (from the getgo) is the money you will NEVER sucseed as an artist.

Thank you for posting this blog. It was great!

anon said...

I stumbled across this blog while looking for opinion on another matter (which I will return to). Very interesting. I'm51 years old, teach one hour a week, which doesn't qualify me as a pro by any standards. I am sorely aware of a kind of new breed of young dancers coming along who have been dancing for "5 minutes" and certainly go for limelight, if not the money, as soon as possible. In some areas of the country (UK) the Haflas are regimented and inhospitable, while in others, while the standard may not be so high, the culture is still to dance for enjoyment, but oh how this is changing, and fast. But back to my original,somewhat linked topic; that of teachers requiring students to audition for troupes, which then quickly become a closed elitist clique, rather than a troupe or tribe, sucking the confidence, not to mention rehearsal and performing opportunities (then the fun) out of it for the left-behind. And it doesn't seem to be based on talent either? By the way, I don't do audiions, so sour grapesdon't apply here, but as I'm well off the fence on that one,think I'll remain anon for now!

Anonymous said...

thank you for putting this up- you have no idea how much this work of yours reached me- I too have seen this become little more than a souless race for money and attention- thank you - a light in the dark