In the Belly of Nuit
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August 2014

Part Two - Am I Still a Bellydancer?


Last week's blog post called "Am I Still a Bellydancer?" was an eye opener. It has been read over 4500 times so far and received more comments directly on the post than all of my other previous posts put together. The re-posting on other group and personal Facebook walls with their long list of comments is something I can not keep up with. People I had not heard from in years came out of the woodwork with their comments and encouragement. Ioana Timariu wrote..."in zeitgeist spirit...". She may be right.

I thought the post would be provocative and polarizing. I had been contemplating the idea for an awfully long time and eventually had to overcome the fear and commit to the itch in my heart. There were very few FB likes but many more people took the time to re-post on their own FB wall asking for feedback or wrote powerful words of encouragement in the comments, on the blog and privately through messaging and emails. I feel honoured and comforted that so many world respected artists whom I admire commented that they had either done the same or were contemplating the same position. Jalilah Zamora aligning with Aunt Rocky and noting the work of Arabesque wondered why I had not done so earlier.

Fearless Luna of Cairo took my thoughts one step further on the Facebook page called "Bellydance Matters" that helped to clarify where I was coming from. Some fav comments were "standing ovation" from DaVid of Scandinavia and one that I forgot its origin that said something to the effect of "I have so much to say but am not ready yet" or another that stated "like so many others before her" or Michael Menegon's "ah, the true artist emerges".

Many people wrote about what is and is not Bellydance or Belly Dance in their opinion. The endless list of variables I offered in the blog is the tip of the iceberg and as I said in the post, this long list only proves that "Bellydance inspires a fountain of creativity and that is why I love it ". I would like to add  that I will always love it and have always loved it. I am not sure anyone has the authority to determine what Bellydance is or is not if indeed its lifespan is so long. I prefer to look at Bellydance as a spirit that reveals itself in Sohair Zaki to Khairiyya Mazin to April Rose. I like to think that this same spirit inspired Isadora Duncan and Ruth St.Denis. Pelvic centered movement is certainly one of its trademarks but many dances the world over are pelvic centered. I believe it is the emotionalism, spirit and motive that creates the often sensual movement that makes Bellydance special.

If due respect was given to this ancient art form often named Bellydance, then I may not want to venture from the label. When the spirit is allowed to thrive and breath through artists whose motives come from respect of the art form above and beyond their bank account or ego gratification, or sexual insecurities, then Bellydance is alive and well. I have never let the general public's view of the term "Bellydance" be a deterrent for me. It is the respect, or lack of, given to the art form from the very people who call themselves Bellydancers that worries me. What are the motives is the question for me? I look around me when I travel physically and online and I see more concern placed on the biz of Bellydance than respecting the art and onself as an artist. 

The Arab community of fans and musicians around me who have been my mentors from the beginning say that my work with Arabesque is not Bellydance, as they understand it, yet they say it is true to the Arab artistic essence and soul. Arts councils that make Arabesque productions possible will not fund a dance form that has competition as part of its presentation format or takes money in their bra strap while dancing on a table. This combined with a biz emphasis in the Bellydance community that I do not feel connected to or even know how to navigate has led me to realize that maybe it is time to call myself something else.

"Arabesque dance art" is deeply rooted in Bellydance, Arab dance, Raqs Sharqi, Orental dance. Beledhi, etc, and this wonderful art form has given me legs to walk my own path into the future. No doubt this is scary, actually, very scary, but honestly, since I wrote the first post six days ago, I have felt lighter, more free, more inspired and getting very excited about the future.

I still love Bellydancing and of course Bellydancers and my heart is still a Bellydancer. I have fought and worked very hard for 34 years to help all I can in the effort towards Bellydance taking its place as a legit and respected art form in the mainstream dance wiorld. However, I am not willing to fight on behalf of a commercial business industry. Hopefully by re-labelling my work, it will still further the reach of the Bellydance spirit as art.

Sawah - Afrita Nomad




Am I still a Bellydancer?

After 34 years, I have decided not to be a Bellydancer anymore.

Actually, I am probably more of a Bellydancer than I am a Canadian or that I have blue eyes. I can never deny everything that has made me who I am since the age of 20 considering it has been my full time passion and career 24/7 for 34 years. However, I am not sure if I feel I belong in the prominent scene we call Bellydance (Belly Dance) as I see it in Egypt and around the world today.

