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Certifying the Certifiers

by Najia El-Mouzayen

May 24, 2002


In one of the Superman movies staring Christopher Reeves, Lois Lane is falling from a skyscraper and has fallen approximately half-way down when Superman swoops into her fall and catches her up in his muscled arms and assures her, “Don’t worry; I’ve got you!”  Lois pauses a moment, perplexed, and asks, “Well, Superman, you’ve got me, but who’s got you?” 


Back in the 1970s and ‘80s there was a lot of concern about the lack of professionalism in dancers of Raks Sharqi and Beledi (“Belly Dance” to those of you still living in blissful ignorance of the deadly and ever-present Middle Eastern Dance controversies).  One of the many “improvements” that was suggested often was a set of standards that had to be met in order to facilitate proper ranking, and possibly, sidelining one’s competition by posing standards that were specific to only one camp of dance instruction.  However, these so-called standards were not so easy to define as one might have hoped, apparently because there was scant agreement that, though dance should appear to be open to all in the “sisterhood” of dancers, in fact, the methods of teaching dance technique, performing the technique, and the appropriate naming of each movement or folk-step was completely chaotic.


I, myself, added to the early confusion by naming many of the steps and movements, just as others were also naming them something else!  For instance, I recall deciding that a particular hip shimmy that I had learned from Bert Balladine and then again reviewed repeatedly in my Egyptian travels (which I deemed “Fact-finding Reconnaissance Missions”) could reasonably be likened to the workings of a combustion engine for the sake of imagery, and I named it the “Piston Shimmy” and I subsequently taught the Piston Shimmy to thousands of students over the years.  The dancer’s legs worked like piston rods driving the pistons (the hips) up and down.  I wanted the dancer to image her legs doing the work and her hips rising and falling straight up and down in a rapid, machine-like motion directly beneath her armpits.


 At the time, I had not grasped the secret super-truth of Raks Sharqi and Raks Beledi: that it is better and more compelling when relaxed and imprecise.


 (It took me another ten years or so of traveling to Egypt to understand that the Middle Eastern mentality is often radically different from ours in the West.)  We were the ones trying to standardize movements and name them so that precise movement and specific styles could be transmitted in a formal learning setting (classroom or studio) in order to facilitate our teaching and make the instructor appear more knowledgeable.  After all, it is somewhat embarrassing to explain to a new student that a specific angle of a “hoosie-whats-it” muscle will never make her movement look exactly like mine, and that she should not be trying to emulate my specifics but my “intentions”.


Years later, well, just last year to be exact, my choice of image came back to haunt me when I read the words of a new dance teacher somewhere on the Internet talking about teaching “Pistol Shimmies” the way her own teacher (whom I had taught in a Rakkasah workshop) taught her.  I remembered a master teacher’s admonition from my years in the School of Education at the University of Washington:


 Students who do not understand the words you are using, often convert them to words that they do know without thought, guile, or interpretation.  They simply hear what they already understand so that they can build on that “knowledge”


  Like the punch line of the old joke: God asked me what kind of nose I wanted, and I thought He said rose, so I answered, “A really big red one!  (Well, you should see that girl’s teacher dance, I’ll bet she shimmies like a pistol… whatever that means.)


Many women are dance “officianadas” (especially those in Middle Eastern dance) who are also “CEOs”, professors, and scientists etc.  In other words, many of them are highly (perhaps overly) educated, and, finding the occupation of housekeeper, mom and resplendent arm-piece for their men unfulfilling, actively seek-out a form of self-expression that has an undeniably questionable history, origin, and reputation


Those of us who wallowed in the hallowed halls of the university, lapping up ethnic diversity in Anthropology 101 with nearly two thousand other students in the same lecture hall, found it consoling to learn this dance form and to be able to stun the public with our new (off the wall) prowess.


I found it compelling to have been asked by a local parks and recreation director to teach that which I had so recently learned.  I asked my teacher, Bert Balladine what I should do about this “parks ‘n rec” offer, and his reply was to encourage me to take on the project and roll forward with what I knew rather than to wait until I became more qualified by the rigors of true experience


He warned me that to wait was to miss an opportunity that would never return, and I would have to admit, looking back on the situation, that he was quite correct.


 That is how we did things in those days; we learned, we tried, we consulted our mentors and we struggled to learn more by travel and experience rather than begging our instructors for some sort of  “sanctification”.  If Bert had told me I wasn’t ready to teach because of a, b, and c, I would have taken that into consideration, but I would not have, for even a moment, considered his word to be my law.


The law of the sixties and seventies was that there was no law, no certificate, and no limits.


  I did have one student ask me for certification, although the way she put it was, “Will you sanctify me to teach so that I can apply to teach it at (X) College?” 

I answered unctuously, “Fer shure!  Let me know if you need help.”   Would that I had known then where it would all lead!


Many, if not most, of today’s dance students seem fixated on the acceptability and accreditability of it all, even though many of them seek in Raks Sharqi a release and relief from the limits and rules put upon most dance forms requiring youth, fitness, beauty, and rigorous discipline.


 They bring to class with them, their stunning lack of creative expression, preferring to blend acceptably into the crowd.  Rather than think on their own, many request teacher-composed choreographies, crib notes, and readymade costumes.  Most often, before they even ask a teacher’s qualifications, they are more concerned by the location of the class or its cost and meeting time.   How self-limiting; imagine if we were to choose our future spouse by how close and convenient his home is! 


I have heard it said often enough that the level of dance today is superior to that of the early years.  Would that that were true!  …But it is not true. 


Though the level of competency might seem higher because the music is now reproduced better, live musicians are more accessible, the dancer has trained her hips to shimmy longer than is necessary (or even interesting), and she has (at an earlier stage in her dance development) a beautiful hand-made professional quality costume, and “store-bought” hair that is stunning, the level of performance is markedly lower. I believe this has occurred because of the current need to be correct, and within certain predictable standards of competence rather than special, unique, outstanding, unusual, memorable, or even (gasp!) emotion producing.


I believe that one of the main reasons for needing certification levels in dance is to avoid the need for a track record, an audition, or a resume of actual achievement.


  Instead, the dancer could carry and prize a fancy paper from an instructor who has decided that she has become a needful thing—someone in authority who can circumvent actual performance creativity, and who can substitute for that experience a written test and, perhaps, a test of endurance doing some questionable technique that has never seen the light of day anywhere in the Middle East. 


Really, dancers, where is your pride in individuality, your personal development of your own methods and techniques?


 Why would you seek out and settle for a “Because My Teacher Said So Certificate”? 


Have you verified by personal travel and research into dance in general that the certifier has a technique worthy of your investment in money and time?  Is that dancer respected as a true representative of Raks Sharqi or Raks Beledi by Middle Easterners, or is she selling you a mixed bag of interpretive Western inventions of her own? Has she drilled you in a dance choreography, or has she actually taught you the “why and how” (history and concepts) of dance technique? Have you looked at what has kept your Super-certifier airborne? She certifies you but who certified her—and with what authority? 


If you want to learn to teach, enroll in a teaching college that will teach you how to teach any subject you know well!  Then you will then be fearless in teaching your students how to be interpretive, how to organize, and how to analyze music and movement for intent and emotional content as is required to be a creative dancer and, perhaps, they will become a better dancer than you.  You will learn how to communicate through words and imagery as well as how various people learn differently from each other.  You will become a real teacher rather than a purveyor of specific steps, transitions, and choreographies.


Ask, just as Lois Lane asked, “Well, Superman, you’ve got me, but who’s got you?”   


 Part 2 here

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