The Greats




November/December 2001 Issue



The Viper's Tongue: The Truth About: "What Works" in Performance and Instruction

by Miraj

 Back when I was a Piano/Vocal major at Lebanon Valley college, my courses included hours of studying "Music Theory". Although I was a Piano Performance major, I didn't just sit in a practice room pounding on the piano eight hours a ~a) day. Most of the day was spent not playing the piano at all, fig but listening to knowledgeable professors with years of experience performing in concerts and recitals, teaching us the of I theory behind music and instrumental performance. We had language diction classes enabling us to properly enunciate the words to songs sung in German, Italian, French, Latin, and of course English. We even learned how to properly enter the stage, approach the piano, bow, and exit...and even return if an encore is required. Our professors taught us what music is appropriate to play for what occasion and even what dramatic gesture "works" to "grab" the audience.

 I wonder why there are few or no classes pertaining to the "theory" behind Middle Eastern dance performance.

"What Works in Performance and Instruction" should be as my important apart of learning the art of MED as "how to do a hip drop", especially for those aspiring to pursue a performance or instructional career. Also, those well-established, even "old-time" dancers make what I consider fatal mistakes

in their instruction or performance. You know, it's kind of like for VIDEOGRAPHY...(refer to my "Truth About Video" ~t article)...it should be simple to instinctively KNOW what ~ works, if only one can put oneself in the shoes of either the audience or the student!

 Now, back in the early 80's when I was opening my go, new bellygram business, I would have paid someone good money to tell me what works. Jadaya, the instructor who got me started doing bellygrams, allowed me to see her perform ONE gram before throwing me out into the performance world, then she quickly moved to Florida, leaving me to figure it all out for myself. No, I don't blame her. She had her own life to live. But the business and performance techniques of bellydance are so jealously guarded by those who practice them, that, especially during that time, there was NO WAY any of the other area dancers would EVER help guide me in my quest for knowledge.

 The days of "Mentors" are over. Or maybe they just don't apply in bellydance. It seems that when you offer to mentor a belly dancer, they squeak, hold their hands over their ears and go "la! la! la! la! I don't want to hear about that stuff...just wanna DANCE! ! !" But MAN, if someone would have come to me in 1986 and said, "Here...let me tell you what WORKS", well, I would have paid a LOT of money for that!

 So the purpose of this article is to shed some light on "what REALLY works" in performance and instruction. Let me be your mentor...you can thank me later.

 Let's start with "why am I qualified to mentor...to tell YOU what works and what does NOT?" I'll tell you why... because I did NOT have a mentor. I spent 18 years making mistakes and learning from my MISTAKES. That, by the way, is the only OTHER way to learn what works...by making mistakes. Also, one learns how to perform, by PERFORMING...A LOT. And the more VARIED the genre of performance the BETTER. I was a concert pianist performing with school and local orchestras since the age of fourteen. I went on after college to perform regularly at the prestigious Hotel Hershey and Gretna Timbers regularly. I taught piano students since I was fifteen. Opened my successful singing telegram and belly gram business in 1988, retired it just last year, and had a Polynesian Dance troupe (The Paradise Dancers) that was SOOOOO successful, that to this day, three entertainment agencies and eleven "Outdoor World" and "Thousand Trail" campsites STILL call me to plead with me to perform this August). NO, I'm not telling you this to blow my own horn...I'm telling you this to explain WHY I'm qualified to tell you "What Works". It's because I have successfully paid my mortgage as a professional entertainer and dance/ music instructor for half my lifetime! Ok? Now let's move on.

 Choosing Music: Choose music for your Audience, not for YOU. As a young performer, I found that I often chose music that moved "me", but no one else in the room. In my imagination, my dance was dramatic, and esthetic while in reality my dance was pathetic.

