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The Gilded Serpent presents...
The New Age Adage
for Performing Dancers

by Najia
June 10, 2003

If you have nothing to say through your dance, do not dance.

The byword above refers to performance dance only.  Dance in performance is quite different from dance that is done for the purpose of aerobics, exercise, and ritual. A performance dancer usually fears that she is stepping out on quicksand when she takes her first steps toward individualizing her dance style.  Yet, individualize it she must-if she is to have any credibility as a performance dancer. In order to make a dance be creditable and worthwhile, it must carry a meaning or message beyond whatever simple body of information that the dancer has gleaned from instructors, videos, workshops, festivals, and concerts by other dancers.  A performer is not charismatic without something special to say through the language of body movement that is called dance.

Honey, if you don't got nothin' ta say,
Then you don't got any dance.
If you don't got any dance, Honey,
Then you don't git ta dance!
--Anonymous, 2003--

Dancing used to have a specific purpose and was used ritualistically for mystical celebrations and worship. It was often used to celebrate joyful or important events. Temple dancers were highly honored.  All the folks who could stand on two feet did folk dancing.  Village folk commonly used dance and music as a way of speaking to their gods.  However, somewhere along the way, dance (and therefore, dancers) became dishonored; perhaps because the message no longer was lofty enough to be considered a prayer or, perhaps because its artistry literally disappeared when attempted by tired, drunken revelers as in the orgies and bacchanals of ancient Rome.   Perhaps the fall from grace so long ago is why it is such a touchy subject even today to admit that one is a dancer. Even though all of that is conjecture, I believe that if performers will once again consider the message that they convey through their dance as if it were precious, the dance itself will begin to become a more compelling and meaningful endeavor.

If the dancer and her dance are to become anything special for an audience these days, it is imperative that we dancers move beyond the staid and true "steps and movements" that we have been taught. We will need to venture into the murky waters of experimentation with our technique and our stagecraft.  The territory of experimentation beckons and is tempting precisely because it is risky and an unknown entity.  Risking the unknown, though, is chancy and it is the very same reason that many of us dancers have resorted to reliance upon fixed and rigid choreographies.  Apparently many dancers believe that perfectly executed movements and limited spontaneity will ensure their ultimate success as performers.  However, choreographed perfection comes with a price that is sometimes simply too high to be paid. Perfection, when defined by a set choreography, is purchased with loss of spontaneity.

The emotional energy that is a result of performance adrenalin, heightened by risk and "dancing on the edge" is entirely too precious to pay for insurance.  You might consider that a lack of spontaneity is a good indicator that the performer has nothing much to say beyond "Look what I can do!"

I have become convinced that the reason many dancers nearly always choose to dance with live music (rather than strong, beautifully arranged orchestral or authentic ethnic music on a great sound system) is that it represents the infusion of the unknown into their dancing that renders it somewhat out of their control and completely out of their responsibility.  They fear the rush of adrenalin that dancing on the edge gives one. By this statement, I mean that they can dance while utilizing and toying with the unexpected without taking the least responsibility for any wrong choices they make on the strength of their one-ness with the music, since they can place the blame for a poor performance at the feet of the musicians or at least share it with them.  Many dancers who prefer performing with live music love it because it relieves them of the burden of rehearsing a set choreography.  Many are stuck with it, whether good or bad. Nevertheless, they prepare to dance instead with a perfectly executed and preplanned set of movements to which we dancers refer as "combinations".

(Combinations are a set of movements that are dropped into a phrase of music without much regard for the instrumentations of the arrangement or the intent of the lyrics and lyrical quality of the tunes. They relieve the dancer from having to think on her feet.) 

Like most long-time performers, I have danced with (sometimes in spite of) my share of inept and sincerely well-meaning musicians during my on-stage dance career. Never once did I feel that dancing to unfamiliar arrangements of well known tunes, played by unfamiliar musicians, made my dance more artistic or meaningful beyond expressing the joy and challenge of merely being able to do it well (or at all).  Dancing with live music can be an enthralling, engaging, and very perplexing skill as well as a thrilling challenge-especially when it is bad live music!  It is another story if it is good live music and dancer has enough personality and spirit to bring more meaning to the presentation than "a beautiful girl hopping around".

Good live musicians can create for you an environment that can carry you joyfully along like water over pebbles in a stream even if you have only a limited repertoire. Good music, like a good dance partner, can push and pummel the most resistant body to respond to the playfulness of its themes in spite of almost any other considerations-like rehearsal, lousy technique, stage and costuming problems, etc.

