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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dance Contests
by Yasmela

I was recently asked to be a judge at The Emerald Rain Belly Dance Contest, a new contest located in a small town just north of Seattle, WA.  Emerald Rain is hosted by an ambitious group of dancers who are dedicated to promoting dance in the Northwest. I have to admit that I was flattered to be asked to judge.  In the past 30+ years I have steered clear of many of the organized events in the Middle Eastern dance scene, though I endeavor to support local dancers and provide venues for dancing. 

Being retired from professional performing, I spend my energies teaching, coaching and writing, and while I do stay aware of what is going on, being asked to judge a contest was beguiling. It felt like a small, discreet acknowledgement of my own long career.

Then I got to thinking about it.  One of my friends even asked me, “Do you think you should do this considering how you feel about dance as a competitive art?”  Ah, good point. But I succumbed to the flattery and decided to accept the invitation, telling myself it would be a good experience and would provide me a chance to observe the entire event. Though I have seen many other dance contests, I had never been to a belly dance contest.

First of all, let me say that dance is a particularly competitive art form and more's the pity. 

Competition in the art world, though unfortunate, is not unusual. It is one of the ways young artists make names for themselves.

There are writing contests and art contests and music contests and design contests and dance contests.  But is a contest in the context of Middle Eastern dance, a dance field still defining its criteria, a useful endeavor or is it merely another exercise in the western mania to define, pigeonhole and categorize?  For a first-time venture, the Emerald Rain Belly Dance Contest was well organized.  The venue was a little on the seedy side, but it had a good stage and decent sound system.  The categories, rules and guidelines were well defined, and while the show had its usual delays and hitches, it went pretty well. The promoters were friendly, helpful and accommodating. I was given a stack of score sheets that looked straightforward and even though I was still unsure about what I was supposed to do, I felt certain that all would reveal itself to me once the contestants came out and danced.  And that’s pretty much how it happened.  I noticed the other judges writing volumes of comments after each point in the judging criteria. Always quick on the uptake (right!) I realized that this was the real point of the contest. 

These dancers had chosen to put themselves forward not just for the trophy, but for the critique!  These beginning and intermediate dancers wanted to see how they ranked against the other talent out there and how they stacked up against the judges' criteria for good dancing. In an odd way, this made sense to me.

However….something gave me pause. 

There are so many factors that affect a performance.  Dance is not like other art forms where there is a product issued.  There is no picture, no story or poem, no sculpture, no written score.  By definition, each dance is inherently different.  Even a written choreography is open to vast interpretation.  And then there are the more mundane factors: how is the stage, how is the lighting, how are you feeling, did you just have a fight with your boyfriend/partner/Mom, do you dance better for a judge or for an audience, are you having a bad hair day, a bad costume day, or just a bad day in general?  So many factors can profoundly change the way you perform one moment to the next.  How do you judge this, or should we even judge?  How do we compare one performer with another, apples and oranges, and come up understanding each artist’s best?

Well, that discussion could go on forever and in a multitude of directions.  I think I’ll leave it for the chat rooms and discussion boards.  I am still sorting it out myself, but here is my take.

I think dance contests cater to the needs of western sensibilities that teach us to define ourselves in comparison with others.

I can think of the classic “sports” analogy here. On a positive note, it offers dancers who want to improve and who wish to be defined by certain criteria the opportunity for good, positive feedback.  This can be invaluable.  However, it can also be achieved by booking a private lesson with a master teacher whose work you know and opinion you respect who will give you personal feedback and constructive criticism.  Contests give you limited feedback by a group of dancers/teachers who often share similar tastes and expectations and whom you may not know or even like!  If you do not fit into those narrow criteria, then you may not find your feedback helpful. In a field where there is little uniform instruction it seems like chaos to try to push such a variety of dancers into some narrow criteria that are subjective at best.

As a way of advancing a career, contests can be valuable.  They can also advance a school or teacher if the teacher/school’s student is a winner. 

They can also reek of “Strictly Ballroom” or the popular girls' cliques in high school. Contests seem to promote a beauty pageant, fashion show, “I’m better than you are” sort of mind set.  And I think these attitudes are not about art but about self-promotion.  I have no illusions that anything I think or say will change the fact of dance contests.  People being who they are, and dance and art and America being what they are, there will always be the competitive urge, the attitude that success is defined by the amount of your income, the number of your trophies.  Some dancers will move in and out of the contest arena and some will choose to think these temporal awards mean they are good dancers and make them more valuable than dancers who choose to pursue a more individual idea of personal best. 

As a dancer, it never occurred to me to enter a contest.  It seemed crazy and ludicrous. For me dance was and still is about the fleeting, individual and personal reward that comes when I dance (or teach) my best. Sometimes this involves interaction with an audience and sometimes it has nothing to do with outside stimuli.  I understood from the beginning that how I danced this time would be different the next.  However, I am prey to the publicity machine when I hire dancers to teach.  While I try to only hire dancers I have seen and whose ability, maturity and “credentials” mark them as professionals, I sometimes hire based on the contests they have won (or their beautifully designed websites!), thinking, sometimes mistakenly, that this must insure they are “great”.  It could mean only that they were great on this one occasion or have a good web designer, and have nothing to do with their ability to transmit their art as a teacher. I have been fooled many times.

So, I don’t think I like being a contest judge.  It would be easy to fall into the flattery trap and get caught up in the contest circuit.  Caught up in the frenzy of the moment or the mad scramble of every-day insanity, I can forget that dance is ephemeral, temporary, and individual. While I support dancers who choose to pursue the contest path, I would also encourage them to examine their motives.

If they truly want to be artists and not just good dancers, they should move beyond this futile competitive circus.

Like restaurant dancing, it can be a good experience - just don’t get stuck there. You will only go so far as a dancer if your validation lies outside.  And for some dancers, this is enough.  After all, people come to this dance for a variety of reasons.  You can become proficient, technically excellent, and you can deliver the product, but true art lies beyond that.  Contests place undue pressure on something that should be about inner clarity and personal achievement.  Instead of dancing for yourself or the audience, you end up dancing for a small select group of people who also bring all of their own personal prejudice and preferences and problems with them. I am aware that we are judged every time we take the stage, but we don’t always ask for audience opinion.  As I have in other essays, I encourage us to look beyond competition, truly, and to mind our own house.  Sometimes, like the Cowardly Lion, we need the certificate to make us believe, but there is no trophy or cash reward that will tell you you are good enough. 

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Ready for more?
more by Yasmela-
2-27-04 Review of Americanistan CD “Mosaic” by Yasmela
This CD will certainly be a welcome addition to a Tribal dancer’s music library.

2-5-04 Marquerite's Video, "Spins & Turns," Video review by Yasmela
Her spotting technique was intriguing and involved a finger-snapping exercise.

12-5-03 Jillina’s DVD or All Jillina, All the Time Video reviewed by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
In fact, the production quality is exemplary.

5-27-04 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant by Aziza!
The contestants were limited to ten, and all danced to the same music, though they were permitted any props they wanted.

5- 26-04 Dance Festival or Shop-a-thon? by Nisima
Shukriya, can you hear me now?

5-24-04 Dancing Darkly: The Phenomenon of Gothic Belly Dance by Laura Tempest Schmidt
This may come as a shock to many, but Gothic Belly Dance isn’t really a new phenomenon, and it’s not just centered in California. First of all, it’s simply a merger of two entities that go well together, like peanut butter and chocolate.

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