Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters


Anteater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ballet. It’s a comparison that inevitably comes up when discussing any issue in the bellydance world. For a lot of people in the West, “dance” is ballet, and it’s the standard against which all other dances get compared. Unfortunately, in discussions on bellydance, I don’t believe that this comparison is very useful, because the two dance forms are so wildly different in so many ways. The ballet analogies are unavoidable, but I feel that they very rarely provide any meaningful insight. To borrow and misquote from someone else I can’t remember, it’s not even like comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to anteaters.

In these posts, I’ll be discussing the various comparisons that are frequently made between bellydance and ballet, and why in my view, there aren’t many true parallels. Since it is a subject which I have a lot to say about, I’ve had to split my post into several parts, of which this is the first…

Cultural roots – the dance of my people?

Fifi Abdou dances baladi

Egyptian bellydance has its roots in Raqs Baladi, the folk dance of ordinary Egyptian people. Raqs Baladi literally means “dance of my country” or “dance of my people”. It is a dance that ordinary people learn by copying their family and friends as children, and dance together at celebrations. Egyptian kids don’t get shipped off on a Saturday morning for Baladi classes, it’s just the dance they grow up with, and a part of who they are as much as the language they grow up speaking or the music they grow up listening to. Even those who go on to be top professional dancers often say they started out dancing at family gatherings, then copied the dancers they saw at weddings and on TV,  and although they may have gone on to have more formal training, that was not until they were already accomplished dancers.

English: A performance of The Nutcracker balle...

A performance of The Nutcracker ballet, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, it’s a very long time since ballet parted ways with any folk roots it once had. In all of my lifetime as a white British woman, I’ve never seen ballet danced among friends at a party (my own social circle mostly prefer variations on awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other, apart from those family members who have taken up modern Jive), or met anyone who had picked up ballet from their family and friends without going to formal classes. As somebody who has never taken regular ballet classes and has only been to the ballet once (that’s fewer times than I’ve seen the Chinese state circus…), it is not really a part of my culture in any meaningful way. It is very disconnected from the cultural expressions of ordinary people anywhere. To learn ballet, children go to formal classes from a young age, and the child’s cultural background is mostly irrelevant to this training process.

If ballet ‘belongs’ to any group of people as a cultural expression, it’s to an upper middle class elite, spread across many countries and even continents, who may have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their respective countries. But even these people don’t actually learn ballet unless they go to classes, although they may watch it much more frequently than most people. There is nobody, anywhere, for whom ballet is truly “the dance of my people”.

Types of learning – speaking Latin?

Bellydancers often ask why our training isn’t more like ballet. More codification, more terminology, more rigour… I believe that the differences here also come from the differences between a folk dance and a classical dance.

To use the analogy of language learning, which I often find helpful when thinking about dance learning, Egyptians grow up with Raqs Baladi as their ‘mother tongue’ of dance movement. This means that for them, formal lessons play only a small role – they are able to learn by imitation of the people around them, the same way I learned to speak English. They will probably need training later on if they want to reach artistic greatness, just as a native English speaker would still need training to go from being just a fluent speaker to being a good novelist or poet, but the basics come from cultural immersion.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A British or American dancer, on the other hand, hasn’t grown up with Raqs Baladi. Sadly, we often don’t even have our own equivalent, as social dancing of any type has declined miserably in many places, hence the awkward foot-to-foot shuffling. When we decide to learn bellydance, we are in the same sort of position as we would be as English speakers turning up to our first Arabic language class. Everything is unfamiliar, from the alphabet to the grammar. And as adults, we’re no longer able to effortlessly soak up information from our surroundings like children, and we don’t have easy access to that culture to immerse ourselves in anyway (unless we live somewhere that still has a thriving Arabic club scene), so apart from a few rare individuals, most of us will need formal lessons.

However, because of its social nature in its home environment, bellydance doesn’t come ‘ready made’ with a formal learning structure. The people who developed it didn’t need one. That leaves it up to dance teachers in the West to devise a learning structure that can replace the social learning for Western dancers, without losing the social, improvisational nature of the dance that is part of its unique appeal. As Western learners, we have to start from the very beginning, having to learn the alphabet all over again before we can even string sounds together into words, let alone compose our own poetry.