 Slow Music can often be the DEATH of a potentially good show. You choose a nice LONG, slow veil number that looks so dramatic and elegant in your head; however, you LOSE your audience half way through it. THEY ARE BORED, people. The LAST thing you EVER want to do is BORE your audience. Slow music is wonderful to add contrast to your show if it is a 10 to 20-minute show (usually performed in a restaurant). However, if you are performing for other dancers at a hafla or even for mundane non-dancing audience members at an arts festival, and you only get a five minute shot at impressing the hell out of them, I will always suggest a lively number with a big "ta-daaa!" ending.

 Put yourself in the audiences' shoes. Empathize with them. If you were sitting out there watching, would you want to see someone mope around with a veil to Loreena McKennett for four minutes fifty seconds?

 The length of your performance, or the sections of your performance is a huge factor in the success of your performance. Shorter is almost always better than lengthier. Simply EDIT your music. If you want to have a three-part performance, try limiting that slow veil section to 2 minutes.

 Rule: USE A VIDEO CAMERA AS A STUDY TOOL! Before you perform that "artistic number" you've been YI dying to do, perform it in a retirement home and videotape it. See what others see before you lay it on the belly dancers at the hafla.

 Rule: What YOU enjoy seeing is what OTHERS enjoy be seeing. What YOU enjoy dancing is NOT NECESSARILY WHAT OTHERS ENJOY SEEING! When you get the urge be to do that "spiritual" number where you begin in the fetal position on the floor, all shrouded in black, swaying and waving your hands around (because you saw Cassandra do it), watch the video of YOU performing it first Remember...many of the dances we do as belly dancers evolved from non-performance mediums. In other words, they were meant to be a participation sport, not a SOLO. Spiritual numbers, exorcisms, DEBKES, and the like were designed to be participated IN ...not WATCHED. Some things are just more fun or interesting to DO than to WATCH.

 About the "spiritual" thing...a friend of mine who is "Wiccan" told me of one of her students who performed at a Pagan event. She rolled her eyes and described how she urged her to use some upbeat, lively music, and play finger cymbals. Instead, the student wore a shroud and writhed around to Loreena McKennett for five minutes, followed by more swaying about to slow music. At it turns out, even "witches" like Turkish Pop!

 Rule: A sense of humor ALWAYS wins over DRAMA. If you're trying to leave a lasting impression on your audience this rule applies. I would often ask my friend Elisheba to perform her hilarious "Little Egypt" number in her see-through yellow harems and black undies, sneakers, and big wig. You know...no matter what I performed after her...she ALWAYS tit upstaged me!

 Rule: Try to avoid overused music: example Desert Rose. Now, it depends on WHERE you are performing and for what se audience, of course. If you are performing at a street fair m where your audience consists of non-dancers, this number is e~ just perfect! But if you are performing at a hafla for forty belly dancers, I recommend you try to use music that has not been w "used to death". I'm just warning you...if you use music that se EVERYONE'S heard and/or performed already...when you G get out there, the gals in your audience are just going to secretly look at each other and roll their eyes. No joke.

 Rules for Professionals:

Do not do your bellygram: You know what I mean...you take your veil and make a turban on some poor schmuck's head sitting in the front row of the audience. When you're paid to do a bellygram, you are paid to humiliate the birthday boy. When some poor husband-of -a-dancer pays to go to a hafla, he is NOT paying to be humiliated; he is paying to see your amazing skill and stage presence. Nor did he pay to get up in front of the world and dance poorly. He paid to see YOU dance well.

 On that note: Do not eat up four minutes of time by getting the other dancers in the audience up to dance with you. If this is the "free dance" part of a hafla, where everyone has been invited to get up and dance, that is fine. But if it's in the middle of your "show", and you just ran out of stuff to do because you were too damned lazy to actually put together some choreography, it's just a "cop out".

