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Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 4
For whom do you dance?
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column. This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

This article is probably most relevant to those of you who do cabaret style dancing.  Who do you dance for – your audience or yourself?  Take a trip with me to see how you compare with the hypothetical dancers speaking below.

1. (Before show)  “I really want to please them.  I enjoy subtleties of movement and rhythm, but my guess is that most of them wouldn’t appreciate such things as syncopation or counterpoint – so I’ll minimize that sort of stuff.  For their sake I’ll do lots of exaggerated hip thrusts, many flashy spins, smile a lot of course, and be sure to put in a little humor because that gets them every time.” 

Little does this dancer, whom we’ll call Selloutina, know that her desperate need to do what pleases her audience holds back the very creativity which would please them even more.

(After show)  “They seemed to enjoy my dance.  I hope they did.  They were smiling a lot.  Then again, they didn’t really seem that excited.  I wish I had the courage to do what I really like.  I feel a little empty inside.  But they liked it so that’s what counts.”

2. (Before show)  “I really want to dazzle them with my technique.  I can’t stand a dancer who is boring, one who only does a few steps over and over again.  People can’t help but be impressed with all of the steps that I can put into one dance.  Never a dull moment?” 

I have to let you in on a secret.  This dancer, whom we’ll call Technica, plays the numbers game.  She knows that she can do one hundred and ten different steps plus a dozen gimmicks.  Can’t you just picture her with pocket calculator in hand, adding up the number of steps the other dancers use?  Deep down in her calculating heart she feels that she has to top the highest number so far. 

She might just spice up her dance by balancing a pot on her head and a sword on each shoulder, while a snake slithers around her.  If she could, she’d also be flipping coins with her belly rolls – and if she, by chance, spotted me in the audience, she’d try to get those coins flipping in counterpoint. 

 Little does she know that some of the finest dancing can involve a few steps performed with artistry and drama.

(After show)  “Whew!  I’m glad that’s over with!  That was sure hard work!.  Now I can relax and enjoy myself.  Well, at least I didn’t bore them.  One of my students was so impressed, she came up to me and kept asking, “How did you do it?  How did you do it?”  Come to think of it, I could have impressed them even more if I’d remembered that new step I learned last week.  Oh well, I’ll be sure to put that one in next time.”

3. (Before show)  “I’m going to do just what I feel like doing.  If they don’t like it, that’s tough!  I know where my head’s at and that’s all that counts.  I’m not about to lower my energy level for the sake of their approval.” 

This dancer, whom we’ll call Arroganza, is the kind of person who goes around talking about her own enlightenment.  She would benefit from the advice of the Sufi saying, ‘Those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know.’  In the guise of acting out of integrity, she takes a stance that in actuality is hostile toward others. 

Her negativity is apt to call forth crude or snide responses from the audience – responses which she will cite as evidence for her theory that most people are not lofty enough to appreciate her. 

Isn’t it odd that a person who so disdains the general public would choose to be a professional bellydance?

(After show)  “I feel so high, so exhilarated.  I could dance all night even if they weren’t here.  I wonder if anyone got the real meaning of what I was doing.”

Now that you have checked yourself out on this trip, come a little further with me.  I think that the question “Who am I dancing for, the audience or myself” is part of the problem.  You end up answering with an either/or response instead of with a both/and response.  Consider this alternative position: you dance so that you and your audience can feel good.  Putting it another way, you perform so that you and your audience can move to another level of consciousness – temporarily beyond worrying about taxes, big government, scarcity of babysitters and whatever else you like to worry about.  You can’t make yourself or anyone else change levels of consciousness.  All you can do is lay the groundwork for that to happen.  In a way, you are inviting life to work its magic – to inspire.  When you allow yourself to be inspired, you are open to life’s regenerative powers.  When this happens, in the words of my friend, Nakish, “You go beyond being a dancer.  You become an entertainer.  You and your audience are in harmony with each other.” 

Here’s how Bert Balladine, an entertainer indeed, describes this experience:  “When I’m at my best during a performance, I feel joyous and am inviting the audience to rejoice with me at being alive. I think that the significant thing that happens is that many people in the audience vicariously are dancing along with me – the men identifying with me and the women identifying with my partner.  We no longer are separate beings – we partake of a universal being.”

Now, what are some steps which you might take to invite life’s magic?

A. Before you get near the stage, take a few quiet moments alone to psych yourself up for your performance. 

Meditate, give yourself positive suggestions or whatever, so that you can leave your self-doubts and resentments temporarily behind.  Don’t worry, they’ll probably be waiting for you when you come back to reclaim them. 

If you’ve just had a fight with your boyfriend or husband and are holding on to bad feelings from that, you will project that negativity to your audience on some level regardless of the plastic smile you try to plant over it.  Nature just won’t be fooled.  Some people have told me that they feel like they are being phony when they temporarily let go of resentments and begin feeling light or full of laughter, even when they have something inside that’s really bothering them.  My response to that is that I’m talking about a genuine letting go – not merely denial or repression.  You can choose what part of yourself you wish to focus on.  If you try to focus on two opposites at once – resentments you are holding on to and a smile – you will block your energy.  And if your energy is blocked, you can’t inspire your audience to another level of consciousness.

B. As you begin your performance, command the attention of your audience.  You can do this in part with beautiful imaginative costumes, stunning physical appearance, dynamic body movements, engaging eye contact, powerful exciting music, or assertive cymbal playing (hopefully a combination of these factors).  I might add that I don’t think you can command anyone’s attention for very long if your cymbal playing or dancing is out of rhythm with the music. 

You can’t take anyone to another level of consciousness if you don’t get his or her attention. 

If after a reasonable length of time goes by you realize that certain people are not paying attention, then it’s probably best to dance in relationship to those who are with you, and quickly let go of your resentment toward those who are chatting noisily, because if you hold on to those feelings, no one has a chance of experiencing that magic.

C. Now that you have the attention of your audience, take them along with you on a trip into your imagination.  Believe -- and thereby invite them to believe – that whatever you are doing at any particular moment is the most important thing happening in the world.  Sometimes you will probably slip into a very private part of your imagination and they will be touched by your trance.  Other times, without programming it one way or the other, you will communicate with them directly, possibly with warm glances or humor.  Hold their attention with the power of your drama, with emotion, rhythm, or both.

Naturally, the composition of your audience will determine what kinds of things will command attention and hold it. 

Trust your feelings regarding what fosters that special dynamic between you and your audience. 

Keep in mind that sometimes bellydancers in the audience make that dynamic easier to maintain, but other times they might not let you inspire them because they’re too busy picking apart your technique.  By the way, in case you are wondering if you have spent years perfecting your technique all for naught, I don’t mean to leave you with that impression.  Knowing you have good solid technique and good solid rhythm removes the obstacles between your body and spirit, making it more likely that you can get high while performing and in turn bring the audience to that same level.  Also fine music can play an important part in inspiring dancer and audience – old familiar melodies, poignant lyrics, soulful renditions.  If you are dancing to live music, then the dynamic between dancer and audience is even more complex.  The way you and the musicians relate to each other can spark your imagination to greater heights or frustrate you to the point that you and your audience end up feeling uptight rather than refreshed. 

If you are primarily a musician, reread this article and translate it into terms more relevant to what you do. I think you’ll find that the principles brought out will apply.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that you be wary of questions that lead you to dead-end either/or type responses.  I hope you enjoy the challenge of becoming an entertainer.

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