Latin inscription in the museum at Monteleone ...

Latin inscription (Photo credit: diffendale)

Sticking with the language analogy for a bit, ballet is like a language with no native speakers. Learning ballet is more akin to studying Latin than learning a modern language with an existing body of native speakers. Everyone who learns it is learning it as a ‘second language’. Some will have advantages, like having a native language that uses the Latin alphabet, or that is linguistically related to Latin (like Italian or French). In dance, this might translate as things like having familiarity with the structures of Western classical music, or coming from a culture where dance is expected to be primarily about movements of the limbs through space, or a culture where the physical body is seen as a thing to be transcended. But nobody comes to it as a native speaker. Everyone has to go through the formal learning process, which native Egyptians don’t usually need to dance Raqs Baladi. Ballet simply could not exist as a dance without the formal learning process.

Toy Poodle from 1915

Toy Poodle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for bellydance, formal learning is an ‘added extra’ which allows cultural outsiders to participate, but which is somewhat alien to its folk roots. But for ballet, it’s an absolute necessity, without which the dance form could not exist. This is why a universal codified learning structure for bellydance is unlikely to ever exist as it does for ballet. The dance form does not need it to survive, and by strictly codifying bellydance, it would be removed further from the more organic nature of Raqs Baladi, possibly eventually being refined and redefined until it bore no more resemblance to it than a toy poodle does to its ancestor, the grey wolf.

Tango Kiss

(Photo credit: Pat McDonald)

This is not a totally unfounded concern on my part. It has been pointed out to me that a similar thing has already happened to dances like Argentine Tango and Salsa as they have been incorporated into ballroom dance and ‘dancesport’. The ballroom versions of these dances, as performed in competitions and widely taught around the world, are sanitised, homogenised and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original social dances they were based on. They have been taken from their original cultural context, and have lost a lot in the process (including their music) – people who dance the original versions simply don’t recognise the ballroom styles as their own dance. Do we want this to happen to bellydance in the West? To some extent, it already has.

The Performer’s Paradox – It’s the Quiet Ones You Need to Watch

I am many things. A dancer, a teacher, a performer, a blogger, and in my ‘other’ life a geek, a feminist, an occasional goth… And an introvert.

The idea of a shy or introverted performer doesn’t make sense to most people. It doesn’t seem natural for somebody who finds social interaction stressful or tiring to excel at performing for a crowd, or at teaching a class. People who know me from the non-dance world are often amazed when they see me perform for the first time, because they really didn’t expect somebody who is normally quiet and reserved to be able to bare their soul on stage for a theater audience.

Rasha dancing to Enta Omri

Rachael dancing to Enta Omri. Photo by Nick Mills

And yet, I meet many performers who are not naturally outgoing or attention-seeking types in their normal lives. I can’t begin to guess what the percentage is, but it seems that introverted performers are far more common than one might expect. This leads me to wonder, why?

I can only speak for myself, but as a beginner dancer, I found the idea of performing quite frightening (as do most of us!). The idea of dancing socially with others, however, was far more terrifying. And dancing of any kind paled into insignificance compared to the sheer horror of actually speaking to my teacher or my classmates.

As I’ve grown as a dancer my social anxiety has lessened drastically, and I’m now pretty comfortable talking to people I don’t know, but I still find social interaction a bit draining, and probably always will. Yet somehow, performing doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps it’s the freedom from having to actually speak to a single person face to face that makes the difference. When I talk enthusiastically about bellydance to a room full of people, or dance at a busy restaurant, there is no anxiety or fear of getting something wrong. It sounds strange, but that’s how it is.

Whyever it happens, this lack of fear is very liberating. Introverts often express themselves through the arts, typically through solitary activities like painting, writing or making music – and although dance performance seems like something that wouldn’t work for us in the same way because of the social aspect, in reality it seems even more powerful. Through dance, introverts can express their emotions and artistic vision naturally and directly to their audience, without any of the awkwardness that accompanies normal conversation. This, for me, is a wonderful thing.

