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Mailbox Missives:
No Excuse for Low Video Standards!
By Shira

There are hundreds of commercial belly dancing videos. Some are available through, many through vendors, and many directly from the dancers who produced them. With a collection of more than 80 videos, amassed over the course of two decades, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Recently, I received a message from a dancer I hadn’t previously heard of. She was advertising a video of her own performances which she had compiled to promote herself.

A little investigation revealed that this video consisted of shows she had danced in over several years, mostly festival performances, restaurant appearances, and similar routine engagements. The cameras had been operated by friends, family, or other amateur videographers, mostly using equipment made for home use rather than professional.

According to someone who saw the video (I didn’t), many of the clips were blurry, poorly lit, or abysmal in their sound quality. Her performances were ordinary, and her stage presence not particularly compelling. Some clips even dated from her days as a student dancer, with corresponding student-level dance skill shown on-screen.

Okay. I don’t get it. If this dancer hopes that selling a video will help stir interest in her as an artist, why didn’t she create one that would show her at her best? Does she really believe that a cheaply made video composed of poorly-filmed shows in ordinary situations will advance her standing in the dance community? When asked about it, she replied that this was all she could afford. She said it was her intent to use the money earned from selling this video to create a second one on which she would “do it right”.

This dancer apparently didn’t realize that proceeding with this project could put her at risk of damaging her future prospects. Suppose her first video develops a bad reputation. When she releases the second, the buzz will sound something like this:

“Has anyone seen Gladys Gumball’s second video? Is it any good?”

“I haven’t seen it, but her first one was so awful I wouldn’t waste any more money on her.”

It harms all of us when someone decides that it’s okay to sell poor-quality material simply because mediocrity is the best she can manage. A dancer who does this conveys the impression that belly dancers either don’t know what constitutes professional quality or we don’t care.

When someone places a price tag on a video of her performances, that price tag constitutes a claim that her material is important enough to be worth paying for. Our dance form will attain true credibility among the performing arts establishment only when we release products that actually are worth paying for.

How many ballerinas do you think are peddling their blurry, poorly lit home videos as a tool for promoting themselves?

I work hard for my money. I don’t want to waste it on scratchy amateur films depicting a jumble of routine gigs by someone who is too cheap to deliver good value.

There’s no excuse for any of us to be selling poorly-filmed footage of our own performances unless our performing careers ended 20 years ago and we’re no longer in good enough condition to create high-quality new material. We have the opportunity to rent well-lit studio space, hire trained camera operators who use professional-quality equipment, and engage skilled editors to showcase our dancing to best advantage. Anybody who refuses to invest the time, effort, and money into creating a product worth buying is either:

  • Lazy (can’t be bothered to put any real effort into the project)
  • Arrogant (believes herself to be so important that even poor-quality film of her shows is valuable) \
  • Clueless (forgets that customers expect to receive their money’s worth) Unethical (content to deliver slipshod work even though she knows it’s not worth the price)
  • Cheap (willing to sacrifice quality to keep the price at rock bottom)

I truly believe that most of the offenders are probably just clueless. These dancers mean well, but it doesn’t occur to them that customers might be expecting video performances to be better than average. They don’t stop to think that buyers want something superior to ordinary performances by an obscure dancer filmed by someone who can barely operate the equipment.

Instead, they become caught up in the excitement of thinking, “I could be a star!” or “I could make money on all these souvenir videos I have lying around the house!”

I can accept vintage film from decades ago depicting historical dancers in the Middle East or North Africa, even when such videos have poor lighting, sound, and camera work. Such material offers me a glimpse into a cultural legacy that no longer exists in today’s environment of urbanization, mass media pollution of culture, and Islamist extremism. The only way to see real Ghawazee or Ouled Nail dancing is to watch material that was filmed when home movie technology was extremely primitive compared to that available today. When the video contents are important enough, I’m willing to tolerate a certain level of poor lighting, sound, and camera work.

I don’t insist that belly dance videos must be Hollywood-slick. Features such as voiceover, scrolling titles, beautiful sets, and elegant scene transitions may be attractive, but a video can still be enjoyable without them. I value substance over sizzle. The key is to understand the difference, and it seems many video producers don’t. As a viewer, I can live with plain sets and simple transitions.

However, I do insist on sparkling performances, adequate lighting, decent sound, and competent camera work. These are all essential components of substance – they are not “optional”.

It’s not acceptable to cut corners on fundamental quality issues such as adequate lighting simply because someone can’t afford the investment. Any dancer who believes this really needs to stop and take a deep breath. It’s better to delay the project 12-18 months, using that time to put aside some savings, look for sources of funding such as grants or loans, and hire affordable professional technicians. If people volunteer to help, it’s worth taking the time to determine whether their skills and equipment are capable of delivering acceptable quality.

Also, the actual content of the video itself is important. I know of at least one video on which the dancer included two different performances in the same costume to the same song. Although both were improvised and therefore somewhat different from each other, they weren’t different enough to justify including both on the same video. A dancer should beware of assembling a video based on her own ordinary restaurant shows because they often feature ordinary dancing. For a commercially-sold video, the dancing should be inspirational, not routine. This means carefully selecting music and thinking about how the individual pieces on the video fit together as a whole with respect to dance style, prop use, costuming, and other elements. All performances should be polished and professionally delivered.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. You have the power, through the decisions you make, to determine whether that impression will be positive or negative. Which will it be?

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