 "Then what about dancing to recorded music?" you may ask.  My answer is that dancing with "canned" music is an even more demanding skill.

Recorded music is not flexible. It does not change. The musicians never grow tired and they never develop personal baggage with the dancer! 

Yet, there is an element that inevitably does change and that element is the dancer her self.  Each dancer changes from moment to moment, and year to year, depending upon her state of health, her personal mood, and conditions in her personal life. Though most performers, myself included, can be somewhat egotistically involved-still we are among a special group of people who are known for being sensitive and who often express the desire to "make a difference" in the atmosphere of our world with whatever we consider our message.  The method through which we present it is almost-almost irrelevant.  If we do not say "it" through dance, then it could have been, poetry, song, painting or some other public presentation just as well. 

We performers become, for some fleeting moments, little quasi-goddesses who seem to empower themselves through the act of performing dance, hoping to create a mood within others which is infectious and captivating.  At least, for those exquisite moments, it works and makes us feel wonderfully powerful in the universe!

We struggle to create a perfect role for ourselves that has the ability to touch the mood of others, positively affecting it.  Along with that role, dancers have also the burning hope that they can bring an audience to its feet (or at least to the edge of their seats) with the power of the dance's message.  So, ask yourself: does your dance have any inner message?  What is the goal of your dance?   What do you imagine that it will bring to your audience? This is not merely idealism!  Without a reason for dancing beyond showing off your six-pack abs and your store-bought hair, why are you going through this entire preparation hubbub?  You have spent thousands of dollars on lessons, workshops, costumes, and recordings; yet many belly dancers have never stopped shimmying long enough to question their motives any further than justification through claims that it dancing can be great for one's health, fitness, and general well being.  If all that were The Honest Truth, you would have quit dancing the first time you developed spurs on you metatarsals, and pain in your sacroiliac. the first time you cut your foot open on stage or dropped your sword on your big toe.

If you didn't believe that you had something special to offer to an audience beyond a prolonged ogle at your bouncing décolletage and your quivering thighs, you would have quit dancing long ago. Maybe you wouldn't have started at all.

Many long-time dancers will tell you that they "just love the music, make-up, and costuming associated with dancing". However, I can tell you that I know, from my many years of coaching performers, that music and dressing up as a glamour queen are not the real motivators for the dancers who are star-quality charismatic.  I have heard the constant grousing and excuses about how the musicians were dunderheads who could not seem to get it right.  I have heard the endless excuses concerning costuming and sound systems.  I know these are only excuses because dancers will perform on terrible stages in terribly demeaning circumstances in costumes that are on the verge of disintegration from sweat salts and body oils. Yecch!  Some men have told me that dancers are merely exhibitionists who are "looking for a good roll in the hay".  (Well, perhaps, in some cases, this has had some elements of truth and has contributed to the dethronement of dance.) However, if that were the absolute and full truth, how could happily married dancers then have any valid "reason" to get up and perform?  If sex and dressing up as glamour queen were the whole truth, how would unattractive women ever have the nerve to dance? Something stronger compels them to perform. The compelling truth is:  we do not dance just because we are exhibitionists (even though we may be.) and not just because we like the music and the dress up glamour of being on stage.

We dance because we believe that we have something to say that can only be expressed through the silent language of movement.

Many lovely girls take dancing lessons. Many of them even make it through a few special performances. 

However, very few dancers continue to dance year after year unless they feel that they give to it as much or more than they receive in return.  So, one of the most important things that you can do for yourself and your dance is determine whether of not you have something within yourself that needs dance language. Next you will need to choose music that will help you say it.  Not all musical arrangements or instruments are appropriate for all dancers.  Individual tastes in music are as varied as are the dancers.  When dancers have performed at local live music event and have come away disappointed in their music, I think that much of their disappointment is, in reality, due to over-sized expectations left unfulfilled by the instrumentation, the arrangement, or in short, that the band is not the 35 piece orchestra that they heard on the CD.  Add a lack of focus upon and an understanding that the performer herself ought to have something worthwhile to say, and you have a recipe for a real yawner.

We dancers must only go into performance because we understand that some deep part of our spirit has a message to convey that is at least a little bit profound.

You are the only one who will ever be empowered to deliver your personal message because you are the one who can determine its nature. Therefore, you need to give it some real meditation long before you are called upon to perform. After all, you believe that it is your gift to the world!  Your costume is your ball gown and your music is the carriage in which you ride. Like a modern day Cinderella, what you say and do when you arrive is solely up to you.  If you have no message, kindly sit down.

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