 You might disagree with this next one, because it's subject to opinion. Do not perform someone else's choreography. I, like everybody else in the world, enjoyed Bobby's choreography...as a tool. However, when I hired a professional dancer to be a guest performer at my show, I wanted her to perform HER choreography. I did not want to see her perform a choreography that I MYSELF learned with her at a workshop the year before. Besides, I hired or invited her because I liked the way SHE interprets the music. (Disclaimer: I intend absolutely NO disrespect for the deceased Bobby, and actually DID like his performance. )

 Do NOT do your restaurant show at a hafla. At a restaurant it is appropriate to perform a standard five-part routine that lasts twenty to twenty-five minutes...because usually you are the only dancers and you do only two or three sets. Also, your audience is not "captive". They are not tied to their chairs with no means of escape. They are eating and yes, TALKING to their friends while you travel, not only between TABLES but often between ROOMS. However, at a hafla where there are thirty performers to the tune of a three- hour show with two or three intermissions, it is important to keep your audience wanting more instead of groaning every time ANOTHER piece of music starts with YOU still standing on the stage!

 Change your show OFTEN. I cannot believe it when I see seasoned pros performing year after year the exact same music! And restaurant dancers...NEVER, NEVER do the exact same set twice in the same night! The ONE and only time I got to go to the Middle Eastern Restaurant in Philly, I was deeply disappointed when the dancer came out for the second set in the same costume and performed to the same George Abdo set! Perhaps she didn't expect her audience to sit through the second set. Perhaps she didn't expect a "dancer" to be in the audience, a dancer who would actually

be familiar with and recognize the music the second time around. Perhaps she didn't expect ME to be there!

Disclaimer: I am not saying you should never do a successful number more than once...just give it a time break, and to then revive it after a bit. Guaranteed it will be received warmly like an old friend!

 Professional Instructors:

DO NOT TEACH THE SAME CHOREOGRAPHY YEAR AFTER YEAR! I went to a seminar with a well-known New York instructor one year. She taught a real nice choreography and she taught it WELL. Imagine my disappointment a year and a half later when I went to another seminar with her and paid $60 for the SAME CHOREOGRAPHY! I'm sure some beginners may have welcomed the review; however, when I learn a choreography, I learn it WELL...the FIRST TIME. Perhaps she didn't expect to have students who studied with her before at the seminar. Perhaps she didn't expect :ME to be there !


Rules for Beginners:

Keep it short. It took me YEARS to get to the point where I felt I could hold an audience' s attention for more than three and a half minutes. Do not do a "restaurant show" .You have to be a pretty darned good dancer to be able to hold the attention of an audience through a five-part restaurant show. Save it for the restaurant or...watch the dancers in the audience look at each other not so discreetly and roll their eyes !

 DO NOT do an IMPROV as your performance, unless you are VERY; VERY GOOD! But then, if you were THAT good, you would be a PROFESSIONAL, wouldn't you? At a hafla (any show where 97% of the audience are dancers), a student stated in her intro that her teacher instructed her to just "get out there and dance", so that's what she did. Her improvisation was terrible (because she was too "new" and inexperienced to have a large lexicon of dance moves and combos), and she was too inexperienced to carry her “inability” with her fantastic stage presence (quite lacking). So the performance just looked like a big masturbatory exercise. Well, a show is NOT the place to do...that. Beginners, always have a complete choreography (short, of course) for your first couple of solo performance experiences. That way you won' t look like a complete fool. When you get a few years of instruction and performance under your belt...then you can try improvising your show!

 Do not begin your show ON STAGE. Always provide an entrance to music (in case your tape does not start) I have seen seasoned veterans get out on stage, strike a pose, wait for a while for music that never starts, then stomp off stage. What a way to RUIN an entrance. Also, always provide an exit. Inform your DJ not to turn off the tape until you are offstage. DJ’s are “push-button” crazy, and will often turn off your music prematurely even AFTER you tell them to wait until you have left the stage!

 I have many more tidbits of wisdom to share, but it would fill pages. Whereas some of these rules are subject to  opinion as well as situational differences, most of them are things I myself have done…BADLY, and learned the hard way. In closing, put yourself in the position of the audience, seek the guidance of a mentor, and by all means, go out and buy yourself a video camera!



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