The strange thing is, as a dancer, I’m totally fine with even quite personal interactions like giving a cheeky grin to a lady two feet away in the front row whilst shimmying my bottom in her direction. I feel that when I’m dancing, I have permission to be bold and outgoing in a way that feels safe to me, because there are clearly defined roles. I am the performer, and I’m doing what is expected from me as the performer, so I don’t have to worry at all about what people will think of me for interacting with them or showing emotion.

So, if you’re shy or don’t like drawing attention to yourself, please don’t feel that this is a reason not to try dancing, or a reason to never perform. You may find that not only is it less frightening than you expected, but also that dancing and performing frees you to be truly yourself in a way that isn’t easy for all of us in daily life. And if you’re one of those bouncy, gregarious, life-and-soul-of-the-party types, well… Know that we reserved and quiet people aren’t  necessarily boring or unfriendly, and many of us have flamboyant hidden sides that may be deeply surprising to you. Remember what they say – it’s the quiet ones you need to watch 😉

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Bellydance Trophies – an update

The Bellydance Trophies 1st selection round has been and gone, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks recovering – I’m mostly relieved that it’s over, and it feels a bit like it was all a dream. Lots of people have been asking me how it went, so I’ll do my best to tell you…

First of all, I’d like to thank Farah, Nafiseh and Rosy for organising the event, and especially Delia (AKA Delilah) for being such a kind, reassuring and helpful presence backstage!

After getting the news two weeks ago that I was going to be in the first selection round, I panicked. I was eventually talked into going ahead with the competition by one of my teachers, Gwen Booth. I then had to work single-mindedly to prepare for the competition – choreographing a new piece from scratch for my solo performance, as well as learning the group choreography that the contestants had to learn from a video to perform together on the night.

For my solo, I chose to perform Saiidi with a ‘man’s’ stick, as I have been working on Saiidi and on developing strength in my dancing for the last few months.  It was the first time I’d choreographed anything for quite a while. But under the pressure of an impending deadline, I finally managed to stop procrastinating and come up with things, doing the first combination that popped into my head that fitted the music and worked with the preceding section, filming it before I forgot, and then moving on. With the help and support of Gwen and of Charlotte Desorgher (another of my teachers, and also an official Bellydance Trophies coach), I had a whole choreography almost finished by the day of the competition. However, the short notice meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse!

When I arrived at the venue on the afternoon of the competition for the group rehearsals, I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew one of the other four contestants, and wasn’t sure what kind of level or atmosphere there would be. As it turned out, everybody was nervous, and everyone was friendly and supportive. There was definitely a feeling of camaraderie rather than cut-throat competition. We ran through the group choreography several times, by ourselves and then with Farah (who had choreographed the piece). After the group rehearsal, I was left feeling quite unprepared, as there were still several bits that I wasn’t comfortable with, but didn’t have time to do anything about. It is very challenging to learn a choreography from a video and then perform it with a group, and I think it’s an interesting way to test the skills of the competitors.

Following the rehearsals, there was what seemed like an awfully long time spent hanging around backstage, applying makeup in a crowded loo, and dodging between the many members of the London Algerian Ballet Company. By the time the competition got started, only 45 minutes later than expected, I was more dazed than frightened, and nothing felt quite real anymore. Watching the other contestants from backstage, I was impressed by their beautiful dancing (especially by Henrietta, who went on to win first place in the selection), and tried my best to think about entertaining my friends in the audience, rather than comparing myself to these very talented dancers.

When the time came for my own performance, I was less nervous than I’d expected. The powerful mizmar introduction started, and I strode onto the stage with my stick raised, feeling the strength and pride that the choreography demanded. I felt the heavy connection to the Earth that I’d been working to achieve for months, and held my head high, looking the judges in the eye as I twirled my cane defiantly. However, there was also an undercurrent of anxiety – I didn’t know my choreography well enough, and competitions are scary at the best of times. I do think that I danced technically well, and was certainly ‘fierce’ if the photos that I’ve seen are anything to go by, but the fear must have showed on my face.