What is Bellydance anyway? Where can I find myself  in it? Is it a social expression in a living room, a festive event at a banquet hall, dance studio or community centre, is it a flashy expression at a corporate event or wedding, is it a mother goddess or natal celebration, is it an expression of classical Egyptian music or disco beat driven or any non-Arab music, is it snakes, feathers, veils, double veils, circular veils, fan veils, square veils, is it coins, sea shells or beads, is it an engaging theatrical experience, is it joyful or morbid, is it for fleshy or skinny people, is it empowering or demeaning, is it athletic or emotional, is it burlesque or folklore, is it competitive or art, is it pelvic centered, pointed toes, leg kicks, shimmies, posing, twerking, back bends, hair flips, a belly roll, a camel? I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the picture.

The one thing I am sure of is that it inspires a fountain of creativity and that is why I love Bellydance.

However, I find myself not being able to relate anymore to the onslaught of yet another application I do not see myself or my 34 years reflected in. I thought it might be my age. Perhaps I am getting narrow-minded. But that can't be when my last Arabesque production was very innovative and anything but "traditional" or similar to what my predecessors produced. What I am planning for the future production is really off the wall. There are many Bellydance artists the world over that I enjoy, love and admire, "traditional" and "non-traditional". I feel like that pool is getting smaller in the Middle East and globally and the bulk of activities in the name of Bellydance is not where I want to be aligned. I am finding everyday, more and more, I am not alone with these sentiments, from the seasoned veterans to the young and fresh.

Back in the days when Bellydance was aligned with stripping or amateur fantasy fulfillment, I did what I could to inspire a deeper awareness of a rich culture and tradition considered respectful art. I no longer worry about these misconceptions anymore and no longer need to explain that I am not a stripper. So I am not complaining. There is some cool stuff going on in the name of Bellydance these days but in general, I feel it is losing substance and meaning that is rendering it non effective as an inspirational tool.

I have decided not to call myself a "Bellydancer "anymore.  My company and school no longer perform or teach "Bellydance". The last Arabesque production "Sawah" this past April never used the word in any promotional material and media releases. The Arabesque website is slowly being adjusted to reflect this new positioning. The agency sells zaffeh, some folklore and definitely Bellydance, so another entertainment company is taking the reins of promotion and bookings to run the agency.

What on earth do I call what I express and teach?

For now, I will call it "Arabesque dance art" since it is "Arab-like" dance and is certainly rooted in Arab dance. I have a new studio with white bare walls where the seeds of Arabesque dance will blossom. Our new tagline is "the future of the world's oldest dance". Should be interesting.  :)

Sawah sawah - Peter

Dance Artists Trying to Raise Funds

Someone form Croatia contacted me wanting me to answer a lot of questions about my experience with Kickstarter as they are thinking of getting it in Croatia. I did not have time to answer all the questions so I gave her a synopsis. I thought some of the points may be helpful for others as well so I am sharing my email to her below:

Hi Sonja,

I spent one month researching all past campaigns of Kickstarter in dance and other areas as well. I looked for the commonalities of the successful ones and the unsuccessful ones. It is important to find the goal amount that matches the strength of your existing fanbase and the quality of your past work based on experience and recognition. Asking for what you need is not a good enough basis for establishing your goal amount. 

In the video and the text, it is important not just to describe your artistic vision but to explain in the language of your audience and fanbase. Dancers more than many other the artists have a tendency to be a little self absorbed. Best advice I ever received from an artistic director of a major dance company was "what feels good doesn't necessarily appear good to your audience".

I think some people make the mistake that the general public and Kickstarter subscribers will become backers but I found that when it comes to the arts, 99% of the backers are existing fans, family and friends who are familiar with your work. I found 50% of the backers not wanting anything in exchange and 50% backed based on what they would receive in exchange. Even the 50% that backed without wanting anything in return were family, friends who already supported by offering donations, volunteer hours and attendance at all productions.

The video needs to be compelling in the first minute or interest is gone - do not save the best for the end. Keep text to the minimum essential important points. Visuals are better for arts campaigns. Kickstarter website had great advice for running a good campaign. I read their instructions on every aspect several times and implemented all of their advice.

The campaign was a full time job for a month for one person and some help promoting from other members involved in the project and now there is more work to be done to get the backers their rewards. Two months in total if you include research time and video shoot and setting up campaign. The time was worth the good amount we received (asked for $12,000, received over $15,000). However, it should made clear that the work to receive such an amount began 20 years ago with producing valued work and inspiring audiences at home around the world.

Hope this helps,

Yasmina in cahir