Winning Ways

Reaching for Excellence through Competition

By Bàraka

Seemingly a West Coast phenomenon, contests began about twenty years ago, with Sula’s “Belly Dancer of the Year” competition held in Moraga. Now, there are numerous contests held throughout the West. Contests offer dancers a chance to measure their skills against others, a focus to work toward, an opportunity for networking, and for the winners, increased recognition in the dance community.


There are no secrets or formulas for winning contests. Every contest is different, every dancer is unique, and no one can predict the outcome. The truth is, only one person goes home with the prize — but every contestant can be a winner. A contradiction? This depends on what you define as “winning.” Are you entering a contest determined to come in first, or to better your own performance? Setting yourself up for disappointment is a sure way to miss all the goodies, but participating to enjoy yourself and the other dancers can give you rewards you might not expect.

Contests are not cheap! In addition to entry fees, there are expenses for transportation, lodging and food. A new costume? There are a few hundred more: coaching, tape editing, flyers for the display table…the list goes on and on.

Make the most of your investment!! Here are some guidelines for bettering your chances:

1. Know Your Contest: Every contest has a different aura. Some prefer a modern style, some like “old-style 60’s,” some have a bias for ethnic styles. Enter contest(s) that show a preference for your particular style of dance.

2. Know Your Judges: Try to discover the backgrounds and styles of the judges, and play to that. Also, be prepared not to see a lot of feedback from the judges during your performance — they are not purposely being stone-faced, they are just concentrating.

3. Costume Appropriately: Accent your strong points, camouflage your less attractive attributes (we all have them!) and work with your music and style of dance. Do you do great spins? A tight, straight skirt is not the best choice for you. You hate your skinny arms and shoulders? Sleeves, collars or vests soften the area.

4. Follow the Rules: Performance length, required moves and tempos, costume changes, all the details must be adhered to. Points are taken off for these things, so play the game by the rules to do your best.

5. Music Selection: Use good quality tapes, stay within the time limits set, and if you must cut a piece, do it cleanly. If your home equipment is not up to making a good tape, spend the money for professional tape editing.

6. Have Fun! Is that possible in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a contest? Having fun is one of the most important elements in doing well in a contest. Let go of caring if you win, and dance from your heart! Or to paraphrase every 12-step program, let go and let goddess!

Even with all the preparation in the world, though you cross every “t” and dot every “i”, there is still no substitute for fine dancing. That remains the primary criterion for competitive success. The question then is, “How do I improve my dancing?” Work at it! Get a coach whose work you respect and enjoy, one who will help you bring out the best in yourself. And most importantly, one who is honest and offers constructive feedback and suggestions. Be your own worst critic — watch your videos and take your performances apart with a critical eye.

Still want to enter a contest? Go for it! You will gain experience from performing before a crowd of dancers. You will learn from the other contestants by seeing how they approach the same experience. You will have a goal to work toward. You may be inspired to finally make that new costume. You can get feedback from your judges about ways to improve (Remember, it is only their opinion!). You can make new friends and get new ideas from other dancers, network to learn about dance opportunities, workshops, and bargains. And believe it or not, you can have fun: just remember to pack your sense of humor and perspective along with the beads and bangles! After all, world peace is not hanging on your shoulders here.

One final hint: after the contest is over and you are back at home, take time to write and tell the sponsors and judges how you liked the contest. Do not be afraid to ask the judges for written feedback, too. Most of them are happy to give their input, and it is a big help for the next time you enter.

Although you may enter a contest with the hope and goal of winning the contest, I would also like to point out that winning a contest is not the end of the process. Winning changes your life, too. When I woke up the morning after winning the Miss America of the Belly Dance title, I realized that things were not going to be the same. For me, it meant that there would be no more getting lazy, no more “I’m having an off night,” no more “I’ll just wear this old costume.” It meant that I had set a new standard for myself and would have to live up to (and eventually exceed) that new benchmark in performance. I realized that I now had a public obligation to represent the dance in the most positive way I could. I feel a responsibility to continue reaching for excellence, and to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over more than twenty years. And as part of the community of dancers, I want to support others in their efforts as well. Winning has opened new doors and put a new level of commitment into my life. — and I am loving it!

Note: To learn everything you could possibly want to know about Belly Dance Contests, get a copy of the ’93 Clyde’s Resource Directory Guide from Grapeleaf Productions at 415/668-1515.

Bàraka was crowned Miss America of the Belly Dance 1993 in August at the San Francisco Belly Dance Festival hosted by Magaña Baptiste. She has also been First Runner-Up in both the S.F.Festival ’92 and the Egyptian Category at the ’93 Southern California International Belly Dance Competition, and Second Runner-Up at the ’93 Belly Dancer of the Year. She performs, teaches and coaches in San Francisco.

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