After the performance, I had to stay on stage for the judges to each give their feedback – sort of like the X Factor, but generally nicer. The judges were kind, and said that I had good potential as a dancer, but it was clear that all of them thought I had looked tense and worried, and had been a bit too ‘masculine’ in style. I am reasonably happy with how my performance went, as I think I did as well as I could have done in the circumstances, but it is a little frustrating that a lot of the feedback I received reflected the fact that I was nervous and unprepared. Charlotte, who had seen my choreography in its embroyonic stages in our coaching session the previous week, was impressed by how much I had improved it in that time and was very kind about my performance, so I still feel that it was an achievement.

By the time of the group performance, I wasn’t really ‘with it’ any more, after a lot of stress both mental and physical, and having sustained myself all afternoon on muesli bars! I had been focusing so intensely on the solo performance all evening that the group one seemed like an afterthought. I don’t remember much about it, but I recall feeling bewildered and off-balance, and struggling to remember the footwork or stay in time even in parts that had been OK in the rehearsal – a combination of nerves and mental exhaustion, I suppose. I was glad when it was over!

After a selection of guest performances by the London Algerian Ballet, and two of our judges (Sara Farouk and Bless Klepcharek – the third Judge was Asmahan, but she didn’t perform that evening), the final results were announced. The first prize went to Henrietta (AKA Sofeya), who I had expected to win, as I was so impressed by her performance. Then second and third places went to Anna for a gorgeous baladi piece, and Serenay for her sweet and lovely oriental number – Serenay also won the ‘people’s choice’ award. I admit to feeling a little disappointed at the time, but the winners definitely deserved their places, and I entered Trophies with the intention of growing as a dancer rather than with any expectation of winning anything.

I’ve now also received detailed feedback on my solo performance from Delilah, who specialises in coaching dancers on stage presence and performance skills, and some written comments from each of the judges. This, for me, is possibly the most useful part of the whole experience, along with having been forced to work intensively on a choreography, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done. It will take me a while to digest all this feedback, but some is encouraging (several judges commented on my good technique), some points out areas I need to work on (relaxation and stage personality), whilst some is downright confusing (one judge praises my timing, whilst another criticises it! I wonder whether this is due to the differences between how Western and Egyptian dancers hear music, and it’s something I’ll be paying more attention to in future).

In conclusion, although the two weeks between being told my selection date and competing were phenomenally stressful (the only thing I can compare it to is my university final year exams), I am glad that I took part in Trophies. It has helped me to push myself and to become a better dancer, and I like the way that the competition is designed to test so many aspects of a dancer’s skills. You are really encouraged to become a more rounded and knowledgeable artist, rather than simply performing the showy yet repetitive 5-minute oriental pieces rewarded in many competitions. I will definitely be entering again next year, and will be aiming this time to be prepared well in advance, to show the very best of my dancing!

Bellydance Trophies

I’ve been a bit quiet for the last few weeks since starting this blog. The reason? I decided rather impulsively to enter Bellydance Trophies this year – a unique bellydance contest held in London, where rather than being judged on a single performance, contestants are whittled down by selection rounds, quarter finals and semi finals before a winner is finally announced. It is also unusual because for each round, dancers get to dance to one song of their own choice, but also have a song chosen for them by the judges, which can be in any style of Middle Eastern dance at all, and is often something unusual.
Anyway, the selection rounds run from November until the spring, and I discovered last week that I’m in the first selection round, on Sunday 11th November. So, I’m currently very busy indeed choreographing my solo performance, learning a group choreography, and adjusting my super-fabulous new costume to fit. I was fairly panicked when I first got the news, and I’m still quite nervous right now, but this has given me the kick that I needed to get back to choreographing, and it’s nice to have something concrete to work towards.
If you’d like to come and support me, the first selection is on Sunday 11th November, at Bombay Dreams restaurant in Wembley, from 6:30pm. Full event details, ticket bookings & maps are on the Bellydance Trophies website. And here’s a facebook event. It would really mean a lot to me to see some friendly faces in the audience!

Looking good on stage – tips for new performers

Here’s an old one to get things going…

I originally wrote these tips for performers at the OMEDS Spring Hafla in 2011. They are intended to help performers to avoid some common costume pitfalls, and to give some useful hints and tips for looking polished, professional and classy onstage whether you are a first-time performer or an advanced dancer. Feel free to pass these on to your students, or link to them from your own site.

