Thursday, 28 February 2013

Flapdoodle and Other Sins

I learnt a new word a while ago: Flapdoodle.  Don't bother to look it up - it will be years before it makes it into the Oxford English Dictionary, if ever.  To whoever thought it up, a big Thank You.  It's a wonderfully flexible word; a verb, noun or adjective to describe really not good belly dancing.  'Belly Dance' which treats the music as a backing track and doesn't work with it, doesn't follow the rhythms and phrasing. 'Belly Dance' which pays little attention to the dance core vocabulary and to technique, full of unfinished or unnecessary movements. It's often full of repetition or with no structure, too frantic. It may sound like a fun word, but it's not a compliment!

I am loath to criticise. We all have to start somewhere. Everyone should have the opportunity to dance, regardless of how well they can do it. It takes guts for most beginners to dance in front of an audience but there they are, hopefully enjoying themselves, dancing their hearts out. It doesn't matter too much if they don't dance so well, because that's not the point - they are learning and doing their best. Many are coping with physical limitations and still manage to express the joy in moving to the music.  Dance, like other arts, is partly subjective and an observer can easily find something to criticise if they feel so inclined.  This is why live performance can be so scary. There will always be someone in the audience who is determined to find something to dislike.  As a dancer, it's important to remember that you are not dancing for them, but for those audience members who are happy to watch and enjoy.  I'm not the greatest dancer; I watch myself on video and cringe every time.  I am possibly overly self-critical, but regard that as my right, and use it as a way to learn.

So I rarely dismiss something as flapdoodle, but I have seen a couple of pieces which I found I couldn't watch all the way through. The worst so far (apart from the woman who appeared on Britain's Got Talent and passed off some sort of writhing around with a bra and a coin belt (no skirt!) as belly dance - I bet she got some hate mail from the belly dance community for that!) was a sort of generic oriental style to a well-known baladi track. The choreography didn't match the feeling and rhythms and had no discernable structure.  The group were beginners, and they struggled with the movements which were rather too advanced for them, and included a weird snake arm movement which was too fast for the music and involved a hand curl at the end.  Completely ... aargh ... flapdoodle. Worse, the 'teacher' was in front leading them, which made it look like some strange race as the other dancers fought to keep up, and made her look relatively good. Of course, baladi is one of my favourite things, so it triggered quite a reaction in me. I wanted to shout at them to stop, but made do with just looking away.

I put 'teacher' in inverted commas, because I was aware that this is a 'fun' group - in other words, most of the time is spent creating, learning and rehearsing choreographies, and the group regularly dress up in a variety of blingy costumes and dance at charity and community events. There is little of what I would recognise as teaching - that is, providing a structured class or course, breaking down the moves, taking care to explain technique to reduce the risk of injury, adding information on the music, history, culture and so on.

When I started teaching belly dance, I was aware of how little I knew, that I was starting too soon and I did a lot of work to bring myself up to speed.  I already had experience of teaching language, training in business and leading a dance group. Asking for help online brought a storm of criticism that if I didn't know x, y, z, then I shouldn't be teaching. I could understand the other teachers' protectiveness; if anyone with some dance experience can just call themselves a teacher and start a class, it devalues the hard work done by those teachers who really study the dance and how to teach it. Then again, everyone has to start somewhere and no-one knows everything.  I still do a lot of work, researching dance styles and the subtle differences in moves which mark out different styles, practising with different props, going to workshops and classes given by other teachers to extend my knowledge and work on my own dance.  I believe this 'continuing professional development' is essential for teachers.  There's nothing like being a perpetual student yourself for enabling you to see things from your students' point of view.  When a friend of mine planned to start teaching, I knew that she believed the same thing and already had amazing skills as a trainer, so I charged in on her behalf when I heard the same criticisms which had once been aimed at me. She's a very good teacher and her dance is improving all the time.

One of my teachers posed the question 'why would you as a dancer (and teacher) not want to be the best that you can be?' A committed dancer/teacher will want to work at improving their dance, although financial considerations, transport and childcare can be major limiting factors. However, many dancers regard this as just too much like hard work. They don't want to take it seriously, are tired by the time they get to 'class' and spending their time (and money) working on technique, doing drills and building their vocabulary of dance moves isn't their idea of fun.

Again, I feel conflicted about this.  When I started belly dance, I could take class seriously, as I've always enjoyed the discipline of drills, but I couldn't imagine myself taking belly dance seriously enough to be very interested in the culture, music, rhythms and so on.  Fusion seemed a safe place to be, with the style police in the belly dance community ready to pounce on any lack of authenticity.  Gradually, as my understanding has grown, I have been seduced. I may still be a bit fuzzy on what marks out certain styles, but now I realise how important it is to respect and maintain the different classical and folkloric genres. The dance may change, steps and styles fused to create new work, but it would be sad if that's all we had. This is why I like fusion pieces to be clear about which styles are being fused and have gone back to contemporary dance to indulge my occasional need for dance without rules or boundaries (except those imposed by my physical limitations and enough good technique to prevent injury!). 

As for performance groups, why shouldn't a group of people get together, share the costs of a hall and create dance pieces for their own enjoyment? They may have one or two who act as coordinators, letting everyone know when rehearsals are, collecting monies, booking and paying for the space, spare money into a costume fund. I've been there and it was good fun. We were creating contemporary dance pieces for performance to the public. At the time, the sin to avoid was 'self-indulgence'. I noticed that those who readily used it to dismiss others' pieces couldn't define it, so I tried to work out what it meant for myself.  It seemed to involve putting things into a piece just because you liked them or felt like it, rather than because it made good dance, and dancing for yourself rather than your audience, all highly subjective. 'Being unprofessional' was another sin, which amused me since we were amateurs, but it comprised a range of bad behaviour, from missing rehearsals and providing your music and dance details late to show organisers to being noisy backstage during a show. We all attended a weekly class as well as our group rehearsal, worked on the structure and cohesion of our choreographies and ensured rehearsals contained warm-up and cool-down sections.Years later, I think the thing which divides the worthwhile from the self-indulgent is a professional attitude. In other words, taking it seriously and putting in the work and time. I think this makes the difference; a group may have fun playing around with dance, but can share poorly understood technique and bad habits which will show when it comes to performance.

I want everyone to dance and enjoy themselves.  But unless you are prepared really to teach, with all that it entails, don't call yourself a teacher. If you don't want to study or rehearse and prefer to do your own thing, you may still improve slowly.  And although belly dance is a very broad term covering a range of styles, if  you choose to dance against the music and make no real attempt with the core movement vocabulary, the mash-up you create will still be dance, of a sort, but it may also be flapdoodle.

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