1. Remember to wear plenty of makeup

What looks nice day to day under normal lighting will completely disappear under stage lights. In order for people at the back of the theatre to be able to see your face, you will need to wear a lot more makeup than you ever would normally – eyes, lips, blusher, the lot. If it doesn’t look like far too much when you look in the mirror, then it isn’t enough.

If you aren’t used to applying makeup, you can find many great tutorials on youtube, and this article may also be helpful – decide beforehand what makeup you will wear, and practise putting it on. It’s also a good idea to do something a bit special with your hair – whether it’s a sparkly headband, flowers, or just a pretty clip, this will help your costume to look glamorous and finished.

2. Make sure that you are wearing full-coverage underpants…

…so you are safe in the event of any costume malfunctions – if your costume is made of chiffon or has a high slit, it is also a very good idea to match your underwear to the colour of your costume, or wear dance briefs. If you are wearing a chiffon skirt, especially if it is a pale colour, do bear in mind that chiffon that looks opaque in normal lighing can look quite transparent under stage lights, and dark or white pants will tend to show through (I have discovered this the hard way – so you don’t have to!).

There is a great deal of advice on exactly what pants to wear in this article, if you are interested. Similarly, if you are wearing a bra under your costume, make sure the straps don’t show, that it is a similar colour to your top, and that it is suitably supportive.

3. Check that your costume fits you well, and rehearse your dance in it

It’s better to learn that your skirt tends to slide down as you dance in a practise session than on stage in front of an audience. If you are wearing a costume bra, make sure that the straps are correctly adjusted so it provides plenty of support, and that it is padded so that there are no gaps between the edge of the cup and your chest (here’s a handy guide to padding a costume bra ) – a gapping bra will leave the audience wondering whether your nipple is going to pop out rather than watching your dance.

If any part of your costume could move around while you’re dancing or doesn’t quite fit, keep it in place with safety pins, fashion tape or a few stitches as required. It is always useful to have a supply of safety pins with you in the dressing room to sort out any last-minute problems (but be careful not to have visible pins when on stage). No matter how simple or fancy your costume, it will look more polished, professional and generally nice if you take the time to adjust it well and pin everything in place.

4. If your costume top has been made from a lingerie bra…

…please make sure it no longer looks like lingerie. Ideally, a bra should be completely covered in fabric and the lingerie straps replaced with more sturdy ones. At a minimum, the lingerie fastenings and fittings should be removed or covered, and the straps and back of the bra should be embellished as well as the cups (or a turkish vest etc can be worn to hide the straps). Something like this is just about OK, but I think you will agree that this is not a classy look. If in doubt, ask yourself, can you tell by looking at it that the bra started life as underwear? If the answer is yes, it needs more work before it is suitable for performance.

5. When not on stage, wear a cover-up of some sort over your costume…

…and don’t spend longer in costume than you need to. This makes your performance look more special, and preserves the drama of seeing people on stage in lovely costumes. You can use many things as a cover-up – a wrapped veil, a kaftan, a loose dress of some sort… It can be as glamorous as you like, just as long as it isn’t your stage costume. See this article for a more in-depth explanation of why cover-ups are a good idea.

6. Miscellaneous tips…

  • Skirts should be long enough to touch the tops of your feet, but not so long you fall over them – if they aren’t it’s not a terrible thing, but that’s the length to aim for.
  • Jewellery and accessories can help complete a costume. As with makeup, jewelry needs to be far bigger and shinier than you’d usually wear to be seen when you’re on stage.
  • If your hip scarf tends to ride up at the back and come down at the front, pin it to your skirt all around. When they go like this, it looks messy and can also make your bottom look larger than it really is.
  • Beware – Some things are sold as ‘bellydance costumes’ (especially on ebay) that are not suitable for performance without major alterations. This includes the lace-up ‘butterfly’ design tops that often come with matching hip scarfs – these are not very supportive and quite flimsy – and the chiffon handkerchief tops with coins that sometimes come with a skirt with coins, and have an odd kind of inbuilt bra cup. These types of costume are OK for practise, but I do not recommend them for performances. On the other hand, there are many inexpensive crop tops or cholis available that can be worn over a real bra, and these are perfectly good for a student performance.